Kevin Drum

Abortion Is Not Murder

| Mon Aug. 3, 2015 3:49 PM EDT

Ramesh Ponnuru comments on Planned Parenthood's sale of fetal tissue from the abortions it performs:

A recent Sarah Silverman tweet distilled one argument many liberals are making about the Planned Parenthood videos into a few characters: ”Abortion is still legal in the great U.S of A. It would be insane not to use fetal tissue 4 science & education in such cases. #StandwithPP.”

The death penalty is also still legal in our great country. Should we employ methods of execution so as to yield the highest number of usable organs?....

Whenever I write about abortion, I usually get a bunch of tweets or emails asking if I even understand the conservative position. Answer: of course I do. Most conservatives say that abortion is murder. Given that premise, their opposition to funding abortion, legalizing abortion, using some day-after pills, selling fetal tissue, and so forth, makes sense.

So I'm going to ask the mirror image question here: does Ponnuru understand the liberal position on abortion? Most of us don't think of fetuses as persons, which means abortion doesn't involve killing a human being in any meaningful sense. Given that premise, our support of funding abortion, legalizing abortion, promoting day-after pills, selling fetal tissue, and so forth, makes sense.

To us lefties, the death penalty involves killing a human being. Abortion doesn't. So it's perfectly reasonable to have different views about how the remains are treated in each case.

POSTSCRIPT: There are, of course, nuances in these positions regarding abortion on both sides. We're all familiar enough with them that it seems unnecessary to repeat them here. That said, at its most basic, liberals don't generally consider aborting a fetus to involve killing a human being. Obviously the rest of our views follow from that.

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Malaysia Announces Biggest "Donor Contribution" In History

| Mon Aug. 3, 2015 2:42 PM EDT

From the Wall Street Journal:

Malaysia’s anticorruption agency said Monday that 2.6 billion ringgit (about $700 million) was deposited into Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal account and that the money was from a “donor contribution,” not from 1Malaysia Development Bhd, a state investment fund also known as 1MDB.

$700 million! That makes Sheldon Adelson look like a piker. I think American donors need to pick up their game.

Obama's New Power Plant Regulations Are Modest, But Still a Big Deal

| Mon Aug. 3, 2015 12:51 PM EDT

President Obama is unveiling his plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants today, and it's generally being hailed as the most important environmental regulation of his presidency. Tim McDonnell has the details here. Rebecca Leber outlines the probable legal attack on Obama's plan here.

But Michael Grunwald isn't buying the hype. He's not impressed with Obama's plan to reduce power plant emissions 32 percent by 2030:

That’s nice, but by the end of this year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the power sector’s emissions will already be down 15.4 percent from 2005 levels — about half the anticipated reductions in just a decade, and before the plan goes into effect. In other words, even under the strengthened plan, the rate of decarbonization is expected to slow over the next 15 years. What, did you think the strongest action ever taken to combat climate change would actually accelerate the nation’s efforts to combat climate change?

....If you’re really ranking them, the Clean Power Plan is at best the fourth-strongest action that Obama has taken to combat climate change, behind his much-maligned 2009 stimulus package, which poured $90 billion into clean energy and jump-started a green revolution; his dramatic increases in fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, which should reduce our oil consumption by 2 million barrels per day; and his crackdown on mercury and other air pollutants, which has helped inspire utilities to retire 200 coal-fired power plants in just five years.

This is a little unfair in two ways. First, the 15 percent reduction of the past decade was the low-hanging fruit. The initial cuts are always the easiest. The next 15 percent will be harder, and mandating that it happen at about the same rate is more stringent than it sounds.

Second, the decrease over the last decade happened mostly because gas-fired plants became cheaper than coal thanks to the boom in natural gas fracking. That's a one-time deal, and there's no guarantee that something similar will drive further decreases. Having a mandate in place forces it to happen regardless of future events in the energy market.

That said, Grunwald has a point in a technical sense: the reductions mandated in the EPA plan are good but not great, and the mandates for renewable energy are pretty unambitious. Obama could have done better.

Or could he? That's a never-ending source of disagreement. Should Obama have gotten a bigger stimulus? Should he have insisted on a public option in Obamacare? Could he have put in place stronger financial regulations than he got in Dodd-Frank? Could he have negotiated a stronger treaty with Iran?

The answers are: maybe, maybe, maybe, and maybe. We'll never know the absolute maximum that Obama could have gotten in these situations. The same is true for the EPA regs. Congress and the courts—and the public—will have something to say about them, and it's not clear if Obama could have safely gone further than he did. We'll never know.

In the meantime, Grunwald is right to say that the new mandates aren't really all that tough. At the same time, the fact that we have any power plant mandates at all really is a big deal. Just setting the precedent that the federal government should regulate carbon emissions from power plants is a critical first step, and if it survives court challenges and congressional temper tantrums it will likely lead to further cutbacks in the future. And that's a big deal.

