Kevin Drum - May 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen, Pick Your Team

| Wed May 8, 2013 12:43 PM EDT

I think Paul Krugman has the right take on the fact that South Carolina voters chose a disgraced Republican to represent them in Congress vs. an honest, centrist Democrat:

Look, we have an intensely polarized political system, and in Congress, at least, party affiliation is basically all that matters. When Massachusetts voters chose Scott Brown because he seemed like a nice guy, they were being idiots.

....Maybe, just maybe, you can make a case for choosing the right person for governor, regardless of party. But when you’re sending someone to Congress, all that matters is the R or D after that person’s name. It seems that conservative voters understand that; liberals and moderates should, too.

This wasn't always the case. Today it is. For all practical purposes, we live in a pseudo-parliamentary system of governance, and the only thing that matters in Congress is what party you belong to. If you're a Republican, you're obsessed with Benghazi, Solyndra, Fast & Furious, and debt ceiling hostage taking. If you're a Democrat, you're obsessed with more prosaic topics: passing a budget, keeping social welfare programs from being ripped apart, implementing Obamacare successfully, and asking the rich to help out a wee bit with our long-term budget balancing. Pick your team.

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A Couple of Graphical Lessons From the Government's Huge Hospital Chargemaster Data Dump

| Wed May 8, 2013 11:53 AM EDT

Today the government released data showing how much different hospitals charge for the same procedure. I've been struggling since last night to figure out what to say about this, since in one way there's no news here. The fact that there are huge disparities has been well known for quite a while. This new data simply lays it out in more mind-numbing detail than usual. For now, then, I'm just going to offer up a couple of good graphical presentations that I've seen. The first is your basic map, courtesy of the New York Times. I zoomed in on Los Angeles here:

Take a look in the hospitals in the middle. There's a disparity of 2-4x in pricing between hospitals that are only a couple of miles apart. Why? Some is probably due to the nature of the cases they take, and the amount of unpaid work they do. But 2-4x? What accounts for this? Part of the answer comes from the chart below, courtesy of the Washington Post:

This doesn't explain everything, but it explains a fair amount. The private sector, we're told, is always more efficient than the public sector. Competition, you understand. But that doesn't seem to be the case in the healthcare industry. I will allow you to draw your own conclusions.

Republicans Refuse to Negotiate Unless They Can Take a Hostage

| Wed May 8, 2013 11:25 AM EDT

Today's Washington Post story about the tepid pace of budget negotiations may seem like a snoozer at first glance, but it's really pretty mind-boggling. Here's a snippet:

That might seem like good news, but it is unraveling Republican plans to force a budget deal before Congress takes its August break....In the meantime, Republicans face a listless summer, with little appetite for compromise but no leverage to shape an agreement....“The debt limit is the backstop,” Ryan said before taking the stage at a debt summit organized by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation in Washington. “I’d like to go through regular order and get something done sooner rather than later. But we need to get a down payment on the debt. We need entitlement reform.”

....Democrats are urging Republicans to initiate talks well before the next deadline and at last resolve the long-standing dispute over whether to tame the debt solely by cutting spending, as Republicans demand, or also by raising taxes on the wealthy, as Obama insists....But senior Senate Republicans, including several who recently dined with Obama and huddled with administration officials, conceded that it may be tough to bring their colleagues to the table too far ahead of the debt-ceiling deadline....“We need to realize this debt ceiling is out there. It’s inevitable. It’s coming. And [the later deadline] should not relieve pressure,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. But “sometimes we don’t want to act until a gun is at our heads.”

So that's that. Republicans are flatly refusing to even start budget negotiations until they can threaten default on the national debt if they don't get their way. Apparently this is literally the only way they're now willing to do business.

I should have something snappy to say about this, I suppose. But it's still too early in the morning here in California. I've always said that Sacramento made Washington DC look like pikers in the government dysfunction department, but I think I'm getting ready to change my mind about that. As always, California is a bellwether for the nation.

