Kevin Drum - December 2011

Redistricting in California

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 9:58 PM EST

Last year California voters approved an initiative that took redistricting out of the hands of the legislature and gave it to a nonpartisan "citizen commission." Today, Olga Pierce and Jeff Larson of ProPublica have a story suggesting that Democrats gamed the system by making sure that the commission heard lots and lots of pro-Democratic testimony. "Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests," the story says.

Now, I don't doubt for a second that this is true, and in any case, ProPublica seems to have gotten its hands on plenty of evidence to show how this worked. But here's what I don't get: Am I supposed to be surprised at this? Of course Democrats tried to get lots of Democrat-friendly testimony in front of the commission. What would you expect them to do? Surely Republicans aren't so lame that they didn't do the same thing?

(Actually, California Republicans are pretty lame. Still, I kinda doubt they're that lame.)

But that's not the only thing odd about this story. There's also this:

Statewide, Democrats had been expected to gain at most a seat or two as a result of redistricting. But an internal party projection says that the Democrats will likely pick up six or seven seats in a state where the party’s voter registrations have grown only marginally.

“Very little of this is due to demographic shifts,” said Professor Doug Johnson at the Rose Institute in Los Angeles. Republican areas actually had higher growth than Democratic ones. “By the numbers, Republicans should have held at least the same number of seats, but they lost.”

This doesn't sound quite right either. For starters, that six or seven seat pickup sounds mighty optimistic. I'll bet the real number is something like half that. But that's not all. You see, in 2001 Democrats decided to skip the usual partisan gerrymander and instead make a nice, cozy arrangement with their GOP rivals: gerrymandering with the primary goal of protecting incumbents of both parties. It made all the incumbents happy, but it also made the state's districts a bit more friendly to Republicans than they should have been. By 2010, even a fair-minded, nonpartisan redistricting was bound to produce more Democratic districts than we currently have. (Contra Johnson, California has become considerably more Democrat-friendly over the past decade.) It's true that Democrats mostly opposed last year's initiative, but I distinctly remember some of the smarter analysts suggesting that they should calm down because a commission-drawn map was likely to give Dems an easy two or three additional seats.

If Dems do pick up six or seven seats, that would mean the commission really did do them a favor. But if they pick up two or three or four, it's most likely just the result of reversion to the mean after 2001. I'm curious to see what the California wonks over at Calitics think about all this, but they haven't written about it yet. If they do, I'll update and correct as necessary.

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Mitt Romney, the World's Worst Panderer

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 7:35 PM EST

Four years ago, Mitt Romney said that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. Today he said that if we had known Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction — something we knew four years ago just as well as we know it today — then "obviously" we wouldn't have invaded. Now, this happens to be incorrect as a matter of historical fact, since it was always clear that WMD was merely a fig leaf for an administration that was going to invade Iraq no matter what. But Jon Chait is charmed anyway:

The thing I’ve always found endearing and (to some degree) comforting about Mitt Romney is that his flip-flops betray pure contempt for the Republican base. He treats them like angry children, and their pet issues as emotionally driven symbols of cultural division rather than as serious positions. Four years ago, conservatives were enraged that liberals would question Bush’s handling of foreign policy, so Romney was defending the decision to go to war and promising to "double Guantanamo." (It made zero sense as a policy position and could be understood only as an expression of culture-war solidarity.) Likewise, conservatives are now outraged over Obamacare, so Romney promises to repeal Obamacare.

Nothing about Romney’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the right hint even slightly of genuine conversion. It is patronizing appeasement. Of course, none of this tells us the really crucial thing, which is what promises Romney would actually keep if elected. But at least it offers the modest comfort that Romney knows better.

Poor Mitt. It's to his credit, really, that he's such a godawful bad panderer, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a skill he desperately needs if he ever wants to become president. Unfortunately for him, practice doesn't seem to be doing him any good. He's been pandering relentlessly for more than four years now, and he's still as bad at it as he was in 2007. It's kind of sad, really.

