Kevin Drum - August 2013

Can You Hate Obamacare But Love ACA? Maybe!

| Fri Aug. 16, 2013 11:11 AM EDT

Americans for Prosperity recently launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to trash Obamacare, and its first radio spot has drawn more than the usual derision from the left. Steve Benen summarizes:

The spot features a woman voice that tells listeners, "Two years ago, my son Caleb began having seizures ... if we can't pick our own doctor, how do I know my family is going to get the care they need?"

In reality, there's simply nothing in the Affordable Care Act that stops consumers from choosing their own doctor. Literally, not one provision. Under a variety of HMOs, there are limits on out-of-network physicians,but that was an American norm long before "Obamacare" came around.

You know, I get that the administration hasn't yet rolled out its big educational push for Obamacare. And I get that most people just don't pay a lot of attention to stuff like this and are easily confused. And yet....I've nonetheless been a little stonkered for a long time about why supporters haven't spent more time hammering away on just a few basic things. The sad fact is that most middle-class voters don't really care about expanded Medicaid or subsidies for the poor. But they do care about this:

  • If you lose your job, you can still get health coverage for your family at an affordable price.
  • And you can't be turned down because you have a preexisting condition.
  • And you'll have your choice of policies and access to any doctor you want.

Sure, not everyone is afraid of losing their job. But lots of people are, and Obamacare provides a level of security they currently don't have. That's a very appealing pitch for workers who are non-poor but know that their jobs are shaky. So why hasn't this gotten more attention?

Beats me. On the bright side, here's a novel idea: when the big educational push does come along, it will be all about the "Affordable Care Act," not Obamacare. But the right has spent so much time demonizing "Obamacare" that the public might not even realize that ACA is the same thing. Seriously. I could easily imagine everyone going out and signing up for ACA at the same time that they're listening to Fox and frothing at the mouth about how "Obamacare" is socialist fascism. Weirder things have happened. The tea party's insistence on mocking ACA as Obamacare might come back to bite them this fall.

UPDATE: It turns out that Jonathan Bernstein made this same "keep your Obamacare away from my Affordable Care Act!" observation at greater length a couple of months ago. You can read it here.

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Race, Lead, and Juvenile Crime

| Fri Aug. 16, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

I know, I know: I'm a broken record on the subject of lead exposure in kids and crime rates 20 years later. But there's lately been a renewed focus on black crime and black incarceration rates, as well as the racial profiling of blacks and Hispanics in New York City's stop-and-frisk program. Guess what? The lead theory has something to say about that.

For starters, did you know that arrest rates for violent crime have fallen much faster among black juveniles than among white juveniles? They have, as the charts below show. Rick Nevin explains why:

African-American boys disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system were also disproportionately exposed to lead contaminated dust as young children, because black children were disproportionately concentrated in large cities and older housing. In 1976-1980, 15.3% of black children under the age of three had blood lead above 30 mcg/dl (micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood), when just 2.5% of white children had blood lead that high. In 1988-1991, after the elimination of leaded gasoline, 1.4% of black children and 0.4% of white children under the age of three had blood lead above 25 mcg/dl.

In other words, black juvenile crime rates fell further than white juvenile crime rates because they had been artificially elevated by lead exposure at a much higher rate. In the early 80s, black kids had elevated lead levels at 6x the rate of white kids. After the elimination of leaded gasoline, black kids still had elevated lead levels at 3x the rate of white kids, which explains some of the continued disparity in juvenile crime rates, but that still represented enormous progress. Not only was the ratio lower, but the absolute numbers were far lower too.

There have been, and still are, lots of potential explanations for the disparity in violent crime rates between black and white teens: the toxic legacy of racism and slavery; poverty rates in inner cities; gang culture; and many more. But as Nevin points out, none of the popular theories explains the dramatic rise and fall of crime over the past 50 years, nor in particular why black crime declined more than white crime starting in the early 90s. That's because none of the usual suspects has varied dramatically in the past 20 years. Family structure in black households has been largely unchanged; poverty went down but then went back up; and incarceration rates haven't increased.

