I just had an email conversation with one of our editors about the principles of headline writing, and it brought up an unrelated subject that deserves a brief blog post of its own. The question is: Just how pissed off should liberals be at President Obama for the massive FUBAR of the Obamacare website rollout?

I'd say the answer is pretty pissed off. Sure, there were issues he couldn't control. Federal procurement rules are what they are. Republican resistance made the job bigger than anyone had predicted. Funding had to be scrounged up because Congress wouldn't allocate the money.

But look: Anyone who's worked in or around government for more than a few years knows that big IT projects are black holes. They're always late. They never work. And surprisingly often, they're epic catastrophes, projects so screwed up they literally have to be completely abandoned after years of work. That's just baked into the cake.

Like it or not, this means that everyone should have known that the website was a huge potential point of failure. In fact, not just a potential point of failure, but a highly likely point of failure. You don't need to have a background in IT to know that, just a background in watching projects like these over the years. And since the website was obviously so central to the overall success of Obamacare, that means it should have gotten lots of presidential mindshare. But as near as I can tell, it didn't. It just got a routine amount of White House oversight.

That would have been fine for most IT projects. The president can't oversee them all, and some proportion are going to be disasters. But this wasn't "most" projects. This project was a key component of what's obviously going to be the biggest legacy of his presidency. Routine oversight wasn't enough.

So yeah, this is a huge black mark on Obama. He should have known what was at stake in having a competently managed rollout, but apparently he didn't. He blew it.

Yesterday I wrote a quick post about the new PISA international test scores in math. Among other things, I noted that the results for American students seemed to be quite different from those in another international test, the TIMSS. What's up with that?

This morning I got an email from Nathan Burroughs, a researcher at Michigan State University, that shed a bit of light on this. One problem with comparing scores is that not every country participates in both tests:

The differences are largely due to which countries participated in each test. Looking at only the 29 countries participating in the 2011 8th grade TIMSS and 2012 PISA, there is a extremely high correlation of .94 between the two tests in mathematics.... Part of what may be happening is that there is a lot of similarity in ranks at the extremes — the same countries do very well and very poorly — but some shuffling around in the middle ranks. It’s very revealing that the US does much better on the TIMSS — which includes fewer OECD countries — than on the PISA. There are a few substantive differences in the two assessments, particularly the age at which the test is given and the emphasis on particular content domains, but overall the tests tell pretty much the same story.

I can't do a deep dive into this at the moment, so for now consider this some more raw data. The chart below is a quick and dirty comparison of just the 29 countries that participated in both tests. The light bars are TIMSS rankings and the dark bars are PISA rankings (so lower is better). Generally, speaking, Burroughs is right: countries that ranked highly on one test also ranked highly on the other. The outliers include Russia, Israel, Australia, Norway, the United States and a couple of others, which do substantially better on one test than on the other.

Roughly speaking, I think the most you can really say is that the United States is pretty average. What's more, as near as I can tell, the United States has always been pretty average. Going back half a century, we've never been either the best or the worst. You can draw your own conclusions about what that means.

Dan Drezner points out today that in the latest poll from the Council on Foreign Relations, the opinions of foreign policy elites have converged quite a bit with the opinions of the general public. But among the top five items in the poll, there's still one big difference that sticks out like a fire alarm: ordinary people care about American jobs and elites don't. Funny how that works, isn't it?

Over at Pacific Standard—a pretty good magazine that you should check out—Michael White shows us what's happened to the National Insitutes of Health ever since 1998, when Congress decided on a bipartisan basis to double its research budget over five years. The budget was indeed doubled, but when the five years was up its funding was immediately put back on its old path. Then, when the recession hit, it was cut even further:

The tighter competition for funding has put the squeeze on younger scientists with fledgling labs; the proportion of young scientists with NIH grants is half of what was in 1998, while the proportion of funded scientists over 65 has doubled. Because scientific training typically takes over 10 years, students who decided to enter graduate school in the boom days of the mid-Aughts are now entering a job market that looks nothing like what they expected.

Keith Humphreys adds more:

On the ground in my daily work in both a university medical school and a public hospital, it’s a rare month that some bright young person doesn’t tell me they are quitting science because it’s too hard to get funded. These are usually not reversible decisions. Even a well-trained young physician who leaves research for 5 years to treat patients full-time is very hard to tempt back into science if the funding picture improves (and is even harder to bring back up to speed on the cutting-edge scientific questions and methods of the day).

