Kevin Drum - 2013

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.

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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!

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.

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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.

Will Robots Dream of Electric Anythings?

| Mon Nov. 11, 2013 3:38 PM EST

Today Paul Waldman interviews James Barrat, author of Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. I thought this was an interesting assertion:

Furthermore, at an advanced level, as I write in Our Final Invention, citing the work of AI-maker and theorist Steve Omohundro, artificial intelligence will have drives much like our own, including self-protection and resource acquisition. It will want to achieve its goals and marshal sufficient resources to do so. It will want to avoid being turned off. When its goals collide with ours it will have no basis for valuing our goals, and use whatever means are at its disposal for achieving its goals.

But why? Animals have these drives because we evolved them. In the biological world, these are extremely survival-adaptive traits, and species that have them will outbreed species that don't. But they have nothing to do with intelligence or consciousness. They're mindless drives that we possess for no reason except that all of our ancestors possessed them and then passed them down to us.

Intelligent machines might end up having these drives, but then again, they might not. There's no special reason that an AI construct would be especially curious, or fearful of death, or expansion-minded, or any of the other things we almost automatically associate with intelligence. Intelligent machines might not care one way or the other if they're shut off. They might not want more resources. They might not care about running the world. All of these mindless drives that so dominate biological life might be matters of no urgency at all to a machine that didn't evolve them.

Then again, they might be. But I don't think it's inevitable.

Quote of the Day: Chris Christie Suddenly Gets Shy

| Mon Nov. 11, 2013 11:55 AM EST

From Chris Christie, suddenly getting shy about expressing an opinion on immigration reform:

Well, listen, I can have an opinion about lots of things, George, but we’re not going to go through all that this morning are we?

This came after Christie had wasted a good chunk of the morning by evading three previous questions about his views on immigration. I guess that once you become a serious presidential contender, that old-school Jersey bluntness has to be mothballed. Apparently Christie has caught the John McCain disease.

7 Questions CBS Is Dodging on Its Bogus Benghazi Story

| Mon Nov. 11, 2013 1:47 AM EST

When someone does something wrong, the press demands answers. But when the press itself does something wrong, the usual response is to stonewall and "stand by its story." And even when the jig is finally up, they typically resort to a short apology that explains nothing. This, however, is supposed to satisfy us all. Move along, nothing to see here.

The latest example of this is 60 Minutes, which tonight aired a correction of its Benghazi report from two weeks ago that relied on the testimony of an anonymous security consultant who turned out to be a bullshitter:

The apology lasted only 90 seconds and revealed nothing new about why CBS had trusted Mr. Davies, who appeared on the program under the pseudonym Morgan Jones. Off-camera, CBS executives were left to wonder how viewers would react to the exceptionally rare correction.

While veteran television journalists spent the weekend debating whether the now-discredited Benghazi story would cause long-term damage to the newsmagazine’s brand, some media critics joined the liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America in calling for CBS to initiate an independent investigation of missteps in the reporting process.

But the CBS News chairman, Jeff Fager, who is also the executive producer of "60 Minutes," has not ordered an investigation, and on Sunday a spokesman indicated that the program was going to let its televised apology be its last word on the issue.

There you have it. This will be their last word on this issue:

  • They will not explain why they apparently failed to vet Davies' story with anyone else on the scene.
  • They will not explain why, in an investigation they say lasted over a year and involved more than a hundred sources (!), they failed to get hold of a copy of the FBI debriefing of Davies—surely the absolute minimum level of scrutiny they should have given Davies' account.
  • They will not explain why they failed to mention that Davies was promoting a book published by a CBS affiliate that specializes in right-wing agitprop.
  • They will not explain why Lara Logan—who has very publicly demanded "revenge" for the Benghazi attacks and pretty obviously has a strong personal agenda—chose to raise the "lingering question" of a better military response without bothering to mention that this question has been addressed over and over by the Pentagon.
  • They will not explain why they aired an interview with Gregory Hicks as if it were something new and damning, without mentioning either that he testified before Congress months ago or that his testimony has been called into question.
  • They will not explain why they vigorously backed up Davies for over a week after learning that he had filed an "incident report" that conflicted badly with his 60 Minutes interview—something that should have set off alarms since Davies had kept that report a secret and then provided a wholly implausible explanation for the discrepancy when it became public.
  • They will not explain why they weren't skeptical of a source that Fox News (!) dropped because he started asking for money.

There are probably several other things that CBS will also refuse to explain. This list is just off the top of my head. But I'm afraid that CBS no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt. Someone there needs to demonstrate that they actually care about accuracy these days, rather than treating a huge fraud as a minor issue requiring only a short correction. And Lara Logan, who reported the story, and Jeff Fager, who is both CBS News chairman and the executive producer of 60 Minutes, really need to be held more accountable for both the story itself and their response to its obvious problems after it aired. "We made a mistake and we're sorry" just doesn't cut it.

Jay Rosen has more here.