Kevin Drum - November 2013

Is the Obamacare Rollout Getting Better? A Second Look.

| Wed Nov. 13, 2013 3:35 PM EST

So how bad is the Obamacare website? This morning I said things were pretty bad, but I've seen some pushback on this. Here's Josh Marshall:

Talked to a few knowledgeable people today. Not so sure people shld be putting much stock in the WaPo piece about the Dec. 1 deadline

Well, it's true that although the WaPo piece said the federal website is unlikely to "work fully" by the end of November, it also said that it would probably be able to handle 20-30,000 simultaneous users. That's not great, but it might not be catastrophic either. If other components can be put in place to ease the load (phone signups, paper signups, insurance company signups, etc.), it would probably allow things to hobble along.

Another reader passed along this Daily Kos piece that suggests progress is being made and most of the problems are fixable. It's interesting reading, though I can't truly evaluate how knowledgeable it is. You'll have to decide for yourself.

More generally, there's the political problem of whether congressional Democrats are starting to crack, which could lead to them signing on to a Republican plan that might allow some people to opt out of Obamacare temporarily. Josh Marshall writes today that this could cripple Obamacare from the start:

For Democrats and especially the President (who can kill any fix with his pen), it's time for the big gut check, one that's not only about 2014 but stretches back into the 1940s and has implications probably decades into the future.

....There are a range of 'fix' plans circulating through Congress right now....I don't know the details well enough to know which are impediments and which are poison pills....[But if] you don't get everyone into the system with at least a base level solid policy there just isn't enough money to cover the sick and the 'bad risks' of people with pre-existing conditions.

So as I said, it's a gut check moment for Democrats. One factual and political point that is getting very little attention is just how many people are affected — people losing policies who will need to pay substantially more without subsidies. This is a critical point and I've seen virtually no reliable data. It's all been a political fog. It is clearly a very, very small part of the population and there is abundant evidence that vastly more people are or soon will have reduced premiums or be able to get insurance that they couldn't get before. The 'winners' greatly outnumber the losers.

....But back to that gut check. Allowing the people with little or no care to stay out of the system makes about as much sense as two people in a canoe on rough water deciding that maybe it will get better if you both stand up. Market failure in the transition to a new system like this can come really hard and fast if you pull the legs out of under it. It took almost 20 years to revisit Health Care after the 1994 debacle. You can only imagine how long it would be if Dems run for the hills now.

So take some hits and let this work its way through or run for the hills and maybe discredit any plan to ensure coverage for all for decades to come....Democrats need to make a choice. And the President does too. It may not be an easy one if they can't get the exchanges in motion rapidly and get the 'plus' sides in motion and visible. But this is the moment when we're going to see what the decision is. And I suspect some stiffening of spines will have to come from the president.

Yep. There's no running away from Obamacare if you're a Democrat. So put all the pressure you want on Obama to get things fixed, but you'd better stick together even if things get tougher than they are now. If you don't hang together, you will surely all hang separately.

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The Tea Party Really Isn't Anything Very New

| Wed Nov. 13, 2013 2:56 PM EST

Rick Perlstein writes in the Nation this week that the Tea Party is nothing new. Conservative insurgencies have been part of the Republican firmament since at least the 1950s, and every one of them has roughly the same goals, roughly the same motivations, and roughly the same apocalyptic view of politics. Regular readers know that I agree with this, so I was naturally nodding along as I read Perlstein's piece. I also nodded along at this, which comes after a passage in which Perlstein is dumbfounded that liberals still seem surprised by the fervor of reactionary groups like the Tea Party:

This time, liberals are also making a new mistake. Call it “racial defeatism.” Folks throw their hands up and say, “Of course reactionary rage is going to flow like mighty waters against an African-American president! What can we possibly do about that?” But it’s crucial to realize that the vituperation directed at Obama is little different from that aimed at John F. Kennedy, who was so hated by the right that his assassination was initially assumed by most observers to have been done by a conservative; or Bill Clinton, who was warned by Helms in 1994 that if he visited a military base in North Carolina, he’d “better have a bodyguard.”

All right-wing antigovernment rage in America bears a racial component, because liberalism is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as the ideology that steals from hard-working, taxpaying whites and gives the spoils to indolent, grasping blacks. Racial rhetoric has been entwined with government from the start, all the way back to when the enemy was not Obamacare but the Grand Army of the Republic....Every time the government acts to expand the prerogatives of citizenship and economic opportunity to formerly disenfranchised groups, a racism-soaked backlash ensues. Defeatism—or ideological accommodation—only makes it worse.