But the number of kids with toxic levels of exposure to lead has decreased steadily throughout the entire period, and it decreased far more among black kids than white kids. It's true that black juvenile crime rates are still higher than white juvenile crime rates, but they're nowhere near the levels that caused so many people to live in fear in the 70s and 80s. Nevin wishes more people knew about this:

If the public were more aware of the magnitude of the ongoing changes in juvenile arrest rates, then law-abiding youths might not be unfairly viewed as interchangeable with juvenile criminals....The fact that black children still had disproportionately elevated blood lead in 2007-2010 is an egregious racial injustice. The fact that the news media fails to recognize the magnitude of ongoing declines in juvenile arrest rates creates other injustices, sometimes veiled in a cloak of sympathy, sometimes in the form of an ominous lecture, and sometimes in the form of arrest rate trends for minor offenses.

No one pretends that lead exposure is the only source of crime, or the only source of disparity in crime rates. But it's a big part of the picture, and the plain fact is that a lot of people are still living in the past when it comes to fear of black teens. Thanks to falling lead exposure, both black and white teens are far less violent than in the past, and the fall has been most pronounced among blacks. If we wanted to, we could produce even further declines by reducing lead exposure among black toddlers to the same levels as white toddlers, but we're not there yet because blacks still live disproportionately in old housing and in areas where lead dust from nearby highways settled into the soil decades ago. That's due to the toxic legacy of racism, redlining, poverty, and more. But we could fix it, even if we can't entirely overcome racism itself.

The bottom line is simple: We poisoned them. We owe it to them to clean up the poison, not just lock up their kids.

Report: NSA Violates Surveillance Rules About Ten Times Per Day

| Thu Aug. 15, 2013 11:30 PM EDT

Barton Gellman has yet another release from the Snowden files today, this time an internal report on violations of surveillance rules by NSA analysts. It's hard to come to any firm conclusions about NSA compliance just from the report, which provides little more than raw numbers and a few basic breakdowns of violation type. In the first quarter of 2012 there were a total of 865 "incidents," two-thirds of which involved foreign cell phones that were under surveillance and weren't removed when they entered the U.S. According to the report, "Roamer incidents are largely unpreventable, even with good target awareness and traffic review, since target travel activities are often unannounced and not easily predicted."

So how bad is this? Good question. Here's what the NSA had to say:

“We’re a human-run agency operating in a complex environment with a number of different regulatory regimes, so at times we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line,” a senior NSA official said in an interview, speaking with White House permission on the condition of anonymity. “You can look at it as a percentage of our total activity that occurs each day,” he said. “You look at a number in absolute terms that looks big, and when you look at it in relative terms, it looks a little different.”

I wonder what that percentage is? If it's, say, around 0.1 percent of total activity, that would mean NSA doesn't make very many mistakes. That's good. But it would also mean that NSA initiates upwards of a million database queries per quarter. That's a helluva lot.

Click the link for the full story, including a copy of the oversight report.

Time to Pull the Plug on Egypt

| Thu Aug. 15, 2013 5:01 PM EDT

America's $1.5 billion annual aid to Egypt is supposed to give us a bit of leverage in high places. But in the wake of yesterday's massacre by the military—in direct opposition to repeated appeals from the U.S.—that leverage seems to be pretty much nonexistent. For that reason, Marc Lynch thinks it's finally time to pull the plug. Here's the conclusion of an interview over at Wonkblog between Lynch and Brad Plumer:

BP: Is it possible to envision how the current crisis in Egypt might get resolved at this point?

ML: Honestly, I think things are going to get a lot worse, not better. The military’s rationale for moving in on the protester camps was that this was a festering wound, we just need to clear it out, do a surgical operation, end this, and move on. I think it’s clear that this is not what’s happening. The streets are incredibly polarized right now, and I think it’ll be extremely difficult to calm things down and get people back on the table.

For the past few years I’ve been one of the more optimistic people that Egypt would work things out. It just seems like there were enough state institutions, enough political consensus, enough of a robust civil society to keep things going.

