Kevin Drum

Low Interest Rates May Be the New Normal

| Mon Jun. 2, 2014 10:46 AM EDT

Paul Krugman says that low interest rates are likely to be with us for a long time:

Structural change is happening fast — just not the kind of structural change people like to talk about. Never mind the stuff about skill mismatches and all that. What’s really happening fast is the demographic transition [i.e., an aging population], with Europe very quickly turning Japanese. And the US, although growing faster, also turning down sharply.

Add to this the fact that what we thought was normal actually depended on ever-growing household debt, and it becomes clear that historical expectations about normal interest rates are likely to be way off. You don’t have to believe in secular stagnation (although you should take it very seriously) to accept that low rates are very likely the new normal.

If this is true, is it another reason to think that Thomas Piketty might be wrong about returns to capital staying high over the next century even as economic growth slows down?

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Yep, Republicans Are Even Outraged Over the Release of a POW

| Mon Jun. 2, 2014 9:52 AM EDT

Republicans are upset over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for the release of five Taliban prisoners. They have several complaints: the president "negotiated with terrorists"; the president broke a law requiring 30-day notice before prisoners are transferred out of Guantanamo; and among a few fringe types, a belief that perhaps Bergdahl was actually a deserter not worth rescuing.

Is there anything to any of this? Probably not. But it's pretty much impossible to tell for sure. Republicans these days are so hellbent on finding reasons to be outraged over everything President Obama does, there's no longer any way to tell whether their outrage over any specific incident is real or manufactured. And in this case, it's probably not worth trying to find out.

As a rough rule of thumb, I figure that if there's anything to these Republican complaints, there will be at least one or two Democrats from red states who join in. So far I don't think there have been any, which is probably a good sign that this is just random partisan fulminating, not genuine outrage.

UPDATE: On a historical note, I guess it's worth pointing out that prisoner exchanges—and the issues surrounding them—at the ends of wars have often been contentious, leading to partisan sniping. This is a tiny prisoner exchange, so maybe it's normal that it's leading to a tiny amount of partisan sniping.

Chris Wallace Demands Answers to Yet More Benghazi Questions That Have Already Been Answered Dozens of Times

| Sun Jun. 1, 2014 11:35 AM EDT

I was channel surfing this morning and happened to catch a few minutes of Chris Wallace talking to Claire McCaskill. The subject, yet again, was Benghazi. Why did Susan Rice blame the video? Also: Two sources said they knew it was a terrorist attack immediately, so why didn't Rice say that? We need these questions answered!

I know, I know. It's my fault for watching TV. But Jesus. Chris Wallace knows the answers to these questions. He has to know. But just in case he still doesn't, here they are:

Why did Susan Rice blame the video?

On Chris Wallace's own show aired four days after the Benghazi attack, here's what Susan Rice said:

Well, first of all, Chris, we are obviously investigating this very closely. The FBI has a lead in this investigation. The information, the best information and the best assessment we have today is that in fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack. That what happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video. People gathered outside the embassy and then it grew very violent and those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya and that then spun out of control.

But we don't see at this point signs this was a coordinated plan, premeditated attack. Obviously, we will wait for the results of the investigation and we don't want to jump to conclusions before then. But I do think it's important for the American people to know our best current assessment.

Rice was very clear that she was providing a preliminary judgment. She was very clear about the role of the video: It had inspired protests in Cairo earlier in the week. She was very clear that we believed the Cairo protests sparked protests in Benghazi. She was very clear that we believed this provided extremist groups with a chance to launch an opportunistic attack.

In the end, almost all of this turned out to be true. The video did spark protests in Cairo. Some of the Benghazi attackers were motivated by the video. The attack wasn't premeditated: it was planned no more than a few hours previously. The only part Rice got wrong was that there were, in fact, no initial protests in Benghazi. That was the best reporting we had at the time, but it turned out to be incorrect.

A couple of sources said they reported immediately that it was a preplanned terrorist attack. Why didn't Rice and the rest of the Obama administration say that?

Because the intelligence community had multiple sources of reporting about Benghazi, and they conflicted. How hard can it be to understand this? Besides, the best evidence we have today is that it wasn't a preplanned attack. It was an opportunistic attack organized in less than a day. What's more, the groups that led the attack had only the most tenuous ties to Al Qaeda.

Aside from that, there's this continuing weird totem around the word "terrorist." What's the point of this? Hillary Clinton called the attackers a "small and savage group." Susan Rice called them extremists. Others used different words. It's hard to understand why this matters. The attack was carried out by mostly local militant groups with mostly local grievances and no serious ties to Al Qaeda. The precise word you use to describe these folks can't possibly be that important, can it?

And an aside....

