Kevin Drum

Does America Finally Have World Cup Fever?

| Wed Jul. 2, 2014 2:22 PM EDT

I've been reading a lot of articles about how this year's World Cup is a lot more popular in America than any previous World Cup. I've also read several backlash pieces debunking the idea that we're all about to go soccer mad. I'm not sure which to believe.

But there really does seem to be something different this year. I've personally watched all or most of the World Cup games so far, and I'm pretty sure that in past years I've hardly watched any. Why? Beats me. I'm not really any more interested in soccer than I've ever been.

Or am I? As kind of a joke, I started rooting for Manchester United back in 2008 because they were sponsored by AIG. After the US government basically took over AIG, I figured that meant Man U was America's team. But joke though it may have been, over the last few years I have indeed found myself checking the Premier League standings periodically and even watching the odd match when it appears on American TV. Perhaps that's primed me to look forward to the World Cup.

Or maybe it's just time zones. This is the first World Cup since 1994 that Americans could watch live at a reasonable hour. And we all know that being able to watch live is critical to sports viewership.1 So maybe that's all it is.

How about you? Have you been watching more World Cup than usual this year? Why? Is it because you care more about soccer than you used to? Or something else?

1Except for the Olympics, for some reason.

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Obama Wasn't a Silver Bullet, and Neither Is Hillary Clinton

| Wed Jul. 2, 2014 12:13 PM EDT

Noam Scheiber has a piece in the current issue of the New Republic about Hillary Clinton's imminent takeover of the Democratic Party, and today Ezra Klein interviewed him about it. Klein was especially interested in the argument that Obama's 2008 supporters were so disillusioned by Obama's failure to change Washington that they're now eager to support an old-school politico like Hillary. Here's Scheiber:

Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton made this kind of snide, but in retrospect apt, critique of Obama where she said that Obama thinks he'll get to Washington and the heavens will part and the Republicans will cooperate, but that just won't happen. So I asked some of these Obama supporters if she was right. And a lot of these people remembered those comments and being annoyed by them. But they all said she was actually a bit right. We were a bit naive then, they said. People used the word naive a lot in these conversations.

I'm not sure I've ever fully fessed up to this, so this is as good a time as any. For years, I really didn't believe the conservative snark about how Obama supporters all thought he would descend on Washington like a god-king and miraculously turn us into a post-racial, post-partisan, post-political country. Kumbaya! The reason I didn't believe it was that it never struck me as even remotely plausible. Did Obama give soaring speeches? Sure, he's a politician. Did he promise to change the way Washington works? Sure, he's a politician. Did he promise to pass historic legislation in dozens of different areas? Sure, he's a politician.

It just never occurred to me that anyone took this stuff seriously. It's a presidential campaign! Of course he's promising a chicken in every pot. That's what presidential candidates do. I believed then, and still believe now, that Obama is basically a mainstream Democrat who's cautious, pragmatic, technocratic, and incremental. In fact, that seemed so obvious to me that I never really credited the idea that anyone could seriously see him any differently.

Well, I guess that was naive on my part. By now, the evidence is clear that millions of Obama voters really believed all that boilerplate rhetoric. Naturally, then, they're bitterly disappointed at the real-world Obama. Well, I'm disappointed in some ways too—mostly in the areas of foreign policy and national security—but I continue to think he's a pretty good president because my expectations were tempered to begin with.

Nor do I think Hillary would have done any better. Probably worse, I'd say. After all, once he was in office, it's not as if Obama acted like he believed his campaign-trail rhetoric. He hired a bunch of pretty ordinary staffers and got to work passing pretty ordinary legislation. Is the theory here that Hillary would have figured out some magical points of leverage that Obama didn't? That she would have done better because Republicans like her more than Obama? Please.

I have pretty mixed feelings about a Hillary Clinton candidacy. On the one hand, I've long admired her obviously sincere dedication to public service in the face of abuse that would destroy a weaker person. On the other hand, another Clinton? This is no fault of hers, but I'm not sure I'm any more excited about that than I am about the prospect of another Bush. Maybe it's time to move on.

Either way, though, I sure hope all those folks who are disappointed by Obama don't think that Hillary is some sort of silver bullet either. If she runs and wins, she'll be dealing with exactly the same kind of Republican obstructionism as Obama—and she'll have just as much trouble getting anything done.

