Kevin Drum

Your Lesson for the Day: If You Decline to Use Military Force, You've "Kind of Lost Your Way"

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 6:45 PM EDT

Today the Washington Post summarizes a new book by Leon Panetta, former CIA director and secretary of defense in the Obama administration, as well as an interview Panetta gave to Susan Page of USA Today:

By not pressing the Iraqi government to leave more U.S. troops in the country, he “created a vacuum in terms of the ability of that country to better protect itself, and it’s out of that vacuum that ISIS began to breed,” Panetta told USA Today, referring to the group also known as the Islamic State.

....The USA Today interview was the first of what inevitably will be a series as he promotes his book, “Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace,” which is sharply critical of Obama’s handling of the troop withdrawal from Iraq, Syria and the advance of the Islamic State. “I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war” that will also sweep in conflicts in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, he told the paper.

My first thought when I read this was puzzlement: Just what does Panetta think those US troops would have accomplished if they'd stayed in Iraq? Nobody ever seems to have a very concrete idea on that score. There's always just a bit of vague hand waving about how of course they would have done....something....something....something.....and stopped the spread of ISIS. But what?

My second thought was the same as Joe Biden's: would it kill guys like Panetta to at least wait until Obama is out of office before airing all their complaints? Do they have even a smidgen of loyalty to their ex-boss? But I suppose that ship sailed long ago, so there's not much point in griping about it.

In the end, what really gets me is this, where Panetta talks about Obama's foreign policy legacy:

"We are at a point where I think the jury is still out," Panetta says. "For the first four years, and the time I spent there, I thought he was a strong leader on security issues. ... But these last two years I think he kind of lost his way. You know, it's been a mixed message, a little ambivalence in trying to approach these issues and try to clarify what the role of this country is all about.

"He may have found himself again with regards to this ISIS crisis. I hope that's the case. And if he's willing to roll up his sleeves and engage with Congress in taking on some of these other issues, as I said I think he can establish a very strong legacy as president. I think these next 2 1/2 years will tell us an awful lot about what history has to say about the Obama administration."

Think about this. Panetta isn't even a super hawkish Democrat. Just moderately hawkish. But his basic worldview is simple: as long as Obama is launching lots of drone attacks and surging lots of troops and bombing plenty of Middle Eastern countries—then he's a "strong leader on security issues." But when Obama starts to think that maybe reflexive military action hasn't acquitted itself too well over the past few years—in that case he's "kind of lost his way."

That's the default view of practically everyone in Washington: Using military force shows strong leadership. Declining to use military force shows weakness. But most folks inside the Beltway don't even seem to realize they feel this way. It's just part of the air they breathe: never really noticed, always taken for granted, and invariably the difficult but sadly necessary answer for whichever new and supposedly unique problem we're addressing right now. This is what Obama is up against.

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5 Percent of Religious Americans Routinely Try to Fool God

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 2:16 PM EDT

Speaking of phone surveys, surely a survey conducted by LifeWay, a Christian retailer based in Nashville, TN, should be one that we can rely on. So what was LifeWay curious about? Prayer. In particular: how often you pray; what you pray for; and whether your prayers are answered. The chart on the right, perhaps one of my all time favorites, shows what people said they prayed for.

Some of these are unexceptionable. Praying for your enemies is supposedly a Christian sort of thing to do (assuming you're praying for their redemption, of course). Praying to win the lottery is pretty standard stuff. And despite mountains of evidence that God doesn't really care who wins the Super Bowl, there's always been plenty of praying for that too.

But finding a good parking spot? Seriously? There's also a fair amount of Old Testament vengeance on display here. But my favorite is the 5 percent of respondents who prayed for success in something they knew wouldn't please God.

This is great. Apparently these folks are more willing to be honest with a telephone pollster than with God despite the fact that God already knows. If it displeases Him, then that's that. You aren't going to fool Him into making it happen anyway. I'm also intrigued by the 20 percent who prayed for success in something they "put almost no effort in." That's fabulous! Not that they did it, mind you. That's just human nature. But that they were willing to fess up to this to a telephone pollster. Is there anything people aren't willing to confide to telephone pollsters?

