Kevin Drum - July 2013

Healthcare Watch: Cost Growth Is Decreasing, But Employment Growth Remains Steady

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 10:14 AM EDT

Tyler Cowen directs our attention to the chart on the right. It shows that the growth of healthcare costs is indeed slowing down, but the growth of healthcare employment has been rock steady. How can this be?

There are a few theories. Maybe only lower-paying jobs are growing. Or perhaps wages are falling. Or maybe hours are being cut back. Apparently, though, none of those things seems to be true. "Economists still have more questions than answers," says Dan Diamond of The Advisory Board Company.

For what it's worth, I think the correct metric is per-capita health expenditures, and on this measure employment has been growing at about 1 percent per year, while overall costs have been growing at about 3 percent per year in recent years. This is a little easier to believe, since it puts a lower floor on things. If we're being a bit more careful about diagnostic tests and generic drugs and end-of-life treatment, it's not hard to see how these trends could converge over time.

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Edward Snowden Says He Could Destroy the NSA Anytime He Wants To

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 12:59 AM EDT

Here's the latest on the NSA and Edward Snowden:

Edward Snowden has very sensitive “blueprints” detailing how the National Security Agency operates that would allow someone who read them to evade or even duplicate NSA surveillance, a journalist close to the intelligence leaker said Sunday.

Glenn Greenwald, a columnist with The Guardian newspaper who closely communicates with Snowden and first reported on his intelligence leaks, told The Associated Press that the former NSA systems analyst has “literally thousands of documents” that constitute “basically the instruction manual for how the NSA is built.”

....Greenwald told The AP that Snowden has insisted the information from those documents not be made public. The journalist said it “would allow somebody who read them to know exactly how the NSA does what it does, which would in turn allow them to evade that surveillance or replicate it.”

I'm not sure whether to believe this or not. I mean, the NSA monitors, among other things, fiber optic cables, telephone switches, cell phones, satellite transmissions, and internet communications. The way they do this is by (a) spending unbelievable gobs of money, and (b) being a government agency within the United States, through which much of the world's communications pass. Obviously details matter, but can you really evade the NSA's net merely by knowing them? I guess I'm skeptical.

But I could be wrong! And in any case, it's certainly true that the NSA would very much like to keep all these details secret.

On a side note, I'm once again left wondering just how long journalists have known about this and not reported it? I keep getting the feeling that they're playing games with us. But maybe I'm wrong about that too. Perhaps Snowden only started telling this story today.

Republicans Once Again Reaping What They've Sown

| Mon Jul. 15, 2013 12:45 AM EDT

Politico reports on the strained relations between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell:

In recent months, their relationship has broken down over a sheer lack of trust, stemming from McConnell’s suspicion of Reid’s involvement in his 2014 campaign and intensifying as the Nevada Democrat has threatened to change filibuster rules despite McConnell’s furious objections.

McConnell believes Reid is breaching protocol between Senate leaders by getting directly involved in his reelection bid, while Reid thinks McConnell is simply using the spat to bolster his own reelection chances by running against Washington Democrats.

Wow! One party leader is campaigning against another party leader? That's unprecedented! Or, you know, maybe not. Let's rewind the wayback machine to 2004 and set the spacetime coordinates for South Dakota. I know we'd never trust the lamestream media to report this correctly, so let's allow Fox News to do the honors:

Throwing tradition out the window, Majority Leader Bill Frist took the unprecedented step last weekend of openly stumping to unseat his Democratic counterpart Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

....Frist is doing his best to see Daschle go, traveling to South Dakota to stump for Republican John Thune. Frist said he is merely doing his job of trying to build and protect a slim Republican majority. "One vote matters. Policy matters. Elections matter," Frist said while on the road last Saturday.

I don't know whether Reid is involved in the campaign against McConnell or not. But if he is, I think we all know exactly where this charming tradition started.

Here's How the Coup in Egypt Went Down

| Sat Jul. 13, 2013 9:21 PM EDT

A few days ago, after reading a dispatch in the New York Times about the suspiciously sudden recovery of public services following the military coup in Egypt, I wondered if the army had been planning its takeover from the very start. Today, the Wall Street Journal says, yeah, pretty much:

In the months before the military ousted President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's top generals met regularly with opposition leaders, often at the Navy Officers' Club nestled on the Nile. The message: If the opposition could put enough protesters in the streets, the military would step in—and forcibly remove the president.

"It was a simple question the opposition put to the military," said Ahmed Samih, who is close to several opposition attendees. "Will you be with us again?" The military said it would. Others familiar with the meetings described them similarly. By June 30, millions of Egyptians took to the streets, calling for Mr. Morsi to go. Three days later, the military unseated him.

....The meeting of minds between Mubarak-era powers and the secular opposition has coincided with a resurgence of bare-knuckle political tactics resembling Mubarak-era violence. In the days before Mr. Morsi's ouster, for instance, a wave of violence against Muslim Brotherhood offices bore similarities to violence on behalf of the Mubarak regime during previous elections in the Mubarak era.

