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Will Republicans Repeal Obamacare if They Win Next Year?

| Mon Jun. 15, 2015 11:24 AM EDT

Sarah Kliff argues that if Obamacare survives King v. Burwell, then it's here to stay. There are no further legal challenges that could kill it. Political momentum to repeal it is waning. And most important, the number of enrollees is growing:

Obamacare now has a large and growing constituency: an estimated 10.2 million Americans get coverage through the health law's marketplace (and millions more through Obamacare's Medicaid expansion).

....As more and more people sign up for Obamacare — the Congressional Budget Office expects 24 million people to sign up by 2024 — the politics of repealing Obamacare become worse and worse. The constituency that the law has already developed just keeps growing.

This helps explain why Republicans are tripping over themselves to come up with plans to replace Obamacare's insurance subsidies should the Supreme Court rule against them. Those proposals implicitly acknowledge that it would be bad for Republicans to allow millions of Americans' tax subsidies to dry up, even though legislators still staunchly oppose the law.

I've made exactly this argument myself, so you'd think I'd be in total agreement. But if anything, I think I'm more nervous than I was a year or two ago. I keep expecting Republican fury over Obamacare to wane, but it never seems to. It seems to be every bit the white whale it was six years ago, and it promises to be a big applause line in the 2016 presidential campaign yet again.

So how could repeal happen? Easy. Republicans will control the House in 2017, so that's no problem. Maintaining control of the Senate (narrowly) is a distinct possibility. There's also a perfectly reasonable chance of having President Walker in the Oval Office, and we all know he'd be perfectly happy to sign a repeal bill.

But even in a minority, Democrats would filibuster a repeal, wouldn't they? Sure. But so what? Republicans would simply make it part of a budget bill and pass it by reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority. Any Senate parliamentarian who isn't a hack would determine that this is a violation of the rules, but all that means is that Republicans need to install a hack as parliamentarian who will do what they want. They've done it before, after all. Problem solved. Obamacare repealed.

Now, granted, Republicans have to win both the Senate and the White House for this to happen. The odds are probably against that, but not by a lot. It's well within the realm of possibility. And that would leave only a very thin reed to stand on: the fact that repealing Obamacare would immiserate millions of people and once again turn health care into a living hell for the poor.

Would that be enough to give Republicans pause? I wish I still believed it would be. But I don't. A harsh streak of just plain meanness has taken over the GOP in recent years, and I haven't seen any sign that it's fading away. Maybe this is merely partisan bitterness on my part. I sure hope so. But as near as I can tell, they'd actively enjoy making the lives of the poor ever more harsh in order to save the rich from paying a few taxes. I sure hope we don't get to find out.

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Greece Talks Once Again (Yawn) Coming Down to the Wire

| Mon Jun. 15, 2015 10:31 AM EDT

Once again, talks with Greece are coming down to the last hour:

Last-ditch talks aimed at breaking the impasse between Athens and its international creditors have collapsed in acrimony with European Union officials dismissing Greece’s latest reform package as incomplete in a step that pushes the country closer to leaving the eurozone.

What had been billed as a last attempt to close the gap between Alexis Tsipras’s anti-austerity government and the bodies keeping debt-stricken Greece afloat was halted late on Sunday after less than an hour of negotiations in Brussels.

You can click the link for more details, but the story is pretty much the same as always. Greece wants to accept modest reforms (a bit higher VAT here and there, some reforms to reduce tax evasion) while the Europeans and the IMF want bigger concessions, including cuts to pensions.

So either Grexit really is close, and we're all going to find just how bad it really is, or else—as usual—everyone is waiting until literally the last second to make the concessions necessary on both sides. Both the chief economist of the IMF and the head of the ECB are urging compromise as I write.

Want to follow this in real time, just like a soccer match? The Guardian has you covered! Just click here. At this particular moment there appears to be a fair amount of table thumping between Greek members of the European Parliament and Mario Draghi. Mostly theater, as near as I can tell.

Let John Oliver and Helen Mirren Convince You to Finally Read America's Damning Torture Report

| Mon Jun. 15, 2015 9:16 AM EDT

Last December, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its long-awaited torture report, which provided overwhelming evidence interrogation methods used after the attacks on September 11th to be largely ineffective and inhumane. Despite this, most Americans have yet to even skim the report's findings and continue to believe torture tactics can successfully lead to reliable information.