Anyway, another chart tells us that 25 percent of those who pray say their prayers are answered all the time. All the time! This is terrific, and I want to meet one of these people. God has not been noticeably receptive to me lately, and I could use some help from someone with a 100 percent batting average.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, is it really possible that virtually none of these folks ever prayed for their health to improve? Or is that too risky to admit, since usually it's fairly obvious when it doesn't work?

Americans Are Rebelling Against Phone Surveys

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 12:29 PM EDT

Carl Bialik reports on the state of the state in political polling:

Fifteen pollsters told us their response rates for election polls this year and in 2012. The average response rate this year is 11.8 percent — down 1.9 percentage points from 2012. That may not sound like a lot, but when fewer than one in seven people responded to polls in 2012, there wasn’t much room to drop. It’s a decline of 14 percent, and it’s consistent across pollsters — 12 of the 15 reported a decline, and no one reported an increase.

These results are consistent with what pollsters have reported for years: that people are harder to reach by phone, and are less likely to want to talk to strangers when they are reached. Here, the pollsters show just how quickly response rates have fallen in only two years.

I assume the problem here is twofold. First, there are too many polls. A few decades ago it might have seemed like a big deal to get a call from a Gallup pollster. Sort of like being a Nielsen family. Today it's not. Polls are now conducted so frequently, and the public has become so generally media savvy, that it's just sort of a nuisance.

More generally, there are just too many spam phone calls. The Do Not Call Registry was a great idea, but there are (a) too many loopholes, including for pollsters, and (b) too many spammers who don't give a damn. When the registry first went on line, my level of spam phone calls dropped dramatically. Since then, however, it's gradually increased and is now nearly as bad as it ever was. I won't even pick up the phone anymore if Caller ID suggests it's a commercial call of some variety. Nor is there much likelihood that this situation is going to improve as long as the spammers are smart enough not to call Chuck Schumer's cell phone.

So perhaps polling is going to end up being a victim of its own success. During election years I get two or three calls a month from pollsters, which is pretty remarkable if I'm anything close to average. It means pollsters are making something like 100 million or more calls per month across the country. Is that possible? It hardly seems like it. Maybe I'm an outlier. But one way or another, it's a big number, and it's no wonder that people are hanging up on them in droves.

Here's Why I Left My Dentist

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 11:34 AM EDT

Kiera Butler manages to punch one of my buttons today in a piece about the growing problem of "creative diagnosis" in dentistry:

Upselling in dentistry isn't a new phenomenon, but it's having a moment....A generation ago, newly hatched dentists would join established practices as modestly paid associates, with the promise of eventually becoming partners. But these days, with dentists retiring later, there's less turnover in private practice. Instead, more and more young dentists are taking jobs with chains, many of which set revenue quotas for practitioners.

Some years ago, my local dentist was purchased by a chain operation. For a while, nothing seemed to change. But then things did. Was it the recession? Was the chain doing poorly and needed more revenue? Did they hire a new CEO? I'll never know. What I do know is that over time I got more and more skeptical that their recommendations were based purely on best practices. Suddenly I needed lots of fillings replaced. I needed special antibiotic treatments that my insurance didn't cover. I should be coming in every three months, not every six months. And sitting in the waiting room, I frequently overheard conversations that sounded more like they came from a stall in a Turkish bazaar than from a medical office in Southern California.

So I finally left and switched to a dentist recommended by a friend. No more antibiotics. My gums seemed to have been miraculously cured. Coming in twice a year was just fine.

Was my old dentist really pushing treatments that I didn't need? I'll never know with certainty. But it sure felt like it, and I simply lost confidence in them. It felt like the place was being run by the finance department, not by a bunch of doctors. Caveat emptor.

