The putative reason for air strikes on Syria is that we need to enforce international treaty norms against the use of chemical weapons. This is a fine justification, and I wish that Team Obama would stick to it instead of veering off into the kind of absurd fearmongering we've heard over the past few days. More and more, they sound like every two-bit political hack of the past century who's whipped up war fever among the locals by haranguing them with sordid accounts of foreign barbarity, appealing relentlessly to national chauvinism, and scaring everyone with tales of atrocities that will surely visit the homeland if we don't retaliate now now now. It's sort of nauseating seeing the Obama administration haul out this age-old playbook.
But no matter how you feel about that, there's still the argument that autocratic thugs need to be deterred from using chemical weapons. And it's a good argument: autocratic thugs should be deterred from using chemical weapons. But even though I'd very much like to believe a strike on Syria would accomplish that, I'm having a pretty hard time convincing myself that it really would. The problem is that no matter how virtuously we view our own motives, and no matter how clear we think our message is, the rest of the world views things differently. They are much more cynical, and the message they'll take away from air strikes is that the U.S. will punish the use of chemical weapons if:
You are a small country that poses no real threat of retaliation;
And we didn't like you very much to begin with;
And the current U.S. president happens to want to do it;
And America's current strategic alliances permit it.
Would American air strikes on Syria give the world's tinpot thugs something to think about? Sure. And maybe you can say that every little nudge helps. But if we end up bombing Syria, I don't think anyone would take away from it a belief that America will always and forever retaliate against any country that uses chemical weapons. That's a pleasant fiction we might enjoy telling ourselves, but history doesn't back it up and the rest of the world knows it.
A few minutes ago I checked the dictionary to see if the word gung-ho is hyphenated. (Yes, it is.) Reading a bit further, I was fascinated to find the following etymology:
introduced as a training slogan in 1942 by U.S. Marine officer Evans F. Carlson (1896–1947) < Chinese gōng hé, the abbreviated name of the Chinese Industrial Cooperative Society, taken by a literal translation as “work together”
The term was picked up by United States Marine Corps Major Evans Carlson from his New Zealand friend, Rewi Alley, one of the founders of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives. Carlson explained in a 1943 interview: "I was trying to build up the same sort of working spirit I had seen in China where all the soldiers dedicated themselves to one idea and worked together to put that idea over. I told the boys about it again and again. I told them of the motto of the Chinese Cooperatives, Gung Ho. It means Work Together-Work in Harmony...."
Later Carlson used gung ho during his (unconventional) command of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion. From there, it spread throughout the U.S. Marine Corps (hence the association between the two), where it was used as an expression of spirit and into American society as a whole when the phrase became the title of a 1943 war film, Gung Ho!, about the 2nd Raider Battalion's raid on Makin Island in 1942.
Maybe this origin story is common knowledge. I don't know—though I've never seen it on Jeopardy! or in a crossword puzzle. In any case, it was new to me, so maybe it's new to you too. It's certainly interesting that our modern-day use of the word has approximately nothing to do with working together, which I suppose is just a linguistic casualty of war.
Eduardo Porter writes today about the apparently waning influence of the business community on the Republican Party. They haven't gotten their way on immigration reform, or on halting the debt ceiling fiasco, or on increased infrastructure spending. A big chunk of the business community was in favor of Obamacare too, but that certainly didn't cut any ice with Republicans. So what's going on?
One of the most important corollaries of the "constitutional conservative" ideology that is at the heart of Tea Party activism is the virtual divinization of limited-government and absolute property-rights nostrums as fundamental to the enduring character of the country as blessed by the Founders, natural law, and Divine Providence.
To put it another way, the rightward trend in the GOP has given far more to corporate America in an unshakable commitment to its long-term interests than it has taken away in occasional revolts against the business-community "line" on individual issues like immigration reform. Add in the corporate influence on the Democratic Party that has been fed by the drift of professional elites in their direction and the need to compete with the GOP financially, and there are few grounds for legitimate complaints from board-rooms. Even if Corporate America does lose a few political battles, it is doing quite well in the war.
Yep. The business community has three big issues it cares deeply about: low taxes, reduced regulation, and the demise of labor unions. Those things overwhelm every other desire, and the Republican Party is satisfyingly adamantine on all of them. What's more, the tea-party-ized GOP is, if anything, even more rock solid on them. That's worth a lot.
