Kevin Drum

Saudi Arabia's Shiny New Air Campaign Not Working Any Better Than Anyone Else's

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 11:31 AM EDT

Back when Egypt started bombing Libya and Saudi Arabia started bombing Yemen, American conservatives were jubilant. That's the kind of swift, decisive action Barack Obama ought to be taking against our enemies in the Mideast. Never mind that this already was the kind of action he had taken. It didn't really count because he had been too slow to ramp up attacks and had demonstrated too little bloodthirstiness in his announcements. Did he really want to "destroy" ISIS or merely "degrade" it? Dammit man, make up your mind!

This weekend, though, the LA Times reminded us that regardless of who's doing it, air strikes alone simply have a limited effectiveness in wars like this:

Officials in Saudi Arabia, the region's Sunni Muslim power, say the air campaign is dealing a decisive blow against the Houthis, whom they view as tools of aggression used by Shiite Muslim-led Iran in an expanding proxy war....However, residents say the strikes have done little to reverse the territorial gains of the insurgents and restore exiled President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi to power in the quickly fragmenting country.

....Security experts question whether the coalition can achieve its goals through airstrikes alone. Saudi officials have not ruled out sending in tanks, artillery and other ground forces massed along the frontier. But Saudi leaders appear wary of such a move against the Houthis, hardened guerrillas who belong to an offshoot of Shiite Islam known as Zaidism.

The last time the Saudis fought the Houthis in the rugged mountains of northern Yemen, in 2009, more than 100 of their men were killed. Pakistan's parliament voted Friday to stay out of the conflict, a blow to the Saudis, who had reportedly asked the country to send troops, fighter jets and warships.

"This [war] will turn Yemen into Saudi Arabia's Vietnam," said Mohammed al-Kibsi, a veteran journalist and commentator in Yemen's capital, Sana, where the Houthis seized control in September.

Air strikes are useful components of a wider war. But to the extent anyone can truly win these conflicts in the first place, it's going to take ground troops. Lots and lots of well-trained, well-equipped, and well-motivated ground troops. Saudi Arabia is "wary" of committing ground troops in Yemen and Pakistan is staying out. In Iraq, it's still a big question whether the Iraqi army is up to the task. And to state the obvious, even among America's most bellicose hawks, there's no real appetite for sending in US ground troops.1

This is just the way it is, and everyone knows it. Air strikes can do a bit of damage here and there, and they can serve as symbolic demonstrations of will. But none of these conflicts—not in Yemen, not in Iraq, not in Syria, and not in Libya—are going to be affected much by air campaigns alone. They need ground troops. If you loudly insist that Obama is a weakling as commander-in-chief but you're not willing to commit to that, you're just playing political games.

1And don't fall for the "special ops" ploy. Politicians who want to sound tough but don't want to ruin their careers by suggesting we deploy a hundred thousand troops in Iraq again, are fond of suggesting that we just need a bit of targeted help on the ground from special ops. This is clueless nonsense meant to con the rubes, but nothing more.

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This Chart Shows How State Taxes Screw You

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 9:25 AM EDT

A lot of people think the federal tax code should be more progressive, but it looks downright socialist compared to the typical state tax code. A chart released last week by Citizens for Tax Justice puts it in context, showing how the wealthy typically pay lower state tax rates:

Citizens for Tax Justice

This problem isn't limited to conservative states: According to a recent report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), every state places a higher effective tax rate on the poor than it does on the rich. In fact, several of the nation's most politically progressive states count among the worst when it comes to shoveling the tax burden onto low-income people and the middle class.

The nation's most regressive tax code belongs to Washington, a state that was ranked by The Hill last year as the bluest in the country based on its voting patterns and Democratic dominance. The poorest 20 percent of Washingtonians pay an effective state tax rate of 16.8 percent, while the wealthiest 1 percent effectively pay just 2.4 percent of their income in taxes.

There's a clear explanation for that: Washington has no income tax and thus heavily relies on a sales tax that disproportionately affects the poor. What's harder to grasp is why Washington's liberals put up with it.

