Kevin Drum - October 2013

Quote of the Day: No More Heinz For You, Minneapolis

| Mon Oct. 28, 2013 9:04 PM EDT

From Lydia DePillis, after reporting the news that McDonald's will no longer serve Heinz ketchup in its restaurants:

U.S. burger eaters probably won't notice much of a difference, since McDonald's was only using Heinz ketchup in its Minneapolis and Pittsburgh markets; the rest is private label.

Wait. What? Minneapolis and Pittsburgh? What's up with that?

Pittsburgh is easy. Presumably this is a sop to local sentiment since Heinz is headquartered in Pittsburgh. But why does Minneapolis get Heinz ketchup? Is that where it's made? No: According to Wikipedia, most Heinz ketchup is made in Fremont, Ohio. Nick Halter of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal asked Mickey D's about this, and could only report that "McDonald's spokeswoman Lisa McComb did not say why the restaurant still used Heinz in Minneapolis."

Did not, or could not? We need answers, people.

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Do Auto Body Shops Routinely Screw the Disabled?

| Mon Oct. 28, 2013 6:43 PM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, today brings news that auto body shops discriminate against people with disabilities. John List and Uri Gneezy recruited a group of men to get quotes for fixing a small ding in the side, and it turns out that if the men were in wheelchairs they got quotes that were about 30 percent higher. However, if the recruits mentioned that they were getting three quotes that day, everyone got about the same price. So what's this all about?

It turned out that mechanics were just making an economic calculation when they gave out price quotes. Put differently they were engaging in classic, blatantly unfair, economic discrimination by taking advantage of a customer’s disability. Luckily, policymakers may already have the solution for this sort of discrimination in place. The Americans with Disabilities Act has forced businesses to facilitate easy access for the disabled, making a task like obtaining multiple quotes possible. Now we just need to make it predictable enough for mechanics to catch up.

Hmmm. If I'm reading this right, the authors are suggesting that the body shop guys took a look at the folks in the wheelchairs and figured that they probably wouldn't drive around to get multiple quotes because they were disabled. So the body shop guys thought they could get away with padding their quotes a bit. I'm not sure I have a better explanation for this,1 but I'm still a little skeptical. These were all folks who drove to the auto shop. Why would the mechanics figure that someone in a wheelchair wouldn't be willing to drive to three repair shops?

I don't suppose I have any readers who have worked in a body shop, do I? Is there some kind of ancient lore among repair shops that folks in wheelchairs are less likely to get multiple quotes? This is a bit of a curiosity.

1Actually, I might. Someone should school me if I'm wrong about this, but I suspect that a lot of people assume (either consciously or otherwise) that people with physical disabilities are also a little bit mentally disabled. This might be because people with mental disabilities often have poor body control, so the association gets made without even thinking about it. If this is the case, the higher quotes might have nothing to do with mobility per se. It might be because the repair shop folks just assumed that the guys in wheelchairs had a little less on the ball than the non-disabled customers.

Winning Elections is Good, But How Will Republicans Do It?

| Mon Oct. 28, 2013 1:52 PM EDT

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru have a timid—but lengthy!—piece in National Review today that takes to task the purists in the Republican Party who think that the road to victory is always and everywhere to demand more confrontation, more obduracy, and more loyalty to the one true cause:

It is a politics of perpetual intra-Republican denunciation. It focuses its fire on other conservatives as much as on liberals. It takes more satisfaction in a complete loss on supposed principle than in a partial victory, let alone in the mere avoidance of worse outcomes. It has only one tactic — raise the stakes, hope to lower the boom — and treats any prudential disagreement with that tactic as a betrayal. Adherents of this brand of conservative politics are investing considerable time, energy, and money in it, locking themselves in unending intra-party battle.

....The need for greater purity, the ever-present danger of betrayal: These have been long-standing themes on the right. When our people get power, they immediately stop being our people, the great conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans quipped decades ago. Yet this assessment of what ails conservatism has grown less and less true with time.

This is a good point. The tea party faction seems unable to recognize that, in fact, they have very clearly taken over the Republican Party. Moderate Republicans are no longer a real force. For better or worse, right wingers finally have the party they've always wanted—or at least as much of it as any faction is ever likely to get in real life.