If disappointed Dems really want to change things, they have only one option: figure out a way to take back Congress in 2016. That's it. Until and unless that happens, George Washington himself wouldn't be any more effective than Obama has been.

Obama Fights Back on Highways

| Wed Jul. 2, 2014 11:06 AM EDT

President Obama needled Republicans yesterday about not passing a highway bill. "I mean, they’re not doing anything," he said, "Why don’t they do this?" Today Paul Waldman told him:

Well, the reason they don’t do it isn’t hard to figure out: It costs money, and that means raising taxes to pay for it, which Republicans don’t like to do. We could also pay for it with deficit spending, but they don’t like that, either. And while the jokes are certainly good for a laugh from a friendly crowd, I’m not sure whether Obama thinks that’s actually going to make Republicans more inclined to work with him on this.

That's Obama's eternal problem, isn't it? Early in his presidency he bent over backwards to play nice with Republicans, and got savaged for it by lefties. "Get tough!" they said. But he played nice because he had no choice. He needed two or three Republican votes to pass anything, and if he'd played hardball he wouldn't have gotten them.

Now, having given up on Republican cooperation, he's playing hardball and....getting criticism that this kind of thing isn't likely to make Republicans any more inclined to work with him. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't.

Oh well. That's life in the White House. The reality, of course, is even worse than Waldman paints it. Republicans don't actually have to raise gasoline taxes at all. All they have to do is vote to keep them constant when you adjust for inflation. But keeping taxes constant still makes them higher than allowing them to decline automatically every year, so in Republican theology this counts as a tax hike. And that means no highways for you. Republicans would rather let them crumble into dust than approve so much as a penny in additional gasoline taxes.

Want More Oversight? Hire More Spox.

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 7:24 PM EDT

Via Paul Waldman, USA Today has a quickie analysis of the evolution of committee staff in the House:

Since Republicans took control of the U.S. House in January 2011, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has led a cost-cutting effort that has trimmed staff for House committees by nearly 20%, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. But the number of committee staff responsible for press and communications work has increased by nearly 15% over the same period, according to House spending records.

....Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the numbers are "completely unsurprising. We promised responsible oversight of the Obama administration, and effective oversight requires communicating with the American people."

I love that response from Steel. If you had asked me to defend the indefensible here, I would have spent a few minutes starting at the ceiling and drooling before quietly slinking away in shame. But not Steel! He's a pro. He instantly comes up with something, and apparently manages to say it with a straight face. It's completely ridiculous, but that doesn't matter. It kinda sorta makes sense if you don't actually think about it, and that's good enough.

Anyway, there you have it. Effective oversight requires sending ever more outraged email bombs to your tea party base about Benghazi/IRS/Solyndra/Fast & Furious/Bergdahl/Syria/etc. That's oversight, baby. Jeebus.

Take Two: Hobby Lobby Was About More Than Abortion After All

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 3:18 PM EDT

In the Hobby Lobby case, the only contraceptives at issue were ones that the plaintiffs considered to be abortifacients. Thus my post yesterday that the case was really about abortion: "This is not a ruling that upholds religious liberty. It is a ruling that specifically enshrines opposition to abortion as the most important religious liberty in America."

That was then, this is now:

The Supreme Court on Tuesday confirmed that its decision a day earlier extending religious rights to closely held corporations applies broadly to the contraceptive coverage requirement in the new health care law, not just the handful of methods the justices considered in their ruling....Tuesday's orders apply to companies owned by Catholics who oppose all contraception. Cases involving Colorado-based Hercules Industries Inc., Illinois-based Korte & Luitjohan Contractors Inc. and Indiana-based Grote Industries Inc. were awaiting action pending resolution of the Hobby Lobby case.

Until now, fans of the Hobby Lobby decision have made the point that abortion really is different from most other religious objections to specific aspects of health care. Christian Scientists might forego most medical treatments for themselves, for example, but they don't consider it a sin to assist someone else who's getting medical treatment. Thus they have no grounds to object to insurance that covers it. Conversely, members of some Christian denominations consider abortion to be murder, and obviously this means they have a strong objection to playing even a minor supporting role that helps anyone receive an abortion.

