• What’s Wrong With the Fed?


    That’s the question Ryan Avent asks today. The reason is simple: In 2012, the Fed announced an inflation target of 2 percent per year, as measured by the PCE index. But they haven’t come close to hitting it. Why not?

    The chart on the right shows the most recent inflation data. In 2011, PCE inflation measured 2.4 percent. In 2012, it came in at 1.8 percent. That’s a little low—especially during a supposed economic recovery—but it’s easy to see why no one was alarmed. It’s something to keep an eye on, but no one ever said the Fed could fine tune inflation to a few tenths of a point.

    But then came 2013. There was a fair amount of monthly variability in the data, but the year-end number clocked in at 1.1 percent. That’s way too low, especially considering that (a) the previous year had come in below target, (b) inflationary expectations were still well anchored, and (c) the labor market was still noticeably loose. What this means is that the Fed has failed to meet its employment mandate for six full years and is now failing to meet its inflation target too. Avent wants to know what’s going on:

    This is an extraordinary period of time during which the Fed has failed to meet even the rather lax definition of the mandate it has set for itself by a rather substantial margin. How can we explain this? Some possibilities are:

    1) The Fed is technically unable to meet its mandate.

    2) The Fed is staffed by incompetents.

    3) The Fed is actually pursuing a goal outside its mandate without explaining what that goal is and what the justification is for pursuing it.

    4) America’s statistics are all wrong. The Fed knows this but has refused to tell anyone else.

    Whichever of the above you favour as an explanation, it suggests a need for meaningful reform, either to the personnel at the Fed or to the distribution of macroeconomic responsibilities across government.

    My own guess is a little bit of #1 and a lot of #3. I suspect the Fed really is having technical trouble meeting its goals—at least, in a way it’s comfortable with. But that’s just a guess.

    It’s less of a guess that the Fed is pursuing goals outside its mandate. It’s hardly a secret that there are plenty of Fed governors who are still living in the 70s, petrified of inflationary spirals and determined to keep inflation as low as possible. Not 2 percent. As low as possible. What’s more, they consider full employment not a virtue, but a threat. It leads to higher inflation, after all.

    I think 2014 is something of a watershed year for the Fed. The hawks can argue that a single year of 1 percent inflation is nothing to worry too much about. This stuff bounces around. But at the very least, they should be on board with getting the inflation rate back up to their stated goal. Given the current employment level and the state of the global economy, this poses little risk. If they aren’t willing to do it, they need to come clean that they don’t really care about their statutory mandates and are simply substituting their own timeworn fears and class loyalties for the expressed will of Congress.

  • It’s Time to Start Quoting Our Public Figures Accurately


    Jesse Sheidlower makes a point near and dear to my heart today: it’s time to get rid of the dashes. You know the ones: f—, n—–, s—, etc. This is not a plea for reporters to write like Hunter S. Thompson, it’s a plea to fully report the obscenities uttered by famous people that our news organizations are too delicate to report:

    There have been numerous cases in recent years when the use of offensive language has been the news story itself. In 1998, Representative Dan Burton referred to President Clinton with an offensive word. In 2000, a microphone picked up George W. Bush using a vulgar term to describe the New York Times reporter Adam Clymer. In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney insulted Senator Pat Leahy on the Senate floor with yet another vulgarity. In 2007, Isaiah Washington was kicked off the television show “Grey’s Anatomy” for referring to his fellow actor T. R. Knight with a gay slur. This January, Representative Michael Grimm threatened an aggressive reporter, using an obscenity.

    These stories were covered widely, but in most cases, the details were obscured. The relevant words were described variously as “an obscenity,” “a vulgarity,” “an antigay epithet”; replaced with rhyming substitutions; printed with some letters omitted; and, most absurdly, in The Washington Times (whose editor confessed this was “an attempt at a little humor”), alluded to as “a vulgar euphemism for a rectal aperture.” We learn from these stories that something important happened, but that it can’t actually be reported.