Jeb Bush Takes on Lazy Bum Members of Congress

| Mon Aug. 3, 2015 12:01 PM EDT

Steve Benen points us to Jeb Bush's latest YouTube video: a cheap 15-second spot calling out members of Congress for being lazy bums and suggesting that the laziest ones deserve to have their pay docked. "Bush's proposed solution is quite foolish," Benen says, but is it? If Jeb were serious, then yes, it would be pretty dumb. But I'm sure he knows perfectly well that presidents aren't allowed to cut congressional pay any more than Congress can cut the president's pay. This is pretty clear from the oddness of his phrasing—is he talking about Congress or about individual members of Congress or what?—which means he's not really proposing anything at all.

So what's the point? Once again, affinity marketing. Lots of people think Congress is doing a lousy job, and Jeb wants them to know that he agrees. But is it good affinity marketing? Well, the YouTube spot went up two weeks ago, and so far has gotten 767 views. That's about as well as my cat videos perform. So this is probably just a routine attempt to throw some mud on the wall and see if it sticks. If it does, great. It becomes a campaign message. If not, move on. After all, you don't think Jeb actually cares about this, do you?

One Pollster Has Stopped Polling the Republican Primary. Will Others Follow?

| Mon Aug. 3, 2015 12:28 AM EDT

I've been wondering for a while who the first pollster would be to stop polling the Republican primary. Today I got my answer:

As candidates jostle to make the cut for the first GOP presidential debate this week, the McClatchy-Marist Poll has temporarily suspended polling on primary voter choices out of concern that public polls are being misused to decide who will be in and who will be excluded.

....“It’s a problem when it’s shaping who gets to sit at the table,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute....“It’s making candidates change their behavior. Kasich is trying to get a big bounce. Rand Paul has a video with a chain saw. Lindsay Graham is hitting cell phones with golf clubs,” Miringoff said. “Now the public polls are affecting the process they’re supposed to be measuring.”

Miringoff is also concerned that candidates may be excluded from the debate due to differences between 10th and 11th place that are so close they're within the margin of error. I think those concerns are overblown, but that doesn't mean they aren't real. There's clearly a certain amount of arbitrariness at work here.

I doubt that very many outfits will pull out of primary polling. But a few more might, and of course that also affects which candidates will make the cut. In the end, then, McClatchy might be kidding itself here. There's just no way for news organizations that make editorial and placement judgments to avoid affecting the events they report on. It might be best to accept that and deal with it openly instead of pretending they can make it go away.

As Federal Aid Goes Up, College Costs Rise Enough to Gobble It All Up

| Sun Aug. 2, 2015 5:46 PM EDT

Josh Mitchell of the Wall Street Journal writes today about the spiraling cost of college:

The federal government has boosted aid to families in recent decades to make college more affordable. A new study from the New York Federal Reserve faults these policies for enabling college institutions to aggressively raise tuitions.

....Conservatives have long held that generous federal-aid policies inflate higher-education costs, a viewpoint famously articulated by then-Education Secretary William Bennett in a 1987 column that came to be dubbed the Bennett Hypothesis.

Regular readers know that I have at least a bit of sympathy for this view.  But Mitchell doesn't really explain how the data supports this hypothesis. So I'll give it a try. As you can see on the right, federal aid increased very modestly from 2000 to 2009. Then it went up sharply starting around 2010. If this aid were truly helping make college more affordable, out-of-pocket expenses for students (i.e., actual cash outlays net of loans and grants) would start to flatten out or even go down.

But that hasn't happened. You can lay a straightedge on the red line in the bottom chart. Basically, families received no net benefit from increased federal aid. Actual cash outlays rose at exactly the same rate as they had been rising before.

My guess is that this will continue until universities get to the point at which students and families simply don't value higher education enough to pay any more. That's the gating item, not aid programs. When out-of-pocket expenses finally equal the value that students put on a college degree, prices will stabilize.1 That's my guess, anyway.

The Journal article has more on this, and the Fed study is here if you want to read more about the methodology—much more sophisticated than mine—that the authors used to come to a similar conclusion.

1Actually, it's when the perceived value of a college degree equals current cash outlays plus whatever burden students associate with future loan paybacks. However, the latter is pretty tricky to quantify since it varies widely depending on the university, the student's major, and their subjective discount rate.

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Tell Us What You Really Think About Donald Trump

| Sat Aug. 1, 2015 7:23 PM EDT

I've sort of promised myself not to write about Donald Trump, but (a) it's a weekend, and (b) David Fahrenthold has a pretty entertaining piece about Trump in the Washington Post today. Here's a brief excerpt of some of the reactions Fahrenthold got to a variety of Trump's blatherings:

Mark Krikorian, a foe of illegal immigration, on Trump's immigration ideas: “Trump is like your Uncle George at Thanksgiving dinner, saying he knows how to solve all the problems. It’s not that he’s always wrong. It’s just that he’s an auto mechanic, not a policy guy.”