Reframing the Mandate

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 1:36 PM EST

Sarah Kliff points us today to yet another Kaiser poll on Obamacare, which yet again finds that people hate the individual mandate. However, the Kaiser folks also find that some arguments in favor of the mandate reduce the level of opposition:

This got me thinking. I just finished reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, which naturally got me thinking about Prospect Theory, one of my favorite socio-econo-behavioral theories of the past few decades. There's a lot to Prospect Theory, but its most famous aspect is its focus on loss aversion. Most people, it turns out, aren't so much risk averse as they are loss averse: they prefer a sure gain over a gamble for a bigger gain, but they prefer a gamble when the alternative is a sure loss. Bottom line, people really, really hate to lose things that they already have.

This sounds obvious, but it turns out to have a lot of useful and nonobvious applications. And now, I'm wondering how it could apply to the mandate. In its usual form, the individual mandate forces people to take a guaranteed loss. Basically, this is the question people are being asked:

Would you rather take a sure loss now (i.e., be forced to pay for health insurance) or take a gamble that you'll be healthy for the next year and won't have to pay anything?

Put that way, people tend to be loss averse and they dislike the mandate. So here's the question: is there a way this can be reframed into a sure gain vs. a gamble for a bigger gain? If it can, then most people will prefer the sure gain. However, I'm not very creative and I can't really think of anything. It would probably be something along these lines:

Almost everyone gets sick eventually. Would you rather be guaranteed proper treatment when you get sick, or take a gamble that you'll never get sick and you'll come out ahead on health insurance premiums?

That's not very convincing. But maybe the hive mind can think of something better. There's not really much going on for the rest of this week, so this is as good a question to ponder as anything.

Chart of the Day: The New Normal

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 12:41 PM EST

EPI has a handy year-end collection of "11 Telling Charts From 2011" that's worth checking out. Everyone loves a good chart, after all. I've taken the liberty of adding some holiday festoonment to one of them, which shows the total number of people who are unemployed or underemployed or who have just given up completely. As you can see, things have been improving over the past couple of years, and if we continue at our current rate we should reach a decent level of unemployment by around 2020 or so. Assuming, of course, that there are no additional setbacks or economic turndowns along the way. Needless to say, we could do better than this if we wanted to, but guess what? It turns out that not everyone wants to do better. Merry Christmas from the GOP, everyone!

Life in Old Carthay

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 11:56 AM EST

John Hood notes an anniversary today:

Today might be a good day to whistle while you work. On this date in 1937, the first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, premiered at the Cathay Circle Theater in Los Angeles.

Oddly enough, this is incorrect. The film premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. This is because there's a residential district near Fairfax in LA called Carthay Circle. I drive by it whenever I go up to the Farmers Market for lunch, and I've always wondered why it was so oddly misspelled. Now I'm inspired to take the ten seconds required to find out. Ladies and gentlemen, Wikipedia to the rescue:

In 1922, J. Harvey McCarthy developed the area as an upscale residential district along the San Vicente Boulevard line of the Pacific Electric Railway....McCarthy originally named the district Carthay Center (Carthay being a derivative of the developer's last name).

Really? Carthay is a derivative of McCarthy? That's just bizarre. But now I know. And so do you, even if you didn't want to.

Romney's Plan: Say Anything

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 11:11 AM EST

Mitt Romney has a shiny new stump speech. Behold:

Just a couple of weeks ago in Kansas, President Obama lectured us about Teddy Roosevelt’s philosophy of government. But he failed to mention the important difference between Teddy Roosevelt and Barack Obama. Roosevelt believed that government should level the playing field to create equal opportunities. President Obama believes that government should create equal outcomes.

In an entitlement society, everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort, and willingness to take risk. That which is earned by some is redistributed to the others. And the only people who truly enjoy any real rewards are those who do the redistributing—the government.

The truth is that everyone may get the same rewards, but virtually everyone will be worse off.

This comes via Jon Chait, who says: "This isn’t just a casual line. In eight sentences, Romney asserts over and over again that Obama wants to create 'equal outcomes' and give everybody the 'same rewards.' This is nuts, Glenn Beck-level insane."

