Kevin Drum

White Privilege? What White Privilege?

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 11:54 AM EDT

Here's the latest from the annals of criminal justice in America:

Beverly Hills police officials said Tuesday that it was "extremely unfortunate" that officers handcuffed and detained an African American film producer who was in the city to attend a pre-Emmy party.

Producer Charles Belk "matched the clothing and physical characteristics" of a suspected bank robber when he was pulled over by officers on Friday evening....“Hey, I was ‘tall,’ ‘bald,’ a ‘male’ and ‘black,’ so I fit the description.”

Come on, Charles! Buck up. Mistakes can happen. I'm sure the Beverly Hills PD would have treated a white guy who fit the description of a bank robber exactly the same way. In fact, I'll bet this happens all the time to Bill O'Reilly.

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Chart of the Day: The Federal Deficit Is In Pretty Good Shape These Days

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 10:51 AM EDT

You already know this—don't you?—but just to refresh your memories, here's the latest projection of the federal deficit from the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see, for the entire next decade CBO figures that the deficit will be running at a very manageable 3 percent of GDP, right in line with historical averages. Be sure to show this to all your friends who are consumed with deficit hysteria. There's really not much reason to panic about this.

Now, CBO's forecast doesn't take into account future booms or busts in the economy, since they can't predict those. And as the chart makes crystal clear, that's what causes big changes in the deficit. It's the economy, stupid, not runaway spending. When times are good, the deficit shrinks. When times are bad, it gets worse. If you really want to avoid big deficits in the future, stop obsessing about cutting spending on the poor, and instead spend some time obsessing about economic policies that will help grow the economy.

Obama's Iraq Policy Has Been Pretty Masterly

| Tue Aug. 26, 2014 1:00 PM EDT

I'm not a diehard supporter of Barack Obama's foreign policy. Some of his actions I just plain disagree with: the surge in Afghanistan, the enormous increase in drone use, his almost inhuman patience in putting up with Bibi Netanyahu's nearly open contempt for him. Then there are other actions of his that were arguably justifiable but have worked out less well than he hoped. However, they mostly represent very, very tough problems. And foreign policy is hard—especially now. Almost nobody gets even a small fraction of what they want out of it.

That said, the relentless criticism of Obama's approach toward ISIS strikes me as unusually shortsighted. As near as I can tell, he's handled it almost perfectly so far. If we had offered air support to destroy ISIS six months or a year ago, it probably would have made things worse. Iraq flatly wasn't able to provide the ground troops to complement an air campaign, and America would have shared in the inevitable fiasco. We also would have been explicitly bound to Nouri al-Maliki and his policies, which were the very ones responsible for the rise of ISIS in the first place. The outcome of all this would have been the worst of all possible worlds for American interests.

Instead, Obama allowed Maliki to fail on his own, and then used the leverage of promised American air assistance to engineer his ouster. Needless to say, this hardly guarantees eventual success against ISIS, but is there really any question that it was a necessary precondition for success? I don't think so. Maliki never would have left unless he was forced out, and it was plain that his brutally sectarian governing style was fueling the insurgency, not halting it. He had to leave.

The alternative to Obama's strategy wasn't more aggressive action. That would have been disastrous. Nor would it have made a difference if Obama had left a few troops in Iraq back in 2009. Nor would stronger intervention in Syria have made a difference. It might even have made things worse. The truth is simpler. There's no single reason for the rise of ISIS, but there is a single primary reason: Nouri al-Maliki. Obama saw that clearly and kept his eye on what was important, working patiently and cold-bloodedly toward engineering Maliki's departure. It was hardly a perfect plan, and messiness was always inevitable. Nonetheless, it was the best plan available. Because of it, there's now at least a chance of defeating ISIS.

UPDATE: Does "masterly" go too far? Maybe so. But I was trying to attract attention to my main point: the ISIS threat couldn't even be addressed until Iraq's political dysfunction was addressed first. Unlike a lot of people, Obama recognized that and stuck to a toughminded approach that focused on getting rid of Maliki instead of getting distracted by endless calls for a stronger intervention before Maliki was gone. It wasn't easy, but it was the smart thing to do.

