Kevin Drum

CNN Is Now Just Like the National Enquirer

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 8:52 PM EDT

Earlier today I was idly flipping channels on the TV and came upon a CNN chyron informing me breathlessly that Chuck Hagel had just "blasted" President Obama's Syria policy. Unfortunately, I came in at the end of the segment, so I didn't get to find out just what kind of blasting Hagel had done. But it certainly sounded ominous.

I just now remembered this, and figured I should take a look at the news to see what had happened. But that wasn't so easy. Every front page I checked had bupkis about Hagel. Finally I went to the source: CNN. Here's what they say:

Earlier this month, while on an trip to Latin America to discuss climate change, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sat down and wrote a highly private, and very blunt memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice about U.S. policy toward Syria.

It was a detailed analysis, crafted directly by Hagel "expressing concern about overall Syria strategy," a senior U.S. official tells CNN. The official directly familiar with the contents declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

....The focus of the memo was "we need to have a sharper view of what to do about the Assad regime," the official said. The official refused to provide additional details, but did not disagree with the notion that Hagel feels the U.S. is risking its gains in the war against ISIS if adjustments are not made.

That's it? Hagel wrote an internal memo suggesting that we should have a "sharper view" of what to do about Assad? And some sympathetic White House official kinda sorta agreed that Hagel felt we might be in trouble if "adjustments" aren't made?

I swear, watching cable news is like reading the National Enquirer these days: big, blasting headlines that turn out, when you read the story, to mean absolutely nothing. That's ten minutes of my life that I'll never get back. Thanks, CNN.

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GDP Increases at Not-Bad 3.5 Percent Rate in 3rd Quarter

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 1:29 PM EDT

Today's economic news is fairly good. GDP in the third quarter grew at a 3.5 percent annual rate, which means that the slowdown at the beginning of the year really does look like it was just a blip. Aside from that one quarter, economic growth has been pretty robust for over a year now.

At the same time, inflation continues to be very low, which you can take as either good news (if you're an inflation hawk) or bad news (if you think the economy could use a couple of years of higher inflation).

We could still use some higher growth after five years of weakness, but at least we're providing a bit of a counterbalance to Europe, which appears to be going off a cliff at the moment. Count your blessings.

Chris Christie Needs to Rehearse His Lines Better

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 11:44 AM EDT

Paul Waldman comments on Chris Christie's latest outburst against a heckler:

My favorite part is how Christie keeps calling him "buddy" (reminded me of this). Now try to imagine what would happen if Barack Obama shouted "Sit down and shut up!" at a citizen. Or almost any other prominent politician, for that matter; commentators would immediately start questioning his mental health. But even though it's been a while, shouting at people was how Chris Christie became a national figure talked about as a potential presidential candidate in the first place....If you standup at a town meeting and ask him an impertinent question about something like the state budget, he'll shout you down (to the cheers of his supporters).

Here are a few ways to explain this pattern of behavior:

  1. This is a calculated way of showing that he's a Tough Guy, which Christie knows Republicans love
  2. This is just who Christie is, and if nobody was around he'd still be picking fights with people
  3. Both 1 and 2

I lean toward number 3. It isn't just play-acting, because Christie obviously gets sincerely pissed off when he's challenged by people he thinks are beneath him. At the same time, he's a smart enough politician to know that the cameras are on, and there's some benefit to reinforcing the persona he has created.

I admit that this is mostly just curiosity on my part, since Christie's act long ago got nearly as stale as Sarah Palin's. But take a look at the video. Unlike Waldman, I vote for No. 1. To me, Christie appears entirely under control. I don't doubt that there's some real annoyance there (even a Vulcan would get annoyed at your average heckler), but overall, Christie's response gives the impression of being practically scripted. There are even a couple of instances where Christie seems like he forgot his lines and hurriedly tosses them in before heckler guy goes away and ruins his chance to get off his best zingers.

So vote in comments. Is it real anger, or has it just become a well-rehearsed schtick by now? In this case, at least, I vote for schtick.

Here's What Democrats and Republicans Are Afraid Of

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 10:33 AM EDT

Wonkblog regales us this morning with the chart on the right, which summarizes a recent Chapman University survey about what we're afraid of. Basically, it suggests that Democrats are more afraid of things than Republicans. This goes against the conventional wisdom a bit, and it especially goes against the conventional wisdom in the "strangers" category. Supposedly, liberals are more open to strangers and outsiders than conservatives, but this survey suggests the opposite.

So that's interesting. But what's probably more interesting is the cause of all this fear. Here's what the researchers say are the prime causes of fear:

  • Low education
  • Talk TV
  • True Crime TV

These all make sense. People with low levels of education tend to be poor and to live in poor areas. I don't know why they're so afraid of clowns, but it makes perfect sense that they'd have relatively high levels of economic anxiety as well as fears for their personal safety. As for talk TV, that makes sense too. "It is a simple, straight-line effect," the researchers says. "The more one watches talk TV, the more fearful one tends to be."