Joe Biden Apologizes For Telling the Truth About ISIS

| Mon Oct. 6, 2014 10:53 AM EDT

If a gaffe is the act of accidentally telling the truth, then Joe Biden pulled off the mother of all gaffes on Thursday:

Speaking at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Mr. Biden said allies including Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates had extended unconditional financial and logistical support to Sunni fighters trying to oust the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“President Erdogan told me,” he said, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, “ ‘You were right. We let too many people through. Now we are trying to seal the border.’

“Our allies poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against al-Assad,” he said, including jihadists planning to join the Nusra Front and Al Qaeda.

Our Middle East allies went nuclear over this remark, and by my count Biden has now apologized for it at least three times. Maybe more. I'm not sure. All for the sin of telling the truth.

That's not to say Biden should have said this, of course. Diplomacy is shadowy and vague for good reasons. Still, you have to feel for the guy. Of all the things to be called on the carpet for, this is surely the one he deserves the least.

The Washington Post Wants Google to Invent a "Secure Golden Key"

| Sat Oct. 4, 2014 10:26 AM EDT

A couple of weeks ago Google announced that Android phones would soon have their contents encrypted by default. The encryption key would be set by the user and Google wouldn't keep a copy. This means that if police get a warrant to search a cell phone, they can't get the encryption key from Google. The owner of the phone will have to cough it up.

This is how search warrants work in every other walk of life, but law enforcement agencies were nonetheless frustrated over Google's new policy. The Washington Post sympathizes with their frustration, and yesterday they mounted a fairly standard defense of the law enforcement position. But then they ended with this:

How to resolve this? A police “back door” for all smartphones is undesirable — a back door can and will be exploited by bad guys, too. However, with all their wizardry, perhaps Apple and Google could invent a kind of secure golden key they would retain and use only when a court has approved a search warrant. Ultimately, Congress could act and force the issue, but we’d rather see it resolved in law enforcement collaboration with the manufacturers and in a way that protects all three of the forces at work: technology, privacy and rule of law.

A "secure golden key"? Seriously? Did they bother talking to anyone more technically savvy than their publisher's nine-year-old grandkid about this?

If you're going to opine about this stuff, you owe it to your readers to do at least a minimal amount of reporting and research about what's possible and what's not. Otherwise you sound like an idiot.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 3 October 2014

| Fri Oct. 3, 2014 2:50 PM EDT

We have names! They have not, ahem, been met with universal acclaim, but we're sticking with them. Our little gray-and-white girl is:

  • Hopper aka Gracie aka The Admiral

And our little black-and-white boy is:

  • Hilbert aka Davie aka The Professor aka The 24th Problem

For those of you too lazy to google things, Hopper is named after Admiral Grace Hopper, "the mother of COBOL." Hilbert is named after David Hilbert, a famous German mathematician who has some personal resonance for me and also happens to have a name that begins with H, which makes him a nicely alliterative companion for Hopper. Among other things, Hilbert is famous for a speech in 1900 in which he laid out 23 fundamental mathematical problems, some of which remain unsolved to this day.

It turns out, by the way, that the fastest way to get Hilbert's attention is to pay attention to Hopper. All we have to do is scratch Hopper's chin and Hilbert, somehow, becomes aware of it and comes bounding into the room demanding that we scratch his chin. It's really quite remarkable. He not only has a jealous streak, he apparently has ESP too.

Yet More Crackpotism From the Tea Party Darling in Iowa

| Fri Oct. 3, 2014 1:20 PM EDT

TPM's Daniel Strauss provides us with the latest intel on tea party darling Joni Ernst, currently favored to win a Senate seat in Iowa. Here are her answers to a survey from the Campaign for Liberty in 2012, when she was running for the state legislature:

Strauss naturally focuses on Question 5, in which Ernst happily agrees that Iowa should allow state troopers and local sheriffs to toss federal officials in the slammer if they try to implement Obamacare in their state. This is complete lunacy, but of course no one will take any notice. For some reason, conservative Republicans are allowed to get away with this kind of stuff. There's a sort of tacit understanding in the press that they don't really mean it when they say things like this. It's just a harmless way of showing their tribal affiliation.

