Kevin Drum

If Iran Talks Fail, Iran Will Likely Become a Nuclear Power

| Wed Jul. 8, 2015 12:01 PM EDT

Zack Beauchamp points to a valuable piece in Foreign Affairs today about the Iran nuclear negotiations. In it, Dalia Dassa Kaye reminds us that failure wouldn't just mean a return to the status quo that existed before talks began. It would, instead, almost certainly lead to conditions on the ground that are far more dangerous than they were before we even started:

The first and most dangerous scenario is that Tehran could break out of the interim nuclear agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, which has essentially frozen Iran’s nuclear program for nearly two years. With no promise of lasting and more significant sanctions relief, Iran may decide to resume its nuclear enrichment program at levels that reduce the time it would need to weaponize its nuclear program.

....To make matters worse, unless it is clear that Iran is at fault for the breakdown in nuclear talks, the current broad international support for sanctions against Iran could weaken....Key international powers, and even some in Europe, may tire of self-imposed restrictions, especially if Iran appeared to have negotiated in good faith. So, Iran could find itself less isolated over time, especially if Congress rejected the deal, leaving the United States to blame for the failure. Indeed, this is the worst-of-both-worlds outcome—few constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and dissipating international pressure on Iran.

A return to military escalation with Iran is also more likely in a no-deal Middle East. Iranian hardliners’ arguments that the West was never really interested in a deal with Iran will appear vindicated....This could lead to an expansion of Iran’s already destabilizing regional activism, particularly in Iraq, Syria, and in its relationship with Hezbollah.

As Beauchamp points out, sanctions against Iran were never going to last forever, either with or without a deal. That's just real life when an effective sanctions regime requires the cooperation of dozens of countries, including some who have iffy relationships with us in the first place, like China and India, and others who simply aren't willing to play along forever in a losing cause, like Japan and South Korea. So the question is whether to let the talks fail, in which case the sanctions will almost certainly crumble in as little as a year or two, or to strike a deal, in which case the sanctions will go away but we'll get something in return.

The alternative is to let the talks fail and then restart them in search of a better deal. But this is a fantasy. If these talks fail, there aren't going to be new talks. What will happen is that sanctions will slowly decay and Iran may well decide it no longer has any incentive to halt its nuclear weapons program. If you're willing to deal in the grown-up world, rather than the fantasy neocon world, those are your choices. Go ahead and take your pick—but don't pretend there are magic unicorns just over the horizon if only we showed a little more toughness. There are no unicorns.

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Greece Puts Off Day of Reckoning Another 24 Hours

| Wed Jul. 8, 2015 11:06 AM EDT

Greece submitted its proposal to the Troika today to extend its bailout program for three years. It was one page long. Here's an excerpt:

As you might expect, this is going over like a lead balloon. The Inspector Javerts of the eurozone will not be put off with vague promises of reform. Until they see details, and see them in a way that Greece can't wriggle out of, they will just sit stony-faced and wait. The response of Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the European Parliament’s liberal party, was typical: “You are talking about reforms but we never see concrete proposals of reforms,” he said, in a speech that was greeted with loud applause. The previous night, Angela Merkel told reporters without emotion that "the conditions for starting negotiations on a program in the framework of the E.S.M. continue not to exist."

So now Thursday is the day of reckoning. The only good news for Greece, I suppose, is that Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew kinda sorta spoke up in favor of the Greeks, insisting that Greece's debt was unsustainable and needed to be restructured as part of any deal. It remains to be seen whether anyone in Europe cares about Lew's opinions.

White Ballot Access, Black Ballot Access

| Tue Jul. 7, 2015 2:26 PM EDT

Greg Sargent draws our attention today to a new report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress on, among other things, ballot access in all 50 states plus DC. They grade each state based on things like availability of preregistration, availability of in-person early voting, voter ID laws, voting wait times, and so forth.

You will be unsurprised by the results. The top map shows ballot access, with the darker colors indicating poor access. The bottom map shows the percentage of the African-American population in each state. Dark colors indicate a higher black population. Kinda funny how similar they look, isn't it?

The July Surprise

| Tue Jul. 7, 2015 12:04 PM EDT

Ed Kilgore surveys the Republican primary landscape and throws out a few thoughts about the upcoming first debate on Fox:

  • Fox will allow only ten participants, chosen by the results of five national polls taken in the week or so before August 4.
  • Right now, Donald Trump is sucking up all the media oxygen, making it hard for marginal candidates to move up in the polls and avoid being forced into the kiddie debate.
  • This makes the end of July a critical period for all the C-list candidates.

Here's Kilgore:

It's increasingly clear the polling spike marginal candidates need to make the cut needs to happen in late July—not earlier, not later....John Kasich's scheduled July 21st campaign launch probably couldn't be timed much better; if he gets a post-announcement bounce, it could bounce him right up into the top ten. For those in the danger zone who have already announced—Perry, Jindal, Santorum, Graham, Fiorina, Pataki and maybe even Christie—the only way to get this sort of bounce is to force one's way into the news.