Now I’m not so sure. I think what we’ve got now is a fairly transparent attempt by the military at Mubarak’s restoration, except without Mubarak. I’ve called it “High Mubarakism.”You’ve got a state of emergency, lots of anti-American propaganda. Sissi is a bit more popular, but I don’t think it will work. Mubarak failed for a reason.

BP: And at this point there’s not much the U.S. can do but watch?

ML: The problem is pretty much everyone is hostile to us at this point. The U.S. tried to take the stance of not supporting a particular group. But the more polarized Egypt got, the more everyone thought we were against them. All the liberals thought we were on the Brotherhood’s side. All the Brotherhood thought we were on the liberals side. So now you’ve got antipathy from every player in Egypt. And it’s being fed by a really malicious and malevolent anti-American propaganda campaign in the state media and in the pro-coup independent media. That just creates a really toxic atmosphere.

So America’s ability to do things like being evenhanded broker or try to mediate the conflict is just infinitely harder in that kind of situation.

I think it's been fairly clear for over a month that the Egyptian military began planning all of this in the spring, possibly even earlier. It was rolled out very carefully, very strategically, and very ruthlessly. And while Mohamed Morsi may have been no saint, it probably didn't matter. The military never had the slightest intention of allowing true civilian rule, whether from the Muslim Brotherhood or anyone else.

All the too-clever questions over the past few weeks from reporters trying to get Obama spokesmen to commit to calling the military action a coup was always silly. Everyone knew perfectly well why they didn't, and everyone knew it made perfect sense for them to leave their options open as long as there was any hope of influencing the course of events. At this point, though, there pretty obviously isn't, so there's no longer much point to holding back. Lynch is right: you can't just ignore the massacre of 500 people. It's time to pull the plug.

Let's Make Presidential Debates More Ideological!

| Thu Aug. 15, 2013 3:04 PM EDT

Republicans seem to be inching in the direction of no longer allowing any primary debates to be hosted by non-conservatives or televised on non-conservative channels. The debates would all be on Fox (I guess) and the questioners would all be conservatives who truly understand what it is that conservatives are interested in. Ed Kilgore ponders what this means:

The key point here is the ability of these kind of "moderators" (to use the unavoidable but unintentionally hilarious term) to "vet" candidates by forcing them to "differentiate their positions on core conservative values." That could mean slicing and dicing the field according to position differences less ideological questioners don't even understand (e.g., degrees of commitment to the more radical tenets of "constitutional conservatism" that imply abolition of church-state separation or a roll-back of all federal programs not explicitly authorized in the Constitution), or simply an emphasis on "issues" of particular importance to "the base" and pretty much no one else (e.g., Fast and Furious, "voter fraud," "death panels," Shariah Law, home-schooling, the gold standard and even "birtherism.").

Personally, I think this would be great. I can think of three reasons off the top of my head:

Substantive: Why shouldn't conservatives be questioned by other conservatives who know just what it is that conservatives really care about? That actually sounds pretty reasonable to me. The Huckabee Forum in 2011, starring Pam Bondi, Ken Cuccinelli, and Scott Pruitt, was surprisingly interesting.

Entertainment value: As a blogger, I would really look forward to making the GOP clown show even more clownish. I know that hardly seems possible, but think about it. "Governor Jindal, do you think Christian churches should merely be free of all government interference, or do you think that state governments should require the adoption of Christian curricula in our schools?" "Representative Ryan, do you think global warming is a myth, or do you think it's actually a sinister plot by the scientific community to destroy the economy?" Bring it on!

End of idiocy: I totally sympathize with the conservative desire to put an end to "Elvis or the Beatles?" kinds of questions. It would be worth it just to accomplish this.

I'm not sure how this translates on the Democratic side, but I wouldn't mind seeing a few of the debates moderated by honest-to-goodness lefties rather than John King and Wolf Blitzer. Why not make the candidates defend themselves against criticism from the left? It'd be good for them to go up against Rick Perlstein and Katha Pollitt once or twice. Why not?

