2012 - %3, March

What Are Your Favorite Podcasts?

| Sat Mar. 24, 2012 1:56 PM EDT

As part of my ongoing effort to join the 21st century, I bought an iPhone several months ago. Now it's finally time to make some use of it. As it happens, I walk up to the market every day to buy food for dinner,1 so I'd like to start downloading podcasts to listen to on the way. Yesterday, for example, I listened to the Ira Glass retraction of This American Life's Mike Daisey story.

So: any recommendations? What are your favorites? I don't listen to the radio at all, so feel free to recommend anything. Or how about class lectures available as podcasts? Have you come across any especially good ones lately? I'm open to anything, but the ideal recommendation will come in approximately one-hour chunks and be free.

1Why do I do this every day? Because it's a good way to force myself to get outside and walk. I'm a lot more likely to do this if I actually have someplace to go, so unlike most people I buy groceries daily instead of weekly.

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Why Obamacare Will Survive

| Sat Mar. 24, 2012 1:42 PM EDT

On Monday the Supreme Court will hear arguments about the constitutionality of the individual mandate in Obamacare. David Bernstein argues that the key issue is what's become known as the "broccoli test":

As I've argued several times before, the Supreme Court's conservative majority will not uphold the individual mandate if the mandate's defenders are unable to come up with a limiting principle that will prevent a decision upholding the law from eviscerating any remaining limits on Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce.

…In the health care area, can Congress in fact require everyone to eat broccoli?....Maybe it’s a good idea to give Congress the power to regulate whatever and however it wants, though I really doubt it. More to the point, I'm quite sure that the conservative majority is not willing to endorse the proposition that the commerce power is really the Congress-Can-Do-Whatever-it-Wants Power.

I'm not a lawyer, but I think the widespread focus on Congress's interstate commerce power is off base. Properly framed, the broccoli question is not really a hard one to answer. Here's what I think is the basic four-step legal justification for the individual mandate:

  1. The healthcare sector in America is part of interstate commerce. This is beyond dispute.
  2. Congress can regulate the healthcare sector. This follows directly from both the Constitution and many decades of actual practice. This is also beyond dispute.
  3. Broadly speaking, Obamacare is a reasonable effort to regulate the healthcare market. Regardless of whether they personally like the approach Congress took, I don't think it's hard to convince even conservative justices that the overall structure of Obamacare, with its mix of public and private delivery, is a proper exercise of Congress's authority over a large and complex segment of interstate commerce.
  4. The individual mandate is necessary to the proper functioning of Obamacare. Without the mandate, the entire structure of Obamacare fails. This is fairly easy to demonstrate.

The biggest point of contention is #4, and that has nothing to do with the interstate commerce clause. It has to do with the "necessary and proper" clause—and that's a very expansive grant of power. In McCullough v. Maryland, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote: "Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional." The individual mandate may not be the only way to accomplish Congress' goals, but I think the facts of the case provide an extremely strong basis for concluding that it's both "appropriate" and "plainly adapted" to those goals.

So then, what's the limiting rule? Why can't Congress mandate that we all eat broccoli? Answer: because it's not necessary to the proper functioning of any plausibly reasonable healthcare regulatory structure. Congress may have the power to intrude on individual liberty, but it can't exercise that power arbitrarily. It has to be appropriate and plainly adapted to a legitimate broader goal. The individual mandate is. Forcing you to eat your broccoli isn't.

This strikes me, frankly, as a pretty slam dunk legal case. The only question, then, is whether the Supreme Court will treat it as a proper legal question rather than an overtly political one in which they simply express their disapproval of Obamacare or try to cement their reputations on the right by rolling back decades of well-accepted jurisprudence. I realize that this is an act of obvious foolhardiness, but this is why I'm sticking with my prediction that Obamacare and the mandate will be upheld 7-2. I think that Thomas and Alito are true believers who are perfectly willing to overturn two centuries of precedent just to satisfy their own ideological fancies. But I have more respect for Roberts, Kennedy, and Scalia. I think they'll judge the law on its proper legal merits, and conclude that Obamacare is broadly reasonable and the individual mandate is indeed a necessary and proper part of it.

