Kevin Drum

Attention Parents: Your Neighborhood Matters More Than You Do

| Thu May 7, 2015 12:34 PM EDT

A few days ago Justin Wolfers passed along some new research showing that growing up in a good neighborhood has immensely positive effects on future success:

I will start with the smaller of their two studies....The findings are remarkable....The children who moved when they were young enjoyed much greater economic success than similarly aged children who had not won the lottery....The sharpest test comes from those who won an experimental housing voucher that could be used only if they moved to low-poverty areas. Here the findings are striking, as those who moved as a result of winning this voucher before their teens went on to earn 31 percent more than those who did not win the lottery. They are also more likely to attend college.

....It is rare to see social science overturn old beliefs so drastically. It happened because these scholars returned to an old experiment with a fresh perspective, based on the idea that what matters is how long children are exposed to good or bad neighborhoods. But is this the right perspective?

Here’s where the second study is critical. While the conclusions of the Moving to Opportunity project are based on following only a few thousand families, Mr. Chetty and Mr. Hendren use earnings records to effectively track the careers and neighborhoods of five million people over 17 years.

Instead of contrasting the outcomes of families in different areas — which may simply reflect different families choosing to live in different areas — they can track what happens to families when they move....Their findings are clear: The earlier a family moved to a good neighborhood, the better the children’s long-run outcomes. The effects are symmetric, too, with each extra year in a worse neighborhood leading to worse long-run outcomes. Most important, they find that each extra year of childhood exposure yields roughly the same change in longer-run outcomes, but that beyond age 23, further exposure has no effect. That is, what matters is not just the quality of your neighborhood, but also the number of childhood years that you are exposed to it.

A crucial advantage of this analysis is that it follows the children through to early adulthood. This matters because a number of recent studies have shown that interventions have effects that might be hard to discern in test scores or behavioral problems, but that become evident in adulthood. The same pattern of years of exposure to good neighborhoods shaping outcomes is also apparent for college attendance, teenage births, teenage employment and marriage.

This may all seem obvious to you—of course good schools and good playmates matter a lot—but professionals in this field have long believed that quality of parenting is by far the most important factor in a child's success. This is a popular and comforting notion that Judith Rich Harris effectively demolished more than a decade ago in The Nurture Assumption, but it hangs on tenaciously anyway. Nor do you have to buy Harris's theories hook, line, and sinker to believe she has the basic shape of the river correct. For example, I happen to think she underplays the evidence that good parenting matters. But not by much. The simple fact is that kids pick up cues about how to act far more from the collective influence of friends, siblings, teachers, TV, babysitters, and others than they do from their parents. It's hardly even a fair contest. As I put it a few weeks ago: 

This means that the single biggest difference you can make is to be rich enough to afford to live in a nice neighborhood that provides nice playmates and good schools.

This, unfortunately, doesn't make things any easier for policymakers. Teaching good parenting skills may be a monumental challenge, but it's no less monumental than somehow conquering poverty and making sure every child grows up in a good neighborhood. There are no easy answers. But at a minimum, it's always better to at least make sure we're pointed in the right direction.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Do Small Businesses Deserve Exemptions From the Minimum Wage?

| Thu May 7, 2015 9:00 AM EDT
Brian Hibbs (far right) and his employees, some of whom may lose shifts or even their jobs, if San Francisco's minimum wage goes to $15.

Brian Hibbs, a Mother Jones reader and owner of Comix Experience, wrote in to object to San Francisco's plan to raise its minimum wage. Conservatives who argue against the minimum wage often point to jobs lost and heavy burdens on small businesses, and progressives largely brush off those arguments as so much Chamber of Commerce propaganda. And then you have guys like Hibbs. Read what he has to say, and then we'll discuss.

I own two comic book stores in SF, and while we're a profitable business and have been for 26 years, we're only modestly profitable, y'know? When you calculate my own salary on a per-hour basis, given that 70-hour weeks are not at all uncommon for me, I don't make much more than the high-end of SF's new minimum wage law.

