Kevin Drum

Emailgate Continues to Be a Nothingburger

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 2:05 PM EDT

Bob Somerby on emailgate:

Yesterday, Candidate Clinton said it again, during a press avail:

“No matter what anybody tries to say, the facts are stubborn. What I did was legally permitted, number one, first and foremost, OK?”

It certainly wasn’t OK on today’s Morning Joe! In that program’s opening segment, everyone said that statement was false—without naming the law or regulation Clinton had violated.

Meanwhile, there’s that passage from the New York Times’ front page, two Sundays ago:

“When she took office in 2009, with ever more people doing government business through email, the State Department allowed the use of home computers as long as they were secure...There appears to have been no prohibition on the exclusive use of a private server.”

We never assume the Times is right concerning such matters. But as is always the case in these matters, the heated discussion of “emailgate” begs for clarification—a service the national press corps is rarely equipped to provide.

I'm perfectly willing to believe that Clinton's use of a private server was unwise. It probably was, something that I think even she's acknowledged. And Clinton has certainly provided some dodgy answers about what she did, which naturally raises suspicions that she might have something to hide. This kind of chary parsing on her part may be due to nothing more than her longstanding distrust of the press, but that only makes it understandable, not sensible.

That said, even when I do my best to take off my tribal hat and look at this affair dispassionately, I just don't see anything:

  • Using a private server was allowed by the State Department when Clinton started doing it.
  • Removing personal emails before turning over official emails appears to be pretty standard practice.
  • None of the emails examined so far has contained anything that was classified at the time it was sent.
  • There is no evidence that I know of to suggest that Clinton used a private server for any nefarious purpose. Maybe she did. But if you want to make this case, you have make it based on more than just timeworn malice toward all things Clinton.

What am I missing? I don't begrudge the press covering emailgate. Republicans are all over it, which makes it a newsworthy issue whether we like it or not. And there has been an inspector general's investigation, as well as an ongoing FBI investigation. That makes it newsworthy too.

But I still want to know: what exactly is being investigated at this point? If you just want to argue that Clinton showed bad judgment, then go to town. That's a legitimate knock on a presidential candidate. But actual malfeasance? Where is it?

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Social Security Cuts Are Fairly Popular If You Talk About Them Right

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 1:12 PM EDT

Paul Krugman writes today that Republicans are engaged in an act of "political self-destructiveness." They consistently support entitlement cuts, including cuts to Social Security, despite the fact that only 6 percent of Americans want to cut Social Security while 51 percent want it increased. Why are they doing this? Krugman suggests that it's because they're trying to curry favor with wealthy donors, who generally favor cuts.

I want to push back on this a bit. Krugman's comment is based on a post by Lee Drutman, which in turn is based on data from the 2012 National Election Studies survey. But there have been lots of other polls about Social Security too. Here are three taken at random from PollingReport.com:

Opinions about Social Security are very sensitive to question wording. If you flatly ask "Do you think we should cut Social Security benefits?" almost everyone will oppose it. But if you preface it with a question about the solvency of the system, more people are in favor of cuts. And if you ask about, say, raising the retirement age, you get even more people in favor—because most of them don't automatically associate that with "cuts."

This is the context for understanding the Republican position. First, they talk loudly and endlessly about how the system will collapse unless changes are made. Second, they make sure never to propose changes for retirees already receiving benefits. Third, they don't talk overtly about cuts. They talk about raising the retirement age. They talk about slowing the growth of benefits. They talk about means testing. They talk about private accounts.

None of this is to say that cuts to Social Security—even when couched in veiled terms—are popular. They aren't. But support is a lot higher than 6 percent. Usually it's somewhere between 30-50 percent, and it's often a substantial majority among Republican voters.

So that's how Republicans get away with this: they appeal to fellow Republicans and they're careful about how they frame their proposals. In other words, politics and salesmanship. But I repeat myself.

POSTSCRIPT: Why did I bother writing this post? Because it's important not to kid ourselves about what the public really thinks. Opinions aren't shaped in a vacuum. They're formed in the context of time, place, tribal affiliations, external events, and framing. Simple, isolated questions don't capture any of that.

We do ourselves no favors if we blithely assume that Republicans are committing obvious suicide without understanding exactly how they maintain support for a position that seems pretty unpopular at first glance. The answer is that they do it very skillfully, and if we want to fight back we have to understand that.

China Seems to Be Lying About Its Unemployment Rate

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

What's the unemployment rate in China? Last month it was 4.1 percent. The month before it was 4.1 percent. Last year it was also 4.1 percent. And in 2013? That's right: 4.1 percent.

