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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 16, 2014

Wed Apr. 16, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

Marines with the Maritime Raid Force, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit prepare to enter the well deck aboard the USS San Diego during Amphibious Squadron Marine Expedtionary Unit Integration Training (PMINT) off the coast of San Diego, Calif. April 8, 2014. PMINT is the first at-sea event in the MEU’s predeployment training program at which they have the opportunity to conduct amphibious based operations while embarked on a ship. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Demetrius Morgan/Released)

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Unsportsmanlike Conduct in the NBA Follows an Inverted U-Shaped Curve

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 10:56 PM PDT

Over at 538, Benjamin Morris asks "Just How Bad Were the Bad Boys?" The bad boys in question are the Detroit Pistons basketball team of the late 80s, who had a reputation for being unusually aggressive on the court. Did they deserve their reputation? To test this, Morris looks at how many technical fouls they racked up, a good measure of unsportsmanlike conduct. In fact, he takes a look at the total number of technical fouls for the entire league, and finds that the number rose steadily until 1995 and then started a long-term decline.

I promise this is just for fun, but I've overlaid another line against Morris's chart. Not a perfect fit, granted, but not too far off, either. I'm sure a few of you can guess what it is, can't you?

Medical Inflation Is Up, But It's Probably Just a Blip

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 6:25 PM PDT

Sarah Kliff reports that health care spending ticked upward at the end of 2013:

A four-year slowdown in health spending growth could be coming to an end....Federal data suggests that health care spending is now growing just as quickly as it was prior to the recession.

....The Altarum Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich. tracks health spending growth by month. It saw an uptick in late 2013 that has continued into preliminary numbers for 2014. Separate data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which tracks the growth or consumer spending by quarter, shows something similar: health spending grew by 5.6 percent in the last quarter of 2013, the fastest growth recorded since 2004.

Inflation in the final quarter of 2013 ran a little over 1 percent, which means health care spending rose 4.5 percent faster than the overall inflation rate. That's a lot. But it's also only one quarter, and it's hardly unexpected. Take a look at the chart on the right, which shows how much per capita health care spending has increased over and above the inflation rate for the past 40 years. There are two key takeaways:

  • Medical inflation has been on a striking long-term downward path since the early 80s.
  • There's a ton of noise in the data, with every decline followed by a subsequent upward correction.

The HMO revolution of the 90s sent medical inflation plummeting. Then a correction. Then another big drop. And another upward correction. Then another drop. If that's followed by an upward correction for a few years, it would hardly be a surprise.

Nonetheless, the long-term trend is pretty clear, and it shows up no matter how you slice the data. For many years, medical inflation was running as much as 4-6 percent higher than overall inflation. Today that number is 1-2 percent, and the variability seems to be getting smaller. What's more, that 1-2 percent number matches the long-term trend during the entire postwar period (see chart below). There's good reason to think that it might be the natural rate of medical inflation, with the 80s and early 90s as an outlier. That's where I'd put my money, anyway.

Donald Rumsfeld Will Never Overpay His Taxes

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 2:52 PM PDT

Via Steve Benen, I see that Donald Rumsfeld sends the IRS a letter every year when he files his taxes. Here it is:

I have sent in our federal income tax and our gift tax returns for 2013. As in prior years, it is important for you to know that I have absolutely no idea whether our tax returns and our tax payments are accurate. I say that despite the fact that I am a college graduate and I try hard to make sure our tax returns are accurate.

The tax code is so complex and the forms are so complicated, that I know I cannot have any confidence that I know what is being requested and therefore I cannot and do not know, as I suspect a great many Americans cannot know, whether or not their tax returns are accurate. As in past years, I have spent more money that I wanted to....

Etc. Two things here:

  • As a longtime feeder at the public trough, Rumsfeld is surely aware that the IRS isn't responsible for the complexity of the tax code. Congress is. He needs to write an annual letter to his representative in Congress instead. As a resident of Washington DC, of course, he doesn't really have one, but that's a whole different story. However, I'm sure Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton would be delighted to receive his letter anyway.
  • The big reason taxes are complicated is because people do complicated things with their money—often with the express aim of lowering their taxes. Nobody is forced to do this. If you want, you can just add up all your income and pay the statutory rate without worrying about deductions and loopholes and capital gains rates and so forth. That will make your taxes easy. But if you're the kind of person who has enough money to hire expensive accountants to manage your carefully tailored investments, then you have enough money to pay those accountants to do your taxes too.