So for these candidates, the big strategic question is whether throwing a bomb or three in late July to make the Fox debate cut is worth the long-term risk of self-marginalization. The alternative is to accept a place at the kiddie table "forum" earlier on August 6 and hope media, activists, donors and party elites don't mentally strike one's name from the insanely long list of contenders. I'm guessing most of these birds will not want to take that chance. Get ready for some serious gyring and gimbling in late July.

Sounds like fun! I hope they all take Kilgore's advice. But what kind of bombshell could they drop that would make social media go wild? Discuss in comments, please.

Greece Looks Screwed; China Looks In Trouble Too

| Tue Jul. 7, 2015 11:01 AM EDT

From the Financial Times:

Hundreds of Chinese companies have halted trading in their shares as Beijing races to insulate the economy from the country’s steepest equity decline in over two decades. The list of suspended companies has reached 760 over the past week, representing more than a quarter of all companies listed on the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges, according to the Securities Times, a paper published by the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.

....Beijing has taken steps to keep stocks on China’s two main indices afloat, including direct purchases of large-cap companies, a halt to initial public offerings, and a cut to trading fees. But so far its efforts have failed to staunch concerns. “There is a panic but no matter how they [the authorities] jump in, this thing just doesn’t stop falling,” said Dong Tao, an economist at Credit Suisse.

So it looks like panicky moves from the authorities aren't very effective at quelling panic in investors. I may have screwed up my Greece prediction, but at least I managed to get it right on this basic trait of human nature.

And speaking of Greece, what's happening there? The Guardian reports:

The Greek government has been told by its eurozone partners not to expect debt relief any time soon, amid fading hopes of decisive action to stop the country tumbling out of the currency union.

....Greek banks are on the brink of running out of cash, but senior European figures are already dampening hopes of any breakthrough. “What we are going to do today is to talk to each other and restore order,” said the president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, adding that there would be no overnight solution.

In a coordinated press statement, the leaders of France and Germany called on Greece to come up with “serious and credible proposals” at Tuesday’s summit which are consistent with its wish to stay in the eurozone....“We are not in the business of renegotiating debt,” said Finland’s finance minister, Alexander Stubb. “That was already done in 2011 and 2012,” referring to re-structuring of Greek debts that imposed heavy losses on private creditors.

Basically, the rest of the eurozone is telling Greece to pound sand. No debt relief, no bank rescue, nothing. They will listen to a new Greek proposal, but that's it. And apparently Greece doesn't have one. Today's meeting has been postponed to Wednesday to give the Greeks more time to throw something together.

And anyway, it looks like everyone is starting to give up on Greece. The FT suggests that EU lawyers are quietly looking for ways to allow Greece to exit the euro, an effort supported in private by nearly everyone. Publicly, however, no one wants to take the blame for precipitating Grexit. “Everybody knows what the others should do, and do not want to do what the others expect them to do,” said one senior eurozone official.

That could be the eurozone's official motto for the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

Today's Proposal In Legislative Transparency: You Amend It, You Own It

| Mon Jul. 6, 2015 5:37 PM EDT

Last week Wisconsin Republicans tried to sneak language into a budget bill that would have gutted the state's open records law. Sadly for them, they got caught and had to withdraw the proposal—which, Gov. Scott Walker hastily assured us, "was never intended to inhibit transparent government in any way." Uh huh.

This kind of sleazy behavior is hardly uncommon, but there's one bit of it that's equally common and even sleazier:

State Republicans have refused to disclose who inserted the language into the budget legislation, which was approved late Thursday evening. Before dropping the provisions entirely, the governor's office said Friday it was considering changes to the proposals concerning public records law, but would not comment as to whether Walker was involved in the proposals in the first place.

Here's my proposal for transparency in legislating: every change in every law has to be attributed to someone. There's no virgin birth here. Someone wrote this language. Someone asked that it be inserted. Someone agreed to insert it. You have to be pretty contemptuous of your constituents to clam up and pretend that no one knows where it came from.

This kind of puerile buck-passing is way too common, and it needs to stop. Maybe if they knew their names were going to be attached, legislators would think twice before inserting egregiously self-serving crap like this.

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There Are Things That Erode Public Trust in Science. Primordial Gravity Waves Aren't One of Them.

| Mon Jul. 6, 2015 2:05 PM EDT

I had to laugh just a little when I read this last night:

Jan Conrad, an astroparticle physicist, claims that "The field has cried wolf too many times and lost credibility," and he worries that false discoveries are undermining public trust in science. He lists some dubious results which have caused a stir amongst physicists and the general public over the past couple of years, including the faster-than-light-neutrinos that weren’t, the primordial gravitational waves that are probably just dust, and several Dark Matter candidates which remain shrouded in uncertainty and contradiction.

When nutritionists constantly change their minds about what's good or bad for us, that undermines public trust in science. This is because everyone eats, and stories about diet and nutrition are plastered all over TV, social media, blogs, magazines, newspapers, and every other form of human communication.