But now that they have it, they've discovered that it isn't doing them any good, and Lowry and Ponnuru identify the obvious reason for this: We live in a democracy. The tea partiers may control the Republican Party, but they don't command majority support among the American public. Without that, they'll never be able to advance their agenda, and the more apocalyptic they get, the less likely they are to ever win the kind of broad-based victories that Ronald Reagan did.

So why do I call this piece timid? Not because it's full of caveats about how understandable the frustrations of the tea partiers are or how much their hearts are in the right place. That's standard boilerplate in a piece like this.

No, it's timid because, in the end, Lowry and Ponnuru pull back, seemingly unwilling to make any truly robust recommendations for changing things:

For the country to be governed conservatively, however, conservatives have to win more elections....There is no alternative to seeking to expand the conservative base beyond its present inadequate numbers and to win the votes of people who aren’t yet conservatives or are not yet conservatives on all issues. The defunders often said that those who predicted their failure were “defeatists.” Yet it is they who have given in to despair. They are the ones who entertain the ideas that everything has gotten worse; that the last few decades of conservative thought and action have been for nothing; that engagement in politics as traditionally conceived is hopeless; that government programs, once begun, must corrupt the citizenry so that they can never be ended or reformed; that the country will soon be past the point of regeneration, if it is not there already.

OK, but how will conservatives win more elections? L&P explicitly disavow the notion of the party turning left, suggesting only that they're skeptical of "the idea that moving in the opposite direction will in itself pay political dividends." But if they have no concrete suggestions—either in policy or tone or messaging or something—then this is just mush. When Democrats went through this kind of introspection in the 80s, the DLC, for better or worse, drove a conversation that included lots of painfully concrete ideas. That produced plenty of noxious infighting, but it also produced results.

It would be fascinating to see National Review start to play the same kind of role on the right. That's unlikely, I suppose, but one way or another, they need to choose up sides. It's easy and obvious to say that Republicans need to win electoral victories if they want to promote the conservative cause. The bigger question is what Republicans need to do in order to win those victories. Tackling that question in a forthright way will make NR a lot more enemies, but it might, eventually, also produce some actual electoral victories.

The Great Medicaid Transfer From Red States to Blue States

| Mon Oct. 28, 2013 12:26 PM EDT

Don Taylor takes a quick look at how much money red states are giving up by refusing to participate in Obamacare's Medicaid expansion:

According to an analysis I have done using Kaiser Family Foundation data—in 2016 alone—the 24 expanding states will receive $30.3 Billion additional federal dollars, while those not expanding will forego an additional $35.0 Billion they could have had.

....States that are not expanding Medicaid have historically received more in federal spending per dollar of federal taxes paid by the state ($2.18) as compared to States that are expanding ($1.85)....While the Medicaid program is not the only means through which richer states have cross subsidized poorer ones, it has been a large and consistent source of such flows. By choosing not to expand Medicaid, the poorer, mostly politically “red” states are redistributing money toward the richer, mostly politically “blue” ones.

....The bottom line is that if the current State Medicaid expansion decisions persist, the unintended story of the ACA will turn out to be the redistribution of money from poorer States, to richer ones, an outcome imposed by the poorer states, upon themselves. I will write more about what I think this means for the future of health reform over the next few days.

I think it's still an open question how this is going to turn out. No matter how, um, passionate the tea partiers are about Obamacare, at some point it's going to be clear that it's here to stay. Maybe that's a year from now, maybe it's two. And when that finally happens, the scorched-earth opposition is going to deflate and all those red states are going to start taking another look at all the money they've given up. It may take a while, but I suspect that within a few years virtually every state will finally decide that there's not much point in continuing to hold out. One by one, they'll all belly up to the bar and sign up.

Who knows? Given what's happening in Mississippi right now, maybe we'll see a change of heart in the Magnolia State sooner than we think. Maybe.

Sigh. Benghazi Again?

| Mon Oct. 28, 2013 11:15 AM EDT

I watched Lara Logan's 60 Minutes report on Benghazi last night, and when it was over I had two thoughts:

  • That took a year of reporting?
  • Did you just outsource the whole script to the Republican National Committee?

