Kevin Drum - April 2013

Yet Another Media Blackout

| Tue Apr. 16, 2013 3:24 PM PDT

Yesterday I linked to Jonathan Cohn's "The Hell of American Day Care," whose title pretty much speaks for itself. However, I didn't mention the framing device for his piece: a young mother named Kenya Mire, who was desperate to find day care for her daughter Kendyll and eventually put her in the hands of a woman named Jessica Tata. It turned out that Tata had a history of negligence, and one day left the children at her day care center alone while she went shopping. A pan of oil on a hot stove caught fire while she was gone, and the resulting blaze killed Kendyll and three other toddlers. It's a horrific story about the death of four small children and a neligent bureaucracy that allowed it to happen.

Today, Dylan Matthews interviewed Cohn about his story:

DM: How did you hear about the Tata case? How did you find Kenya Mire?

JC: I remember hearing about it when it happened. The topic was on my mind, so I followed it closely — along with some other stories like it from around the country. I was actually surprised the Houston story got so little national coverage. The local television stations were all over it. Two reporters from the Houston Chronicle did a terrific reconstruction of the day. But almost nobody outside of Texas seemed to notice.

As I learned later, the lack of national coverage was typical.

Very typical, I imagine. There was no partisan axe to grind, so nobody at the national level ever wrote a column about how the mainstream media was ignoring this grisly and obviously important case. Like a thousand other similar stories, it was a local story that stayed local. After all, poor kids get the shaft in dozens of different ways from a country that doesn't care enough to fund decent services for them. Where's the news value in that?

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Quote of the Day: Excel Error Destroys the World

| Tue Apr. 16, 2013 11:08 AM PDT

From Mike Konczal, summarizing a new study that says Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff made a coding error in a famous paper claiming that economic growth slows down in countries with debt levels above 90 percent of GDP:

If this error turns out to be an actual mistake Reinhart-Rogoff made, well, all I can hope is that future historians note that one of the core empirical points providing the intellectual foundation for the global move to austerity in the early 2010s was based on someone accidentally not updating a row formula in Excel.

In an update, Konczal tries to be a killjoy:

People are responding to the Excel error, and that is important to document. But from a data point of view, the exclusion of the Post-World War II [data] is particularly troublesome, as that is driving the negative results. This needs to be explained, as does the weighting, which compresses the long periods of average growth and high debt.

Yeah, yeah. The authors of the study suggest that R&R's paper has three separate problems: (a) exclusion of some high-growth/high-debt years following WWII, (b) weighting of slow-growth episodes in a dubious way, and (c) the Excel error. I assume that Reinhart and Rogoff will respond to all of this at some point.

In the meantime, though, I prefer to think of this as the Excel Error Heard Round the World.

Public Service News Update on the Boston Marathon Bombings

| Tue Apr. 16, 2013 10:19 AM PDT

A quick update on yesterday's bombings at the Boston Marathon:

Just thought you'd like to know. For more on what did happen, check out our ongoing explainer here, which is being updated regularly. In the meantime, read Bruce Schneier on how we should think about all this.

UPDATE: Dana Liebelson and Tim Murphy have a longer, more detailed version of this list here. Plus a bonus sixth report that turned out to be false!

Immigration Reform Bill Finally Goes Public Today

| Tue Apr. 16, 2013 9:41 AM PDT

The Gang of 8 finally plans to unveil their compromise immigration reform bill today. The Washington Post provides a summary:

The measure would allow most undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country before Dec. 31, 2011, to immediately gain “registered provisional” status after paying a $500 fine and back taxes, provided they have not committed a felony or three misdemeanors.

They could then apply for permanent resident status in 10 years after paying additional fees. Three years later, they could apply for citizenship, according to the plan summary. The fastest path to full citizenship would take 13 years, according to the legislation, but it could take longer in some cases, Senate staffers said.

