Kevin Drum - July 2012

Building Stuff in Cities is Really Hard, Washington DC Edition

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 10:51 PM EDT

One of my rules of thumb whenever I see something sort of odd that has no obvious explanation is: ADA. That is, it might very well be the result of someone trying to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. To see what I mean, Matt Yglesias has a fine little story here about how ADA compliance morphed into a $7 billion track renovation project in Washington DC.

In fairness, ADA is only a part of the story. Still, it's a part. And it's surprising how often it seems to play a role in otherwise inexplicable projects and rules. What's more, even if ADA isn't truly the taproot of all this proposed new construction at Union Station, it's still a pretty good story about how a relatively small improvement in an already densely-built urban area leads by inevitable concatenation into a fantastically complicated and expensive project. For want of a nail etc.

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Medicaid Turns Out To Be a Pretty Popular Program

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 8:27 PM EDT

The latest Kaiser Health Tracking Poll is out, and it contains a couple of interesting tidbits. The first is that the Supreme Court's Obamacare ruling apparently had a substantial effect on public opinion. In the previous 18 months, support for keeping or expanding the law had been comfortably higher than support for repealing the law, by roughly 50%-40%. But in July, after the ruling, support for the law dropped dramatically, now slightly trailing repeal by 46%-45%.

But the finding on the right surprised me more. More than half the respondents said that Medicaid was important to them or their family. That suggests a much higher level of support for Medicaid than I would have expected. And this isn't just among the poor, either. The importance of Medicaid is obviously higher among those with lower incomes, but even among those with incomes over $90,000, a full 36% say Medicaid is important to them or their family.1

As you'd expect, this means that support for expanding Medicaid is pretty strong too: 67% of respondents support Obamacare's expansion of Medicaid. That includes even 39% of Republicans.

There are some caveats and nuances to these numbers, and you can read the entire survey here. Overall, though, it looks like Medicaid is more popular than I thought.

1For well-off families, this is most likely due to Medicaid's payments for long-term and nursing care for the elderly. In the Kaiser poll, 49% of the respondents said this was one of the reasons Medicaid was important to them.

Barack Obama Has Been Mysteriously Apathetic About Nominating Judges

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 6:21 PM EDT

Jonathan Bernstein points me to Jeffrey Toobin, who writes that although Republican obstruction of President Obama's judicial appointments has been unprecedented, it's also true that Obama hasn't nominated many judges in the first place. "The Senate cannot confirm judges who were never nominated in the first place," he points out. And there's more:

The President’s lethargy on the matter of judicial nominations is inexplicable. So is his silence on the subject. George W. Bush complained loudly when he felt Democrats in the Senate had delayed or obstructed his judicial nominees. Obama has said little. Indeed, Bush had a public judicial philosophy as President, frequently calling on judges to “strictly apply the Constitution and laws, not legislate from the bench.” As a former president of the Harvard Law Review and long-time lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, Obama has a great deal of familiarity with legal issues but hardly ever talks about them. His legal philosophy, if he has one, is unknown.

I find many of the liberal complaints about Obama unconvincing, mainly because I viewed him from the very start as a rather cautious, mainstream Democrat. I didn't expect the second coming of FDR. But there are some areas where I've nonetheless found Obama inexplicably disappointing. Housing policy, for example. National security and civil liberties policy. And judicial nominations.

In fact, that last one is the most inexplicable of all. The first two at least have the excuse of considerable political opposition. But judicial nominations don't. Republicans can be blamed for obstructing, but Obama is solely to blame for not mustering the energy to vet and nominate candidates for every open seat — or being willing to fight for them in the court of public opinion. At a bare minimum, if his legal team had done this in the first half of 2009, he would have had plenty of candidates to muscle through during the few months he commanded a filibuster-proof majority.

So why didn't he? It's a helluva mystery.

Does Algebra Help You Think Better?

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 2:45 PM EDT

A couple of days ago Andrew Hacker wrote a New York Times op-ed asking "Is Algebra Necessary?" It was prompted by the growing trend to require a passing grade in algebra as a condition for graduating from high school, and Hacker argues that this trend is doing a lot of damage, helping to make dropouts out of kids who are perfectly adequate in every way except their ability to manipulate abstract symbols. Eugene Volokh, however, suggests that Hacker is wrong:

Though I’m not certain of this, I suspect that algebraic problem-solving teaches useful mental habits that both open up possible future careers and also help train people’s general problem-solving abilities.

I'm not picking on Eugene here. I just had his post handy as an example of an argument that I've seen frequently in response to Hacker's piece. So I'm curious: is there any evidence at all that knowledge of algebra (not arithmetic, algebra) teaches useful mental habits or improves people's general problem-solving abilities? Obviously algebra is useful if you plan to learn more math in order to pursue a science or engineering career. But for your garden variety high-school grad, does knowledge of algebra truly instill an ability to reason better? I have to say that my personal experience is that it doesn't: people with a strong math background don't seem to reason any better than anyone else. I suspect that those of us who are good at algebra tend to vastly overestimate its impact on our mental habits.