In a macabre sort of way, this is all kind of fascinating. Politicians and corporations engage in meaningless puffery all the time, but to be effective it has to be based on at least a tiny core of truth. Obamacare may not have been a "government takeover of healthcare," as Republicans said, but it did give the government a great big slug of additional influence and control over the healthcare system. There's just enough truth there to hang the more audacious claim on, and this lends it enough of an air of plausibility to make it stick.

But Romney's not doing this. Like his "Apology Tour," this is just flatly made up. Ditto for his claim last week that Obama thinks we're living in a post-American century. 

So what's the strategy here? In the primaries, I assume he's calculated that it just doesn't matter. The true believers will believe anything, and the more outrageous it is the better. Romney typically uses over-the-top criticism of Obama to deflect criticism of his own record ("I've never flip flopped in my life, but what's really important is that Barack Obama has said he wants to give Texas back to Mexico"), so this is just more of the same. Romney is hoping that by demonstrating a bit of insanity in the hate-Obama department, primary voters will cut him some slack on being relatively non-insane in the policy department.

But what about the general election? Independents aren't going to go for this stuff. They'll just shake their heads and wonder what the hell he's talking about. So is he going to ditch this stuff completely after he's won the nomination and pretend that he never said it? Or will he keep pressing, literally hoping that if you say anything often enough you can get people to believe it? It is a mystery.

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Fracking and the Feds

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 2:53 PM EST

We all know that the federal government was responsible for the development of the internet. But Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus tell another story of government R&D today that's a lot less familiar. It's about the development of fracking technology that's opened up massive amounts of natural gas in shale formations:

The breakthroughs that revolutionized the natural gas industry — massive hydraulic fracturing, new mapping tools and horizontal drilling — were made possible by the government agencies that critics insist are incapable of investing wisely in new technology.

This will surprise those steeped in the hagiography of George Mitchell, the tenacious Texas oil man who proved that gas could be drawn from shale rock at a profit. The popular telling has Mitchell spending 20 lonely years pursuing the breakthroughs to tap the Barnett Shale, an underground expanse.

Read the rest for the whole story. This doesn't really take anything away from Mitchell, who really did spend a tremendous amount of time and effort to develop the technologies that finally cracked the shale code. But as Elizabeth Warren says, people who make a lot of money do it with the help of huge amounts of public infrastructure that make their businesses possible. Likewise, lots of scientific breakthroughs are done with the help of huge amounts of basic research that are funded and/or run by the federal government. Fracking is just the latest example.

Racism and Tolerance of Racism

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 1:45 PM EST

Which is worse?

  • Openly espousing viciously racist sentiments.
  • Systematically turning a blind eye toward viciously racist sentiments from others for both profit and political advantage.

Genuine question. Which is more repellent? Background here.

UPDATE: In comments, Thersites makes an eloquent argument for Door #2:

Both are repugnant but I'll go with B as being more repugnant.

My wife and I had some ugly experiences in our former home in outer suburbia.

The people who called my wife a n****er pissed me off. But we knew who they were, and where they were coming from.

The "good" people who pretended that the incidents didn't happen, or made excuses for the perpetrators, they pissed me off, broke my goddamned heart and made me deeply ashamed of my community. We finally got the hell out of there but the bitterness will last a lifetime.

So yes, the "good" people who turn a blind eye, for any reason, are far more repugnant.

Turning a blind eye to racist sentiment is, obviously, far more common than overt racism these days. But as Thers says, that very fact can sometimes make it even worse. After all, everyone already knows that the world contains a few virulent assholes. In some cases you can shrug that off. But learning that lots of people who otherwise seem perfectly decent are willing to tolerate it? That can be pretty disheartening.

Still and all, lots of us fail to do the right thing sometimes because we lack moral courage. Ron Paul's failings go quite a bit further. He didn't tolerate the racist views in his newsletters merely because he didn't have the gumption to put a stop to it. He actively let it continue because the newsletters made money and because he was hoping to appeal to a paleocon constituency beyond his small libertarian base. That's pretty repellent.

