Kevin Drum

Why Did Lindsey Graham Vote Against Hurricane Sandy Relief in 2013? Here Are Half a Dozen Guesses.

| Tue Oct. 6, 2015 11:41 AM EDT

South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham voted against a $51 billion aid bill for New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, but feels differently about federal aid for the devastating floods that have racked his state. "Let's just get through this thing, and whatever it costs, it costs," Graham told Wolf Blitzer yesterday. Blitzer then asked him why he had opposed Sandy relief:

"I'm all for helping the people in New Jersey. I don't really remember me voting that way," Graham said. Pressed further, he said: "Anyway, I don't really recall that, but I'd be glad to look and tell you why I did vote no, if I did."

Well, yes, he did indeed vote against Sandy aid. I don't know why he did it either, but I can take a few guesses:

  • He was pissed off over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.
  • He was pissed off over the recently concluded fiscal cliff negotiations, which Republicans lost.
  • He was pissed off over the national debt and wanted to make a point about out-of-control spending before the upcoming debt ceiling showdown.
  • He was pissed off over sequester caps that prevented big increases in military spending.
  • He was pissed off over flood insurance provisions in the bill, which had been loudly denounced by the Club for Growth.
  • He was pissed off over alleged pork in the aid bill.

Alternatively, Graham didn't really think about it at all, which is why it's slipped his mind by now. Maybe he just vaguely figured the bill would pass, so this was a chance to demonstrate fiscal toughness without running the risk of being held personally responsible for enormous human suffering in New Jersey. After all, 35 other Republican senators voted against it too. So why not join them?

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Thanks to the NSA, Data Sharing With Europe Just Got a Little Harder

| Tue Oct. 6, 2015 11:11 AM EDT

The long arm of Edward Snowden just got a little longer today:

Europe’s highest court on Tuesday struck down an international agreement that had made it easy for companies to move people’s digital data between the European Union and the United States. The ruling, by the European Court of Justice, could make it more difficult for global technology giants — including the likes of Amazon and Apple, Google and Facebook — to collect and mine online information from their millions of users in the 28-member European Union.

So what does this have to do with Snowden? Since 2000, a "Safe Harbor" agreement has allowed US companies to store personal data on European nationals as long as the companies comply with a specific set of rules to minimize abuse. At the time, it was commercial abuse that everyone had in mind. Today it's government abuse:

Tuesday’s decision stems from a complaint lodged in 2013 by Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems over Facebook’s compliance with EU data-privacy rules. In his charge filed to the Irish data-protection authority, the U.S. social-media company’s lead regulator in Europe, Mr. Schrems claimed that allegations by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed Facebook wasn’t sufficiently protecting users’ data because it is subject to mass surveillance in the U.S.

There are workarounds for this, but they're complicated and burdensome. What's more, efforts to reach an updated agreement will be difficult since the court ruling allows privacy regulators in every country to set up their own rules. This means that negotiations with the EU almost certainly have to include every national regulator who wants a voice, since each one can essentially veto an agreement in their own country.

Alternatively, the US could announce major reforms to its NSA spying programs. Just kidding, of course. We all know that's unpossible.

Coming Soon: Quantum Computing on Your Desktop PC?

| Tue Oct. 6, 2015 12:44 AM EDT

Today has been pretty dull in the world of political news, so let's continue trawling other parts of the global knowledge ecosystem for interesting tidbits. This one looks potentially important:

For decades, researchers have been trying to build a computer that harnesses the enormous potential of quantum mechanics. Now engineers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia have overcome the final hurdle, by creating a quantum logic gate in silicon — the same material that today's computer chips are made from.

The newly developed device allows two quantum bits — or qubits — to communicate and perform calculations together, which is a crucial requirement for quantum computers. Even better, the researchers have also worked out how to scale the technology up to millions of qubits, which means they now have the ability to build the world's first quantum processor chip and, eventually, the first silicon-based quantum computer.

Quantum computing is sort of like fusion power: constantly right around the corner, but never quite there. The fundamental problem is that qubits suffer from decoherence unless they're kept completely isolated from their surrounding environment, which is pretty tough since they also need to communicate with other qubits in order to be useful. Researchers have gotten a lot better at controlling qubits in recent years, but as the UNSW paper points out, this has required the use of fairly exotic materials: "single photons, trapped ions, superconducting circuits, single defects or atoms in diamond or silicon, and semiconductor quantum dots."

