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Donald Trump Explained in Four Words

| Sun Jul. 26, 2015 12:02 PM EDT

If you want to understand Donald Trump—and I wouldn't blame you if you don't—this paragraph from the Post should do it:

“Finally, I can attack!” Trump said at a packed rally at Oskaloosa High School. “Wisconsin’s doing terribly. It’s in turmoil. The roads are a disaster because they don’t have any money to rebuild them. They’re borrowing money like crazy. They projected a $1 billion surplus, and it turns out to be a deficit of $2.2 billion. The schools are a disaster. The hospitals and education was a disaster. And he was totally in favor of Common Core!”

In a private email, Walker supporter Gregory Slayton wrote, "As you've seen Gov Walker is now well ahead of everyone not named DumbDumb (aka Trump) in the national polls." The Wall Street Journal made the email public, and that was that. Finally, Trump could attack.

This is what he lives for. But only if he can pretend that the other guy started it. John McCain called his supporters crazies. Lindsey Graham called Trump a jackass. And now a Walker fundraiser called him DumbDumb. Finally! It must have been killing Trump to hold back on Walker until he had the appropriate casus belli.

That's Trump. He lives for the fight. And despite being worth $10 billion (or whatever) he always manages to feel like he's the aggrieved party. If this reminds you of any particular bloc of voters, now you know why he's doing so well in the polls.

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Health Update

| Sat Jul. 25, 2015 8:54 PM EDT

This has come up in comments a few times recently, so here's a quick update.

Short answer: I'm fine.

Slightly longer answer: As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I didn't respond to the stem cell transplant, so we're trying a new chemo med. The good news is that I don't seem to be suffering any side effects so far. But it often takes more than a month for these things to show up, so we're not out of the woods yet. As for whether it's working, it will be several more months before we know.

All that aside, I feel pretty good these days. Not totally back to normal, but 80-90 percent of the way there. I still have a bit of mild stomach nausea periodically, and my neuropathy shows no signs of going away, but my energy level is pretty good and I'm eating enough for two people. At the moment, my only real problem is that I'm tired from not getting enough sleep. But that's nothing to worry about. I've been taking sleep meds for the past six months, and wanted to wait until I was feeling better to get off them. That time has come, so I'm tapering off under my doctor's instructions. It's actually going better than I expected, but there's still a price to pay. Until my body gets back into the habit of falling asleep and staying asleep on its own, I'm going to be a little short on shuteye. With any luck, this will only last a few more weeks.

Republicans Is Weird, Summer 2015 Edition

| Sat Jul. 25, 2015 12:29 PM EDT

No, this isn't about Donald Trump. It's about Sen. Mike Lee of Utah—who plans to offer yet another amendment to repeal Obamacare, but this time with a special super-duper secret sauce added to the upcoming highway funding bill:

Lee said he will try to re-offer the Obamacare repeal as a special amendment that is directly related to highway funding. Under Senate rules, amendments that are directly related, or germane, to the underlying legislation can pass with just 51 votes.

Lee knows that the chair of the Senate is likely to reject his logic that Obamacare repeal is germane to highway funding, so he plans to use the nuclear option. That means he will formally object to the ruling of the chair, which requires a 51-vote simple majority — then he plans to move on to the coveted simple majority vote.

....If his plan works, Lee gets to tell his supporters that he’s responsible for a major vote to kill the health care law he reviles. The House voted to repeal the law in February, so the two chambers could then theoretically conference the bills — leaving it up to Obama to veto a bill to kill his own signature policy achievement.

So the plan is simple: have Republicans declare ex cathedra that repeal of Obamacare is germane to highway funding, and then pass Lee's amendment with 51 votes. It's brilliant! All that's missing are the sharks with lasers attached to their heads!

Aside from being mind-numbingly stupid1, it also won't work. Democrats will just filibuster the entire highway bill, or else they'll vote for it and then Obama will veto the entire mess. Result: Obamacare stays in place but our highways continue to crumble into dust. Nice work, Senator! It's good to see that the Republican Party remains committed to the sober, responsible kind of leadership that makes our great nation the envy of the world.