However, I'm also intrigued by Question 1. I assume this was prompted by police use of drones, which was starting to make the news back in 2012, but does it also include things like red light cameras and automated radar installations on highways? Does Ernst really oppose this stuff? She might! And maybe it's a big deal in Iowa. I'm just curious.

UPDATE: And as long as we're on the subject of Iowa, Senate seats, and the press, maybe you should check out Eric Boehlert's fully justified bafflement over the national media's infatuation with a crude Republican smear campaign based on transparent lies about Democratic candidate Bruce Braley and his neighbor's chickens. Click here for more.

Is a Major Abortion Showdown Finally In Our Near Future?

| Fri Oct. 3, 2014 12:12 PM EDT

It's been obvious for a while that sometime soon the Supreme Court is going to take on another major abortion case. So far, what's kept it from happening is probably the fact that both sides are unsure how it would go. Nobody wants to take the chance of a significant decision going against them and becoming settled law for decades.

But Ian Millhiser suggests today that this might be about to change. Conservatives have been unusually aggressive over the past four years in testing the limits of the law at the state level, and yesterday the Fifth Circuit Court upheld a recently-passed Texas statute that had the effect of shutting down all but eight abortion clinics in the entire state. Ominously, Millhiser says, the majority opinion went to considerable pains to acknowledge that its reading of the law was different from that of other circuit courts:

That’s what’s known as a “circuit split.”....Judge Elrod’s lengthy citation — which includes one case that was decided three years before the Supreme Court built the backbone of current abortion jurisprudence in Planned Parenthood v. Casey — is an unusually ostentatious and gratuitous effort to highlight the fact her own decision is “in conflict with the decision of another United States court of appeals on the same important matter.” If anything, Elrod is exaggerating the extent to which other judges disagree with her.

That’s a very strange tactic for a judge to take unless they are eager to have their opinion reviewed by the justices, and quite confident that their decision will be affirmed if it is reviewed by a higher authority. By calling attention to disagreement among circuit court judges regarding the proper way to resolve abortion cases, Elrod sent a blood-red howler to the Supreme Court telling them to “TAKE THIS CASE!”

Elrod, it should be noted, is not wrong to be confident her decision will be affirmed if it is heard by the justices. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the closest thing the Supreme Court has to a swing vote on abortion, hasn’t cast a pro-choice vote since 1992. As a justice, Kennedy’s considered 21 different abortion restrictions and upheld 20 of them.

Conservatives, including those on the Fifth Circuit, are increasingly confident that Anthony Kennedy's position on abortion has evolved enough that he's finally on board with a substantial rewrite of current abortion law. And since the other four conservative justices have been on board for a long time, that's all it takes. Kennedy might not quite be willing to flatly overturn Roe v. Wade, but it's a pretty good guess that he's willing to go pretty far down that road.

We are rapidly approaching a point in half the states in America where abortions will be effectively available only to rich women. They'll just jet off to clinics in California or New York if they have to. Non-rich women, who can't afford that, will be forced into motherhood whether they like it or not. At which point conservatives, as usual, will suddenly lose all interest in them except as props for their rants about lazy welfare cheats.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in September

| Fri Oct. 3, 2014 10:47 AM EDT

The American economy added 248,000 new jobs in September, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth clocked in at 158,000. That's not bad. The headline unemployment rate ticked down to 5.9 percent, due to a combination of more employment and more people dropping out of the labor force. However, the labor force participation rate stayed about the same as last month, so this jobs report isn't primarily about people giving up on looking for work. It's basically good news.

Overall, this is a much better report than last month's, and to add to the good news, the BLS revised upward the July and August reports by a combined total of 69,000 jobs. The economy still isn't booming, but the past six months are starting to look pretty solid. More people are working and hiring rates are up. Hopefully this will produce some wage gains too in the near future.