Just to be absolutely clear here: General numeracy is useful, and it's especially useful for understanding numerical problems. (Duh.) That's not what I'm asking about. What I'm asking is whether mere knowledge of algebra produces better mental habits in other areas of life. It might! But is there any actual evidence to back this up?

I Have a Solution That Will Allow Florida to Ban Doctors From Asking About Guns

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 12:26 PM EDT

Via Ed Kilgore, I see that Florida recently passed a law making it illegal for doctors to ask their patients about gun ownership. A federal judge blocked the law a few weeks ago because — duh — it's an obvious violation of the First Amendment. If this case ever makes it to the Supreme Court, I have no doubt that it will be overturned 9-0. It's a no-brainer no matter how gun-friendly a judge you are.

But I have a solution! I'm pretty sure that Florida can issue guidelines to its own employees, and those guidelines could include rules about whether its employees are allowed to ask about gun ownership. So Florida's law would probably pass constitutional muster if their doctors all worked for the state.

Do you see where I'm going with this? If Florida were to implement true, NHS-style socialized healthcare, they could tell their doctors to zip it on the gun questions. And surely the NRA would support this, since any and all gun rights laws, symbolic or otherwise, are always more important than any other law.

Too bad Obama and the Democratic Party didn't sniff this out earlier. If they had just included a provision in Obamacare that restricted any doctor receiving federal money from asking about gun ownership, they could have had a way stronger bill and passed it 100-0. Maybe next time.

Working Class Men's Wages Have Plummeted Over the Past 40 Years

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 12:01 PM EDT

Dylan Matthews says a bit more today about something I mentioned briefly a couple of weeks ago: among men, wages haven't just stagnated over the past few decades. They've plummeted:

As you can see on the black line in the above graph, median earnings for men in 2009 were lower than they were in the early 1970s. And it gets worse. The decline shown above is actually too mild, because it doesn’t take into account the massive exodus from the workforce of men since that period. Between 1960 and 2009, the share of men working fulltime fell from 83 percent to 66 percent, and the share not making formal wages tripled from 6 percent to 18 percent. When you take all men, not just those working fulltime, into account, the slight decline in the above graph becomes a plummet of 28 percent in median real wages from 1969 to 2009.

....High school dropouts’ earnings have fallen 66 percent since 1969, and people with some college – the median level of education in the US – have seen earnings fall by a third. Reasonable people can disagree about what caused this massive decline and what should be done to fix it. But it’s a major crisis....

This decline in both male employment and male wages has been going on for 40 years now, and as Dylan mentions, it's far worse at the bottom of the ladder than at the top. Male high school grads working full time earn 25% less than they used to, and if you account for those not working or working only part time, aggregate wages are down by nearly half.

Half! And that's for high school grads, not dropouts. (And the picture changes only modestly if you add health benefits to the wage picture.) These are men who basically played by the rules, got their diploma, and then went into the workforce. Or tried to, anyway. But they're finding it far harder to find steady, full-time work than their fathers did, and when they do they earn dramatically less than their fathers did. So I'll repeat what I said the last time I wrote about this: if you want to understand why marriage has declined among the working and lower middle classes, you have to understand what's happened to male wages. It's not the whole answer, but there's simply no way that it's not a big factor.

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A Lesson From the Senate in How Not to Stop Leaks

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 11:03 AM EDT

California senator Dianne Feinstein has introduced a bill that would ban background briefings by analysts who work for intelligence agencies:

Under the Senate bill, only the director, deputy director and designated public affairs officials of intelligence agencies would be allowed “to provide background or off-the-record information regarding intelligence activities to the media.”

The term “background” typically means that a source can be identified broadly by his or her government position but not by name. The bill would not prevent analysts from speaking on the record, but they are rarely allowed to be identified because of security concerns.

The provision is part of a series of anti-leak measures included in an authorization bill approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. The crackdown is fueled by frustration over recent articles that disclosed details of U.S. counterterrorism operations and cyber-penetrations of Iran.

Feinstein acknowledged that she knew of no evidence tying those leaks or others to background sessions, which generally deal broadly with analysts’ interpretations of developments overseas and avoid discussions of the operations of the CIA or other spy services.

This is, as Reuters foreign correspondent Missy Ryan tweeted, "ominous." And it's ominous for a variety of reasons. First, nobody gets leaks from background briefings. Second, it's a dumb overreaction to a problem that's been around forever. Third, it will likely do nothing to slow down national security leaks. And fourth, it suggests that Feinstein and others are perfectly happy to ignore the real problem in favor of vapid showboating.

In other words, it's the United States Senate at work. It's good to see that some traditions never die.

Mitt Romney's Palestinian Pander

| Tue Jul. 31, 2012 10:28 AM EDT

As we all know, Mitt Romney said this yesterday:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney angered Palestinian leaders on Monday when he suggested here that the Israeli economy has outpaced that of the Palestinian territories in part because of advantages of “culture.”

....Romney said he had studied a book called “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” searching for a reason why two neighboring places could have such disparate prosperity.