Honestly, there was just nothing there. Andy Wood and Gregory Hicks have been peddling their stories for a long time, and Hicks in particular has some obvious credibility issues that Logan didn't so much as hint at. Beyond those two interviews, there was one new thing: an interview with a British security officer who's just written a book and said....pretty much nothing. Basically, he told Logan that when he first got there in 2012, he quickly figured out that Benghazi was dangerous and that al-Qaeda-affiliated groups were active in the area. But we learned this long ago. Nobody even remotely argues about it.

I'm stumped about what we were supposed to have learned from this report. Was security in Benghazi inadequate? Probably. But the State Department's own report was scathing on that issue many months ago. Was the military response on the night of the attacks incompetent? That's possible too, though considerably less clear cut. Logan acted as if this were a brand new question she was raising, but in fact the military has explained and defended its actions repeatedly in response to the endlessly evolving charges that they were ordered to "stand down" on the night of the attacks.

Finally, was there a scandal in the Obama administration's response to Benghazi after the fact? Again, Logan tried to imply there might have been, but was content with making a couple of perfunctory drive-by potshots instead of actually addressing the controversy. There was absolutely nothing new on this score, and since it's the only part of the story that remains controversial, it's not at all clear what the point of the whole segment was. I learned nothing except for a very few details that color in what we already know. I don't get it.

NSA Says It Stopped Spying on Angela Merkel "This Summer"

| Mon Oct. 28, 2013 12:01 AM EDT

Is this story actually true, or is it a desperate attempt by the NSA to pretend that they had stopped spying on foreign leaders before they got caught with their hands in the cookie jar? Beats me, but here it is:

The National Security Agency ended a program used to spy on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a number of other world leaders after an internal Obama administration review started this summer revealed to the White House the existence of the operation, U.S. officials said.

....The White House cut off some monitoring programs after learning of them, including the one tracking Ms. Merkel and some other world leaders, a senior U.S. official said. Other programs have been slated for termination but haven't been phased out completely yet, officials said.

....The senior U.S. official said that the current practice has been for these types of surveillance decisions to be made at the agency level. "These decisions are made at NSA," the official said. "The president doesn't sign off on this stuff." That protocol now is under review, the official added.

Here's my guess at a timeline: (1) Snowden documents are released starting in early June. (2) NSA starts damage assessment in mid June. (3) They decide that monitoring of foreign leaders is probably going to be outed, so they tell the White House, which cuts off the program. (4) The White House can now truthfully say that the monitoring was cut off "this summer."

Anybody got a better guess?

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How Many People Will Really Get Hit By Obamacare "Sticker Shock"?

| Sun Oct. 27, 2013 12:45 PM EDT

Ross Douthat suggests today that once we finally get HealthCare.gov up and running, the success of Obamacare will mostly depend on how well it's accepted by young, middle-income families who face premium increases because the law bans crappy insurance policies with huge copays and thin coverage. "The politics of the rollout," he says, "will probably be defined by how (and how vocally) middle-class Americans just above the subsidy threshold react to this 'pay more, get more, subsidize other people' deal."

This probably doesn't describe a huge demographic—people who are just barely above the subsidy threshold and currently have individual coverage and are young enough to see premium increases—but there's no question they exist. Here in California, Chad Terhune of the LA Times gives us an early look at this:

Pam Kehaly, president of Anthem Blue Cross in California, said she received a recent letter from a young woman complaining about a 50% rate hike related to the healthcare law. "She said, 'I was all for Obamacare until I found out I was paying for it,'" Kehaly said.

That's America in a nutshell, isn't it?1 I suppose it's every other country in a nutshell, too. Still, it's not clear how many people are genuinely going to get hit by sticker shock. In most of the stories I've read, including this one, people are simply taking the word of their insurance company about how much a new policy will cost. They may find out that things are better once they actually shop around and check out the subsidies they qualify for. Others may find that the higher premiums pay for themselves in lower out-of-pocket expenses throughout the year. And even for those who have done their homework, the new policies might turn out to be a good deal. Check out this anecdote:

Fullerton resident Jennifer Harris thought she had a great deal, paying $98 a month for an individual plan through Health Net Inc. She got a rude surprise this month when the company said it would cancel her policy at the end of this year. Her current plan does not conform with the new federal rules, which require more generous levels of coverage.