It is difficult to know the attackers' motives with certainty. Within Egypt they are viewed by many who witnessed the violence as efforts by Mubarak-era power brokers to push Mr. Morsi out using methods that once sustained Mubarak. With Mr. Morsi out, Mubarak-era figures and institutions are gaining influence. The military chose a Mubarak-era judge as interim president. Other Mubarak-era judges are set to head efforts to draft a new constitution.

As near as I can tell, this has become practically conventional wisdom within the past week. The military, representing the "deep state," negotiated a deal with Morsi's secular opponents that involved all three groups. The deep state's job was to keep public services in shambles as a way of stoking public anger. The secularists provided the populist cover and the shock troops for widespread protests. The military provided the muscle to oust Morsi and take over the government. After the deed was done, public services were quickly restored, the secularists were given a share of political power, and the military regained much of its old influence and independence. All nice and neat.

There's more detail in the Journal piece. It's well worth a read.

Friday Cat Blogging - 12 July 2013

| Fri Jul. 12, 2013 1:50 PM EDT

Today's quilt is "Watercolor Garden," a watercolor design from Pat Maixner Magaret and Donna Ingram Slusser. It is machine pieced, hand quilted, and no fabric was used twice.

Domino was surprisingly cooperative about the whole thing. I just plonked her down on the chair, and she stayed there patiently while I took some pictures. The photo shoot probably would have turned out better if I could have found her an hour earlier, but she's apparently discovered a brand new hidey hole and I couldn't figure out where she was. By the time she finally made an appearance, the light coming through the window was a little dim. That's the catblogging life for you.

In other news, the Daily Mail reports that there is no great stagnation: "A new range of apps lets cats take their own photos, also known as selfies. When the phone is placed on the ground, the screen shows moving dots or 'bouncing lasers' for the cat to chase. When the cat hits the laser, its photo is taken." Soon Domino will be able to do her own catblogging instead of relying on us flighty human shutterbugs.

Ron Wyden Has a "Feeling" Obama May Halt Bulk Phone Record Collection

| Fri Jul. 12, 2013 12:27 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that privacy advocates may soon win a bit of a victory:

Signs of a popular backlash against the security agency’s large-scale collection of the personal data of Americans have convinced a leading privacy advocate in Congress that the Obama administration may soon begin to back away from the most aggressive components of the agency’s domestic surveillance programs.

The advocate, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview Thursday that he believed that the security agency might soon abandon the bulk collection of the telephone calling data of millions of Americans.

....“I have a feeling that the administration is getting concerned about the bulk phone records collection, and that they are thinking about whether to move administratively to stop it,” he said. He added he believed that the continuing controversy prompted by Mr. Snowden had changed the political calculus in Congress over the balance between security and civil liberties, which has been heavily weighted toward security since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

I'm not holding my breath on this, but good news on the civil liberties front is hard to come by these days, so I wanted to pass it along.

And while we're on the subject, here's something I want to toss out. As we all know, the NSA collects records of pretty much every phone call made in the United States and stores them in a database. Everyone agrees that there would be no problem if NSA accessed only specific phone records via a warrant approved by a court, but this mass collection has raised fears that they're accessing records that no court would allow them to if they had to apply for a particularized warrant. They can just trawl through the records anytime they want with no oversight.

Now, NSA would argue that they have good reason for collecting all this data. If they don't, phone companies will purge it and it will be gone forever. What's more, if you're doing contact chaining, it's genuinely more efficient to have a single database, rather than having to track down the chains via multiple phone companies.

So here's my question: Why can't we authorize some other agency to preserve this data, and allow NSA access to it only via a particularized warrant issued by a court? NSA claims they only access the records a few hundred times a year, so it wouldn't be a big imposition. Are there legal issues that would prevent this? Or what? One way or another, it seems like there ought to be some way to preserve records in a useful form but guarantee that they can't be misused by the intelligence community.

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Pentagon Unveils Friendly Killer Robot

| Fri Jul. 12, 2013 11:44 AM EDT

From Gill Pratt, a program manager at DARPA, after mentioning that their latest robot creation, Atlas, is about as dextrous as a 1-year-old:

But he added that the robot, which has a brawny chest with a computer and is lit by bright blue LEDs, would learn quickly and would soon have the talents that are closer to those of a 2-year-old.

The whole thing is worth a read. I don't want to be constantly making flashy predictions about the coming robot revolution, but honestly, this stuff is progressing faster than most of us think. The progress is hard to see if you're not in the robotics/AI field—and possibly even harder to see if you are in the field—but it's happening.