Raising the minimum wage by 43 percent (from $11.05 today to $15 in 2018) means that we need to generate at least another 80 grand in revenue. Eighty grand. I don't personally make eighty grand in a year. I'm not some kind of fat cat getting rich off the exploitation of my workers or something. And look, if I did manage to increase sales by that amount, I'd sure be hoping that I got to keep a tiny little percentage of it myself.

Just so we're clear: The hole I find myself soon facing isn't one created by escalating San Francisco rents (my landlord is awesome!), or because of competition from the internet (in fact, our sales consistently grow year-over-year, and sales growth has accelerated since the introduction of digital comics), but one solely and entirely created by the increase of the minimum wage.

I'm a progressive; I support fair labor practices, and I try, above all else, to give the folks who work for me absolute agency in their jobs. I have multiple employees who quit higher paying jobs for corporate owners to come work for me, because I actively valued their passions. I don't own a comic book store to make money as my primary goal, right? The primary goal is to wake up the morning and be excited by what you do, to feel like you're spreading your passion, that you're promoting art, and creators and joy—and my staff feels much the same way.

I have staff who are supported by a spouse and are working for me to essentially make pocket money; I have staff who want to be full-time artists, and this helps them get closer to their goal by exposing them to the form and helping them make contacts. I have staff who are actively working toward having their own stores, and I'm basically paying them to get a master's class (though I am fine with that!). I have staff who are full-time students living at home.

I'm not exploiting any of them, I don't think. They all have options, and they all work for me because they want to.

If I can't increase sales by $80,000—which is not something that seems likely, given historical year-over-year gains—then I have to start firing people, or trimming hours of operation. We don't run extravagant overlaps—nearly 60 percent of the hours the stores are open we only have one person on deck; nor do we have a lot of waste or absurd inventory or anything like that. I've survived in a kind of marginal business for 26 years by being a savvy businessperson, and a relatively nimble and predictive one. But firing people, cutting hours…how does that help the employees? How does that help the business expand so I can eventually hire more people?

I have the largest staff of any SF comics business (because I have two locations), and, in point of fact, my two closest competitors have zero employees. Not being impacted by this mandate, they'd have no reason to raise prices in tandem…and really, every reason to not do so. If I raised prices by, let's say, 10 percent to meet this mandate, I'm absolutely positive we'd lose at least 20 percent of our business to stores that didn't raise their prices—thereby putting us at a net negative.

We’re trying to solve this problem by growing our way out of it with a new national, curated Graphic-Novel-of-the-Month Club, but I think that if we’re able to succeed from that (and I am not at all sure we will) it will be because of years of building our exceptional reputation. As a result, I do not at all think that this type of solution is scalable for the average small business. The City of San Francisco’s own Office of Economic Analysis believes the minimum wage hike will cost 15,270 jobs, or 2 percent of the private workforce!

Honestly, if San Francisco had voted for "Minimum Wage must be at least equal to X percent of your net profit" or "Every person in America gets a guaranteed income of $20,000/year paid for by progressive taxes" or some other scheme where you know that people being asked to contribute more can afford it, then maybe we'd be on sounder ideological ground...But I think that the higher minimum wage, the higher you're making the barriers for low-income people and marginal-but-promising businesses to even have a chance to enter the marketplace and to survive in the first place, let alone legacy businesses like ours.

Here's my personal take: It's hard not to feel sympathy for Hibbs, yet it would be a mistake to take his situation as a case for abolishing or making exceptions to the city's minimum wage law. As I've noted elsewhere, raising the minimum wage doesn't tend to decrease overall employment; in general, businesses find new efficiencies and their workers find themselves with more disposable income to spend on things like comics.

Of course, that's probably little comfort to Hibbs, who faces competition from smaller comics stores whose sole proprietors are the ones manning the cash registers. Hibbs may well be able to keep his doors open by downsizing, bringing in volunteers, or drumming up donations from devoted customers (as one local bookstore has done), but when it comes down to it, there simply may not be much of a future for bricks-and-mortar comics stores in a city with astronomical real estate prices.

