Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day: What Mysterious Force is Preventing Passage of a Roads Bill?

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 10:33 AM EST

From Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx, at a meeting of the Business Roundtable with President Obama:

Why not, before the Congress goes home for December, just pass a bill that takes the two bipartisan bills that I just mentioned, up, and solves the problem?

Smith is referring to a couple of bills that would restore the gasoline tax to its old level and increase funding for transportation projects. He raises a good question. I suppose there could be several reasons it's hard to pass either of these bills:

  • Democrats are in thrall to labor unions, who are opposed to funding more infrastructure projects.
  • All our roads and bridges are in pretty good shape and we don't really need more money for them.
  • As a socialist, President Obama opposes these bills because they would increase the profits of billionaire construction company CEOs.
  • Vladimir Putin has threatened to invade Nova Scotia if we pass these bills.
  • Santa Claus is coming to town and we're all hoping we've been good enough to get the bridge repairs we asked him for.

Or, of course, it could be because Republicans are less afraid of letting our roads crumble into dust than they are of Grover Norquist saying mean things about them if they were to maintain the gasoline tax at historical levels. Because, you know, taxes.

Nah. That's ridiculous. It's probably the Putin thing.

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Shale Gas May Not Be Quite As Revolutionary As We Think

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 12:51 AM EST

If you have a good memory, you'll remember that I've written before that the shale oil revolution might be a bit less revolutionary than we think. The reason is that shale oil wells decline really fast, which means that total production could top out at little more than 3-4 million barrels per day and start declining as soon as 2020. Only time will tell.

Today brings similar news: the shale gas revolution might also be a bit less revolutionary than we think. A team at the University of Texas has spent the past three years in a minute examination of the four biggest shale gas plays in the US, and they've concluded that these fields probably contain less gas than previous estimates from the Energy Information Administration. Mason Inman explains in the current issue of Nature:

The main difference between the Texas and EIA forecasts may come down to how fine-grained each assessment is. The EIA breaks up each shale play by county, calculating an average well productivity for that area....The Texas team, by contrast, splits each play into blocks of one square mile (2.6 square kilometres) — a resolution at least 20 times finer than the EIA's.

Resolution matters because each play has sweet spots that yield a lot of gas, and large areas where wells are less productive. Companies try to target the sweet spots first, so wells drilled in the future may be less productive than current ones....The high resolution of the Texas studies allows their model to distinguish the sweet spots from the marginal areas. As a result, says study co-leader Scott Tinker, a geoscientist at the University of Texas at Austin, “we've been able to say, better than in the past, what a future well would look like”.

So what does this mean? The chart on the right tells the story. If the EIA is right, shale gas production in the Big Four fields will continue rising through 2025 before plateauing at around 300 billion cubic meters. But if the Texas team is right, production will peak in 2020 at around 250 bcm and then start declining rapidly.

Obviously we don't know if the Texas team's methodology is more accurate than the EIA's. As they say, more research is needed. For the moment, though, it's worth keeping an even keel about both shale oil and shale gas. It's possible that we've become a little too giddy about both.

There Are Damn Few Shades of Gray in the Death of Eric Garner

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 6:42 PM EST

I may have mixed feelings about Ferguson, Ray Rice, and the UVA rape case, but God almighty, that's not a problem with the killing of Eric Garner, is it? We have a trivial offense, a minuscule level of "resisting arrest," a banned chokehold, five cops around, no life-threatening situation by any stretch of the imagination, and yet—one dead guy, who spent the last minute of his existence pleading for his life. But despite all that, along with a medical examiner's judgment of homicide by chokehold, there's no indictment of the police officer responsible.

This is not like Ferguson. Regardless of how you feel personally about what happened there, I think there was virtually no chance that officer Darren Wilson would ever have been convicted in the death of Michael Brown. The evidence was just too inconsistent and the standard for guilt too high. That makes it at least arguable that the grand jury did the right thing when it failed to indict.

Nothing like that can be said here. Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who applied the chokehold to Garner, might have won a trial, but he might have lost it too. That being the case, there's little excuse for not letting a jury do its job and make a finding of fact in this case. Instead, Garner's death was treated as little more than an annoyance to be swept away. If we needed any evidence that police officers can pretty much kill anyone they want with impunity, this is it.

April 23rd Is the Saddest Day of the Year

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 2:30 PM EST

According to Google—sort of—the saddest times of the year are spring and fall. Weird. Click here for the explanations, which seem a bit ad hoc to me. I mean, less light? Then why is winter such a happy time? Not to mention spring. "As it turns out," the article explains, "lengthening daylight may discombobulate people's chemical regulatory system." So....less light is bad. But more light can also be bad. And winter is OK even though it has the least light of all. This might all be true, but it's sure a bit of a chin scratcher.