Structural conditions help explain why regressive taxes endure in Washington and many other states. Some states require supermajorities to raise taxes or have constitutions that mandate a flat tax. In Washington's case, voters approved a personal income tax in 1932 by a two to one margin but were overruled the following year by the state Supreme Court, which decided that a constitutionally mandated 1 percent cap on property taxes also applied to income. An income tax bill passed by the state legislature a few years later was likewise struck down.

But the courts, weirdly, are no longer the biggest obstacle to a fairer tax code in Washington; over the years, they've gradually overturned most of the legal precedents that had been used to invalidate an income tax, and most experts believe such a tax would become law today if passed. The bigger problem is voters. In 2010, Washingtonians rejected by a whopping 30-point margin a proposal to establish an income tax that would only have applied to people earning more than $200,000 a year.

How do you square this with California, where, just two years later, a similar tax hike on the wealthy easily sailed through? Or with Oregon, Washington's political cousin, which has long had a progressive income tax?

I asked John Burbank, the executive director of the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute and an architect of Washington's failed 2010 income tax measure, why he thought the measure had failed to pass. At first, he cited the off-year election and opposition scare tactics. But when pressed, he offered a third explanation that I think makes more sense: "There is almost like a cultural prohibition that exists."

In other words people, liberal or conservative, who live in states with low or no income taxes get used to paying little. They may differ on protecting the environment, legalizing weed, or raising the minimum wage, but when you start to mess with the system on which they've built their personal finances, they get scared and balk. This is why changing the tax code is so hard, even in states where people may in their hearts believe it's the right thing to do.

71 Years Ago FDR Dropped a Truthbomb That Still Resonates Today

| Sun Apr. 12, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcasts a speech in 1943.

When was the last time you heard an American politician invoke Franklin Delano Roosevelt's policies as models to be emulated? Democrats avoid him because his New Deal policies seem to embody the tax-and-spend, overbearing, and intrusive central government that always puts them on the defensive. And why would a Republican bother with Roosevelt when they believe that Obama is so much worse?

Sunday is the seventieth anniversary of FDR's death on April 12, 1945. Since anniversaries are always good opportunities to reflect on the past, I reread one of Roosevelt's speeches that I somehow still remember studying in college. It was his penultimate State of the Union Address, which he delivered on January 11, 1944, and the one in which he outlined a "second Bill of Rights"—a list of what should constitute basic economic security for Americans.

Does GE Capital's Demise Mean Financial Reform Is Working?

| Sat Apr. 11, 2015 8:32 PM EDT

Interesting post today from Paul Krugman about the shadow banking system and GE's recent decision to get out of the finance biz:

GE Capital was a quintessential example of the rise of shadow banking. In most important respects it acted like a bank; it created systemic risks very much like a bank; but it was effectively unregulated, and had to be bailed out through ad hoc arrangements that understandably had many people furious about putting taxpayers on the hook for private irresponsibility.

Most economists, I think, believe that the rise of shadow banking had less to do with real advantages of such nonbank banks than it did with regulatory arbitrage — that is, institutions like GE Capital were all about exploiting the lack of adequate oversight....So Dodd-Frank tries to fix the bad incentives by subjecting systemically important financial institutions — SIFIs — to greater oversight, higher capital and liquidity requirements, etc.. And sure enough, what GE is in effect saying is that if we have to compete on a level playing field, if we can’t play the moral hazard game, it’s not worth being in this business. That’s a clear demonstration that reform is having a real effect.

Read the whole thing for more.

By the way: On the occasions when I come up for air and write blog posts, I'll probably mostly be doing stuff like this. That is, quick links to something interesting without much additional commentary.

The reason is fatigue, which is nearly everpresent these days. Physically, this is a nuisance, but not much more. Mentally, though, it's worse, because it leaves me without the—what's the right word? Cognitive will? Cognitive ability?—to really think hard about stuff. And without that, I can't blog much even though typing is, obviously, not a very physically demanding activity.