"I super commiserate with him because we are in almost the identical situation," says Lew Prince, a member of the group Business for a Fair Minimum Wage and the owner of Vintage Vinyl, a record store in St. Louis. Dwindling sales and rising labor costs forced Prince to consolidate his two Vintage Vinyl locations into one. He nonetheless supports increasing Missouri's minimum wage from $7.65 to $12 an hour because he thinks it's the right thing to do. "The job of the business owner is to prepare for the future," he told me. "I have great empathy and sympathy for [Hibbs], but you have to do the job every day, and sometimes the marketplace defeats you."

But maybe that point of view is too harsh. I'd love to hear, in the comments, what Kevin's readers think about all of this.

Dear Marvel and Sony: We Love Movies for Their Kick-Ass Female Heroes, Too, You Jerks

| Wed May 6, 2015 5:21 PM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Shakesville founder Melissa McEwan.

Each time WikiLeaks posts another round of emails from the Sony hack, there is a garbage trove of misogyny: unequal pay, gendered and racist harassment, Aaron Sorkin waxing sexist, Angelina Jolie dismissed as a spoiled brat. Found among the latest collection was a dispatch from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter to Sony CEO Michael Lynton on the subject of female-centered superhero films, and if it's not exactly as awful as you're already imagining, that's possibly because it's even worse. Sent under the simple subject line "Female Movies," Perlmutter writes:

Michael,

As we discussed on the phone, below are just a few examples. There are more.

Thanks,

Ike

1. Electra (Marvel) – Very bad idea and the end result was very, very bad. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=elektra.htm

2. Catwoman (WB/DC) - Catwoman was one of the most important female character within the Batmanfranchise. This film was a disaster. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=catwoman.htm

3. Supergirl – (DC) Supergirl was one of the most important female super hero in Superman franchise. This Movie came out in 1984 and did $14 million total domestic with opening weekend of $5.5 million. Again, another disaster.

Best, Ike

Case closed, your honor! At Women and Hollywood, Laura Berger quite rightly notes that Perlmutter's list is highly selective and narrowly defined. "It seems fair to assume," writes Berger, "that Perlmutter is referring specifically to female superhero movies. If that's the case, why is something like 'The Hunger Games' omitted from this list? The extremely lucrative franchise is led by a woman, and while Katniss isn't technically a superheroine, she's certainly marketed as one. Isn't 'The Hunger Games' a more relevant example of how female-led films fare at the box office today than, say, 'Supergirl,' which was released over 30 years ago?" Emphasis original.

At ThinkProgress, Jessica Goldstein shows how easily one could selectively compile a list of male-centered superhero flops if one were inclined to make the incredulous assertion, based exclusively on box office returns and not on the inherent quality of the films, that male-centered superhero films don't work.

The three films on Perlmutter's list frankly just weren't very good. Which has to do with their female heroes only insomuch as studios don't generally dedicate equivalent creative and financial resources to female-centered superhero films, because they don't want to "waste" them on films they fear won't succeed at the box office. Thus the vicious cycle continues: Many female-centered superhero films are set up to fail, and then when one fails, the blame is directed at the women at its center, rather than the misogyny at her back.

This is a conversation that happens around every genre of "hero" film: Superhero films, action films, fantasy films, adventure films. The wildly successful male-centered flicks get rattled off as evidence of what "works," and implicit condemnation of what (allegedly) doesn't.

Many of the wildly successful male-centered franchises have, however, a token female character—carefully segregated from other women and girls, lest they get any ideas about taking over the world, I suppose.

When I watched the Superman series, it was for Margot Kidder's Lois Lane, who I was certain was the coolest woman with the most amazing voice who had ever lived.

And we are ever meant to understand that all of the dedicated superfans of these films watched them because of the men, always the men. What Perlmutter and his cohort don't understand, don't consider, or simply don't care about is that there are plenty of us who watched those films for the women.