A new NBER paper calls this "abnormally low and suspiciously stable," which seems like a fair judgment. So the authors, their suspicions piqued, used a nationally representative household survey to calculate the actual unemployment rate. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to differ substantially from 4.1 percent. The chart above (modified from the paper to show the two series more clearly) shows data through 2009, which is as far as the household series goes. The actual unemployment rate has been above 10 percent ever since 2002, and is likely even higher than that now, given the sputtering economic problems in China.

As of 2009, unemployment was highest among young, non-college educated women (about 17 percent). It's lowest among older college-educated men and women. But college is no longer a job guarantee for the young: the unemployment rate among young, college-educated men is 8 percent. Among women it's about 10 percent.

"Keep an eye on China and don’t be surprised by the unexpected," says Alex Tabarrok. "In China it’s not just the unemployment rate that is more volatile than it appears."

In Shocking News, Scott Walker's Health Care Plan Screws the Poor

| Wed Aug. 19, 2015 11:08 AM EDT

This is going to be the most anticlimactic blog post ever, but can you guess how Scott Walker's health care plan compares to Obamacare for the poor? And how it compares for the upper middle class and the wealthy?

Damn. You guessed. But just to make it official, here are a couple of charts that show how the subsidies in the two plans compare at different income levels. I used the Kaiser calculator to estimate Obamacare subsidies and Walker's written document to calculate tax credits under his plan. The chart on the left shows a 3-person family with 30-year-old parents. The chart on the right shows the same thing with older parents.

And have no fear: I chose $30,000 as the minimum income level because most families below that level qualify for Medicaid. And you guessed it: Walker's plan slashes Medicaid too. So the poor and the working class get screwed by Walker no matter what their income level is.

Chart of the Day: Here's Why the Recovery Has Been So Weak

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 8:59 PM EDT

I don't really have any good hook for posting this chart, but it's one of the most important ones you'll ever see. It's from the Wall Street Journal and it shows total government spending (state + local + federal) during the recession and its aftermath:

For about a year following the Obama stimulus, total spending was a bit higher than average for recession spending. But after that, spending fell steadily rather than rising, as it has after every previous recession. The result: a sluggish recovery, persistent long-term unemployment, and anemic wage growth.

Instead of responding to a historically bad recession with a historically strong stimulus, we responded with the weakest stimulus ever. Government spending is now more than 25 percentage points lower than normal. If you want to know why the recovery has been so feeble and unsteady, this is it. Republican presidential candidates, please take note.

Was Ted Cruz a Big Winner or a Big Loser From the GOP Debate?

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 3:06 PM EDT

We now have a second poll showing who gained and who lost from the first GOP debate. It's from CNN/ORC, and its results are similar to yesterday's Fox News poll with two significant exceptions.

First, Donald Trump gained significantly in the CNN poll instead of holding steady. However, this may be just an artifact of the date of the comparison poll: July 30 for Fox and July 22 for CNN. They both have Trump at about the same absolute level currently.

The other big difference is Ted Cruz. Fox had him up four points after the debate; CNN has him down two points. Since they both had him starting at 6 percent, that's a pretty substantial difference. Aside from the normal statistical vagaries of polls like this, I can't think of a reason for it.

Anyway, it's still early days. This stuff is entertaining, but probably doesn't mean a whole lot.

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E-Cigarettes May or May Not Be a Gateway Drug. (But Probably Not.)

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 2:37 PM EDT

Are e-cigarettes a gateway drug to traditional cigarettes? There's a new study out that suggests they might be:

The study focused on ninth-graders at 10 public schools in Los Angeles who had tried e-cigarettes before the fall of 2013. Researchers surveyed those students in the spring of 2014 and fall of 2014, and discovered that they were about 2½ times as likely as their peers to have smoked traditional cigarettes.

This is a classic case of correlation which may or may not also be causation (something the authors acknowledge). Did more of the e-cigarette kids take up smoking because e-cigarettes gave them a taste for it? Or do the kids who are most likely to take up smoking in the first place simply start with e-cigarettes? There's no way to tell just from this study.

That's not to say it's worthless, though. If the study found no correlation, then you could be pretty sure that e-cigarettes don't lead to cigarette smoking. That would be worth knowing. But since it did find a correlation, we need more research to know if there's causation here.

One way to get a tentative read on this is to look at total cigarette smoking among teens. If it's up, then e-cigarettes might be leading more kids to cigarettes. If it's not up, then e-cigarettes are probably just temporarily replacing cigarettes for kids who were going to take up smoking anyway. So which is it?

