Kevin Drum

People Who Know the Koch Brothers Sure Don't Like Them Much

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 9:37 AM PDT

This is apropos of nothing in particular, but Dave Weigel draws my attention today to a new GWU/Battleground poll that gives us approval/disapproval ratings for an eclectic bunch of people that happens to include the Koch brothers. It turns out that they're more unpopular than anyone else on the list. Weigel comments on what this means for the Democrats' anti-Koch offensive:

I generally agree that the Koch focus (Kochus?) is a poor substitute for a positive Democratic agenda, if such a thing is possible, but I don't see anything in the poll that contradicts the Democratic strategy. Charles and David Koch never, ever do TV interviews, choosing to exercise their influence behind the scenes of political groups, and they're known by two out of five Americans?

Given their low profile, you'd hardly expect the Kochs to be a household name. And yet, nearly half of all Americans have heard of them, and among those who are in the know they're very unpopular. So maybe the Democratic strategy of personalizing the robber-baron right by demonizing the Kochs is paying off. Give it another few months and maybe the Kochs will be a household name.

On the other hand, keep in mind how unreliable these polls are. It's possible that half the people who claim to have heard of the Koch brothers think they're the rap duo who performed at the Grammys a few weeks ago. Maybe if Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were less annoying, the Kochs would have done better in this poll.

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AFP Changes Obamacare Message, Still Gets It Wrong

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 9:00 AM PDT

The Koch-funded AFP has spent millions of dollars running ads that star real Americans who have been hurt by Obamacare. Each one has been systematically debunked. So AFP switched gears. In their latest ad, instead of focusing on a single case, they simply make the broad charge that "millions of people have lost their health insurance, millions of people can’t see their own doctors, and millions are paying more and getting less." Take that, meddling fact checkers!

So Glenn Kessler took a look. Verdict: when you make broad statements, it is indeed harder to demonstrate that they're concretely wrong. After all, some people have lost their health insurance, some people can’t see their own doctors, and some people are paying more and getting less. Nonetheless, Kessler concludes that AFP's broad charges aren't much more defensible than their bogus real Americans. Two Pinocchios.

Obama Proposes to End NSA Phone Records Program

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 10:40 PM PDT

After reviewing the NSA's bulk collection of phone metadata, President Obama plans to recommend that the program be terminated completely:

Under the proposal, they said, the N.S.A. would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the N.S.A. could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order.

....The new type of surveillance court orders envisioned by the administration would require phone companies to swiftly provide records in a technologically compatible data format, including making available, on a continuing basis, data about any new calls placed or received after the order is received, the officials said.

They would also allow the government to swiftly seek related records for callers up to two phone calls, or “hops,” removed from the number that has come under suspicion, even if those callers are customers of other companies.

If this is right, the NSA's data collection would end, and phone companies would do nothing differently from what they do now except that they'd have to provide metadata in a specific format when they get a court order. That's hardly burdensome to the telcos, nor does it infringe civil liberties in any noticeable way.

This is better than I expected. But I wonder what Congress will do with the proposal. Will Republicans go along? Or, after months of griping about the NSA program—remember, eight months ago 94 of them voted to defund it—will they decide that they'd rather accuse the president of endangering the American public by ending a vital program? It's an election year, after all. Decisions, decisions....

People Who Are Still Uninsured Aren't Very Happy With Obamacare

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 10:19 PM PDT

Patrick Brennan notes an interesting finding from last month's Kaiser tracking poll on health care reform. Over the last few months, unfavorable views of Obamacare have risen thanks to the rocky rollout, but they've risen only slightly. This is true for all races, ages, genders, income levels, and party IDs.

But there's one specific demographic where unfavorable views have gone up dramatically: the uninsured. Roughly speaking, unfavorable views among the uninsured have increased by about 20 percentage points. Here's the chart:

Brennan takes a crack at understanding what's going on:

For one, they’re more likely to be interacting with the law: Navigators are trying to reach them; some of them have probably been on the individual market at times, which only a limited percentage of Americans are, and are now seeing themselves priced out of coverage; others are perhaps just disappointed with what the law has to offer, or that its plans aren’t free, period. Some of them could be people who would have been eligible for Medicaid if their state had expanded it, and now see people making a little more money getting heavily subsidized insurance while they’re left out in the cold. As Jason Sorens points out on Twitter, it’s possible that we’re seeing a selection effect — people who like the ACA and for whom it works well are now leaving the ranks of the uninsured. We’ll have to see if this trend holds up.

My guess is that this is mostly a combination of a selection effect and an interaction effect. Right now, lots of people have signed up for coverage and are satisfied with it. These folks are no longer uninsured, so they fall out of the survey. The only people left are ones who, after five months, still don't have coverage. And there's obviously a reason for that: maybe the website didn't work and they gave up. Or even with subsidies the price was too high. Or they thought they'd qualify, but for some reason they didn't.