How the "Inception" Soundtrack Conquered the World

| Tue May 7, 2013 8:09 PM EDT

This weekend, I saw Iron Man 3 plus about a dozen trailers. OK, not really. It was only half a dozen. It just seemed like more. But the soundtracks for at least two of them included the deep, throbbing duhhhhn that I associate with the movie Inception. This made me wonder: Does every action movie trailer in the world now sport an Inception-style ripoff soundtrack? Today, I discovered that Ian Crouch answered my question last week. Apparently, the answer is yes:

For the unfamiliar, a quick tour of recent trailers promoting big-budget fare gives a fuller sense of this abominable sonic trend: spots for “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Prometheus,” “Iron Man 3,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” “World War Z,” “Oblivion”—the list goes thudding on and on. Sometimes the hum is delivered by deep horns, other times by strings—often these are expertly timed to the sound of drums and/or something exploding onscreen—and recently it has taken on a digitized, layered character.

If you're curious, Crouch has more details at the link, along with a little history of this particular bass note. Plus a mini-history of the evolution of the trailer. Unlike him, however, I don't think his recut trailer for Ghostbusters sounds incongruous. Kinda cool, actually.

Can States Decline to Enforce Federal Laws?

| Tue May 7, 2013 5:56 PM EDT

As long as we're on the subject of shiny new gun laws, Steve Benen points out yet another offering from the great state of Texas:

Perhaps the most controversial of the gun-related items, HB 1076 would ban state agencies from enforcing any new federal gun laws, including background checks. The bill passed the Republican-led House on a largely party line vote Monday, but legal experts say the attempt to "nullify" possible future federal laws likely wouldn't pass the scrutiny of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"That's absurd beyond the word absurd. I like the author personally but that's just pure political grandstanding," said state Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth).

This is actually a little more interesting. This legislation doesn't claim that any new gun law would be unconstitutional, it merely says that no state officers will enforce it. If the feds want it enforced, that's up to them.

I'm not really sure what the legal status of such a law would be, but I don't think it's self evidently absurd. The intersection of federal law and state enforcement is fairly complex, and states have considerable discretion about where and how they apply their resources.

In any case, I wonder what we'd all think about the constitutionality of this bill if it dealt with, say, federal marijuana laws instead of federal gun laws?

UPDATE: Jonathan Adler confirms via both email and blog post that this Texas law would probably be constitutional. "States can’t obstruct, but they don’t have to help," he says. More here.

Kansas Gun Law Looks Like a Trojan Horse for a Commerce Clause Challenge

| Tue May 7, 2013 3:40 PM EDT

Once again, I haven't been paying attention. I knew that Kansas had passed a law saying that any law which "violates the second amendment to the constitution of the United States is null, void and unenforceable in the state of Kansas." It was a silly piece of legislation since it begs the question of just who decides whether a law violates the Constitution, but in any case, it all seemed vague enough that I didn't pay it much mind.

But it turns out that the Kansas statute isn't as vague as I thought. It also says that the federal government is forbidden from enforcing any law regarding "a firearm, a firearm accessory, or ammunition that is manufactured commercially or privately and owned in the state of Kansas and that remains within the borders of Kansas." This is (a) quite specific, and (b) pretty obviously not something Kansas can do on its own, as Attorney General Eric Holder has tartly pointed out. So what's going on?

Most of the commentary I've read assumes that this is basically a gun issue, a Second Amendment issue, and a nullification issue. But I don't think so. It sounds, rather, like a test case for the Commerce Clause, the same thing that was at issue in last year's Supreme Court Obamacare ruling. Basically, Kansas is saying that the federal government can't regulate something that's made, sold, and used entirely within the confines of Kansas, because that's not interstate commerce. However, the Supreme Court ruled otherwise long ago in the case of Wickard vs. Filburn, which you probably all got sick of reading about last year. In that case, the court ruled that Congress could regulate even the purely local production of wheat "if it exerts a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce and this irrespective of whether such effect is what might at some earlier time have been defined as 'direct' or 'indirect.'"

So it sounds to me like Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Secretary of State Kris Kobach are hoping to make this a test case that will rein in the scope of Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce. Here's an AP dispatch from a few weeks ago with a bit more detail:

No major gun manufacturers have production lines in Kansas, so the measure would be aimed at firearms or ammunition made at small machine shops. The measure makes it a felony for a federal agent to attempt to enforce laws, regulations or treaties restricting access to such firearms, ammunition or accessories.

