2012 - %3, April

Poll: Super-PACs Will Hurt Voter Turnout in 2012

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 8:08 AM PDT

The post has been updated.

The ultra-rich may be psyched that super-PACs give them more power to influence elections, but average voters aren't wild about the new election spending groups, according to a new poll commissioned by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

One in four respondents in the poll said they're less likely to vote in elections this year because of the growing influence of super-PACs. That percentage climbs among those earning less than $35,000 a year (34 percent) and those with only a high school education (34 percent). "The perception that super-PACs are corrupting government is making Americans disillusioned, and an alarming number say they are less likely to vote this year," Adam Skaggs, senior counsel for the Brennan Center's democracy program, said in a statement. (The poll's margin of error is ±3.1 percentage points.)

The Brennan poll also found that 73 percent of respondents agreed with that statement that "there would be less corruption if there were limits on how much could be given to super-PACs." Nearly 70 percent concurred that "new rules that let corporations, unions, and people give unlimited money to super PACs will lead to corruption." And the majority of those polled disagreed that regular voters enjoy equal access to candidates as big super-PAC donors. (One in five said they had access was the same.)

Brad Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, which supports deregulating the campaign system, wrote in an email that the Brennan poll's result were "utterly predictable" but said there was no hard evidence proving that a spike in political spending depresses voter turnout. He also noted that Gallup's tracking of public trust in government had ticked upward since the advent of super-PACs. "Given the hysteria over super-PACs and the well-documented errors in media coverage of them, it is not surprising that people feel negatively about them," he added. "But the facts don't square with conventional wisdom."

Read the full results of the poll here.

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Corn on MSNBC: Growing Divisions Within The GOP

Tue Apr. 24, 2012 8:06 AM PDT

Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn joined host Al Sharpton on MSNBC's Politics Nation on Monday to discuss the growing rift between moderate Republicans and conservatives who just want to "smash things, not cut deals."

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

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 24, 2012

Tue Apr. 24, 2012 7:44 AM PDT

Spc. Quentin Bradford, an air traffic control specialist for 3rd Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force Corsair, guides two CH-47 Chinooks as they descend onto his flight line on Forward Operating Base Shank on April 11, 2012. The air traffic controllers at FOB Shank oversee the movement of hundreds of aircraft every day without the benefit of much of the advanced technology available to their civilian counterparts in the States. Photo by Sgt. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD.

How the Healthcare Industry Rips You Off

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 7:28 AM PDT

Today brings us a pair of infuriating stories about the cost of healthcare. In the first, Sarah Kliff reports the results of a study of appendectomy costs in California hospitals:

The price of appendectomy ranged from as little as $1,529 to as much as $182,955 depending on where it was performed, according to results published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. These results came after the researchers focused their data on 18- to 59-year-olds whose hospitalization lasted fewer than four days, to make sure they culled out any complications.

....“Price shopping is improbable, if not impossible, because the services are complex, urgently needed, and no definitive diagnosis has yet been made,” the authors conclude. “In our study, even if patients did have the luxury of time and clinical knowledge to ‘shop around,’ we found that California hospitals charge patients inconsistently for what should be similar services as defined by our relatively strict definition of uncomplicated appendicitis.”

Next up is a New York Times piece about a suit against insurers in New York state for consistently understating "usual and customary" rates, which allowed them to make unfairly low reimbursements for out-of-network care. The companies settled the suit by agreeing to set up a new, more reliable database of actual procedure costs:

Though the settlement required the companies to underwrite the new database with $95 million, it did not obligate them to use it. So by the time the database was finally up and running last year, the same companies, across the country, were rapidly shifting to another calculation method, based on Medicare rates, that usually reduces reimbursement substantially.

....Few dispute that [...] the new realpolitik of reimbursement is leaving millions of insured families more vulnerable to catastrophic medical bills, even though they are paying higher premiums, co-payments and deductibles.

“They’re not getting what they think they’re paying for,” said Benjamin M. Lawsky, the superintendent of the Department of Financial Services, whose investigators recently found that under the switch, 4.7 million New York State residents — 76 percent of those with out-of-network coverage — are facing reimbursement reductions of 50 percent or more. The switch “certainly creates the appearance that insurers are trying to end-run the settlement and keep out-of-network payments low,” Mr. Lawsky said.

These two stories highlight one of the biggest problems with American healthcare. Sure, it costs more than it does anywhere else, but that's not all. Thanks to weak price regulation, it's also far more variable than anywhere else, with hospitals and insurance companies constantly looking for ways to gain an edge over those with the least leverage. In the first story, they're taking advantage of people with sudden health problems who really don't have the opportunity to shop around. In the second story, they're taking advantage of people who, for one reason or another, have to seek care outside of their network.

Whose fault is this? Insurance companies for playing coverage games? Hospitals for playing cost games? Medicare for having a lousy and inconsistent payment system? Probably all of the above. And the net economic benefit of all this game playing is zero (at best). But one thing we know for sure is who pays the price for this. All of us.

Overthinking the Election

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 6:58 AM PDT

Ezra Klein asked three political scientists to create a model for forecasting presidential elections:

The final model uses just three pieces of information that have been found to be particularly predictive: economic growth in the year of the election, as measured by the change in gross domestic product during the first three quarters; the president’s approval rating in June; and whether one of the candidates is the incumbent.

That may seem a bit thin. But it calls 12 of the past 16 elections right. The average error in its prediction of the two-party vote share is less than three percentage points.

That sure sounds like a bad model to me. Here's a simpler model that gets 13 of the past 16 elections right: the incumbent party wins if it's been in office for four years, and loses if it's been in office for eight or more years. Even if you insist that Al Gore "won" in 2000 because he won the popular vote, it gets 12 of the past 16 elections right.

