Jeb's Health Care Plan: More Detail, But It Probably Wouldn't Accomplish Much

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 12:36 PM EDT

The standard-issue conservative "replacement" for Obamacare is a familiar hodgepodge of tax credits, health savings accounts, high-risk pools, block granting of Medicaid, tort reform, and interstate purchase of health plans. Today, Jeb Bush has broken the rules and offered up a plan that only includes the first four.

If you're grading on a curve, that's a promising start, and Jeb makes things even more interesting by actually offering up a fairly detailed set of alternatives to Obamacare. I'm not sure any Republican candidate has gone anywhere near as far as he has. A few highlights:

  • He wants to "promote innovation" by speeding up FDA approvals, increasing funding for the NIH, establishing national standards for electronic health records (but, oddly, removing any incentive to abide by them), and conducting a "regulatory spring cleaning." Some of this is standard conservative stuff, but not all of it.
  • His plan provides a tax credit that can be used to buy private health insurance for anyone who doesn't get health insurance through their employer. However, it sounds like the credit would be pretty small, probably on the order of a few thousand dollars.
  • He wants to broaden the use of health savings accounts.
  • He wants to get rid of Obamacare's "Cadillac tax," but he would replace it with something that sounds to me like it's basically identical. Maybe I'm missing something here.
  • "States would be held accountable to ensure access for individuals with pre-existing conditions." There's a fair amount of gibberish here, and even Jeb doesn't seem especially confident that it will work. However, it's meaningless anyway since insurance companies wouldn't be required to offer policies at the same rate to everyone (aka "community rating"). "States would report on access to care," but that's it. It appears that there's nothing in Jeb's plan that prevents insurance companies from simply charging sky-high prices to anyone with a pre-existing condition.
  • There is, of course, no mandate to buy insurance. This would be catastrophic for insurance companies, except for the fact that Jeb's plan doesn't require them to cover patients with pre-existing conditions in the first place.
  • Jeb almost fooled me by not mentioning block-granting of Medicaid. But of course that's in there. He calls it "capped allotments" and pairs it up with a proposal to essentially deregulate state Medicaid plans completely but still "hold states accountable for outcomes"—though there's not a single word about exactly what this means. Jeb's allotment would grow at the rate of inflation, which means they'd get smaller every year since medical costs typically grow faster than inflation.

Just about every serious health care plan that truly wants to expand coverage relies on a three-legged stool: mandates, community rating, and federal subsidies. Jeb's plan doesn't include the first two and offers only a stingy version of the third. It's much more detailed than your average Republican plan, but in the end it would probably expand coverage hardly at all.

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McDonald's Spams Schools With Infomerical on the Virtues of Fast Food

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 11:53 AM EDT

Robust health requires nothing more than a little exercise and a daily dose or three of fast food. That's the message of the new 20-minute video 540 Meals: Choices Make the Difference (viewable here, short teaser above), being promoted in high schools and middle schools by McDonald's and uncovered by the superb school-food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel.

McDonald's recommends using the film "as a supplemental video to current food and nutritional curriculum."

The video focuses on the dietary and exercise regimen of John Cisna, who identifies himself as an "Iowa HS[ high school] Science Teacher who lost over 50 lbs eating only McDonald's," who "now travel[s] across the country sharing my message about food choice." Cisna gained notoriety when he mimicked the self-experiment of documentarian Morgan Spurlock, director/subject of the famed Super-Size Me (2004), and took his meals exclusively at McDonald's for six months straight. Unlike Spurlock, who saw his weight rise and his health falter, Cisna claims his weight plunged and health improved. One key difference: whereas Spurlock famously assented to any plea by a McDonald's employee to "super-size" his orders, Cisna stuck rigorously to a limit of 2,000 calories per day.

Apparently still haunted by the specter of Super-Size Me a decade since its release, McDonald's embraced Cisna, taking him on as a paid "brand ambassador" and now pushing his message to school kids, both through the 540 Meals film and through appearances at schools, documented on Cisna's Twitter feed. Siegel uncovered this McDonald's-produced "teachers discussion guide" to 540 Meals. It recommends using the film "as a supplemental video to current food and nutritional curriculum," particularly in "plans that incorporate Morgan Spurlock's Super-Size Me." She also points to this August press release from McDonald's franchisees in the New York Tri-State Area, flogging 540 Meals to "high school educators looking for information to demonstrate the importance of balanced food choices."