When I watched the Superman series, I wasn't watching those films for Christopher Reeve; I was watching them for Margot Kidder's Lois Lane, who I was certain was the coolest woman with the most amazing voice who had ever lived. When I watched the Star Wars trilogy, I had zero interest in Luke; I showed up for Leia. When I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, I was watching it as much for Marion as I was for Indy. When I watched Dragonslayer (which admittedly was a commercial flop, but later became a cult classic) over and over until I could say every line, I was all about Valerian. When I watched Romancing the Stone, I was cheering for THE JOAN WILDER.

There were female heroes in my favorite films, and they were the reason I watched them. I imagine there are plenty of little girls (and little boys) who watch The Avengers not because of the guys, but because of the one, remarkable, exceptional (in every sense of the word) female hero in their midst. That doesn't show up in the numbers—nor, apparently, in the imaginations of the men who make creative decisions based on numbers.

The thing about many of the films I mentioned is that they're generally regarded as good movies. They were made with monumental investments of care and attention. And they didn't have to be male-centered, but they got that care and attention because they were.

What would happen if a female-centered hero were given the same mighty powers? Welp.

Our Country's Cartoonish Gun Debate Isn't Just Idiotic—It's Really Damaging

| Wed May 6, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
"Pew, pew, pew!"

Kevin Drum doesn't write much about guns, which is why I'm going to keep on it a bit here and honor him by rolling out the red carpet for a bunch of grating 2A trolls to stampede into the comments thread.

How exactly is that going to honor Kevin, you ask? By underscoring what his legions of intelligent readers already know: These dudes could learn a thing or three from Kevin Drum. He's open-minded and deeply curious. He asks shrewd questions and tests his own assumptions. He respects data. And he's a damn fine writer—clear, to the point, and not always entirely correct but who the hell cares because he's right there chatting with you as if happy hour has come early today and the drinks are already on the table. (Godspeed, Kevin—we miss you, we're stoked that you're on the road back to full-time badass blogger, and we'll see you again soon.)

So, to the subject at hand: Late last week, I spoke with Michael Krasny on KQED's Forum about our deep investigation into the economic toll from gun violence, which dings America for no less than $229 billion a year. (Yes, that's capital-B billion, further explained visually here and methodologically here.) The project has made waves not just for that staggering sum, but because we spent months digging up the elusive data behind it, from the personal to the societal. Yet, as listeners called into the show with questions, I was quickly reminded of just how ridiculously dumb and polarizing the gun debate really is—thanks to both sides—even in the face of groundbreaking information.

After a former US Marine came on the air and criticized the National Rifle Association for lying, the next caller, another gun owner, promptly denounced him for speaking against the Second Amendment and being "full of it." (Which in this arena is basically the equivalent of a puppy's kiss.) That was followed by a woman who wanted to know what could be done to prevent gun manufacturers from manufacturing guns, whether "we could stop it at the source."

And that, in a nutshell, is pretty much the state of America's gun debate. Here's more of it—but also some vivid stories and data from those who know gun violence firsthand:

Having reported on this subject intensively for the last three years, I'm still not totally sure whether guns kill people or people kill people, but I'm almost certain that you can be riddled to death with inanities. (See, for the umpteenth time: "Knives, baseball bats, and hands and feet kill people too!!")

But while there are offenders at both ends of the spectrum, one side is fundamentally responsible for the enduring standoff. The NRA's power tends to be regarded as legendary in politics and in the media, though it's probably overstated, especially nowadays. Still, the gun lobby has pulled off a messaging feat decades in the making—its leaders perpetually blasting away with the idea that any discussion of guns in America can be nothing other than a brutal dichotomy. You're either a defender of constitutional liberty, their premise goes, or you're an anti-freedom "gun grabber." Barack Obama's mass seizure of law-abiding citizens' firearms may have yet to materialize six-plus years in, but the NRA is taking no chances, already preparing as it is for Hillary Clinton's own nefarious plans.