    When a public figure uses an obscenity, it’s news. Readers deserve to know exactly what was said. Consider my favorite obscene quote of all time, courtesy of Richard Mottram, a British civil servant:

    We’re all fucked. I’m fucked. You’re fucked. The whole department is fucked. It’s the biggest cock-up ever. We’re all completely fucked.

    You just don’t get the flavor if you don’t spell out the words. And in the US, we often don’t even get the quote with the dashes. As Sheidlower says, we get “a vulgarity” or “a long string of obscenities” or something similar, making us feel like everyone else knows what happened and we’re being deliberately left out. It’s long past time to knock this off. News outlets should print the news, full stop. If an obscenity is part of it, accuracy and integrity are more important than delicate sensibilities.

  • LA Times: 9.5 Million Newly Insured By Obamacare


    So how many people are newly insured thanks to Obamacare? Noam Levey of the LA Times provides the current best estimate, based on the latest enrollment and survey data:

    As the law’s initial enrollment period closes, at least 9.5 million previously uninsured people have gained coverage. Some have done so through marketplaces created by the law, some through other private insurance and others through Medicaid, which has expanded under the law in about half the states.

    The tally draws from a review of state and federal enrollment reports, surveys and interviews with insurance executives and government officials nationwide.

    ….Republican critics of the law have suggested that the cancellations last fall have led to a net reduction in coverage. That is not supported by survey data or insurance companies, many of which report they have retained the vast majority of their 2013 customers by renewing old policies, which is permitted in about half the states, or by moving customers to new plans.

    Rand’s latest survey data suggests that the share of uninsured adults has declined from 20.9 percent last fall to 16.6 percent as of March 22. Gallup has also shown a decline in the uninsured, and its March poll will show a further decline, according to Gallup Editor in Chief Frank Newport. More details at the link.

  • Apple Has Patented Clicking on Phone Number to Dial a Phone? Seriously?


    The New York Times tells us today that Apple’s lawsuit against Samsung is really just a proxy for its war against Google’s Android operating system. That’s not news. But this just makes me want to pound my head against a wall:

    In the case set to open this week, Apple’s legal complaint aims at some of the features that Google, not Samsung, put in Android, like the ability to tap on a phone number inside a text message to dial the number. And although Google is not a defendant in this case, some of its executives are expected to testify as witnesses.

    I know we all mock some of the things that seem to be patentable these days. I sure do. And who knows? Maybe those things really aren’t quite as obvious as we all think they are. But tapping a phone number on a phone in order to dial it? There is no plausible universe in which several thousand designers wouldn’t think of doing that. Somebody needs to put a leash on Apple before the venomous ghost of Steve Jobs drags them into a rabbit hole of techno-legal vengeance from which they never recover. Enough.

  • Who’s Really Behind Newsweek?


    When Newsweek reappeared on newsstands a few weeks ago after publishing its last print edition in 2012, it provided a jolt of instant credibility for its purchaser, International Business Times, the publisher of a website of the same name. But who is IBT? There have been rumors for some time that it was founded—and is still directed—by David Jang, the charismatic Korean leader of a Christian sect known as “the Community,” but those rumors have never really been confirmed.

    Until now. In the latest issue of Mother Jones, Ben Dooley reports on the results of a multi-year investigation based on financial statements, thousands of internal messages, and dozens of sources. It turns out that IBT’s ties to Jang go much deeper than previously established:

    • The Jang-founded Olivet University and IBT are linked to a web of dozens of churches, nonprofits, and corporations around the world that Jang has influenced or controlled, with money from Community members and profitable ministries helping to cover the costs of money-losing ministries and Jang’s expenses.
    • IBT’s CEO and chief content officer have been in frequent contact with Jang about the direction of the company, receiving advice on personnel decisions, business strategy, and font selection.
    • Money from other Community-affiliated organizations funded IBT’s early growth.
    • Olivet students in the United States on international student visas say they worked for IBT full-time for as little as $125 a week.
    • Jang sees Community-affiliated media organizations, including IBT, as an essential part of his mission to build the kingdom of God on Earth.