But those primordial gravitational waves that are probably just dust? I'm here to assure you that 99.9 percent of the world doesn't give a shit. Most people have never heard of it. Most of the ones who have heard of it don't understand it. And almost by definition, most of the ones who do understand it have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the conditional nature of delicately measured new results in fields like astrophysics.

So put me in the camp with Jon Butterworth, who wrote the linked article, and Chad Orzel, who argue that the very fact of releasing preliminary results and then correcting them if they turn out to be wrong is what distinguishes science from pseudoscience. Nor, as Butterworth points out, would it help to keep results under wraps until everything is neat and tidy. "As I said at the time regarding the false faster-than-light neutrinos, imagine the conspiracy claims if the data had been suppressed because it didn’t fit Einstein’s theory."

All true. But really, the most important thing is simply that controversies on the bleeding edge of physics are of interest to only a tiny fraction of humanity, and most of them already know when and how to be skeptical. As for the rest of us, we just turn on our cell phones every day and marvel at how cool science is. Nothing about neutrinos or gravitational waves is going to change that.

A Reporter Reveals How the Press Treats Hillary Clinton

| Mon Jul. 6, 2015 1:10 PM EDT

In what is obviously a carefully calculated bit of Bob Somerby bait, Jonathan Allen today reveals "the media's 5 unspoken rules for covering Hillary." Here's the nickel summary:

  1. Everything, no matter how ludicrous-sounding, is worthy of a full investigation by federal agencies, Congress, the "vast right-wing conspiracy," and mainstream media outlets.
  2. Every allegation, no matter how ludicrous, is believable until it can be proven completely and utterly false. And even then, it keeps a life of its own in the conservative media world.
  3. The media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith until there's hard evidence otherwise.
  4. Everything is newsworthy because the Clintons are the equivalent of America's royal family.
  5. Everything she does is fake and calculated for maximum political benefit.

Read the whole thing for all the details. Bottom line: "This is a problem for Clinton, and it seems unlikely to go away." Yes indeedy.

Food Irradiation: Great Technology, Lousy Name.

| Mon Jul. 6, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

Roberto Ferdman interviews Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, about why the public's aversion to GMO foods has stayed strong even as the scientific consensus has become nearly unanimous that GMO foods are safe. Toward the end, though, he finally get to my hot button food issue:

Can you think of other forms of technology that have overcome consumer fears?

A perfect example is pasteurization in milk. At [first] it was very strange to people, and no one knew what to think about it. But today it’s widely accepted and viewed as improving the safety of milk.

Another one is microwaves. Everyone has them in their home today, but back in the 1970s it was close to zero. It took a bit for them to catch on, for people to warm up to them.

But then there are things like food irradiation that are perfectly safe but people seem to be permanently skeptical of.

Food irradiation! Dammit, Lusk is right: despite the fact that it includes the word "radiation," food irradiation is completely harmless. It's also really effective at killing the pathogens that cause all those periodic outbreaks of food poisoning you hear so much about. Irradiate your hamburger and you can safely cook it medium rare if you want. Irradiate your lettuce and worries about e. coli are a thing of the past. I wish someone made a cheap, personal food irradiation machine. I'd irradiate everything I ate. Unfortunately, irradiation machines tend to be the size of a dump truck and cost several million dollars, so that's not in the cards.

Maybe the Japanese should get in on this. They're pretty good at miniaturizing things; they're pretty good at selling consumer tech; and they've got a huge domestic market of people who are gadget and technology crazy and probably aren't afraid of irradiated food. Although I could be wrong about that, what with Hiroshima in their past and Fukushima in their present.

Anyway, food irradiation. It's cheap on an industrial scale, totally harmless, and makes your food safer. What's not to like?

California Should Allow Physician-Aided Suicide

| Mon Jul. 6, 2015 11:06 AM EDT

Greece has pressed the self-destruct button, and no one knows what will happen next. Here in California, we are debating whether to create a self-destruct button, and no one knows what will happen next.

(Did you like that segue? Huh? Did you?)

In California's case, the self-destruct button comes in the form of SB 128, and it is both more personal and more literal than Greece's:

The measure, which would allow terminally ill people to end their lives with a doctor's help, passed the Senate last month on essentially a party-line vote, 23-15 — Democrats for, Republicans against.

Because the bill whips up emotion about morality based on religious beliefs and raises questions concerning medical ethics, it makes many legislators uncomfortable politically and personally.

The proposal is slated for its first Assembly hearing Tuesday in the Health Committee. But sponsors say it's short two to five votes. Ten are needed to clear the 19-member panel.

A handful of Southern California Democrats, mostly Latinos under pressure from the Catholic Church, are withholding support.

Great. Yet another reason for me to be revolted by the Catholic Church. If they believe that suicide is a sin, that's fine. They should forbid suicide among Catholics. But I'm not Catholic, and it's no sin for me. So go mind your own business, folks, and represent the will of all Californians, who overwhelmingly support bringing our state into the 21st century. There is no excuse for forcing terminal patients to endure excruciating pain for months if they don't want to. It's time to put the Dark Ages behind us.