Kevin Drum - January 2014

Ezra Klein Leaving Washington Post After Five Years

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 12:23 PM EST

Back in the day, the the crowning achievement of a political reporter's life was a bylined column in one of the big daily newspapers. Today, that's a steppingstone. Now, the crowning achievement is starting up your own news organization—possibly under the broad aegis of another organization, possibly fully independently.

And so Ezra Klein is leaving the Washington Post after five years to start his own news organization. He's not yet 30, but don't let that fool you. He's still in the sweet spot for starting his own news outlet. Bertie Forbes was 37 when he started Forbes. Jann Wenner was 21 when he started Rolling Stone. The Wallaces were 33 when they started Reader's Digest.

I wish my fellow Irvine native the best in his new venture. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with now that he's free to start up any kind of publication he wants.

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The Longer Chris Christie Stonewalls on Hobokengate, the Worse It Is For Him

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 12:47 AM EST

Did Chris Christie's lieutenant governor deliver a message last year to Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, telling her that if she wanted her share of Hurricane Sandy relief funds she needed to get moving on a redevelopment project that Christie was eager to have approved? Everyone in Christie's office is denying it, of course, and today we get this from the New York Times:

Another state official, Marc Ferzan, weighed in on Monday to counter the idea that Hoboken had been shortchanged on its share of hurricane aid. Mr. Ferzan, executive director of the governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, said, “We’ve tried to have an objective process, we have tried to design programs with application criteria that are objective, that prioritize the communities most in need, with the least financial resources.”

Ms. Zimmer has complained that Hoboken received just two grants worth $342,000 out of $290 million the state had to pass along to municipalities for mitigating flooding and other storm damage. She pointed out that 80 percent of Hoboken, a densely packed city that encompasses only about a square mile, was underwater after the storm.

There's something fishy going on here. If Christie wants to discredit this allegation, there are two simple things he can do:

  • Have Ferzan release documents showing that Hoboken has, in fact, gotten a fair share of that $290 million.

       or
     
  • If Hoboken hasn't gotten a lot of Sandy aid, have Ferzan explain credibly why this was reasonable based on where the damage was greatest.

If I understand things correctly, the governor's office has explained that there are two pots of money, flood mitigation and Sandy relief funds—and they say Hoboken has gotten $70 million in relief funds, mainly paid out directly to local residents and businesses. But that's not what Zimmer is complaining about. She's charging that Christie held up Hoboken's share of the $290 million flood mitigation fund. So far, though, all that Christie's office has said in its defense is that "Hoboken has not been denied on a single grant application for recovery efforts under the current programs for which they are eligible."

This shouldn't be hard. These numbers ought to be easily accessible, and it's in Christie's interest to get them out in public view as soon as possible, before this story metastasizes. If Hoboken has gotten more mitigation funding than Zimmer says, Ferzan should say so. If it hasn't, he should explain why, and he should do it in mind-numbing detail. What's the holdup?

Was Your Daughter Killed in a Car Crash? Database Marketers Want to Know.

| Mon Jan. 20, 2014 10:49 PM EST

Do you ever wonder just how much personal information all those database marketing folks know about you? The short answer is: A lot. One company alone processes 50 trillion transactions a year and boasts that it has collected 1,500 "data points" each on 500 million active consumers worldwide (including a majority of adults in the United States). Try reading this and this if you want to get up to speed. But for pure creepiness, it's hard to beat this:

A suburban Chicago couple who lost their teenage daughter in a car crash last year feels as if they were victimized again after receiving a letter from OfficeMax Thursday. The envelope was addressed to Mike Seay, but the second line read "Daughter Killed in Car Crash."

Seay's 17-year-old daughter, Ashley, was one of two teens killed in a crash last April when their SUV veered off the road and slammed into a tree in Antioch.

Yep. "Daughter killed in car crash" is an entry in somebody's database record for Mike Seay. And why not? Grieving parents might be a soft target for certain kinds of goods and services, after all. You have to take advantage of those kinds of opportunities.