David Goldwyn, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, on Trump's plan to fight ISIS by simply bombing them and then taking all their oil: “That is sheer lunacy on so many counts, it’s hard to start.”

Some anonymous sources on the same idea: “Oil-industry experts expressed skepticism about this plan. Skepticism, in fact, may not be a strong-enough word.”

Michael Tanner of Cato, on Trump's endless vision of new building projects combined with his insistence on lowering taxes: “You can’t spend more and collect less. That’s kind of basic math. You can argue about how the math adds up in the other people’s plans. But there’s math there. This, there’s just no math.”

Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute on Trump's plan to jack up tariffs on countries he doesn't like: “If you thought this had a ghost of a chance — which it doesn’t — you would sell all your stocks,” because of the damage that a trade war would do to the U.S. economy.

You know, when Mark Krikorian is critical of your anti-immigration ideas; Michael Tanner is skeptical of your tax-cutting ideas; and oil companies want no part of your oil-stealing ideas, you just know there's something wrong.

Anyway, Fahrenthold's piece is worth a weekend click. And you might as well do it while you can. We won't have Trump to kick around forever.

Our Anti-ISIS Program in Syria Is a Bad Joke

| Sat Aug. 1, 2015 11:44 AM EDT

So how are we doing in our efforts to train moderate Syrian allies to help us in the fight against ISIS? Here's the New York Times two days ago:

A Pentagon program to train moderate Syrian insurgents to fight the Islamic State has been vexed by problems of recruitment, screening, dismissals and desertions that have left only a tiny band of fighters ready to do battle.

Those fighters — 54 in all — suffered perhaps their most embarrassing setback yet on Thursday. One of their leaders, a Syrian Army defector who recruited them, was abducted in Syria near the Turkish border, along with his deputy who commands the trainees....Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter has acknowledged the shortfalls, citing strict screening standards, which have created a backlog of 7,000 recruits waiting to be vetted. Mr. Carter has insisted the numbers will increase.

Okay, I guess 54 is a....start. So how good are they? Here's the New York Times today:

A Syrian insurgent group at the heart of the Pentagon’s effort to fight the Islamic State came under intense attack on Friday....The American-led coalition responded with airstrikes to help the American-aligned unit, known as Division 30, in fighting off the assault....The attack on Friday was mounted by the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda. It came a day after the Nusra Front captured two leaders and at least six fighters of Division 30, which supplied the first trainees to graduate from the Pentagon’s anti-Islamic State training program.

....“This wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” said one former senior American official, who was working closely on Syria issues until recently, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence assessments....Division 30 said in a statement that five of its fighters were killed in the firefight on Friday, 18 were wounded and 20 were captured by the Nusra Front. It was not clear whether the 20 captives included the six fighters and two commanders captured a day earlier.

Let's see, that adds up to either 43 or 51 depending on how you count. Starting with 54, then, it looks like Division 30 has either 11 or 3 fighters left, and no commanders. But apparently that's not so bad!

A spokesman for the American military, Col. Patrick S. Ryder, wrote in an email statement that “we are confident that this attack will not deter Syrians from joining the program to fight for Syria,” and added that the program “is making progress.”

....[A senior] defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence reports, described what he called “silver linings” to the attack on Friday: that the trainees had fought effectively in the battle, and that coalition warplanes responded quickly with airstrikes to support them.

The trainees fought effectively? There are no more than a dozen still able to fight. That's not the same definition of "effective" that most of us have. As for the US Air Force responding quickly, that's great. But the quality of the US Air Force has never really been in question.

This is starting to make Vietnam look like a well-oiled machine. Stay tuned.

The Clinton Rules, Tax Record Edition

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 5:01 PM EDT

I was sitting in the living room this afternoon and Hopper jumped into my lap. So I told Marian to turn the TV to CNN and I'd watch the news until Hopper released me. The first thing I saw was John Berman teasing a segment about Hillary Clinton releasing a health statement plus eight years of tax records. In other words, pretty routine stuff for any serious presidential candidate. But when Berman tossed to Brianna Keilar, here's what she said:

KEILAR: When you think of a document dump like this, you normally think of, uh, in a way, sort of having something to hide. But the Clinton campaign trying to make the point that they're putting out this information and they're trying to be very transparent.

Talk about the Clinton rules! Hillary Clinton releases nearly a decade's worth of tax records, and the first thing that pops into Keilar's mind is that this is probably an effort to hide something. But hey! Let's be fair. The Clinton campaign says it's actually so that people can see her tax records. But they would say that, wouldn't they?

Unbelievable. If any other candidate released eight years of tax records, it would be reported as the candidate releasing eight years of tax records. But when Hillary does it, there's very likely something nefarious going on. God help us.

Friday Cat Blogging - 31 July 2015

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 2:50 PM EDT

Hopper (left) and Hilbert are so entranced by something or other that even my sister wants to know what they're looking at. My guess: a dust mote in the cat dimension.

Speaking of my sister, she is promising some guest cat blogging for next week. Will she come through? Tune in next Friday to find out!