1It's times like this that I regret the recent banishment of "retarded" from polite conversation. Because I think we all know that it's the word that really fits here.2

2Though I suppose there's no reason to insult the developmentally disabled by comparing them to Mike Lee.

The Americans With Disabilities Act Is Turning 25. Watch the Dramatic Protest That Made It Happen.

| Sat Jul. 25, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan, left, crawls up the steps of the Capitol in Washington on March 12, 1990.

Twenty-five years ago this weekend, the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law, officially outlawing discrimination against disabled people in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and government services. The law was a long time coming: Activists had fought for decades against unequal access to jobs and exclusion from public schools. But the ADA might never have gotten to President George H.W. Bush's desk were it not for a group of activists in wheelchairs who took matters into their own hands earlier that year.

On March 12, 1990, hundreds of people with disabilities gathered at the foot of the Capitol building in Washington to protest the bill's slow movement through Congress. Dozens left behind their wheelchairs, got down on their hands and knees, and began pulling themselves slowly up the 83 steps toward the building's west entrance, as if daring the politicians inside to continue ignoring all the barriers they faced. Among the climbers was Jennifer Keelan, an eight-year-old from Denver with cerebral palsy. "I'll take all night if I have to!" she yelled while dragging herself higher and higher.

Here's some footage of the protest, via PBS's Independent Lens:

The Capitol Crawl, as it became known, made national headlines and pushed lawmakers to pass the ADA into law. When Bush finally signed the landmark bill, it was seen as one of the country's most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation to date. But it was not a total cure-all, according to Susan Parish, a professor of disability policy at Brandeis University. The Supreme Court later watered it down, she says, in a series of decisions that created a narrow definition of disability.

In 2008, lawmakers passed amendments to strengthen the ADA, but Parish says people with disabilities have still struggled to gain equal access to employment, in part because employers are expected to comply with the law but do not have to follow reporting requirements. "I feel that the country needs a full-scale affirmative action program for people with disabilities," she said in a recent interview.

President Obama issued an executive order in 2010 requiring the federal government to hire more people with disabilities. In a speech earlier this week, he said the West Wing receptionist, Leah Katz-Hernandez, is the first deaf American to hold her position. But despite some progress since 1990, he acknowledged, "We've still got to do more to make sure that people with disabilities are paid fairly for their labor, to make sure they are safe in their homes and their communities…I don't have to tell you this fight is not over."

Louisiana Has Some of the Weakest Gun Laws in the Country

| Fri Jul. 24, 2015 5:29 PM EDT

On Thursday night, 59-year-old John Russell Houser of Alabama walked into the Grand Theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, with a handgun and shot into a crowd, killing two and injuring nine more. At a press conference Friday, Democratic state Rep. Terry Landry Sr. called for stricter gun laws in Louisiana, saying, "It's our job as legislators to close the loopholes in these gun laws." Indeed, according to the National Rife Association, Louisiana has one of the most open gun policies around—from its unabashedly pro-gun governor to its concealed carry law. A 2014 report by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence rated the state as having "the weakest gun laws in the country."

Here's what you need to know about gun law in Louisiana:

  • Gun owners don't have to obtain a permit to purchase guns. Buyers don't have to register their firearms, and they don't need a license to possess them. State law requires a concealed carry permit for handguns, but there is no permit required to carry rifles or shotguns.
  • State law only restricts two kinds of people from possessing guns: those 17 and under, or those convicted of certain violent crimes (until a decade has passed since the completion of the sentence, probation, parole, or suspension of a sentence).
  • The state has enacted "castle doctrine", meaning deadly force is considered justifiable in a court of law to defend against an intruder in a person's home. The Louisiana state legislature also passed a "Stand Your Ground" law in 2006, stating that anyone in a place "where he or she has a right," including public spaces, is not obligated "to retreat" if faced with a threat and "may stand his or her ground and meet force with force." (Check out our map of how quickly "Stand Your Ground" laws spread across the United States).
  • Firearms may be stored in locked, privately owned motor vehicles. Louisiana is one of 22 states with similar policies that allow guns to be left in the office parking lot.
  • Gun owners have the right to carry in restaurants.
  • According to a 2012 state constitutional amendment, "[t]he right of each citizen to keep and bear arms is fundamental and shall not be infringed" and "any restriction on this right" will be met with maximum skepticism from the courts. The amendment, which was heavily backed by Gov. Jindal, also removed language that would allow the legislature to "prohibit the carrying of weapons concealed on a person." In a written statement, Jindal argued: "We are adopting the strongest, most iron-clad, constitutional protection for law-abiding gun owners. It's our own Second Amendment, if you will."

