Kevin Drum - January 2014

Chart of the Day: An Awful Lot of People Think Obamacare is Hurting Them

| Thu Jan. 30, 2014 12:54 PM EST

Kaiser has released its monthly tracking poll on Obamacare, and there's really no way to put lip gloss on this pig. Public perception of the law has been worsening for the past nine months, and it gapped out sharply after the rollout debacle in October. There's now a 16-point delta between unfavorable and favorable views of the law, 50-34 percent. With the exception of one or two monthly anomalies that are probably polling artifacts, this is by far the worst it's been since the law was passed.

You can see the effect this has in the chart on the right: 27 percent now say that Obamacare has "negatively affected" someone in their family. That's crazy. Even if you subtract the baseline of 18-19 percent who have been saying this all along, that's an increase of nearly ten points over the course of 2013. Unless you take an absurdly expansive view of "affected," this is all but impossible. Obamacare simply doesn't have that kind of reach.

But we've been though a recent period in which every co-pay increase, every premium increase, and every narrowing of benefits has been blamed on Obamacare. These things have happened every year like clockwork for the past couple of decades, but this year it was convenient to blame them on Obamacare. Combine that with the PR disaster from the website rollout, and a whole lot of people now believe that Obamacare is hurting them.

Unfortunately, this is fertile ground for Republicans. If they really have the discipline to avoid shooting themselves in the foot this year over idiotic confrontations with the president, running their midterm campaign solely on opposition to Obamacare might be a winner.

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Economy Grows Fairly Decently in Q4

| Thu Jan. 30, 2014 12:07 PM EST

Economic growth slowed down a bit in Q4, but remained fairly healthy. The BEA announced today that real GDP increased 3.2 percent last quarter, due almost entirely to private sector growth. Slowdowns in federal spending actually cut GDP growth by 0.98 percent—about two-thirds due to cuts in defense spending and one-third due to cuts in domestic spending. This is the price of austerity: if federal spending were growing at a normal rate at this point in a recovery, GDP growth last quarter probably would have stood at around 4.5 percent or so.

Everything else was pretty positive:

The increase in real GDP in the fourth quarter primarily reflected positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), exports, nonresidential fixed investment, private inventory investment, and state and local government spending that were partly offset by negative contributions from federal government spending and residential fixed investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

Consumer spending increased decently, and inflation was extremely subdued at 1.2 percent. All in all, a decent report, if not a spectacular one. Now we all get to wait and see if it's good enough to offset all the turmoil in emerging markets that's got everyone so jittery.

No Smoking Guns Yet, But the Noose Is Tightening Around Chris Christie

| Thu Jan. 30, 2014 2:31 AM EST

The New York Times is pretty clearly expending a lot of resources on the various Chris Christie scandals. So far they haven't produced any smoking guns, but they're sure digging up some stuff that doesn't look good for Team Christie. First up is a look at the Christie political team, which was apparently obsessed with winning votes in Democratic-leaning towns. This wasn't because the votes themselves were all that critical to Christie's 2012 reelection campaign, but because winning in these places "would validate the governor’s argument that he would be the most broadly appealing Republican choice for president in 2016":

Staff members in the governor’s office created tabbed and color-coded dossiers on the mayors of each town — who their friends and enemies were, the policies and projects that were dear to them — that were bound in notebooks for the governor to review in his S.U.V. between events.

....Officially known as “intergovernmental affairs,” the operation was a key element of the permanent campaign that allowed Mr. Christie to win twice in a largely Democratic state. It was led by Bill Stepien, his two-time campaign manager and deputy chief of staff, and then by Bridget Anne Kelly, who succeeded him in his role in the governor’s office.

....By many accounts, the person in the front office who handled most of the politics was Mr. Stepien.....He mapped out the list of mini-Ohios and mini-Floridas where Mr. Christie might win what they called “persuadable voters.”....Those 100 or so towns would receive special attention — state aid, help from the Port Authority, a town-hall-style session with Mr. Christie — in hopes that by the time the governor ran for a second term, he would have friends there; even if local officials did not endorse him, they would not be working for his Democratic opponent.

The point of this piece is to demonstrate three things. First, winning votes in cities like Fort Lee really was important to the Christie team. Second, they were pretty ruthless about going after those votes. Third, Christie himself met regularly with his team to discuss their tactics in minute detail. The strong inference is that (a) Shutting down lanes on the George Washington Bridge to intimidate a mayor who wasn't playing ball was right up their alley, and (b) if they did this, Christie almost certainly knew about it.

The story doesn't contain even a speck of proof that Christie had anything to do with the bridge closure. But it sure paints a suggestive picture. There's obviously more to come on this.