Critics have focused heavily on the fact that the Obama administration blamed the "Innocence of Muslims" video for the violence that had erupted around the Middle East and then, indirectly, provoked the attacks in Benghazi. But I think everyone needs a trip down memory lane here. That video was a very, very big deal at the time. Maybe everyone has now forgotten this, but it did spark riots all over the region and it was the subject of nearly constant coverage in the local media both before and after the Benghazi attacks. The notion that it was responsible for regional violence at the time and at least partially responsible for what happened in Benghazi was hardly some bizarre flight of fancy.

Friday Cat Blogging - 30 May 2014

| Fri May 30, 2014 2:00 PM EDT

Today is snoozing day. Much like every other day, in fact. I recommend that if you're having trouble falling asleep, take this picture to bed with you and stare at it until you fall serenely into a zenlike feline state. Let Domino be your sleep guru.

The Obama Doctrine Is to Not Have a Doctrine

| Fri May 30, 2014 1:42 PM EDT

Fareed Zakaria takes on the cult of foreign policy toughness—far too common even among centrists and some liberals—that instinctively equates military force with decisiveness and everything else with hesitancy and weakness:

Obama is battling a knee-jerk sentiment in Washington in which the only kind of international leadership that means anything is the use of military force. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said in his speech Wednesday at West Point. A similar sentiment was expressed in the farewell address of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a strong leader who refused to intervene in the Suez crisis, the French collapse in Vietnam, two Taiwan Strait confrontations and the Hungarian uprising of 1956. At the time, many critics blasted the president for his passivity and wished that he would be more interventionist. A Democratic Advisory Council committee headed by Acheson called Eisenhower’s foreign policy “weak, vacillating, and tardy.” But Eisenhower kept his powder dry, confident that force was not the only way to show strength. “I’ll tell you what leadership is,” he told his speechwriter. “It’s persuasion — and conciliation — and education — and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know — or believe in — or will practice.”

Maybe that’s the Obama Doctrine.

Please spare me from more doctrines. But Zakaria is basically saying that the Obama Doctrine is not to let yourself get seduced by the straitjacket of doctrines. I guess that's a doctrine I can live with.

You know, the one time I felt a little sorry for Sarah Palin was when she got so much grief for not knowing the Bush Doctrine. Hell, I didn't know it either. You're either with us or against us? Bring 'em on? We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud? The truth is that I still couldn't tell you. Nor could I really tell you about the Carter Doctrine or the Reagan Doctrine or any other doctrine more recent than the Monroe Doctrine. They never really meant all that much, did they? Every president has an underlying worldview, and that's about all we can expect. I think Obama has articulated his as well as anyone has.

America Is Becoming a Bit More Liberal. That's Pretty Unusual Six Years Into a Democratic Presidency.

| Fri May 30, 2014 11:21 AM EDT

Why are there more moderate Democrats than moderate Republicans? This has never been because Democrats are spineless wimps who won't stand up for liberal values. The main reason is simple: there aren't very many self-identified liberals in America. There never have been. Self-IDed conservatives have outnumbered self-IDed liberals by 10-15 percentage points for decades. This means that Democrats are forced to appeal more to the center than Republicans are.

But Gallup reports that this is changing. On social issues, the ID gap has narrowed to nearly zero. On economic issues conservatives still have a healthy 21 percentage point lead, but that's way down from 2010. Here's the chart:

In one sense, you should take this with a grain of salt. Sure, there are now more self-IDed liberals, but that's compared to 2010, a high-water mark for conservative identification.

In another sense, this is pretty unusual. Normally, the country gets steadily more liberal during Republican presidencies and steadily more conservative during Democratic presidencies. This is, presumably, because voters get increasingly tired of whoever's in power and more open to the idea that the other guys might have better answers. But this time that hasn't happened. There's too much noise in the Gallup chart to draw any definitive conclusions, but if you compare the numbers now to the average from the last few years of the Bush presidency, the country has actually gotten a bit more liberal. That's something that rarely happens six years into a Democratic presidency.

The trend is more noticeable on social issues, which shouldn't surprise anyone. On gay rights in particular, the country has plainly moved in the direction of more tolerance, and conservatives are just flatly out of step. As this trend continues—and it's inexorable at this point—the conservative position strikes more and more people as not merely misguided, but just plain ugly. And you don't self-ID with an ideology that you think is ugly.

It's a funny thing. People say they don't like President Obama's foreign policy, but it turns out they approve of the specific things he's doing. They say they don't like Obamacare, but they like the things Obamacare does. They say they don't like Obama's economic policy, but they largely approve of his actual positions. You see this over and over. It doesn't look like Obama is doing much to move the country in a more liberal direction, but in his slow, methodical, pragmatic way, he's doing just that. A lot of people might not know it, but they're attracted by his no-drama approach to incremental social change. It frustrates those of us who want to see things change faster, but in the end, it might turn out to be pretty effective.