Can the new government fight ISIS more effectively? There's no way of knowing yet. But at least they've been given a chance.

Is Europe's Central Bank Finally Getting Worried About Deflation?

| Tue Aug. 26, 2014 12:21 PM EDT

Brad DeLong notes that Mario Draghi, the head of Europe's central bank, went off text in his speech at Jackson Hole. Here's his summary of Draghi's extended ad-lib:

The speech text says:

  1. The ECB knows that inflation has declined.
  2. The decline in inflation has not led to any decline in expectations of inflation.
  3. THE ECB will, if necessary, within its mandate, use QE and other policies to keep expectations of inflation from declining.

The speech as delivered says:

  1. The ECB knows that inflation has declined.
  2. My usual line is that the decline in inflation is due to temporary factors that will be reversed.
  3. That explanation is now long in the tooth: the longer "temporary" lasts the greater the danger.
  4. In fact, it is too late to "safeguard the firm anchoring of inflation expectations".
  5. Inflationary expectations have already declined.
  6. We will use all the tools we have to reverse this.

Is this deviation a mere line wobble....Is this deviation an audience effect....Or does it signal a recognition on Draghi's part that the Eurozone is heading for a triple dip, and that if he doesn't assemble a coalition to do much more very quickly to boost aggregate demand we will have to change the name "The Great Recession" to something including the D-word, and he will go down in history as the worst central banker since the 1930s?

I would like to know...

I suppose we'd all like to know. The Germans better start taking this stuff seriously pretty soon. They can't stick their heads in the sand and live in the past forever.

Wyoming Is Thinking About Accepting Medicaid Expansion After All

| Tue Aug. 26, 2014 11:54 AM EDT

Michael Hiltzik passes along the news that Wyoming's governor is the latest traitor to the cause of denying health care to poor people no matter what the cost:

The reason for Wyoming's wavering is clear: It's money.

The Health Department says Medicaid expansion could save the state $50 million or more if it expands the program, for which the federal government will pay at least 90%. Meanwhile, Wyoming hospitals say they're losing more than $200 million a year in uncompensated care for people without insurance.

The state Legislature has rejected the expansion, but Republican Gov. Matt Mead has been saying it's time to pack up. He's entering negotiations with the feds for a way to expand Medicaid next year, covering as many as 17,600 low-income residents.

I imagine that before very much longer, most of the other Midwest holdouts will go ahead and accept Medicaid expansion too. That will leave only the hard-core holdouts of the Old South, where the poor are apparently especially undeserving. I guess there must be some kind of difference between poor people in the Midwest and poor people in the South. I wonder what it could be?

Ukraine Claims it Has Captured Russian Soldiers

| Tue Aug. 26, 2014 10:18 AM EDT

Ukraine claims that it now has proof that Russian soldiers have been involved in fighting on Ukrainian soil:

Ukraine released video footage on Tuesday of what it said were 10 captured Russian soldiers, raising tensions as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia arrived in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, for talks later in the day with his Ukrainian counterpart, President Petro O. Poroshenko.

....The release of the videos and the high-level talks came a day after Ukraine accused Russia of sending an armored column across the border, prompting Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the United States ambassador to Ukraine, to express alarm on Twitter. “The new columns of Russian tanks and armor crossing into Ukraine indicates a Russian-directed counteroffensive may be underway. #escalation,” he wrote.

....“Everything was a lie. There were no drills here,” one of the captured Russians, who identified himself as Sergey A. Smirnov, told a Ukrainian interrogator. He said he and other Russians from an airborne unit in Kostroma, in central Russia, had been sent on what was described initially as a military training exercise but later turned into a mission into Ukraine. After having their cellphones and identity documents taken away, they were sent into Ukraine on vehicles stripped of all markings, Mr. Smirnov said.

