Kevin Drum

Three Things I'm Still Waiting For

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 11:56 AM EST
  1. Donald Trump's new corporate policy allowing unrestricted carry at his golf resorts.
  2. A look at the "very nice place" where Trump keeps all the Bibles that people send him.
  3. A list of the "25 different stories" documenting his pre-invasion opposition to the Iraq War.

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Pentagon Wants a Few More Troops to Fight ISIS

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 11:32 AM EST

The Pentagon wants more troops for the fight against ISIS:

Pentagon officials have concluded that hundreds more trainers, advisers and commandos from the United States and its allies will need to be sent to Iraq and Syria in the coming months as the campaign to isolate the Islamic State intensifies.

....With the liberation of the Iraqi city of Ramadi last month, coupled with recent gains in northern Syria, senior military leaders say that the war effort can now focus on isolating — and then liberating — the Islamic State-held cities of Mosul in Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria. “The reason we need new trainers or additional trainers is because that’s really the next step in generating the amount of combat power needed to liberate Mosul,” Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the American military in Baghdad, said last week. “We know we will need more brigades to be trained, we’ll need more troops trained in more specialties.”

....The United States has had little success in persuading allies to provide more troops. But Mr. Carter and General Dunford do not want the United States to be the only source of more forces. With ISIS posing a threat to European countries, they are trying again.

I will note a couple of things. First, the Pentagon didn't call for carpet bombing of ISIS strongholds. Perhaps they know something that Ted Cruz doesn't? Second, the US has tried repeatedly to get more support from our allies, including those in the Middle East, and gotten nowhere. Some of them are willing to contribute a little bit of air power, but that's it. None of them have any interest in providing troops. But perhaps Ted Cruz knows the magic words to change their minds.

Last night Cruz said his enthusiasm for carpet bombing wasn't just tough talk. "It is a different, fundamental military strategy than what we've seen from Barack Obama." Uh huh. In reality, it's as much a "strategy" as Donald Trump's call to "bomb the shit out of them." It's nothing more than big talk with nothing behind it. The Pentagon has no interest in this because they know it would be useless. They have a hard time finding enough worthwhile targets as it is.

However, there's something that hasn't gotten enough attention in all this: Cruz and Trump really have tapped into Ronald Reagan's military spirit, and I'm surprised the rest of the field hasn't figured this out. Reagan basically talked tough and spent a lot of money, but shied away from foreign interventions. The invasion of Grenada and his support for the Contras were small things that never risked any US troops. He pulled out of Beirut when things got tough there, never committed any troops to Afghanistan, negotiated with the Iranians, and to the horror of neocons everywhere, nearly concluded an arms deal with Gorbachev in Reykjavík that would have banned all ballistic missiles.

This is what Cruz and Trump are doing. They talk tough and promise to spend a lot of money, but both of them explicitly want to avoid much in the way of serious intervention overseas. And this is popular. It's what a lot of conservatives want. If the rest of the world wants to go to hell, let them go to hell in their own way. Bill Kristol is appalled, I'm sure, but his brand of endless intervention has never really caught on—and after Iraq and Afghanistan it's even less popular than ever. Cruz and Trump have figured this out.

My Non-Debate Wrap-Up

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 12:05 AM EST

I may have missed most of the debate, but I did manage to catch the pre-debate festivities. What a horror show. Everybody knew exactly what Donald Trump wanted, and they gave it to him anyway. I flipped over to CNN and Brianna Keilar was interviewing Trump in his plane and letting him walk all over her. She throws him a softball about Fox so that Trump has an opportunity to announce that "someone" at Fox called to apologize to him. She asks him about his past support for abortion and he baldly changes the subject, basically daring Keilar to try to get an answer out of him—so she shrugs and moves on. I switch to MSNBC and they're split-screening with the Trump event. Switch back to CNN and now they're split-screening too. Switch to Fox and the very first question of the debate is, "Senator Cruz, do you have any zingers about Donald Trump you'd like to share with us?"

Curtis Houck informs us that the network evening news shows spent 10 minutes on the Trump boycott and less than two minutes on the actual debate. ABC News tells us that Trump was mentioned 11 times in the first 30 minutes of the debate. For the past two days Trump's boycott has been practically all anyone could talk about.