The NRA's former "point person" in Congress now agrees that research on gun violence is essential.

More than just inciting the imagination of the NRA's political base, this construct evidently has become the default setting for the national debate. Some of the blame also falls on the gun-control movement, which expends considerable energy pontificating about how the NRA is evil. Of course, this bleak if cartoonish disconnect hardly reflects most Americans' attitudes about firearms, gun owners included.

But it has caused some very real, very serious collateral damage, according to numerous public health experts I've spoken with. The American medical community is nearly unanimous that gun violence is a serious public health threat, and yet, as we detailed in the aforementioned investigation, there remains precious little research on the problem, let alone funding to do more. As Mark Rosenberg, the former director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control put it during another recent radio conversation, the entrenched gun debate itself carries a steep price:

This is really destructive to our ability to make progress. It's posed as an "either or," and this was done by strategists working for the NRA over a long period of time. They wanted people to think that either you protect the rights of all gun owners to keep their guns, or you do research on gun violence, and that the two are diametrically opposed. And they had a zero-tolerance philosophy that said, "You can't even discuss research on gun violence because that leads down the slippery slope of all of us losing our guns." And that's led us into the morass where we are today.

One of Rosenberg's fiercest old adversaries, former Republican Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas—who in his own words "served as the NRA's point person in Congress"—now agrees with Rosenberg. After the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado (which cost that community at least $100 million), the two published a joint op-ed in the Washington Post: "We were on opposite sides of the heated battle 16 years ago," they wrote, "but we are in strong agreement now that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries and that ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners. The same evidence-based approach that is saving millions of lives from motor-vehicle crashes, as well as from smoking, cancer and HIV/AIDS, can help reduce the toll of deaths and injuries from gun violence."

Read their whole July 2012 piece, look at the findings from our new data investigation, and you'll also begin to see—another 100,000 deaths, 250,000 injuries, and one unthinkable elementary school massacre later—just how much we still don't know.

Tales From City of Hope #13: Badass Blogger Edition

| Tue May 5, 2015 1:18 PM EDT

My white blood count is now up to 2.4. More importantly, my ANC level is up to 2000. ANC is the front line of my immune system, and any number above 1000 means it's working adequately. So if you're sick and you sneeze on me, you are no longer likely to kill me. You'll just give me a cold.

So I'm basically out of the woods. But not entirely. I have months of recuperation ahead, and complete success won't be confirmed until a follow-up biopsy in 60 days. And then I have a difficult decision about whether I should enter maintenance therapy.

In the meantime, one of my sister's graphic arts pals whipped up the image on the right. It is titled "Kevin the Badass Blogger" and available in a limited edition to those savvy enough to copy stuff from the internet. For extra credit: can you figure out whose body I've been shopped onto?

And speaking of images, last night I thought I'd try to improve things around here by downloading Photoshop Express to replace the crappy freeware image editing app I've been using. So I did. But apparently PE works only with a keyboard and mouse. It has no touch support. In 2015. WTF?

Obamacare Is a Boon for the Working Poor, and That's Probably Good for All of Us

| Tue May 5, 2015 9:00 AM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Andrew Sprung.

One thing I've always appreciated about Kevin is that his commitment to economic justice is grounded in political realism. That balance was on display in his postmortem on the Democrats' drubbing in November:

[W]hen the economy stagnates and life gets harder, people get meaner. That's just human nature. And the economy has been stagnating for the working class for well over a decade—and then practically collapsing ever since 2008.

So who does the WWC [white working class] take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor. In particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn't matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the WWC makes it more than any. That's because they're closer to it. For them, the poor aren't merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They're the folks next door who don't do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars. For a lot of members of the WWC, this is personal in a way it just isn't for the kind of people who read this blog.

And who is it that's responsible for this infuriating flow of government money to the shiftless? Democrats. We fight to save food stamps. We fight for WIC. We fight for Medicaid expansion. We fight for Obamacare. We fight to move poor families into nearby housing.

