Kevin Drum - 2013

Obamacare: It's in Trouble, But the Fat Lady Hasn't Sung Yet

| Tue Oct. 22, 2013 2:32 PM EDT

I've been reading a lot about the problems with the Obamacare website over the past week, but I haven't commented much about it lately. That's largely because there's a huge fire hose of reports coming in, some of them contradictory, and it's really hard to make any concrete sense out of them. But here's where I am right now. No links to specific reports, just my sort of holistic feel for what's going on:

  • Take everything you hear with a grain of salt. Most of it—both good and bad—is coming from people who don't have direct, first-hand experience with the code.
  • That said, the problems are obviously pretty severe. Don't let wishful thinking persuade you otherwise.
  • Throwing programmers at the problem isn't likely to help. It takes months to get up to speed on a big piece of software, and you can't contribute fixes until you've done that. Like it or not, the website is going to get fixed by roughly the same team that wrote it in the first place.
  • Things do seem to be improving a bit. This is a hopeful sign because it suggests that the problems aren't entirely intractable. It's possible that fixes to half a dozen key pieces of code could get the system hobbling along.
  • Phones and paper forms aren't a panacea, but we should all keep in mind that, in a pinch, they'll do the job. As recently as a decade ago, that's all we would have had, and it would have worked OK.
  • This isn't the first time something like this has happened, so don't panic. Not yet, anyway.

I hate to say this because I know it's so typically Drummish, but the evidence so far suggests to me that we saw an underreaction during the first couple of weeks of October (probably shutdown related) followed by an overreaction now. Everybody is piling on based on news reports that offer up a steady stream of worrying tidbits. But that's no better than pretending everything is OK. Right now, most of us are still in the dark about what's truly wrong with the system. None of us should pretend to know more than we do.

That said, the reaction to Obamacare's problems really doesn't matter much. Within a few weeks, either the website will work or it won't. If it works, everyone will forget about the late-October panic fest. If it doesn't, Obamacare is screwed. The reality on the ground, not the spin, is all that matters now.

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Yes, the Luddites Were Wrong. But So Was Thomas Malthus.

| Tue Oct. 22, 2013 12:59 PM EDT

I had a pretty caustic reaction yesterday to James Bessen's column arguing that improvements in technology won't have a big effect on middle-class workers. Tim Lee responded by calling it "uncharacteristically thoughtless and sneering."

Thoughtless? Sorry, I plead not guilty to that. But sneering? Yeah, maybe a bit. Here's the problem: Bessen happened to hit on one of my pet peeves: people who argue that workers ended up doing fine during the Industrial Revolution, so they'll end up doing fine in the upcoming Digital Revolution too. People who think otherwise are just modern-day Luddites who never learn.

Now, there's no question that workers in the 19th century feared that their livelihoods would be eliminated by machines. And although many of them were right in the short term, they were wrong in the long term: Machines ended up amplifying human labor, raising productivity so much that there were still jobs for everyone. So if the steam-powered Luddites were wrong then, why should we listen to the shiny new digital Luddites today?

This is obviously an appealing argument, but I happen to think it shows a serious lack of imagination. Smart machines won't simply replace some parts of work, they'll eventually replace all parts of work. As they get smarter, fewer and fewer people will be needed to maintain and program machines, and eventually no one at all will be needed. If machines ever achieve human-level intelligence, then by definition human labor will no longer be necessary.

But why should we believe this? It's possible that I'm missing something. After all, as Bessen says, the Luddites were wrong. Karl Marx was wrong. A lot of smart people were wrong about the Industrial Revolution. I'm arguing that this time it's different, but usually that isn't the case.

True enough. But let me offer another story along these lines. It's the story of Thomas Malthus.

You remember Malthus? In 1798 he predicted doom and gloom for the human race. Population grows geometrically, which means that any gains in productivity are soon swamped. If we produce more food, this simply encourages us to have more children, and more of those children survive to adulthood. This drives down wages and living standards to their old level, world without end. Permanent progress is impossible.

Today, Malthus has about the same reputation as the Luddites. But don't let that fool you: he was a brilliant economist, and he was right. That is, he was right about all of human history right up to about 1798. So when optimists argued that machines might make life better, Malthusians had every right to scoff. The moldboard plow didn't make life better. Neither did the printing press, or the lateen sail, or the cotton gin. Why should we believe that this time things would be different?

But they were. The rise of mechanical power really was different. As brilliant as he was, Malthus didn't see that.