I know, I know: he's the frontrunner, we have to cover him, yada yada yada. But there's something pathological going on here. It's as if the press corps is a bunch of eight-year-olds tugging on daddy's arm begging for his approval. Trump refuses to answer any of their questions, but they don't press him because he might get mad and stop talking to them. He lies to their faces and they just move on. He puts on an obviously fake "veterans" event designed to show that he's the alpha chimp, and everyone rushes to cover it.

What the hell is going on? Seriously. What does everyone find so damn fascinating about the guy?

Amazon Is Becoming Just Another Mortal Company

| Thu Jan. 28, 2016 5:52 PM EST

Amazon stock tumbled 11 percent after today's earnings report. Here's why:

Amazon recorded $35.75 billion in sales in last year’s final three months [and] $482 million in profit....Analysts, however, were expecting $36 billion in sales and net income of $754 million.

I assume no one was concerned about Amazon missing its sales forecast by a minuscule amount, so this was all about its profit number. But in the past, investors didn't much care about Amazon's profitability. They just trusted Jeff Bezos to grow the company and shovel earnings endlessly into ever more growth opportunities. Eventually Amazon would own the whole world.

Not anymore. Amazon's sales growth is now merely mortal, not stratospheric, and investors want to see Amazon prove it can actually make money as a mature corporation. I guess pretax income of 1.3 percent just isn't going to cut it in the future.

Trump Is Going to Raise Taxes on the Rich!

| Thu Jan. 28, 2016 2:29 PM EST

I'm not a fan of New York magazine's "conversations" with 100 Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. I suspect that its sample is skewed; its conversations are skewed; and that pulling out just the juicy quotes from longer interviews makes it even more skewed. And all of these skew in the same direction: to make Republican voters look angry, dumb, and ignorant. I very much doubt that it provides a remotely accurate picture of how the average conservative in Iowa and New Hampshire really feels about life.

That said, I can be just as suckered by an eccentric quote as the next guy. Here is Nicole Martin of Manchester, New Hampshire:

Trump is bold, and he says what’s on his mind, but I feel like he wouldn’t have gotten as far as he has in business if he wasn’t a good negotiator. At our office, we plugged his tax plan into our software, to see, and it’s genius. We couldn’t believe it. It’s still a little higher taxes for people that are wealthy, but it’s not going to hurt them. And it’s going to save a lot of the smaller people a lot of money. They need it. He’s just not going to tax them. It makes sense.

I really want to know more about this. They "plugged" Trump's tax plan into their "software"? What software is that? And how does it tell them that Trump's plan means "a little higher" taxes on the rich? On average, Trump's plan would cut taxes on the rich by more than a million dollars.

Oh well. He's going to make America great again. What else do you need to know?

New Science Tells Us That Men In Politics Are Blowhards

| Thu Jan. 28, 2016 12:54 PM EST

A couple of researchers in Switzerland wanted to judge how confident students in different career paths were. First, they split them into groups of 12 and gave each a short test:

  1. In which year was the Nobel Prize in physics awarded to Albert Einstein?
  2. In which year was pope John Paul I (the direct predecessor of John Paul II) elected Pope?
  3. In which year did the reactor accident happen in Chernobyl?
  4. In which year was Elvis Presley born?
  5. In which year did the first flight with the supersonic jet Concorde take place?

The answers are 1921, 1978, 1986, 1935, and 1976. My guesses were 1920, 1979, 1986, 1940,1 and 1973, so I was off by a total of 10 years. How do I think this compared with the rest of my group? I'm going to say I was third best. If it turns out that I was, in fact, only fifth best, I was overconfident by two ranks.

So how did everyone do? The first answer is simple: as you'd expect, men were vastly overconfident in their results and women were vastly underconfident. The chart on the right shows the second answer: political scientists were way overconfident and humanities students were way underconfident. Buck up, history majors! You know more than the budding politicians even if they're oh-so-sure they know everything.

Bottom line: Science™ says that men in politics are blowhards. Ignore them. Women with English degrees know more than they think. Listen to them. That is all.

1This means that Elvis was drafted into the army at age 23. Doesn't that seem a little late?

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No Debate Live-Blogging Tonight

| Thu Jan. 28, 2016 12:12 PM EST

For those of you who have just returned from a vacation on the moon, there's a Republican debate tonight. It's on Fox News at 9 pm Eastern, and Donald Trump will not be participating.