I don't doubt for a second that the racial component of the latest right-wing fluorescence is stronger because Obama is black. But it's only modestly stronger, and you hardly need to go back to JFK to see this. It's easy to think of Bill Clinton today as a cuddly, beloved elder statesman, but anyone over the age of 40 knows that Clinton lived through an eruption of right-wing rage that was every bit as bad as what Obama has gone through. Even the specific obsessions of the wingers weren't even very different. Health care socialism? Check. Economy-killing taxes? Check. Gay rights destroying America as we know it? Check. Supposed juvenile drug use? Check. Endless faux scandals and corruption? Check. Government shutdown? Check. Deficit hysteria? Check. Ball-busting wife? Check. The similarities, frankly, are pretty stunning.

The differences are on the margin. There were no birthers in the 90s, but there were all the black babies Clinton supposedly fathered. There was no Benghazi, but there was Black Hawk Down. There was no Solyndra or Fast & Furious, but there was Mena airfield and Monica's blue dress. You work with what you have, so the details are always going to be different. But the melody is pretty much the same.

Tea partiers don't hate Obama because he's black, they hate him because he's a Democrat, and Democrats are forever taking away their money and giving it to the indolent. And while being black probably hurts Obama a bit with this crowd in a way that Clinton avoided, being a philanderer hurt Clinton in a way that Obama has avoided. In the end, I suspect it's mostly a wash. Perlstein is right: Obama was destined to be hated by the reactionary right no matter what.

Am I Really Ambi-Cognitive?

| Wed Nov. 13, 2013 1:23 PM EST

Megan McArdle just made me waste 30 seconds on a test that's designed to show whether I'm left- or right-brained. The answer, supposedly, is that I use both sides equally, which strikes me as fairly unlikely. I'm also suspicious of the test. One question asks, "Put your hand on your head. Which hand did you use?" Well, I used my left hand, but that's because my right hand was on the mouse. So does that count?

But forget the kvetching. Here's one question that perplexed me: "Look at an object and close one eye. Which eye is still open?" I did that, and my right eye was open. But just as I clicked that answer, I realized something was wrong. I'm left eyed. When I look through a camera viewfinder, for example, I always use my left eye. Using my right eye would feel as awkward as using my left hand to write.

But, in fact, if I just close an eye to look at something in the distance, I do indeed close my left eye and use my right eye. I just tried this a few times, and it turns out there are two reasons for this. First, I have better control over my left eye muscles, so closing my left eye is a little easier than closing my right eye. Second, my right eye seems more comfortable to use, even though I'm wearing glasses that correct both eyes to 20/20.

And yet, I still use my left eye for a camera viewfinder (or a microscope or a telescope or anything similar), and I always have. That's kind of weird. I wonder what accounts for it?

Obamacare Has a Few Months Left to Start Working, And It Probably Won't Get an Extension

| Wed Nov. 13, 2013 12:32 PM EST

I've been avoiding speculation about the Obamacare website for the past week or two because, really, there hasn't been much concrete information to base anything on. The whole exercise feels like the ultimate in bloggish wankery. There's no real news out there, and spending time either defending Obama or ripping him apart is kind of pointless. Why not just wait and see how things turn out?

Because we're all humans, that's why. We don't need to speculate endlessly about the big Denver-KC showdown on Sunday night either. We could just wait and see who actually wins. But speculation is fun.

That said, concrete information is finally starting to trickle out, and it's grim. Healthcare.gov has signed up only about 40,000 people so far, compared to early estimates of several hundred thousand.1 That's pretty effing bad. Still, we all know the website is a horror show, so this isn't a huge surprise. It just confirms that the website is, indeed, a horror show.

Today, though, we learn that, contrary to President Obama's promise a couple of weeks ago, the horror show isn't likely to get fixed by the end of November:

Software problems with the federal online health insurance marketplace, especially in handling high volumes, are proving so stubborn that the system is unlikely to work fully by the end of the month as the White House has promised, according to an official with knowledge of the project.

The insurance exchange is balking when more than 20,000 to 30,000 people attempt to use it at the same time — about half its intended capacity, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal information. And CGI Federal, the main contractor that built the site, has succeeded in repairing only about six of every 10 of the defects it has addressed so far.

....This inside view of the halting nature of HealthCare.gov repairs is emerging as the insurance industry is working behind the scenes on contingency plans, in case the site continues to have problems....The need for what the official called a “divide-and-conquer strategy” for enrollment puts more emphasis on alternative methods for buying health plans. These methods include federal call centers and insurance companies that sell policies directly to customers — paths that are hobbled for now by some of the same technical problems affecting the federal Web site.

