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Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton Just Duked it Out Over Health Care at the Democratic Debate

| Sun Jan. 17, 2016 10:33 PM EST

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders spent much of the last week battling over the Vermont senator's proposal to create a nationwide single-payer health care system. In one of the most important exchanges of Sunday night's debate, they finally hashed it out face to face.

Watch:

What neither of them would say outright—perhaps because it's not an especially inspiring message for Democrats to hear—is that the question of how best to expand health care access is, at least for the time being, moot. Republicans have a huge majority in the House and will almost certainly continue to control the House in January 2017. But their argument exposed core differences between the two candidates on what the nation's health care system should look like, and how it should be paid for. And it doesn't look like a debate either candidate is about to abandon any time soon.

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Bernie Sanders Releases Outline of Universal Health Care Plan—And It's Pretty Good

| Sun Jan. 17, 2016 8:54 PM EST

With only moments to go before tonight's Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders has finally dropped his universal health care plan. Exciting! I imagine that Team Clinton is poring over it pretty carefully right about now. Here's what he says it does:

Bernie's plan will cover the entire continuum of health care, from inpatient to outpatient care; preventive to emergency care; primary care to specialty care, including long-term and palliative care; vision, hearing and oral health care; mental health and substance abuse services; as well as prescription medications, medical equipment, supplies, diagnostics and treatments…As a patient, all you need to do is go to the doctor and show your insurance card. Bernie's plan means no more copays, no more deductibles and no more fighting with insurance companies when they fail to pay for charges.

....Under this plan, a family of four earning $50,000 would pay just $466 per year to the single-payer program, amounting to a savings of over $5,800 for that family each year.

Well, that sure sounds good. And I'm all in favor of universal health care. But I'm also curious about how he's going to provide comprehensive care like this with no payment by patients at all and at such a low cost. Here are his basic claims:

  • He will raise $630 billion by increasing the employer part of the payroll tax by 6.2 percent.
  • He will raise $220 billion via a 2.2 percent progressive income tax on everyone (he calls it a "premium").
  • He will raise $548 billion in various taxes on the rich along with the end of current tax breaks that subsidize health care.
  • That's a total of $1.4 trillion.
  • Current public spending on health care (mostly Medicare and Medicaid) runs around $1.2 trillion.
  • This means that Sanders is figuring that under his plan total national health care spending will be about $2.6 trillion.

This is considerably less than the $3 trillion we spend now, and Sanders also says his plan will keep spending growth down. This accounts for his claim that his plan will reduce total national spending on health care by $6 trillion over 10 years.

So is this credible? It's close. His taxes will probably raise about what he says. I'm not sure that he can reduce spending as dramatically as he hopes, but he can probably reduce it some. In other words, his sums might not add up perfectly, but they're pretty close.

If there's anything to criticize, it's his statement that the average family of four will pay only $466 per year. The problem here is that while his payroll tax might come from employers, it will end up being paid for by workers—just as existing employer health plans are ultimately paid for by workers. That would cost his family of four about $3,100, putting their total at around $3,600. And if you figure that Sanders is being optimistic about cost savings and will probably need to raise taxes more than he says, our family's total bill probably clocks in at around $4,000.

That's still not bad. An average family pays a whole lot more than that right now via employer health coverage and copays. There's a wee bit of smoke and mirrors here—counting employer plans when he talks about savings but not counting employer taxes when he talks about costs—but that's a small thing. Overall, his numbers are pretty honest.

As for the details of exactly how the plan would work, I don't know. The document on Sanders' website doesn't say much about that. I assume there's another document somewhere, or maybe more to come. Stay tuned.