As Siegel shows in this handy list of quotes from the film, it brims with agit-prop for the famous burger-and-fries purveyor, including such wisdom as "through careful planning and mindful choices, you can still enjoy your favorite McDonald's items."

So what's wrong with pushing Cisna's message to school kids? Plenty, writes Siegel in her post, which is well worth reading in its entirety. Here's a sample:

First, neither 540 Meals nor the discussion guide ever offer young viewers the critically important disclaimer that “Your calorie needs may be significantly lower than John Cisna’s,” nor do they even discuss how one might go about calculating one’s daily caloric requirements. Instead, students are left with the vague but reassuring message that “choice and balance,” along with a 45-minute walk (which might burn off about 1/5 of a Big Mac) will allow them to eat whatever they want at McDonald’s on a regular basis.


Ben Carson Is a Paranoid Nutcase

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 11:22 AM EDT

I'm hardly the first one to notice this, but lately Ben Carson has really been letting his freak flag fly—adding to a long history of this kind of thing. For example:

  • A few days ago Carson peddled a conspiracy theory about Vladimir Putin, Ali Khamenei, and Mahmoud Abbas all being old pals from their days together at Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow in 1968. He refused to divulge his source for this, but instead explained it this way: "That's what I call wisdom," Carson said. "You get these pieces of information. You talk to various people. You begin to have an overall picture. You begin to understand why people do what they do."
  • He insisted that Hitler's rise to power was accomplished "through a combination of removing guns and disseminating propaganda"—despite the plain historical fact that Hitler didn't remove anyone's guns during the period when he took power.
  • Asked if the "end of days" was near, said, "You could guess that we are getting closer to that."
  • He has suggested that being gay is a conscious choice because "a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight and when they come out they’re gay. So did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question."
  • Last year, before the November elections, he predicted that President Obama might declare martial law and cancel the 2016 elections. "If Republicans don’t win back the Senate in November, he says, he can’t be sure 'there will even be an election in 2016.' Later, his wife, Candy, tells a supporter that they are holding on to their son’s Australian passport just in case the election doesn’t go their way."
  • Has repeatedly endorsed the bizarre conspiracy theories of W. Cleon Skousen's 1958 book The Naked Communist. "You would think by reading it that it was written last year—showing what they're trying to do to American families, what they're trying to do to our Judeo-Christian faith, what they're doing to morality." As my colleague David Corn notes, even most conservatives agree that Skousen was a nutcase. "He was a complete crank. He maintained that the Founding Fathers were direct descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel and contended that a global cabal of bankers controlled the world."

This goes well beyond merely being a very conservative guy. These are the kinds of weird beliefs and conspiracy theories that marinate in the deepest corners of right-wing websites and email lists. It's Alex Jones territory. It's time to stop whispering about this, and say out loud that Carson is just not a normal conservative guy. He's a paranoid nutcase.

Critics Pan New Show "21st Century"

| Tue Oct. 13, 2015 10:50 AM EDT

Charlie Stross is unhappy:

I want to complain to the studio execs who commissioned the current season of "21st century"; your show is broken.

I say this as a viewer coming in with low expectations. Its predecessor "20th century" plumbed the depths of inconsistency with the frankly silly story arc for world war II. It compounded it by leaving tons of loose plot threads dangling until the very last minute, then tidied them all up in a blinding hurry in that bizarre 1989-92 episode just in time for the big Y2K denouement (which then fizzled). But the new series reboot is simply ridiculous! It takes internal inconsistency to a new low, never before seen in the business: the "21st century" show is just plain implausible.

So far, I give the 21st century two stars. It might be better if they'd just release the whole thing at once so I could binge watch it, instead of forcing me to live through this nonsense week by week.