The second piece ran on Wednesday, and it's about Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer's claim that the Christie administration held up flood aid from Hurricane Sandy unless she approved a redevelopment project supported by Christie. However, Wednesday's story starts with an anecdote about a more recent flooding:

[Zimmer] dashed off a letter to Gov. Chris Christie, imploring him to help with Hoboken’s “ongoing flooding emergency,” and attached photos of cars in water up to their hoods. She was due to meet the next day with officials of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, when she hoped to talk about protecting Hoboken from the next catastrophic deluge to come.

But according to newly obtained emails sent among the participants, the first topic of discussion on the agenda was “review of concepts for flood control measures at Rockefeller property,” a reference to a billion-dollar office complex proposed at the north end of town. The developer, the Rockefeller Group, which had long been trying to gain approval from local officials, sent two executives, two lobbyists and an engineer to the meeting.

A few days after this meeting, Zimmer had her famous chat in the parking lot of a Shop-Rite supermarket with lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno. Zimmer alleges that Guadagno told her she needed to "move forward" with the Rockefeller project if she wanted Hoboken to receive any further hurricane aid.

Again, there's no smoking gun here, just a detailed look at the lobbying behind the Hoboken project and how much pressure Christie and his allies brought to bear on it. It doesn't prove anything, but it certainly makes Zimmer's allegations more plausible. And this stuff is already hurting Christie badly. A new ABC News poll shows that Christie has "gone from a 32-point net positive rating last summer to a 5-point net negative now — never a comfortable place for a public figure."

It's pretty obvious that stories like these are going to keep dripping out. The Times has several reporters assigned to bird dog this story, and once the New Jersey legislature starts subpoenaing people, there's going to be continuing grist for an endless succession of lurid headlines. By themselves, neither of these stories moves the bar much. But as a harbinger of things to come, they're pretty ominous for Christie. Buckle up.

Washington Free Beacon Publishes Dumbest Gotcha Story Ever

| Wed Jan. 29, 2014 4:57 PM EST

The Washington Free Beacon is dedicated to "uncovering the stories that the professional left hopes will never see the light of day." Today, one of those blockbuster stories is about Arkansas senator Mark Pryor, who told one TV station that he thought President Obama did a great job last night while telling another that he was disappointed. What a flip-flopper!

Except, as Dave Weigel tells us, one of the TV clips—very deliberately edited to make its origin unclear—is from last year's SOTU. Pryor was happy with that one, but not so happy with Obama's 2014 speech.

What a bunch of clowns. Hell, it wouldn't even have been a very good gotcha story if it were true.

Thomas Piketty Has a Grim View of Our Plutocratic Future

| Wed Jan. 29, 2014 2:51 PM EST

A while back I mentioned Thomas Piketty's new book, Capital in the 21st Century, which hasn't yet made a big splash in the United States because the English translation won't be out until March. But Thomas Edsall takes a look at reaction so far to Piketty's thesis about the roots of rising income inequality and summarizes it this way:

Piketty proposes [] that the rise in inequality reflects markets working precisely as they should: “This has nothing to do with a market imperfection: the more perfect the capital market, the higher” the rate of return on capital is in comparison to the rate of growth of the economy. The higher this ratio is, the greater inequality is.

....There are a number of key arguments in Piketty’s book. One is that the six-decade period of growing equality in western nations — starting roughly with the onset of World War I and extending into the early 1970s — was unique and highly unlikely to be repeated. That period, Piketty suggests, represented an exception to the more deeply rooted pattern of growing inequality.

The chart on the right shows this graphically. For most of history, returns to capital were higher than the growth rate of the global economy, and this meant higher returns to owners of capital than to workers at large. And this means rising inequality. As a reviewer writes, "if capital incomes are more concentrated than incomes from labor (a rather uncontroversial fact), personal income distribution will also get more unequal — which indeed is what we have witnessed in the past 30 years." The mid-20th century reversal of this trend was temporary and unlikely to be repeated.

One thing to be clear about, however, is that the right side of Piketty's chart is a forecast. I've redrawn it with dashed red lines to make that clear. Piketty is predicting that returns to capital will exceed growth modestly over the next half century, and will gap out wildly in the half century after that. Edsall doesn't really explain why Piketty believes this, so I guess we'll have to wait for further reviews on that score. Speaking for myself, I'll need some convincing. My view is that the second half of the 21st century—assuming we manage not to blow each other up or fry the planet to a cinder—is likely to be an era of fantastically high growth thanks to robotics and artificial intelligence. That also produces problems related to the distribution of income, but they're rather different from Piketty's.

But in one sense it doesn't matter. Piketty's solution to the problem of this mismatch between growth and capital returns—which he considers an inevitable consequence of capitalism—is redistribution and plenty of it: "The only way to halt this process, he argues, is to impose a global progressive tax on wealth....an annual graduated tax on stocks and bonds, property and other assets that are customarily not taxed until they are sold." That's probably the eventual answer to the robotics revolution too. So regardless of which fork we take in the future, higher taxes on the rich seem pretty likely.