NBC Should Ask Bernie and Hillary These Questions at Tonight's Debate

| Sun Jan. 17, 2016 8:03 PM EST

It's the Sunday night of a three-day holiday weekend, which can only mean one thing: the three remaining Democratic presidential candidates are having a debate. With the Iowa caucuses less than a month away and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders leading in some early-state polls,  former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sanders have increasingly turned their fire on each other, fighting over past votes and current positions on universal health care and gun control. Why stop now? We at the Mother Jones' politics desk have put together a by-no-means-comprehensive list of questions we'd put to the candidates if we were on stage:

Bernie Sanders:

* In 2005 you voted to give immunity to gun makers from lawsuits. But the next day you voted against giving immunity to companies in the fast food industry, like McDonald's. Why exempt guns but not Big Macs?

* Your home state of Vermont adopted a single-payer health care system in 2011. But last year the state scrapped the plan citing rising costs. Now you're proposing single-payer for the nation. What went wrong in Vermont and how would you have fixed it?

* You've promised to reduce America's prison population by more than 500,000 people by the end of your first term. But more than 90 percent of America's 2.2 million inmates are in state and local facilities. What can a president do about them?

* You've said that the United States should take a backseat in the battle against ISIS, and instead leave the fighting to a coalition of Muslim nations including Iran and Saudi Arabia. In light of the most recent dust-up between the two countries and their deep political and religious differences, how will you get two nations that hate each other to take up arms together?

* Even with a Democratic super-majority in the Senate, President Obama struggled to deliver incremental change in Washington, ultimately accepting stripped-down versions of the Affordable Care Act and the Stimulus. How do you expect to push through an even more ambitious health-care proposal in a Republican-controlled Congress still trying to repeal Obamacare?

Hillary Clinton:

* A supporter of yours, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, reportedly worked to suppress a video of the killing of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police until after his re-election, and even used public funds to pay the victim’s family to keep quiet. Sen. Sanders has said that "any elected official with knowledge that the tape was being suppressed or improperly withheld should resign." Should Mayor Emanuel resign?

* In October you said the Australian model of compulsory gun buy-backs "is worth looking at." Have you looked at it? And would you entertain the idea of a compulsory gun re-purchase in the United States?

* Colorado residents will vote next fall on a ballot initiative on whether or not to institute a single-payer health care system. If you lived in Colorado, would you vote to approve that measure?

* You’ve pledged to not raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 per year, and criticized your opponents for proposing to raise taxes on people you’ve termed middle class. What is your actual definition of middle class? Why include a household making $150,000—the top 10 percent for annual income—in the middle class?

* In 2005, you went to war against violence in video games, introducing legislation to restrict sales of games. You said: "We need to treat violent video games the way we treat tobacco, alcohol, and pornography." Do you still hold that view?

* David Brock, the head of a super-PAC that's supporting your candidacy, made news yesterday for a report suggesting he'd demand Bernie Sanders release his medical records. Brock's group, Correct the Record, has said it is coordinating with the campaign thanks to a special exemption in federal election law. Why is a candidate who has pledged to repeal Citizens United using a legal loophole to openly coordinate with a super-PAC?

All candidates:

* The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates argued in 2014 that African-Americans deprived of wealth through decades of federal housing discrimination should be able to apply for reparations from the government—similar to the program offered to Japanese-Americans who lost their homes and businesses during internment. Would you consider such a program if elected? And if not, what will you do to alleviate the lingering damages caused by formal government discrimination in the housing market?

* A recent poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe genetically-modified food to be "unsafe." Are they right?

* The Obama administration is currently reviewing a proposed rule to expand overtime to most workers who earn less than $50,000 a year. Is that number too high, or too low?

* Over the last half decade pro-life groups have fundamentally re-written abortion laws at the state level, resulting in shuttered women's health clinics and forcing women to crisscross state lines to get an abortion. Aside from appointing more pro-choice Supreme Court judges, what can a president do to reverse these setbacks at the state level and insure the right to an abortion established by Roe?

* Two years ago, Harry Reid and Senate Democrats used the so-called "nuclear option" to remove the filibuster for judicial nominees. Should the filibuster still exist for legislation and Supreme Court nominees, or should it be wiped out entirely?