How to Use Public-Private Partnerships to Screw the Poor

| Mon Jan. 20, 2014 6:51 PM EST

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is now behind an Iron Curtain-like paywall, which is too bad since apparently they ran a great story yesterday about Georgia's practice of using private companies to collect fines and fees in the criminal justice system. I'll farm out the job of summarizing the story to the Economist's Jon Fasman:

It works like this: say you get a $200 speeding ticket, and you don't have the money to pay it. You are placed on probation, and for a monthly supervisory fee you can pay the fine off in instalments over the course of your probation term. The devil, as ever, is in the details....Those supervisory fees vary markedly: in Cobb County, for instance, just north of Atlanta, the government charges a $22 monthly fee. Private companies charge $39, and often add extra costs on top of that to cover drug testing, electronic monitoring and even classes they decide offenders need.

....Even worse, people who fail to pay the fines imposed by these private companies can find warrants for their arrests sworn out and the period of their probation extended. I spoke with an attorney for a couple in Alabama who say they were threatened with Tasers and the removal of their children if they did not pay the company what they owed. In 2012 a court found that the fees levied by private-probation companies in Harpersville, Alabama, could turn a $200 fine and a year's probation into $2,100 in fees and fines stretched over 41 months.

Isn't that great? It's the free market at work, all right. It reminds me of last year's piece in the Washington Post about the privatization of the debt collection in Washington DC:

For decades, the District placed liens on properties when homeowners failed to pay their bills, then sold those liens at public auctions to mom-and-pop investors who drew a profit by charging owners interest on top of the tax debt until the money was repaid.

But under the watch of local leaders, the program has morphed into a predatory system of debt collection for well-financed, out-of-town companies that turned $500 delinquencies into $5,000 debts — then foreclosed on homes when families couldn’t pay, a Washington Post investigation found.

As the housing market soared, the investors scooped up liens in every corner of the city, then started charging homeowners thousands in legal fees and other costs that far exceeded their original tax bills, with rates for attorneys reaching $450 an hour.

You may remember this as the story of the 76-year-old man struggling with dementia who was thrown out on the street and had his house seized because of a mix-up over a $134 property tax bill. That in turn might remind you of all the stories you've heard about civil asset forfeiture, where local police agencies groundlessly extort property from people convicted of no crimes, and then use the money "for purchasing equipment and getting things you normally wouldn’t be able to get to fight crime."

Makes you proud to be an American, doesn't it?

A Day With the Ever-So-Cautious Mr. Obama

| Mon Jan. 20, 2014 2:43 PM EST

David Remnick has a profile of President Obama in the New Yorker this week. It's about a million words long and you will learn virtually nothing new about Obama from it. But this is not really Remnick's fault, I think, so much as it is Obama's. He's a guy who's preternaturally cautious and careful in his public speaking, as he is here when asked a question about marijuana:

Obama leaned back and let a moment go by. That’s one of his moves. When he is interviewed, particularly for print, he has the habit of slowing himself down, and the result is a spool of cautious lucidity. He speaks in paragraphs and with moments of revision. Sometimes he will stop in the middle of a sentence and say, “Scratch that,” or, “I think the grammar was all screwed up in that sentence, so let me start again.”

Having a president who stops to think a bit before he answers a question is no bad thing. It's better than the alternative, anyway. But there's not much question that it's also a boring thing. Remnick seems to have had several hours of access to Obama, and yet the only part of his piece that's gotten any attention is Obama's suggestion—after leaning back and letting a moment go by—that although he thinks pot smoking is a bad habit, a bad idea, a waste of time, and not very healthy, "I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol."

I scoured the rest of the piece for something even remotely new, or even just a telling detail, but I didn't find anything. This is perhaps the closest I could come up with:

“Politics was a strange career choice for Obama,” David Frum, a conservative columnist, told me. “Most politicians are not the kind of people you would choose to have as friends.....[But] Obama is exactly like all my friends. He would rather read a book than spend time with people he doesn’t know or like.”