So turn off the doofus TV, OK? And tell your friends and family to turn it off too. It's making our lives worse.

And for the record, the rest of the survey suggests that Democrats tend to be afraid of crime, pollution, and man-made disasters. Republicans tend to be afraid of today’s youth, the government, and immigrants.

Most Latinos Don't Hold Obama's Immigration Delay Against Him

| Wed Oct. 29, 2014 9:28 PM EDT

This is just raw data, and I suppose you can take it two ways, but here's what a new Pew poll says about supposed Latino outrage over President Obama's decision to delay executive action on immigration until after the election. Basically, the whole thing was overblown. It turns out that only about 9 percent of Latinos are angry about the delay. David Lauter summarizes the rest of the survey:

The Pew survey showed that Latino support for Democrats has receded on a couple of key measures, including party identification and a question about which party better represents their interests. But the decline was modest, noticeable mostly by contrast with very high levels of support achieved in 2012, when Obama won reelection.

....Asked which party “has more concern for Latinos,” half named the Democrats and 10% said Republicans, with just over one-third saying they saw no difference. On that question, too, the Democrats’ standing has dropped from a high point reached during Obama’s reelection, but only to the level that prevailed during most of his first term. The Republican standing has not changed significantly.

Roughly speaking, Latino support for Democrats has dropped a bit from the sky-high levels of the 2012 campaign, when Republicans featured a presidential candidate who pandered to his tea-party base by refusing to support immigration reform and chattering instead about "self-deportation." But Latino support has only dropped to about the same levels it had before then. In other words, not much has changed.

Obama made a mistake when he hinted that he might take immigration action before the election. That was politically inept, and sure enough, it sparked a revolt among Democratic Senate candidates running in red states. When Obama was forced to backtrack, it was a temporary embarrassment—but that's all it was. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that most Latinos understand politics just as well as everyone else, and don't really hold Obama's actions against him. They know perfectly well why Obama did what he did, and they know perfectly well that Obama will probably keep his promise after the election.

After Supreme Court Decision, Patent Trolls Getting Cold Feet?

| Wed Oct. 29, 2014 1:13 PM EDT

A few months ago, in Alice v. CLS Bank, the Supreme Court struck a modest blow against patent trolls. The court ruled that merely programming a computer to carry out a well-known process isn't enough to qualify for a patent. There has to be more to it.

So how has that affected the patent troll business? Joff Wild reports on a new analysis of third-quarter patent litigation activity:

According to the research, which covers the third quarter of this year (June to September), there was a 23% drop in the number of suits filed compared to the second quarter, and a 27% year-on-year reduction.

The findings come just weeks after data released by Lex Machina showed that there had been a 40% fall in patent suits in September 2014 as compared to the same month in the previous year....The data shows that [the decline] can be almost completely explained by a drop-off in NPE suits in the high-tech sector. Litigation initiated by operating companies fell by just 19 quarter on quarter, but actions launched by NPEs dropped by 301, from 885 in Q2 to 554 — a fall of 35%.

An NPE is a "non-practicing entity"—that is, a company that doesn't actually make use of a patent in a product of its own, but has merely purchased it for the purpose of strong-arming payments out of other users. In other words, a patent troll. So what these numbers show is that generic patent litigation fell a bit in Q3, but that patent troll litigation fell by a lot.

It's too early to jump to conclusions about this, but it seems reasonable that this decline is at least partly related to Alice. This is good news, though Alex Tabarrok sensibly warns that before long there will probably be an uptick in patent suits as people learn the new system. So hold off on the cheering.

Still, we'll take good news where we can get it, and this is a step in the right direction. It will be even better if Alice is a sign that the Supreme Court plans to rein in the federal circuit court that handles patents, which in recent years seems to have been far more friendly toward software patents than the Supreme Court ever intended. Stay tuned.

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In NSA Bills, the Devil Is in the Details

| Wed Oct. 29, 2014 10:35 AM EDT

Sen. Patrick Leahy says that his USA FREEDOM bill will stop the NSA's bulk collection of phone data. H.L. Pohlman says it's not quite that easy:

In Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-28) issued in January 2014, the Obama administration defined “bulk collection” as the acquisition “of large quantities of signals intelligence data which . . . is acquired without the use of discriminants (e.g., specific identifiers, selection terms, etc.).” Thus, as long as the government uses a “discriminant,” a selection term, no matter how broad that term might be, the government is not engaged in a “bulk collection” program.