....A decade or two from now, when an antibiotic resistant bacteria or new strain of bird flu is ravaging humanity, that generation will no longer be around to lead the scientific charge on humanity’s behalf. That’s why we constantly need a new stream of young people committing to health science careers. That seed corn is currently being consumed at an alarming rate, and if we don’t act immediately to rectify the situation we will suffer for many years to come from the loss of a generation of health researchers.

Because NIH grants typically last a long time—five to ten years or more—budget reductions have an oversized effect on new research proposals. When funding goes down thanks to austerity-obsessed politicians, existing grants have to keep getting funded, which means that virtually no new money opens up for new projects. And this is coming at the same time that the drug pipeline is slowing down, antibiotic-resistant superbugs are surging, and we're still struggling to figure out how to make use of the genomic revolution.

We are insane.

The New York Times reports today that heads are likely to roll over the Obamacare website fiasco:

For weeks, the president and his aides have said they are not interested in conducting a witch hunt in the middle of the effort to rescue the website. But in the West Wing, the desire for an explanation about how an administration that prides itself on competence bungled so badly remains an urgent mission.

“I assure you that I’ve been asking a lot of questions about that,” Mr. Obama said in a news conference last month, in comments that reverberated across the administration. The president warned, “There is going to be a lot of evaluation of how we got to this point.”

Unfortunately, there's a problem with this: it might involve Obama having to take a good, long look in the mirror. At this point, it seems clear that development of the website wasn't, in fact, some kind of comprehensive and unmitigated disaster. Quite the contrary. The basic design and architecture of the site seem to be fine. It's now working fairly well, and all it took to get to this point was a couple of additional months of garden variety coding, testing, and bug fixing. If the developers had gotten that additional two or three months up front, they probably would have rolled out a pretty serviceable site on time.

And why was the development was so rushed? Lots of reasons, I'm sure, but reporting from multiple sources suggests that one of the big ones points straight back to the White House: Obama and his aides delayed issuing some of ACA's final rules and specifications during the 2012 election season because they were afraid of Republican blowback. As a result, contractors didn't start coding the site until early 2013, leaving only eight or nine months to complete the job. If that work had started even a few months earlier, it's pretty clear that the site would have been at least tolerably usable by the October 1 rollout deadline.

I don't doubt that a thorough audit will find fault in plenty of other places. Audits always do. And maybe there are people who screwed up badly enough that they deserve to be fired over it. But if politics played a role in this, some of those people might turn out to have pretty lofty job titles.

With the Obamacare website slowly but surely becoming more usable, attention is now turning toward other challenges standing in the way of the law. In particular, there are two significant legal challenges now working their way through the courts: one about the contraception mandate and another one arguing that subsidies can be offered only in states that run their own exchanges. The contraception case is important in its own right, but doesn't really pose an existential problem to the law itself. The subsidy case might.

Here's the nickel summary: The text of the Affordable Care Act states that taxpayers are eligible for subsidies if they buy a health plan via "an Exchange established by the State under section 1311." But Section 1311 is the one that sets up state exchanges, and there's no similar language for the federal exchange, which is set up under Section 1321. So conservatives are now arguing that this means subsidies aren't available to anyone in the states which are served by the federal exchange. The IRS doesn't agree, and has issued a rule saying that subsidies (actually tax credits) will be available to anyone who buys a plan from any exchange.

The legal arguments about this are extensive, and I'm going to skip them for now. If you're interested in more detail, you might check out this post from Tim Jost making the case that Congress clearly intended subsidies to be available everywhere, and this rebuttal from Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler. They're a year old, but nothing much has changed since then.