Milk Doesn't Do a Body So Good After All

| Wed Jan. 29, 2014 12:45 PM EST

When I was a teenager, I drank a lot of milk. That made my bones strong, which is why I've been able to avoid fracturing my hip now that I'm over 50. Hooray for milk!

Except wait. Science™ has intruded on this idyllic marketing fantasy:

Researchers followed people for 22 years to see if drinking milk as a teenager affected the rate of hip fractures during the study period. What did they find? There were more than 1200 hip fractures in women and almost 500 hip fractures in men in the follow-up period. But it turns out that each additional glass of milk per day as teenagers was associated with a 9% HIGHER risk of hip fractures in men later in life. Drinking more milk had no effect in women.

In other words, regardless of what the ads say, as a teen there’s no protective effect of your “bones getting stronger” in terms of preventing hip fractures later in life by drinking milk. In fact, the evidence shows that it may make it more likely that males will develop hip fractures.

That's a helluva thing, isn't it? That Aaron Carroll is a real killjoy.

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Obama Did Not Throw Down the Gauntlet to Republicans Last Night

| Wed Jan. 29, 2014 11:43 AM EST

The most common interpretation of last night's State of the Union address is that it was a forceful declaration that if Congress won't act on the important issues facing America, then by God, President Obama will act on his own. Here are some typical headlines:

New York Times: Obama Vows to Act Alone on the Economy

Washington Post: President vows to use his authority with new force

Wall Street Journal: Obama Seeks to Jump-Start Stalled Plans

It's easy to understand how this happened. The White House apparently spent all day yesterday telling everyone that this was the president's message, so reporters all wrote their stories in that light. And Republicans went along because the tryant Obama and his mania for Constitution-crushing executive orders is a good fundraising schtick for them. But ifyou actually listen to the speech, there's much less of this than meets the eye. In particular, on a purely substantive level there was hardly anything. As illustration, here is Brad Plumer's exhaustive list of seven things Obama said he'd do on his own:

  1. Boost the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 per hour
  2. Create a basic new type of retirement savings account.
  3. Urge chief executives to end the discrimination against the long-term unemployed.
  4. Ratchet up fuel efficiency standards for trucks.
  5. Review federal job-training programs.
  6. Create four new manufacturing hubs.
  7. Set limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants.

This list is a huge stretch. Of these things, 3 and 5 aren't even executive orders to begin with. That leaves five items. Of those, 4, 6, and 7 are just continuations of existing programs.

So that leaves 1 and 2. Basically, in the entire speech, Obama announced that he would do two new things unilaterally: raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers and create a new kind of savings bond. To call these small bore is to insult .22 caliber rifles. Micro bore is more like it, and every president has at least a few items like this in the SOTU every year.

If you listen to the actual speech Obama gave, rather than the spin the White House put on it, it really wasn't an in-your-face challenge to Congress. There were a couple of routine shoutouts to gridlock and how the American people expect more from their public servants, and there were several places where Obama asked Congress to join him in addressing public policy problems. But honestly, that's pretty garden variety stuff. It happens in every SOTU.

This wasn't a declaration of independence. Obama knows perfectly well that there isn't much he can do without Congress's help, and for the most part he avoided confrontational language. In fact, I'd say he was more conciliatory than usual—and also, as I said last night, more relaxed and good-natured than usual. Read the speech through fresh eyes and I think you'll see what I mean.

SOTU 2014: Relaxed, Good-Natured, and Pretty Effective

| Wed Jan. 29, 2014 12:13 AM EST

This year I tried something new for the State of the Union address. No liveblogging, no tweeting, no notes, no nothing. I just watched it, like a normal human being.

Did it work? Do I feel like I responded differently to it this way? Maybe. But probably not. I've long since been sucked into inhuman analytic mode when I watch these things, and there's nothing to be done about it now.

So: first impressions first. I'm having a hard time describing the overall sensation I got from this speech. But it was a positive one. Yes, it was mostly fairly small bore, but the domestic section of the speech felt to me like it held together better than usual. Obama announced at the start that he was going to focus on growing the economy and expanding opportunity, and everything he said really did fit that theme. This gave it a bit less of a laundry-list feel than usual. What's more, it felt a little more relaxed than past SOTUs. Obama lobbed some challenges toward Republicans, but they were fewer than usual, and for the most part they felt a little more good-natured than in the past.