Nor will I. Instead, I have important birthday celebrations to attend to. This mostly involves trying out a new Italian place nearby, which sounds a whole lot more pleasant than yet another two hours of rehearsed talking points about the appeaser-in-chief and the death of America as we know it. You're on your own for that. I'll try to catch up when I get home.

Quote of the Day: No Bullet Train For You

| Thu Jan. 28, 2016 12:03 PM EST

From Dan Richard, the head of California's bullet train authority:

It may take us a little longer than we said to do this.

"He did not elaborate," says the deadpan account in the LA Times. I am shocked, shocked.

Poll: Most People Expect a Democratic Victory This November

| Thu Jan. 28, 2016 11:43 AM EST

Here's the latest projection of the general election from ABC News and the Washington Post:

This is not a poll of who people say they'll vote for. It's a poll of who they expect to win. I'm surprised that the public is apparently so sure of a Democratic victory, but I suppose that has a lot to do with the obvious turmoil in the Republican race.

In an interesting aside, the poll finds that voters are least comfortable at the prospect of a Trump presidency and most comfortable at the prospect of a Sanders presidency. Is that because they know the least about Sanders? Or because this whole business of being scared of a "socialist" in the White House is bunk?  Hard to say.

Reparations and Bernie Sanders: Another View

| Wed Jan. 27, 2016 9:42 PM EST

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently criticized Bernie Sanders for saying he opposed reparations. I responded briefly last week, but Max Sawicky has more to say about this, and a couple of days ago asked if he could say it here. Well, why not? I'm not the best guy in the world to defend a socialist, after all. So here's Max on reparations and Bernie Sanders.


By Max Sawicky

I read Ta-Nehisi Coates. Sometimes I like what I see, but not so much this past week. I’m here to take exception to his recent columns on Bernie Sanders and reparations.

In the Hillary vs. Bernie civil war, we often attack each other on spurious grounds. You’re just looking for a job. You’re corrupt in ways multifarious. You’re ____splaining. Please. The objective of politics is to encourage people to voluntarily and happily come around to your own view on what is to be done. Browbeating is counterproductive. At the end of this little adventure, we all have to get behind blocking a Republican from the presidency, and the ensuing barbarism. I have nothing bad to say about Ta-Nehisi Coates the person, and you shouldn’t either. Let’s get to the meat and potatoes.

I’ll start with his basic case for reparations. Exhibit A is the big, justly praised essay in The Atlantic. I will stipulate that the fact of a debt of the United States to African-Americans is incontrovertible. Reading the essay made me more convinced of that than before. Whether that justifies trashing Sanders is a different matter.

TNC’s basic argument is that the Sanders campaign purports to be a radical break with the status quo but fails to live up to its name. Even worse, it is of a piece with white supremacy.

The polemic launches with a basic misinterpretation of Sanders’ remark that reparations is “divisive,” driven by Coates’ bitter rejoinder that socialism and single-payer are divisive too. But these are very different kinds of “divisive.” In the case of reparations, don’t kid yourself: it means instant electoral suicide. With single-payer, it means opposition from moneyed interests. Single-payer is popular. Socialism could be too, sooner I would say than reparations, since for Bernie socialism means a welfare state turbocharged by expanding universal, race-blind programs.

What's more, single-payer advocacy could pay dividends in the form of incremental improvements to Obamacare, such as a public option or a crackdown on prescription drug prices. The same is true of other proposals, such as free college or massive infrastructure investment. That aside, even with zero cooperation from Congress, a president has command of important executive levers. Reparations is more of an all-or-nothing thing.

I’d like to see a scenario in which reparations becomes popular. The appeals are usually moralistic. I am susceptible to such appeals, and probably you are too. Would that MoJo readers ruled the world, but we don’t.

Coates is offended by reparations’ unpopularity, and we should be as well, but it remains a fact. Bernie is running to win, not to mount a symbolic campaign. He could be criticized for inattention to other issues, such as defense spending, reproductive rights, and Israel/Palestine. Coates has no such handicaps. As he says, “Sometimes the moral course lies outside of the politically possible.” Precisely! This is national, presidential politics, not an Atlantic symposium. If you’re searching for the moral course, you are not about winning an election.