In any case, none of this really matters. No matter how much Rumsfeld pays in taxes, it will never be enough to make up for the damage he's done to this country over his lifetime. He should stop whining. He owes us.

Everyone on the Far Right Loves Militia-Backed Rancher Cliven Bundy—Except Glenn Beck

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 2:36 PM PDT
An armed Cliven Bundy supporter

Conservative activists and media outlets have generally embraced the cause of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada cattle rancher who inspired a gang of protesters—many of them armed—to face off with federal law enforcement this weekend. But one figure on the right has taken a surprising stand against Bundy's supporters: former Fox News host Glenn Beck.

On Saturday, a large group of anti-government protesters converged on a Bureau of Land Management base camp in rural Nevada to protest the federal government's seizure of Bundy's cows. Bundy had for years grazed hundreds of cattle on protected lands controlled by the federal government and refused to pay the resulting court-ordered fines. This month, after nearly 20 years of consistently beating Bundy in court, the BLM moved to confiscate his cattle. A judge ordered Bundy not to physically interfere. In response, Bundy assembled protesters to confront the BLM officers who were holding his livestock.

After a dramatic, two-day standoff, federal officers backed down and handed the cows over to Bundy to avoid violence. Astonishing photos from the scene show protesters perched on a highway overpass and hunkered down in the brush with long-range weapons; one photo appears to show a man on the bridge aiming down at the BLM base camp.

The involvement of armed militiamen—and Bundy's promise to "do whatever it takes" to reclaim his cattle—doesn't appear to phase conservative activists who have turned Bundy into a cause célèbre. Before this weekend's confrontation, National Review Online, Fox & Friends, and American Thinker all blamed the government for mounting tensions. Two groups affiliated with Americans for Prosperity, a political organization funded primarily by the Koch brothers, spent the weekend tweeting their support for Bundy, Media Matters reported. Sean Hannity, who on Friday hailed Bundy as a capitalist hero—"When your cattle graze there, that keeps the price of meat down for every American consumer"—invited Bundy back on the air Monday for a second, easygoing interview in which he made only glancing reference to the armed confrontation.

Beck, though, in an episode of his show broadcast Monday, said he fully supports Bundy's principles but couldn't look past his supporters:

The problem here is that Bundy hasn't been all that clear on this…He's a rancher. And so he's not used to making his sound bite case in this sound bite world. But the problem with that lack of clarity is some of the supporters that he's attracting. He is drawing in the decent, small government proponents from groups such as the tea party…I know there's some people that listen [to] and watch me. And they are sick of the government regulations hampering themselves, small businesses, farming, I'm with you on that.

But when you're not really super clear, it also draws another element, drawing in the violent, anti-government groups. The, I think, right's version of Occupy Wall Street. We did some research online on PsyID [a social-media analysis tool] today, and found that there's about 10 to 15 percent of the people who are talking about this online that are truly frightening. They don't care what the facts are—they just want a fight. And you see it in some of these pictures.

At this point, video played behind Beck of protesters scuffling with federal officers.

I don't know who these people are. They all might be great. But here they are, they're acting, they're enraged, they're enraged. And they're confronting the federal government officials. I get that. But this is not the way to win…I want to be clear, 100 percent clean on one thing all of us should agree on, and unfortunately, I don't believe we do, both left and right. And that is, we need to agree on, we condemn those who use violence. Inciting violence doesn't solve anything. I vehemently denounce anyone who even hints at such tactics…People can spot anger and vengeance from a mile away. And when I saw that video where they were lunging and jumping at the agents, calling them scumbags, I thought, this is our side's Occupy Wall Street. It's happening all over again, and it will end the same way.

Beck didn't specifically call out the armed protesters, and the Blaze, a website that is part of his media empire, played up the federal government's role in bringing the crisis to a head. Beck claims the facts of the federal government's actions against Bundy are "convoluted" (when they're pretty well established) and equates heavily armed protesters with Occupy Wall Street. But there's no doubt that he took a stand against the extreme elements among Bundy's supporters. And when Glenn Beck approximates a reasonable position on the same night that a blood moon rises, you've got to second-guess the folks who say the world isn't coming to an end.

