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WATCH: GOP Candidate Whacks Obama Bobblehead in Weird New Ad

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 8:18 AM PDT

Nebraska state Sen. Beau McCoy (R), who is campaigning for governor by driving around the state in a white pickup truck with a ladder rack, wants GOP primary voters to know that he'll push back against President Barack Obama's administration. In an ad that hit Nebraska airwaves this week, McCoy confronts an Obama bobblehead doll mounted on a fence post—and knocks it to the ground with a swift backhand. "More Obamacare in Nebraska? That's the last thing we need," he says before smacking the bobblehead.

Then he rides off on his steed.

McCoy is a serious underdog in the race to succeed GOP Gov. Dave Heineman. He grabbed just 4.7 percent in a February survey of the field by Harper Polling, well behind attorney general Jon Bruning and former Ameritrade COO Pete Ricketts, the son of big-time Republican super-PAC donor Joe Ricketts.

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It's Spring, So California Refineries Are Suddenly Having a Few Problems

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 8:11 AM PDT

The swallows may no longer return to Capistrano, but don't worry. We still have an annual rite of spring here in California:

A gallon of regular gasoline hit a statewide average of $4.196 on Thursday, up about 13 cents in a week, according to AAA. That's the highest price since March 2013....Problems at a few refineries in the Golden State undergoing routine spring maintenance have squeezed inventory and boosted prices, analysts said. And only a handful of refineries outside the state are capable of making the ultra-clean type of gasoline mandated in California.

"A couple of refinery issues have started to flare up, which is fairly normal this time of the year," said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.com, a fuel price tracking website.

I used to keep a file of clippings of this exact same story running each spring and summer. I mean, literally the exact same story. Every year, right at the point where the winter/summer switch squeezes supplies from out of state, there would suddenly be a bunch of "glitches" that took some local refinery capacity offline and prices would spike.

I haven't bothered with that for a while, but seeing this story today brought back memories, so I just thought I'd share. It's an amazing annual coincidence, isn't it?

Doctors Begin to Notice That Health Care Is Really Expensive

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 7:46 AM PDT

Andrew Pollack reports that some doctors are starting to notice that the health care they provide can be really, really expensive:

Saying they can no longer ignore the rising prices of health care, some of the most influential medical groups in the nation are recommending that doctors weigh the costs, not just the effectiveness of treatments, as they make decisions about patient care....Traditionally, guidelines have heavily influenced the practice of medicine, and the latest ones are expected to make doctors more conscious of the economic consequences of their decisions — even though there is no obligation to follow them.

....Some doctors see a potential conflict in trying to be both providers of patient care and financial overseers. “There should be forces in society who should be concerned about the budget, about how many M.R.I.s we do, but they shouldn’t be functioning simultaneously as doctors,” said Dr. Martin A. Samuels, the chairman of the neurology department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He said doctors risked losing the trust of patients if they told patients, “I’m not going to do what I think is best for you because I think it’s bad for the health care budget in Massachusetts.”

Generally speaking, this is overdue. Some doctors are highly sensitive to patient costs, but some aren't. I'm often surprised at how little doctors know about how much their treatment recommendations cost or how they're delivered. Even if you have the presence of mind to ask, sometimes they simply don't know their own systems well enough to find out.

That said, I'd recommend baby steps. First, plenty of doctors are already very cost conscious—but in the wrong direction, pushing lucrative, highly expensive treatments because it's good for their own bottom line. Sometimes it's because they have a part ownership in a diagnostic facility. Other times they're just gaming the system, as some high-volume ophthalmologists do by routinely prescribing Lucentis ($120 reimbursement from Medicare) vs. Avastin ($3 reimbursement from Medicare) for treatment of macular degeneration. Guidelines that rein in this kind of behavior are an obvious target.

