2011 - %3, December

Ending Medicare

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 2:23 PM EST

Today's outrage of the day is PolitiFact's announcement that the 2011 Lie of the Year is the Democratic claim that "Republicans voted to end Medicare." This was a reference to GOP support for Paul Ryan's budget plan, which would have changed Medicare from a government-run program to one that provides vouchers for seniors to buy insurance on the private market. Those vouchers would have increased in value very slowly, which means that within a couple of decades seniors would probably have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket in order to purchase Medicare policies.

Does this count as "ending Medicare"? Matt Yglesias, former philosophy major, parses it this way:

Mitt Romney, for example, lauded the plan as reflecting "the need to fundamentally transform Medicare." If friends of the plan describe it as fundamentally transforming the program, can it really be wildly illegitimate for its foes to describe it as ending Medicare? That doesn't make sense to me. According to Mitt Romney, we're fundamentally transforming Medicare. According to the DCCC we're ending Medicare and replacing it with a fundamentally different program. This is a hair-splitting disagreement, not a gaping void of factual error and deliberate deception.

I guess I wish we lived in a world where it was possible to believe multiple things at once about highly charged subjects. Should PolitiFact have chosen this as its Lie of the Year? Not a chance. Ryan's plan was an existential change to the current program, which guarantees essentially unlimited medical coverage to all seniors in return for a nominal annual premium. Ryan's plan doesn't, and describing that as an entirely different kind of program is perfectly legitimate. Hell, even some conservatives agree that PolitiFact made an elephant out of a mouse.

But does that mean Democrats were justified in describing the Ryan plan as "ending" Medicare? I know we all have our tribal loyalties here, but come on. There's no question that this is intended to mislead people into thinking that medical coverage for seniors will literally go away entirely. But it wouldn't. Ryan's intention is that growth caps plus privatization will lower costs so that his vouchers will remain sufficient to purchase coverage similar to today's. Meanwhile, low-income seniors would receive subsidies if they couldn't afford the premiums even with a voucher. It's a terrible plan, with virtually no evidence to support its central idea, and it would turn Medicare into a far stingier program than it is today. You can quite accurately say that the Ryan plan "privatizes" Medicare, that it "eviscerates" Medicare, or that it abolishes Medicare's guaranteed coverage.

But ends Medicare? No. This means that there are two things to say about all this. (1) PolitiFact made a ridiculous choice. They elevated a real but modest rhetorical difference into the biggest lie of the year, and it just isn't. (2) Nevertheless, Democrats shouldn't say that Ryan's plan "ends" Medicare. It doesn't, and there are plenty of short, punchy ways of making the same point more accurately.

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Report: Plan B Unavailable a Third of the Time

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 12:54 PM EST

In theory, any woman 17 or older can buy the Plan B emergency contraceptive over the counter. Younger teens can't, and the Obama administration's recent decision on Plan B keeps it that way despite the unanimous recommendation of an FDA panel.

But at least 17-year-olds have easy access to Plan B, right? Not so much, it turns out. In a new study published in JAMA, researchers posing as 17-year-olds called pharmacies to see if they could get Plan B that day. As Aaron Carroll reports, about 20% of the time they couldn't:

It gets worse. If they did have the drug available, which occurred 759 times, once callers revealed they were 17 years old, almost 20% were told that they couldn’t have emergency contraception. Legally, of course, they could have. But they were “misinformed.” Further analysis looking at the relative income of people living near the pharmacy found that people who lived in poorer neighborhoods were more than 60% more likely to be incorrectly told they couldn’t have the drug because they were too young than people who lived in more affluent neighborhoods.

So let’s recap. Plan B is either unavailable or “hidden” in 20% of pharmacies. When it is available, people at the pharmacy are misinforming 17 year olds that they can’t have it anyway 20% of the time. They seem more likely to do so in poor neighborhoods, where a disproportionate number of teen pregnancies occur. All of this would be improved if the drug were just known to be available over-the-counter for everyone.

This is just pesky "evidence," of course. I imagine there's no need to give it any kind of serious consideration.

Even the Weather is Bigger in Texas

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 12:53 PM EST

Gov. Rick Perry's default solution to his state's disastrous drought was to ask Texans to pray for rain. But residents of the Lone Star State had a whole lot of other weather problems to pray about this year.

On Tuesday, Climate Central took a look at the ten states most affected by this year's weather chaos—and found that Texas tops the list. The ranking took into account the number of people killed by extreme weather events, the price of damage, and how it affected the lives of average residents. Here's what Climate Central had to say about Texas:

Texas was hit by eight of the nation’s billion dollar disasters - the most of any state in the country. Of the eight, the three most devastating were drought, heat, and wildfires. The drought still grips the state, and it is the most intense one-year drought on record. Unlike past dry periods, the damage to the state has been aggravated by record-breaking heat. Groundwater levels in much of the state have fallen to their lowest levels in more than 60 years, according to observations from NASA satellites.
The heat during the summer of 2011 was relentless, with many cities smashing records for the longest stretch of 100-degree days, including Dallas with a record 70 straight days with 100-degree heat, and San Angelo with a whopping 98 days above 100. July 2011 was the hottest month ever recorded statewide, and Amarillo, Texas reached 111 degrees on June 26, an all-time record high for that location where records date back to 1892.