And the unhappiest day of the year in 2014 was April 23. WTF? I could understand April 15. But what's the deal with the 23rd? Anybody got a theory? Am I missing something here?

The Problem With the Ferguson, Ray Rice, and UVA Rape Stories

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 1:36 PM EST

What do these three recent stories have in common?

  • Ferguson
  • Ray Rice
  • The University of Virginia gang rape

One thing they have in common is that I've written little or nothing about them. But they share two other attributes as well. Here they are:

  1. All three have spotlighted problems that are critically important and absolutely deserving of broader attention. Ferguson is all about racial disparities, police killings of unarmed civilians, the militarization of law enforcement, and other equally deserving issues. Ray Rice was about the scourge of domestic violence and its tacit acceptance within the culture of professional sports. The UVA rape story was about sexual assault on university campuses, fueled by alcohol, fraternities, and official lack of concern.
     
  2. However, the specific incidents in all three cases are, to say the least, less than ideal as poster children for these issues. We will never know for sure what happened to Michael Brown, but as evidence has dribbled out, the simple liberal narrative of a gentle teenager being gunned down while trying to surrender has seemed less and less credible. In the Ray Rice case, it's clear that Rice did something terrible—but as it turns out, the evidence suggests that the criminal justice system treated him fairly reasonably and that the NFL's actions were mostly a craven reaction to public opinion. Finally, in the UVA rape scandal, a number of credible questions have been raised about whether Rolling Stone's account of what happened was fair—or, in the worst case, even true.

If you're curious about why I've been relatively quiet about these stories, that's why. All of them spotlight issues that I think are well worth spotlighting, and I don't really relish the thought of doing or writing anything that might dilute their power. These are all things that I want people to pay more attention to, not less, and if you want the world to change you have to be willing to exploit the events you have, not the events you wish you had.

And yet, the specific fact patterns of each specific case are genuinely problematic. To pretend otherwise is to be intellectually dishonest.

I've dealt with this by not saying much. That's not exactly an act of moral courage, is it? And yet, with the facts as hazy as they are, I'm just not sure what else to do. Perhaps the answer is to stop worrying about it: Just accept that we live in a messy world and sometimes the events that have the most impact aren't clear cut. But you use the events anyway in an effort to grab public attention and improve the world a bit, even if that sometimes means a few individuals end up being treated unfairly in some way. Perhaps.

I don't know—though I'm struck that three such similar events have occurred in just the past few months. But I'm still not sure whether I should have reacted differently. I just don't know.

Tell Me, Chuck: What Should Dems Do To Win Back the Middle Class?

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 11:16 AM EST

A longtime reader writes: "Hope you'll weigh in on Edsall on Schumer and the Dems 'destroying' the party over Obamacare."

Well, OK. But I don't have an awful lot to say. Basically, Sen. Chuck Schumer thinks it was a mistake to focus on Obamacare in 2009. Instead, Democrats should have focused like a laser on the economy, and in particular, on helping the working and middle classes. Instead, Dems passed yet another social welfare program that mostly helps the poor, demonstrating yet again that they don't really care much about the middle class.

Yesterday, Tom Edsall weighed in on this. He didn't really take a political position of his own, but he did present a bunch of evidence that Schumer was substantively correct. That is, Obamacare really does help mainly the poor, and Democrats really have done very little for the middle class lately.

So what's my view? Well, I've written about this before, and I'd say that on a technical level Edsall is exactly right. On the upside, Obamacare does help the working and middle classes a bit, partly because its subsidies are available even to those with relatively high incomes and partly because of its other provisions. For example, its guarantee that you can get affordable coverage even if you have a preexisting condition is something that helps everyone. If you're middle class and you lose your job, that provision of Obamacare might be a lifesaver.

Still, there's no question that Obamacare helps the middle classes only at the margins. Most of them already have employer health coverage, and the ones that end up buying coverage through the exchanges get only small subsidies. I happen to think that Obamacare will eventually be the foundation for a program of universal health care that genuinely appeals to everyone, the same way that Social Security does, but that's in the future. It doesn't really help Democrats now.

So I agree with Edsall about the technical distribution of Obamacare benefits. And I also agree with Schumer that Democrats need to do more to appeal to the working and middle classes. So that means I agree with their basic critique. Right?

Nope. Not even slightly. You see, the core of the critique isn't merely that Democrats should do more for the middle class. It's specifically that Democrats should have done more in 2009 for the middle class. But this is the point at which everything suddenly gets hazy. What should Obama have done in lieu of Obamacare? Paul Krugman has it exactly right:

When people say that Obama should have “focused” on the economy, what, specifically, are they saying he should have done?....What do they mean? Obama should have gone around squinting and saying “I’m focused on the economy”? What would that have done?