It Looks Like We're Stuck With Low Inflation

| Mon Oct. 12, 2015 8:16 PM EDT

Back in August I agreed with Brad DeLong that 4 percent inflation would be a good thing right now, but I was skeptical that the Fed could engineer this given current conditions. So I asked him what it would take. Today, I apparently made it to the top of the question pile:

I think the answer is: We don't know whether it is in fact possible for a central bank today to hit a 4%/year average inflation target via conventional ordinary quantitative easing. It might well require other tools. For example:

  1. Miles Kimball's negative interest rates.
  2. Helicopter drops--that is, allowing everyone with a Social Security number to incorporate as a bank, join the Federal Reserve system, and borrow at the discount window, with the loan discharged by the individual's death.
  3. The Federal Reserve as infrastructure bank--an extra $500 billion/year of quantitative easing buying not government or mortgage bonds but directly-financing public investments.
  4. Extraordinary quantitative easing--buying not the close substitutes for money that are government bonds but rather the not-so-close substitutes that are equities.

I say: If we could win the argument about what the goal is, we could then begin the discussion about what policies would be needed to get us there.

That's pretty discouraging. Of these, #2 and #3 are almost certainly illegal, and undesirable in any case. I may not like what Congress is doing, but disbursing money is certainly under their purview—and should be. I don't want the Fed mailing out checks or contracting for new roads and bridges.

I don't know if #4 is illegal. Probably not. But I'm not crazy about this either. The Fed shouldn't be in the business of directly propping up the stock market, and certainly shouldn't be in the business of directly propping up specific stocks.

So that leaves only #1. This one is perfectly OK, and a few European countries have adopted negative rates recently. But there's probably a limit to how negative these rates can be. Individuals could avoid negative rates by deciding to hold physical cash, which pays zero percent, but banks and corporations almost certainly couldn't. I'm not sure how long it's sustainable to essentially have two different interest rates like that.

This is why DeLong mentions "Miles Kimball's" negative interest rates. Kimball's version depends on making the e-dollar into the unit of account, and this would allow negative rates of any level for any period of time. However, it would also require many years to make this transition. It's not an option in the short term.

So if I'm reading DeLong right, it's not clear that the Fed could engineer 4 percent inflation at all right now. Maybe Scott Sumner has a bright idea about how we could do this.

I'd Give Obama's Syria Policy a B+

| Mon Oct. 12, 2015 1:48 PM EDT

"I don’t have a lot of good things to say about the Obama administration’s Syria policy," says Dan Drezner. He links to Adam Elkus, who calls Obama's Syria strategy "semi-competent." At the BBC, Tara McKelvey writes about Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Syria, who was close to the Syrian opposition and wanted to arm them when the Assad regime started to crumble. "People in the intelligence community said the time to arm the rebels was 2012," she writes. The problem is that officials in Washington were unsure that Ford really knew the opposition well enough. "Most of the rebels, he said, weren't 'ideologically pure', not in the way US officials wanted. 'In wars like that, there is no black and white,' he said."

I'll agree on a few counts of the indictment against Obama. Now that the mission to arm the rebels has failed, he says he was never really for it in the first place. That's cringeworthy. The buck stops with him, and once he approved the plan, hesitantly or not, it was his plan. He should take responsibility for its failure. You can also probably make a case that we should have done more to arm the Kurds, who have shown considerable competence fighting both ISIS and Assad.

But those are relative nits, and I'd be curious to hear more from Drezner about this. He basically agrees that arming rebels hasn't worked well in the Middle East, and there's little chance it would have worked well in Syria. "There is a strong and bipartisan 21st-century record of U.S. administrations applying military force in the Middle East with the most noble of intentions," he says, "and then making the extant situation much, much worse." He also agrees that Obama's big-picture view of Syria is correct. "The president has determined that Syria is not a core American interest and therefore does not warrant greater investments of American resources. It’s a cold, calculating, semi-competent strategy. But it has the virtue of being better than the suggested hawkish alternatives." He agrees that those "hawkish alternatives" are basically nuts.