Still, I continue to keep up as best I can, and I really love to blog. I won't quite say that being unable to blog is the worst part of this whole chemotherapy thing, but it's close. I just hate having ideas about the stuff I read but being just a little too foggy to really be sure of my ability to say something useful and coherent about it. So I'll continue pointing out items that interest me, but mostly leaving it at that.

In case you're curious, I use crossword puzzles as a sort of rough guide to my mental fatigue level. This afternoon, for example, I finished one. Hooray! That means I'm at least moderately alert. However, it was a Thursday puzzle1 and it took me about three hours to finally get through it. That's not so great. But who knows? Maybe it was just unusually hard. I'll try another one tonight.

1For those of you who aren't into crossword puzzles, the New York Times puzzle gets harder as the week progresses. A Thursday puzzle is a bit of a challenge, but usually not a big one. Good solvers can finish them in 5-10 minutes. For me, it's usually 15-30 minutes. Three hours is well outside my usual range.2

2Hmmm. On the other hand, maybe this wasn't my fault. I just checked, and the name of the third baseman in Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First?" sketch is indeed "I don't know." I kept trying to fit that in somewhere, but the answer in the puzzle was "Tell me something." Where did that come from?3

3Meh. While I was falling asleep I figured out where I'd gone wrong. The full NYT answer was "Tell me something I don't know." Perfectly correct. I just wasn't alert enough to figure it out.

Never Mind the Doubters: The Iran Deal Is Good Enough

| Sat Apr. 11, 2015 9:12 AM EDT
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif applauds after the conclusion of nuclear talks in Switzerland.

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to have Cheryl Rofer, who for 35 years worked as a chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. If you don't follow her already, be sure to check out her writing on national security, women's issues, science, and nuclear power and weapons at Nuclear Diner.

When I started blogging in November 2004, Kevin was already defining the field with short, topical posts and Friday Cat Blogging. The internet was a smaller place then, and most of us knew all the others, or at least knew of them. We argued. We linked to each other, hoping to boost our SEO. We shared each others' successes and mourned when Inkblot disappeared. Kevin has been a good companion over the years. His broad coverage of topics and to-the-point style are touchstones, even as I stray into the wonkier corners of the news.

Recently, I've been writing a lot about the recent negotiations with Iran. A few days past a deadline that had nuclear wonks on the edge of their seats, the talks between Tehran and officials from six other nations brought forth a plan for a plan.

That's not nothing, although it sounds vague. Some vagueness is necessary to keep all sides happy—and that means that any description of the deal will sound vague. The United States and its partners in the P5+1 would like a neatly written-down to-do list (which they have sorta provided), and Iran's Supreme Leader has decreed that all must be written down just once—exactly when isn't yet clear. The results of negotiations must be spun by the sides to their very different bases.

In America, two consensuses are building. Most in the arms control community and a wide swath of foreign policy experts, including some conservatives, feel that the deal as described in that fact sheet is better than expected and should keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon for the next decade or more. Not bad.

The more hawkish consensus ranges from bombing Iran now to leaving the talks in hopes of a better deal, which amounts to bombing Iran later. Why not, when you're confident it would take only a few days of air strikes? They say the deal is no good because it does not guarantee Iranian compliance for perpetuity and does not totally destroy Iran's enrichment and other nuclear capabilities. Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu is apoplectic, but what else is new?

The same hawks also assured us back in 2003 that the invasion of Iraq would be a cakewalk. Their arguments this time around are just as boneheaded. According to the fact sheet, Iran would enter into agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; that would be, as much in perpetuity as any international deal can be. Under that treaty, Iran is entitled to peaceful nuclear energy, and, like any other country with smart scientists, can figure out how to make nuclear weapons. Bombs can't change that.

The final deal remains to be negotiated. The fact sheet is only an outline, and some issues will be easier to solve than others. Still to be worked out: Sanctions, particularly the schedule on which they are to be lifted. A list of research and development activities that Iran is allowed to pursue may or may not have been drawn up in Lausanne. Details on how Iran's enriched uranium stockpile will be reduced and the redesign of the Arak reactor are missing.

