Kevin Drum

Obama's Intervention in Iraq Is All About the Kurds

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 10:48 AM EDT

Why did President Obama decide to re-engage militarily in Iraq? Was it to prevent the genocide of the Yazidi religious minority trapped on Mt. Sinjar? Partly, perhaps, but Max Fischer writes that the real motivation was to protect Iraq's northern Kurds:

If you are a member of ISIS, here is how you might hear Obama's message: Stay away from Iraqi Kurdistan, and the rest of northern Iraq is yours to keep. Based on Obama's words and actions so far, you would not be so wrong.

....Invading Iraq's Kurdish region, it turned out, was Obama's red line for ISIS. There are a few reasons why. The Kurdish region is far stabler, politically, than the rest of Iraq. (Kurds are ethnically distinct from the rest of Iraq, which is largely ethnic Arab; most Kurds are Sunni Muslims.) The Kurdish region, which has been semi-autonomous since the United States invaded in 2003 and has grown more autonomous from Baghdad ever since, also happens to be a much more reliable US ally than is the central Iraqi government. It has a reasonably competent government and military, unlike the central Iraqi government, which is volatile, unstable, deeply corrupt, and increasingly authoritarian.

....On a background briefing call with White House officials late on Thursday, the emphasis on defending Erbil came through loud and clear: the US is clearly designing its intervention around protecting the Kurdish region; any effect for the rest of Iraq is secondary, and was premised on Iraq's government first fulfilling some political commitments.

The effect, though, is to imply that the US will not intervene against ISIS if they remain on the correct side of the red line — effectively giving them the US go-ahead to continue terrorizing the vast territory in northern Iraq they've already seized.

In the Middle East, red lines don't always work so well. This one will obviously depend to a large degree on how competent the Kurdish militias turn out to be, and whether they can repel the ISIS troops with nothing more than a modest amount of aerial support from the US. Given the small size of the ISIS forces, and the reputation of the Kurdish Peshmerga, this certainly ought to be feasible. If even the Kurds are having trouble against ISIS, however, this suggests that ISIS is considerably stronger than anyone thought. Stay tuned.

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Quote of the Day: Wall Street Judge Left With "Nothing But Sour Grapes"

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 5:37 PM EDT

A few years ago, federal district judge Jed Rakoff refused to approve an SEC settlement with Citigroup over charges that they had deliberately offloaded toxic mortgage securities into a special fund so that they could make money by betting against their own customers. Rakoff objected partly because he thought the SEC's proposed fine was too small—"pocket change," he called it—but mostly because there was no public reckoning of what Citigroup had done. Not only weren't they required to admit wrongdoing, they weren't required even to admit the bare facts of what they had done.

Sadly for Rakoff—and for the public—an appeals court overruled him, basically saying that the SEC had full discretion to reach any settlement it desired, and the judge's only real role was to make sure it wasn't tainted by collusion or corruption. Earlier this week, Rakoff backed off:

They who must be obeyed have spoken, and this Court's duty is to faithfully fulfill their mandate.

....Nonetheless, this Court fears that, as a result of the Court of Appeal's decision, the settlements reached by governmental regulatory bodies and enforced by the judiciary's contempt powers will in practice be subject to no meaningful oversight whatsoever. But it would be a dereliction of duty for this Court to seek to evade the dictates of the Court of Appeals. That Court has now fixed the menu, leaving this Court with nothing but sour grapes.

Quite so, and the SEC's long tradition of issuing wrist slaps to big Wall Street firms—and withholding all the details of their corruption from the public—is now safe once again. Apparently that kind of thing is only for the little people.

Of course, Congress could intervene, giving the SEC more manpower and demanding more accountability, but that's not going to happen either. After all, sometimes people say mean things about Wall Street firms. Surely that's punishment enough?

Via Michael Hiltzik, who has more at the link.

Republicans Hate Obama, Therefore Obama Should Avoid Making Them Even Madder

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 2:40 PM EDT

Ron Fournier ponders the wisdom of President Obama issuing executive orders on immigration and tax inversions:

For argument's sake, let's say Obama is right on the issue and has legal authority to act. The big question is …

Would it be wrong to end-run Congress? Another way to put it might be, "Would more polarization in Washington and throughout the country be wrong?" How about exponentially more polarization, gridlock, and incivility? If the president goes too far, he owns that disaster.