So why exactly is Obama's record in Syria "semi-competent"? Why does Drezner not have much good to say about it? My only serious criticism is that Obama did too much: he never should have talked about red lines and he never should have agreed to arm and train the opposition at all. But given the real-world pressures on him, it's impressive that he's managed to restrict American intervention as much as he has. I doubt anyone else could have done better.

There is something genuinely baffling about American hawks who have presided over failure after failure but are always certain that next time will be different. But why? If anything, Syria is more tangled and chaotic than Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, or any of the other Middle Eastern countries we've gotten involved in since 2001. What kind of dreamy naivete—or willful blindness—does it take to think that we could intervene successfully there?

Anyway, that's my question. Given the real world constraints, and grading on a real-world curve, what has Obama done wrong in Syria?

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Recap: "The Good Wife" Would Like You to Stop Selling Photos of Your Naked Children

| Mon Oct. 12, 2015 1:10 PM EDT

RECAP: The Good Wife, Season 7, Episode 2: "Innocents."

The episode opens and the good wife is in bond court and she meets a kid who has been arrested for vandalizing some stupid photo exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Art and this kid, see, this kid just doesn’t know how to help himself. “I did it,” he says over and over despite the good wife’s pleas that he ixnay the whole confession-ay. The bond judge grants the dumb kid bail and as he’s being led away he says to Alicia, “it’s me…in the photo [i defaced.] It’s me.”

Eli visits Governor Bad Wife to apologize for saying some mean things during last week's episode. Peter is all, “great, thanks, apology accepted, Alan Cumming, but you still can’t work in the campaign.” Eli is like “I hear you, buddy. Live long and prosper.”

Can we talk about this whole thing for a second? The entire idea that Peter would fire Eli for Margo Martindale is insane. Peter owes everything to Eli and up until last week’s episode has been acutely aware of that. I get they just needed to set up a fight for Eli to have but it really just makes Peter seem even worse than he already is.

And, look—OK, this is turning into a rant—but Peter, the bad husband, has never been portrayed as an actually evil or nefarious person. Deeply flawed, yes, but never villainous. The whole throwing Eli under the bus thing is really annoying me. But I digress.

Eli bumps into Margo Martindale as he’s leaving Peter’s office and she threatens to kill Eli if he comes near “[her] candidate again.” Eli asks her if she’s seen It Follows. Like me, she has not. Unlike me, she hasn’t even read the Wikipedia summary.

Back to the kid who hates the art. The photo is of him as a child when he was naked. His mom is a famous photographer. His mom is played by Amy Irving! I love Amy Irving. Amy Irving and my dad were in a movie once called The Competition where they played competing pianists who fall in love. The art vandal in this episode is basically my brother.

Alicia needs an investigator because Kalinda is gone so she interviews a few of them. One is this guy who is clearly really good. He’s played by a famous actor whose name I can’t remember, but he was in Watchmen and various other things. He is too famous not be the one she ends up with but also his character is too rich for Alicia’s blood. He costs $5 more than another investigator so Alicia goes with the cheaper one…for now.

Cary and Howard are fighting about something and I don’t know or care what.

Mamie Gummer is back guest starring as Amy Irving’s lawyer. The good wife feels for Amy Irving’s son because he’s clearly a screwed up twentysomething and it’s probably because of all these naked photos of him running around. She is going to try to get the Chicago Museum not to show the photos.

Eli calls the good wife and lets her know that Peter won’t let her hire him as her chief of staff. The good wife is like, “no way, José” and goes to visit her husband and is like “LET ME HIRE ELI OR I WILL DESTROY YOU BY TELLING THE PRESS HOW OUR MARRIAGE IS A SHAM” and Peter is like, “ok ok ok ok.”

Amy Irving and the son she photographed nude as a child meet and he is like, “mom, please don’t put these photos in the museum” and his mom is like, “I’m an artist, kiddo.” Amy Irving is really good at playing a hippy artist here.

Alicia’s case against Amy Irving has to do with whether her son ever gave consent to be photographed nude. Mamie Gummer says Amy Irving gave consent because she is the child’s mom.

Margo Martidale dispatches a spy to be Eli’s assistant and report back to her all his activities because she finally realizes that he isn’t giving up without a fight.