The extent of Iran's past activity on nuclear weapons was relegated to the IAEA by the P5+1 throughout the negotiations, and is a lesser provision in the fact sheet. Do we have to know all Iran's dirty secrets to police a future agreement? Probably not.

The Supreme Leader issued a tweet stream that seems to give his blessing for a deal to go forward, but his words were unclear enough that domestic hardliners could seize on them in an attempt to scuttle the deal. Iran's President Rouhani has voiced his support. In Israel, even the general who bombed the Osirak reactor thinks it's a good deal.

Stateside, President Obama is doing what he can to move the agreement along, talking to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the author of the bill most likely to throw a wrench in the machinery. Democrats who once supported that bill are now reconsidering that stance. The President has given major interviews to Tom Friedman and NPR. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who was part of the negotiations, is talking to the press.

Yes, if the sanctions are lifted, Iran might be able to make other sorts of trouble in the Middle East. But it's doing that anyway. We won't know for some time whether an agreement can mellow Iran by opening it to the world and better economic conditions.

If an agreement can be negotiated to completion, Iran can't get the bomb for a decade or more. That's enough for now.

Bonus Friday Cat Blogging - 10 April 2015

| Fri Apr. 10, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

Quick health update: the stem cell collection went swimmingly this week. We now have loads and loads of fresh stem cells frozen and waiting for me when I go back for the final stage of chemotherapy. I got home yesterday, and at the moment I'm still fighting off some residual drowsiness from a week full of fairly powerful painkillers, but I've stopped taking them now and should be fine in a day or two. I hope.

The cats are fitting in nicely at my sister's house. Last night they woke her up at 3 am to play, which is certainly a good sign. We have two pictures of the furballs this week. On the top is Hilbert, caught in the act of knocking over (1) Big Ben and (2) the Eiffel Tower from the top of a bookcase. On the bottom, both Hopper and Hilbert are staring intently at the front door even though nothing is there. But you never know. There might be something there any second. Best to keep one's eyes peeled, no?

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Hillary Clinton Is Focusing on the Middle Class—And That's a Good Thing

| Fri Apr. 10, 2015 11:30 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias takes a look at an economic blueprint from the Center for American Progress and suggests it's a useful proxy for Hillary Clinton's upcoming presidential campaign:

In some ways, it defies stereotypes of the Clintons as standard-bearers for neoliberal centrism by endorsing fiscal stimulus and a strong pro-labor union agenda while downplaying the strong education-reform streak of the Obama administration. But it's also notable for the Obama-era liberal ambitions it pushes aside. In the main recommendations for the United States, there's no cap-and-trade or carbon tax in here, no public option for health care, and no effort to break up or shrink the largest banks. Nor is there an ambitious agenda to tackle poverty.

Instead, you get a multi-pronged push to boost middle-class incomes. After an extended period in which Democratic Party politics has been dominated by health care for the poor, environmental regulation, and internecine fights about Wall Street, Hillarynomics looks like back-to-basics middle-class populism. It should in many ways further infuriate Clinton's left-wing intellectual critics — and then further infuriate them by turning out to be an agenda that makes the party's voting base perfectly happy.

....The report is especially striking for its endorsement of labor market regulations not normally associated with the Summers wing of Democratic thinking....On the non-wage front, inclusive growth calls for paid (gender-neutral) parental leave, expanded Family and Medical Leave Act eligibility, and universal paid sick days and paid vacation days — all loosely under the banner of increasing women's labor force participation. Clinton has, in the past, field-tested feminist frames as a means of selling big government.

None of this should come as a surprise. The Great Recession spawned a great deal of government help to the poor from the Obama administration but not a lot for the middle class, and politically the biggest problem Democrats now face is offering concrete programs for the middle class to compete with yet another round of tax cut proposals from the Republican field.