By contrast, a two-qubit logic gate that can be implemented in silicon using standard lithographic techniques is a whole different matter. If this turns out to be for real, chips containing thousands or millions of qubits are finally within practical reach.

This would be very cool, though only for a certain subset of problems amenable to massive parallel processing. This is inherent in the difference between standard computers and quantum computers. A standard computer with, say, 50 bits, can be in any one of 250 states at a single time. That's about a quadrillion states. This state changes with every beat of the computer's internal clock, and eventually you get an answer to whatever problem you've programmed the computer to solve. By contrast, a quantum computer with 250 qubits can be in a quadrillion states simultaneously thanks to an aspect of quantum weirdness called superposition. Once you set up the program, you just collapse the quantum state and the answer is spit out instantly.

This is not the kind of thing you'd use to write an iPhone app. But it could be used to break some public-key encryption systems. It might also be useful for things like modeling protein folding, which is fundamentally a quantum problem that requires a tremendous amount of computing time using traditional computers. There's also potential for exponentially faster database queries.

And one other thing: it's possible that large-scale quantum computing could lead to breakthroughs in emulating human thought processes and speeding up the creation of artificial intelligence. Maybe.

Anyway, it's fascinating stuff, and it seems as if useful quantum computing may be finally getting within reach. If it does, it would blow away Moore's law for certain kinds of problems—possibly many more than we think once we get the hang of writing a whole different kind of code. In a few years, maybe we'll even get customer support voice recognition systems to work properly.

Do You Spend an Hour Waiting For Your Doctor?

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 10:51 PM EDT

A new study has been making the rounds today. Over at JAMA, a team of researchers used one survey to calculate average time spent in face-to-face time with a doctor and another survey to calculate total average "clinic time" (wait time plus doctor time). If you subtract doctor time from clinic time, you get average wait time. That's shown in the chart on the right.

But something isn't right here. The takeaway is that minorities tend to have longer wait times than whites, which wouldn't surprise me at all. (They also have longer travel times.) But even whites have an average wait time of one hour. That's nowhere near this white boy's experience for any of the doctors/medical systems I've ever been part of. What's more, other studies suggest that average wait time is around 20 minutes or so, which seems more likely.

So....I'm not sure what's going on here. Something about this study doesn't seem right, and I don't know if it's in the methodology or in the interpretation everyone is putting on it. In any case, if you read about this study, I'd take it with a grain of salt for the moment.

The World Has Gone Crazy Over Ad Blocking

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 9:37 PM EDT

It's pretty amazing. Ad blockers have been around forever. I've been using AdBlock Plus for nearly a decade and nobody ever cared. It was just a quiet little thing that a few power users knew about.

But as soon as Apple decided to allow ad blocking on the iPhone, suddenly the world went nuts. News headlines exploded. Half the sites I visit now check for ad blockers and hit me with guilt-inducing messages about how I'm bankrupting them if I decline to read their latest Flash creations and bouncing gif animations. Hell, I just got one of these messages on For a while, the Washington Post randomly declined to let me read their articles at all unless I removed my ad blocker.

I've got one question and one comment about this. The comment is this: Screw you, Apple. Everything was fine until you decided to barge in. The question is this: Is publisher panic over loss of ad revenue rational? Genuine question. I understand that mobile is where all the ad dollars are, and I understand that Apple accounts for a sizeable chunk of the mobile market. But is ad blocking ever likely to become a mass phenomenon, or will it continue to be used only by power users? I suppose there's no way to know. In any case, the recent hysteria over ad blocking sure does show the incredible PR power of Apple. If you take something that's been around forever—4G LTE, large screens, ad blocking—and slap it on an iPhone, everyone goes nuts. It's Apple's world and the rest of us are just pawns in the games they play.

California Legalizes Assisted Suicide For Terminal Patients

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 4:20 PM EDT

After months of maintaining a stony silence about California's right-to-die bill, Gov. Jerry Brown signed it today:

The Golden Rule isn't always the best guide to public policy, but in this case I think it is. California has an obligation to make sure assisted suicide isn't abused, either by doctors rubber stamping requests or by friends or relatives pressuring sick patients to end their lives. Beyond that, though, deciding when and how to die is about as personal a decision as someone can make. It's not that assisted suicide doesn't affect other people—it does—but as a matter of public policy it's best for the state to remain resolutely neutral. This is something that should be left up to the patient, her doctor, and whichever of her friends, family, and clergy she decides to involve.