Amy Irving’s son takes the stand and explains how ever since the photographs of him naked where made public he has received emails from pedophiles. “After the book was published I’d come out of school and these…men…would be waiting for me.” Gross.

Cary and Howard are still fighting. I don’t want to bother trying to explain this storyline but one of Howard’s throw away lines is: “I can some up the Cubs turnaround in one word: Jews.”

The investigator Alicia hired screws up a bunch because she is utterly incompetent and Alicia is like “damn i should have hired that famous actor who was far too famous to only appear in one scene of this TV show.”

Amy Irving takes the stand and is all, “look, back off, ok? I am an artist and lots of artists use their children as subjects and if I were a man you’d be throwing me a fucking parade” and then the bond attorney who is now Alicia’s second chair is like, “I’m not in the business of throwing parades for people who take photos of naked children.”

Back at Alicia's house, Eli presents the good wife with a plan to make her “Saint Alicia” again. She needs to go the Democratic party chief who screwed her over last season. I don’t remember all the details of that but he was corrupt and forced Alicia to drop out of the State’s Attorney race even though she had totally won and not done anything wrong. He is a bad corrupt person. That is all we need to know.

The corrupt man asks Eli to let him and Alicia talk privately and is like “I want to put you on the election board. People like people on the election board! But here’s the thing, I need you to do me a corrupt favor. Vote No on the first vote. DON’T ASK ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT WHAT THE FIRST VOTE WILL BE BUT JUST VOTE NO, OK?” And the good wife says, “ok,” because the good wife is not a perfect human being.

Alicia fires her shitty investigator and calls the guy from Watchmen but he maybe is going to work for Cary. Cary can offer him a lot more money.

Anyway blah blah the case of the naked child continues and it isn’t going great for Alicia and Amy Irving’s kid but then P.I. Watchmen suggests she put a pedophile on the stand and the pedophile is like, “oh yeah I love looking at those photos of that kid naked! All the pedos love it!” It’s a darkly humorous scene.

The judge isn’t convinced that it’s kiddie porn though and is like “museum can open!” but then Alicia realizes she can go after Amy Irving for lost wages because the kid was a subject of the photo and was essentially working during the photo shoots. She is going to sue Amy Irving for a whole lot of money.

It seems like ol’ good wife has Amy Irving over a barrel but then the kid is like “mom, i don’t want your money I just want the photos so the pedophiles will leave me alone” and the good wife is like, “the photos are still on the internet, kid. You can’t unring the bell. But this money can help you start a new bell.” Amy Irving looks at the kid and reaches her hand across the table. The kid reaches his hand and joins his in hers. This is the end of the scene.

Peter tells Margo Martindale that Eli did a good thing by getting Alicia on the elections board and that she should call him and give him an attaboy. She is disturbed by this instruction.

Back at the good wife’s home we find out that she won the case on behalf of Amy Irving’s son and got a nice chunk of change so apparently that handshake meant Amy Irving was agreeing to pay her kid. The male investigator shows up and is all “knock knock, I have a really good offer. Can you beat it?” We know what the offer is but Alicia does not. Diane offered him $250 an hour. Alicia says, “what’s the offer I have to beat?” And Jeffrey Dean Morgan (thank god, I finally remembered his name) lies to her and says, “$90 an hour.” Alicia offers him $95 which is still way less than the $250 he was really offered but he says yes because he likessssssssss her.

The end.


Another Long, Hot Summer of Catcalling Is Coming to a Close

| Mon Oct. 12, 2015 10:03 AM EDT

Hannah Giorgis writes about the endless struggle with catcalling in New York City:

After another summer spent shrugging off men’s loud assessments of my body any time I left my apartment, I am exhausted. And as the streets thin out and the weather cools to a temperature less accommodating of men who consider catcalling a leisure sport, I am increasingly able to pause and feel the depth of my own fatigue.

....Every outing involves dozens of split-second decisions. The short, loose dress or the long, form-fitting one? The almost-empty subway car or the crowded one? The shorter route or the more well-lit one?....My mind can only make so many daily calculations before it slips into what social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister calls “decision fatigue.” Processing each of these useless equations takes a biological toll on my brain, leaving it more inclined, as the day wears on, to look for shortcuts.