In any case,

[Whoops. Had to take a short break for a visit to the ER. Turns out I have pleurisy, which somehow sounds rather Dickensian to me. Hurts like a sonofabitch. Plus the ER nurse gave me a shot, and now my left arm hurts too. Recommended treatment: lots of Advil for the next few days.]

Anyway. Where was I? Oh yes: In any case, once lots of satisfied folks become insured, then by definition the pool of uninsured becomes less satisfied. The ones who thought Obamacare would help them and are now disappointed are a bigger fraction of the total. Most likely, that's all that's going on here. But it's probably worth keeping an eye on anyway.

Russia Is Not Exactly a Big Winner in the Crimean Dispute

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 2:36 PM PDT

So how are things going on the anti-Russia front? A quick recap:

Last week President Obama announced sanctions on high-ranking Russians. He also signed an executive order allowing him to impose sanctions on Russian industry. France has threatened to cancel the sale of two warships to the Russian navy. The G8 has effectively kicked Russia out of the club. Ukraine has cut off electricity to Crimea. The countries on Russia's borders are increasingly united against their next-door neighbor. The Russian economy, hardly robust in the first place, has already begun to tank. Ukraine has agreed to sign an association agreement with the European Union, precisely the action that Vladimir Putin so desperately tried to head off last year—and which triggered the Maidan protests that brought down the Ukrainian government. Today, European leaders made it clear that further economic sanctions against Russia were likely in the near future. And that's just so far.

And what has Russia gotten in return? Ten thousand square miles of territory that, nationalistic pride aside, mostly represents a political and economic drain on the state. That Putin sure is a master geopolitical strategist, isn't he?

Conservatives Are the Big Roadblock to Improving Head Start

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 12:19 PM PDT

Robert Gordon and Sara Mead say that Head Start is better than a lot of its critics give it credit for:

But this much is true: Head Start could do better....Evaluations suggest that strong state preschool programs sustain gains in reading, math, or both in ways that Head Start doesn’t. There’s no reason to think Head Start can’t produce similar results. In fact, some individual Head Start programs already do: Kids in them achieve vocabulary gains more than twice the Head Start average. But it will require some changes.

Some of the program’s defenders may bristle at such talk, for fear that any questioning of Head Start’s effectiveness will reinforce the arguments of [Paul] Ryan and those eager to downsize or even eliminate the program. But now is the time to talk about improving Head Start. Replicating results from the best Head Start programs would be a big boost for our nation’s poorest youngsters, enabling many more of them to start school much better prepared.

This is the eternal problem. There are plenty of liberals who would like nothing more than to make Head Start—and pre-K programs in general—better than they are today. In fact, if there's any group which should be most concerned about making sure that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently and that social programs show real results, it's liberals.

So why is there often so much resistance to improvement? Obviously inertia is part of it. Most of us tend to get a little lazy once we find a comfort zone. But there's a more substantive reason too: As Gordon and Mead say, defenders of social welfare programs know that acknowledging problems won't lead to kumbaya sessions with conservatives where we all agree on improvements. It merely gives conservatives fodder for arguments to cut spending on the poor.

This sounds simpleminded and uncharitable. So be it. But the plain truth is that there are vanishingly few conservatives who are genuinely dedicated to improving social welfare programs. They just want to cut taxes and cut spending. Sometimes this is out in the open. Sometimes it gets hidden in the language of "block grants." Sometimes it's buried even further in spending caps that obviously starve domestic programs without admitting that any particular program will ever get cut. But one way or another, it's there.

So what's the answer? I wish I knew. But as long as conservatives remain dedicated to using problems with social programs as nothing more than convenient excuses to get the Fox News outrage machine rolling, progress is going to be hard to come by.

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Who Gets Special Access to Comcast's Customers? Who Decides?

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 10:46 AM PDT

Things that make you go "hmmm":

Apple Inc. is in talks with Comcast Corp. about teaming up for a streaming-television service that would use an Apple set-top box and get special treatment on Comcast's cables to ensure it bypasses congestion on the Web, people familiar with the matter say.

....Under the plan Apple proposed to Comcast, Apple's video streams would be treated as a "managed service" traveling in Internet protocol format—similar to cable video-on-demand or phone service. Those services travel on a special portion of the cable pipe that is separate from the more congested portion reserved for public Internet access.

People familiar with the matter said that while Apple would like a separate "flow" for its video traffic, it isn't asking for its traffic to be prioritized over other Internet-based services.

Making video-on-demand operate properly requires careful engineering. It doesn't work if you just dump it out on the public internet and call it a day. However, that careful engineering costs money, and it's not unfair for companies to demand reasonable compensation of some sort if they're the ones who bear the costs.