Alabama, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas, Connecticut, Vermont and New Jersey rounded out the top 10. Nationally, there were twelve billion-dollar disasters this year, including hurricanes, wildfires, drought and tornadoes. And there's more to come in the future, if you believe climate scientists. Which Rick Perry doesn't, of course.

The Decline and Fall of New Hampshire

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 12:39 PM EST

Andrew Samwick says the Republican presidential candidates have been almost invisible in New Hampshire this year. He's got a few possible explanations for this, but even so, I find this pretty interesting:

It is surprising how little role that money is playing in this contest. The top candidates are not spending money on large media buys. Television advertising has not been overwhelmed by political ads. An unmet need to raise money has not been a reason for candidates to drop out of the race and focus the remaining candidates on distinguishing themselves from each other. More generally, we are in the low-fundraising, low-spending equilibrium in which candidates are responding to weak campaign efforts by their opponents by conserving their own resources, including their time and travel. That won't continue to be the case later in the primary season, but it is certainly the case now.

Fundraising has been pretty sluggish for all the Republican candidates this year, and apparently that's not changing. What's more, Iowa seems to be sucking up everyone's attention to a surprising degree. For the first time in decades, nobody cares about New Hampshire.

Mitt Romney: Super-PACs Are a "Disaster"

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 12:29 PM EST

Mitt Romney is biting the hand that feeds him. On MSNBC's Morning Joe on Tuesday, Romney railed against so-called super-PACs, the relatively new breed of political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in elections. He called super-PACs a "disaster" and said, "We really ought to let campaigns raise the money they need and just get rid of these super-PACs."

That's quite a statement from a candidate who's benefited greatly from the rise of super-PACs. Restore Our Future, a super-PAC aligned with the Romney campaign and run by Romney 2008 aides, announced earlier this month plans to spend $3.1 million on TV time in Iowa to boost Romney's standing there. The blitz appears to be helping: recent polls show Romney's popularity inching upward. Restore Our Future, meanwhile, has plenty more gas in the tank; having raised $12.2 million as of June 30, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Romney's hardly the one to benefit from super-PACs backing a specific candidate. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Newt Gingrich, and even former US Sen. Rick Santorum have super-PACs fundraising and spending on their behalf.

Fred Wertheimer, a veteran campaign finance reform advocate at Democracy 21, says super-PACs "are a dangerous fraud on the American people…designed to launder into a candidate's campaign the very kind of unlimited contributions that the campaign finance laws have long prohibited candidates from receiving because they are corrupting."

Here's the video of Romney denouncing super-PACs:

Michele Bachmann: The Candidate From Foursquare

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Martin Luther's acolytes had the printing press. The Velvet Revolution had rock-and-roll radio stations. The Arab Spring had Facebook. Michele Bachmann's long-shot quest for a second American Revolution has Foursquare. Well, it's something anyway.

Bachmann won't win the Republican nomination, but her campaign is on the upswing in Iowa, where the latest Public Policy poll has her breaking double digits for the first time in months. Last week, she kicked off a 99-county bus tour, to visit every corner of the state, and she seems to think she might actually have an outside shot at winning the caucuses. The days when she had to yell frantically at debate moderators to get a little face time have passed, at least for now. What's her secret? It's the world's most perplexing social media platform this side of Ping.

There she was, at the Thirsty Dog in Manly on Sunday evening. Four minutes earlier, if Foursquare can be trusted (and I would suggest to you that it must, it simply must) she was at the Prime and Wine in Mason City. That followed a stop at Shooterz Bar in Forest City (try the meatloaf), and successive appearances at Pizza Ranch franchises in Garner and Clarion. She started the day by checking in at Harvest Baptist Church in Fort Dodge (with two others). On Saturday, it was much of the same: Pizza Hut in Ida Grove (where she unlocked the "Bender" badge for checking in for the fourth consecutive night)—and three more Pizza Ranches, in Rockwell City, Pocahontas, and Emmetsburg.

Oh, and the compulsory visit to Cronk's in Denison, where this happened:

She held off on tweeting about it, at least. On Friday she as at Hey, Good Cookies in Spirit Lake, Cool Beans coffee shop in Estherville, and—noticing a trend here—Pizza Ranch in Sibley.