But the truth is that this helps the poor too, in the long run. Middle-class workers with stagnant incomes have become less and less willing to support more spending on the poor. That's just human nature. But if Hillary can successfully get the economy into a higher gear and funnel some of that money to the middle class, eventually things will ease up and it will become easier to win support for higher benefits to the poor.

I don't know if Hillary's proposals will go far enough, but they're the right thing to do. For the time being at least, Washington needs to focus on the middle class for a while.

Even If Walter Scott's Family Wins in Court, the Cop Won't Pay a Dime

| Fri Apr. 10, 2015 9:45 AM EDT
Anthony Scott holds a photo of himself, center, and his brothers Walter Scott, left, and Rodney Scott, right, at his home near North Charleston, S.C., April 8, 2015.

The family of Walter Scott, the man who died on Saturday after being shot eight times by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, has decided to sue Slager, the city of North Charleston, and its police department. The civil lawsuit, which will seek damages for wrongful death and civil rights violations, follows murder charges already filed against the now-dismised officer.

Scott's family is hardly the first to seek civil damages after a police killing. In recent months, relatives of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner have all pursued civil court claims, where success isn't contingent on a criminal ruling against any police officer. But in the event that the Scott family wins a settlement, it's highly unlikely that Slager himself will have to pay. As I reported in January:

Instead, taxpayers will shoulder the cost. Between 2006 and 2011, New York City paid out $348 million in settlements or judgments in cases pertaining to civil rights violations by police, according to a UCLA study published in June 2014. Those nearly 7,000 misconduct cases included allegations of excessive use of force, sexual assault, unreasonable searches, and false arrests. More than 99 percent of the payouts came from the city's municipal budget, which has a line item dedicated to settlements and judgments each year. (The city did require police to pay a tiny fraction of the total damages, with officers personally contributing in less than 1 percent of the cases for a total of $114,000.)

This scenario is typical of police departments across the country, says the study's author Joanna Schwartz, who analyzed records from 81 law enforcement agencies employing 20 percent of the nation's approximately 765,000 police officers. (The NYPD, which is responsible for three-quarters of the cases in the study, employs just over 36,000 officers.) Out of the more than $735 million paid out by cities and counties for police misconduct between 2006 and 2011, government budgets paid more than 99 percent. Local laws indemnifying officers from responsibility for such damages vary, but "there is little variation in the outcome," Schwartz wrote. "Officers almost never pay."

Schwartz's study did not include North Charleston or any other law enforcement agency in South Carolina. But if other jurisdictions serve as any indication, Slager likely won't pay a dime, even if a jury finds him guilty of murdering Scott. Out of the 7,000 cases of police misconduct Schwartz studied, only 700 officers were convicted of a criminal charge. And only 40 officers ever contributed to a civil settlement out of their own pocket.

Finally, a Candidate for People Who Think Jeb Bush Isn't WASPy Enough

| Thu Apr. 9, 2015 1:56 PM EDT
Tanned. Tested. Ready. Chafee.

Last week it was Ted Cruz. On Wednesday it was Rand Paul. And now, meet your newest presidential candidate: former Rhode Island Republican senator turned former Rhode Island Democratic governor Lincoln Chafee! Bet you didn't see that one coming.

Rhode Island Public Radio reported the news this morning:

Chafee said the launch of his exploratory committee will be made via videos posted on his website, Chafee2016.com.

"Throughout my career, I exercised good judgment on a wide range of high-pressure decisions, decisions that require level-headedness and careful foresight," said Chafee. "Often these decisions came in the face of political adversity. During the next weeks and months I look forward to sharing with you my thoughts about the future of our great country."

Lincoln Chafee, of the Rhode Island Chafees, won't be the next president, although he does enter the Democratic primary with strong name recognition among people who use "summer" as a verb. Chafee's father, great-great grandfather, and great-great uncle all previously served as governor of the state. Lincoln ran for the family seat only after losing his spot in the Senate in 2006 to Sheldon Whitehouse (of the Rhode Island Whitehouses), whose father had roomed with Chafee's father at some college in New Haven before entering the diplomatic corps (like his father before him).