Look, governing is not just theater. For sure the weakness of the recovery has hurt Democrats. But “focusing”, whatever that means, wouldn’t have delivered more job growth. What should Obama have done that he actually could have done in the face of scorched-earth Republican opposition? And how, if at all, did health reform stand in the way of doing whatever it is you’re saying he should have done?

In broad terms, I agree with Schumer's critique. Democrats need to do more to appeal to the working and middle classes, not just the poor. But Schumer is maddeningly vague about just what that means. And as it relates to 2009, in particular, he's full of hot air. In the first few months of the year, Obama passed a big stimulus. He rescued the auto industry. He cut everyone's payroll taxes.

Should Obama have done more? Oh my, yes. His pivot to the deficit in mid-2009 was dumb. And by far the biggest smoking gun of unfinished business was something to rescue underwater homeowners. But let's be serious: even if Obama had supported a broad rescue effort, it wouldn't have mattered. Congress wasn't on board, and I doubt very much that anything could have gotten them on board. The politics was just too toxic. Never forget that the mere prospect of maybe rescuing underwater homeowners was the issue that set off Rick Santelli's famous CNBC rant and led to the formation of the tea party movement. I wish things were otherwise, but bailing out underwater homeowners was simply never in the cards.

Beyond that, Democrats have a much bigger problem than even Schumer acknowledges. It's this: what can they do? That is, what big ticket items are left that would buy the loyalty of the middle class for another generation? We already have Social Security and Medicare. We have Obamacare. We have the mortgage interest deduction. What's left?

There are smallish things. Sometime people point to college loans. Or universal pre-K. I'm in favor of those things. But college loans are a stopgap, and the truth is that the rising price of college for the middle class is mainly a state issue, not a federal one. And universal pre-K simply doesn't yet have enough political support. (It's also something that would most likely benefit the poor much more than the middle class, but leave that aside for the moment.)

So I'll ask the same question I've asked before. I'm all in favor of using the power of government to help the middle classes. But what does that mean in terms of concrete political programs that (a) the middle class will associate with Democrats and help win them loyalty and votes, and (b) have even a snowball's chance of getting passed by Congress? Expansion of Social Security? Expansion of Medicare? Bigger subsidies for Obamacare? Universal pre-K? A massive infrastructure program? Let's get specific, and let's not nibble around the edges. Little programs here and there aren't going to make much difference to the Democrats' political fortunes. Nor will heroic but vague formulations about rescuing unions or raising taxes on the wealthy by a few points.

So tell me. What should they have done in 2009 that was actually feasible? What should they do now? Let's hear it.

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Stop-and-Frisk Fades Away Under New Mayor, Crime Goes Down Anyway

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 10:04 PM EST

The mayor of New York City wants you to know that violent crime is down, down, down:

Robberies, considered the most telling indicator of street crime, are down 14 percent across New York City from last year. Grand larcenies — including the thefts of Apple devices that officials said drove an overall crime increase two years ago — are also down, by roughly 3 percent.

And after a record-low 335 homicides in 2013, the city has seen 290 killings in the first 11 months of this year, a number unheard-of two decades ago. “When I came into this job, people always talked about last year — last year was an amazing year in this city in terms of bringing down crime,” Mr. de Blasio said. “We saw what was possible. The city’s crime rate continues to go down.”

Previous police commissioners have insisted that New York's mass stop-and-frisk program was an essential part of the city's fight against violent crime. "No question about it," said Ray Kelly last year after a federal judge struck down the program. "Violent crime will go up." And mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed: If you try to so much as reform stop-and-frisk, he warned the city council, you're "playing politics with people’s lives." But as you can see from the chart on the right, stop-and-frisk did indeed go down and violent crime did not go up. Instead it went down. Just like it has for the past 20 years.

It almost makes you think that something else entirely must be going on. But what?

POSTSCRIPT: Yes, I'm crowing a bit here. I predicted a year ago that Bill de Blasio couldn't really do anything to screw up New York City's progress in reducing violent crime, and it turns out I was right. So there.

Assignment Desk: Is Obama More Polarizing Than Past Presidents?

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 5:58 PM EST

Paul Waldman notes a recent poll that shows declining public support for the idea of giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. In a familiar dynamic, though, this is mainly because Republican support has cratered since President Obama announced his executive order on immigration:

Before this latest immigration controversy, Republican voters were at least favorably inclined toward a path to citizenship. But then Barack Obama moves to grant temporary legal status to some undocumented people (and by the way, nothing he's doing creates a path to citizenship for anyone, but that's another story). It becomes a huge, headline-dominating story, in which every single prominent Republican denounces the move as one of the most vile offenses to which the Constitution has ever been subjected.