Second, Congress could allow Medicare more discretion about how much it pays for various drugs. It's flatly crazy that taxpayers are the only people in the entire medical system who, by law, have virtually no leverage to negotiate pricing with pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Third, doctors should be more proactive about simply being aware of costs and sharing this information with patients. Some patients care more than others, depending on their incomes and quality of insurance coverage. But every doctor should have at least a basic idea of what different treatment options cost their patients, and they should have it quickly available right in the exam room. Nobody should get stuck with a huge bill—or even just a large bill—simply because they got sent to an out-of-network specialist or got prescribed a drug that turned out to be off their provider's formulary.

I suspect this is harder than I think. It could only be done by computer, and the software would have to have access to a ton of information. Doctors alone couldn't get it done. But electronic medical records are already taking over the profession, and with some help from the federal government I'll bet this kind of thing could be done. One way or another, cost transparency is the first step toward cost reduction.

Please Donate to Our Fundraiser

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 6:00 AM PDT

For those of you who missed it in last week's catblogging post, we haven't yet reached our $100,000 goal, so how about donating a few bucks to our investigative reporting fundraiser? We're a reader-supported nonprofit, which means those dollars aren't going to come from big corporations or super-rich political donors. They'll be small contributions from regular people who read Mother Jones. If you value our reporting—or even if you only value our catblogging—please donate $5 to the Mother Jones Investigative Fund. If you can afford it, make it $10. We'll put it to good use. Here's how to make a contribution:

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 18, 2014

Fri Apr. 18, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

A Soldier guides the driver of an Avenger weapon system before they fired the .50-caliber machine gun April 8, 2014 as part of the Avenger Master Gunner Course at Fort Sill, Okla. (Photo by Marie Berberea, Cannoneer staff)

The Economy Is Improving, But Not for Everyone

| Thu Apr. 17, 2014 10:08 PM PDT

The BLS reported today that weekly earnings for full-time wage and salary workers rose 3 percent in the first quarter of 2014 compared to a year ago. Since inflation is running at 1.4 percent, that's good news. Earnings are going up.

But wage gains are pretty unevenly distributed. Jeffrey Sparshott passes along a recent Labor Department note which concludes that all of the wage gains since 2009 have gone to the top 40 percent. The poor, the working class, and the middle class have seen no gains at all. This is reflected in the chart on the right, which shows weekly earnings for production and nonsupervisory workers. Weekly earnings for this group have been rising at a rate slightly above inflation for the past year, but not by much. Nor is that number getting better: In the first quarter of 2014, weekly earnings rose only 1.8 percent.

There are some positive signs that the labor market is tightening a bit—decent job creation rates, fewer unemployment claims, rising earnings for full-time workers—but not everyone is benefiting. This remains a pretty uneven recovery.

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The Good News on Obamacare Just Keeps Rolling In

| Thu Apr. 17, 2014 2:08 PM PDT

The open enrollment period for Obamacare is finally (almost) over, and today the White House announced the final figures for signups via the exchanges:

8 million people signed up for private insurance in the Health Insurance Marketplace. For states that have Federally-Facilitated Marketplaces, 35 percent of those who signed up are under 35 years old, and 28 percent are between 18 and 34 years old, virtually the same youth percentage that signed up in Massachusetts in its first year of health reform.

That's a little better than I expected. I was figuring the final number would be around 7.7 million or so. We Americans sure do like to procrastinate, don't we?

Anyway, once some of these new enrollees drop out for not paying their premiums, the final number will be around 7 million, which matches the CBO's original estimate—the one they made before the website debacle. That's pretty amazing. It suggests that either the CBO was overly pessimistic or else that the website problems really didn't have any effect at all. I suppose the latter is plausible if you assume that hardly anyone was ever going to sign up in the first couple of months anyway.

And the 28 percent number for young enrollees is pretty good too. It's below the administration's goal, but Jon Cohn points out that what really matters is whether it matches what insurance companies expected:

The worry has always been that older and sicker people would sign up in unusually high numbers, forcing insurers to raise their prices next year and beyond.

But insurance companies didn’t expect young people to sign up in proportion to their numbers in the population. They knew participation would be a bit lower and they set premiums accordingly. Only company officials know exactly what they were projecting—that’s proprietary information—but one good metric is the signup rate in Massachusetts, in 2007, when that state had open enrollment for its version of the same reforms. According to information provided by Jonathan Gruber, the MIT economist and reform architect, 28.3 percent of Massachusetts enrollees were ages 19 to 34, a comparable age group.