The bill will also require the government to implement strict new border-control measures — including up to $7 billion in new surveillance drones, fencing, border guards and workplace tracking systems — before the undocumented immigrants are granted green cards. The bill stipulates that the government must surveil 100 percent of the border and apprehend 90 percent of the people trying to enter illegally in high-risk sectors.

According to the Post, the bill includes provisions to clear the huge waiting list of foreigners who have applied for visas that would allow them to be reunited with relatives in the United States, but going forward it would cut the number of family-based visas and instead "put more emphasis on 'merit-based' work skills than on family ties."

At this point, though, I imagine the precise details don't matter too much since they'll be amended to death anyway. The real question is whether we can get anything passed at all. The fate of the almost comically weak gun bill currently working its way through Congress doesn't provide me with a lot of hope, but immigration is an issue that even a lot of Republicans would genuinely like to see addressed. So maybe Marco Rubio can give them the conservative cover they need to support a comprehensive bill. Stay tuned.

A Cheap and Easy Way to Treat Drug Overdoses

| Tue Apr. 16, 2013 9:04 AM PDT

Every year, tens of thousands of people die of prescription drug overdoses. Lynne Lyman tells me something today that I didn't know: there's a cheap, simple, and very effective way of reversing an overdose, one that's been around for more than four decades:

Naloxone (trade name: Narcan) is a low-cost, generic drug approved by the FDA in 1971....The drug is easy to administer, either as an intramuscular injection or through a nasal spray, and it has no negative side effects....It's not a narcotic and has no recreational use. You can't get addicted to it. Its only purpose is to reverse an opiate overdose, which it does by ejecting opioids from receptors in the brain, thus reversing the respiratory depression that can lead to death.

Lyman says anyone using either licit or illicit drugs should have some naloxone on hand:

People using prescription painkillers to treat chronic pain — along with those who might misuse drugs — would be taught to keep naloxone on hand and to make sure someone in the household knows how to use it. It would be a bit like people with life-threatening bee allergies carrying EpiPens, which deliver a single dose of easily administered epinephrine in case of a sting.

So what are the barriers to its routine use? The first is that most physicians aren't trained to offer it, even when they are treating people who abuse drugs or when prescribing opiates to those in severe pain....Another barrier is that naloxone is not on the state Medicaid formulary....Even some emergency personnel don't have access to naloxone.

....One way to remove barriers would be to make the drug available over the counter, something Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has said she supports. Last year, when the FDA held hearings on the drug, only one person spoke against that idea. But regulatory hurdles along with marketing issues must be addressed before it can happen.

Marketing issues? Right. It turns out that naloxone, being a generic drug, isn't very profitable. So nobody really feels like making it (it's frequently subject to shortages), and the two manufacturers left have jacked up the price considerably. This is from a conference report a couple of years ago:

In a world of multi-billion dollar blockbusters, naloxone is virtually an orphan drug. By 2007, only three companies — Hospira, International Medications, and Endo Pharmaceuticals — were marketing naloxone....Endo recently closed its manufacturing facility and exited the market. Hospira subsequently increased prices in a move apparently unrelated to any real increase in production, distribution, or marketing costs. For its part, International Medications phased out the production of the single-dose 1 mL of a 0.4 mg/mL solution....The decision to discontinue the production of the smaller bottle significantly raises supply costs of programs designed to equip lay responders with emergency doses of the drug.

The price increase is substantial. The Harm Reduction Coalition surveyed naloxone programs in Fall, 2008. Programs reported increases in the price of naloxone ranging from 30% to as high as 400%. On average, programs reported that the price for their naloxone supply had tripled in recent years.

I don't really have anything to add to this—aside from the fact that I'm hardly surprised by any of it. Nevertheless, I'd never heard of naloxone before reading this, so I figure lots of you probably haven't either. Price increases or not, if you or a family member takes prescription painkillers, you might want to ask your doctor about naloxone. Better safe than sorry. 