But what now? Is there a similar argument about contraception? Sure, Catholics might consider it sinful, but it's not murder, and as far as I know the church wouldn't consider your soul to be in danger if, say, you drove a Jewish friend to a pharmacy to pick up her birth control pills.1 Nonetheless, the court has now ruled that a religious objection to contraceptives is indeed at the same level as a religious objection to abortion. In other words, just about anything Catholics consider a sin for Catholics is justification for opting out of federal regulations. I wonder if the court plans to apply this to things that other religions consider sinful?

1I could be wrong about this, of course. But I'll bet it's a pretty damn minor sin.

There's Some Serious Weirdness Up In the State of Maine

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 2:21 PM EDT

You wouldn't normally expect Maine to be an epicenter of crackpottery, but ever since they elected tea party darling Paul LePage as their governor, things have been a little weird up north. Actually, more than a little. Over at TPM, they're running an excerpt from Mike Tipping's new book about LePage's tenure, and it turns out that LePage has been surprisingly fascinated by the claims of a local "sovereign citizen" group called the Aroostook Watchmen, which claims that pretty much everything that both Maine and the United States are doing is blatantly illegal. To make their point, they submitted a set of "remonstrances" to a variety of Maine officials, including LePage:

The remonstrances the group submitted to LePage and the legislature accused Maine’s government of being unlawful, of having illegally accepted and used unconstitutional currency (anything other than gold and silver), and of coordinating with UNESCO, UNICEF, NATO, and the UN to deprive Americans of their property rights. An e-mail sent to the governor’s office by Constitutional Coalition spokesperson Phil Merletti, along with the remonstrance document, declared that legislators who had violated their oaths in this way were committing treason and domestic terrorism.

....LePage’s staff, including executive assistant Micki Muller, who reviews the governor’s e-mails, had previously shunted aside requests from Merletti to meet with LePage....This time, however, word of the remonstrances and the press conference made it past the executive office gatekeepers and to the attention of Governor LePage himself. Rather than ignoring the submission and its radical claims, LePage called Merletti at home at 9 a.m. the next morning in order to set up a meeting for that Saturday with members of the Constitutional Coalition. According to a note that Merletti sent to his e-mail list later that day and that was forwarded to LePage and members of his staff, the governor was angry that he hadn’t heard about the remonstrances earlier, and during the call he pledged to fire any staffers found to have been keeping the information from him.

....The Watchmen describe—and e-mails and documents obtained from LePage’s staff through Maine’s Freedom of Access laws confirm—at least eight meetings over a period of nine months in 2013, almost all more than an hour in duration and some lasting almost three hours.

During these regular meetings, according to the participants, the governor was “educated” by a series of “experts” brought in by the Constitutional Coalition on a number of their conspiracy theories. LePage also made a series of promises to the Watchmen that he would assist them in pressing their cases of treason against Eves and Alfond and in pursuing their wider antigovernment aims.

There's much, much more at the link. If you want to read a case study of how someone can apparently go completely off the rails when he's stuck inside a tea party bubble, this is for you.

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China Study Another Link in the Lead-Crime Hypothesis

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 11:48 AM EDT

Chad Orzel thinks I need a new motto: "I'm not saying it was childhood lead exposure, but it was childhood lead exposure." Guilty as charged! And in today's installment of lead-related news, we have a new study from China—a bad region for being a child because they still have a lot of lead around, but a useful region for lead research for the exact same reason.

Thanks to this unfortunate circumstance, a team led by Jianghong Liu was able to set up a prospective study of more than a thousand preschool-age children in the Jiangsu province. "Prospective" means that they chose the children first, measured their blood lead levels, and then began charting their progress. This is generally considered a more reliable methodology than retrospective studies (which look at adults but try to figure out their childhood exposure via, say, tooth analysis) or ecological studies (which look for past correlations between lead and crime in an entire population). Here are the results of the first round of testing, done at age six (error ranges omitted for ease of reading):

General linear modeling showed significant associations between blood lead concentrations and increased scores for teacher-reported behavioral problems. A 1-µg/dL increase in the blood lead concentration resulted in a 0.322, 0.253, and 0.303 increase of teacher-reported behavior scores on emotional reactivity, anxiety problems, and pervasive developmental problems, respectively.

