Kevin Drum - July 2013

The Republican Temper Tantrum Against Obamacare Continues

| Tue Jul. 2, 2013 11:35 AM EDT

I've never expected conservatives to like Obamacare. I didn't expect them to vote for it. I didn't expect them to support it. I didn't expect them to refrain from campaigning against it.

But the virulence and durability of their fight against has surprised me. I figured that once it was passed by Congress; signed by the president; upheld by the Supreme Court; and then made permanent by the president's reelection; they'd at least resign themselves to it. They still wouldn't like it, but they'd understand that they'd lost this round.

Maybe that was naive from the start. Certainly we all should have had a clue when ABC News asked about repealing Obamacare and John Boehner immediately had to walk back his answer that "the election changes that" and "Obamacare is the law of the land." The base was having none of it.

Still, the absolute fury that it continues to generate even now, three years after passage, is remarkable. It's not just the Republican governors who have refused to accept local control of the exchanges—normally a conservative platitude—for fear that it might imply a proper lack of hostility. It's not just the Republican legislatures that have refused to expand Medicaid even though it's virtually free. It's not just the refusal to allow small tweaks that even their own supporters have begged them to pass. And it's not even the remarkable hold that Obamacare as a harbinger of doom for the American way of life continues to exert on Fox News and talk radio.

It goes beyond that. The fury is so deep that an expansion of healthcare to the poor and working classes has become a part of the culture wars every bit as bitter and divisive as guns, gays, and abortion. Jon Cohn revs himself up to write about this today:

As you have read in a few places, perhaps even here, the federal government is starting a public education campaign about Obamacare—not to promote the law, mind you, but simply to inform the public about the new insurance options that will be available once the law takes full effect. In 2005, the Bush Administration ran a similar campaign to let seniors know about the Medicare drug benefit. A year later, Massachusetts officials launched their own effort to educate residents about insurance options that the state’s new health law was making available. In that campaign, Massachusetts authorities famously enlisted the Boston Red Sox as partners.

Sounds innocuous, right? Not to the Republicans. Last week, as word spread that the Obama Administration had approached professional sports leagues about forging a similar partnership, GOP leaders warned the leagues to stay away. “It is difficult for us to remember another occasion when [a] major sports league took public sides in such a highly polarized public debate,” Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, the highest ranking Republicans in the Senate, wrote in a letter on Friday. Among other things, they noted, Democrats had used “legislative gimmicks” to enact the law—an apparent reference to the Democrats’ use of budget reconciliation process in order to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Cohn compares this to the passage of the Medicare prescription bill. But I think that actually lets Republicans off too easily. Sure, Democrats had reason to dislike the bill and dislike how it was passed, but let's face it: it was basically an expansion of Medicare. That's not something Democrats are likely to stay mad about.

So what's a better comparison? Maybe welfare reform. Plenty of Democrats hated it. Plenty of Democrats still do. It goes to the heart of the liberal worldview, in the same way that Obamacare goes to the heart of the conservative worldview. But after fighting and losing, Democrats on the left didn't try to sabotage it. Democratic governors didn't refuse to implement it. Nobody introduced 37 separate bills to repeal it. That doesn't mean everything was sweetness and honey, or that nobody kept up the fight. But generally speaking, it was obvious that after years of contention, it was the law of the land. Within the mainstream ranks of the Democratic Party, the goal was mainly to figure out how best to implement it, not how best to sabotage it.

But not Obamacare. Conservatives remain so spittle-flecked angry about it that they can't even abide the thought of a sports league helping to run a public education campaign that reduces confusion about who's entitled to what. Even now, they desperately want it to fail. And they're going to do everything they can to help it fail, even if that means screwing over their own constituents. It's a temper tantrum possibly unequalled in American political history.

And it's revolting.

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Why the Story on Snowden and the NSA Doesn't Add Up

| Tue Jul. 2, 2013 1:22 AM EDT

What was Edward Snowden's job when he worked for Booz Hamilton as a contractor to the NSA? Most of us have been under the impression that he was a systems administrator or network administrator. The initial Guardian story described him as a "former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton." The same story mentioned him talking about things that were comprehensible only to his "fellow communication specialists." The Washington Post described him as a "tech specialist" and quoted several sources who were baffled that someone with his background had access to all the documents he had released.