Whining About Being White About to Get New Lease on Life

| Tue Apr. 16, 2013 8:08 AM PDT

From Rand Paul, complaining to a black audience about his reception at historically black Howard University last week:

I think some think a white person is not allowed to talk about black history ... which I think is unfair.

Um, yeah. That's been a real problem for whites. Son of the South Ed Kilgore comments:

Those of us who wondered whether Paul in going to Howard was engaged in legitimate "minority outreach" or just playing to the white galleries, have a lot more reason to suspect the latter motive now that he's openly posing as a victim of racism against white folks.

....Paul seems to be peddling the highly revisionist take on civil rights history laid out last year in National Review by Kevin Williamson, which holds that Republicans alway were and always will be the party of civil rights while Democrats have consciously switched their white supremacist tactics from Jim Crow to "plantation" socialism. It's a hallucinatory approach to developments too recent and too well known to fool people about, and for that reason, it's a line of argument that tends to offend people, particularly those being told they are fools for voting Democratic.

I got an email from a reader along these same lines, basically saying that Democrats didn't so much bravely embrace civil rights in the 60s in the full knowledge that it would be electorally disastrous, but instead, cynically "started the new racism of political favoritism built upon race. Group think and group privilege. All kinds of statistics about how many of each race attain what social standing and income level." I thought of this as the Glenn Beck version of history, but maybe I was failing to give credit where it's due. I'll refer to this as the Williamson version of history from now on.

This version of racial history has been an undercurrent within the conservative movement for years, but it's never really been out and proud, so to speak. At least, I don't think it has. I wonder if the efforts of Williamson and Rand Paul are going to change that? Is this going to become a genuine thing among conservatives, once they decide that a few months of being nice to minorities and the young is quite enough, thank you very much, and they might as well give up on these malcontents? I can't wait to find out.

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Who Donated $11 Million to Proposition 30?

| Mon Apr. 15, 2013 2:30 PM PDT

On the off chance that there are still a few people out there looking for something to read about other than the explosions in Boston, here's an interesting story for you. But first the backstory.

Last year, Californians voted on Proposition 30, a ballot initiative to raise taxes. (It passed.) As you'd expect, Prop 30 attracted plenty of opposition within the state, but as you might not expect, it also attracted a huge amount of opposition from outside the state. In particular, an organization called Americans for Responsible Leadership donated a stunning $11 million to oppose both Prop 30 and Prop 32 (a union busting initiative). But who was behind ARL? Therein hangs a story. Here is Andy Kroll writing on the day before the November elections:

Americans for Responsible Leadership, the Arizona nonprofit that made the $11 million donation, had refused demands by California's Fair Political Practices Commission to name its donors. So the state watchdog sued ARL, and judges agreed that ARL needed to fess up. ARL relented Tuesday, but its response is far from satisfying: ARL's $11 million originally came from...another shadowy group called Americans for Job Security, which is run out of an office in Alexandria, Virginia. To complicate matters more, Americans for Job Security had funneled the $11 million through a third nonprofit, the Center to Protect Patient Rights, before it finally landed in ARL's coffers.

Did you get that? The money was funneled from AJS to CPPR to ARL. So when, after losing a relentless, scorched-earth court battle, ARL was finally forced to reveal the source of the money, they had the last laugh. It was just another anonymous organization. You can almost hear the smirks.

But guess what? California is still fighting to get the names of the donors. Here's Andy today:

As the probe progresses, some conservatives are nervous that more details—such as the identities of actual donors—could be publicized. "This case has got very, very deep and significant implications," says a conservative lobbyist with knowledge of the investigation. "A lot of folks are going to have their dirty laundry hung out, and it's not going to be pretty. Why would money go through such a circuitous route if not to conceal the donors?"

And the FPPC isn't done. Investigators recently issued a dozen more subpoenas to individuals and nonprofits in connection with the case, the Huffington Post reported....After initially balking, the nonprofits are now cooperating with investigators.