"Torture is one of those things that is advertised as something that works, but doesn't like a Ford truck or those weird bottles of Horny Goat Weed available at your local bodega," John Oliver explained on the latest Last Week Tonight. "But maybe the reason that so many of us innately believe that torture works is that it does on TV all the time. Look at 24."

On Sunday, Oliver implored viewers to start paying attention—he even recruited the help of actress Helen Mirren to eloquently read some of the report's most horrifying details—as Senators John McCain and Dianne Feinstein currently have the chance to pass a bill seeking to permanently ban specific torture methods for good.

"America should not be a country that tortures people because it is brutal. It is medieval and it is beneath us," he said.

 

Is the Leading Nutrition Science Group in Big Food's Pocket?

| Mon Jun. 15, 2015 6:05 AM EDT

Figuring out whom to trust for nutritional advice can be a daunting task; new findings on everything from the dangers of sugar to the health benefits of leftover pasta seem to come out every day, and the "experts" behind them often have ulterior motives.

According to a report released today, even venerable nutritional science organizations and the journals they publish can't be trusted. Public health lawyer Michele Simon explores how corporate interests influence the findings of one of these research organizations: the American Society for Nutrition. The nearly 90-year-old nonprofit, comprising 5,000 scientists and experts, publishes the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and claims to "bring together the world's top researchers, clinical nutritionists and industry to advance our knowledge and application of nutrition for the sake of humans and animals." But according Simon, the group's coziness with corporate sponsors calls its research into question.

Here are some of Simon's findings:

  • ASN's financial backers include many from the food and beverage industry. Their "Sustaining Partners," or financial donors of $10,000 or more, include the likes of Coca-Cola, Cargill, Monsanto, the National Dairy Council, and the Sugar Association.
     
  • These financial donors often sponsor ASN's events at conferences. For example, PepsiCo, DuPont, and the National Dairy Association sponsored ASN sessions at last year's annual Experimental Biology conference on topics like bone health and the science behind low-calorie sweeteners. Companies paid ASN as much as $50,000 for sponsorship of separate ASN satellite sessions.
     
  • ASN's leaders have had past ties with Big Food. Simon found that the people leading ASN frequently have ties to food corporations. For example, Roger Clemens, who formerly led ASN's public information committee, served as a "Scientific Advisor" for Nestlé USA for more than two decades. And past ASN President James O. Hill has reported personal fees from Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and the American Beverage Association.
     
  • ASN's stances on policy often go against established science. In April of last year, for example, the ASN's American Journal of Clinical Nutrition came out with a statement defending processed foods. "There are no differences between processing of foods at home or at a factory," it read. It went on to say that terms like "minimally processed" and "ultra processed" impart value and do not "characterize food in a helpful manner." These assertions contradict myriad findings that increasingly show the adverse health effects of processed foods. The ASN also came out against the Federal Drug Administration's proposal to label added sugars on Nutrition Facts labels. It commented on the FDA's proposal that "a lack of consensus remains in the scientific evidence of the health effects of added sugars alone versus sugars as a whole." It added that labeling added sugars will not improve consumers' food choices and health. This, too, goes against the findings of organizations like the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association.

Are We Really In Control of Our Own Outrage? The Case of Social Media and Tim Hunt.

| Sun Jun. 14, 2015 12:23 PM EDT

British scientist Tim Hunt. We all know his story by now, don't we? Here's a quick refresher:

  1. In 2001 he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
  2. In 2015, speaking in Korea, he decided to make a Sheldonian1 joke about women in the lab. "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls ... three things happen when they are in the lab ... You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry."
  3. Social media immediately erupted into a firestorm. Within days he was fired by University College London and the European Research Council and had essentially been exiled from the scientific community in Britain.

There's no disagreement about either the inappropriateness of Hunt's remark or the insufficiency of his "explanation" the next day. What I'm more interested in, however, is the binary nature of the punishment for this kind of thing. As recently as 20 years ago, nothing would have happened because there would have been no real mechanism for reporting Hunt's joke. At most, some of the women in the audience might have gotten together later for lunch, rolled their eyes, and wondered just how much longer they were going to have to put up with this crap. And that would have been that.

Today, remarks like this end up on social media within minutes and mushroom into a firestorm of outrage within hours. Institutions panic. The hordes must be appeased. Heads are made to roll and careers ended. Then something else happens to engage the outrage centers of our brains and it's all forgotten.