On the flip side, I think it's easy to overstate just how important issues like immigration reform are to corporate America. Sure, they're generally in favor of it. But honestly, most of them don't care because it doesn't affect them much, and for the rest the status quo isn't really all that bad. They can live with it. Ditto for the debt ceiling, which they probably view as a periodic bit of DC lunacy that has minor short-term impacts but not much more. And infrastructure tends to be a local issue more than a national one. As long as the trains and trucks and planes are still rolling, things are OK.
It would be genuinely interesting to see what happened if there was a conflict between a core business interest and a core tea party interest. But I'm not sure there are any. The conflicts are all at the margins, where the business community isn't fighting all that hard in the first place. I'm not quite sure if there's anything on the horizons that could ignite a genuine war.
Matt Yglesias writes today that the remarkable thing about Congress isn't that it can't cut deals on issues where the public is sharply divided—that's pretty understandable—but that it can't even cut deals on issues where there's a pretty strong public consensus:
Take the massive, entrenched, years-long dispute over taxes and the federal budget. If you go into the survey data, you find that there absolutely is not a firm partisan divide on this issue. 56 percent of self-identified Republican voters agree with Barack Obama that deficit reduction should involve both spending cuts and tax increases and 56 percent of self-identified Democratic voters endorse the view that deficit reduction should be mostly spending cuts.
You never want to exaggerate the significance of this kind of issue polling. But I think the message is clear. If key Republican leaders—John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, etc.—wanted to shake hands on a bargain that raised taxes a fair amount and cut spending by three or four times that amount, Obama would gladly take the deal and a strong cross-party majority of Americans would applaud....But the deal keeps not happening. It doesn't happen because at an elite level the Republican Party is much more strongly committed to an agenda of low tax cuts on the rich than are Republican Party voters.
Yglesias is obviously right about taxes, but I'm curious: Does everybody think that Obama is still gung-ho for a deal like this if he could get Republican agreement? It's pretty obvious that he was in 2011, and possibly even through the end of 2012. But spending has been cut a lot since then, and an improving economy is going to cut it even further over the next few years. Tough talk aside, I'm not sure that even Republicans really want to cut discretionary spending much anymore.
So that leaves medium and long-term mandatory spending. In other words, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. But Medicare reimbursements have already been cut by Obamacare, and were cut further by the sequester. Those cuts have been unpopular. Obamacare's cost-cutting provisions might reduce spending even further, and those provisions have also been unpopular. Likewise, Social Security could, in principle, be the target of a combination of benefit cuts and tax increases, but that's not very popular either, and at this point it's not really clear if either party is much in favor of it.
In other words, I'm curious about whether there's really any momentum left for a Grand Bargain on either side. I'd say probably not. I don't think Republicans want it. I don't think Democrats want it. And I don't think even Obama really wants it anymore. It's dead.
With the G20 summit coming up, Vladimir Putin has suddenly decided that he should sound statesmanlike and reasonable. If the United States comes up with real evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against Syrian rebels, he might decide to support punitive action after all:
“I don’t rule this out,” Putin said during a televised interview with First Channel, a Russian federal television network, and the Associated Press. “But I want to draw your attention to one absolutely principled issue: In accordance with the current international law, a sanction to use arms against a sovereign state can be given only by the U.N. Security Council.”
Putin said he will be convinced only by “a deep, detailed study of the issue and the real presence of evidence that could clearly prove who used what [weapons]."
“After that we will be ready to act in a most resolute and serious way,” he said. He did not say what actions he is considering.
OK. And how about all the recent chilliness with President Obama? Just a myth:
Putin said he still hopes for a meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. Putin said he recalled previous meetings with Obama as “very constructive,” and praised the U.S. president as “a very interesting interlocutor and a business-like person.”
“It is easy to talk with him, because it is clear what the man wants. His position is clear, and he hears out the position of ... his opponent and reacts to it,” Putin said.
Western leaders, whether or not they support air strikes against Syria, pretty unanimously consider the Limbaugh/Putin position that the rebels conducted the gas attack ridiculous. I guess the prospect of a meeting where everyone considers your views laughable concentrates the mind wonderfully, so Putin decided to back off a bit. But is this just a temporary change of heart to get him through the summit without being mocked too much, or something more permanent? The former, I'd guess, but we'll see.
The Institute for Supply Management’s survey of manufacturers showed its new orders index increased to 63.2 in August from 58.3 in July. It was the third consecutive monthly gain in demand and the highest reading since April 2011.
With numbers due out Wednesday, analysts have predicted that August will prove to be the best month for auto sales since before the recession....Automakers are ramping up production and hiring workers to keep pace with demand, which analysts project will result in as many as 16 million new-vehicle sales in 2013 — not far off the record 17 million sales achieved before the downturn.