Given these laws, it's no surprise that nearly half of Louisiana households own a gun. Unfortunately, the state also sees high levels of armed violence: According to a Mother Jones investigation, the state has the country's highest gun homicide rate—9.4 per 100,000 residents. And that gun violence has cost each Louisiana resident at least $1,333 a year.

Report: The Obama Administration May Release Israeli Spy Jonathan Pollard

| Fri Jul. 24, 2015 5:02 PM EDT
Israelis protesting for the release of American Jonathan Pollard, who spied for Israel and was convicted to life in prison in 1985.

Much of the debate surrounding the nuclear deal with Iran announced last week has centered around Israel's reaction—and what the United States might offer the Israeli government to tamp down its anger over the agreement. It turns out one of those things may be the freedom of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

Pollard, once a US Navy intelligence analyst, was convicted of espionage in 1985 and sentenced to life in prison. His release became a cause célèbre for many Israelis, and the country's leaders have campaigned for years to have Pollard released. They have been unsuccessful up until now, but the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday afternoon that the US will soon allow Pollard to go free.

Israel has been the leading international critic of the Iran deal—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a "stunning historic mistake" within hours of its completion—and the timing of the report gives the impression that Pollard's release would be an olive branch to the Jewish state. But, as the Journal reports, "[s]ome U.S. officials strongly denied Friday there was any link between the Iran deal and Mr. Pollard's prospective release, saying that any release decision would be made by the U.S. Parole Commission." Pollard has also been a bargaining chip in previous US-Israeli diplomatic spats, most recently last year as the Obama administration sought concessions from Israel in order to salvage peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

Pollard is approaching the 30-year mark of his life sentence, and is eligible for parole for the first time on November 21, 2015.

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This Video of 22-Year-Old Arnold Schwarzenegger Is Amazing

| Fri Jul. 24, 2015 2:59 PM EDT

Action movie star, environmental activist, exercise instructor, kindergarten teacher, governor of the largest state in the union. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been many things. But it all started with bodybuilding.

While digging through a trove of historical news footage recently released by the Associated Press, we came across this gem of Arnold competing in the 1969 Mr. Universe competition at the tender age of 22:

"The choice was an American as amateur Mr. Universe and an Austrian as the professional," the announcer says. The Austrian? Yep, that's Arnold. He would go on to win five Mr. Universe titles and seven Mr. Olympia titles, before gracing the silver screen with his manly muscles and Austrian accent.

Friday Cat Blogging - 24 July 2015

| Fri Jul. 24, 2015 2:45 PM EDT

Hopper and Hilbert like to (a) play-wrestle with each other, and (b) jump up on the fireplace mantel. Here they are doing both. Hopper has lately been taking control of these affairs, finally realizing that she's the real alpha cat in the household even if her brother is bigger. As she's finally figured out, being alpha is more about will and energy than about size, and she's got both. Nonetheless, you can see in this picture about how seriously she takes it.

Cigna-Anthem Merger Might Not Be a Bad Deal for Consumers

| Fri Jul. 24, 2015 2:08 PM EDT

There used to be five big health insurance companies in the US. If the proposed Anthem-Cigna merger goes through, we'll be down to three. Is this a good thing? Wonkblog's Carolyn Johnson reports:

The effect on premiums are hard to predict, but are likely to be bad.

The question of how the mergers will affect card-carrying members is more complicated than it might seem. In general, consolidation in an industry leads to less competition and higher prices. Indeed, the few studies that have been done suggest that fewer insurers in the marketplace will mean higher prices.