This makes it clear that the new law doesn't have much real-life impact on guns, since virtually all guns in Kansas are manufactured elsewhere. Its main purpose is simply to test the Commerce Clause. Brownback and his friends seem to be betting that even though the Supreme Court didn't overturn Obamacare last year, the opinions in the case show that a conservative majority is itching to take another crack at the Commerce Clause. The only question is whether they can find a good test case, and then goad the feds into prosecuting their guinea pig so that they can go to court. We'll see.

UPDATE: Oh hell, I'm way behind. It turns out this whole thing started several years ago in Montana with a guy named Gary Marbut, who came up with a scheme to evade federal gun restrictions by building a gun that never crosses state lines. Our own Tim Murphy reports that the idea then went viral in the conservative community:

Lawmakers in 34 states have introduced copycat versions of Marbut's Firearms Freedom Act, six of them in the five weeks since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. All told, nine state attorneys general have signed onto an amicus brief supporting him; eight governors have signed it into law. The National Rifle Association supports Marbut's law; so does the Cato Institute.

Read the whole thing for all the deets.

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Followup: Could the EPA Mandate a National Cap-and-Trade Program?

| Tue May 7, 2013 1:29 PM EDT

Quick update: last night I wrote a post about an NRDC proposal on carbon reduction from existing power plants. Basically, they suggest that the EPA should set standards for each state, then allow the states to meet those standards however they want. If they wanted to, states could even trade credits back and forth in order to meet their caps.

My question: If EPA has the authority to do this, why not just mandate a national cap-and-trade plan instead? That would be more efficient, and probably no more politically difficult than the NRDC plan.

Leaving the political issues aside, I've gotten some answers—sort of—about EPA's legal authority, which is based on a combination of (a) a court ruling that CO2 is a pollutant and (b) EPA's responsibilities under the Clean Air Act. I haven't dived into this deeply or anything, but apparently NRDC believes its plan is legal because it follows the fundamental structure of the CAA, which generally requires EPA to set out state standards for pollutants. However, some interest groups think that EPA also has the authority to mandate a national cap-and-trade plan.

Long story short, a cap-and-trade mandate might be legal, but also might be risky, especially given the conservative makeup of both the DC Circuit Court and the Supreme Court. So far, there's no sign that EPA thinks it has the legal authority to create such a mandate. Conversely, the NRDC plan is probably less risky thanks to its state-based structure, though it's still not a slam dunk either.

If I learn more, I'll write a followup. I just wanted to pass this along since I mentioned it last night.

Democrats Better Start Selling Obamacare Soon

| Tue May 7, 2013 1:07 PM EDT

Jackie Calmes reports something today that I think everyone already knows: Republicans will be relentlessly exploiting Obamacare's rollout problems during next year's midterm elections.

For the third time, Republicans are trying to make the law perhaps the biggest issue of the elections, and are preparing to exploit every problem that arises. After many unsuccessful efforts to repeal the law, the Republican-led House plans another vote soon. And Republican governors or legislatures in many states are balking at participating, leaving Washington responsible for the marketplaces.

“There are very few issues that are as personal and as tangible as health care, and the implementation of the law over the next year is going to reveal a lot of kinks, a lot of red tape, a lot of taxes, a lot of price increases and a lot of people forced into health care that they didn’t anticipate,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It’s going to be an issue that’s front and center for voters even in a more tangible way than it was in 2010.”

I know that it's way too easy for a blogger with nothing at stake to say this, but I sure don't see any possible response to the Republican attacks except for Democrats to get out of their crouch and start selling Obamacare like their lives depend on it. Which they do. A moderate response just won't do any good here. Dems need to be promoting Obamacare with the same fervor Republicans bring to the attack, pointing out its benefits and upsides at every opportunity. So far I haven't seen this—or even anything even close to this—and I suppose that might only be due to the fact that 2014 is still a ways off. But it better start happening soon.