Private residential construction spending rose 0.6% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $334.58 billion, the Commerce Department said Tuesday....A rebounding housing market has boosted the economy–making homeowners feel more confident, driving spending on building materials and creating construction jobs.
The bad news is that this is all good news, but not great news. What's more, thanks to the drag of federal spending cuts, broader economic measures remain stuck in the OK range, not in the "catching up from a horrible recession" range. Still, it's all modestly promising stuff. And the car story includes this:
Boosted by the robust sales and healthy profits, automakers are planning to move long-discussed innovation from the test track to the road. General Motors has said it will develop a car by the end of the decade that will be able to drive itself in most circumstances. Nissan, meanwhile, has said it will introduce a driverless car by 2020.
Really? I'm usually the most rah-rah guy in the room when it comes to advances in AI, but even I wouldn't have guessed that truly autonomous cars would be ready before 2025 or so. I wonder just how autonomous these Nissan and GM cars will be by 2020? Really, truly able to accept a destination and just drive you there with no help? Or kinda sorta autonomous in most situations, but they still can't navigate in parking lots or in the fog? I guess we'll all find out in seven years.
Another day, another Obamacare horror story. The latest involves UPS, which has decided to eliminate health insurance for spouses who already get health coverage from their own employer. UPS has suggested that Obamacare was responsible for their decision, but I think Bloomberg has pretty much the right take on this:
It’s possible, of course, that UPS is using the health-care law as a smokescreen for cutting costs it wanted to cut anyway.
Ya think? I'd say it's a safe bet that every employer in America that raises copays or reduces coverage or ratchets up employee premiums is going to try to blame it on Obamacare as a way of deflecting worker resentment at the news. It's a pretty handy cudgel, after all. And right wing blatherers will all pitch in, painting it as the latest sign that President Obama is destroying America's healthcare system before our eyes.
Needless to say, the evidence doesn't really back this up. Will Obamacare have modest effects on some kinds of coverage and certain demographic groups? Sure. Are these effects either large or persistent? No. Jon Cohn provided the details a week ago:
UPS officials said that the company's actuaries expected overall employee health costs to rise by about 12 percent next year—and that about a third of that increase was in reaction to Obamacare....But those are basically one-time increases—the result of changes that will take place only as Obamacare gets underway.
....Even UPS officials caution that Obamacare’s role in this decision isn’t as big as some are making it out to be. “One way of saying this is that we are restructuring our benefits ‘because of the ACA’—but that’s not accurate,” Andy McGowan, a UPS spokesman, told me. “We are doing this because we are looking at many different factors adding to our costs, and ACA is one of them.”
So at worst, what we're looking at is Obamacare being responsible for a one-time cost increase of 4 percent—largely due to its requirement that health plans cover children until age 26, a provision popular enough that even Republicans claim to favor it nowadays. Considering that the cost of health premiums has nearly doubled in the last decade, this is neither a bombshell nor a sign of the imminent destruction of the American healthcare system. In fact, given Obamacare's likely long-term moderating effect on healthcare premiums, it's almost certainly going to end up as a net moneysaver for UPS.
But it won't stop health premiums from continuing to rise, and it won't stop companies like UPS from doing everything they can to reduce their healthcare spending. Big companies have been doing that for the past two decades, and they'll keep doing it for decades to come.
The latest polls are pretty damn negative about air strikes on Syria. According to ABC News, only 36 percent support a strike. According to Pew, the number is even lower: only 29 percent of Americans support military action. And take a look at this question from the Pew poll:
Ouch. Big majorities think an air strike will lead to further escalation and create a backlash against the United States. And only a third think it will discourage the future use of chemical weapons. No wonder so few people support the air strikes. President Obama has a helluva sales job ahead of him.
Are you ready for the next big right-wing conspiracy theory? Sure you are! Naturally it's about Syria.
There have long been mutterings that the chemical attack in Ghouta was a false-flag operation. That is, the Syrian opposition actually carried out the attack, hoping that Bashar al-Assad would get blamed and President Obama would retaliate with a huge bombing campaign. But it's just been mutterings. Today, though, Rush Limbaugh upped the ante, jabbering on air about an article by Yossef Bodansky titled "Did the White House Help Plan the Syrian Chemical Attack?"