    As Dooley says in his article, there’s nothing unusual about business leaders associating with people or institutions that share their values. But if there’s nothing unusual about the ties that IBT’s leaders have to Jang and the Community, why have they been so eager to downplay them? Click the link to learn more.

  • Health Insurance Rates Are Going Up Next Year, But It’s Nothing to Panic Over


    The LA Times has a piece today about the next battleground for Obamacare: rate increases for 2015. The warnings are already coming thick and fast:

    WellPoint Inc., parent of California’s leading health insurer in the exchange, Anthem Blue Cross, has already predicted “double-digit-plus” rate increases on Obamacare policies across much of the country.

    …. Health insurers aren’t wasting any time sizing up what patients are costing them now and what that will mean for 2015 rates. Hunkered down in conference rooms, insurance actuaries are parsing prescriptions, doctor visits and hospital stays for clues about how expensive these new patients may be. By May, insurance companies must file next year’s rates with California’s state-run exchange so negotiations can begin.

    I hope everyone manages to restrain their Obamacare hysteria over this. Here in California, we’ve played this game annually for years. Health insurers in the individual market propose wild increases in their premiums—10 percent, 20 percent, sometimes even 30 percent—and then dial them back a bit after consumer outrage blankets the media and the Department of Insurance pushes back. But even then, we routinely end up with double-digit increases. Just for background, here are the average annual rate increases requested by a few of California’s biggest insurers over the last three years:

    • Anthem Blue Cross: 10.7%
    • Aetna: 12.1%
    • Blue Shield: 15.4%
    • HealthNet: 12.0%

    And this doesn’t include changes in deductibles or out-of-pocket maximums. Add those in, and the annual proposed increases are probably in the range of 15-20 percent. Obamacare, of course, limits both those things, which means that in the future insurance companies will have to put everything into rate hikes instead of spreading the increases around to make them harder to add up.

    Bottom line: if we end up seeing double-digit rate increases, it will be business as usual. Insurance companies will all blame it on Obamacare because that’s a convenient thing to do, but the truth is that we probably would have seen exactly the same thing even if Barack Obama had never been born. So let’s all keep our feet on the ground when the inevitable huge rate increase requests start flowing in. It’s mostly an insurance company thing and a healthcare thing, not an Obamacare thing.

  • Friday Cat Blogging – 28 March 2014


    This week, in a feat of breathtaking middle-aged athleticism, Domino leaped into the empty laundry hamper and then leaped out a few minutes later. All by herself. I honestly didn’t think she still had it in her. But she seemed to enjoy herself for the few minutes she was in there, and then followed me around to find out what happened to all the clothes that had been taken out. Later on, of course, she curled up and took a nap on the fresh laundry. Quite a life, isn’t it?

  • Raw Data: By 2017, Obamacare Will Be Covering 36 Million People


    Megan McArdle asks, “Is Obamacare now beyond repeal?” Good question! McArdle goes through the various estimates of enrollment figures, concluding that something in the neighborhood of 5.5-6.5 million people are likely to sign up this year, depending on how much enrollment accelerates in the last few days of March and how many people drop out because they fail to pay their premiums. That sounds reasonable to me. Then this:

    Does that mean that Obamacare will basically be beyond repeal, as its supporters hope? It certainly makes things harder. But we still don’t know how many of these people are newly insured, or how many of the previously insured like these policies better than their old policies — nor how much pressure it is going to end up putting on the budget. Those are things we won’t know for quite a while. But if it were impossible to ever cut off an expensive entitlement that goes to the middle class, TennCare would never have been cut.

