Kevin Drum

Republicans Attack Democrats For Supporting Republican Demands

| Fri Oct. 31, 2014 12:38 PM EDT

Getting deep into the weeds of local congressional races isn't my thing, but it's certainly been intriguing this year watching Republicans attack Democrats for being willing to accept Republican positions on various issues. Until now, the most egregious example of this came from Karl Rove's Super PAC, which has attacked several Democratic senators for supporting a plan to raise the retirement age of Social Security—an idea that Republicans have been promoting for years. Chutzpah!

But now we have a new contender in the sweepstakes for sheer partisan hypocrisy. Dylan Matthews tells us today that in Arizona a Republican contender is attacking Democrat Ron Barber for.... supporting a budget compromise engineered by tea party darling Paul Ryan.

The flyer, which apparently comes from the Arizona Republican Party, is on the right. Note the Arizona GOP's thundering denunciation of Ryan's "bone-chilling" budget, which "cut vital assistance programs." That's all true, of course, and many Democrats held their noses and voted for the deal. But there's no question that all the bone-chilling stuff came straight from the fever swamps of the Republican Party. They're the ones who refused to extend unemployment benefits and demanded cuts in food assistance.

We've heard a lot this election cycle about Democrats running away from President Obama. Are we now going to see stories about Republicans running away from Paul Ryan and his fellow budget ideologues? Probably not. But we should.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Democrats Like It When Forecasts Show Democrats Winning

| Fri Oct. 31, 2014 9:59 AM EDT

Justin Wolfers shows us an intriguing example of confirmation bias today. It turns out that Leo, the New York Times election forecasting model, bases its forecasts on running hundreds of simulations and then taking an average. But readers who want to play around can go ahead and toss the dice themselves, generating their own random simulations. So what do readers do?

This is where confirmation bias comes in. If you’re convinced that the Republicans are going to win but your first two spins suggest a Democratic victory, you may feel deflated; perhaps you’ll spin again, in the hopes that you’ll finally get to see what a Republican victory looks like....85 percent of the time that your first two spins show a Democratic victory, you’ll keep spinning, perhaps hoping to see a Republican victory.

The same logic says that those who see the Democrats as likely to win are more likely to spin again after seeing the Republicans win in their first two spins, and once again, 85 percent of you do so.

Presumably readers are smart enough to know that these really are just random rolls of the dice that don't mean anything. Only an average of hundreds of simulations is meaningful. And yet, many of us play the dice-rolling game anyway. Why?

Properly speaking, I'm not sure this is actually confirmation bias. I suspect that partisans just want to avoid a feeling of hopelessness. Sure, the official results will tell them that, say, Democrats have a 34 percent chance of holding the Senate, and that should be enough. But it's not. Democratic partisans want to see the concrete possibility of a Democratic win. Rather than confirmation bias, this shows a human preference for examples vs. statistical forecasts.

Now, I'd expect that Democrats would do this more than Republicans. After all, if Leo says Republicans have a 66 percent chance of winning, that should make Republicans pretty happy. Why bother running even a single simulation that might spoil the good news? Unfortunately, Leo's data doesn't tell us if this happens, because it doesn't know who's a Democrat and who's a Republican. But I'll bet I'm right.

PATRIOT Act Warrants Used More For Drugs Than For Terrorism

| Fri Oct. 31, 2014 12:13 AM EDT

The PATRIOT Act gave federal agents expanded powers to issue search warrants without informing the targets of the warrant beforehand. Why? Because terrorism investigations were special: they'd fall apart if terrorists received warning that they were being investigated. So with terrorism suddenly a far bigger priority after 9/11, national security required that authority for these "sneak-and-peek" warrants be broadened.

A few days ago, the Electronic Frontier Foundation tallied up the known figures for sneak-and-peek warrants:

  • 2001-03: 47
  • 2010: 3,970
  • 2011: 6,775
  • 2012: 10,183
  • 2013: 11,129

That's quite an increase. So did terrorism investigations skyrocket over the past decade? Not so much. It turns out that hardly any of these warrants were used in terrorism cases. Instead, they were virtually all used in narcotics cases—as the chart on the right shows. Radley Balko draws the right lessons from this:

  • Assume that any power you grant to the federal government to fight terrorism will inevitably be used in other contexts.
  • Assume that the primary “other context” will be to fight the war on drugs.
  • When critics point out the ways a new law might be abused, supporters of the law often accuse those critics of being cynical — they say we should have more faith in the judgment and propriety of public officials. Always assume that when a law grants new powers to the government, that law will be interpreted in the vaguest, most expansive, most pro-government manner imaginable. If that doesn’t happen, good. But why take the risk? Why leave open the possibility? Better to write laws narrowly, restrictively and with explicit safeguards against abuse.

There's no reason laws like this can't be drawn properly in the first place. Sure, some terrorism cases involve narcotics, but that's a poor excuse. If terrorism is genuinely involved, law enforcement officers have plenty of opportunity to convince a judge of that. A properly-constructed statute won't get in their way.

This goes for the NSA as well as the FBI, by the way. If they need broadened surveillance powers to fight terrorism—and perhaps they do—a narrowly-drawn statute won't hurt them. If they object to this, every one of us should wonder why.

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.

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.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

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.

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.