....“There have been times where I’ve been constrained by the fact that I had two young daughters who I wanted to spend time with—and that I wasn’t in a position to work the social scene in Washington,” Obama told me. But, as Malia and Sasha have grown older, the Obamas have taken to hosting occasional off-the-record dinners in the residence upstairs at the White House. The guests ordinarily include a friendly political figure, a business leader, a journalist. Obama drinks a Martini or two (Rove was right about that), and he and the First Lady are welcoming, funny, and warm. The dinners start at six. At around ten-thirty at one dinner last spring, the guests assumed the evening was winding down. But when Obama was asked whether they should leave, he laughed and said, “Hey, don’t go! I’m a night owl! Have another drink.” The party went on past 1 A.M.

Obama is loosening up a little! These are still "occasional" dinners, mind you, and include only friendly figures. Still, the guy enjoys them so much that at least one of them didn't break up until the wee hours.

And that's that. Maybe this isn't so unusual. Most presidents, especially by their sixth year, have pretty settled policies and pretty settled views. They know the danger of speaking out of turn, and it's unlikely they're going to have much trouble sticking to their script during an interview. Obama sure doesn't. His answer to nearly every question is to pause; acknowledge that it's a thorny issue; allow that his opponents have some good points; and then provide a careful, nuanced version of his own views.

Nothing wrong with that, I guess, and I'm hardly in a position to complain. Interviewing me would be every bit as dull. Still, it's too bad Obama won't grant access of the kind Remnick got to a different kind of journalist. Not a fan and not a foe, but someone who's both smart and skeptical. Frum might actually be a decent example of that: someone who could seriously challenge him from the other side without obviously being there to do a hatchet job. Who knows? We might actually learn something new about our 44th president from an interview like that.

Are Breakfast Meetings a Sign of Hopeless Incompetence?

| Mon Jan. 20, 2014 1:02 PM EST

For most of my career, I was blessed with bosses who almost never insisted on holding breakfast meetings. I hated them and rarely found them very productive because half the group was still trying to rub the sleep out of their eyes. Today, Paul Krugman provides his own theory of breakfast meetings, based on his stint at the CEA in 1982:

I can understand why busy, productive people might sometimes want to meet at 7 AM. But what soon became completely clear was that the people who insisted on those early meetings were precisely the least competent and productive guys — the economics team at the NSC, which was totally hopeless in the Reagan years, the team at Agriculture (ditto), and so on. (No offense to current personnel, who I hope are in a completely different class; there were a lot of really strange people allegedly doing economics in the early Reagan period.) It was hard not to conclude that they were making a show of being incredibly busy and hard-working; they probably went back to their offices after breakfast and read Ayn Rand novels or something.

Meanwhile, people at USTR and the Fed, who really did know what they were doing, showed no similar fetish.

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that for most of my career I was also blessed with bosses who were pretty competent folks.

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Map of the Day: The High Cost of Vaccine Hysteria

| Mon Jan. 20, 2014 12:49 PM EST

This map shows outbreaks of measles and mumps over the past five years:

It's no surprise that Africa has been heavily hit, but why are the United States and Europe seeing so many outbreaks? Aaron Carroll explains:

  • All of that red, which seems to dominate? It’s measles. It’s even peeking through in the United States, and it’s smothering the United Kingdom.
  • If you get rid of the measles, you can start to see mumps. Again, crushing the UK and popping up in the US.
  • Both measles and mumps are part of the MMR vaccine.

Use of the MMR vaccine plummeted during the aughts, as vaccine-autism hysteria was spread by charlatans and the ignorati. Needless to say, this did nothing to affect the incidence of autism, but it sure had an effect on measles and mumps. To this day, though, I don't think any of the vectors of this hysteria have so much as apologized. It's shameful.