But in the video interview that introduced him to the world, he actually said that he was an "infrastructure analyst" who had previously worked for the CIA as a systems administrator and telecommunications systems officer. Today, the New York Times tells us that this job title is more revealing than it seems:

It is a title that officials have carefully avoided mentioning, perhaps for fear of inviting questions about the agency’s aggressive tactics: an infrastructure analyst at the N.S.A., like a burglar casing an apartment building, looks for new ways to break into Internet and telephone traffic around the world.

....A secret presidential directive on cyberactivities unveiled by Mr. Snowden—discussing the primary new task of the N.S.A. and its military counterpart, Cyber Command—makes clear that when the agency's technicians probe for vulnerabilities to collect intelligence, they also study foreign communications and computer systems to identify potential targets for a future cyberwar.

Infrastructure analysts like Mr. Snowden, in other words, are not just looking for electronic back doors into Chinese computers or Iranian mobile networks to steal secrets. They have a new double purpose: building a target list in case American leaders in a future conflict want to wipe out the computers' hard drives or shut down the phone system.

Stuart Staniford has suspected from the start that this might have been Snowden's role. He wrote this three weeks ago:

I speculate that it is going to turn out that Snowden was an electronic intruder on the government payroll. Profiles describe him as secretive, fascinated with computers, and with knowledge of things like Tor (a peer-to-peer network for maintaining anonymity for computer communications). His last job was working at an NSA network threat detection center, suggesting knowledge of computer security. He had previously worked for the CIA, including overseas, suggesting a cyber-offense role...He may have had a lot of access—it's very common for people working in computer threat detection to have access to platforms that see everything going on in the networks in order to look for potential threats. 

I asked Glenn Greenwald via Twitter if Snowden had described his job in more detail during their interviews. He replied: "Sort of—he's been depicted as far more primitive and lower-level than he really was." I'm not sure precisely what that means, but it was all I got.

The fuzziness surrounding this is frustrating. I'd certainly like to know more about what Snowden did for the NSA. Did he work on network security? Was he a threat analyst of some kind? Did he actively search out vulnerabilities in other networks that NSA could exploit? Did he do this only at Booz Hamilton, or did he have basically the same job previously when he worked directly for the NSA? Exactly how much does he know about the NSA programs he's been revealing to the world?

This whole affair gives me an odd vibe. For reasons I can't figure out, I feel like everyone is holding back information. Obviously the government is, but it sure seems as if the journalists reporting this story have also declined to tell us everything they know. Maybe there's good reason for this. But I wish I knew what it was.

And on a related note, I'd still like to know what's on those other 37 PRISM slides. Or, at the very least, I'd like to know why I can't know. The Washington Post published four of them a few days ago, and they revealed some pretty interesting information, including the number of targets of the PRISM program and the fact that PRISM allows a certain amount of real-time surveillance. I certainly don't see anything on those slides that couldn't have been released weeks ago. What's more, Snowden apparently thought the entire set of slides should be revealed to the world. I'd like to know what changed his mind.

No Matter How You Slice the Data, Men's Income Has Been Stagnant Over the Past 4 Decades

| Mon Jul. 1, 2013 6:39 PM EDT

What's happened to the earnings of working-age men over the past four decades? A couple of years ago, Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project crunched the numbers and concluded that they had fallen 28 percent between 1969 and 2009.

Scott Winship has long been skeptical of this result, and today he published an essay explaining why. A lot of what he has to say is valuable: we should use the right measure of inflation, for example, and we should count total compensation, not just cash earnings. But regular readers will remember that I've never bought fully into Winship's analysis. The problem is that every analytical choice he makes reduces the size of the apparent problem. Every one. It's possible that this is just where the data takes him, but it leaves me wondering if he has his thumb on the scale. You'd think that if you took a comprehensive look at the data, you'd find stuff pointing in both directions.

But for now, I'm not here to argue with Winship. I just want to quote his final conclusion:

The adjustments yield the result that men’s compensation rose by 14 percent between 1969 and 2011. From 1969 to 2007, a peak year, the increase was 20 percent.

I think we can assume this is the most optimistic possible reading of the data. And yet what does it tell us? During a period when real GDP per capita increased 108 percent, men's median total compensation has gone up only 20 percent. Even if Winship is right, it means that men's income has been devastated over the past four decades. Given this, arguments over the technical merits of various measurement methods should be entirely secondary. No matter who's right, the big questions we should be asking ourselves are how this happened, why it happened, and where all the money went. That's what matters.