Now Harris, a self-employed lawyer, must shop for replacement insurance. The cheapest plan she has found will cost her $238 a month. She and her husband don't qualify for federal premium subsidies because they earn too much money, about $80,000 a year combined.

"It doesn't seem right to make the middle class pay so much more in order to give health insurance to everybody else," said Harris, who is three months pregnant. "This increase is simply not affordable."

I don't know for sure how this plays out in the real world, but I'd be shocked if Harris's $98 plan covers expenses related to pregnancy. If it does, the out-of-pocket max is probably astronomical. A bronze plan under Obamacare is still no picnic, but I'm willing to bet it covers a whole lot more of Harris's maternity expenses than her current plan. In other words, there's a pretty good chance that she'll make up for her extra annual expense of $1,700 by sometime around, oh, April or so.

This is what makes it so hard to predict how all this is going to play out. Right now, even in places like California that have working exchange sites, a lot of people are still guessing about how Obamacare will actually affect them. There's no question that some people will end up paying more, but that number could end up being a lot smaller than we think at the moment. Better benefits and federal subsidies are going to have a big impact, and that impact probably won't be clear until Obamacare has actually been up and running for a while.

Plus, of course, there will be the millions of people that Obamacare just flat-out helps. Andrew Sprung has more to say about this here.

1Did an actual person actually write this to Kehaly? Maybe. In any case, it falls into the category of too good to check.

Friday Cat Blogging - 25 October 2013

| Fri Oct. 25, 2013 3:00 PM EDT

As we count down toward the end of the year, we're also counting down toward the end of the quilts. Today's is one of Marian's earliest, a double Irish chain that's machine pieced and tied, rather than traditionally quilted. (But it still counts as a quilt.) When I tossed it over the sofa, Domino fell in love instantly, returning to it over and over throughout the day. I'm not sure why. This quilt currently does duty as a protective covering in the back of Marian's car, so maybe it's absorbed some interesting smells. Or something. It's a mystery.

Here's the Latest on the Obamacare Website

| Fri Oct. 25, 2013 1:41 PM EDT

Good news! HHS tweets: "FACT: In the first few days, very few could create an account on @HealthCareGov, we are now at an over 90% success rate."

Bad news! Creating an account is nice, but apparently only about 30 percent can successfully complete an application.

Good news! "CMS spokeswoman Julie Bataille said that about half of the roughly 700,000 people who had completed applications [] came through healthcare.gov, which serves residents of 36 states." And CMS claims that the website will be functioning smoothly for almost everyone by the end of November.

I dunno. Is this the kind of happy talk that's common when teams are working to fix troubled programs? Or is it for real? And is the end of November soon enough to avoid a huge backlog of applications?

I'm not sure. But that's the latest. If there's a reason for caution, it's this: teams that are fixing bugs are usually under enormous pressure to offer up the most optimistic date possible for getting the system working. This suggests that the end of November is the absolute earliest plausible date for getting the Obamacare website working well. Take it with a grain of salt.

Is the Jig Finally Up for Mickey Mouse?

| Fri Oct. 25, 2013 12:22 PM EDT

As you all know, copyright terms have been steadily lengthened via congressional action. Currently, the term is the life of the author plus 70 years. For works authored by corporations—Superman, Mickey Mouse, etc.—the term is 95 years. Thanks to a retroactive clause passed in 1976, the magic cutoff year for corporate creations is currently 1922. Anything published in 1922 or before is in the public domain. Anything after that is still under copyright.

So what happens in 2018? That's only five years away! Well, it's 95 years from 1923, which means that works published in 1923 fall out of copyright. Every year after that, more and more old works enter the public domain. And in 2023 the boom falls: Mickey Mouse will no longer be under copyright.

Will Disney put up with this? Or will they team up with the usual suspects to get the term of copyright extended even further? Tim Lee gives us the lay of the land here.

UPDATE: Sorry, but I bolloxed up the explanation of why 1922 is the current cutoff year for copyright. It's fixed now.