Neither of these strikes me as the best possible response to something essentially trivial like this. Ignoring it presumes acceptance, while digital torches and pitchforks teach a lesson that's far too harsh and ruinous, especially for a first-time offense.

The fact that media outlets had limited space and were unlikely to report stuff like this hardly made it right to ignore it in 1995. Likewise, the fact that social media has evolved into an almost tailor-made outrage machine for every offensive remark ever uttered doesn't make it right to insist on the death penalty every time someone says something obnoxious.

I'm whistling into the wind here, but why do we allow the current state of the art in technology to drive our responses to things like this? Hunt deserved a reprimand. He deserved to be mocked on Twitter. That's probably about it. He didn't deserve the guillotine. One of these days we're going to have to figure out how to properly handle affairs like this based on their actual impact and importance, not their ability to act as clickbait on Facebook. We all have some growing up to do.

1Sheldonian (Shell • doe’ • nee • un) adj. [TVE < OE sheldon, valley with steep sides] 1. awkward, socially inept behavior, esp. among male scientists toward women.

Charts: Here’s How Much We’re Spending on the War Against ISIS

| Sun Jun. 14, 2015 6:05 AM EDT

As the White House considers opening operating bases in Iraq and deploying troops to bolster support for Iraqi forces against ISIS, including one in ISIS-held territory, the cost of airstrikes in the region continues its steady rise.

The Department of Defense has spent more than $2.7 billion—some $9 million per day—since the United States began operations against the so-called Islamic State last August. To put that in perspective, the DOD is on pace to spend a little more than $14 million per day to combat ISIS in fiscal year 2015. That's minuscule compared to the roughly $187 million the Defense Department is still spending on the Iraq War each day.

The result? More than 6,200 targets damaged or destroyed in the course of nine months, according to the DOD. Roughly two-thirds of that spending, or a little more than $1.8 billion, came from the Air Force, with air operations costing $5 million per day. 

The newly released DOD data comes as the House passed a $579 billion defense spending bill for the coming fiscal year. Here's the breakdown:

 

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Every Four Years, We Vote For Our Heart's Desire

| Sat Jun. 13, 2015 6:37 PM EDT

After listening to Hillary Clinton's official announcement speech, Ezra Klein has a question:

Clinton name-checked almost every center-left policy idea in existence: universal pre-k, guaranteed paid sick days, massive investments in clean energy, rewriting the tax code, raising the minimum wage, and so on....Many of these ideas are good. But there's a Democrat in the White House right now. He supports these ideas, too. And yet, they languish in press releases and stalled legislation. How will Hillary Clinton make them law?

Well, yeah, that's a good question. It's also a good question for the Republican nominee, who will probably have to face a Democratic Senate, and at the very least will have to face Democratic filibusters. That means a Republican president might be able to cut taxes, but not a whole lot more.

I dunno. Maybe that's enough for Republicans. Get in a few tax cuts, appoint some conservative judges, and prevent anything new from happening. Nobody's ecstatic, but everybody's satisfied.

In any case, I doubt it's an issue for Hillary either. As near as I can tell, Americans seem to vote for president based almost solely on affinity. That is, they vote for whoever says the right things, with no concern for whether those things are obviously impossible or little more than self-evident panders. It's kind of amazing, really. Most voters seemingly just don't care if presidential candidates are lying or stretching or even being entirely chimerical. They merely want to hear the desire to accomplish the right things. Every four years, they really do take the word for the deed.

I suppose it's like that everywhere, not just America.

No, We Won't Leave You Alone

| Sat Jun. 13, 2015 1:47 PM EDT

In response (I assume) to my nasty post about libertarians a few days ago, Cameron Belt tweets:

leaving people alone, what a radical idea!

This is pretty standard libertarian stuff, and on a personal level I'm sympathetic. I'm not quite a hermit, but I really do like to be left alone most of the time.

But for some reason it got me thinking. I wonder if the people who repeat this bromide understand just how radical an idea it actually is. Humans are, and always have been, social, hierarchical creatures. In every society since civilization began,1 it's been all but impossible to be left alone. It's such an unusual thing, in fact, that those who manage to spend a lot of time in solitude are often spoken of with reverence and awe. Spending even a few days in solitude is powerful enough that it's been a rite of passage in a surprising number of cultures.

