Kevin Drum - October 2013

Shutdown Update: Obama, Reid Offer to Talk

| Wed Oct. 2, 2013 1:04 PM EDT

Here's the latest shutdown news: President Obama has called everyone to the White House to talk things over, and Harry Reid has sent a letter to John Boehner suggesting a "sensible, reasonable compromise." Reid says that although he deeply opposed the Iraq War, he never threatened to shut down the government over it, and likewise shutdown shouldn't be on the table over Republican opposition to Obamacare. So his offer is to go ahead and pass a clean CR, and then he'll agree to a conference committee to discuss "the important fiscal issues facing our nation."

That is indeed sensible and reasonable. It's also something that Democrats have been willing to do for months. Republicans have resolutely refused, so it's not clear what would change their minds at this point. But I guess we'll see.

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So Far, the Obamacare Rollout Looks Pretty Normal to Me

| Wed Oct. 2, 2013 11:33 AM EDT

I got an email today from a regular reader asking why I didn't seem to be much worried about all the glitches in Tuesday's Obamacare rollout. And it's true: I mentioned it briefly yesterday but didn't treat it like a big deal. Why?

I can't say for sure. But the answer probably lies in my background. I'm not an expert in rolling out massive software systems or anything, but I have been involved in dozens of big software launches in my life. And every one of them has gone exactly the same:

  1. Lots of smart people work really hard for a really long time.
  2. The launch is late anyway.
  3. When it does happen, the product has a bunch of bugs.
  4. Sometimes the bugs are really serious. If so, everyone panics and works their asses off for a while to fix them. Pretty soon, they get fixed and everyone moves on to whatever's next on the crisis agenda.
  5. Lather, rinse, repeat.

So....I dunno. I've seen this movie too many times before. Traffic on the Obamacare sites will settle down pretty quickly, and that will take care of most of the overloading problems. The remaining load problems will be solved with software fixes or by allocating more servers. Bugs will be reported and categorized. Software teams will take on the most serious ones first and fix most of them in short order. Before long, the sites will all be working pretty well, with only the usual background rumble of small problems. By this time next month, no one will even remember that the first week was kind of rocky or that anyone was initially panicked.

I might be wrong. I've been involved in a few rollouts that featured really serious bugs that took a long time to work out. It's certainly possible that one or two states will fall into this category. But I doubt it. Technologically speaking, nothing that happened yesterday surprised me, and I don't expect anything in the next month to surprise me much either.

UPDATE: A friend with more experience than me in this particular kind of software development emails to explain in more detail why the Obamacare rollout glitches are probably not very serious:

It's because this exact product has been built thousands of times....It's a bunch of forms on top of a bunch of conditional SQL. Nothing new, or innovative, or especially challenging. The problems are simply because of the scale, and with Google and Facebook and Twitter and the like, we've figured out how to do web-scale pretty well.

The "bugs" will be in the Java and SQL code, and they'll be easy to fix. Everything else is just web-scale infrastructure, memcached and database tuning, load balancing, edge routing, nuts & bolts stuff. I've never been worried about it at all, because it's just plain been done so many times before. Not exactly uncharted technological waters.

For what it's worth, I'll say this: If there are still lots of serious problems with these websites on November 1, I'll eat crow. But I doubt that I'll have to.

Which Helps Kids More: iPads or Eyeglasses?

| Wed Oct. 2, 2013 10:32 AM EDT

From an op-ed in the LA Times today by Austin Beutner:

There is a crisis in California's schools. More than a quarter of a million children, most of them from poor and minority backgrounds, lack the technology they need to succeed in school.

Oh man, that really irks me, especially after reading yet another story about LAUSD's idiotic, billion-dollar "iPad for everyone" program. Not to go all grampa on you, but technology isn't our problem. What we need is —

Wait. What? I should read beyond the first paragraph? Well, OK:

But what they need has nothing to do with mobile devices or educational apps. It's a technology nearly 800 years old: eyeglasses.

About 250,000 California schoolchildren don't have the glasses they need to read the board, read books, study math and fully participate in their classes. About 95% of the public school students who need glasses enter school without them....We assembled a team of dedicated eye doctors and turned a couple of buses into mobile eye clinics. We travel to public and parochial schools in low-income communities in Los Angeles and screen each and every student.