Here's the moral of the story: Occasionally, things really are different this time around. The Industrial Revolution didn't put everyone out of work, but it did upend millennia of stagnation in living standards. This is why I reacted a little peevishly to Bessen. It's true that we've heard before that machines would destroy people's jobs, and this should certainly give us pause. But it's the beginning of the argument, not a slam dunk riposte. Sometimes, new technology really does change the world. Our job is to think hard about this stuff and try to figure out which inventions are game changers and which ones are just handy gadgets. It's inexcusably lazy to simply argue that previous rounds of technology didn't make humans obsolete, so neither will this one. You might not want to be a modern-day Luddite, but you don't want to be a modern-day Malthus either.

This time, things will be different.

POSTSCRIPT: Needless to say, this entire argument is predicated on the belief that machines will fairly rapidly become roughly as intelligent as humans. If you don't believe this, that's fine. Make your case. But it's a whole different conversation than the one about what will happen if machines keep getting smarter and smarter.

How Smart Are American Kids?

| Tue Oct. 22, 2013 11:56 AM EDT

For the past couple of weeks, Bob Somerby has been reviewing Amanda Ripley's new book, The Smartest Kids in the World. I haven't linked to any of Somerby's increasingly acerbic posts about Ripley because I haven't read the book and can't vouch for how fair they are. But one point he makes is simple enough: for her international comparisons, Ripley relies entirely on a single test, the PISA, on which American students do relatively poorly. She ignores others with longer pedigrees, like the TIMSS, on which Americans do fairly well.

Ripley apparently has some arguments about why PISA is a better test, and I can't really offer an assessment of that—though, like Somerby, it's hard not to suspect that part of the motivation is a desire to tell an alarming story about how poorly American kids are doing. However, it turns out that, in fact, Ripley doesn't always rely solely on PISA. On at least one occasion, when she's praising the improvement that Minnesota has made in math scores, she merely refers to a "major international test":

Ripley never names the international tests to which she refers in this passage, not even in her endnotes, which run 35 pages....Here’s the rest of the story:

In each case, Ripley is referring to Minnesota’s performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (the TIMSS). In 1995 and in 2007, Minnesota participated in the TIMSS as a stand-alone entity....Minnesota’s fourth graders did score quite well on that TIMSS math test in 2007. Minnesota’s eighth graders did a bit less well, but they outscored most foreign nations too.

Having said that, please note a key point:

In this passage, Ripley accepts Minnesota’s performance on the TIMSS as a marker of the state’s elite status in math. And yet, all through the rest of her book, she completely ignores the TIMSS.

That's odd, all right. It's almost as if Ripley has a story she wants to tell, and cherry picks whatever statistics help her tell it. For the record, TIMSS (despite its name) also tests reading these days, and it turns out that American kids in general—not just Minnesotans—did pretty well in the latest round of testing: 9th out of 56 in math, 10th out of 56 in science, and 6th out of 53 in reading. For some reason, though, you never hear about that. After all, everyone, both liberals and conservatives, has their own educational hobbyhorses, and it's a lot easier to promote them if you tell an alarming story of educational decline. But the truth is different. If you look at all the evidence—TIMSS, PIRLS, PISA, NAEP, and other metrics—the story is rather more mixed and nuanced. America continues to do a poor job of educating its low-income kids and its black and Hispanic kids, something that's especially inexcusable given the increasing evidence that these children are far behind their peers even before they get to kindergarten. On the other hand, American kids more broadly are (a) doing better over time and (b) doing fairly well compared to kids in other countries. Like it or not, that's the story.

If you're interested, the latest TIMSS results are below. I originally posted these in December, but it might be worth seeing them again.

UPDATE: Mike the Mad Biologist has some more technical critiques of PISA here. Among other things, it turns out there was a sampling error in the U.S. administration of PISA that overrepresented low-income children.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in September

| Tue Oct. 22, 2013 10:35 AM EDT

The American economy added 148,000 new jobs in September, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth clocked in at 58,000. That's worse than last month, but basically in the same general area of "meh." The BLS reports that nothing much has changed:

The unemployment rate, at 7.2 percent, changed little in September....The number of unemployed persons, at 11.3 million, was also little changed over the month....Both the civilian labor force participation rate, at 63.2 percent, and the employment-population ratio at 58.6 percent, were unchanged in September....The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) was unchanged at 7.9 million in September.

We should be doing better than this. And if it weren't for the fiscal cliff deal and the sequester and all the other austerity measures we've put in place since 2010, we probably would be. These numbers might very well be double what we're actually seeing. This, as always, is a self-inflicted wound.