....The USA FREEDOM Act does not guarantee, then, that the government’s database of telephone metadata will be smaller than it is now. It all depends on the generality of the selection terms that the government will use to obtain metadata from the telephone companies. And we don’t know what those terms will be.

This is a longstanding issue that's been brought up by lots of people lots of times. It's not some minor subtlety. If the government decides to look for "all calls from the 213 area code," that's not necessarily bulk collection even though it would amass millions of records. It would be up to a judge to decide.

If and when we get close to Congress actually considering bills to rein in the NSA—about which I'm only modestly optimistic in the first place—this is going to be a key thing to keep an eye on. As the ACLU and the EFF and others keep reminding us, reining in the NSA isn't a simple matter of "ending" their bulk collection program. The devil is truly in the details, and tiny changes in wording can literally mean the difference between something that works and something that's useless. Or maybe even worse than useless. As Pohlman points out, if you choose the right words, the NSA could end up having a freer hand than they do today. This is something to pay close attention to.

Benjamin Netanyahu, "Chickenshit"

| Wed Oct. 29, 2014 12:10 AM EDT

Jeffrey Goldberg has an, um, unique new perspective on the steadily deteriorating relationship between President Obama and Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu:

Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and “Aspergery.”....But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a “chickenshit.” I thought I appreciated the implication of this description, but it turns out I didn’t have a full understanding.

....“The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” the official said, expanding the definition of what a chickenshit Israeli prime minister looks like. “The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states.”

....I ran this notion by another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly. This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal.

....Another manifestation of his chicken-shittedness, in the view of Obama administration officials, is his near-pathological desire for career-preservation. Netanyahu’s government has in recent days gone out of its way to a) let the world know that it will quicken the pace of apartment-building in disputed areas of East Jerusalem; and b) let everyone know of its contempt for the Obama administration and its understanding of the Middle East.

Netanyahu has always been a petty, small-minded pol, endlessly maneuvering to hold together his fragile and equally small-minded band of parochial coalition partners. As one of Goldberg's sources puts it, "The only thing he's interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He's not Rabin, he's not Sharon, he's certainly no Begin. He's got no guts."

Goldberg believes that the American-Israeli relationship is finally at a crossroads, largely driven by the personal loathing Obama and Netanyahu have for each other. We've heard this before, of course, so take it with a grain of salt. Still, Netanyahu's open contempt for Obama, along with his obvious unwillingness to show even a pretense of interest in a peace process, might really be taking things to a breaking point. The whole thing is worth a read.

Why Do Republicans Hate the Beatles?

| Tue Oct. 28, 2014 5:17 PM EDT

Over at the Facebook Data Science blog, Winter Mason shows us how personal likes and dislikes line up with political ideology. Democrats like Maya Angelou, The Color Purple, and The Colbert Report. Republicans like Ben Carson, Atlas Shrugged, and Duck Dynasty. It's all good fun, though I'm a little mystified about why the Empire State Building is such a Democratic-leaning tourist destination. Maybe Republicans just dislike anything related to New York City.

But it's music that I want some help on. I get that country tends to be right-leaning and Springsteen is left-leaning. But what's up with the Beatles being so distinctively associated with liberals? It's no secret that I know squat about music, so help me out here. No snark. I thought the Beatles had long since ascended into a sort of free-floating state of pop elder statehood where they were beloved of all baby boomers equally—and pretty much everyone else too. What do I not know that accounts for continuing Republican antipathy toward the moptops?

Quote of the Day: Bush Would Have Punched Putin in the Nose

| Tue Oct. 28, 2014 1:22 PM EDT

Here is John Boehner, the leader of the House of Representatives and third in line for the presidency:

When you look at this chaos that’s going on, does anybody think that Vladimir Putin would have gone into Crimea had George W. Bush been president of the United States? No! Even Putin is smart enough to know that Bush would have punched him in the nose in about 10 seconds.

Look, I get it: I'm a partisan, and right now I'm blogging through a slight bit of a morphine haze. But WTF? Have our political leaders always talked like this? This is just ridiculously juvenile.

And while we're on the subject, I note that Boehner also said this: "I talk to world leaders every week. They want America to lead. They’re begging America to lead. Because when America leads and America’s strong, the world is a safer place." Ten bucks says Boehner is basically lying, unless by "world leaders" he means Paul Ryan and the odd backbencher in London he happens to have played golf with a couple of years ago. As anyone with a pulse knows, world leaders simply have different priorities than we do. It's the Europeans who are resisting stronger action against Putin. It's the Turks who aren't too interested in saving Kobani. It's the Saudis who want us to devote all our attention to their longtime Shiite enemies. It's Angela Merkel who's single-mindedly intent on destroying the European economy. If John Boehner thinks all these folks are eagerly waiting for America to whip them into line, he's even more delusional than I thought.