Wait a second. If you think Obama is wrong on the merits, then naturally you'll oppose any new executive action. If you think he's right, but unfortunately lacks the constitutional authority to do anything about it, you'll also oppose any new executive action.

But what if he's both right and has the proper authority? That certainly sounds like the right formula for supporting executive action. But no. Obama still shouldn't do anything because....wait for it....it would cause more polarization, gridlock, and incivility.

I frankly doubt it, but leave that to one side for the moment. What Fournier is saying is that President Obama shouldn't do anything that might make Republicans mad. But this means the president is literally helpless: No proposal of his has any chance of securing serious Republican engagement in Congress, but he's not allowed to take executive action for fear of making them even more intransigent. Obama's only legitimate option, apparently, is to persuade Republicans to support his proposals, even though it's no secret that Republicans decided years ago to obstruct everything, sight unseen, that was on Obama's agenda. So that leaves Obama with no options at all.

And that means the next column will be all about Obama's lack of leadership. Count on it.

Notes Toward a Heuristic of Express Lane Ethics

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 12:34 PM EDT

Over at Vox, Andrew Prokop summarizes a new poll about Americans' ethical views. Here's one result:

The US public is staunchly opposed to the apparently widespread problem of supermarket express lane abuse, with a clear majority saying they think multiple pieces of the same fruit should count as multiple items. Strangely, though, 20 percent of respondents apparently think there should be different rules for different shoppers.

OK, that is strange. Why should there be different rules for different shoppers? Is the idea here that we should bend the rules for the elderly or the infirm? Or for pregnant women? Or what?

As for fruit, it depends, doesn't it? Surely a bunch of bananas still counts as one item? Or tomatoes on the vine? (Which I love because I adore the aroma of the vine.) How about two bunches of bananas? Does it make a difference if stuff is in a bag? Five apples in a plastic bag gets weighed as one item, whereas five apples rolling around in your basket have to be placed on the scale individually before the whole bunch of them gets weighed. Does that matter? Help me out here, hive mind.

National Guard Finally Dumps NASCAR

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 12:13 PM EDT

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having a great year on the NASCAR circuit this year, but the National Guard is dumping him as a sponsor anyway. They say the reason is "significantly constrained resources." What does that mean?

The “significantly constrained resources” may be due to Senate hearings on the Guard’s profligate spending convened earlier this year. USA Today reported the Guard spent $26.5 million to sponsor NASCAR in 2012, “but failed to sign up a single new soldier to its ranks,” according to Senate documents. Between 2011 and 2013, the Guard spent $88 million, but “it is unclear how many new recruits, if any, signed up because of it.”

Wait. What? Not a single recruit? Let's go to the tape. Here's the original USA Today piece:

The Guard received 24,800 recruiting prospects from the program in 2012, documents show. In those cases, potential recruits indicated the NASCAR affiliation prompted them to seek more information about joining. Of that group, only 20 met the Guard's qualifications for entry into the service, and not one of them joined.

In 2013, the number of prospects associated with NASCAR dropped to 7,500, according to briefing materials for the Senate subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight led by McCaskill. The National Guard needs 1 million leads to meet its annual recruiting goal of 50,000 soldiers.

Wow. Out of 24,800 prospects, only 20 even met the Guard's qualifications. There are obviously some ripe pickings here for jokes about NASCAR fans, but if I make any of them I'll undoubtedly be accused of latte-sipping elitism. But surely someone will step up to the plate?

In any case, the core problem, apparently, is that the NASCAR audience is just too damn old. Sort of like Fox News. That's why the Army ditched them for drag racing:

Army analysis found better value in producing "leads," prospective recruits, by sponsoring National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) events, including drag racing. "Currently, only 5% of the NASCAR audience is made up of 18-24 year old males," Davis' memo says. "NASCAR is the highest cost per qualified lead and cost per engagement property in our portfolio; cost-per-lead is three times as expensive as the NHRA."

Kids these days.