Can We Spare a Tear for Ted Cruz?

| Sun Jan. 17, 2016 12:32 PM EST

For the past couple of decades conservatives have routinely railed against "coastal elites," "left coast liberalism," and "San Francisco values." The latter is so popular that it has its own Wikipedia page and Bill O'Reilly insists on credit for inventing the term. And it's not just San Francisco that's the target of conservative scorn. It's big cities in general, with Los Angeles, Boston, Washington DC, and New York leading the pack.

Of these, New York City is probably second only to San Francisco. It's home to the soda nazis, the Upper West Side, rent control, the Village, abortion on demand, and, above all, the hated liberal media. Conservatives might live in New York, but they sure don't like its values.

Nonetheless, a whole lot of them are apparently ready to crucify Ted Cruz over his quip about Donald Trump and New York values. They all knew what he meant. Hell, they all agree with him. But any port in a storm, I guess.

Life isn't fair, and Cruz has his share of defenders. And I know it's hard to work up any sympathy for the guy. Anything Cruz does to hasten his own doom is surely karmic justice. But of all the things to go down for, a routine crack about big city liberals surely tops the list for irony.

POSTSCRIPT: But speaking of New York values, has anyone bothered to put together a short montage of Donald Trump saying liberal things throughout the years? It wouldn't be hard, and 60 seconds would be plenty. It seems like a no-brainer, but I don't recall seeing anything like this. Have I just missed it?

Donald Trump Is a Mediocre Businessman

| Sun Jan. 17, 2016 1:16 AM EST

I know I've beaten this dead horse before, but I continue to be a little surprised that no one has seriously attacked Donald Trump on his business acumen. After all, it's his big calling card: he knows how to negotiate great deals and he's made a ton of money from them.

But this doesn't seem to be true.1 In fact, he seems to be a pretty mediocre businessman. Today, for example, the New York Times tells the story of Trump's 1988 purchase of the Plaza Hotel. As even Trump admits, he was so enamored of owning it that he overpaid significantly and managed it poorly, something which contributed to his eventual financial downfall:

Once he owned the hotel, Mr. Trump put his wife, Ivana, in charge of renovating it....By 1990, the Plaza needed an operating profit of $40 million a year to break even, according to financial records that Mr. Trump disclosed at the time. The hotel had fallen well short of that goal, and with renovating expenses, in one year it burned through $74 million more than it brought in.

But Mr. Trump didn’t spend a lot of time sweating over the Plaza’s finances. He was too busy with new challenges. A few months after the Plaza deal closed, he purchased the Eastern Air Shuttle for $365 million, and in 1990, he opened the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, which cost $1 billion to build. Some of the loans he took out to pay for deals were personally guaranteed.

....Mr. Trump’s brief ownership of the Plaza...marked the beginning of his transition from an owner of major assets to a manager of major assets. An increasing share of his wealth would come in the future from licensing his name, not just to builders but sellers of suits, cologne, chandeliers, mattresses and more. In professional parlance, he went from “asset heavy” to “asset light.”

The Plaza was a huge money loser. The shuttle was a disaster. Trump never understood the casino business, and his Atlantic City properties started hemorrhaging cash almost as soon as they were completed. All of this pushed him to the edge of personal bankruptcy, which he avoided solely because his banks decided Trump's holdings could be liquidated at a higher price if they allowed him to stay solvent. In the aftermath of this bloodbath, he raised money by taking the remains of his casino and resort properties public. And since this was a public company, we know exactly how well it did: it lost money every single year and went into bankruptcy proceedings in 2004 (and again in 2009 for good measure). Since then, he's mostly bought and managed golf resorts, which has been a good but not great business for him.

Bottom line: When it comes to building and managing tangible assets, there's really not much evidence that Trump has any special talent. He inherited a huge amount of money and nearly lost it all during his first couple of decades in the development business. However, before the money ran out he was able to use it to create the "Trump show" (his words), and in the couple of decades since then his income has come not from building things, but primarily from licensing and entertainment.