So what's the point of adding two more variables if they don't provide any additional accuracy? I don't get it. However, Ezra says the value of the model is that it forces you to think about basic factors without getting distracted by ephemera like Etch A Sketch or Mommygate. So if you want to think about it, you can play with the model here. Have fun!

As the Economy Deteriorates, So Does Social Security

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 8:15 PM PDT

The AP embarrasses itself today trying to explain why the latest Social Security Trustees report projects that the trust fund will be exhausted sooner than we thought:

Social Security is rushing even faster toward insolvency, driven by retiring baby boomers, a weak economy and politicians’ reluctance to take painful action to fix the huge retirement and disability program.

It's true that all of these things contribute to Social Security's solvency problems, but only the second has anything to do with the fact that Social Security is "rushing even faster toward insolvency." The retirement of the baby boomers and the fecklessness of Congress haven't changed at all since last year.

However, it's true that the Trustees now project that the trust fund will be exhausted in 2033, not 2036. There are some minor demographic and technical issues that contributed to this adjustment, but the biggest reason by far is that the Trustees made several changes in their assumptions about the economy:

The Trustees now assume a decline in average hours worked of 0.05 percent per year, rather than no change as they assumed last year.... Starting values for 2011 resulted in higher benefit levels and lower payroll taxes for 2012 than those projected in last year’s report. Price inflation in 2011 was higher than expected [and] the average level of taxable earnings for covered workers in 2011 was about 1.6 percent lower than estimated in last year’s report....Real interest rates for new investments during 2011 are significantly lower than projected in last year’s report, and these lower real interest rates on new investments continue for several years before reaching their ultimate levels.

Roughly speaking, the economy is weak and the Trustees have updated their models to assume that the economy will remain weak for some time. That means fewer workers paying into the system; a lower level of taxable wages; and lower returns on the treasury bonds in the trust fund as the Fed continues to hold interest rates low until the economy recovers.

Moral of the story: We need to get our economy out of a ditch, and the sooner the better. But you already knew that.

On a related note, I'm going to annoy a few of my fellow lefties and say that we should stop getting bent out of shape when people respond to the Trustees report by saying that Social Security is "going bankrupt" or "running dry" or some similar formulation. There's a hyperlegalistic sense in which this isn't accurate, but honestly, it would be a helluva dramatic event if the trust fund ran out of money and Social Security suddenly had to slash benefits by 25% in 2033 (see chart above). Referring to this as "bankruptcy" isn't all that big a rhetorical stretch, and everyone on both left and right should put away their fainting couches, ditch all the tired excuses, and get to work on a fix that would involve — say it in unison, folks! — a very modest and phased-in cut in benefits combined with a very modest and phased-in increase in taxes. This isn't a hard problem.

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Chart of the Day: Voters and the Culture Wars

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 2:54 PM PDT

Dave Weigel looks at the latest Pew poll asking voters which issues they care about, and concludes that Mitch Daniels was right: Republicans need to declare a truce on social issues and focus instead on the economy.

Republicans won in 2010 because voters focused on economics. Mitt Romney got himself declared "electable" because he focused on economics and auto-penned the social issues pledges when he needed to. And Romney swears that the new social issue/abortion/contraception flare-ups — brought on, typically, by Republican legislators — are distractions. They certainly look that way. They distract from the issues he can win on.

Of course, candidates don't always get to decide which issues the rest of the country is going to focus on. My guess is that Romney wishes all the contraception and related "mommy war" issues had never cropped up in the first place, but that wasn't his call to make. And once the issue was in play, he had little choice but to take the kinds of positions that please the most militant members of his tea party base.

On the bright side for Romney, though, just because voters say they don't care about social issues this year doesn't mean they really don't care. And not every culture war issue will necessarily end up benefiting the Democrats, as the contraception debate seems to have. They won't seem like distractions anymore if the next eruption turns into something that actively helps the Romney campaign.

Warren Buffett Will Host Obama Campaign Fundraiser in Omaha

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 12:38 PM PDT

Warren Buffett and President Obama.: Flickr/White HouseWarren Buffett and President Obama.: Flickr/White House

Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and philanthropist who lent his name to President Barack Obama's proposal to raise the tax rate on the wealthy, will host a fundraiser for the president on Tuesday at the Omaha Hilton. First Lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to attend, as is Susie Buffett, Warren's daughter and a prominent philanthropist.

A Obama campaign official told Mother Jones that approximately 200 people are slated to attend the event. Despite Buffett's standing as one of the world's richest persons, the event is not for only the top 1-percenters. Tickets start at $250 a person. The money raised will go to the Obama Victory Fund, the president's main re-election war chest.

This isn't the first time Warren Buffett is participating in Obama's 2012 fundraising cause. Last September, the "Oracle of Omaha" headlined an Obama fundraiser at the Four Seasons restaurant in midtown Manhattan. To be a "host" for that event—billed as an "economic forum" with Buffett and Austan Goolsbee, the former chair of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers—a donor had to part with $38,500. To get in as a non-host, contributors had to pony up at least $10,000 a head. The most generous donors enjoyed a "VIP reception" with Buffett himself.

Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and other Democratic allies have recently made good use of the Buffett name on the re-election fundraising circuit, touting the Buffett Rule as Obama's latest effort to take on the congressional Republicans. At a February 23 fundraiser, where 100 people attended at a cost of $15,000 per person, the president said, "When it comes to paying for our government and making sure the investments are there so that future generations can succeed, everybody's got to do their part. That's why I put forward the Buffett Rule."

Obama has pushed the Buffett Rule—which was blocked by Senate Republicans this month—as a way to raise revenues for government to help tame the deficit and to promote tax fairness. Now the Obama campaign is using Buffett to raise some revenue of its own.