Blogs

No, Obamacare Didn't Tank the Economy Last Quarter

| Fri Jun. 27, 2014 12:50 AM EDT

For some reason, there's been a fair amount of attention paid to the impact of Q1's decline in health care growth on the latest GDP numbers, which were pretty dismal. The Wall Street Journal even figured out a way to blame it all on Obamacare. This is nonsensical, and in any case, the question of what happened is almost certainly pretty simple. Here's Dean Baker:

The NYT noted that a sharp drop in health care spending reduced the first quarter growth rate by 0.16 percentage points. It is important to recognize that this drop followed a surge in health care spending reported for the fourth quarter of 2013 that added 0.62 percentage points to growth in quarter....It is likely that the data overstated the actual increase in spending in the fourth quarter and therefore also overstated the drop in the first quarter. The average impact of health care spending on growth for the two quarters taken together is almost the same as over the prior four quarters.

Yep. I've illustrated this with a gigantic diagram showing raw health care expenditure figures below. In short, the Q1 decline is almost certainly just statistical noise. Pay no attention to the hyperventilating.

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Chick-Fil-A's Twee New Food Journalism Site

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 6:42 PM EDT

Perhaps hoping to distance itself from its horrendous display of homophobia in 2012, the fast-food chicken chain Chick-Fil-A has launched a folksy new food journalism site called Let's Gather:

Image from Let's Gather

Yes really. Check out the actual site, which is now hosting the project's second issue. Push past the animated bees buzzing around scenically, and don't get so distracted by this homey idyll that you forget to click on the shabby chic nav tool in the upper right.

Once you do, you might venture over to the about page, which says this: "By exploring the winsome themes found in the everyday blend of our meals, hobbies, and relationships, each issue inspires readers to try a new recipe, think a new thought, and join a new conversation. Ultimately, these are stories that remind us of the joy we experience when we make time to do life together." (Emphasis added.)

But wait, it gets better. Nestled among the features about stair climbing and giving up groceries is a Q&A with Chick-Fil-A on-staff registered dietitian (don't even get me started) Jodie Worrell:

Image from Let's Gather

Maybe Congress Will Now Move to Protect Email From Warrantless Searches

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 6:42 PM EDT

Brian Fung reports that yesterday's Supreme Court ruling protecting smartphones from warrantless searches may be having a ripple effect:

Members of Congress who back stronger protections for e-mail and other electronic communications have begun citing the Court's landmark privacy endorsement, in an attempt to add momentum to their own privacy legislation.

The push to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a decades-old law that allows cops to read your e-mails if they've lain dormant for more than 180 days, has the support of the Justice Department and 220 cosponsors of a House bill known as the Email Privacy Act. The proposal would force police to get a warrant if they want to look at a suspect's e-mail. Today, that type of inspection requires little more than a subpoena.

Remarkably enough, 138 of these cosponsors are Republicans and 82 are Democrats. This means it not only has majority support within the House as a whole, but it also has the support of considerably more than half the Republican caucus. That doesn't mean it can get by House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, but maybe if another hundred Democrats sign on, even Goodlatte will crumble in the face of a bill supported by three-quarters of the House.

Watch "The Daily Show" Explain the Insanity of America's Campus Rape Epidemic

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 5:17 PM EDT

Campus rape is an epidemic in America. According to a 2007 study commissioned by the Justice Department, 19 percent of women report being sexually assaulted by the time they leave college. For reasons that make decent people pull their hair out, many colleges do absolutely nothing to punish the asshole student perpetrators and in fact seem to go out of their way to see that allegations of assault go unreported. Not because they want their students raping other students, of course. But because "boys will be boys" or some bullshit.

This is the deeply insane reality of many campuses in America. Here is a video of Jon Stewart and friends explaining this perfectly.

This Guy Just Summed Up America's Climate Inaction Beautifully in 15 Lines

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 4:52 PM EDT
"Is there consensus among the crew?"

Pretty much as a rule, the comments section below any post on climate change will contain all the same dreary back-and-forth about how the world hasn't actually warmed in 15 years, or some thing; how fat cat Al Gore is profiting off global warming; and all those petty attacks over intellect/punctuation/spelling. That was certainly true for my recent post about Australia's climate politics, and the ongoing craziness Downunder that has resulted in more than a little political bloodletting in recent years. And then, reading down through the comments, just when I was giving up hope...a sudden bolt, as if the clouds parted and a little (uncharacteristic) humor was allowed to shine down upon all the silliness. Thank you "ThatDudeOnABike", for neatly summarizing some of the ridiculousness with this 30-second double-hander. A micro-Tony Award for you!