Ending Medicare

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 1:23 PM EST

Today's outrage of the day is PolitiFact's announcement that the 2011 Lie of the Year is the Democratic claim that "Republicans voted to end Medicare." This was a reference to GOP support for Paul Ryan's budget plan, which would have changed Medicare from a government-run program to one that provides vouchers for seniors to buy insurance on the private market. Those vouchers would have increased in value very slowly, which means that within a couple of decades seniors would probably have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket in order to purchase Medicare policies.

Does this count as "ending Medicare"? Matt Yglesias, former philosophy major, parses it this way:

Mitt Romney, for example, lauded the plan as reflecting "the need to fundamentally transform Medicare." If friends of the plan describe it as fundamentally transforming the program, can it really be wildly illegitimate for its foes to describe it as ending Medicare? That doesn't make sense to me. According to Mitt Romney, we're fundamentally transforming Medicare. According to the DCCC we're ending Medicare and replacing it with a fundamentally different program. This is a hair-splitting disagreement, not a gaping void of factual error and deliberate deception.

I guess I wish we lived in a world where it was possible to believe multiple things at once about highly charged subjects. Should PolitiFact have chosen this as its Lie of the Year? Not a chance. Ryan's plan was an existential change to the current program, which guarantees essentially unlimited medical coverage to all seniors in return for a nominal annual premium. Ryan's plan doesn't, and describing that as an entirely different kind of program is perfectly legitimate. Hell, even some conservatives agree that PolitiFact made an elephant out of a mouse.

But does that mean Democrats were justified in describing the Ryan plan as "ending" Medicare? I know we all have our tribal loyalties here, but come on. There's no question that this is intended to mislead people into thinking that medical coverage for seniors will literally go away entirely. But it wouldn't. Ryan's intention is that growth caps plus privatization will lower costs so that his vouchers will remain sufficient to purchase coverage similar to today's. Meanwhile, low-income seniors would receive subsidies if they couldn't afford the premiums even with a voucher. It's a terrible plan, with virtually no evidence to support its central idea, and it would turn Medicare into a far stingier program than it is today. You can quite accurately say that the Ryan plan "privatizes" Medicare, that it "eviscerates" Medicare, or that it abolishes Medicare's guaranteed coverage.

But ends Medicare? No. This means that there are two things to say about all this. (1) PolitiFact made a ridiculous choice. They elevated a real but modest rhetorical difference into the biggest lie of the year, and it just isn't. (2) Nevertheless, Democrats shouldn't say that Ryan's plan "ends" Medicare. It doesn't, and there are plenty of short, punchy ways of making the same point more accurately.

Report: Plan B Unavailable a Third of the Time

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 11:54 AM EST

In theory, any woman 17 or older can buy the Plan B emergency contraceptive over the counter. Younger teens can't, and the Obama administration's recent decision on Plan B keeps it that way despite the unanimous recommendation of an FDA panel.

But at least 17-year-olds have easy access to Plan B, right? Not so much, it turns out. In a new study published in JAMA, researchers posing as 17-year-olds called pharmacies to see if they could get Plan B that day. As Aaron Carroll reports, about 20% of the time they couldn't:

It gets worse. If they did have the drug available, which occurred 759 times, once callers revealed they were 17 years old, almost 20% were told that they couldn’t have emergency contraception. Legally, of course, they could have. But they were “misinformed.” Further analysis looking at the relative income of people living near the pharmacy found that people who lived in poorer neighborhoods were more than 60% more likely to be incorrectly told they couldn’t have the drug because they were too young than people who lived in more affluent neighborhoods.

So let’s recap. Plan B is either unavailable or “hidden” in 20% of pharmacies. When it is available, people at the pharmacy are misinforming 17 year olds that they can’t have it anyway 20% of the time. They seem more likely to do so in poor neighborhoods, where a disproportionate number of teen pregnancies occur. All of this would be improved if the drug were just known to be available over-the-counter for everyone.

This is just pesky "evidence," of course. I imagine there's no need to give it any kind of serious consideration.