Today's Health Tip: Cough Medicines Don't Work

| Mon Jan. 20, 2014 11:50 AM EST

Whenever I've been sick for more than a few days, I start to get really tired of coughing. So I trudge over to the drug store, stare at the long aisle of cough medicines, and eventually pick one out. It never seems to do much good, though. So the next time I try a different one. But none of them ever seems to do much good. What's up with that? R. Morgan Griffin explains why I've had so much trouble finding a cough medicine that works:

"We've never had good evidence that cough suppressants and expectorants help with cough," says Norman Edelman, MD, chief medical officer at the American Lung Association. "But people are desperate to get some relief. They're so convinced that they should work that they buy them anyway."

....No new licensed cough treatment has appeared in more than 50 years — and the evidence for older drugs is not strong. A 2010 review of studies found that there is no evidence to support using common over-the-counter drugs for cough. This includes cough suppressants, such as dextromethorphan, or expectorants such as guaifenesin, which are supposed to loosen up mucus in the airways. In 2006, the American College of Chest Physicians surveyed a number of cough medicine studies from the last few decades. It found no evidence that these medicines help people with common coughs caused by viruses.

It's important to understand that these studies have not proven that cough medicines don’t work. Rather, they’ve just found no proof that they do. It’s always possible that further studies could show that they help.

Anything is possible! But apparently it's not just me. This stuff just doesn't help much. If it's been working for you thanks to the placebo effect, I apologize for telling you all this.

Can 3 Lawmakers Revive the Voting Rights Act After the Supreme Court Trashed It?

| Mon Jan. 20, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Seven months ago the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, one of the great achievements of the civil rights era. They did this by striking down preclearance, a provision in the law that required certain states to get prior permission from the federal government before making changes to election laws.

Preclearance has long been the federal government's strongest bulwark against abusive voting laws. It's also a fairly extraordinary exercise of federal power, something the Supreme Court acknowledged in 1966, when it heard its first challenge to the VRA. But extraordinary as preclearance might be, the court ruled that it was defensible in extraordinary circumstances—and that was exactly what we faced at the time. The nine states originally covered by the preclearance provision had acted so egregiously to violate voting rights, and were so adept at tying up federal suits in court, that preclearance was justified.

It was those extraordinary circumstances that were at the heart of the challenge to the VRA last year. When the VRA was renewed in 2006, the preclearance formula in Section 4 of the law was left unchanged. But Chief Justice John Roberts has long believed it's implausible that the original set of states covered by the VRA half a century ago should be the exact same set covered today, something he made clear in Shelby County v. Holder:

At the time, the coverage formula—the means of linking the exercise of the unprecedented authority with the problem that warranted it—made sense....Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically....Yet the Act has not eased the restrictions in §5 or narrowed the scope of the coverage formula in §4(b) along the way.

....Congress—if it is to divide the States—must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions. It cannot rely simply on the past. We made that clear in Northwest Austin, and we make it clear again today.

....We issue no holding on §5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions. Such a formula is an initial prerequisite to a determination that exceptional conditions still exist justifying such an “extraordinary departure from the traditional course of relations between the States and the Federal Government.”

This left an opening for Congress to revive the Voting Rights Act. Preclearance itself, Roberts wrote, was defensible. But the formula for deciding which states were covered had to be based on current conditions, not merely copied by rote from the original law.

Unfortunately, there was another current condition that Roberts chose not to acknowledge: that the modern Republican Party is so dependent on the votes of Southern whites that it was vanishingly unlikely to ever support any preclearance formula that primarily affected Southern states—as any rational formula inevitably would. For all practical purposes, preclearance was dead, and with it the most powerful weapon the federal government has to prevent racially motivated changes to voting laws.

Or so it seemed in the immediate aftermath of Shelby County. Republican-dominated states immediately redoubled their efforts to restrict voting in ways that disproportionately burdened minority voters—most notably via restrictive voter ID requirements, but also with a wide variety of constraints on both voter registration and early voting. The more honest among them admitted that their new laws were indeed directed against a particular class of voters, but said that the class at issue was Democrats, and it was perfectly legal to discriminate against Democrats. The fact that minority voters were heavily affected because they tend to be Democrats was just an unfortunate side effect.