Trump seems to have two genuine talents. The first is that he's apparently a masterful reader of people. The second is that he's a hypnotic blowhard, which accounts for his success at both branding and TV, as well as his success at scams like Trump University.

Needless to say, we've seen both of these talents at work on the campaign trail. The first allows him to zero in unerringly on his opponents' most sensitive spots—weaknesses that others frequently don't even see, let alone exploit. The second allows him to mesmerize the media and the public while pulling off the greatest scam of his life.

But as a businessman, he's so-so. He lets his decisions be guided by his gut, and his gut isn't really very good. That's where Trump Plaza, Trump Air, Trump football, Trump City, the Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Steaks, and Trump University come from. That's not much of a recommendation for the presidency.

1Needless to say, he can prove his business mettle anytime he wants to. He just has to open up his books. Show us revenues and GAAP earnings over the past 20 years. Show us return on equity and return on assets. Break it all down by business line so we can see how much is from TV and branding vs. tangible projects. There's nothing hard about it.

An Update on the Yosemite Park Trademark Dispute

| Sat Jan. 16, 2016 8:47 PM EST

I wrote a post yesterday about a New York company that claims it owns the trademark to various locations at Yosemite National Park. Based on the story I read, this seemed obviously outrageous, and that was the tone I took.

But that was probably wrong. I ended up looking into this issue a little more deeply, and it turns out that the whole thing goes back several years and is actually a fairly pedestrian contract dispute. Here's a quick outline of what happened:

  • In 1993, the National Park Service put up the concessions at Yosemite for bid. The winner was Delaware North, which was required to buy the assets of the Curry Company as part of the deal. This included the Ahwahnee Hotel, Camp Curry, and several other pieces of property.
  • In July 2014 the concessions were once again put up for bid, with the winning bidder required to pay Delaware North fair market value for the assets it owned. The real property had been turned over to the government after the 1993 deal closed, but there was still the matter of "other property."
  • The Park Service initially valued the "other property" at $22 million. In December 2014 it increased its valuation to $30 million, which included an estimate of $3.5 million for intangible property. Of this, $1.63 million covered trademarks and other intellectual property.
  • Delaware North disagreed with this assessment. It valued "other property" at about $100 million, which included an estimate of $51 million for intangible property. Of this, $44 million covered trademarks and other intellectual property.
  • Delaware North filed a protest with the GAO over the Park Service valuation, but in April 2015 the GAO dismissed the protest.
  • June 2015 Aramark won the Yosemite contract.
  • In September 2015 Delaware North took the case to court.

And that's pretty much where we stand today. It turns out there's nothing inherently outrageous about Delaware North owning some of these trademarks, as even the Park Service admits. "We have not denied the fact that they do own intellectual property," said Scott Gediman, a spokesman for Yosemite National Park. "But with these trademarks, it's kind of two issues: One, are these trademarks valid, and, two, what is the value of them?" So this is a pretty routine contract dispute. Which trademarks are legit and which aren't? Did Delaware North acquire these trademarks "surreptitiously" or with the knowledge of the Park Service? And how much are they worth? Delaware North says they're worth $44 million. The Park Service says they're worth $1.63 million. The issue is now in court, and Delaware North says it has offered to allow Aramark free use of the trademarks until the dispute is settled. Yesterday, however, the Park Service announced that it would simply rename everything and make the case moot.

It's quite possible that Delaware North's valuation is absurdly high. That's my guess, since the value of these trademarks is mostly due to being attached to Yosemite Park, not to anything special that Delaware North has done to create or exploit them. But I'm no lawyer and I don't know. That's for a court to decide.

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Finally, Police Misconduct Against an Unarmed Black Man Gets Bipartisan Attention

| Sat Jan. 16, 2016 11:20 AM EST

"I normally incline to give the police the benefit of the doubt," says Ian Tuttle over at National Review. And that's true. In fact, it's fair to say that pretty much everyone at National Review supports the police under almost all circumstances. Nobody at NR ever manages to mount much concern over charges of racism—except to ridicule and disparage them as products of liberal victimology, of course—and they have especially little patience for charges of racism in police conduct.