....We commissioned an independent study....researchers repeatedly heard about how students' classroom performance improved. They approached their schoolwork with more confidence and had more success....Parents reported a huge sense of relief. They said they could now understand their kids' previous academic struggles and why their children had been anxious about school. In the words of one parent: "The teacher told me that now I don't have to try to keep [my daughter's] focus....Now she sees and tries, and I don't have to be after her like before."

That's a technology program I can get behind. Beutner's operation, called Vision to Learn, says it's distributed about 10,000 pairs of eyeglasses in its first year for less than a thousandth of the cost of the iPad program. More like this, please.

Yes, This Really Is Only the 2nd Government Shutdown in Recent History

| Wed Oct. 2, 2013 9:22 AM EDT

Here's yet another in my series of quick reminders. Prior to 1980, everything kept on running pretty normally during budget impasses. True shutdowns didn't happen until after a series of Justice Department rulings at the tail end of the Carter administration. Since then, there have been a handful of shutdowns prompted by garden variety disagreements over funding levels for defense and domestic programs, but they've been so brief as to be barely noticeable. The only exception was the long shutdown of 1995, prompted by Newt Gingrich's demands.

So when you hear someone saying that there have been loads of government shutdowns in the past and this one is really nothing new, it just isn't true. In practice, there's only been one serious shutdown in recent history, and like this one, it was the product of Republican ultimatums.

Harry Reid and John Boehner Really Loathe Each Other

| Wed Oct. 2, 2013 12:39 AM EDT

In today's most fascinating inside baseball reporting, Robert Costa tells us that the biggest personality clash in DC right now isn't between Obama and Boehner or Obama and McConnell. It's not between Obama and anybody. It's between Boehner and Harry Reid. Quite simply, they loathe each other, a feeling that was amplified today when Reid's chief of staff decided to give Politico a bunch of embarrassing emails showing that Boehner had been desperately trying for months to save the healthcare subsidies for congressional staffers that he's now publicly demagoguing as "special treatment" for Congress.

Obviously Reid's chief of staff did this with the blessing of his boss, and afterward he twisted the knife further by giving an interview about the whole thing to National Review. "I took the action I did," he said in a statement, "because I refuse to stand by and watch those who pressed for this ruling turn around and attack the very thing they asked for, simply because they don't have the courage to stand up to a few whiners in their caucus. Integrity means owning in public what you advocate for in private."

Via Twitter, Costa reminds us that after the failed fiscal cliff negotiations late last year, the tea party caucus demanded that Boehner never again negotiate one-on-one with Obama. He complied. "Now, this seems like a small thing. But over past yr it has made Boehner and Obama unable to truly cut deals....So, into this vacuum that Boehner leaves in early '13 strolls... the senior staffers." Costa explains what this all means:

Reid and Boehner are the two people responsible for eventually brokering some kind of deal—and as gov't shuts, their staffers are at war....So, in tmw's papers you will read abt failed House votes and small CRs. But the real buzz today was bicameral bloodbath post Politico story

It's the small story that's a huge story. It's not that Reid and GOP ldrshp disagree; they priv and pub detest each other

All of this reminds me: talk of "clean CR" is surreal when u peel back curtain a bit. Entrenched msg'ing battles, deeply personal sniping....now, a Democratic aide has sent me copies of email exchanges btwn Boehner's CoS and Reid's CoS, as means of illuminating [Politico] story

What's notable: this isn't abt Obama for most Hill folks involved. He's non-essential. It's part of brutal, long war btwn Reid & House GOP....The Boehner-Reid relationship may be most overlooked in DC. Too often focus is Boehner-O, or O-Dems, etc.

More here.

Republicans Make An Offer Democrats Can Easily Refuse

| Tue Oct. 1, 2013 11:57 PM EDT

So here's the latest brainstorm from the tea party wizards in the House:

Sure, that'll work. The idea here is to fund a small handful of the most public casualties of the government shutdown as a way of easing public anger over the consequences of Republican hostage taking. Of course Democrats will be eager to help out with this. And they'll be especially eager to do this because Republicans have made it clear that they'll refuse to fund anything that Democrats care about:

“We’re going to start picking off those priorities that are important,” said Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), as lawmakers prepared to vote to reopen the national parks and services for veterans. “The IRS was last on the list. The EPA was right above it.”

Gosh. Why wouldn't Democrats take Republicans up on a deal like this? They make it sound so attractive.

Just fund the government, guys. Democrats have already agreed to your spending levels. They're not going to save you from yourselves by giving you anything more.