A Wee Case Study in How Fox News Makes Shit Up

| Thu Aug. 15, 2013 2:04 PM EDT

My sprained ankle is recovering nicely, but I'm still taking more frequent breaks than usual to elevate it and keep the swelling down. Naturally that means more TV watching, which is how I ended up viewing a segment on Fox a few minutes ago about President Obama's declining approval rating on the economy in the latest Gallup poll. Both the fill-in anchor and Fox's poll analyst claimed to be puzzled: the economy is showing signs of life lately, after all. So how is it possible that Obama's approval ratings were falling?

The poll analyst had an answer ready: Obamacare. You see, as it becomes ever clearer that Obamacare is a raging disaster, people are assuming that means disaster for the economy as well. They think it means higher taxes, bigger deficits, more inflation, higher copays, etc. etc. etc. And what with all the news about pieces of the law being postponed, clearly the public really is expecting a disaster of biblical proportions.

Perhaps this just sounds like standard Fox News nitwittery? Not at all! Because the two on-air personalities weren't just shooting the breeze about stuff they had no evidence for. They did have evidence. They had the evidence of the very same Gallup poll they were commenting on in the first place. You see, Gallup actually asked people if they approved of Obama's healthcare policy. And guess what? It's pretty much unchanged. If the American public is expecting an epic healthcare meltdown over the next few months, they sure aren't showing it. And they sure aren't blaming Obama for it.

This is what sets Fox News apart from the common herd. Aside from Shep Smith, whose bipartisan contempt for idiocy appeals to me, I barely ever watch Fox. I only do it in the mornings if I have to spend some time doing a boring exercise, or elevating my ankle, or something similar that plunks me in front of the TV. But despite the rarity of that happening, practically every segment I ever see produces some kind of obvious boneheaded misdirection that's worthy of a blog post. Every one. It's amazing. It's one thing to blather on in the absence of facts, but it's quite another to deliberately ignore evidence right in front of your face because it would interfere with whatever agitprop you happen to feel like phoning in. At some point, you'd think it would get embarrassing, especially on what's supposed to be a straight-news show. But it never does.

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At the Drone Convention, Don't Call Them Drones

| Thu Aug. 15, 2013 12:53 PM EDT

The LA Times reports on this week's huge drone convention in Washington DC. The vendors all want to sell more drones, of course:

The first goal, however, is to ease public fear of drones. Most in the fast-expanding industry won't even use the word, preferring euphemisms like "unmanned aerial vehicle" and remotely piloted aircraft, rather than the term most people associate with lethal drone strikes by the Obama administration against suspected terrorists from Pakistan to North Africa.

Good luck with that! Especially with exhibits like this:

In the giant hall below, passersby had their body heat invisibly scanned by infrared sensors, were invited to operate simulators to send drones screaming over the Hindu Kush, and watched toy-sized helicopters flutter and take pictures in front of home-sized windows. Barkers from Ohio, Florida, North Dakota and other states pitched drone testing sites. Colorful banners from aerospace giants like Boeing and Northrop Grumman hung from the ceiling next to drab, gray models of unmanned aircraft.

Yep, that sure makes me more likely to soften my opinion of domestic drone operation.

NSA Surveillance Could Cost U.S. Cloud Providers Billions

| Thu Aug. 15, 2013 11:12 AM EDT

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that NSA surveillance probably wouldn't have a big effect on American communications and social media companies. Habits were too entrenched and global networks were too important. A tech-savvy friend emailed to agree with a caveat:

Except one. The public cloud is a big growth area in American business. It accounts for a lot of Amazon's meager profits, and Rackspace and Dimension Data and so many other Public Cloud infrastructure companies are growing fast because companies want to have access to on-demand compute infrastructure without capital investment.

Now it's a slightly more complex choice — private cloud still requires an investment in hardware and data center resources that the public cloud doesn't, but with the existence of platforms like VMWare and Openstack it's not as onerous as it once was....But while those investments will be a boon to some vendors, the overall increase in infrastructure costs is an unnecessary drag that represents a certain level of at least opportunity costs.