And yet, Tuttle says the case of Cedrick Chatman "bears close scrutiny." Why is that? What's different about Chatman's case? Just this:

Following the release of the Laquan McDonald video and the revelations that Rahm Emanuel & co. almost certainly worked to bury it until after his tough reelection contest, the newly released video of the shooting of Cedrick Chatman in 2013 raises serious questions....The video is not conclusive. But the optics are not reassuring....Policing, even the “routine” aspects of it, is dangerous work, especially on the South Side of Chicago. But this is a case that bears close scrutiny — and so does the relationship between the city’s elected officials and its law enforcement.

Whew. For a moment I thought that NR had gone soft. I figured I might wake up tomorrow and find them running sympathetic stories about #BlackLivesMatter and railing against institutional racism in American law enforcement.

But no. It's just that this makes good ammunition against Rahm Emanuel. All is right with the world.

This Bee-Killing Pesticide Is Terrible at Protecting Crops

| Fri Jan. 15, 2016 4:16 PM EST

In 2011, agrichemical giants Monsanto and Bayer CropScience joined forces to sell soybean seeds coated with (among other things) an insecticide of the neonicotinoid family. Neonics are so-called systematic pesticides—when the coated seeds sprout and grow, the resulting plants take up the bug-killing chemical, making them poisonous to crop-chomping pests like aphids. Monsanto rivals Syngenta and DuPont also market neonic-treated soybean seeds.

These products—buoyed by claims that the chemical protects soybean crops from early-season insect pests—have enjoyed great success in the marketplace. Soybeans are the second-most-planted US crop, covering about a quarter of US farmland—and at least a third of US soybean acres are grown with neonic-treated seeds. But two problems haunt this highly lucrative market: 1) The neonic soybean seeds might not do much at all to fight off pests, and 2) they appear to be harming bees and may also hurt other pollinators, birds, butterflies, and water-borne invertebrates.

Neonic seed treatments actually reduce yields in slug-infested fields.

Doubts about neonic-treated soybean seeds' effectiveness aren't new. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency released a blunt preliminary report finding that "neonicotinoid seed treatments likely provide $0 in benefits" to soybean growers. But the agrichemical industry likes to portray the EPA as an overzealous regulator that relies on questionable data, and it quickly issued a report vigorously disagreeing with the EPA's assessment.

Now the seed/agrichemical giants will have to open a new front in their battle to convince farmers to continue paying up for neonic-treated soybean seeds. In a recent publication directed to farmers, a coalition of the nation's most important Midwestern ag-research universities—Iowa State, Kansas State, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, North Dakota State, Michigan State, the University of Minnesota, the University of Missouri, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, South Dakota State, and the University of Wisconsin—argued plainly that "for typical field situations, independent research demonstrates that neonicotinoid seed treatments [for soybeans] do not provide a consistent return on investment."

"Independent research demonstrates that neonicotinoid seed treatments [for soybeans] do not provide a consistent return on investment."

The reason is that neonic-treated soybeans wield the great bulk of their bug-killing power for the first three weeks after the seeds sprout; the major pest that attacks soybean plants, the aphid, doesn't arrive until much later, when the soybean plants are full-grown. "In other words," the report states, aphid populations "increase to threshold levels weeks after the short window that neonicotinoid seed treatments protect plants."

And not only are neonics useless against soybeans' major field pest, aphids; they may actually boost the fortunes of another important one, the slug, which is "emerging as a key pest" in the soybean belt, according to the report. Pointing to a 2015 study from Penn State researchers, the report notes that slugs aren't affected by neonics, so they can gobble neonic-treated soy sprouts at will, accumulating the chemical. But when insects called the ground beetle—which has a taste for slugs but not soybean plants—eat the neonic-containing slugs, they tend to die. So slugs transfer the poison from the crops to their natural predator, the ground beetle, and throw the predator balance out of whack, allowing slugs to proliferate. As a result, the Penn State researchers found, neonic seed treatments actually reduce yields in slug-infested fields.