    But there’s something missing here. It’s something that nearly everyone has neglected in the frenzy to figure out what’s happening right now. Here it is: the world doesn’t stop in 2014. Enrollment of around 6 million makes Obamacare hard to repeal, but for now that’s not really what’s holding it in place. What’s holding it in place is the fact that Democrats control the Senate and Barack Obama occupies the White House. And even if the Senate switches parties next year, I think we can all agree that Obamacare is going nowhere as long as Obama stays president. So 2017 is the earliest it could even plausibly be repealed.

    But what do things look like in 2017? The chart on the right shows the latest CBO estimates. By 2017, a total of 36 million Americans will be covered by Obamacare. Of that, 24 million will have private coverage via the exchanges and 12 million will be covered by Medicaid. Those are very big numbers. Even if Republicans improbably manage to get complete control of the government in the 2016 election and eliminate the filibuster so Democrats can’t object, they’ll still have to contend with this.

    Does this make Obamacare invulnerable? Of course not. Nothing makes it invulnerable. It’s always possible, though it seems vanishingly unlikely at this point, that it will fail so badly that even Democrats sour on it in a couple of years. It’s also possible that Republican hostility will remain so furious that they just flatly don’t care about 36 million constituents. And maybe they won’t care that the health care industry is fully invested in Obamacare and will fight efforts to get rid of it.

    Anything is possible. But when you talk about the chances of repealing Obamacare, you should be talking about 2017. And if you’re talking about 2017, then the number that matters isn’t 6 million, it’s 36 million. That’s a mighty big nut to crack.

  • Quote of the Day: “I Have to Thank Obamacare for Saving My Life”


    From Kathy Bentzoni of Slatington, Pennsylvania, who signed up for Obamacare after giving up her “useless” old coverage because it was too expensive and denied all her claims. A few weeks ago, knowing she could afford it, she went to the ER complaining about numbness in her fingers:

    Where would I be without Obamacare? ER, 3 units of blood, multiple tests in the hospital and a 5-day inpatient stay without insurance? Probably dead.

    I have to thank Obamacare for saving my life.

    Bentzoni would have been treated in the ER regardless of her insurance status. Without insurance, though, she might not have gone. Or she might have waited too long. But on March 1, knowing that it wouldn’t bankrupt her, she went in time to avoid the worst. And thanks to Obamacare, she can afford the ongoing care she’ll need to treat her rare blood disorder.

    This is from a piece at CNN highlighting five Obamacare success stories. More like this, please.

  • Pre-K Can Make You Healthier and More Talkative


    I’m a fan of pre-K and early childhood interventions in general. For the most part, this isn’t because these programs boost IQ or increase academic performance. They may do a bit of that, but the evidence so far suggests that direct academic effects are modest. Rather, the benefits are mostly indirect: fewer behavioral problems; less teenage drug use; better impulse control; lower arrest rates; and so forth. Today, Aaron Carroll suggests yet another benefit: these programs produce healthier adults. That’s the conclusion of a long-term follow-up in the Carolina Abecedarian Project (ABC):

    Males who were randomized to the ABC program had significantly lower blood pressure (systolic 143 vs 126). That’s a massive difference. They had significantly lower levels of hypertension. They had lower levels of metabolic syndrome and lower Framingham risk scores. To get a sense of the magnitude of the difference, one in 4 males in the control group had metabolic syndrome; none in the ABC group did. Women also had improvements, although not as dramatic.

    Males in the intervention group were significantly more likely to have health insurance at age 30, and to have bought it. They were more likely to get care when they were sick at age 30, too. They were at lower risk for overweight throughout their childhood. Women in the intervention group were less likely to start drinking alcohol before age 17. They were more likely to be active and to eat more healthily.

    The cost of this program was about $16,000 per child in 2010 dollars.

    This isn’t a smoking gun. The sample size is small and the program was run a long time ago. But as Carroll says, that’s inevitable in long-term longitudinal studies: “Anytime you do a follow-up of 30+ years, by definition the intervention will be old by the time you get results. There’s no other way to do it. It’s such a silly attack.”