Instead, I want to muse a bit about a few aspects of this issue that aren't narrowly legal in nature:

  • The Supreme Court has always been a politicized body, but my take is that over the past decade it's become almost completely politicized. In big cases, the justices simply decide what result they want and then write language justifying it. For that reason, I suspect that the purely legal arguments here don't matter very much. (Yes, this is a very cynical position. But I think it's pretty close to true.)
  • There's a sense in which Chief Justice John Roberts "owns" Obamacare, since he was the swing vote that ruled it constitutional last year. Given this, how likely is it that a mere year or two later, he'll be willing to cast a vote that cripples the law? Sure, this time around the legal case is different, but it still boils down to the same basic question: will the law go forward? Having already ruled once that it can, I'm not sure he'll be open to letting opponents take a second bite at the same apple. Stripped to its core, conservative lawyers are pressuring Roberts to admit that he was wrong in 2012, and I'm not sure he'll be willing to cave in to that pressure.
  • This case won't be heard by the Court until at least 2015. This means that Obamacare will already be in effect and people will already be receiving subsidies. I think this makes it even less likely that Roberts will vote to essentially overturn the law.
  • Still, suppose he does. Would it, in fact, cripple the law? Or would we end up with Obamacare being available only to about half the country? This is a trickier question than it seems. In the non-subsidy states, a couple of things would be going on. First, a lot of the provisions of Obamacare would still be in effect: community rating, guaranteed issue, the individual mandate, etc. Having all these in place without the subsidies might be bad news for insurers, which means the insurance industry could start putting real pressure on holdout states to set up their own exchanges. Second, there would be a whole lot of people who had gotten subsidies the year before and were now having them yanked away. Taking existing benefits away generates far more passion than refusing to approve benefits in the first place, and eliminating the subsidies could end up generating irresistible public pressure to set up state exchanges in order to put them back in place. Put these two things together and you have a lot of pressure to set up state exchanges in the states that don't have them.
  • There's another moving part here too: if Obamacare were available to some states but not others, it means that lots of citizens would be barred from receiving a government benefit even though they're paying some of the taxes for it. How long will they put up with this? This question also applies to all the states that have refused the Medicaid expansion—but, to put it bluntly, it's a bigger issue with the subsidies because a lot of people getting subsidies are middle-class. And the plain fact is that legislators pay a whole lot more attention to pissed-off members of the middle class than they do to pissed-off poor people.

I'm tossing all this out for conversation more than anything else. I'm not committed to any of it, though they all seem like reasonable positions to take. Mostly, though, I just want to point out that even in court cases, politics probably plays at least as big a role as legal wrangling does. It would be a mistake to think of this solely in narrow legal terms without acknowledging the real-world pressures that provide the ultimate context for its resolution.

From an unnamed colleague of Dave Weigel:

"Too good to check" used to be a warning to newspaper editors not to jump on bullshit stories. Now it’s a business model.

If you didn't follow the great Elan Gale Twitter hoax over the weekend, click the link for more. Weigel's point is that just because something "goes viral" on social media is no excuse for publishing a story about it without bothering to perform even basic fact checking. Sure, that would mean fewer dumb pieces of clickbait and thus fewer clicks, but if getting lots of hits is now an all-purpose excuse to shrug your shoulders when something turns out not to be true, maybe the sites that buy into this business model should start calling themselves something other than news outlets.

The latest PISA scores in math were released today, and the results are below (along with earlier results in the reading test). US scores were pretty mediocre: 481 in math compared to an OECD average of 494, and 498 in reading compared to an OECD average of 496.

It's hard to know for sure what to think of these results. On a different international test, the TIMSS, American kids did pretty well. 8th graders scored in the top ten in math and science, as did 4th graders in reading. So why the big difference between TIMSS and PISA?

This baffles me a bit. The idea behind PISA is that instead of asking kids to answer rote questions, it tests whether they can "apply their knowledge to real-life situations and be equipped for full participation in society." But a couple of months ago, when I was writing about Amanda Ripley's book, The Smartest Kids in the World, I got curious about this and looked up some sample math questions from both tests. Obviously this is just anecdotal, but I didn't really see much difference. They both seemed filled with fairly routine story problems: reading graphs, computing averages, figuring out areas and volumes, etc. There might well be a genuine difference that's not obvious on casual inspection, and I understand that the quick impression of a 55-year-old college graduate doesn't mean much, but I'd still be interested in data showing that scores on PISA predict future academic success (or economic success or something success) better than other tests.

In the meantime, the latest PISA scores are below. Make of them what you will.

James Pethokoukis, after citing some research suggesting that a higher minimum wage reduces employment among low-skill workers, wonders why progressives seem so obsessed with the idea:

These studies aren’t some secret. So why do so many smart people keep advocating for a higher minimum wage? The best answer I can come up with is that they think it is more politically likely than the better economic answer: wage subsidies

....[Noah Smith explains:] When a company offers you a wage, the government matching would have already done behind the scenes. Someone comes and offers to pay me $20 an hour, the government is paying $12 of that. I would be making $8 an hour, but I would feel like a person who making $20 an hour. Unlike the Earned Income Tax Credit where you get a check from the government based on how much income you earned, I think people would feel a lot better in term of the framing of it if the government matched their wages instead.