This is the Best/Worst Campaign Video of 2014

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 1:54 PM PDT

Depending on where you stand, this is either the best piece of political performance art of the 2014 election or the worst. Or maybe it's both. Supporters of embattled Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who is challenging longtime incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) in the June primary, have composed this charming jingle, asking Cochran to "please come home." These kinds of supporter-generated videos can often be tacky and amateurish, or woefully off-message. But this—this is art. Watch:

Lyrics below:

Won't you come home Thad Cochran,
Won't you come home,
You've been there way too long,
We sent you up there, to do what's right,
But now you done us wrong

Remember that crazy health care, that gun control,
You voted for was oh so wrong,
Well, it's really a shame,
And you're partly to blame,
Thad Cochran won't you please come home.

2nd Chorus

Won't you come home Thad Cochran,
Won't you come home,
Our party's gone off track,
With Chris McDaniel, we've got a chance,
To bring our party back,

So pack your suitcase, and grab your hat,
Then catch a ride and get here fast,
We know you did your best,
But it's time for a rest,
We hope this term be your last!

3rd Chorus
Won't you come home Thad Cochran,
Won't you come home,
You're spending way too much,
You've raised the ceiling of debt so high,
This country can't catch up...

And your pork barrel, is filled so full,
I think that it just may bust!
Please hear our call, as we plead one and all,
Thad Cochran, won't you please come home.

Note: Thad Cochran doesn't wear a hat:

Pete Marovich/ ZumaPress

 

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Google Ponders Using Its Search Algorithms to Encourage Encryption

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 10:14 AM PDT

From the Wall Street Journal:

In a move that experts say could make it harder to spy on Web users, Google is considering giving a boost in its search-engine results to websites that use encryption, the engineer in charge of fighting spam in search results hinted at a recent conference.

The executive, Matt Cutts, is well known in the search world as the liaison between Google’s search team and website designers who track every tweak to its search algorithms....Google uses its search algorithm to encourage and discourage practices among web developers. Sites known to have malicious software are penalized in rankings as are those that load very slowly, for instance. In total, the company has over 200 “signals” that help it determine search rankings, most of which it doesn’t discuss publicly.

I don't want to make too big a deal out of this, but I'm a little nervous about the power Google is demonstrating here. Google has a two-thirds share of the search market, which makes it an effective monopoly in this space, and they're none too transparent about just how they exploit this dominance. Encrypting web sites is probably a good thing to encourage, but it's hardly necessary for every site. Nor is it clear just what Google would decide counts as proper encryption. Do some encryption standards and suppliers stand or fall based on whether Google's algorithm recognizes them?

I haven't given this a ton of thought, so just take this as a bit of noodling. To the extent that Google's algorithms are genuinely aimed at producing the most useful results for people, it's hard to fault them. When they start to go beyond that, though, things get a little gray. What comes next after this? It's worth some thought.

Fox News Is About to Get a New Pet Rock

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 9:32 AM PDT

Oh man, a whole new set of conspiracy theories is about to take flight:

The Census Bureau, the authoritative source of health insurance data for more than three decades, is changing its annual survey so thoroughly that it will be difficult to measure the effects of President Obama’s health care law in the next report, due this fall, census officials said.

....An internal Census Bureau document said that the new questionnaire included a “total revision to health insurance questions” and, in a test last year, produced lower estimates of the uninsured. Thus, officials said, it will be difficult to say how much of any change is attributable to the Affordable Care Act and how much to the use of a new survey instrument.

“We are expecting much lower numbers just because of the questions and how they are asked,” said Brett J. O’Hara, chief of the health statistics branch at the Census Bureau. With the new questions, “it is likely that the Census Bureau will decide that there is a break in series for the health insurance estimates,” says another agency document describing the changes. This “break in trend” will complicate efforts to trace the impact of the Affordable Care Act, it said.

I admit that this sure seems like a bad time to suddenly decide we need a new methodology for counting the uninsured, even if it has been in the works for a while. But it doesn't matter if it's almost certainly bureaucratic inertia at work here, not political skullduggery. The Fox News set is going to have a field day with this. The feds are unskewing their own numbers! Probably on direct orders from the White House! I expect Darrell Issa to commence hearings next week.

Yeesh. Can't we just delay these changes for a year or two? Even if the old numbers were inaccurate, it would still be nice to keep a stable baseline for comparison through 2015 or so.

Is the Crisis in Ukraine About to Wind Down?