The text of the bill is here. Brown did the right thing today by signing it.

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House Dems Fight Back on Benghazi

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 2:14 PM EDT

A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton aide Cheryl Mills testified before the Benghazi committee. Apparently several Republican members of the committee talked to reporters about this. Here is Politico on September 3:

Raising alarms on the right, Mills, Clinton’s former chief of staff at the State Department, also told the House Select Committee on Benghazi that she reviewed and made suggestions for changes to the government's official, final report on what happened in Benghazi, according to a separate, GOP source familiar with what she said.

The source said it “call[s] into question the ‘independence’” of the report's conclusions....The report was supposed to be independent from state officials that may be involved, and the GOP argues top officials should not have had input, long questioning how independent the findings were.

Today, in the wake of Rep. Kevin McCarthy's boasting about how the Benghazi committee had been a great tool to bring down Hillary, Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, lobbed a shot across the bow of the Republican chairman:

Republicans began leaking inaccurate information about Ms. Mills’ interview within minutes after your public declaration that it should be treated as classified....During her interview, Ms. Mills corroborated both Ambassador Pickering’s testimony and the Inspector General’s findings:

Q: Did you ever, in that process, attempt to exert influence over the direction of the ARB’s investigation?

A: No.

Q: Did you ever try to—did Secretary Clinton ever try to exert influence over the direction of their investigation?

A: No.

Ms. Mills also explained that the Secretary’s objective in selecting members of the ARB was, “could they be people who could give hard medicine if that was what was needed. And I felt like, in the end, that team was a team that would speak whatever were their truths or observations to the Department so that we could learn whatever lessons we needed to learn.”

....We believe it is time to begin releasing the transcripts of interviews conducted by the Select Committee in order to correct the public record after numerous inaccurate Republican leaks....Please notify us within five days if you believe any information in the full transcript should be withheld from the American people.

No response yet from committee chairman Trey Gowdy, who has insisted all along that the Benghazi investigation is purely an enlightened search for the truth with no trace of partisan overtones. But I'm all in favor of holding all of the committee's hearings in public with occasional exceptions for genuinely classified testimony. Stay tuned.

Can Donald Trump Sink the TPP?

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 10:29 AM EDT

A last-minute deal has finally been reached on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and concerns abound. Paul Ryan is concerned about dairy products. Sander Levin is concerned about cars. In Louisiana they're concerned about sugar. The whole deal is oozing with parochial local concerns.

So will it pass? A couple of months ago, I would have said yes, and I guess I still do. But I'm a little less sure thanks to the Donald Trump effect. He's opposed to the deal—there's no telling why, really—and he's shown a genius in the past for picking out specific details about various issues and then flogging them to death. So I wonder: what's he going to pick out about the TPP? It might be something ordinary, like currency manipulation provisions, or a general attack on President Obama's lousy negotiating skills. Equally likely, though, he'll somehow find something in the treaty that no one else is really paying attention to, and then twist it into a populist attack that really resonates with the public. If he does that successfully, it's just possible that he could derail the deal.

I'm not sure what odds I'd put on that. But not zero. So far, Trump has mostly been a loudmouth who hasn't fundamentally changed the political landscape. But there's a chance he could do it here. He's worth watching.

Arming the Opposition: A Compendium of Failure

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 9:20 AM EDT

A couple of days ago I linked to a Phil Carter piece about why arm-and-train missions in underdeveloped countries tended to fail. Today the New York Times has a longish roundup of our failures, and even I was a little surprised by the sheer number of countries we've bungled:

The setbacks have been most pronounced in three countries....Pentagon-trained army and police in Iraq’s Anbar Province....several thousand American-backed government forces and militiamen in Afghanistan’s Kunduz Syria, a $500 million Defense Department program to train local rebels to fight the Islamic State has produced only a handful of soldiers.

In northwest Africa, the United States has spent more than $600 million....Morocco to Chad. American officials once heralded Mali’s military as an exemplary partner. But in 2012, battle-hardened Islamist fighters returned from combat in Libya to rout the military, including units trained by United States Special Forces....In Yemen, American-trained troops and counterterrorism forces largely disbanded when Houthi rebels overran the capital last year.