The Not-So-Triumphant Return of Glass-Steagall

| Fri Jul. 12, 2013 11:15 AM EDT

The unlikely duo of John McCain and Elizabeth Warren want to bring back Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law that split up commercial banking and investment banking. The basic idea behind this is sound: commercial banks are insured by taxpayer dollars, so they should be conservatively run. Investment banks, which make lots of risky bets, should be on their own.

But I've never been much of a fan of bringing back Glass-Steagall. There are several reasons, but I really only need one: in practice, its repeal doesn't seem to have made any difference. Take a look at the two most serious bank failures in 2008: Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. They were both pure investment banks. IndyMac and Countrywide were pure commercial banks. Wachovia did both commercial and investment banking. AIG was an insurance company. Merrill Lynch was a pure investment bank that got rescued by combining it with Bank of America.

Now take a look at the strongest banks in 2008. JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo combined commercial and investment banking. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were pure investment banks.

Basically, I just don't see a trend here. Both pure and combined banks failed in 2008, and both pure and combined banks succeeded. And that's without even getting into the shadow banking system, where many of the problems of the financial crisis originated.

I'm in favor of smaller banks, and I suppose that splitting up the big universal banks would accomplish that. But either Congress is willing to split up the big banks or it isn't. If it's not, then the McCain-Warren bill won't pass. If it is, there are far better ways of doing it.

For my money, I wouldn't bother at this point. I'd simply mandate higher capital requirements for everyone, and much higher capital requirements for the biggest banks on a sliding scale. That would automatically put pressure on banks to stay smaller, and it would make them safer regardless of their size. It's a better, simpler way to go.

Here's the Latest in Race-Baiting Conspiracy Theories From the Right

| Fri Jul. 12, 2013 10:16 AM EDT

As we wait for final arguments and then a verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, Paul Waldman alerts us to the latest round of Zimmerman-related race baiting from the right-wing media. It turns out that in the days after Trayvon Martin was killed, the Justice Department sent a team of mediators down to Sanford to try to keep everybody calm. This team was universally praised for its efforts....until a couple of days ago:

Conservative media have a different take on the CRS's efforts to diffuse the anger over the case, which came to their attention when the conservative group Judicial Watch obtained documents detailing the CRS's expenses of a couple of thousand dollars for their time in Sanford. In their reading, it's a Justice Department conspiracy, in which Obama and Holder are working with Al Sharpton to organize anti-Zimmerman protests.

"Docs: Justice Department Facilitated Anti-Zimmerman Protests," said the Daily Caller. Fox News, which has been treating its viewers to the commentary of thoughtful race analysts like Mark Fuhrman and Pat Buchanan about this case, was a tad more circumspect, posing it as a question: "Did Justice Department Support Anti-Zimmerman Protests After Martin Shooting?" Breitbart.com ssaw the entire prosecution as a result of the mediators: "Judicial Watch: Zimmerman Prosecution Might Have Been Forced By DOJ-Organized Pressure." Powerline was even more dramatic: "Did the Department of Justice Stir Up Trayvon Martin Riots?" Interesting question, particularly since there were no riots. "The United States government has been converted by Obama and Holder into a community organizing agitator bunch!" thundered Rush Limbaugh in response to the report about the CRS. "This regime saw an opportunity to turn something into a profoundly racial case for the express purpose of ripping the country apart."

Dave Weigel has more in Slate. "The DOJ did mediate," he reports. "The result was peaceful rallies, after which a police chief resigned and Zimmerman was charged. The argument on the right now is that even this mediation tipped the scales." Read the rest if you want to stay au courant with all the conservative conspiracy theories that don't make it to the front page of the New York Times.

The Doubters Are Wrong: Edward Snowden Is a Game-Changer

| Fri Jul. 12, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

One of the arguments about Edward Snowden that I've occasionally gotten caught up in is: What difference has he made? Has he really told us very much we didn't know before?

In a broad sense, you can argue that he hasn't. We knew (or certainly suspected) that NSA was collecting enormous streams of telephone metadata. We knew they were issuing subpoenas for data from companies like Google and Microsoft. We knew that Section 702 warrants were very broad. We knew that domestic data sometimes got inadvertently collected. We knew that massive amounts of foreign phone and email traffic were monitored.

As it happens, we've learned more than just this from the documents on Snowden's four laptops. Still, even if you accept this argument in general terms—and I've made it myself—Snowden still matters. It's one thing to know about this stuff in broad strokes. It's quite another to have specific, documented details. That's what Snowden has given us, and it makes a big difference in public debate. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week demonstrates this vividly. Three years ago, only 25 percent of Americans thought the government had gone too far in its anti-terrorism efforts. Policywise, nothing much has changed since then, but in 2013 that number has shot up to 45 percent.

This is how change happens. The public gets hit over the head with something, lawmakers are forced to take notice, and maybe, just maybe, Congress holds oversight hearings and decides to change the law. There's no guarantee that will happen this time, but it might. And regardless of how "new" Edward Snowden's revelations have been, we have him to thank for this.