Before the speech, the big buzz was about how Obama was going to focus on executive powers. If Congress wouldn't give him what he wanted, he'd do it himself with the stroke of a presidential pen. And thanks to that buzz, this is something that every talking head was emphasizing in the postgame wrap-ups. But in reality, there was very little of that in the speech itself. Obama repeatedly used phrases like "if Congress wants to help me, they can _____" but very few of them sounded to me like ultimatums. They sounded like pretty sincere desires to work with Congress, and I'm pretty sure that's how they came across to viewers who listened to the speech without benefit of all the prespeech framing. If there was an iron fist of executive orders behind this, it was mostly wrapped in a velvet glove.

Obama's defense of the Affordable Care Act was excellent. And while I usually hate the ordinary citizens who are invited to be props for the SOTU, someone deserves a raise for finding Amanda Shelley and inviting her. Here's Obama:

A preexisting condition used to mean that someone like Amanda Shelley, a physician assistant and single mom from Arizona, couldn’t get health insurance. But on January 1st, she got covered. On January 3rd, she felt a sharp pain. On January 6th, she had emergency surgery. Just one week earlier, Amanda said, that surgery would’ve meant bankruptcy.

That’s what health insurance reform is all about—the peace of mind that if misfortune strikes, you don’t have to lose everything.

It doesn't get any better than that. Shelley was a perfect example of what Obamacare is all about.

On the fact-check front, the only thing that jumped out at me was Obama's reference to women making 77 cents for every dollar that men make. It's not precisely wrong, but it will certainly open him up to nitpicking about whether it's fair to use that number. For the record, I think it is fair, though I'll grant that a little bit of explanation is called for.

The most amusing part of the evening was watching Obama goad John Boehner into clapping for things he didn't want to clap for. When Obama said, "No one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty," Boehner could hardly not clap, even though he knew what was coming next: a proposal to raise the minimum wage that he opposes. Ditto for "Citizenship means standing up for everyone’s right to vote" and several others.

Needless to say, we didn't learn much new on the policy front tonight—though I don't think anyone expected to. However, one thing in particular stuck out: the surprisingly short shrift Obama gave to immigration reform. It got a grand total of 121 pro forma words in the middle of the speech, and that was it. Was this because he considers it a hopeless cause, or because he didn't want to politicize it further by dwelling on it? I'm not sure.

Overall, I give Obama pretty good marks. This wasn't a lofty speech, but that's not what the current environment calls for. Instead, it was small bore. It was relaxed. It was good-natured. And it stuck to a single theme pretty effectively. Given where we are right now, those were good choices to make.

Quote of the Day: Voters Hate Their Bosses

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 7:38 PM EST

From Maggie Gallagher, chastising her fellow conservatives in advance for their almost-sure-to-be-lame responses to tonight's State of the Union address:

We say “job creator,” voters hear “my boss.” And voters hate their bosses.

Here's the full quote:

Most Americans have jobs. Yes they are concerned about unemployment: but they at least as concerned and affected by stagnant wages and declining standards of living that along with rising prices are cutting American middle-class voters’ standard of living. High medical costs and tuition rates are eating away at Americans’ standard of living.

Boehner’s guests tonight include not fewer than five company presidents complaining about Obamacare. Memo to GOP: The job-creators meme is a loser. We say “job creator,” voters hear “my boss.” And voters hate their bosses.

We can’t be the party of people’s bosses and win elections.

Hard to argue with that. The question is, can Democrats take advantage of this? Recent history gives cause for doubt.

Liberals Finally Cleared of Anti-Vaccine Madness

| Tue Jan. 28, 2014 6:35 PM EST

Are liberals just as prone to deny science as conservatives? The main exhibits against conservatives are evolution and climate change. The main exhibits against liberals are vaccines and GMO foods. But via Paul Waldman, we finally have some fairly strong evidence about the ideological leanings of people who believe vaccines are linked to autism:

Yes, there may be a parent at your kid's organic vegan locally sourced small-batch co-op nursery school who thinks it's true, and dangerous lunatic Jenny McCarthy, the nation's most prominent propagator of this theory, is a Hollywood celebrity and many Hollywood celebrities are liberals, but that doesn't mean that liberals in general are more likely to believe in the fictional vaccine-autism link.

So here is some empirical data, from Dan Kahan of Yale Law School and the Cultural Cognition Project. Kahan did a study that included a survey and some experiments testing both what people believe about the topic and how they react to different kinds of information about it. And it turns out that not only do very few people believe that childhood vaccines pose a danger, liberals are no more likely to believe that than conservatives; in fact, they're slightly less likely to believe it. Here's the key graph, which shows how much risk people of different ideologies associate with a variety of things like legalizing marijuana, gun ownership, and global warming. The black line is vaccines.

I guess we can now check that one off the list. That pretty much leaves anti-GMO sentiment on the bill of particulars against liberals and science, and I will leave you all to fight that one out in comments. I can't really take a strong side on this since I have mixed feelings.