As it happens, we know the answer to this: cigarette smoking has plunged among teenagers over the past four years. On the other hand, total cigarette use among teens (cigarettes + e-cigarettes) has gone up. The cigarette plunge makes it unlikely that e-cigarettes are a gateway to traditional cigarettes. But the increase in total cigarette use suggests that e-cigarettes really are creating a new market. It's complicated.

I Read Scott Walker's Health Care Plan So You Don't Have To

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 1:12 PM EDT

It's health care day for Scott Walker. Today he released "The Day One Patient Freedom Plan," a title that's apparently designed to give the impression that his plan would start on Day One of his presidency. Yuval Levin comments that Walker's proposal "will be familiar to health wonks," and it's true. It's the usual conservative mish-mash of HSAs, high-risk pools, tax credits, interstate insurance sales, tort reform, and block-granting of Medicaid.

Oh, and Walker's plan won't require any tax revenue. This is....a little hard to believe since a quick swag suggests that the gross cost of Walker's tax credits will run about $200 billion per year. I figure the net cost, once you account for the end of Obamacare subsidies and other current outlays, is still in the neighborhood of $100 billion or so.1 That's a lot, so I assume Walker explains pretty carefully how he's going to pull this off without any new taxes.

Indeed he does. Here's the answer: "We would simplify and reform how the federal government helps people access health insurance." Gee, I wonder why no one's thought of that before?

So far, there's nothing very interesting here. Every Republican candidate is going to release a plan very similar to this. But there is one other thing I was curious about. It turns out that protecting people with pre-existing conditions is really popular, and this means that Republicans all feel like they have to support the idea. But how? Apologies for the long excerpt, but I want to make sure you see Walker's whole answer:

No individual should fear being denied coverage, or face huge premium spikes when they get sick and then try to change jobs or insurance plans. My plan would address these concerns. It would make additional reforms to insurance coverage laws to ensure individuals with pre-existing conditions would be protected, not only when moving from employer-based plans to the individual market, but also when switching between plans. This would make insurance coverage more portable, permitting individuals to own their coverage, regardless of how or where they purchase it.

Provided individuals maintain continuous, creditable coverage, no one would see their premiums jump because of a health issue or be shut out of access to affordable health insurance because of a new diagnosis or a pre-existing medical condition. Newborns, as well as young adults leaving their parents’ insurance plans and buying their own, would have these same protections. Unlike the ObamaCare approach, my plan would protect those with pre-existing conditions without using costly mandates. By relying on incentives rather than penalties, individuals would be free to choose.

This is literally a non-answer. We do know a couple of things: (a) if you let your insurance lapse, you're screwed, and (b) Walker will somehow prevent insurance companies from raising your rates if you maintain continuous coverage. He provides no clue just what kind of insurance regulation would accomplish this, and for a good reason: I doubt there is one. Obamacare accomplishes it via community rating, which requires insurance companies to cover all comers at the same price, but Walker surely rejects this approach. What he replaces it with remains a mystery.

One other thing worth noting: Walker's tax credits would, at best, pay only for catastrophic coverage. Maybe not even that. Nor will his plan cover everyone. Nor is it likely to cost nothing. Nor does it have any concrete proposals to reduce the cost of health care. If you think that's OK, then Walker is your guy. If you think everyone should be able to receive affordable routine health care, and you're willing to pay for it honestly, you might want to stick with Obamacare.

1Don't worry about the numbers. They're just illustrative guesses on my part. I'm sure experts will weigh in eventually with better estimates.

We Are All Fans of Self-Deportation

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 11:47 AM EDT

Ezra Klein has read Donald Trump's immigration plan and finds it even worse than he expected. I didn't feel that way: it read to me like a pretty standard right-wing take on illegal immigration, with just a few added Trumpisms (Mexico will pay for the wall, we should force companies to hire Americans, etc.). But two things in Klein's piece struck me enough to want to comment on them:

The plan would be a disaster for immigrants if enacted. But even if it's not enacted, the plan is a disaster for the Republican Party, which is somehow going to need to co-opt Trump's appeal to anti-immigration voters, but absolutely cannot afford to be associated, in the minds of Hispanic voters, with this document.

....When Mitt Romney embraced "self-deportation" in 2012, it was considered an awful mistake....But self-deportation is Trump's plan, too. And Trump's insight here is that the best way to drive unauthorized immigrants out of the country isn't to target them. It's to target their children and families.

On the first point, I think this ship sailed a long time ago. Maybe the Trump publicity juggernaut will aggravate things further, but I honestly don't see how the Republican Party could appeal to Hispanics much less than it already does. The anti-immigrant rhetoric from leading Republicans has been relentless for years, and Trump is merely adding one more voice to the chorus. Will Trump's bluster about making Mexico pay for the wall really make things any worse?