Bright spot....oust the Shabab, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia....The American government has invested nearly $1 billion....But even with the gains, the Shabab have been able to carry out bombings in Mogadishu, the capital, and in neighboring countries, including massacres at a university and a shopping mall in Kenya in the past two years.

Karl Eikenberry, a former military commander and then US ambassador in Afghanistan, sums it up pretty well: "Our track record at building security forces over the past 15 years is miserable." Maybe it's time we faced up to this.

Ask Dr. Science: Campaign Trail Edition

| Sun Oct. 4, 2015 12:55 PM EDT

Presidential candidates have been asking a lot of questions lately. Science can help answer them, but this year scientists are in notably short supply on the campaign trail. Asked about the age of the earth, Marco Rubio famously told GQ, "I'm not a scientist, man." Likewise, Mitch McConnell is not a scientist, Rick Scott is not a scientist, John Boehner is not a scientist, Joni Ernst is not a scientist, Bobby Jindal is not a scientist, and Hillary Clinton is not a scientist—just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain. Luckily, I can help. Here are answers to some of the most pressing questions asked by major party candidates recently.

Bernie Sanders: "Why are we the only major country that doesn’t guarantee health care for all?"

In 1986 James Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work in public choice theory, which can shed some light on this. In layman's terms, public choice theory says you should follow the money. So let's follow it. Universal health care is expensive. This means higher taxes, which rich people don't like. Conservative parties cater to the rich, so they generally oppose expansions in health care coverage. In the US, the rich are the richest of all, and the Republican Party therefore caters to them more enthusiastically than anywhere else in the world. As a result, they're more rabidly opposed to national health care than any other conservative party in a major country.

In other words, it's because no other country has the Republican Party.

Ben Carson: "Gravity, where did it come from?"

Well, Ben, when a four-dimensional pseudo-Riemannian manifold and a Landau–Lifshitz stress-energy tensor love each other very much, they produce a geodesic in curved spacetime. And that's the story of gravity.

Kevin McCarthy: "Everyone thought Hillary was unbeatable, right?"

Let's look at this statistically. According to a CNN poll from last year, 44 percent of respondents thought it "very likely" and 34 percent thought it "somewhat likely" that Hillary would win the Democratic nomination. Let's assign p=.9 to "very" and p=.65 to "somewhat." Then P(Nomination) = .62. The same poll assigned Hillary a conditional probability P(Presidency|Nomination) of .51. Thus, since P(A ∩ B) = P(A) * P(B|A), her perceived chance of winning the presidency was p=.32 and her chance of being beaten was a whopping p=.68. She was light years away from being considered unbeatable.

Or, in simpler terms you're more likely to understand, there was never any need to brag about the awesome Hillary-smashing power of the Benghazi committee. You're an idiot.

Donald Trump: "Let Russia do it. Let 'em get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?"

In the neorealist school of international relations, hegemonic stability theory tells us that the world is a better place when a single nation-state, or hegemon, is the dominant player on the global stage. Vladimir Putin is challenging us for this role. If he succeeds, the outcome is either a disastrous multipolar world or an equally disastrous world in which Russia is dominant. Ditto for China. In other words, Russia is killing us! China is killing us! We need to beat them!

Marco Rubio: "How can it be that we sent a Republican majority to Congress and yet they’re still not able to stop our country from sliding in the wrong direction?”

The study of political science can provide some insight into this phenomenon. In "Decision Making in Political Systems: Veto Players in Presidentialism, Parliamentarism, Multicameralism and Multipartyism," George Tsebelis explains the crippling effect of having too many agents who can obstruct legislative agendas. "The potential for policy change," he says, "decreases with (a) the number of veto players, (b) the lack of congruence (dissimilarity of policy positions among veto players) and (c) the cohesion (similarity of policy positions among the constituent units of each veto player) of these players."

Taking those one by one, (a) Democrats can filibuster your endless Obamacare temper tantrums, President Obama can veto them, and the Supreme Court can send you packing; (b) the Republican Party has gone nuts; and (c) Democrats are united in stopping you. Did you really not know this?

Carly Fiorina: "Chuck, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck. Do you think this is not happening?"

Of course it's happening. In Hugh Everett's relative state formulation of quantum mechanics, the multiverse is composed of a quantum superposition of an infinite number of increasingly divergent, non-communicating parallel universes or quantum worlds. Thus, every possible thing is happening at every possible instant. And stop calling me Chuck.

Hillary Clinton: "Another conspiracy theory?"