"Captain, there's a large iceberg ahead that will cause us to sink." 
"No there isn't" 
"Yes, captain, it's right there."
"Ice berg schmice berg. Oh, that berg. Right. It's not our fault."
"Regardless, sir, It will still sink us."
"No it won't"
"99% chance."
"So you don't know. Is there consensus among the crew?"
"We don't really have time..."
"If we stop the ship it will cost jobs and the economy will tank."
"We don't have to stop, just change course if we do it right away, before it's too late."
"You liberal elites just want to scare us."
"I'm not liberal, I just looked off the starboard bow and there it was."
"So it just appeared? You made it up. Why do you hate America?"
CRASH!

[Aaand, scene—thanks ThatDudeOnABike!]

And a reminder, we do love your comments. In fact, we once tracked down our biggest troll... and kind of liked him. You could be next:

Another Geopolitical Triumph For Vladimir Putin!

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 4:44 PM EDT

From the Guardian:

It was the document that started a revolution and ended up bringing Europe to the brink of war. Ukraine's association agreement with the European Union, a mainly economic document setting up a free trade area that nevertheless has political and strategic ramifications, will finally be signed on Friday.

Along with Georgia and Moldova, two other post-Soviet countries keen to move out of Moscow's orbit, Kiev will sign the deal with Brussels to establish a free-trade area and introduce a raft of measures designed to synchronise economies with EU nations, as well as improve rule of law and human rights.

Yep, that Putin is a geopolitical strategic mastermind, isn't he? Every country on Russia's border is now hellbent on better economic and military ties with the West. Nice work.

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Watch: The Neocon Reunion Tour Starring Cheney, Wolfowitz and Bolton [Fiore Cartoon]

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 4:04 PM EDT

Mark Fiore is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and animator whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, and dozens of other publications. He is an active member of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, and has a website featuring his work.

No, the Aereo Case Doesn't Endanger Cloud Computing Services

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 2:11 PM EDT

I'm puzzled by much of the commentary on the Aereo case. Much of it echoes a point in Scalia's dissent, namely that ruling against Aereo puts all sorts of cloud computing services at risk. After all, if it's a copyright infringement for Aereo to rent you an antenna and some hard disk space, then why shouldn't it be an infringement for, say, Google to rent you cloud storage that allows you to copy—and potentially share—copyrighted music?

I think David Post has the answer right:

The majority is at pains, in several places, to say that the case is just about broadcast television and the re-transmission of broadcast signals. Not about cloud storage, or streaming services, or gaming platforms, or anything else. Just broadcast TV, and what you may or may not do with over-the-air broadcast signals. Congress has made a choice about those signals; anyone who re-transmits them (like the cable companies do) has to pay royalties to the broadcasters. If that’s what it means ... the decision has nothing to say about any other content-delivery or content-storage platforms that deal with the vast array of non-broadcast-TV content.

The Aereo case turns almost entirely on the fact that Aereo was retransmitting TV signals, which are covered by a very specific statute. Despite Scalia's huffing and puffing, I simply don't see how this applies to cloud storage platforms.

Beyond that, there's another crucial distinction: Aereo was explicitly in the business of retransmitting content that was almost 100 percent copyrighted. That's fundamentally different from a third-party service—email, cloud storage, etc.—that can be used for infringing purposes but has a generally legitimate intent. The Supreme Court has ruled in cases like this before, and it's why VCRs and Gmail are still around even though people sometimes use them to copy and share copyrighted material with each other, while Napster is dead.

It's hard not to conclude that much of the opposition to the Aereo decision is based on a simple libertarian dislike of enforcing copyright law at all. But like it or not, commercial TV is almost entirely copyrighted content, and the stations that produce it have every right to control how it's distributed. The fact that current copyright law is overly expansive doesn't really affect that.

POSTSCRIPT: It's interesting that we've seen back-to-back decisions that, to my mind, were confirmed in diametrically opposite ways. In the Aereo case, Aereo thought it had discovered a clever loophole in copyright law, but the court ruled against them. The general intent of the law was more important. In the recess appointment case, Senate Republicans found a clever loophole to stay technically in session, and the court ruled that this was perfectly fine. The fact that it was a hypertechnical sham didn't move them.