But as laws like this started to pile up, and as evidence that they really were aimed at voter suppression became clearer, a small backlash began. Most dramatically, Judge Richard Posner, who wrote a decision in 2007 upholding Indiana's voter ID law, issued a mea culpa last October. "I plead guilty to having written the majority opinion (affirmed by the Supreme Court) upholding Indiana’s requirement that prospective voters prove their identity with a photo ID—a law now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than fraud prevention."

All of which brings us up to last week, when a bipartisan trio of lawmakers introduced legislation that would partially reverse the Supreme Court's handiwork in Shelby County. Basically, it takes up John Roberts' challenge to create a new formula for preclearance that takes into account current conditions. In particular, any state with five or more violations of federal election law over the most recent 15 years would be subject to preclearance. Preclearance would last for ten years from the most recent violation, and states would roll in or out of the preclearance requirements depending on their performance over the preceding 15 years.

There are a few additional details, as well as rules for local jurisdictions. In addition, the law would allow the federal government to "bail in" a state for preclearance if it can show intentional voting discrimination. It also puts in place new notification requirements for changes to state elections laws; makes it easier to obtain preliminary injunctions against new election laws; and expands the attorney general's power to monitor elections. Ari Berman has a detailed rundown here.

And now for the big question: does this legislation have any chance of passing? It doesn't seem likely. The shiny new formula might satisfy Justice Roberts, but it would put four deep-red states back into preclearance jail: Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. And what would Republicans get in return? They seem to have given up entirely on appealing to non-white voters, so there's nothing for them there. And while it's one thing to feel obliged to vote in favor of renewing a historic law that's currently on the books, as most Republicans did in 2006, it's quite another to invite a vote that you don't have to take in the first place.

So the odds seem pretty long against reviving preclearance. That may be a helluva note to usher in Martin Luther King Jr. Day with, but it's most likely the truth. Now that blacks and Hispanics identify so overwhelmingly as Democrats, Republicans simply have no incentive to make it easier for them to vote. Nor does it seem possible to shame them into doing it, as it was even eight years ago. The GOP has simply changed too much since 2006.

Half a century ago, the fight over the VRA was a fight between racists and everyone else. Today, it's a fight between Republicans and Democrats. You'd think that might make it an easier fight to win, not a harder one. But it's not.

Ask vs. Ax and the Evolution of the English Language

| Sun Jan. 19, 2014 1:31 PM EST

In the LA Times today, John McWhorter explains why ax is so commonly used by blacks as a nonstandard pronunciation of ask. Long story short, there were several pronunciations of the word in Middle English, but by around the 16th century ask had become standard:

Going forward, "aks" was used primarily by uneducated people, including indentured servants, whom black slaves in America worked alongside and learned English from. So, "aks" is no more a "broken" form of "ask" than "fish" is a "broken" version of ye olde "fisk." It's just that "fisk" isn't around anymore to remind us of how things used to be.

But even knowing that, we can't help thinking that standard English, even if arbitrary, should be standard. Shouldn't it be as simple to pick up the modern pronunciation of "ask" as it is to acquire a new slang word?.

....The first thing to understand is that, for black people, "ax" has a different meaning than "ask." Words are more than sequences of letters, and "ax" is drunk in from childhood. "Ax" is a word indelibly associated not just with asking but with black people asking...."Ax," then, is as integral a part of being a black American as are subtle aspects of carriage, demeanor, humor and religious practice. "Ax" is a gospel chord in the form of a word, a facet of black being — which is precisely why black people can both make fun of and also regularly use "ax," even as college graduates.

I can't think of anything in particular to say about this, but I figured that since I found it interesting, you might too. However, I'm curious about something that McWhorter doesn't address: different forms of the word. It doesn't seem like I ever hear axing or axed, only asking and asked. But obviously my experience is severely limited, so maybe those are just as common as ax. Anyone have any insight about that?