This is a big problem because these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class.

As Kevin acknowledges, this is an age-old problem for Democrats. It's "unfair" in that there's overwhelming evidence that safety-net programs like food stamps, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit "have positive effects on health, educational attainment, earnings and employment years later," as Jared Bernstein recently wrote.

There's no denying the perception that Kevin fingers is a political force, and it's one partly grounded in reality, in that safety net programs (for the non-elderly at least) do most directly benefit those at the bottom of the income distribution.

The Affordable Care Act is a really stark exemplar of this good policy/tough politics conundrum. For almost its entire life its approval ratings have been underwater, pulled down in part by low marks from working class Americans. Most of the Affordable Care Act 's supporters assume that the law has remained unpopular because, as Jonathan Chait put it, "[Republicans'] lies got halfway around the world before the truth could get its pants on." And that's largely true. But it's also true that its impact on Americans' incomes look something like this:

That chart is a very simplified takeaway from a study by Brookings economists Henry Aaron and Gary Burtless, one that starkly illustrates whom the ACA spends money on via premium subsidies and Medicaid benefits. It's the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution.

Recent ACA enrollment data bears this out. Of the 11.7 million buyers of private health plans on the ACA exchanges, over 60 percent have incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The 11 million beneficiaries of the Medicaid expansion all have incomes under 138 percent FPL. Taken together, those numbers mean about 80 percent of the law's direct beneficiaries have incomes below 200 percent FPL.

Sliced another way, about half (48 percent) of private plan buyers in the 37 states using healthcare.gov had incomes ranging from 150 to 300 percent FPL, a more or less working class range. But more than half of those were at the lower end, 150 to 200 percent FPL.

The truth is, the ACA private plan market works best for people with incomes under 200 percent FPL. That's the cutoff point for the beefy if little-known cost-sharing subsidies that reduce deductibles and copays and make the coverage comparable to (or, for those under 150 percent FPL, better than) that offered by high-quality employer-sponsored policies. A recent study by Avalere Health showed that people with lower-incomes who qualify for such subsidies are snatching up private plans from ACA exchanges—but uninsured buyers at higher income levels haven't been nearly as enthusiastic. It would be great if more generous subsidies could make the exchange plans more attractive to those relatively better-off Americans on the upper end of the scale, but Democrats allocated what the political traffic would bear.

A genuine long-term bend in the healthcare cost curve would be worth all the Bowles-Simpson-type spending cut/tax hike plans ever conceived.

So how do the ACA's offerings to the uninsured benefit the working class, white or otherwise? For starters, 200 percent of FPL, the upper end of the sweet spot for ACA benefits, is a working class income; it's just under $40,000 for a family of three, and about two-thirds of median income. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 34 percent of Americans have incomes below that threshold.

But income in the U.S. is volatile. According to the economist Stephen J. Rose, in 2010, 7 to 8 percent of working-age U.S. adults were below the poverty line, but in the five years prior, about 18 percent spent at least one year in poverty. The same ratio may not hold for the 200 percent FPL level, but it seems fair to assume that half of U.S. households will fall below it at some point.

Pre-ACA, health insurance status was also highly volatile. A 2008 study by Mathematica Policy Research found that while nearly 18 percent of non-elderly adults were uninsured as of January 2001, 35 percent had been uninsured at some point over the three years prior. Of those, 60 percent went without coverage for at least a year. Extend the volatility caused by our employer-based health insurance system over a lifetime, and a very large percentage of Americans who don't always live in poverty are likely to need an affordable fallback at some point.

There's much more to be said (and studied) about how the ACA may benefit the working class and indeed all of us. The law will have multiple positive and negative impacts on employer-sponsored insurance, on the way care is organized and paid for, on hospital consolidation, Medicare, and so on.