And this is all coming on top of screaming from middle-class individual insurance buyers—the kind of people Congress actually cares about—that their rates are going up considerably thanks to Obamacare. Senate Democrats might be able to stand fast against this pressure if the program was actually working smoothly, but the combination of voter anger and technical disaster is wearing them down. At this point, they might very well acquiesce to some kind of Republican "fix" that, we can be sure, will be very precisely calculated to do maximum damage to the goals of Obamacare. That would add disaster on top of disaster.

Sabotage works. But it works a lot better when the bridge is teetering in the first place. I still don't know that I can think of anything very insightful to say about any of this, but it's certainly a low point for Obama's presidency—and the polls are finally catching up to that. I know it's melodramatic to say this, but his presidency really does depend on the next few months. I sure hope everyone in the administration is taking this as seriously as they should.

1This sentence originally said the early estimate was 500,000 signups, but that was for both state and federal exchanges. There was no separate estimate just for the federal exchange. However, since the federal exchange covers more than half the population, it's reasonable to figure that early hopes were for something on the order of 300,000 signups.

Starting Salaries for Attorneys Are Pretty Weird

| Wed Nov. 13, 2013 11:42 AM EST

Via Tyler Cowen, here's a chart of starting salaries for attorneys from Peter Turchin. It shows what's now a fairly familiar bimodal distribution: there's a relatively normal spread of salaries on the left centered at $50K and declining close to zero at $100K. And then there's a second peak on the right.

This bimodal distribution didn't exist 20 years ago, and there are several theories to explain how it evolved. But that's not what I'm interested in for the moment. What I'm curious about is how sharp the second peak is. It's not really a second distribution at all. Nearly 20 percent of starting attorneys belong to the super-elite group that gets high pay, but they all get exactly the same high pay: $160,000. Why is that? Can it really be the case that all of these super elites are precisely as elite as each other? Is there really not even a whit of sub-competition for this lucky 20 percent that would produce a few of them getting $180,000 or $200,000?

Why is the second peak so sharp? Normally, I'd toss out a few ideas, but I can't really think of any aside from some kind of weird cultural collusion among top law firms. But that doesn't really sound right. So what's going on?

UPDATE: Based on comments, the answer seems, indeed, to be "weird cultural collusion among top law firms." Except that it's not really all that weird. It's like one gas station lowering its price and suddenly all the other gas stations on the same corner start charging the exact same price. There are only a few dozen super-elite law firms, and they pretty much all offer the exact same super-elite starting salaries. From comments:

The Commentor: The primary reason for the spike is that large law firms have a herd mentality. No one wants to be below the market when recruiting from the 14 or so schools we all recruit from. There is close to perfect information about the salaries at the firms on the Internet and if the market leaders pay 160K for a kid from one of these schools, then the other top 50 or so firms will all largely pay the same too....Truth be told a very small percentage of graduates get into top law firms. We are hiring far fewer than we used to. They have next to no chance to make partner, and most try to stay long enough to pay off their 200K+ of student debt before we fire them or they leave.

Mannahatta: There are multiple outlets (websites, magazines, directories) that publish starting salaries for big law firms. So, there absolutely is a level of implicit collusion that goes on between law firms. For the most part these firms are difficult to distinguish for law students, and it's difficult for firms to make fine distinctions between someone with a certain GPA from one law school or another. So firms tend to compete for graduates on the basis of potential bonuses, what the firm has to offer in terms of specialties, training, etc., rather than starting salaries.

Read the full comments for more details. Via email, a couple of folks who work in Big Law say that Cravath has traditionally been the first mover in this super-elite competition. "But, during the real estate bubble that led to a biglaw bubble, Simpson Thacher, another top firm, started offering $160k in an attempt to jump Cravath. To stay competitive, everyone had to follow suit."

Yet Another Partial Transcript From Darrell Issa

| Tue Nov. 12, 2013 1:11 PM EST

I'm not feeling too well this morning, so I'm going to take a break. Maybe I'll be back later depending on how things go.

In the meantime, since I don't want to leave Richard Cohen at the top of the blog all day, check out Steve Benen here on yet another "partial transcript" from Darrell Issa, who apparently is desperate to drum up some kind of Obamacare scandal but can't actually find one. So instead he leaked a few pages of testimony from HealthCare.gov's chief project manager which, as you can guess, left out a few wee details. And which news organization fell for this transparent trick? Did you guess CBS? Congratulations!