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 9:03 AM PDT

I've been watching the unfolding events in Ukraine with the usual rising mix of apprehension and horror, but I haven't blogged about it much since I don't have anything to add in the way of insight or analysis. So instead I'll turn the mike over to Fred Kaplan, who does:

Contrary to appearances, the crisis in Ukraine might be on the verge of resolution. The potentially crucial move came today when interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said that he would be open to changing the country’s political system from a republic, with power centered in the capital Kiev, to a federation with considerable autonomy for the regional districts.

That has been one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s key demands....If Putin can win this demand—and the political, economic, and cultural inroads it would provide—an invasion would be not just be unnecessary, it’d be loony. War is politics by other means, and a revamping of Ukraine’s power structure would accomplish Putin’s political aims by less costly means.

....Sending [NATO] fighter aircraft to Poland and the Baltic states, mobilizing warships to the Black Sea, ratcheting up sanctions with threats of more to come—all this sends a signal that the West won’t stand by. In fact, Putin has done more to rivet the NATO nations’ attention, and perhaps get them to boost their defense budgets, than anything in the past decade.

But Obama and the other Western leaders also know they’re not going to go to war over Ukraine. Putin knows this, too. At the same time, if he’s at all rational (and this is the worrying thing—it’s not clear that he is), Putin would calculate that escalation is not a winning strategy for him. He could invade the eastern slices of Ukraine, especially around Donetsk, but he couldn’t go much further. The move would rile the rest of Ukraine to take shelter under the EU’s (and maybe NATO’s) wing, and it would rouse the Western nations to rearm to an extent unseen in 20 years (and to a level that the Russian economy could not match).

I keep thinking that even from a nationalistic Russian point of view, the cost of invading and holding eastern Ukraine is simply too large. The game isn't worth the candle. And yet....who knows? Rationality is sometimes in short supply. I'd still bet against a Russian invasion, especially if Putin can get much of what he wants without it, but it would be a pretty iffy bet.

In any case, I wonder how long this "federation" will last? If Putin is smart, he can bide his time and just wait. A federated Ukraine could organically turn into eastern and western Ukraine with a bit of patience and without firing a shot. In the end, that would probably suit Russia's interests better than outright annexation.

Cliven Bundy Exposes the Cravenness of the Modern Right

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 8:12 AM PDT

Like a lot of people, Ed Kilgore is distressed at the outpouring of support on the right for Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy:

Call it "individualism" or "libertarianism" or whatever you want, but those who declare themselves a Republic of One and raise their own flags are in a very literal sense being unpatriotic.

That's why I'm alarmed by the support in many conservative precincts for the Nevada scofflaws who have been exploiting public lands for private purposes and refuse to pay for the privilege because they choose not to "recognize" the authority of the United States. Totally aside from the double standards involved in expecting kid-glove treatment of one set of lawbreakers as opposed to poorer and perhaps darker criminal suspects, fans of the Bundys are encouraging those who claim a right to wage armed revolutionary war towards their obligations as Americans. It makes me really crazy when such people are described as "superpatriots." Nothing could be more contrary to the truth.

The details of the Bundy case have gotten a lot of attention at conservative sites, but the details really don't matter. Bundy has a baroque claim that the United States has no legal right to grazing land in Nevada; for over a decade, every court has summarily disagreed. It's federal land whether Bundy likes it or not, and Bundy has refused for years to pay standard grazing fees—so a couple of weeks ago the feds finally decided to enforce the latest court order allowing them to confiscate Bundy's cattle if he didn't leave. The rest is just fluff, a bunch of paranoid conspiracy theorizing that led to last week's armed standoff between federal agents and the vigilante army created by movement conservatives.

The fact that so many on the right are valorizing Bundy—or, at minimum, tiptoeing around his obvious nutbaggery—is a testament to the enduring power of Waco and Ruby Ridge among conservatives. The rest of us may barely remember them, but they're totemic events on the right, fueling Glenn-Beckian fantasies of black helicopters and jackbooted federal thugs for more than two decades now. Mainstream conservatives have pandered to this stuff for years because it was convenient, and that's brought them to where they are today: too scared to stand up to the vigilantes they created and speak the simple truth. They complain endlessly about President Obama's "lawlessness," but this is lawlessness. It's appalling that so many of them aren't merely afraid to plainly say so, but actively seem to be egging it on.