But there is something worth highlighting in his announcement interview:

Chafee said his focus will be on building a strong middle class coupled with environmental stewardship. Chafee, who voted against former President George W. Bush's Iraq War, noted that Mrs. Clinton voted for it. He said he aims to send a clear message that "unilateral military intervention has damaged American interests around the world."

Did you catch that? It's easy to forget now that she's the email-destroying, dictator-courting villain of Benghazi, but there was a time when Hillary Clinton's biggest weakness was something else entirely: Iraq. Clinton's support for that war (and her inability to assuage its opponents) was the fuel for Sen. Barack Obama's rise in the polls in 2007. Eight years later, the issue has been all but erased from the political debate.

Don't bet on Chafee being the man who brings it back.

These Maps Show Why We Keep Electing Climate Change Deniers

| Thu Apr. 9, 2015 5:45 AM EDT
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) uses a snowball to disprove global warming.

One of the most significant obstacles to addressing climate change is the fact that huge numbers of US politicians reject the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are warming the planet. Why does the situation persist? How can a senator who (literally) holds up a snowball as evidence that global warming is a hoax keep winning reelection? How can someone who declares himself a climate "skeptic" be a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination? As newly released research from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication makes painfully clear, GOP climate deniers actually hold views that are quite similar to those of the voters who elect them.

The Yale research is based on data from more than 13,000 survey responses since 2008. It estimates that nationwide, just 48 percent of people agree with the scientific consensus that global warming is caused "mostly" by humans. While other recent polls have found a somewhat higher percentage who say they believe humans are causing the planet to warm, Yale's numbers are not a good sign for those—like billionaire activist Tom Steyer—who are trying to turn climate change denial into a disqualifying political position.

Things look even more discouraging when you use the researchers' snazzy interactive maps to break down the estimates by congressional district. The blue districts on the map below are places where the researchers' statistical model predicts that fewer than half of respondents believe that humans are primarily responsible for climate change. Yellow/orange districts are places where at least half of respondents accept the scientific consensus. As you can see, there's an awful lot of blue—according to the data, 58 percent of US congressional districts have majorities that don't accept the climate science.

congressional districts
Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

The margin of error on the data makes it impossible to rank with certainty the districts with the most climate denial. Still, the two darker blue portions on the map are noteworthy—these are the only congressional districts in the country in which under 40 percent of residents are estimated to accept the scientific consensus. Texas' 1st District (where 38 percent believe the science) is represented by Louie Gohmert, a Republican who thinks that the world "may be cooling" and that the rising level of carbon dioxide is a good thing because it will mean "more plants." Alabama's 4th District (39 percent believe climate science) is represented by Republican Robert Aderholt, who has argued that "Earth is currently in a natural warming cycle rather than a man-made climate change." And it's hard to see on the map, but California's 12th District has the highest percentage of residents projected to believe that humans are causing climate change—65 percent. That district is in San Francisco, and it's represented by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Adding elected officials' party affiliations to the Yale data makes it clear that these aren't simply one-off examples: In the average district with a Democratic member of Congress, 54 percent of adults believe humans are largely responsible for global warming; in the average GOP-controlled district, less than 46 percent agree.

Similar patterns exist at the state level:

state map
Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

In Oklahoma—home to snowball-wielding climate denier Sen. James Inhofe—just 44 percent of residents believe humans cause global warming, according to the researchers' estimates. The same is true in Kentucky, which is represented in the Senate by Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul. Paul has said that he's "not sure anybody exactly knows why" the climate is changing.

One final note: Take a look at the early presidential primary and caucus states—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. According to the Yale data, none of these states have majorities that accept the scientific consensus. (Nevada, at 50 percent, is the best of the four.) And when you consider that Republican primary voters are far more hostile to climate science than the general population, there seems to be very little incentive for GOP presidential candidates to embrace the truth about global warming.