In the final paragraph of his first blast, Coates goes over the top:

Reparations is not one possible tool against white supremacy. It is the indispensable tool against white supremacy. One cannot propose to plunder a people, incur a moral and monetary debt, propose to never pay it back, and then claim to be seriously engaging in the fight against white supremacy.

Evidently Sanders is not merely neglecting racism, he is proposing to maintain it. In his follow-up column, Coates describes Sanders’ lapse as “making peace with white supremacy.”

Besides the slurs are the politics:

Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policies—doubling the minimum wage, offering single-payer health-care, delivering free higher education. This is the same “A rising tide lifts all boats” thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation.

I don’t think I need to explain that John F. Kennedy’s original “rising tide,” beloved by subsequent centrist Democrats, referred to economic growth providing universal benefit. It clearly does no longer. (I would say it never did.) That’s Bernie’s point. Nor should I need to explain that because minorities are concentrated in low-wage jobs, an increase in the minimum wage or a reduction in the unemployment rate disproportionately benefits them. I assume TNC is aware of it. He’s not dumb, so failure to acknowledge it is questionable politics.

He goes on:

Sanders proposes to intensify this approach. But Sanders’s actual approach is really no different than President Obama’s.

Really? There is no difference between Sanders and Obama? Or Clinton? If an expansion of universal programs ameliorates (but doesn’t end) racism, a bigger expansion does so to a greater extent. Size matters. There’s a huge difference between Obamacare and Medicare-for-all, and opponents of these programs know it. In fact, much of the opposition to Sanders’ sort of proposals—not to mention Obamacare itself—is founded, ironically, precisely on the accurate impression of a disparate racial impact.

I began declaring my support for the concept of reparations. Since we’re talking politics and policy, the question looms of what to propose. Coates repeatedly insists that universal social-democratic programs are all well and good, but they are woefully inadequate responses to racism. They are mere “bandages” on the wound. This is a gross exaggeration, see the above example of the minimum wage, but strictly speaking it is true. So the knock on Sanders rests on what he refuses to support. What is the Coates alternative?

As Kevin pointed out, TNC claims a solution may be found in a bill (H.R. 40) from Rep. John Conyers that he has introduced every year, since at least 2001. It would form a commission to study reparations and devise programs. This is pretty weak stuff. I’ve worked in Washington D.C. since 1984. Politicians propose commissions and studies when they can’t do anything, when they don’t want to do anything, or when they don’t know what else to do. I would credit Conyers with a gambit to start an official conversation. I’m for it, but it isn’t much. It would actually be easy for Bernie to endorse. But it’s still a pretty insubstantial thing, in and of itself.

You can check the legislative history. In years past H.R. 40 garnered as many as 35 or 40 co-sponsors, mostly members of the Black Caucus and a few avant-garde types like Dennis Kucinich and Jerry Nadler. In more recent years, there have been hardly any (two at most) co-sponsors of the bill, white or black. It makes no sense to excoriate Bernie Sanders for inadequate attention to racism in a national presidential campaign, for failure to support a proposal that most members of the Congressional Black Caucus, not to mention Barack Obama, have not bothered to endorse for years, or ever.

On the other hand, Coates has kind words for “a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.” Of course, this kind of race-blind, racially progressive program is Bernie’s bread and butter. In a subsequent post, Coates cites the work of William Darity, a distinguished economist, as a source for specific proposals. I would like people to be more familiar with this work, but at present I’m afraid that promotion of race-targeted payments is not a political exercise.

Coates wants to see a national moral reckoning with the debt created by centuries of white supremacy. Moral reckonings are the stuff of conferences, anthologies, sermons, and long-form magazine articles. Politics is a different business. When it comes to politics, Coates is shooting blanks.

Except for this: you might think Coates is an equal-opportunity critic of Clinton and Sanders. He recently dinged Hillary for her shaky understanding of Reconstruction. But what he’s really implying is that there’s nothing special about the Sanders campaign, so you lose nothing by voting for the more electable Clinton.

White supremacy happened before capitalism, but along with other fans of the great bearded one, I would assert that the two came to be deeply interconnected. Capitalism creates legions of victims whose descendants are owed more than all the money in the world. It also creates a potential army of comrades. The Sanders campaign is the first opening towards such a movement in a long time.

For a more critical view of reparations from the left, see Doug Henwood’s interview with Professor Adolph Reed. For more on why social-democratic programs are not race-neutral in impact, see Matt Bruenig.