Meanwhile, Republicans will continue to hammer Democrats over every real and perceived negative effect. (Watch out for that in 2018, when the most generous employer plans will be subject to the so-called Cadillac Tax, which could spur cuts to some workers' coverage). And it's not at all clear that Democrats will get much credit for some of the law's biggest upsides.

In the longest view, if the ACA really is contributing to a long-term slowdown in the growth of US healthcare spending—admittedly a big 'if,' though the data is promising—it could secure the nation's fiscal future and be a boon to everyone, poor or not. As Peter Orzag kept telling us back in 2009, "healthcare reform is entitlement reform." A genuine long-term bend in the healthcare cost curve would be worth all the Bowles-Simpson-type spending cut/tax hike plans ever conceived.

At the same time, the ACA has already cut the ranks of the uninsured by 15 million, reducing the uninsured rate among non-elderly adults from 17.6 percent to 10.1 percent, as estimated in a just-published Urban Institute study. In states that accepted the Medicaid expansion, it's cut the uninsured rate of the poor in half. For the middle class—very broadly defined by Urban as those in households between 138 percent and 400 percent FPL—it's raised the insured rate by 7.6 percentage points.

That's a monumental accomplishment, and Democrats paid for it in political blood. We should honor them for that.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Tales From City of Hope #12: I Am Bursting With White Blood Cells

| Mon May 4, 2015 12:12 PM EDT

Yesterday's white blood count was 0.2. Today's is 1.1. That's super duper exponential. Go, little stem cells, go!

Surely this deserves a bit of bonus catblogging. Of course it does.

America's Big Trade Deals and the Case of the 4 Fishy Phone Calls

| Mon May 4, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from David Dayen, a veteran blogger and currently a regular contributor to Salon and The Fiscal Times, among other publications.

I was planning on commandeering Kevin's site to finally shape this place up and do some dogblogging, but management was, shall we say, unreceptive. So let's use this space to do what all great blogging is known for: pointless speculation!

I did a story for The New Republic looking back at the 1993 CNN debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot, showing how Gore's messages on selling NAFTA mirror Barack Obama's messages on selling the Trans-Pacific Partnership today. Both men claim that their progressive trade agreements differ from the raw deals of the past; that opponents were isolationist Luddites who want to return to some unrealistic pre-globalized world; and that this new deal would create a benchmark for global trade, which some Asian power (Japan or China, depending on the era) would take control of were their plan defeated.

But the debate itself is amazing for several reasons, not the least of which being that a sitting Vice President had to go on Larry King and take phone calls. Everyone remembers Perot saying "Can I finish" incessantly, so much so that it became a Dana Carvey tag line.  And maybe you remember Gore pulling out a picture of Smoot and Hawley and giving it to Perot as a present ("You can put it on your wall"). But come with me through this Internet rabbit hole and look at something else.

Ross Perot gets asked four questions from the phone lines. I have no knowledge about how they were screened. But these don't sound like regular people to me; they sound like plants. You can listen yourself:

43:45 The caller is from "Washington, DC." And he says, and I quote, "How can the US expect to compete on a long-term basis in an increasingly interdependent economic world, while Europe and the PacRim nations unite on their own respective trade alliance?" Who in the world talks like that? It reads like it came out of a Brookings Institution paper.

54:30 A expat caller from Zagreb, Croatia (!) asks Perot for specific answers on what he would do as an alternative to NAFTA. This happens to be a question Gore asked repeatedly throughout the debate.

1:01:35 This call comes from McLean, Virginia, the Washington suburb populated mostly by lobbyists. The caller coincidentally has statistics at the ready on electronic exports to Mexico ("nearly tripled" over the past five years, "worth about $6 billion), and demands that Perot agree that removing tariffs on these products will produce "high-tech, good-paying jobs" in America.

1:06:35 This is perhaps the weirdest call. An American woman "who has been living in Mexico City for many years" calls in, following up on Gore's claim that the Japanese would "take over" a free trade agreement with Mexico if NAFTA is defeated. "There are thousands of Japanese here. They are waiting. They are lurking! What are you people doing? Why-" At this point she gets cut off, but Gore repeats the question and adds a line the caller never said: "Why don't you wake up?"