How Many People Really, Truly Believe That Abortion Is Murder?

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 11:03 AM EDT

Do anti-abortion activists really think abortion is murder? Or is their opposition merely an expression of their broad discomfort with modern sexual and gender mores? Ed Kilgore concedes that the belief in abortion as murder is often sincere, but if that's the case, how do you explain Rep. Steve DesJarlais (R-TN)?

DesJarlais is a big antichoice, "pro-family" pol first elected (like so many other mistakes) in 2010. During his 2012 re-election campaign, evidence began leaking out through various outlets that he had a history of alleged spousal abuse, serial adultery, sexual relationships with patients and at least three occasions of encouraging a woman to have an abortion (twice his soon-to-be-former wife, once a patient). Much of these toxic allegations seem to have been confirmed when DesJarlais' divorce papers from his first wife were opened just after his 2012 re-election.

In dealing with this evidence, DesJarlais has allowed as how he made some mistakes in a "difficult period of his life," blah blah blah, and has denied pushing a lover to have an abortion (though not pushing his then-wife to have two of them). So without even the drama of a public confession and act of contrition, he's back to trying to pass laws telling other people how to live their sex lives.

I do not understand how anyone who actually thinks of abortion as a homicidal act can vote for someone—a medical professional no less—who admits to having encouraged it with no apparent great remorse. That it seems to have occurred as part of a pattern of systemic disregard for personal and professional ethical standards doesn't help.

I guess I don't share Kilgore's befuddlement, since I've never really believed that much of anyone really, truly thinks that abortion is murder. If you look at actions, rather than words, it just doesn't add up. Lots of people oppose abortion, but with very few exceptions, they very plainly don't react to it the same way they react to a genuine murder. Their emotional response gives the game away, even if they've convinced themselves otherwise intellectually.

DesJarlais is a good example. If he had encouraged the murder of two children—real murder, of kids who were a year or two old—he wouldn't merely be having a tough primary. Regardless of whether he had managed to avoid conviction for his acts, he wouldn't even be able to run for office, let alone be even odds to win. He'd be a pariah. That's how people react to actual killing. But it's not how they react to encouraging abortion. As long as DesJarlais is otherwise on the right side of the culture wars, it'll be shrugged off as unfortunate but not disqualifying.

So don't tell me that all the conservative Christians in DesJarlais' district believe that abortion is murder. They may say they believe it. They may even sincerely think they believe it. But they don't.

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Congress Needs Its Own Dormitory

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 6:12 PM EDT

Paul Waldman is exasperated with the latest fad among members of Congress: sleeping in your office to demonstrate to your constituents just how much you really, truly hate the Sodom that is modern Washington DC. It started after the Gingrich revolution of 1994, and has now become so popular among the tea party set that even the womenfolk are getting into the act. "It was never my goal to come to DC and be comfortable," says South Dakota's Kristi Noem. Waldman is unamused:

Oh, spare me. If you're doing it because you don't want to get too settled in Washington, then I assume you won't be running for re-election, right? I thought so.

I'll grant that as far as affectations go, this one certainly takes commitment. But how exactly is sleeping in your office supposed to keep you connected with the real America? What's going to make you more "out of touch," getting an apartment so you can have a good night's sleep when you're doing the people's business, or literally never leaving Capitol Hill? Is signing a one-year lease on a studio going to suddenly make you change your views on deficit spending or tax cuts or the next trade deal? If it is, your constituents probably shouldn't have elected you in the first place.

Maybe Congress should just set up its own dormitory, along the lines of a youth hostel, maybe, and let our nation's representatives bunk down there. They've already got a barbershop and a gym, after all, so why not just add a few photogenically spartan cells and allow the office suites to revert to being actual offices?

Voter Fraud Literally Less Likely Than Being Hit By Lightning

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 3:10 PM EDT

Justin Levitt has been tracking allegations of voter fraud for years. "To be clear," he says, "I’m not just talking about prosecutions. I track any specific, credible allegation that someone may have pretended to be someone else at the polls, in any way that an ID law could fix." So far, he's found 31 cases representing around 200 individuals. If every one of them turns out be a genuine case of fraud, that's a fraud rate of:

Of course, Levitt might be off by an order of magnitude. Or maybe even two or three orders of magnitude. That would put the fraud rate at 0.02 percent. On the other hand, these are just allegations. If past performance holds true, nearly all of them will turn out to be clerical mistakes, which means we're back to 0.00002 percent. This compares to many thousands of voters who have been turned away from the polls for lack of ID in just the past few years.