The second point is a little trickier. It's true that Mitt Romney blew it in 2012 with the infelicitous phrase "self-deportation." But the uproar that followed elided an important point: every immigration plan involves putting pressure on illegal immigrants in order to motivate them to (a) leave or (b) not come in the first place. There's a sliding scale of pain involved, and liberals tend to want less while conservatives tend to want more. But both sides make use of it.

The easiest way to think of immigration control is like this:

  1. Figure out how many illegal immigrants you're willing to tolerate.
  2. Ratchet up the the cost of illegal immigration and ratchet down the cost of legal immigration.
  3. Eventually, you'll figure out the right combination of costs that gets you to your number.

Nobody talks about immigration like this, but it's the thought process behind every immigration plan. Both Republicans and Democrats support E-Verify, for example, which makes it harder for immigrants who lack legal documents to get jobs. But what is this, other than a way to use economic pressure to persuade illegal immigrants to go back to Mexico? Likewise, both Democrats and Republicans support border security. Republicans may generally want more of it than Democrats, but Democrats are nonetheless willing to use increased security to raise the cost of crossing the border.

In the end, everyone uses this calculus,1 whether consciously or not. The amount of pressure—or cruelty, if you prefer—that you're willing to employ depends on just how many illegal immigrants you're willing to tolerate. But no matter what that number is, if you put any pressure at all on illegal immigrants, you're exploiting the power of self-deportation. Just don't say it out loud, OK?

1The exception, I suppose, are the people who advocate completely open borders. But they're a very tiny minority.

#Feelthebern? Not Really: Hillary Clinton Is Still the Odds-On Favorite.

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 10:45 AM EDT

Should Hillary Clinton's recent spate of problems (Bernie Sanders, the email server, sagging favorability numbers) be enough to make people nervous about her chances of winning the Democratic nomination? I can answer that in four words:

It's August, folks. Chill.

In the early stages of primaries, people get nervous about candidates all the time and start tossing out bizarre ideas (Hillary will get indicted, maybe Joe Biden should run, etc.). But even strong candidates never win all the votes or cruise to victory without any problems. With the exception of incumbents running unopposed, you should expect that no candidate will get more than 60-70 percent of the vote. The fact that Bernie Sanders is polling at 30 percent or so isn't a sign of Hillary Clinton's weakness. It's a sign of a perfectly normal campaign. Nate Silver goes into more detail:

Being “inevitable” doesn’t mean you’ll sweep through all 50 states with no opposition. In the modern era (since 1972), the non-incumbent candidates who were similarly “inevitable” to Clinton, judging by the number of endorsements they had early on in the race, were Bob Dole in 1996, Al Gore in 2000, and George W. Bush in 2000. You can probably also add George H.W. Bush in 1988 to the “inevitable” list; he had a narrower endorsement lead but was the presumptive Republican nominee by virtue of being the sitting vice president.

Among these candidates, only Gore went undefeated in the primaries (and Bill Bradley came within a few percentage points of beating him in New Hampshire). In 1988, George H.W. Bush finished third in Iowa — behind Dole and Pat Robertson. In 1996, Dole lost New Hampshire to Pat Buchanan. George W. Bush lost badly to John McCain in New Hampshire in 2000.

....In Sanders, Clinton has drawn an opponent who is relatively well suited to New Hampshire and Iowa....Based on current polling averages, Sanders would almost exactly replicate Bradley’s performance in 2000, losing Iowa by double digits, giving Clinton a close call in New Hampshire, then losing badly once the calendar turned to more populous and diverse states. Or Sanders could do better than that, winning New Hampshire and a few other states in New England, the Upper Midwest or Pacific Northwest, perhaps along with one or two surprises elsewhere. But that too would be consistent with the losses that “inevitable” candidates like Clinton have endured in the past.

Silver goes on to say that emailgate doesn't seem to have hurt Hillary much (the slide in her approval ratings was both slow and inevitable) and she was going to get lots of unflattering press coverage no matter what she did. He puts her chances of winning the nomination at an unchanged 85 percent.

Barring some kind of epic meltdown, I'd put it even higher. I just don't see any credible competition out there: Bernie Sanders has a fairly low ceiling and it's too late for Joe Biden to get in. And so far, at least, I don't see much evidence that her email server problems are serious enough to cause any permanent damage.

It's traditional for leading candidates to inspire a movement to stop them. It's so traditional, in fact, that there's even a name for it: AB__. That is, "Anybody But ______ ." If Hillary Clinton inspires a similar movement, she'll be in illustrious company.