Poll Results Just Keep Getting Worse and Worse for Republicans

| Tue Oct. 22, 2013 1:46 AM EDT

I don't want to beat a dead horse, but — oh, who am I kidding? I love beating this particular dead horse. Today's ABC/Washington Post poll is the worst horror show yet for the Republican Party. Of the respondents:

  • 81 percent disapprove of the government shutdown.
  • 53 percent think Republicans are solely to blame (compared to only 29 percent blaming Obama).
  • 77 percent believe that Republicans only care about doing what's best for themselves, not what's best for the country.

These numbers are way, way higher than just the ordinary partisan divide. Ted Cruz and his fellow tea partiers have done tremendous damage to the Republican Party brand. If I were sociopathic and didn't care about my country, it would almost be enough to make me hope that they do it again a little closer to Election Day.

President Obama Knows Perfectly Well How Bad ACA's Problems Are

| Mon Oct. 21, 2013 9:36 PM EDT

I'm reading a lot of commentary about President Obama's press conference today that goes something like this:

  • It's nice that Obama finally acknowledged problems with the healthcare website.
  • But then there was all this happy talk about how things will be fine eventually because lots of people are working hard to fix the bugs. That's unacceptable! This has been a disaster! He needs to fire some people and make it clear that he knows just how bad things are.

Come on. Obama probably knows perfectly well how bad things are. But presidents never fully acknowledge an unfolding disaster on their watch. Their whole schtick is to be grave and serious, but never to make people feel gloomy and depressed. When FDR said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, he was obviously bullshitting. We had a helluva lot more to fear than that. But he said it anyway, because it was uplifting and comforting, and it made people feel better about ultimately recovering from the Great Depression. Obama is doing the same thing. He doesn't want people to give up on ACA, he wants them to feel confident that we're ultimately going to recover from its problems.

Maybe eventually heads will roll over this. I don't know. But when you're in the middle of a battle, you don't usually start firing people, and you don't tell the troops that we're surrounded on all sides and we're probably doomed. You tell them that things are tough, but the cavalry is on the way and everything will be OK if we just keep our heads together. You give them a pep talk. What Obama did today isn't a sign that he's out of touch. It was what every president in history has always done.

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Fox News Unleashes Horde of Sock Puppets on an Unsuspecting Blogosphere

| Mon Oct. 21, 2013 4:38 PM EDT

Every once in a while I get an email from a regular reader insisting that the troll infestation in the comment section is so bad that it can't possibly be organic. Some of these guys have to be paid professionals who are executing a deliberate strategy. I've always poo-poohed this, but maybe I shouldn't have. Via Media Matters, here's an excerpt from David Folkenflik's forthcoming book Murdoch's World, about the Fox PR department's systematic effort to counter anti-Fox criticism:

On the blogs, the fight was particularly fierce. Fox PR staffers were expected to counter not just negative and even neutral blog postings but the anti-Fox comments beneath them. One former staffer recalled using twenty different aliases to post pro-Fox rants. Another had one hundred. Several employees had to acquire a cell phone thumb drive to provide a wireless broadband connection that could not be traced back to a Fox News or News Corp account. Another used an AOL dial-up connection, even in the age of widespread broadband access, on the rationale it would be harder to pinpoint its origins. Old laptops were distributed for these cyber operations. Even blogs with minor followings were reviewed to ensure no claim went unchecked.

Do they still do this? Beats me. And obviously most trolls have wider interests than just defending Fox. Still, it shows that the idea of hordes of professional trolls isn't quite as far-fetched as I might have thought.

Yes, Technology Is Going to Destroy the Middle Class

| Mon Oct. 21, 2013 2:16 PM EDT

I haven't read Tyler Cowen's Average Is Over, but I'm familiar with its basic thesis: smart machines are going to put lots of people out of work over the next few decades, and this is going to substantially increase income inequality. A small number of very smart people will do really well, while the broad middle class will end up with bleak, low-paying jobs—assuming they're lucky enough to have any jobs at all.

Obviously I agree, as readers of the May issue of Mother Jones know. And since I enjoy reading opposing arguments, I was curious to see what James Bessen had to say about this today over at The Switch. Unfortunately, the answer is: nothing much. "People have been predicting that technology will kill the middle class since Karl Marx," he says. "They have generally been wrong."

Well, yes, they have. Unfortunately, that's his entire argument. The Industrial Revolution didn't put everyone out of work, and neither did 80s-era technology like ATMs and accounting software. Therefore, 2030s-era technology won't either.

This is, literally, the worst possible case you can make for the continued relevance of the middle class. To say that "intelligent machines per se are not new," as Bessen does, wildly misrepresents both intelligence and machines. No machine built before about 2010 has had anything even remotely resembling true intelligence. Not spinning machines that stopped if a thread broke, and not ATMs or accounting programs. Even now, the smartest machines out there display only the barest glimmers of intelligence. We simply don't have either the software or the hardware to do it. The machines that people like Cowen and I are predicting for the 2030s just flatly have no analog to previous machines.