....Blood lead concentrations, even at a mean concentration of 6.4 µg/dL, were associated with increased risk of behavioral problems in Chinese preschool children, including internalizing and pervasive developmental problems. This association showed different patterns depending on age and sex.

It's worth noting that a blood lead level of 6.4 is considered fairly moderate. If childhood lead exposure at this level causes noticeable behavioral problems, it's a sign that even low levels of lead exposure can be quite dangerous. (Behavioral problems were assessed using questionnaires filled out by teachers and parents. That's not an ideal way of doing this, but presumably follow-up studies will include a wider range of techniques for assessing behavior.)

In any case, this single study doesn't prove anything on its own, and obviously six-year-olds are too young to be committing crimes anyway. But it's another data point, and one that will probably produce better evidence either for or against the lead-crime hypothesis over the next decade or so. It's worth keeping an eye on.

Are You a Good Liberal or an Evil Progressive?

| Tue Jul. 1, 2014 10:52 AM EDT

Charles Murray has decided that the real problem with the American left isn't with liberals, it's with progressives:

As a libertarian, I am reluctant to give up the word "liberal." It used to refer to laissez-faire economics and limited government. But since libertarians aren't ever going to be able to retrieve its original meaning, we should start using "liberal" to designate the good guys on the left, reserving "progressive" for those who are enthusiastic about an unrestrained regulatory state, who think it's just fine to subordinate the interests of individuals to large social projects, who cheer the president's abuse of executive power and who have no problem rationalizing the stifling of dissent.

Huh. I wonder what he thinks about those of us who believe that powerful actors in a modern world need to follow clear rules, but don't believe in "unrestrained" regulation; who believe in some large social projects like universal health care but not others; who think the president has probably overstepped his bounds a few times but that the "abuse" epithet is mostly just partisan nonsense; and who don't believe in stifling dissent?

Somehow I suspect that unless I took a just barely left of center approach to these things, Murray would conclude that I'm an evil progressive, not a good liberal. But maybe I'm wrong. I think Murray should create one of his fun little quizzes to determine which of us are liberals and which are progressives. Then we'd know for sure.

Number of Backdoor Searches of NSA Data Too High to Keep Track Of

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 9:15 PM EDT

A few days ago I mentioned that the House had voted to end "backdoor" searches. These are queries of the NSA's surveillance database that are targeted at American citizens who were "inadvertently" spied on during surveillance of foreigners, and the NSA would like you to know that these queries are totally legal; not based on any loopholes; and very definitely not "backdoor."

Be that as it may, Sen. Ron Wyden still wanted to know just how many of these queries take place. In the case of the NSA and the CIA, backdoor queries are allowed only if the goal is related to foreign intelligence gathering. The FBI, however, has no such restriction. They can query all those inadvertent US persons for pretty much any reason at all related to a suspected crime. So how many queries of the NSA database have they made?

There you have it. The FBI has no idea how many time it's queried the NSA database, though it's "substantial." In fact, those records are automatically included every single time the FBI's database is queried. Nonetheless, nobody should be alarmed because the FBI receives only a "small percentage" of the NSA's trillions of records, which means they've probably received no more than a few billion records.

Nothing to see here, folks. You may go about your business.

Hobby Lobby Wasn't About Religious Freedom. It Was About Abortion.

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Elsewhere at Mother Jones, Dana Liebelson collects the eight best lines from Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent in the Hobby Lobby case. Here's what I consider the most telling passage from Samuel Alito's majority opinion:

Kinda reminds you of Bush v. Gore, doesn't it? Alito takes pains to make it clear that his opinion shouldn't be considered precedent for anything except the narrowly specific issue at hand: whether contraceptives that some people consider abortifacients can be excluded from health plans.

I think it's important to recognize what Alito is saying here. Basically, he's making the case that abortion is unique as a religious issue. If you object to anything else on a religious basis, you're probably out of luck. But if you object to abortion on religious grounds, you will be given every possible consideration. Even if your objection is only related to abortion in the most tenuous imaginable way—as it is here, where IUDs are considered to be abortifacients for highly idiosyncratic doctrinal reasons—it will be treated with the utmost deference.

This is not a ruling that upholds religious liberty. It is a ruling that specifically enshrines opposition to abortion as the most important religious liberty in America.