This is weird. The questions not only sound way too hyper-informed and scripted, they dovetail with every talking point Gore used in the debate, from how passing NAFTA was critical to setting a benchmark for trade with the world, to how NAFTA would create jobs at home through rising exports to Mexico, to how Japan loomed to take advantage of any potential failure, to how Perot was just carping from the sidelines without his own plan.

It's a strong accusation to suggest these questions were planted, and honestly I have no idea. However, I did find an article from 1994 in some left-wing rag called Mother Jones, detailing a host of dirty tricks the Clinton Administration engaged in to blunt the influence of Ross Perot:

Last September 2, the day Perot was to appear on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," a White House adviser got on the horn to L.A. After chatting with a "Tonight Show" writer, he faxed some questions to Leno […]

(Perot co-author) Pat Choate claims the administration sent people to UWS rallies to "take notes" and "heckle" Perot. He also accuses the administration of manipulating the press: "Journalists are getting anti-Perot stuff in the mail," he says. "Most of it has no return address." (Several reporters who cover Perot say they have no knowledge of this, and the White House denies both charges.) […]

Last April 22, Perot appeared before the Senate Banking Committee to testify on NAFTA. The White House didn't like him testifying, and it liked even less the idea of C-Span televising his appearance. So, Choate claims, a White House aide called Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who called Brian Lamb, the chairman of C-Span. Some sort of deal was struck, and Perot's testimony never graced the airwaves.

Because Mother Jones is a responsible publication, the author added that the rumor about C-SPAN could be false, but that it showed how the Clinton White House seized on Perot's natural paranoia to undermine him in the trade debate. Throwing in suspicious-sounding questions on CNN could serve the same purpose.

We're 22 years on from this event, and investigating the provenance of these fishy phone calls would be somewhat irrelevant. Four phone calls were not the reason NAFTA passed; there's no "NAFTA-ghazi" conspiracy theory to be had. But I nevertheless find it fascinating. Has anyone ever studied this? Does it just sound odd to my modern ears, or is there more there? When Kevin Drum ends blog posts with a series of questions, is it a clever device or does he genuinely want to ask his audience for answers?

Tales From City of Hope #11: We Have Liftoff

| Sun May 3, 2015 1:53 PM EDT

Yesterday's white blood count went from just under 0.1 to just over 0.1. Let's call it 0.05 growth. Today's count is 0.2. That's growth of 0.1.

And that, my friends, is exponential growth. Sure, we could use another data point or three. And some more significant digits. And if we're being picky, a coefficient or two. But screw that. To this Caltech1 dropout, it looks like exponential growth has kicked in. Booyah!

In more visually exciting news, I know you all want to see my shiner, don't you? I can feel the bloodlust all the way from my hospital bed. So here it is, you ghouls. As usual with these things, it looks a lot worse than it feels. In fact, I can barely feel it all. But it's clear evidence that, yes, the bathroom really is the most dangerous room in the house.

1Did you know that the proper short form for California Institute of Technology is Caltech, not CalTech? They've been trying for decades to get the rest of the world to go along, but with sadly limited success.

Tales From City of Hope #10: Rebound Is Here!

| Sat May 2, 2015 1:19 PM EDT

Yesterday my white blood count was <0.1. How much less? No telling, but my doctor called it an "honorary" 0.1.

But! Today my count is 0.1. Not much difference, you say, but it doesn't matter. It's higher than yesterday, and that means my transplanted stem cells are busily engrafting themselves and morphing into various blood products. Progress will be slow at first, but Friday was officially my bottom. Within a few days, my counts should start taking off much more rapidly. Huzzah.

In less good news, I slipped in the bathroom last night and got a pulled neck muscle and a black eye for my trouble. All I need now is a swastika tattoo and I'll have the whole skinhead look down cold.