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Why Are So Many People in a Blind Rage These Days?

| Tue Oct. 1, 2013 5:10 PM EDT

Paul Waldman, as he so often does, says what I've been thinking:

I wish I could write something optimistic as we begin the government shutdown. I wish I could, but I can't. In fact, this morning I can't help but feel something close to despair....The reason for my despair isn't about this week or this month. It's the fact that this period in our political history—the period of lurching from absurd crisis to absurd crisis, with no possibility of passing a budget let alone legislation to address any serious problems we face, with a cowardly Republican leadership held hostage by a group of insane political terrorists who think it's a tragedy if a poor person gets health insurance and it's a great day when you kick a kid off food stamps, a period where this collection of extremists and fools, these people who think the likes of Michele Bachmann and Steve King are noble and wise leaders—this awful, horrific period in our history, when these are the people who control the country's fate, looks like it will never end.

Roger that. But then he adds this:

In June of last year, Obama expressed the belief that if he was re-elected, "the fever may break, because there's a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that."....But it was never going to happen. That's not only because of their white-hot hatred of him, but also because, generally speaking, the crazier a Republican member of Congress is, the less they have to worry about political consequences from their craziness. The most radical members come from the most conservative districts, where the only question determining who gets elected is which candidate in a Republican primary is the most extreme, hates Barack Obama the most, and can talk with the most contempt about liberals and government and all the "thems" his constituents despise so much.

This is conventional wisdom, of course. The reason the tea party caucus isn't willing to compromise is because there's no pressure on them to compromise. Their constituents are as crazy as they are. They want the safety net slashed, taxes cut, the EPA put out of business, and the Fed eliminated. They believe that Obamacare is the thin edge of the wedge that's driving America into decline and ruin. They believe this so strongly that they're willing to do anything to turn the country around. If that means government shutdowns and financial panic, so be it.

But why? There's always been a faction of right-wing craziness in America. It's part of our DNA. But how did it become so widespread? The usual answer involves the rise of conservative think tanks, conservative talk radio, Fox News, the Christian right, and racial resentment toward a black president. And maybe that's it. Somehow, though, it doesn't feel quite sufficient. But if it's not, then what's going on? What's happened over the past decade or two to spin up so many Americans into a blind rage?

Complaining about tea party congressmen misses the big picture. The problem is the people who voted them into office. What happened to them?

Democrats Have Already Caved In to Republicans

| Tue Oct. 1, 2013 2:22 PM EDT

Yet another in my series of quick reminders: Democrats have already agreed to fund the government at Republican levels. In other words, they've already caved in. It wasn't even a compromise. They've just flatly given in to Republican demands to continue funding at sequester levels.

This is the CR that Republicans now refuse to pass.

Can Someone Please Shut Down the US Customs Agency?

| Tue Oct. 1, 2013 2:10 PM EDT

I woke up in the middle of last night enraged by this story. I do not thank Ta-Nehisi Coates for bringing it to my attention and ruining my night, but as long as he did, I'm going to ruin yours too.

Thanks to a combination of executive branch policy and Supreme Court indifference in the post-9/11 era, US Customs and Border Protection has become a rogue agency, answerable to no one and run by sociopaths who take grim pleasure in harassing and torturing citizens they disapprove of just because they can. The evidence for this is now legion. If Congress actually wanted to do something useful, that's what they'd spend this week working on.

You Might As Well Wait a Bit Before Signing Up For Obamacare

| Tue Oct. 1, 2013 12:01 PM EDT

Sarah Kliff reports that Obamacare websites are getting pretty high traffic in their first few hours of business. The New York Times confirms this: "Heavy volume contributed to technical problems and delays that plagued the rollout Tuesday of the online insurance markets at the heart of President Obama’s health care law, according to state and federal governments, with officials watching closely for clues to how well the system will work and how many people will take advantage of it."

Probably nobody is interested in my advice, but here it is anyway: Wait a week. Wait two weeks! Any insurance you buy on an exchange won't start until January 1, so there's really no point in being a guinea pig while everyone is still trying to work out the opening-day glitches in their systems.

I checked the California site this morning just to see how it was working, and it seemed OK. A little slow, and there were a couple of UI choices I wouldn't have made, but it was basically responsive and fine. Still, the hassle factor will be lower once the web traffic eases, the sites are tweaked, phone traffic dies down a bit, and everyone has a few days of experience under their belts. So you might as well wait a bit.