Also worth noting: every single one of these cases involves just one or a few people. There's not a single credible case in the past 15 years of any kind of organized voter impersonation scam of the kind that might actually affect the outcome of an election. There's just no there there.

Map of the Day: Here's Why Congress Doesn't Really Care About Your Petty Problems

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 12:52 PM EDT

Via Vox, here's a colorful map from Broadview Networks that helps illustrate one reason that policymaking in Congress often seems so disconnected from the real world. It's because policymakers tend to be pretty well-off folks living in a pretty well-off region that shelters them from the problems many of the rest of us encounter. If you live in Missouri, you might be annoyed that internet speeds in the US are so low. But if you live in Washington DC or northern Virginia, guess what? Your internet speed is pretty good! Virginia is ranked #1 in the nation, and DC is right behind it. So is it any wonder that this really doesn't seem like a pressing problem in Congress? Especially when all the big ISPs are telling you that there's plenty of competition already—plenty!—and then slipping a few grand to your Super PAC? Of course it's not.

News You Can Use: Don't Auto-Renew Your Obamacare Policy

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 12:05 PM EDT

Sam Baker has a long piece in National Journal about a looming Obamacare problem that could hit a lot of people who renew their coverage later this year. Here's the short version: federal subsidies are calculated based on a "benchmark" plan, and this means that low-income taxpayers can buy the benchmark plan at pretty low cost. However, since Obamacare encourages competition (yay!), your region might have a whole bunch of new, lower-cost plans available next year. This means the benchmark will be recalculated, and if you want to keep your low payments you'll need to switch to one of the newer plans.

But what if you don't? What if you just auto-renew without thinking about it? Since you're no longer buying the benchmark plan, your subsidies will go down and your annual premium will go up. Maybe a lot:

As cheaper plans come into the marketplace, millions of consumers will see the cost of keeping their plan rise. But they might not know it.

HealthCare.gov isn't able to automatically recalculate the subsidies existing consumers are eligible for. So, while the dollar value of your financial assistance drops, you can only find out that's happening by going back into the system and asking for a redetermination as part of the shopping process.

Consumers who auto-renew their policies will get the same dollar value of subsidies they got last year—even though changes in the marketplace all but guarantee that will no longer be the right subsidy amount for millions of people.

"That's the totally crazy part," Pearson said. "They're basically going to send them what they know to be the wrong subsidy."

The IRS will eventually figure out how much financial assistance you should have received, and will reconcile the difference on your taxes. If you should have gotten a bigger subsidy, the government will issue you a tax credit. If your subsidy was too big, which would be the case if you keep your plan and lower-cost options come to the market, you'll owe the IRS money.

This puts everyone in a tough spot. HHS officials want to make auto-renewal as simple and automatic as possible. Long experience shows that even a little bit of added complexity will reduce the rate of sign-ups. But a simple auto-renewal runs the risk of misleading people about how much their insurance costs if they don't switch to a new plan. What to do?

In broad terms, this is yet another bit of fallout from the sausage-making process that created Obamacare. In order to get a bill passed, it had to satisfy lots and lots of interest groups. In order to satisfy those interest groups, the structure of the program was made complex. And then, barnacles were added to barnacles to further satisfy everyone. The result is stuff like this.

In narrower terms, this might have a technical fix: add a few steps to the auto-renewal process that make the cost of renewing more transparent. Given the number of people who signed up initially despite the horrific rollout problems with healthcare.gov, I suspect this wouldn't have a huge impact on renewal numbers. And it might save a boatload of grief down the line.

In any case, if you or a friend is enrolled in Obamacare, here's the bottom line: don't just mindlessly auto-renew. Take a few minutes to find out if anything has changed that affects your annual premiums. Don't wait till next year to find out via a letter from the IRS.