Quote of the Day No. 2: Putin Snarls, Then Makes Nice

| Mon Jul. 1, 2013 2:26 PM EDT

From—who else?—Vladimir Putin, responding to the US request that it extradite Edward Snowden:

Russia never gives up anyone to anybody and is not planning to.

Did he say that in English? Or is this just someone's Jimmy Cagney-esque translation of the original Klingon?1

So what the hell happens now? Snowden's passport has been revoked, so he can't travel. Ecuador won't grant him asylum unless he shows up at their embassy door. But Russia won't let him do that, nor will they turn him over to the United States. Putin also says that Russia won't grant him asylum as long as he keeps leaking documents that harm America's interests. That last is a helluva chin scratcher, isn't it? I guess Putin just likes playing mind games with us. Meanwhile, the LA Times reports that Snowden has applied to 15 other countries for asylum. Hopefully, one of them is willing to consider the request without meeting Snowden personally.

I'm not really sure how this ends. But apparently Putin has decided that there are drawbacks to baiting the United States after all. I'm not sure what persuaded him of that, but this is from the LAT story: "Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of the monthly National Defense journal, said it appeared that Putin was, in effect, offering a peace deal to the United States over Snowden." All very odd.

1The LA Times reports Putin saying "Russia never hands anybody over anywhere and doesn’t intend to do so." The Washington Post renders the quote as "Russia never extradites anyone anywhere and is not going to extradite anyone." So I guess it was a translation.

Is Politics Now Just an Endless War of All Against All?

| Mon Jul. 1, 2013 12:42 PM EDT

Jamelle Bouie makes the point today that having strong views doesn't necessarily mean you'll never compromise. So the mere existence of extreme tea party sentiments doesn't really explain why modern Republicans are so hellbent on never compromising their beliefs. But what does?

This seems to stem from an attitude that emerged during the 1994 elections and has only grown since—the idea that conservatives aren’t just opposed to liberals but that they’re at war with liberalism. It’s why Republicans have dismantled key norms governing Congress and other institutions (see: the filibuster and the 60-vote Senate), and have taken to opposing everything associated with the Democratic White House. If immigration has a chance, it’s because it isn’t identified with President Obama. And insofar that individual Republicans see it as such, they tend to be opposed.

For what it's worth, most movement conservatives appear to feel exactly the same way in reverse. They believe that Democrats don't view them merely as political opponents, but as enemies to be utterly destroyed. What say you, commenters? Is this true?

Quote of the Day: How Your Bank Screws You

| Mon Jul. 1, 2013 12:26 PM EDT

From Felix Salmon, writing about the day his checking account balance briefly went negative:

By this point, it was abundantly clear what was going on: Citi was doing everything in its power to try to keep me in the dark as to the amount that I had unwittingly borrowed, and to try to ensure that I remained in debt to them for as long as possible.

Or maybe the real money quote is this: "All of which is to say that retail banking is broken, it’s broken everywhere." That includes Britain, where Felix reports that banks are on the hook for as much as $30 billion in compensation for selling worthless "insurance" to their customers for the past 15 years. And you can add to the list this weekend's New York Times piece about the endless nickel and dime fees that hourly workers increasingly get dinged with because they're paid via debit cards.

I dunno. Maybe Matt Yglesias is right. Maybe we really do need some kind of basic, no-frills postal banking service. I'm really not a fan of the idea, but I'm also increasingly skeptical that any amount of regulation can prod banks to act decently toward their customers. They're just too addicted to making money by screwing people, and those of us in the middle class (who mostly benefit from this system, even if we too get screwed occasionally) are too willing to put up with it. The poor and the working class are basically fighting a pitched battle against Republicans, big bankers, and the upper middle class, and that's not a fight they're ever likely to win.

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The Cost of Childbirth: 1958 vs. 2012

| Mon Jul. 1, 2013 10:59 AM EDT

I've posted this before, but today's big New York Times story about the cost of childbirth gives me a chance to post it again. Here's a comparison of the cost of childbirth today with the cost of childbirth (mine) in 1958. Adjusted for inflation, it was about $1,000 in 1958 and about $10,000 today.

Of course, some of that is due to improved technology. Back in 1958, I was born in a room with a bed, a nightstand, and a telephone, and not much else. No machines that go ping. But that's not the whole story. Other advanced countries have all the same improved technology we do, and their costs have risen to only about $3,000 or so. To find out what's going on, just click the link.