Obamacare is Now Officially Obamacare

| Sat Mar. 24, 2012 12:46 PM EDT

Sometime last year I gave up entirely on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Not the act itself, of course, but the name. I gave on PPACA and I gave up on ACA. President Obama himself seemed to be OK with it being called Obamacare, so I decided that's what I'd call it too.

So naturally I'm pleased that the Obama campaign has now made it official:

The campaign launched a Facebook feed Friday featuring a big “I Like Obamacare” logo. The social network rollout also included a Twitter hashtag that the campaign reported become the top trending topic in the world within hours. On the web, an “I Like Obamacare” frontpage popped up on the Obama campaign website.

In an email to supporters, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said it was time for Democrats to turn the “Obamacare” insult into a badge of honor. “I’m proud of it — and you should be, too,” he wrote. “Here’s why: Because it works.”

This has always seemed fine to me. We have Pell grants and Roth IRAs, so why not Obamacare? Like it or not, that's what everyone calls it, and it's the only widely recognized name that PPACA has. What's more, I never thought of it as an insult in the first place. The masses have spoken, and Obamacare it is.

Ridiculous Ways States Are Trying to Fix Their Broken Budgets

| Sat Mar. 24, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Faced with empty coffers, desperate governors and state lawmakers will try just about anything to improve their cash flow.

Puppy power: California Gov. Jerry Brown is selling t-shirts featuring his corgi, Sutter, and promises to donate $3 from each purchase to the Golden State's general fund.

Pole tax: In 2007, Texas Gov. Rick Perry instituted a $5 tax on strip club patrons to fund sexual-assault prevention and state health insurance. It has since brought in $15 million.

Frack party! After he proposed slashing the state education budget by $2 billion, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett suggested the state university system open up six of its campuses to natural-gas extraction.

Pass the hat: Faced with a costly court challenge to its draconian abortion consent law, South Dakota is accepting donations to cover $750,000 in legal fees. Less than $65,000 has come in.

Plane dealing: In 2006, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin pledged to sell off the state's private jet on eBay. That didn't pan out; the jet, first bought for $2.7 million, was eventually sold for $2.1 million.

School's out...forever: Utah state Sen. Chris Buttars estimated that eliminating the 12th grade would knock $60 million out of the state's $700 million deficit. His fellow legislators flunked the idea.

The honesty tax: Arizona state Rep. Judy Burges proposed adding an "I Didn't Pay Enough" option to state income tax filings. Burges estimated it could net an extra $12 million a year; in its first year, it brought in just $13,204.

Venture capitol: In 2010, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer approved the sale of three capitol buildings for $81 million. In January, Brewer said she'd buy them back from the investors the state had been leasing them from—at a cost of $106 million.

Image: Cafe Press; Terraxplorer/iStockPhoto; State of Alaska; State of Arizona; Graffizone/iStockphoto.

Stock Exchange Trades Its Own Shares, Plunges Into the Abyss

| Sat Mar. 24, 2012 12:36 AM EDT

BATS, based in Kansas City, is the third-largest stock exchange in the country. This morning they went public, offering shares in BATS to the public for the first time. Naturally, shares in BATS were traded on BATS itself.

So what happened? At 10:45 AM trading opened and was halted immediately because of a software glitch. At 11:14:18 trading resumed. At 11:14:19:850 — that is, less than two seconds later — the stock had crashed to one-hundredth of a cent. That is not a typo. Via Zero Hedge, here's a chart showing the first two seconds of trading:

From the Wall Street Journal's report:

The day's events may rekindle questions about the reliability of the stock-market's plumbing, questions that came into sharp focus almost two years ago when the broader market plunged hundreds of points within minutes in what came to be known as the "flash crash."

....BATS, which stands for Better Alternative Trading System, was launched in 2005 by Dave Cummings, a pioneer in high-frequency trading, to compete with more traditional markets such as the NYSE and Nasdaq. It was designed for speed and gained favor with sophisticated trading firms, in part because it rarely had technical glitches.