This kind of thing represents a cusp of some kind. If it's true, Putin has to decide pretty quickly whether to gamble everything on an outright invasion, or whether to back off. If it turns out to be a Ukrainian invention, Putin has to decide whether to use it as a casus belli. These are dangerous times.

UPDATE: Apparently Russia has admitted the soldiers are theirs:

Sources in Moscow have admitted that a number of men captured inside Ukraine were indeed serving Russian soldiers, but said they crossed the border by mistake...."The soldiers really did participate in a patrol of a section of the Russian-Ukrainian border, crossed it by accident on an unmarked section, and as far as we understand showed no resistance to the armed forces of Ukraine when they were detained," a source in Russia's defence ministry told the RIA Novosti agency.

Uh huh. I suppose Putin will now claim that detaining the soldiers is an act of war unless they're immediately released.

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Here's the Latest Right-Wing IRS Fantasy

| Tue Aug. 26, 2014 1:16 AM EDT

Here's a great example of the conservative media bubble at work. I was browsing The Corner a few minutes ago and came across a post telling me that the government has, rather astonishingly, acknowledged that it has another backup of Lois Lerner's missing emails. Judicial Watch, which has been trying to get hold of these emails, sent out a press release trumpeting its discovery:

Department of Justice attorneys for the Internal Revenue Service told Judicial Watch on Friday that Lois Lerner’s emails, indeed all government computer records, are backed up by the federal government in case of a government-wide catastrophe....This is a jaw-dropping revelation. The Obama administration had been lying to the American people about Lois Lerner’s missing emails....The Obama administration has known all along where the email records could be — but dishonestly withheld this information.

Well. That's fascinating. But I wondered what was really up. I went to Google News but all I found were links to conservative news sites. The Judicial Watch story was plastered over all of them: Forbes, The Blaze, NRO, Breitbart, Fox, Townhall, the Washington Examiner, the Free Beacon, and the New York Observer. But none of the usual mainstream news sources seemed to have anything about this.

Except for The Hill. Hooray! So I clicked:

[An] administration official said Justice Department lawyers had dropped no bombshells last week, and that Judicial Watch was mischaracterizing what the government had said.

The official said that Justice lawyers were only referring to tapes backing up IRS emails that were routinely recycled twice a year before 2013, when the investigation into the Tea Party controversy began....The administration official said that the inspector general is examining whether any data can be recovered from the previously recycled back-up tapes and suggested that could be the cause of the confusion between the government and Judicial Watch.

Roger that. What he's saying is that backup tapes are routinely recycled and written over, but it's possible that some of the tapes weren't entirely written over. There's a chance that old emails might still be at the tail end of some of the tapes and could be recovered. And who knows: maybe some of them were Lerner's. This is, as you can imagine, (a) the longest of long shots, and (b) a pretty difficult forensic recovery job even if some parts of the backup tapes contain old messages. It's certainly not a jaw-dropping revelation.

But in right-wing fantasyland, it's no doubt already become conventional wisdom that the feds have some kind of massive government-wide backup system that contains every email ever written by any federal employee. The Obama administration has just been hiding it.

Which is exactly what you'd expect from them, isn't it?

Quote of the Day: Congressmen and Crackpots

| Mon Aug. 25, 2014 7:07 PM EDT

From Jon Chait, responding to Paul Ryan's list of favorite books about economics and democracy—which notably fails to include his former favorite book, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged:

It seems the lesson Ryan has drawn from the harmful publicity surrounding his Rand fixation is not that he shouldn’t associate himself publicly with crackpot authors but merely that he should find different crackpot authors.

Here is Chait's description of Jude Wanniski's most famous book, which earns a place on Ryan's list.

The Way the World Works is a novel argument that the entire history of the world can be explained by changes of tax rates. The fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of the Nazis — Wanniski attempts to explain it all as a result of taxes. It is a work of genuine derangement on the same intellectual level as the sorts of unpublishable hand-scrawled diatribes that I used to scan through when I sorted the mail as a magazine intern.

But...but...but—look! Michael Moore!