So what were insurance companies expecting? As Cohn says, we don't know for sure, but there's good reason to think that it was around 28 percent. First, there's the Massachusetts precedent. And second, we learned yesterday that insurance companies are now expected to raise premiums a modest 7 percent next year. This suggests that that the age and health profile of exchange enrollees is pretty close to their projections.

All in all, another day of pretty good news for Obamacare.

NASA Just Found the Most Earth-Like Planet Yet

| Thu Apr. 17, 2014 1:12 PM PDT
An artist's concept of Kepler-186f.

Hello. Good day.

NASA just announced that astronomers have discovered the most Earth-like planet yet. Kepler-186f is the first Goldilocks planet—not too hot for water, not too cold for water—ever identified that is roughly the same size as Earth. (It's a bit larger.)

So, is there life on that planet? It hasn't been disqualified yet. So, maybe! But probably not. But maybe! But almost certainly not. But maybe! And even if there's not its mere existence means there are very likely more planets like it out there, meaning Earth is maybe not necessarily unique, meaning life is maybe not necessarily unique to Earth. But basically, we don't know much about this new planet. Take it away, WIRED:

[S]cientists have fairly little information about this new exoplanet, including its mass and composition. From what they can tell, the place is similar to our own world, though not quite Earth’s twin. 

"We consider it more of an Earth cousin," said astronomer Elisa Quintana of NASA's Ames Research Center, lead author of a paper about the finding appearing today in Science. "It's got the same size and characteristics, but a very different parent star."

The planet is about 500 light years away, so it's close, but not that close. This is all fun and exciting, but here's the annoying bit: It was discovered by the Kepler space telescope which means we're in for a cliffhanger:

Though Kepler is out of commission and won’t be able to provide any more information about this newest exoplanet, future telescopes could give us new insight. NASA is planning to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in 2017, which will watch bright nearby stars, including M dwarfs, for more exoplanets and be able to determine their masses. Follow up observations with the agency’s James Webb Space Telescope, currently slated to launch in 2018, could even look at the atmospheres of these worlds, providing definitive proof that they have chemicals like oxygen and water on their surfaces.

See you in 2017, possible Earth cousin!

It Turns Out That the Beautiful People Really Do Look Down on the Rest of Us

| Thu Apr. 17, 2014 11:29 AM PDT

It turns out that beautiful people really do look down on the rest of us. Danielle Kurtzleben reports on a new study that assessed the attitudes of people after asking them to rate their own attractiveness:

Participants who perceive themselves as attractive also tend to not only believe they are of higher social status but also to believe in group dominance — that some groups are just inferior. They also were more likely to believe in ideas that legitimized their status, like the idea that all Americans have equal shots at making it to the top.

....People who thought they were more attractive also tended to think that America's steadily growing inequality came about because of individual characteristics, like talent and hard work. People who thought they were uglier, meanwhile, thought outside factors — discrimination, political power — had more to do with inequality.

People have a well-known cognitive bias in which they attribute positive outcomes to internal factors (hard work, smarts) and negative outcomes to external factors (bad luck, enemies who have it in for you). This is a similar kind of thing. People who are attractive tend to do better in life, but they resist the idea that this is partly due to the simple good luck of being tall or having regular features. And yet, there's abundant evidence that physical attractiveness makes a difference. Just ask political candidates.

Ditto for being white, male, healthy, middle class, etc. A lot of people might dislike the invocations of "privilege" that seem so endless these days, but it's a real thing. And it's everywhere.

Corn on Hardball: The GOP's Dangerous Decision to Support and Encourage Cliven Bundy

Thu Apr. 17, 2014 11:11 AM PDT

Washington bureau chief David Corn spoke on MSNBC's "Hardball" about the Right's support of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who has refused to pay standard grazing fees on federal land for the past 20 years. He pointed out the irony of the GOP supporting Bundy's fight for a free ride, as well as the danger of encouraging and validating potentially violent extremists.