Got that? Not just a false flag operation that snookered the idiot-in-chief, but an operation actually put in motion by the White House. Bodansky, an Assad sympathizer who has previously suggested that the 1995 Oklahoma bombing was orchestrated by Iran and that Saddam's WMDs all ended up in Syria, tells a simple story. Starting on August 13, at a meeting between Syrian opposition leaders and representatives of Qatari, Turkish, and US intelligence, senior opposition commanders told everyone to expect "a war-changing development" which would soon lead to a U.S. bombing campaign in Syria. Shortly afterward, a huge cache of weapons was released to the rebels under the supervision of US intelligence, and they were told to get ready to use them. Sure enough, a few days later a major chemical attack took place and Assad got the blame:
The latest strategy formulation and coordination meetings took place on August 26, 2013. The political coordination meeting took place in Istanbul and was attended by US Amb. Robert Ford. More important were the military and operational coordination meetings at the Antakya garrison. Senior Turkish, Qatari, and US Intelligence officials attended in addition to the Syrian senior (opposition) commanders.
....The descriptions of these meetings raise the question of the extent of foreknowledge of US Intelligence, and therefore, the Obama White House....At the very least, they should have known that the opposition leaders were anticipating “a war-changing development”: that is, a dramatic event which would provoke a US-led military intervention.
[Evidence is then laid out that Syrian rebels really did launch the chemical attack and Assad had nothing to do with it.]
....How is that US Intelligence did not know in advance about the opposition’s planned use of chemical weapons in Damascus? It is a colossal failure. And if they did know and warned the Obama White House, why then the sanctimonious rush to blame the Assad Administration?
In summary: the Syrian opposition carried out the chemical attack, and they did it with the foreknowledge of the United States. Or maybe even worse: perhaps the United States actively coordinated the whole thing. As one eager Dittohead put it, "RUSH LIMBAUGH SAYS ADOLF OBAMA BEHIND NERVE GASSING OF SYRIANS!!!" That's an exaggeration, of course. Rush is just saying it's "a very possible scenario." Like Hillary Clinton's murder of Vince Foster.
This story hasn't produced a flashing red siren from Drudge yet, so I suppose it doesn't quite count as the fever swamp's latest pet theory. But I imagine that's coming soon.
Someday, the robot revolution will create a paradise on earth.1 Before that happens, though, we need to defeat the hordes of evil robots who tirelessly call our phones trying to sell us ripoff home security systems or Medigap plans.2 Obviously the only way to stop a bad robot with a phone is with a good robot with a phone, so last year the FTC offered a $50,000 prize for the best anti-robocall invention. I missed this months ago when it was announced—shame on me!—but in April the FTC announced a pair of winners.
The "Best Solution" award went to Nomorobo, and takes advantage of a widely available (but not commonly used) feature that allows you to route phone calls to all of your phones at the same time. But instead of telling your phone company to ring your landline number and your cell number at the same time, you tell it to ring your landline number and the Nomorobo number at the same time. Inventor Aaron Ross explained it to the LA Times this morning:3
Tell us how it works.
If you have Simultaneous Ring on your phone and someone calls your number, that call is being split and goes first to a Nomorobo number. In real time, it's analyzing the caller ID and caller frequency across multiple phone lines. It's a red flag, for example, when the same phone number has made 5,000 calls to different numbers in the past hour. It's also a red flag when the same phone number is sequentially calling large blocks of phone numbers. Both scenarios indicate robocalling patterns.
If it detects a robocaller, the call is automatically disconnected before the consumer's phone even rings. Those numbers go onto a blacklist. If an incoming number doesn't appear on the blacklist, the software asks the caller to type in a number. If it's a human telemarketer, they'd respond. If it's a robocaller, they can't respond and the call is terminated.
Good idea! This will spawn an arms race between robocallers and Nomorobo, of course, just like the arms race between spammers and spam filters, but it seems like it has a lot of potential to cut down on robocalls considerably. There are problems, of course. For starters, you have to enable Simultaneous Calling with the Nomorobo number, and it's not clear how many people will actually do that. Nor is it clear who exactly is going to run this or how well it will scale if it becomes enormously popular. Nor do we know for sure how well the blacklist/whitelist concept will work in practice. What evidence do I have to provide that I'm a legitimate robocaller to get on the whitelist? And can it be scammed?
Ross says that Nomorobo will roll out this month, so I guess we'll find out soon. I'm eager to give it a try.
2If you're a 20-something who would rather cut off your big toe than actually answer a phone call in the first place, you don't care about this. You may go about your business.
3No link, sorry. We're dealing with the LA Times here, the most frustrating news website in the nation. Stories in the print edition are often almost impossible to find online, and sometimes they simply aren't online at all. That's what happened to this one.