    Along similar lines, Bob Somerby lavishes rare praise on a New York Times report by Motoko Rich about a program in Providence, RI, that intervenes with kids even before pre-K. The goal is a simple one. Researchers just want to get parents to talk to their children:

    Recent research shows that brain development is buoyed by continuous interaction with parents and caregivers from birth, and that even before age 2, the children of the wealthy know more words than do those of the poor….Educators say that many parents, especially among the poor and immigrants, do not know that talking, as well as reading, singing and playing with their young children, is important. “I’ve had young moms say, ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to talk to my baby until they could say words and talk to me,’ ” said Susan Landry, director of the Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas in Houston, which has developed a home visiting program similar to the one here in Providence.

    ….As in Providence, several groups around the country — some of longstanding tenure — are building home visiting programs and workshops to help parents learn not only that they should talk, but how to do so.

    “Every parent can talk,” said Dr. Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago who founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative, which oversees home visiting programs and public information campaigns. “It’s the most empowering thing,” said Dr. Suskind, who is securing funding for a randomized trial of a home-based curriculum intended to teach parents how they should talk with their children and why.

    One of the most frustrating things about the education gap between rich and poor is that it shows up so early, and vocabulary appears to be one of the reasons. Even by the time they’re two or three, children of middle-class parents have vocabularies that are substantially larger than those of poor children. Even if poor kids get into a good-quality pre-K program, they’re behind from the beginning and they never catch up.

    And plonking kids in front of the TV doesn’t do the trick. Vocabulary isn’t built by listening, but by interacting. It requires parents who talk to their children continuously. It barely even matters what they’re talking about.

    The goal of programs like the one in Providence is to make sure that low-income parents know this. They may not have the time or money to do all the things for their kids that better-off parents can do, but they can talk to them. Doing that on a regular basis, starting very early in life, may turn out to be a critical component of any pre-K intervention program. Hopefully Suskind’s RCT will get funded and we’ll have firmer knowledge about this in the future.

  • Condi Rice In Running For 2014 Chutzpah Award


    Condi Rice has joined the tut tutting brigade against Americans who aren’t crazy about fighting yet another war:

    “I fully understand the sense of weariness,” she told a GOP fundraiser Wednesday, according to reports. “I fully understand that we must think: ‘Us, again?’ I know that we’ve been through two wars. I know that we’ve been vigilant against terrorism. I know that it’s hard. But leaders can’t afford to get tired. Leaders can’t afford to be weary.”

    ….Rice said the United States has taken a step back in conflicts including Syria, Ukraine and others. “When America steps back and there is a vacuum, trouble will fill that vacuum,” Rice said.

    That’s precious, isn’t it? Maybe Rice should give some thought to the possibility that Americans aren’t weary of war, but weary of dumb, poorly fought wars. Maybe if the administration she served for eight years hadn’t launched two of the dumbest, most mismanaged wars in American history, we wouldn’t all be so weary.

    As an aside, I’d point out that her administration took no military action against Iran and mounted no serious international sanctions against the regime. Her administration also did nothing when Russia invaded South Ossetia. Obama, by contrast, has doubled down in Afghanistan to try and clean up the mess left over from the Bush administration; he’s forced Iran to the negotiating table by crippling its economy; he’s participated in an invasion and regime change in Libya; he’s crippled al-Qaeda via massive drone attacks; and he’s spearheaded a growing backlash against Russia’s invasion of Crimea. And when he tried to mount an attack against Syria in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons, he was shot down not just by members of his own party, but by members of Rice’s Republican Party too.

    Whatever else you can say about Obama, he’s hardly a peacemonger. His foreign policy might not be quite as blindly bellicose and unfocused as George Bush’s, but he sure isn’t shy about using or threatening military force when he thinks it’s in America’s interest. Rice should pay more attention. She might learn something.

  • California Bullet Train Fails Yet Another Test


    Here is today’s round of non-shocking news:

    Regularly scheduled service on California’s bullet train system will not meet anticipated trip times of two hours and 40 minutes between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and are likely to take nearly a half-hour longer, a state Senate committee was told Thursday.