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I Really Hope Richard Cohen is Wrong About Iowans

| Tue Nov. 12, 2013 11:13 AM EST

Richard Cohen today:

Iowa not only is a serious obstacle for Christie and other Republican moderates, it also suggests something more ominous: the Dixiecrats of old....Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.

WTF? It's 2013, even in Iowa. This sounds like the reaction of a stone racist, not someone with "conventional views." Does anyone even bother reading this stuff after Cohen turns it in?

Elizabeth Warren For President?

| Tue Nov. 12, 2013 2:06 AM EST

Noam Scheiber has a long piece in the latest issue of the New Republic about the possibility that Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren will take on Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Most of the article focuses on a laundry list of reasons that Warren might be a formidable contender: Democrats have become much more populist over the past few years, especially on Warren's key issue of reining in the big banks; Warren has a lot of strength in the neighboring early primary state of New Hampshire; plenty of people who never made it onto the Clinton A-Team would be likely to side with her; and an anti-bank message could resonate well with conservatives as well as liberals. That's all reasonable enough, even if Scheiber strains a bit to make these points sound more compelling than they probably are. But then there's this, about Warren's personal style:

The proper interpretation of Warren’s prodigious p.r. efforts, then, isn’t that she’s especially taken with the idea of media stardom. It’s that she is relentlessly, perhaps ruthlessly, maybe even a bit messianically, focused on advancing her policy agenda. Everything else is merely instrumental.

....While her ambitions are considerable, they have always been focused on advancing her economic agenda. Everything from her public denunciations of Clinton to her lobbying to lead the CFBP to her eventual Senate run was motivated by a zealous attachment to the cause that has preoccupied her since childhood, not necessarily an interest in holding office.

....Warren refused to tell me what would happen if the likely 2016 nominee is wrong on her issues. “You’ve asked me about the politics. All I can do is take you back to the principle part of this,” she said. “I know what I am in Washington to do: I’m here to fight for hardworking families.”

These words may be soothingly diplomatic, but her methods usually are not—and that should be terrifying for Hillary. An opponent who doesn’t heed political incentives is like a militant who doesn’t fear death. “Yeah, Hillary is running. And she’ll probably win,” says the former aide. “But Elizabeth doesn’t care about winning. She doesn’t care whose turn it is.”

There's a name for this kind of person: Dennis Kucinich. Or maybe Ron Paul. Scheiber is basically describing a novelty candidate, the kind who enter the race mostly because they want the exposure it gives their cause, not because they have any chance of winning—or even of seriously affecting who does win. In other words, a non-factor.

Now, maybe Scheiber is being unfair to Warren. Maybe she's not quite as messianic as all that, and maybe over the next few years she'll start to develop considered views on non-banking subjects at the same time that she develops shrewder political skills. That would make her a more dangerous contender.1 But if Scheiber is right about her, I think he's pretty much undermined his own case. The kind of person he describes above seems, unfortunately, pretty unlikely to make much of an impact if she decides to run.

1Although it raises a dilemma for Warren: if she becomes conventional enough to attract moderate voters, can she still retain her populist cred with the left wing of the party? That's a delicate balancing act, one that might be difficult to pull off even for a very good politician.

New Conservative Crusade Ready for Launch

| Tue Nov. 12, 2013 12:34 AM EST

From the New York Times:

Michelle Obama, after nearly five years of evangelizing exercise and good eating habits, will begin a new initiative on Tuesday that seeks to increase the number of low-income students who pursue a college degree.

Well, that's that. I guess that low-income students going to college is now set to become the latest thing that conservatives hate. I can hardly wait.

Raw Data: What We Use the Internet For

| Mon Nov. 11, 2013 6:34 PM EST

This is not exactly breaking news, but it's nonetheless interesting to see how the internet continues to evolve. According to Sandvine's latest survey, 67 percent of all downstream internet traffic in North America is dedicated to "real time entertainment"—i.e., watching videos and listening to music. Netflix alone accounts for an astonishing one-third of all downstream traffic, and Netflix + YouTube accounts for more than half. Conversely, less than 10 percent of all traffic consists of ordinary web browsing (that's the box labeled HTTP).

The rest of the world is slightly less entertainment obsessed. It accounts for 47 percent of downstream traffic in Europe; 49 percent in Latin America; and 55 percent in Asia.

In the mobile world, entertainment is less dominant and social networking is more dominant. In North America, 40% of mobile downstream traffic is dedicated to entertainment and 20 percent is dedicated to social networking. You'll have to register if you want to read the whole Sandvine report, but it's got plenty of interesting tidbits if this kind of thing interests you.