“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from the book, by David Landes. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

Can I just point out the obvious here? This wasn't a gaffe. This was a deliberate pander to the conservative base in the U.S., which pretty strongly believes that Palestinian culture is indeed corrupt, indolent, and sullen. Romney knows this perfectly well. He was demonstrating once again, in a very concrete way, that he's no RINO. He really, truly feels tea-party style conservatism in his bones. It wasn't just an offhand mistake.

Can We All Please Stop Whining About the Olympics Being Tape Delayed? Thank You.

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 11:37 PM EDT

Apologies in advance for the rant, but I just have to ask: am I the only one who's well and truly sick of the endless whinging about the fact that NBC is tape delaying their Olympics coverage so that it mostly appears in prime time? Seriously, folks: this is how the Olympics have been televised for — what? 20 years or so now? It's time to get over it. This particular complaint isn't cutting edge or original or even very interesting anymore.

Besides, we all know why this is done: because NBC pays a ton of money for television rights, and the only way to make back their investment is by getting people to watch during prime time. That's life. We also know that the vast majority of people couldn't watch any of the events live anyway. They're at work, and since the games last two weeks, it's not like they can just take a day off if they're Olympics junkies. Most people prefer that the games be tape delayed so they can actually see them.

In fact, here's my guess: most of the griping comes from self-absorbed journalists, with the balance coming from people who are either students or else lucky enough to have jobs that allow them to watch TV whenever they want — and haven't quite figured out that this doesn't describe everyone in the country. I say: get over yourselves. Try an 8-to-5 factory job that gets you home at 6 and done with dinner by 7. Then tell me if you still think it's ridiculous that the Olympics are tape delayed.

UPDATE: If you want to whine about the editing or the commentary or NBC's promo mistakes, feel free. I won't get in your way. But I've seen a lot of whining about the mere fact of tape delay, and I think it's time to get over that.

In comments and Twitter, the most common response to my whining about the whining has been: why not both? Why not stream/televise live and do a prime time show? Answer: I don't know. But when questions like this come up, my usual starting point is that the people involved probably aren't idiots. They might be wrong, of course. Anyone can be wrong. But they're not idiots, and they know their business. They also know all about social media and smartphones and the fact that many of you know all the results in real time. So there's probably a reason NBC doesn't do both. Most likely it's because it would be a money loser, but there might be other reasons too. In any case, I'll bet there's a pretty sensible reason. It's not just sheer ignorant cussedness.

UPDATE 2: OK, hold on a second. I didn't realize that NBC is live streaming every event. But they are. So now I really want to know what all the whining is about.

If You Want to Reform Social Security, Your Target Should be Republicans

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 8:59 PM EDT

Bill Keller wants Democrats to stop "recoiling" from entitlement reform and instead start endorsing some common sense ways of bringing Social Security into balance. He specifically mentions three proposals:

They include (1) gradually raising the retirement age to compensate for the fact that we now live, on average, 14 years longer than when F.D.R. signed Social Security into law. They include (2) obliging those of us who can really afford it to pay a larger share. They also include (3) technical fixes like aligning the automatic cost-of-living formula with reality.

If Bill Keller wants to reduce Social Security payouts, fine. But let's at least get our facts straight:

  1. For the purposes of Social Security, it doesn't matter how much overall life expectancy has changed since 1940. What matters is how much life expectancy has increased for those who turn 65. Answer: for men, it's gone up from 12.7 years to 17 years. That's an increase of 4.3 years. However, the retirement age has also gone up, from 65 to 67. That's an increase of two years. The truth is that retirement age has very nearly kept up with the increase in life expectancy since FDR's time.
  2. I'm not sure what this one means. If Keller means raising the cap on Social Security taxes, that would probably help. The share of earnings covered by Social Security used to be about 90%. Today it's fallen to 83%. If this were raised back to its old level, it would solve somewhere between a sixth and a third of Social Security's shortfall, depending on how and when it was phased in. However, Republicans are opposed to this since it would raise tax rates on the well-off.
  3. This is no mere "technical" fix. If you reduce Social Security's inflation calculation, then you're reducing Social Security payouts. It's exactly the same as just cutting benefits. Matt Yglesias explains this well here. It's also worth noting that if we truly think that "chained CPI" is a better measure of inflation than the one we use currently, then we should use chained CPI for all our inflation calculations. However, conservatives are opposed to this because it would it would affect the way tax brackets are calculated, which would effectively raise taxes on the rich. It's Republicans who are the problem here, not Democrats.

I don't want to pretend that Democrats are saints when it comes to entitlements. Generally speaking, though, there are a lot of Democrats who are open to the idea of a balanced set of Social Security reforms that cut benefits modestly and raise revenues. It's Republicans who are dead set against this: they want privatization or nothing. And they especially don't want anything that raises taxes on the rich. But without any hope of compromise, Democrats have little incentive to support unpopular entitlement changes on their own. They did this with Obamacare's Medicare reforms and got buried in Republican attack ads in 2010.

There's simply no real equivalency here. Sure, maybe Democrats should be a little more courageous about this stuff. But the real problem is Republicans. They just flatly reject compromise and promise to relentlessly attack Democrats if they do anything on their own. If you really want entitlement reform, it's not Democrats that should be your target. It's the GOP.