So what does this all mean? Michele Bachmann goes to a lot of pizza places: In Garner, she unlocked the Level 2 Pizzaiolo badge; as I'm writing this, she's just checked into the Princess Grill and Pizzeria in Iowa Falls, and she'll have stops later on Monday at Pizza Ranches in Charles City and Waverly. But there's a method to all of it. As Kerry Howley reported in March, Pizza Ranch holds a unique place in Iowa politics. When Mike Huckabee won the caucuses in 2008, he did it by hitting all 69 franchises in the state. Social conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats (of marriage pledge fame) has used the buffet-style chain as a staging ground for his own campaigns. It's a way of microtargeting the predominantly old, predominantly evangelical voters who will decide the results on January 3.

Of course, the senior citizens who hang out at Pizza Ranch to listen to Michele Bachmann talk about Alfred Kinsey are also, generally speaking, not the sort to unlock the oversharing badge on Foursquare. Which just goes to show you that while candidates have more social media tools at their disposal than ever before, they're still not entirely sure what to do with them. That is, unless Bachmann becomes Mayor of the Iowa caucuses.

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Your Daily Newt: A $40 Billion Entitlement for Laptops

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Dan Herrick/ZumaPressDan Herrick/ZumaPressAs a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

After being sworn in as Speaker of the House in 1995 on a promise to tear down the welfare state, Newt Gingrich needed just one day to propose a new, $40 billion entitlement program to allow poor Americans to buy laptops. As he told the House Ways and Means Committee:

I'll give you a nutty idea that I'm just tossing out because I want to start getting you to think beyond the norm. Maybe we need a tax credit for the poorest Americans to buy a laptop. Now, maybe that's wrong, maybe it's expensive, maybe we can't do it. But I'll tell you, any signal we can send to the poorest Americans that says "We're going into the 21st century, third-wave information age, and so are you, and we want to carry you with us," begins to change the game.

It was not the first time he'd floated the concept. Elizabeth Drew reported that Gingrich had "made a similar proposal several years [earlier], to an executive of a major technology company, and had been told it wasn't feasible." And in his 1984 book Window of Opportunity, Gingrich had heralded France's move to put a telephone in every house as "an investment in the future and one which may make France the leading information-processing society in the world by the end of the century."

Because poor Americans don't pay income taxes, though, the tax credit wouldn't do much good—unless it was a refundable tax credit, in which case it would basically be an entitlement by another name. (It was also a bit incongruous to propose giving away laptops while simultaneously trying to eliminate food stamps, but we all have our indiosyncrasies.) The Speaker backtracked shortly thereafter. As Michael Kinsley put it in the New Yorker:

Gingrich conceded that the laptop tax-credit idea was not merely "nutty" but "dumb" and added, "I shouldn't have said it." He even revealed that he had called up George Will to apologize—apparently what one does in such circumstances—though he did not reveal whether Will had given him absolution.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 20, 2011

Tue Dec. 20, 2011 6:57 AM EST

Sgt. 1st Class Eteru Ane, of Pago Pago, American Samoa, is backlit by the setting sun as he heads toward the last station of the day, an uphill Hummvee push, during Task Force Attack's (1-227th AV) winter spur ride on December 7, 2011 at Forward Operating Base Sharana, Afghanistan. More than 40 troopers tested their skills to become members of "The Order of the Spur" and earn the right to wear silver cavalry spurs. Photo by the US Army.

Romney's Tax Plan: Not Crazy Enough for Today's GOP

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 2:19 AM EST

James Pethokoukis writes today that Mitt Romney has a problem: his tax plan isn't crazy enough to convince Republicans that he's really one of them:

He would keep the Bush tax cuts, eliminate investment taxes — but only for those making under $200,000, kill the death tax, and cut the corporate tax rate to 25 percent. Solid but kinda “meh.”

Romney's plan, Pethokoukis reports, needs to be much friendlier to the rich and much more infused with supply-side voodoo. The glut of nutball flat-tax plans from the rest of the GOP field has raised the bar, and merely endorsing $5 trillion or so in tax cuts just doesn't cut the mustard anymore.

Yet More Patent Idiocy

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 12:17 AM EST

Looking for yet more reasons to feel an all-consuming contempt for software patents and the POS companies that try to enforce them? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Apple Computer's jihad against the rest of the world's smartphone makers:

The case decided Monday involves the technology that lets you tap your finger once on the touchscreen to call a phone number that is written inside an e-mail or text message. It also involves the technology that allows you to schedule a calendar appointment, again with a single tap of the finger, for a date mentioned in an e-mail.

There you go. A single tap is clearly such a singularly brilliant innovation that no one else on the planet should be able to use it. So instead HTC and others will have to use a double tap. Or a swipe. Or a tap and a popup menu. Or one of the other dozens of butt obvious ways to do something like this.

The field of finger gestures on touch screens is a microcosm of the entire farcical realm of software patents: obvious ideas getting tied up forever by whoever happens to be the first guy to write them down. If we had any brains at all, software patents would be consigned to the ash heap of history, where they belong.