Take your pick: (a) This is just a software glitch. It could happen to anyone. (b) This is what happens when the financial market is controlled by computer algorithms, not human beings. It may be "just a glitch," but it's a telling one. Next time it could end up being more than just an embarrassing moment.

Corn on "Hardball": Health Care Heads to the Supreme Court

Fri Mar. 23, 2012 8:36 PM EDT

David Corn and Neera Tanden from the Center for American Progress joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss next week's Supreme Court hearing on the Affordable Care Act and how, not so long ago, Mitt Romney defended individual mandates during the 2008 GOP primaries.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

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Docs on PA Gag Order: No Fracking Way!

| Fri Mar. 23, 2012 4:07 PM EDT

I have a new piece up today about a provision in a Pennsylvania law that critics have called a "gag order" for medical professionals. The provision would allow doctors to access information about chemicals in "fracking" fluid, the stuff injected into the ground to tap into natural gas resources, but would make them sign a confidentiality agreement stating that they won't share that information with anyone—not even the person they're treating.

Doctors in Pennsylvania have expressed concern that this would interfere with their relationships with patients, and with attempts to gain a better understanding of broader public health matters as they relate to oil and gas drilling. And the president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, Dr. Marilyn J. Heine, has also spoken out about the need for more information in the state as concerns about public health have increased. "We have no definitive answers to these questions because we lack data," she wrote in an op-ed last month.

But doctors in the national public health community are also worried about what the new law might mean. The provision "compromises both individual patient well-being and public health," said Dr. Jerome A. Paulson, director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children's Health & the Environment at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC, which serves Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. His group has been concerned about unconventional gas extraction the past few years and has been gathering information for families and for health professionals, he said. Pennsylvania's new law could interfere with that work.

Doctors would be forced to decide whether to sign a confidentiality agreement that would prevent them from sharing necessary information with patients, or not sign it—and then not have access to that information at all. "It's an untenable situation for a health professionals," said Paulson. "It really goes against our standard ways of getting and gathering information, and it goes against moral and ethical responsibilities for protecting the public health."

The Right Goes Nuts Over Obama's Trayvon Comments

| Fri Mar. 23, 2012 3:45 PM EDT
Protesters at the million hoodie march protest in New York City earlier this week.

President Barack Obama spoke to the press about slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin on Friday morning, saying, "When I think about that boy, I think about my own kids.... If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness this deserves and get to the bottom of what happened."

That was enough to cause some corners of the conservative media to go nuts.

Following along with theme of racial paranoia set by Glenn Beck's website The Blaze, conservative media icon Matt Drudge's page stoked fears of "retaliation," citing Louis Farrakhan. Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin accused Obama of "political opportunism" and trying to "pour gas on the fire" for empathizing with Martin's parents. The Daily Caller appears to have discovered the Trayvon Martin case on Thursday of this week, but it had already decided that the most important angle was what the New Black Panther Party thought. Perhaps that was to lay the groundwork for Friday's piece by Matthew Boyle, which implies a causal link between the Panthers' outrage and Obama's remarks on the subject. Going to the New Black Panthers to find out what black people think is like going to the Ku Klux Klan to find out what white people think, except if the KKK were a bunch of clowns who no one cares about instead of a group with a history of racist terrorism. 

Obama isn't the first national political figure to weigh in on the Martin case, but he's the first to generate a spasm of outrage from the conservative media, which up till now had remained mostly silent. Somehow, both Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice managed to weigh in on the Martin story, both in support of a federal investigation of the incident, without provoking right-wing speculation that they were in league with black separatists. 

Sadly, prior to Obama's remarks the Martin case had avoided being sucked into a partisan vortex. Fox News virtually ignored the issue, and National Review has published several well-considered pieces on the subject. On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called Martin's death "an incredible tragedy" and said "I'm glad it's being investigated and we'll take a look at it as the investigation moves along."