But for the other 99.9 percent of us, the norm is to be among, dependent, and answerable to other people. Family members, priests, bosses, governments, neighbors, police, creditors, merchants, and hundreds of others. In any society with more than about two people this is, and always has been, how humans organize themselves. We are gossipy and we are bossy. We are busybodies, we are rulemakers, we are rebels, we are moral scolds, and we are friends. (And enemies.)

So yes: leaving people alone really is a radical idea. Probably unworkable too, but that's secondary. We are all merely hairless primates and we just aren't going to mind our own business. Best get used to it.

1Yes, yes, I'm sure there's an exception somewhere. Spare me.

Hillary Clinton Officially Launches Campaign for White House

| Sat Jun. 13, 2015 1:45 PM EDT

There was the first, inevitable video announcement. Then, the media-phobic "Scooby" van tour through early primary states. Now, speaking today in front of a bright New York skyline, on an island in the middle of one of the most polluted waterways in America, Clinton officially launched her campaign for presidency.

The former Secretary of State hit every major talking point of her highly publicized campaign so far. Seriously, nothing was left out of this 45-minute populist, progressive speech outlining her campaign's policies: mass incarceration reform, LGBT equality, climate change and alternative energy, income inequality, a constitutional amendment to overhaul Citizens United, paid family leave, immigration, universal pre-K... even broadband.

"You brought our country back, now it's time, your time, to secure the gains and move ahead—and you know what? America can't succeed unless you succeed. That is why I am running for president of the United States."

The speech on Roosevelt Island, opposite the UN building, would have been difficult to give in the heat; once the clouds cleared, the stage would have certainly felt hotter than 81 degrees—maybe that's one reason the crowd appeared at times somewhat muted. The luckiest supporters crowded under the European Littleleaf Linden trees along the waterfront, which park staff assured us were low allergenic. Nonetheless, the biggest applause lines came when Clinton spoke about marriage equality and women's rights. While the "overflow" area—where a large screen had been set up seemingly in the hopes of bigger crowds—remained nearly empty, the live TV footage would have looked pretty great: billowing American flags, and soaring in the distance, One World Trade, once known as the Freedom Tower.

Danny Jestakom (L) and Philip Fry. James West

The diversity of the supporters here today represents the Obama coalition that Clinton surely hopes to recapture. Valerie Wakin, 29, from Brooklyn, liked that Clinton was focusing on pay equality as a campaign issue, and also felt that Clinton had broad appeal: "I don't think she just supports African American rights, she supports everyone," she said. Ahmad Nelson, 28, from Pittsburgh admitted that while "she does have some baggage" from a long life in the public eye, he will vote for Clinton to help raise the minimum wage across the country.

Valerie Wakin, 29, from Brooklyn. James West

Noticeable in the crowd was a large cohort wearing the rainbow flag version of Hillary's much-derided logo. Danny Jestakom, 26 and Philip Fry, 24, who have been a couple for about a year, said Clinton's embrace marriage equality appealed to them, as did her attempts to let voters learn more about her personal story—evident in today's speech, which drew heavily on her biography. "She seems like a real woman, a real person," Fry said.

"I may not be the youngest candidate in this race," Hillary joked, "but I'll be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States."

Maps: The Poorest Areas in America Are Often the Most Polluted

| Sat Jun. 13, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
A sewage plant looms in the background of Barreto Point Park in the South Bronx.

The environmental justice movement has been fighting the hazards and toxins disproportionately affecting poor communities of color for decades. Now it has a new tool.

The US Environmental Protection Agency recently made public an interactive map that allows people to see how their communities' exposure to hazardous waste, air pollution, and other environmental risks stack up with the rest of the country. "EJSCREEN" combines demographic data and environmental factors to create an "environmental justice index." Environmental data includes vulnerability to air toxins and high particulate levels, exposure to lead-based paint, and proximity to chemical and hazardous waste treatment centers.

We started to explore the map, focusing on a few major cities. Not surprisingly, notoriously impoverished neighborhoods like West Oakland, the Bronx, and East New Orleans have the worst environmental justice indexes in many cases:

Hazardous waste:

New York City:

EPA EJSCREEN

San Francisco Bay Area:

Air pollution:

New York City:

EPA EJSCREEN

San Francisco Bay Area:

EPA EJSCREEN

Water discharge facilities:

New York City:

EPA EJSCREEN

New Orleans:

EPA EJSCREEN

Lead-based paint exposure:

New York City:

EPA EJSCREEN

San Francisco Bay Area:

EPA EJSCREEN
EPA EJSCREEN