His suggestion is that a lot of companies will ditch public cloud providers like Amazon and start building their own private clouds, free of bulk NSA surveillance. That's one option. Another is to switch to non-U.S. providers. Derek Mead points us to a new study today that estimates U.S. cloud providers could see a 10-20 percent drop in business:

What is the basis for these assumptions? The data are still thin—clearly this is a developing story and perceptions will likely evolve—but in June and July of 2013, the Cloud Security Alliance surveyed its members, who are industry practitioners, companies, and other cloud computing stakeholders, about their reactions to the NSA leaks. 16 For non-U.S. residents, 10 percent of respondents indicated that they had cancelled a project with a U.S.-based cloud computing provider; 56 percent said that they would be less likely to use a U.S.- based cloud computing service. For U.S. residents, slightly more than a third (36 percent) indicated that the NSA leaks made it more difficult for them to do business outside of the United States.

This amounts to $20-30 billion. Not a gigantic amount, but still a headwind that U.S. companies could do without.

John Boehner Is Basically Running a Summer Camp for 3rd-Graders

| Wed Aug. 14, 2013 8:32 PM EDT

Robert Costa's behind-the-scenes look at the Republican House leadership is interesting primarily for the way it shows how John Boehner deals with his caucus these days. In a nutshell, he has to treat them like very small, very volatile children who can't be reasoned with and have to be constantly cajoled along with promises of treats somewhere down the road. Like this:

Members were also buzzing about the leadership’s emerging strategy for the autumn talks. Sources tell me the House GOP will probably avoid using a shutdown as leverage and instead use the debt limit and sequester fights as areas for potential legislative trades. Negotiations over increasing the debt limit have frequently been used to wring concessions out of the administration, so there may be movement in that direction: Delay Obamacare in exchange for an increased debt limit. As members huddled and talked through scenarios, leadership aides reminded them that since the House GOP retreat in Williamsburg, Va., earlier this year, the plan has been to end the year with a debt-limit chess game, and not a messy continuing-resolution impasse. But the aides didn’t press too hard. As Boehner knows all too well from past struggles, it often takes only 20 to 30 irritated Republicans to destroy his best-laid plans.

This is, of course, crazy. Boehner is stringing them along with a fairy tale about how a government shutdown would be messy and unwinnable in September, but somehow a hostage crisis with a threatened debt default in November will go swimmingly. So eat your vegetables, kids, and we'll all have ice cream cones later! This despite the fact that a debt ceiling crisis is worse than a budget showdown and far less likely to produce any kind of concessions. I suspect Boehner knows this perfectly well, but figures he'll just have to cross that bridge when he comes to it.

As for delaying Obamacare in exchange for a debt ceiling increase, Boehner must know that this is a fantasy. But the kids are insisting that the Easter Bunny is too real, and I guess Dad knows there's no point in trying to convince them otherwise. All he can do is hope that when the time comes, maybe they can be bought off with some other shiny bauble.

Personal Injury Report Follow-Up

| Wed Aug. 14, 2013 6:36 PM EDT

I just got back from a follow-up visit with the orthopedist, and I know you're all eager for news. Going in, I figured that I'd end up with a cast on my left elbow for sure, but I was hoping that they'd give me a walking boot for my right ankle and not make me wear anything permanent.

But it turns out that the ER guys were more pessimistic than they should have been. There was indeed a tiny bone chip in my ankle, but it's basically just a low ankle sprain and needs no further treatment at all. I won't be running any marathons or anything, but I can walk on it all I want. As for my elbow, further investigation suggested that I didn't fracture it at all. I just aggravated an old injury. It still hurts a bit, and I can't extend it 100 percent, but it's basically OK. No cast, no nothing. In fact, the orthopedist said it was rare to put a cast on an adult elbow.

So everything is much better than I had feared. Typing is still a little uncomfortable, but being able to type at all with two hands is a huge improvement. Hell, just being able to reach the Shift key with my left hand is an improvement. Putting capital letters in my posts has been a huge pain in the ass for the past couple of days.

So that's the news.