Read the rest for a few guesses about who's involved with this. And stay tuned for more. This could get interesting.

Day Care, the Final Frontier

| Mon Apr. 15, 2013 12:13 PM PDT

In 2011, Jon Cohn wrote a story called "The Two Year Window," about new research demonstrating the importance of the first two years of a child's life. Roughly speaking, most child care that's average or better is probably OK. But down in the bottom third, conditions are often bad enough to cause permanent cognitive damage, sometimes at a biological level. One third is a lot of kids.

Appropriately, two years later Cohn is back with a follow-up, "The Hell of American Day Care." Children who get proper attention and interaction, he says, "tend to develop the skills they need to thrive as adults—like learning how to calm down after a setback or how to focus on a problem long enough to solve it":

Kids who grow up without that kind of attention tend to lack impulse control and have more emotional outbursts. Later on, they are more likely to struggle in school or with the law. They also have more physical health problems. Numerous studies show that all children, especially those from low-income homes, benefit greatly from sound child care. The key ingredients are quite simple—starting with plenty of caregivers, who ideally have some expertise in child development.

By these metrics, American day care performs abysmally. A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Child Health Development deemed the majority of operations to be “fair” or “poor”—only 10 percent provided high-quality care. Experts recommend a ratio of one caregiver for every three infants between six and 18 months, but just one-third of children are in settings that meet that standard.

....At the same time, day care is a bruising financial burden for many families—more expensive than rent in 22 states. In the priciest, Massachusetts, it costs an average family $15,000 a year to place an infant full-time in a licensed center. In California, the cost is equivalent to 40 percent of the median income for a single mother.

I remain convinced that the biggest bang for the buck we could get from any kind of new government spending would involve getting serious about pre-K day care. It wouldn't be cheap: probably the better part of $100 billion per year. That might take the form of subsidies and regulation, or of government-run day care centers. The latter worked well during World War II, and continue to work well for the military. And it's a system that serves the French well, with their system of crèches and école maternelles. But it's not the only way. Tougher regulation of private day care, along with better training and subsidies for poor families, could do the job too:

Since the 1930s, with the introduction of Social Security, the United States has constructed—slowly, haphazardly, often painfully—a welfare state. Pensions, public housing, health care—piece by piece, the government created protections for citizens that the market doesn’t always provide. Child care is the major unfinished part of that project. The lack of quality, affordable day care is arguably the most significant barrier to full equality for women in the workplace. It makes it more likely that children born in poverty will remain there. That’s why other developed countries made child care a collective responsibility long ago.

With universal healthcare finally on the horizon (though progressing with plenty of fits and starts), pre-K is now the last big brick in the social welfare edifice. It's insane that we deliberately give it such short shrift, even with the knowledge that universal, decent-quality pre-K would almost certainly produce a smarter, more stable, better adjusted generation of adults in the very near future. For more, read the whole story. It's worth a few minutes of your time.

A Guantanamo Hunger Striker Tells His Story

| Mon Apr. 15, 2013 10:32 AM PDT

Marcy Wheeler tweets:

I'd really love some pollster to figure how what % of Americans know how many Gitmo detainees have been cleared for release.

I believe the answer is about 40 percent—but, like Marcy, I doubt that many people know this. Her tweet was prompted by an op-ed today in the New York Times by Samil Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a Yemeni hunger striker at Guantanamo who is being force fed:

I’ve been detained at Guantánamo for 11 years and three months. I have never been charged with any crime. I have never received a trial…The only reason I am still here is that President Obama refuses to send any detainees back to Yemen. This makes no sense…I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen’s president do something, that is what I risk every day.

Where is my government? I will submit to any “security measures” they want in order to go home, even though they are totally unnecessary.