But who decides what's reasonable and what isn't? In a competitive market, the market eventually decides. Price signals and competition do the heavy lifting with only light government regulation to set a level playing field and police the worst abuses. But when companies like Comcast have effective monopoly control over internet access in their territories, who decides then? There are no market forces to rely on, which means that Comcast gets to decide unilaterally. So, for example, when Netflix finally agrees to pay a fee to Comcast for delivery of its video content, the quality of Netflix transmissions miraculously goes up almost instantly. Apparently there were no infrastructure issues at all and no special buildout costs. It was just a matter of Comcast extorting some extra revenue from Netflix.

The Apple case is different in the details, but it raises the same basic principle: Who decides? Who gets special access to Comcast's customer base? Who gets shut out? The market can't provide any guidance because Comcast has little genuine competition in this space.

So who decides?

Chart of the Day: Social Security Is More Important Than Most People Think

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 9:06 AM PDT

EBRI's annual Retirement Confidence Survey is out, and you can find it here if you want to read the whole thing. In a nutshell, retirement confidence dropped sharply in 2008 when the Great Recession started, and finally started to increase a bit this year for the first time since then. Nonetheless, the number of people who are confident they have enough to retire on is still around 55 percent, way below the 70 percent who felt this way during the 90s and aughts.

There are plenty of interesting facts and figures about retirement in the report, and I've excerpted an interesting pair of charts about worker expectations of Social Security below. These numbers have bounced around a bit over the years, but generally speaking, only about a third of active workers think Social Security will be a major part of their retirement. In reality, about two-thirds of actual retirees report that Social Security is a major part of their income. Keep that in mind the next time you hear someone blithely talking about cutting Social Security benefits, especially among low-income workers.

It's Time For Some Obamacare Success Stories

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 7:44 AM PDT

Vincent Rizzo, who suffers from Type 2 diabetes, has gone without health insurance for 10 years. "We got 30 denial letters," his wife says. But then along came Obamacare, and now both Rizzos are covered for $379 a month, with a $2,000 family deductible. Michael Hiltzik compares their story to that of all the Obamacare horror stories making the rounds:

You haven't heard Rizzo's story unless you tuned in to NBC Nightly News on New Year's Day or scanned a piece by Politico about a week later. In the meantime, the airwaves and news columns have been filled to overflowing with horrific tales from consumers blaming Obamacare for huge premium increases, lost access to doctors and technical frustrations — many of these concerns false or the product of misunderstanding or unfamiliarity with the law.

While Rizzo was working her way to thousands of dollars in annual savings, for example, Southern California Realtor Deborah Cavallaro was making the rounds of NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, CBS, Fox and public radio's Marketplace program, talking about how her premium was about to rise some 65% because of the "Unaffordable" Care Act. What her viewers and listeners didn't learn was that she hadn't checked the rates on California's insurance exchange, where (as we determined for her) she would have found a replacement policy for less than she'd been paying.

So why do we hear so much about folks like Cavallero, and Bette from Spokane, and the infamous Julie Boonstra? Good question. More to the point, with Obamacare's website problems largely solved, and with the initial signup period coming to a close with a relatively high participation rate, will we start hearing these stories soon? Especially in swing states where the horror stories are getting so much play? Click the link for some speculation.

Chart of the Day: Republicans Stick Together No Matter What Kind of District They Represent

| Sun Mar. 23, 2014 10:52 AM PDT

Here's an interesting chart from Ryan O'Donnell. It shows voting patterns for members of Congress based on what kind of district they represent. Among Democrats, as you'd expect, their voting records become more progressive as their districts become more strongly Democratic (blue line). What's more, there's a sharp break at zero. When a district becomes even slightly majority-Democratic, voting records become sharply more progressive.

But you see nothing of the kind among Republicans. The red line is nearly flat. There's virtually no difference in their voting records regardless of how strongly Republican their district is. Even when they represent moderately Democratic districts, it doesn't matter. They still vote monolithically conservative.

Now, it's possible that this is merely an artifact of Republicans being the out-of-power party. When you're faced with a president of the opposite party, maybe it's just easier to maintain a united front of obstruction. Someone could shed some light on this by creating a similar chart for 2001-06, when it was House Democrats who were facing a president of the opposite party.

But I suspect that's not it. Or at least, not the whole story. Modern Republicans are both more cohesive and more ideological than Democrats (virtually none have a progressive score above 20, while lots of Democrats have scores below 80). Nor do they pay a price for this. Voters in pinkish districts don't seem to mind electing members of Congress with strongly red voting records. I guess they figure that as long as they vote against higher taxes, it doesn't much matter if they waste time on lots of symbolic sops to the tea party.

Could Democrats in light bluish districts act the same way? They sure don't seem to think so. Comments?