Those machines won't need help from ordinary humans. In fact, as they get smarter and smarter, they won't need much help from really smart humans either. Eventually, they won't need any help at all. Past machines always did, and that's the decisive difference. If you wave this away, you're missing the whole debate. You're pretending to argue without actually addressing the main point of the techno-optimists: What happens to human labor when machines are smart enough that they need virtually no human guidance at all?

Bessen simply ignores this possibility. Apparently he thinks that future machines will get a little bit smarter, but will remain just dumb enough that they'll continue to need constant attention from an army of folks who graduated from high school with a C+ average. But if that turns out to be the case, there's really no interesting conversation to be had. The future will be pretty much like the present. Why even bother talking about it?

But the evidence suggests, rather, that we're on the cusp of big changes. Machines in the future will be a lot smarter than current machines, and they won't need constant attention from much of anyone. If you want to engage with this debate, you need to present a cogent argument that either (a) machines will never get all that smart, or (b) even if they do, there will still be a substantial role for average humans to play. Bessen does neither.

Immigration Reform is Probably Dead

| Mon Oct. 21, 2013 1:04 PM EDT

Dave Weigel reads the tea leaves from Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue this morning, and concludes that the business community isn't going to press for comprehensive immigration reform anytime soon:

Donohue's sounding more amenable to the House conservatives' approach to immigration reform, splitting up enforcement provisions (easily passed in the House) from legalization provisions (not as easily), not allowing a conference committee to merge the proposals. Josten is talking up the conference committee without making demands. The Chamber isn't nudging the GOP to do anything more than conservatives are asking. So much (again!) for a Tea Party-business split.

I agree about the much-ballyhooed business/tea party split. It could still happen, but the truth is that the business wing and the tea party wing of the Republican Party aren't really that far apart. In the budget showdown, for example, the preferred course of most of the business community was for Republicans to push as hard as they possibly could but to back down at the last second if they had to. And guess what? That's exactly what they did. What's not to like?

As for immigration reform, would the business community like to see a comprehensive bill pass? Sure, probably. Is it a huge priority? No, not really. Are they willing to go along with the obvious reality that it can't pass the House? It sure sounds like it.

Nor is the piecemeal approach going to go anywhere. The whole point of comprehensive reform, roughly speaking, is that conservatives get something they want (tougher enforcement) in return for giving liberals something they want (broader legalization). Will Democrats vote for individual enforcement provisions without the legalization provisions? Never say never, but they'd be idiots to do it unless the House agrees to a conference committee that stitches everything together into one big bill. Democrats know pefectly well that once you give away all the enforcement stuff, Republicans no longer have any incentive to ever address legalization. It's the only stick they have.

So as long as House Republicans stick to their guns and refuse to go to conference, immigration reform is dead. It's possible that some kind of very minor bargain can be forged. Maybe stiffer E-Verify requirements in return for more H1-B visas, for example. But it's hard to see how you get much more than that, and it sure doesn't sound like the business community is going to push for more.

Surprise! Obamacare is Actually Fairly Popular

| Mon Oct. 21, 2013 11:01 AM EDT

CNN has a new poll out today, and it shows that people are pretty unhappy with congressional Republicans right now. We already knew this, and I doubt that public irritation will last long, so I'm not all that interested. However, there's something else in the poll that mindful readers have known for a while but that has never gotten as much attention as it deserves: Opinions about Obamacare are less hostile than most polls suggest.

In one sense, I don't want to make too much of this. Only 41 percent of respondents favor Obamacare as it is, and that's a pretty feeble number. At the same time, when we talk about "opposition" to Obamacare, we're almost always talking about conservative opposition. And the plain fact is that conservative opposition is mostly limited to....conservatives. Everyone else either likes Obamacare or wants even more. (Or doesn't care.)

Add to this the well-known fact that nearly all the specific features of Obamacare (except the individual mandate) poll pretty strongly, and the picture that emerges is that most of the country favors Obamacare as either a good idea or a good first step. This explains why repeal of Obamacare generally polls poorly: many of the people who "oppose" Obamacare want to build on it, not repeal it. They're just disappointed that it's not a genuine single-payer program.

This means, of course, that tea partiers are right: once Obamacare is up and running, it will almost certainly become popular pretty quickly and will become impossible to repeal. That's why they were so desperate to take one last crack at defunding it. It's also why it's so important for Team Obama to fix their website problems ASAP. The truth is that Obamacare is reasonably popular and most people are willing to give it a chance to succeed. But that tolerance won't last forever.