Examining the Hack Gap: Economics Edition

| Tue May 7, 2013 12:21 PM EDT

Every time a health insurance company announces a rate hike, a phalanx of conservatives are ready to step in and declare that it's the fault of Obamacare. But flashy rate hikes aside, overall health inflation has actually been slowing down lately. Jonathan Bernstein wants to know why liberal hackdom has been largely silent about this:

What we don't have, and haven't anywhere that I've seen it, are liberal economists claiming that the entire slowdown in costs has been ACA-related, or even the bulk of it (the bulk is in fact, economists tell us, recession-related, and of the rest it's not altogether clear where it came from).

Just as we didn't see any liberal economists last year arguing that the economy was in fact way more healthy than people thought. If anything, in the lead-up to an election with a Democrat in the White House, most prominent liberal economists stressed the weaknesses of the economy.

There are plenty of liberal hack pundits; there's nothing about being a liberal that prevents people from embracing convenient arguments, even if they're barely plausible. And there are conservative hack economists, so there's nothing about being an economist that prevents lame spin. But for whatever reason, there aren't any liberal economists who function as party apologists. That doesn't mean that liberal economists are always right about everything; it also doesn't mean that there's no biases involved in their work (more, perhaps, in choice of projects, for example). It just means that, as far as I can see, they tend strongly to call them as they see them, rather than adapting their analysis and talking points to whatever the Democratic Party happens to need at the time.

And I'm not saying that there should be liberal hack economists. I don't think liberals are worse off because of this gap, at all. I just think it's odd that either there's no demand for it, or there's no one willing to fill the demand.

Beats me. Maybe liberals are just more easily embarrassed. The thing that gets me about conservative hackdom isn't that it exists, but that it's often so flagrantly ridiculous. There's a solid core of right-wing economists who seem literally willing to say anything, even if it's so obviously wrong that a few seconds of googling can prove it. They just flatly don't care. And they can get away with it because their more temperate colleagues are largely willing to let this stuff slide without comment, instead of actively criticizing it.

The usual liberal explanation for this state of affairs is that we're simply more dedicated to the truth than conservatives. Maybe so. I wouldn't bet the farm on it, though. Here are some other possibilities:

  • Liberal hack economists are just a little more subtle than conservatives. They don't make quite the patently outrageous claims that some conservatives make.
  • It's market driven. For some reason, liberals prefer their propaganda with a thicker sheen of pseudoscience than conservatives, so that's what liberal economists deliver.
  • Rightly or wrongly, liberals are truly convinced that they're right. They're more willing to let the research take them wherever it goes, because, deep down, they have faith that eventually it will demonstrate what they want to see. Conservatives lack that confidence, so they have to bluster more.
  • There are plenty of liberal hack economists out there who say ridiculous stuff, and Bernstein and I are just too wrapped in our own little liberal bubbles to realize it.

I dunno. Generally speaking, I'd say that liberals and conservatives both choose to place their trust in truth-producing systems that help promote their goals. Adherence to textual fidelity (religious fundamentalism, legal originalism, etc.) is popular with conservatives because it's inherently conservative. Science is popular with liberals because it opens the door to change, something that's inherently congenial to the liberal project. This stuff interacts in sometimes complicated ways, but it might also be at the core of the differences between liberal and conservative economists who choose to take roles as public intellectuals.

Can the Internet Sales Tax Bill Pass in the House?

| Tue May 7, 2013 11:01 AM EDT

You may recall that I wrote a few weeks ago about a bill pending in the Senate that would allow states to collect sales tax on internet sales. Well, it passed. But here's the interesting bit:

But opposition from some conservatives who view it as a tax increase will make it a tougher sell in the House....Republican Speaker John Boehner has not commented publicly about the bill, giving supporters hope that he could be won over.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which would have jurisdiction over the bill, has cited problems with the legislation but has not rejected it outright. “While it attempts to make tax collection simpler, it still has a long way to go,” Goodlatte said in a statement. Without more uniformity in the bill, he said, “businesses would still be forced to wade through potentially hundreds of tax rates and a host of different tax codes and definitions.”

This is a bill that got the support of 21 out of 45 Republicans in the Senate. It's genuinely bipartisan. And yet, it's still a question mark in the House. If a bill with support from Amazon, support from most of the business community, support from most of the states, and support from half the Senate GOP caucus ends up not passing in the House, we're in even worse shape than we thought. This is a canary in the coal mine.