I would have preferred the president not weigh in on the Martin case, lest he taint a potential jury trial for George Zimmerman, who maintains he shot Martin in self-defense. But I also suspected that his silence prevented the whole incident from turning into a partisan food fight, with conservatives having to choose between common decency and agreeing with their hated enemy. Because it was obvious, when it came to that, what some of them would choose. Hopefully actual elected officials won't follow their lead.

Heat Wave Hangover

| Fri Mar. 23, 2012 3:12 PM EDT

Credit: Joe Chung via Flickr.

Credit: Joe Chung via Flickr. 

We know the past 10 days has seen the most mind-blowing heat wave since record keeping began in North America. As some meteorologists say: "It's almost like science fiction at this point."

So what's the likely hangover from this insanely hot and steamy spring break? How will summer-in-winter affect the real summer? 

Credit: Cowgirl Jules via Flickr.Credit: Cowgirl Jules via Flickr.

First up, kickstarting an early growing season is likely to devastate crops subjected to the whiplash of returning cold. Jeff Masters at Wunderblog points out the growing season is now in full swing five weeks early in the Upper Midwest:

A damaging freeze that will severely impact the fruit industry and other sensitive plants is very likely. Indeed, the forecast calls for lows in the upper 20s in the cherry-growing region of Michigan near Traverse City on Monday night.

Credit: Eric Luebehusen, USDA.Credit: Eric Luebehusen, USDA.

And since the mutant March heat melted all the snow in the northern US and southern Canada it primed the way for a hotter and probably drier summer, with reduced water flow in rivers, further stressing crops.

You can see on the latest USDA's Drought Monitor (above) where the seeds of drought are already being sowed. The Drought Monitor notes about the heat wave in the Central and Northern Plains:

Unseasonably warm, dry conditions prevailed, with temperatures averaging 20 to 25°F above normal across most of the region... [T]he unseasonable warmth has led to early crop development and increased water demands.

 Wheat crop withered by drought.: David Kelleher via Flickr.

Credit: David Kelleher via Flickr.

About the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast the Drought Monitor notes:

In southern New England... streamflows and well-water levels have declined, and are in the lowest 2nd and 5th, respectively, in this region... Streamflows have dropped below the 10th percentile in east-central Pennsylvania and much of New Jersey, and have slipped below the 30th percentile across Maryland, Virginia, and eastern West Virginia. 

And about the Southeast the Drought Monitor notes:

 Streamflows in southeastern Alabama are near historic lows, and have dropped to the lowest 20th percentile in... areas of northern Georgia. The ongoing dryness has also been accompanied by daytime highs approaching 90°F, which has increased  water demands for crops and pastures. Likewise, long-term drought is evidenced by record- or near-record low ground water levels across much of southern Georgia and southeastern Alabama... In Florida... severe Drought was expanded across the northwestern shores of Lake Okeechobee, where 90-day precipitation deficits averaged 4 to 6 inches... In addition, Severe Drought was introduced to the southwestern peninsula, where 90-day rainfall has averaged 25 to 50 percent of normal.   

Daily streamflow for 23 Mar 2012.: USGS.Daily streamflow for 23 Mar 2012.: USGS.

Low water flows in rivers may also cause problems for navigation on rivers in the Midwest, making it harder to move crops and other goods to where they need to get to.

This USGS daily stream flow map shows where extremely low flows are already occurring. Combine this map with the Drought Monitor map and you get a preview of where the hangover is likely to really hurt this summer.

Friday Cat Blogging - 23 March 2012

| Fri Mar. 23, 2012 2:41 PM EDT

This week's feline melodrama: Inkblot decided yesterday morning that Domino had possession of the only place in the entire backyard that was suitable for a post-breakfast snooze. THE. ONLY. PLACE. Much hissing ensued and Domino ceded the territory. Inkblot moved in, sniffed the flowers with a smug look on his face, then wandered off after a minute or so. Domino took up residence a few feet away and pretended to be a rabbit. The End.

(For now.)