....What the Quinnipiac poll suggests — and granted, this is only one poll and we won't know for sure until we get more evidence — this process also ends up shifting people's underlying beliefs about the issue. In this case, the controversy makes Republicans more conservative

This, of course, is something that we've seen over and over, and it presents President Obama with an impossible dilemma. If he says nothing about an issue, he forfeits the chance to move public opinion. But if he speaks out, the subject instantly morphs into a partisan battering ram. Republicans will oppose his proposal regardless of how they felt about it before.

But I'm curious about whether this dynamic is stronger under Obama compared to other presidents. I figured Social Security privatization might be a good test, but I wasn't able to dig up consistent poll information about it from before and after George Bush's big push following the 2004 election. However, this is from Gallup's Frank Newport in February 2005:

Basic support for the idea of privatizing Social Security has been at the majority level for well over a decade....[But] in the much more politicized environment of the last several months, survey questions asking about Social Security privatization show widely varying support levels.

....It is important to note that the privatization issue is rapidly becoming more partisan. The concept is now being actively promoted by a Republican president, and widely criticized by his Democratic congressional opposition. This suggests that public opinion on Social Security could devolve into nothing more than a referendum on the president.

This suggests, unsurprisingly, that Bush polarized public opinion in the same way Obama does. Perhaps all presidents do. Still, it sure seems as if Obama polarizes more than any previous president. I can think of several reasons this might be true:

  • Something to do with Obama himself. This could be anything from underlying racism to the nature of Obama's rhetoric.
  • Our media environment has become increasingly loud and partisan over time, and this naturally polarizes opinions more than in the past.
  • The Republican Party has simply become more radicalized over the past decade or so.
  • In the past, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats acted as natural brakes on viewing everything through a purely partisan lens. But party and ideology have been converging for decades, and this naturally makes every issue more partisan.

In any case, this would be an interesting project for someone with access to high-quality polling data that reaches back over several decades. Is the partisan response to President Obama's proposals more pronounced than it was for previous presidents? If so, is it a little more pronounced, or a lot? Someone needs to get on this.

Sure, Why Shouldn't Obama Normalize Relations With Cuba?

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 1:39 PM EST

Jay Nordlinger is worried:

Many years ago, I wrote a piece called “Who Cares about Cuba?” When I raised this issue with Jeane Kirkpatrick, she said that indifference to Cuba is “both a puzzling and a profoundly painful phenomenon of our times.”

Worse than indifference, of course, is support for the regime, or excuses for it.

President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles, as in his unilateral amnesty. “I just took an action to change the law,” he boasted. Some think that his next action will be the normalization of relations with the Castros’ dictatorship. Our Left is egging him on. He can do a lot of damage in his remaining two years, in multifarious ways. And, like Clinton, I believe, he will keep the pedal to the metal until noon on Inauguration Day.

This hadn't even occurred to me, and I guess that "some think" isn't exactly a compelling turn of phrase, is it? Still, I'd turn Nordlinger's question around: Why shouldn't we normalize relations with Cuba? It's unquestionably an authoritarian state with plenty of unsavory practices, but that hardly makes it unique. Should we also cut off relations with Russia? Saudi Arabia? Egypt? Zimbabwe? They're all terrible countries in their own way—I'm pretty sure I'd rate them all worse than Cuba—and it's unclear to me why Cuba alone among them should have diplomatic pariah status.

I'm being faux naive here, of course. I understand perfectly well why Cuba is unique. But it's been more than half a century since we broke off relations, and let's at least be honest about what happened: a bunch of big American companies got pissed off when a brutal leftist dictator displaced the brutal right-wing dictator they favored. President Eisenhower made an uncharacteristic mistake in response, and the rest is history. Not an especially attractive chapter of history, but history nonetheless.

But maybe it's time to bring it to a close. Either normalize relations with Cuba or else cut off relations with every other country that's equally bad. I'd opt for the former. Aside from the fact that it would anger a large voting bloc in an important swing state, I've never really heard a great argument for continuing our Cuba obsession.

Good News From the ER: Hospital Mistakes Are on the Decline

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 12:38 PM EST

Let's continue our good news theme this morning. For the past few years, via several different programs, the federal government has been working hard to get hospitals to adopt practices that rein in the curse of "hospital acquired conditions"—also known as HACs. These are things like prescription mistakes, central line infections, slips and falls, and so forth. Today, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality released a report showing that HACs have been declining since these programs began in 2010.

The chart on the right tells the basic story. HACs declined a bit in 2011, and then fell even further in 2012 and 2013. By now, they've declined by a cumulative total of 17 percent. The AHRQ reports estimates that this represents 1.3 million HACs that have been prevented and 50,000 lives that have been saved. It's also reduced health care costs by about $12 billion.

Much of this has been due to a laundry list of reforms introduced by Obamacare. So not only has Obamacare provided affordable health coverage for millions, but it's reduced hospital errors by one out of every six and saved tens of thousands of lives in the process. Not bad.