I'd make several points about this. First, as Pethokoukis says, no one thinks wage subsidies are politically feasible. If there's even a single Republican politician who favors them, I'd like to hear about it. Conversely, even if the minimum wage is a second-best alternative, it's well-known, popular, widely understood, doesn't require higher taxes, and is part of the political status quo. It wouldn't be easy to raise the minimum wage, but it's not impossible either.

Second, Pethokoukis is cherry picking the minimum wage research. It's true that some studies show a small disemployment effect from a higher minimum wage, but there are others that show no effect at all. A fair reading of all the research suggests that the employment impact of a modestly higher minimum wage would be either very small or zero.

Third, wage subsidies can be tricky to implement. Are they temporary or permanent? Targeted or universal? Are they in addition to the EITC or a replacement? How do you prevent employers from gaming the system and reducing wages because they know the wage subsidy will make up the difference? There may be answers to these questions, but they aren't trivial.

Finally, wage subsidies haven't been widely adopted elsewhere, which means there isn't a lot of compelling research to show how well they'd work. There are good reasons to be optimistic about wage subsidies, but as far as I know, they're still fairly untested.

In any case, I really think the first point is the critical one. Wage subsidies would supposedly distort the labor market less than a higher minimum wage, but that's because it would remove the onus of higher wages from employers and place it on the federal government. That means higher taxes to pay for the subsidy, and that's just flatly a no-go for the modern Republican Party. This in turn means it could be implemented only as a tax credit, and that inherently places some restrictions on its reach and effectiveness. So Democrats would be in the position of backing either a good policy that will never get Republican support because it requires a tax increase, or else a mediocre policy that would still probably be a very heavy lift.

Incentives matter in politics as much as they do in the market economy, and there's no incentive for Democrats to expend political capital on a policy change that's highly unlikely to ever get any Republican backing. If and when that changes, perhaps wage subsidies will become a live option. Until then, a higher minimum wage is the only game in town.

Greg Sargent says that although the Obamacare website debacle scared some Democrats, in the end virtually none of them meaningfully abandoned the law:

It’s clear they believe the worst is now over and it is safe to return to the message they always expected to adopt.

I know I’m a broken record here, but folks are overlooking the possibility that no matter how unpopular the law, the Republican stance on health care may prove a liability, too. The basic Dem gamble is that disapproval of Obamacare does not automatically translate into zero sum political gains for Republicans, and that voters will grasp that one side is trying to solve our health care problems, while the other is trying to sabotage all solutions while advancing no constructive answers of their own. Polling shows disapproval of the law does not translate into majority support for GOP attempts to repeal or sabotage it, and Dems think this will only harden as more people enjoy the law’s benefits.

It's funny that Republicans don't believe their own propaganda. For years, they've been hellbent on repealing Obamacare because they knew that once it was fully implemented in 2014, it would have millions of beneficiaries who would fight to keep it. Once the benefits of a new program start flowing, it's very, very hard to turn them off.

They were always right about that. By the middle of 2014, Obamacare is going to have a huge client base; it will be working pretty well; and it will be increasingly obvious that the disaster scenarios have been overblown. People with employer health care will still have it and very few will notice even a minor change in their normal routine.

Given all this, it's hard to see Obamacare being a huge campaign winner. For that, you need people with grievances, and the GOP is unlikely to find them in large enough numbers. The currently covered will stay covered. Doctors and hospitals will be treating more patients. Obamacare's taxes don't touch anyone with an income less than $200,000. Aside from the tea partiers who object on the usual abstract grounds that Obamacare is a liberty-crushing Stalinesque takeover of the medical industry, it's going to be hard to gin up a huge amount of opposition. And that's doubly true since, as Sargent says, the Republican Party will have no credible alternative for a benefit that lots of people will already be getting.

Maybe I'm missing something. But either Republicans are seriously miscalculating, or else they're simply betting the farm on the hope that Obamacare will be an epic disaster. Maybe it's a bit of both. Either way, I think they're fooling themselves pretty badly.