Unions Should Brace Themselves for a Major Supreme Court Loss

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 1:04 PM EDT

It's official: The Supreme Court will wait until Monday, the final day of the current term, to issue its decision in Harris v. Quinn. As I explained in May, Harris is a blockbuster case that could, in a worst-case scenario, wipe public-employee unions such as SEIU and AFSCME off the map. And the chances of a damaging decision in Harris just increased—here's why.

Heading into Thursday, the Supreme Court had Harris and three other cases left to decide. The justices chose to issue their opinions concerning presidential recess appointments (Noel Canning v. National Labor Relations Board) and so-called buffer zones keeping protesters at a distance from abortion clinics (McCullen v. Coakley). Justice Stephen Breyer, a liberal member of the court, wrote the Canning opinion; Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, took the lead in McCullen.

This makes it more likely that Justice Samuel Alito, who we've yet to hear much from, will write the opinion in Harris, which points to bad news for public-employee unions. "There's almost no question [Justice] Alito has this opinion unless he lost his majority along way," tweets Rick Hasen, a University of California-Irvine law professor. "Anti-union is his signature issue."

Labor officials can only hope Hasen is wrong. Alito is strongly anti-union. In the 2012 case Knox v. SEIU, Alito essentially invited labor's foes to challenge the basic model of public-employee unionism, in which non-union employees can be made to pay dues to a union for bargaining on their behalf, representing them in grievance issues, etc. Harris makes such a challenge; it's what Alito asked for.

Unions like to call those non-member payments "fair share" dues. If it's the union's job, they reason, to represent all members and nonmembers in a unionized workplace, then all those workers should pay their fair share for that representation. Conservatives—and Alito—say fair-share fees violate the First Amendment rights of non-union workers.

The outcome in Harris could cut a number of ways. The Supreme Court could uphold the lower court's decision dismissing the suit—a big union victory. It could strike down fair share fees—the equivalent of Congress passing a national right-to-work bill. (Right-to-work laws ban unions from collecting those fair-share fees from non-members.) Public-employee unions would survive that decision, but it would be a blow. The court could also effectively enact right-to-work nationwide and kneecap a union's ability to exclusively represent employees in a unionized workplace. That would be catastrophic for public-employee unions.

If there's any judge who might go that far, it would be Samuel Alito.

Digital Privacy Is Fundamentally Different From Physical Privacy

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 11:34 AM EDT

Tim Lee argues—or perhaps merely hopes—that yesterday's decision protecting cell phones from warrantless searches might signal a turning point for the Supreme Court's attitude toward digital information in general:

The government has typically pursued a simple legal strategy when faced with digital technologies. First, find a precedent that gave the government access to information in the physical world. Second, argue that the same principle should apply in the digital world, ignoring the fact that this will vastly expand the government's snooping power while eroding Americans' privacy.

....The government hoped the Supreme Court would take this same narrow, formalistic approach in this week's cell phone privacy case. It wanted the justices to pretend that rifling through the vast quantity of personal information on a suspect's cell phone is no different from inspecting other objects that happen to be in suspects' pockets. But the Supreme Court didn't buy it.

....The Supreme Court clearly recognizes that in the transition from information stored on paper to information stored in computer chips, differences of degree can become differences of kind. If the police get access to one letter or photograph you happen to have in your pocket, that might not be a great privacy invasion. If the police get access to every email you've received and every photograph you've taken in the last two years, that's a huge invasion of privacy.

This is a problem that's been getting more acute for years. The basic question is whether courts should recognize the fact that digital access to information removes practical barriers that are important for privacy. For example, the state of California keeps lots of records about me that are legally public: DMV records, property records, birth and marriage records, etc. In the past, practically speaking, the mere fact that they were physical records provided me with a degree of privacy. It took a lot of time and money to dig through them all, and this meant that neither the government nor a private citizen would do it except in rare and urgent cases.

In the digital world, that all changes. If a police officer has even a hint of curiosity about me, it takes only seconds to compile all this information and more. In a technical sense, they don't have access to anything they didn't before, but in a practical sense I've lost a vast amount of privacy.

In the past, the Supreme Court has rarely (never?) acknowledged this. In yesterday's cell phone case, they not only acknowledged it, they acknowledged it unanimously. Is it possible that this means they'll be applying a more skeptical view to similar cases in the future? Or even revisiting some of their past decisions in light of the continuing march of technology? We don't know yet, but it's certainly possible. Maybe the Supreme Court has finally entered the 21st century.