Yemen's previous administration prevented the release of many detainees by demanding enormous payments from the US before it would accept them. The current administration has changed course, and has requested that all Yemeni nationals be repatriated to Sana'a. But now it's the U.S. that refuses to deal. Andy Worthington reports that after the failed underwear bomber plot:

Obama responded to a wave of hysteria by announcing a moratorium on releasing any cleared Yemenis from Guantanamo. That order remains in place two years and eight months later, even though it is a monstrous injustice to continue holding men cleared for release and to pander to populist fear-mongering by insinuating that the very fact of being Yemeni is tantamount to being a terrorist—or, at the very least, a terrorist sympathizer.

But it's not entirely Obama's fault, reports the Boston Globe:

Congress bears much of the blame, because lawmakers have included provisions in the annual defense authorization bill that make it harder to close the facility. They prohibit the use of funds to transfer detainees to the United States for trial in federal court and require the secretary of defense to certify that detainees cleared for release are sent to countries that have “agreed to take effective steps to ensure that the transferred person does not pose a future threat to the United States, its citizens or its allies.” That sweeping language has had a chilling effect. No one can give an absolute guarantee that detainees won’t go back to fighting, just as no one can ensure that criminals released from US prisons won’t go back to crime. As Charles Stimson, who headed detainee affairs under George W. Bush, points out: “You have to tolerate some kind of risk.”

....Obama should muster the political courage to stand up to Congress on Guantanamo. If his secretary of defense is unable to certify a transfer under the tough provisions, Obama retains the ability to transfer prisoners with a “national security waiver” — a power he has never used....A new, democratically elected government in Yemen is putting together a plan to take responsibility for its detainees. About a third of the 88 men from Yemen have already been cleared for release. Keeping them at Guantanamo just because of their nationality flies in the face of justice. The US government should support the democratic transition in Yemen by providing the financial, military, and intelligence support necessary to send them home and keep an eye on them.

Some detainees are tougher to deal with than others. But those who have already been cleared for release, and which Yemen is willing to accept, should be the easiest. Moqbel might or might not fall into this category (his status is unclear), but there are at least a couple dozen Yemenis who do. Obama should let them go.

To Understand Gold, Look Across the Ocean

| Mon Apr. 15, 2013 9:34 AM PDT

Matthew Drudge reports today that panic is everywhere in the world of gold bugs. And sure enough, after drifting downward from $1,800 to $1,550 over the past six months, gold has plummeted another $200 over the past two days. Paul Krugman feels vindicated:

As Joe Weisenthal says, this should be seen as really good news, because it offers strong evidence that the goldbug/inflationista view of the world — which says that we need to stop all efforts at monetary and fiscal stimulus lest we turn into Weimar — is, in fact, all wrong.

I don't follow the gold market at all, but the interesting aspect of this to me is: what about China and India? My hazy understanding of the rise in gold prices over the past decade has been that increased demand in those two countries was a far more important factor than speculative fever among tea party types in the U.S. So if the price has dropped by a quarter over the past half year, it must have something to do with decreased demand in China and India. And sure enough, when I click on today's story about gold in the Wall Street Journal, here's what it tells me:

Worries are spreading that Asian buying, which has helped prop up gold prices for years, may slow. China reported that its economy unexpectedly slowed last quarter, spurring fears that Chinese consumers, faced with less cash, could stop purchases. In India, the largest gold industry group warned that the country is losing confidence in the metal because of its recent slide. Investors in Europe cashed out of gold en masse amid concerns that U.S. stimulus may come to an end earlier than expected, and following news that Cyprus may sell a chunk of its gold reserves to fund part of its bailout package.

It's still not clear exactly what's going on. If this report is right, there are merely fears that Chinese consumers "could" reduce their gold buying, and Indian purchasers are said to be reacting to gold's recent slide, not causing it.

Still, I think that somehow China and India ought to be the focus of explanations about gold's slide. Obviously, a bubble mentality can take over once a price drop has continued for a while, but the original source needs to be reduced demand. And that points to the other side of the Pacific Ocean.