...."The premise of the merger for both of these transactions is that they can achieve cost savings and economies of scale, and they of course maintain that will lead to their ability to price even more competitively," said Richard Zall, chair of the health care department at Proskauer, a law firm. "It will take some time to see: 1) can they implement the mergers and achieve those savings and 2) is there still sufficient competition in the various markets that it won’t lead to price increases?"

Actually, it's not this simple. There are several things that make it hard to predict how this will shake out:

  1. Health insurers do compete with each other, but even more they compete with providers (doctors, hospitals, drug companies, etc.). If there are multiple small insurers in, say, Kansas, then hospitals there have a lot of pricing power. If an insurer refuses to do business with a particular hospital, that puts them at a big disadvantage compared to their competitors and limits their leverage to negotiate lower prices. But if there are only one or two big insurers, it's the hospitals that are at a disadvantage since they can't afford to be out of their networks. In this case, insurers have much more leverage to negotiate lower prices.
  2. Unlike, say, diet colas, which are available everywhere, even big health insurers tend to be somewhat regional. This means there are some areas where there's literally only one insurer available. This obviously could put consumers at a disadvantage.
  3. However, Obamacare mandates a minimum "medical loss ratio" of 80 percent. Even if there's only one insurer in a county, they have to spend at least 80 percent of their premium dollars on actual health care. That number goes up to 85 percent for large group plans. So there's a hard limit on how much insurers can charge no matter who controls the market.
  4. Generally speaking, we liberals would prefer a system in which there was only one insurer: the federal government. There are various reasons for this, but one of them is that a single nationwide insurer would have enormous pricing power. This is sort of the ultimate version of item #1. Medical costs are overwhelmingly set by providers, not by insurers, and the more leverage insurers have, the lower prices are for consumers.

In other words, while I'd normally be opposed to such severe consolidation in an industry, it's a little trickier in this case. There are plenty of horror stories about health insurers, but when it comes to pricing, a smaller number of bigger insurers is probably a good trend. In the health care industry, the thing to be worried about is consolidation on the provider side. That would be bad for medical costs.

Hillary Clinton Takes Aim at Capital Gains Taxes for the Rich

| Fri Jul. 24, 2015 11:43 AM EDT

The Wall Street Journal reports that Hillary Clinton's tax plan is starting to take shape:

Hillary Clinton will propose a sharp increase in the capital-gains tax rate for the highest earners for investments held only a few years, a campaign official said Friday. Under the Clinton plan, investments held between one and two years would be taxed at the normal income-tax rate of 39.6%, nearly double the existing 20% capital gains rate.

....The rate for top-bracket taxpayers would be set on a sliding scale, with the lowest rate applied to investments held the longest. To qualify for the existing 20% rate, one would have to hold an investment for at least six years.

This change would apply only to high-income taxpayers and only to short-term investments. Lower-income workers would continue to get a break on capital gains taxes compared to the rate they pay on ordinary income. This is mostly for show, however: low-income workers barely have any capital gains income in the first place. The chart on the right from the Tax Policy Center shows the breakdown. Anyone making less than a six-figure income pays virtually no capital gains taxes, so changing their rates serves no purpose. It's only at the high end of the income spectrum that the preferential capital gains rate matters.

Hillary's proposal will enrage conservatives, who are convinced that capital gains rates are the magic key to prosperity. Since there's virtually no evidence linking capital gains rates to economic growth, the cynical among you might think that what really motivates their tireless advocacy of low rates is that it benefits the rich enormously. But that's only for the cynical among you.

In any case, folks who make more than a million dollars a year are going to be pretty exercised about this, even though Hillary's proposal allows them to keep a modestly preferential rate for investments held longer than two years and the current super-preferential rate for investments held for six years or more. Still, details aside, the rich account for virtually all the capital gains taxes paid, and raising that rate in any way would hurt them considerably. These are also the folks who are donating vast sums to the Republican candidates, so you can be sure they'll be insisting that their favored candidate goes after this proposal hammer and tongs. But Hillary is right. There's little evidence that higher capital gains rates do much harm, and a fair number of reasons to actively prefer a higher rate. Jared Bernstein has more here.