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Hillary Clinton Takes on the Benghazi Crackpots

| Fri May 30, 2014 10:22 AM EDT

Politico has "obtained" the Benghazi chapter from Hillary Clinton's upcoming memoir, and their writeup includes this:

Clinton addresses lingering questions about how military assets were deployed to try to rescue personnel at the besieged compound, writing that Obama “gave the order to do whatever was necessary to support our people in Libya. It was imperative that all possible resources be mobilized immediately....When Americans are under fire, that is not an order the Commander in Chief has to give twice. Our military does everything humanly possible to save American lives — and would do more if they could. That anyone has ever suggested otherwise is something I will never understand.”

Me, me! Call on me! I understand. Allow me to blogsplain it to you....

Seriously, though, this is pretty much the right attitude for Clinton to take. Of all the nonsense that's been spewed about Benghazi, the never-ending series of "stand down" conspiracy theories has undoubtedly been the stupidest. Every time one got swatted down, another one popped up to take its place. It was a fast-response team from Italy. No wait. It was a team Gen. Carter Ham was going to send in until Obama ordered him not to. It was a garrison in Tripoli. It was a C-110 team in Croatia. It was a different team from Tripoli. By the time all these theories had been aired, it was apparent that half the United States military was thought to be within striking distance of Libya on the night of the Benghazi attacks.

And as little sense as most of the Benghazi conspiracy theories make, this one made even less. There's simply no reason that any president of the United States would get in the way of a rescue mission in a situation like Benghazi. But none of that ever mattered. To this day, there are millions of Fox News watchers who are convinced that the deaths in Benghazi could have been prevented but President Obama refused to allow it. Why? Well, if he's secretly bent on undermining the strength and influence of the United States, it all starts to make sense, doesn't it? And I wonder where anyone could have gotten that idea?

Here are 4 Good Reasons to Keep Eric Shinseki, and 1 Very Good Reason to Fire Him

| Fri May 30, 2014 9:29 AM EDT

Should Eric Shinseki resign? Or be fired? There are several reasons to say no:

  • Knee-jerk calls for resignation from the guy at the top every time something goes wrong in a big bureaucracy are wearying.
  • Shinseki inherited a lot of problems, and there's good evidence that he's worked hard to improve things at the VA. The fact that some problems still remain is hardly damning.
  • The specific scandal involving secret waiting lists isn't really a sign of bad management.
  • The tradition of top managers resigning as a symbolic show of responsibility is dumb. Let's leave that to the British and the Japanese.

You may find all of these more or less persuasive depending on your general temperament. Personally, I find them all moderately persuasive. That said, there's one really good reason for the guy at the top to resign when something like this happens: It's a lot easier for a newcomer to make sweeping changes if that's what's necessary. No matter how committed Shinseki is to fixing this problem, he's hemmed in by five years of decisions he's already made. He's emotionally committed to a certain way of doing things; to a certain set of subordinates; and to policies that he's implemented. A new VA chief wouldn't be. Nor would a new VA chief be under a cloud. He'd have the active support of Congress and the president to take a fresh look at things.

Unfortunately for Shinseki, this one reason is probably sufficient. In a sense, it's unfair. Nonetheless, human nature being what it is, a new VA secretary would most likely have more freedom to make the changes necessary to fix the VA's problems and more support to get them done. For that reason, yes, Shinseki should probably go.

UPDATE, Friday, May 30, 11:15am ET: President Obama is delivering a statement live from the White House.

UPDATE 2: Shinseki has resigned.

Who's Watching the National Spelling Bee Tonight?

| Thu May 29, 2014 5:25 PM EDT

I'm just curious: Am I the only one who thinks the National Spelling Bee jumped the shark years ago? The escalating ridiculousness of the words, the World Series-esque television coverage, and the inexplicable geek chic surrounding the event have made the whole thing kind of nuts.

Besides, we all have spell check these days, right?

Two Brief Notes About the VA Scandal

| Thu May 29, 2014 2:03 PM EDT

I have a couple of things related to the VA scandal that I wish everyone would get straight on:

  • There is a difference between (a) the backlog in initial applications for VA benefits and (b) wait times for appointments at VA hospitals. They are completely different things with completely different roots. Don't slide confusingly between the two in a single story.
  • You should always try to compare the performance of the VA to private sector care. Saying that the average wait time for non-urgent appointments is 23 days tells us nothing. Is that longer or shorter than it is elsewhere? Ditto for treatment mistakes, breadth of service, availability of pharmaceuticals, etc. All large organizations have large numbers of problems. That's inevitable. The only way to judge them properly is to compare them to other large organizations doing the same thing.

That's all for now. I might have more later.