Read the whole thing. Or, if you'd prefer a video dramatization of what it's like, check out the YouTube below.

Country-Rocker Corb Lund Shows Off His Wit and High-Lonesome Voice

| Mon Oct. 12, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Corb Lund
Things That Can't Be Undone
New West

With his flexible, high-lonesome voice and witty songs, Corb Lund makes records that have real staying power. On Things That Can't Be Undone, his first studio outing in three years, the Canadian country-rocker and his nimble supporting trio, the Hurtin' Albertans, dispatch sizzling boogie rave-ups and heart-tugging ballads equally well, uncorking a batch of snappy tunes bigger names would be smart to cover. Among the high points: "Weight of the Gun," a loping tale of regret in the spirit of vintage Johnny Cash, "Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues," a hilarious unofficial sequel to Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It," and the haunting war story "Sadr City." Then again, there's not a dull or false note to be found on this remarkable and rewarding album.

Report: John Boehner Is the Guy Who's Kept the Hillary Email Scandal Alive

| Mon Oct. 12, 2015 1:04 AM EDT

Back when the Benghazi committee started up, Rep. Trey Gowdy swore that it was nothing more than an impartial search for the truth about a raid that cost four American lives. So how is that coming along? The New York Times reports:

Now, 17 months later — longer than the Watergate investigation lasted — interviews with current and former committee staff members as well as internal committee documents reviewed by The New York Times show the extent to which the focus of the committee’s work has shifted from the circumstances surrounding the Benghazi attack to the politically charged issue of Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.

....The committee has conducted only one of a dozen interviews that Mr. Gowdy said in February that he planned to hold with prominent intelligence, Defense Department and White House officials, and it has held none of the nine public hearings — with titles such as “Why Were We in Libya?” — that internal documents show have been proposed.

At the same time, the committee has added at least 18 current and former State Department officials to its roster of witnesses, including three speechwriters and an information technology specialist who maintained Mrs. Clinton’s private email server.

From the standpoint of a genuine Benghazi investigation, Hillary Clinton's email issues wouldn't matter. All the committee would care about is getting a look at the emails from her private server—which is now happening. For some reason, though, they care deeply about investigating that email server to death, even though it has nothing to do with the Benghazi attacks. Why is that?

A friend of mine has tried to persuade me that Gowdy is probably playing things straight. I've argued that I don't believe it. He's a true believer, and he cares a lot more about taking down Democrats than he does about Benghazi itself, which he probably knows perfectly well has already been investigated to death. So which of us is right? This tidbit sheds a bit of light on things:

[Gowdy] said that at one point this spring he told John A. Boehner, the House speaker, that he feared the task of investigating the email issue would distract from his committee’s work....[and] pressed Mr. Boehner to have another House committee examine the matter of Mrs. Clinton’s emails, but that Mr. Boehner had rejected the request.

....Senior Republican officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing confidential conversations, said that Mr. Boehner had long been suspicious of the administration’s handling of the attacks and that Mrs. Clinton’s emails gave him a way to keep the issue alive and to cause political problems for her campaign. But he thought that the task was too delicate to entrust to others and that it should remain with Mr. Gowdy, the former prosecutor.

If this is true, my friend is halfway right: Gowdy never really wanted to get distracted with politically motivated attacks on Hillary Clinton. But John Boehner did, and he figured Gowdy was the best man for the job.

I'm not quite sure what this says about Gowdy, but it's certainly clear that Boehner thought that manipulating the media into nonstop reporting on Hillary's email server was a great idea. He also figured the media would take the bait. And they did.

So Gowdy gets, oh, let's say a C+. He tried to do the right thing, but caved in pretty quickly. Boehner gets a D. He was all about taking down Hillary Clinton from the get-go. The media gets an F. Boehner at least has the excuse of being a senior Republican leader, and attacking Democrats comes with the territory. But the media is not supposed to be so gullible that they believe everything Republicans say about Democratic leaders. In the case of Hillary Clinton, though, that rule seems to have been suspended. Again.