Yes, Republicans Really Are Unprecedented in Their Obstructionism

| Mon Aug. 25, 2014 1:48 PM EDT

When we talk about Republican obstruction of judicial nominees in the Senate, the usual way is to look at filibusters and cloture votes. But that can sometimes be misleading, since cloture votes can happen for a variety of reasons. Or we can look at the raw number of seats filled. But that can be misleading too, since this can depend on how aggressive the president is about nominating new judges in the first place. A better way may be to simply look at how long nominees are delayed. That's easier to measure, and long delays mostly happen for only one reason: because the minority party is blocking floor votes.

Via Jonathan Bernstein, the chart on the right comes from @Mansfield2016. It shows pretty clearly what's happened to judicial nominees over the past couple of decades. Under George HW Bush, nominees that made it to the Senate floor were voted on almost immediately. The majority Democrats waited only a few days to schedule a vote.

That jumped suddenly when Bill Clinton became president and Republicans started delaying his nominees. Things settled down and delays plateaued during George W Bush's administration.

And then came Barack Obama. Once more delays spiked. Even after the rules were changed, delays have stayed high, averaging about 80 days. This is far higher than it was under Bush or Clinton. Bernstein comments:

I believe that Senate rules requiring super-majority cloture for judicial nominations are an excellent idea, provided the minority observes the Senate norm of using filibusters rarely. Unfortunately, Republicans simply haven’t abided by longstanding Senate norms. After Obama's election, they suddenly insisted that every nomination required 60 votes — an unprecedented hurdle. They blockaded multiple nominations to the DC Circuit Court. They have, before and after filibuster reform, used Senate rules to delay even nominations that they have intended ultimately to support. Since reform, they have imposed the maximum delay on every single judicial nominee.

Ideally, I'd like to see a compromise that restores the minority's ability to block selected judicial nominees. But right now, the more pressing concern is that if Republicans win a Senate majority in November, they may simply shut down all nominations for two full years. That would be absolutely outrageous. Yet it seems entirely plausible.

That final comment is what makes these numbers even more outrageous. It's fairly normal for a minority party to start delaying nominees in the final year or two of an administration. Obviously they're hoping to win the presidency soon and they want to leave as many seats open as possible for their guy to fill. This tends to inflate the average numbers for an administration.

But that hasn't happened yet for Obama. His numbers for his first five years are far, far higher than Bush's even though Bush's are inflated by delays during his final year in office. It's just another example of the fact that, no, both parties aren't equally at fault for the current level of government dysfunction. Republicans greeted Obama's inauguration with an active plan of maximal obstruction of everything he did, regardless of what it was or how necessary it might be in the face of an epic economic collapse. No other party in recent history has done that. It's a new thing under the sun.

This Time Is Different

| Mon Aug. 25, 2014 10:42 AM EDT

I was chatting with a friend about the relentless, one-sided hawkishness on display yesterday on the morning chat shows, and he responded:

The recurring "stay tuned for" loop are clips of McCain ("We never should have left"), Graham ("ISIS no longer JV"), Ryan ("What's the president's plan for eradicating ISIS?"). Over and over again. Nowhere are clips of people urging caution or restraint. War is great news, is action, is drama. Whether consciously or not, the media simply drives inevitably to pushing for a clash.

It's really beyond belief. Israel invades Lebanon and gets Hezbollah out of the deal. We arm the mujahideen and get the Taliban and Al Qaeda out of the deal. We depose Saddam Hussein and play kingmaker with Nouri al-Maliki, and we get ISIS out of the deal. But hey—this time is different. Really. This time we'll be done once and for all if we just go in and spend a decade wiping the theocratic butchers of ISIS off the map. This time there won't be any blowback. This time we'll fix the Middle East once and for all. This time things can't possibly get any worse. Right?

Of course, the hawks always have Munich, don't they? Always Munich. And so we need to fight. We need troops. We need leadership. And no one with political aspirations really wants to argue the point. There's no future in siding with the thugs, is there?

Besides, maybe this time really is different.