Of course, the most celebrated "non-target" insect potentially affected by neonics is the honeybee. As I reported last week, the EPA recently released an assessment finding that one particular neonic that's widely used on soybean seeds, imidacloprid, likely harms individual bees and whole bee colonies at levels commonly found in farm fields. That's because plants from neonic-treated seeds don't just carry the poison in their leaves and stalks; they also deliver it in bee-attracting nectar and pollen.

While cotton is the imidacloprid-treated crop most likely to hit bees hard, soybeans, too, may pose a threat, the EPA found. The agency couldn't say for sure, because data on how much of the pesticide shows up in soybeans' pollen and nectar are "unavailable," both from Bayer and from independent researchers.

That information gap may be cold comfort for beekeepers, but the agrichemical industry will no doubt seize upon it to argue that its blockbuster chemical is harmless to bees. The rest of us can savor the bitter irony that this widely used pesticide may be more effective at slaying beneficial pollinators than it is at halting crop-chomping pests.

Friday Cat Blogging - 15 January 2016

| Fri Jan. 15, 2016 3:10 PM EST

A few days ago Marian went out to buy some new cat toys because, you know, a couple dozen clearly wasn't enough. You can see her haul below, all with nice, fresh tails. Once the tails come off—which doesn't take long—they're no fun anymore. But you can't please everyone. Hilbert looks like he's saying "What? That's all? I jumped all the way onto the counter just for this?"

In other cat news, my sister points us to this YouTube video of a cat invading a Liverpool-Spurs soccer match. It's three years old, but who's counting?

America Is a Dystopian Hellhole and Don't You Forget It

| Fri Jan. 15, 2016 2:53 PM EST

It is, of course, normal for Republicans to claim that Democrats have screwed everything up and vice versa. That's what political parties do. But as I (and many others) have noted before, it's remarkable just how apocalyptic Republicans are this year. Listening to the GOP debate last night, you might have barely avoided slitting your own throat in despair over the destruction of a once-great country that we've all witnessed over the past seven years.

As a public service, I figured I would collect the most ominous statement from each candidate last night. Obviously this is a judgment call in some cases, since there were so many to choose from. But there's also a surprise. Here are my choices:

Bush: The idea that somehow we're better off today than the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated president of the United States is totally an alternative universe. The simple fact is that the world has been torn asunder.

Carson: You know, when you go into the store and buy a box of laundry detergent, and the price has gone up — you know, 50 cents because of regulations....And everything is costing more money, and we are killing our people like this....It's the evil government that is putting all these regulations on us so that we can't survive.

Trump: Our military is a disaster. Our healthcare is a horror show....We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people....Those two young people — those two horrible young people in California when they shot the 14 people....Many people saw pipe bombs and all sorts of things all over their apartment. Why weren't they vigilant? Why didn't they call? Why didn't they call the police?...We have to find out — many people knew about what was going on. Why didn't they turn those two people in so that you wouldn't have had all the death? There's something going on and it's bad. And I'm saying we have to get to the bottom of it.

Rubio: This president is undermining the constitutional basis of this government. This president is undermining our military. He is undermining our standing in the world....The damage he has done to America is extraordinary. Let me tell you, if we don't get this election right, there may be no turning back for America.

Kasich: In this country, people are concerned about their economic future. They're very concerned about it. And they wonder whether somebody is getting something to — keeping them from getting it. That's not the America that I've ever known.

Christie: When I think about the folks who are out there at home tonight watching....They know that this country is not respected around the world anymore. They know that this country is pushing the middle class, the hardworking taxpayers, backwards, and they saw a president who doesn't understand their pain, and doesn't have any plan for getting away from it.

And the surprise? There's nothing on this list from Ted Cruz. He had plenty of criticisms of Obama, but I looked at everything he said last night and there was really no hint of America going to hell in a handbasket. I didn't expect that, but I'll bet it's deliberate. Maybe he knows something the rest of field doesn't?