    ….Louis Thompson, chairman of the High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group, a state-sanctioned panel of outside experts, testified that “real world engineering issues” will cause schedules for regular service to exceed the target of two hours and 40 minutes. The state might be able to demonstrate a train that could make the trip that fast, but not on scheduled service, he told lawmakers.

    And remember: not a single mile of track has been laid yet. In the space of a few years, based solely on planning documents that are almost certainly still too rosy, the cost of the project has already doubled; travel times have blown past the statutory goal; ridership estimates have been halved; and every plausible funding source has disappeared. Just imagine what will happen once they start building this thing and begin running into real-world problems.

    Somebody put a stake through this project. Please. LA to San Francisco is just not a good showcase for high-speed rail. Even the true believers have to be getting cold feet by now.

  • John Boehner vs. the Tea Party, Part XVII


    It’s hard not to laugh at this. The House Republican leadership needed to pass the annual Medicare doc fix, but they didn’t want to raise taxes or cut other spending to pay for it. Nor did they want anyone to be forced to go on record voting for a bill that wasn’t paid for. What to do? Answer:

    • Call a recess.
    • Huddle up with Democratic leaders and get their buy-in for a quick voice vote.
    • Do not—repeat: do not—tell tea party types about this.
    • Get back out on the floor pronto and call up a bill that doesn’t pay for the doc fix at all. Just put it on the ol’ deficit spending credit card.
    • Pass it fast before conservative Republicans realize what’s going on and demand a roll-call vote.
    • Hightail it out of Dodge.

    Martin Longman has the whole story here. It’s pretty hilarious.

    UPDATE: Just to make this even better, the C-SPAN video of the proceedings makes it pretty clear that the voice vote didn’t even go in favor of the bill. At least, not by the two-thirds margin required to suspend the rules and pass the bill pronto. Truly banana republic territory.

  • When Housing Prices Become Fish Stories, the Economy Suffers


    Over at Wonkblog, Christopher Ingraham points us to new research from Ireland suggesting that an awful lot of people don’t know how much they paid for their houses. I’ve adapted the main chart from the study on the right. As you can see, most people who get this wrong underestimate how much they paid—sometimes by gigantic amounts. Very few people overestimate how much they paid, and virtually no one overestimates by more than a quarter or so.

    What accounts for this? As it happens, the authors are mostly concerned with how this poor recall affects estimates of the wealth effect—which I admit I didn’t really understand.1 Because of this focus, they don’t spend a lot of time speculating on the underlying causes. But they do mention that the older the loan, the less accurate people are; that younger people remember better than older people; and that errors are smaller among the well-educated.

    But none of this explains why the bad recall is overwhelmingly on the low side. So here’s my guess: people lie. Or, more charitably, they’re in denial. They don’t want to admit to themselves or their friends how much they lost during the housing crash. Or, when prices are rising, they like to brag about how much they’ve made. Everyone else claims to have made a killing, so they slice a little bit off their buying price to make it seem like they made a killing too. No one wants to be a sucker, after all. Do this enough times, and eventually you come to believe it yourself.2

    1The authors say that “An increasing number of micro based estimates of the housing wealth effect use the recall house price as an indicator of housing wealth.” So if recall prices are systematically lower than the actual prices paid, this would lead to estimates of the wealth effect that are too low.

    That’s fine, and it’s a reasonable topic for a research paper. It’s important to know just how the wealth effect works. But why would anyone use the recall price for this in the first place? Shouldn’t wealth effect estimates be based on how much people think their houses are worth right now? Or on how much equity people think they have, which would actually be higher if they underestimate the original price of their house? I’m a little stumped by this.

    2Here’s another guess: people tend to remember loan amounts more than the actual price of the house. If they put 10 percent down on a $300,000 house, the amount of the loan is $270,000, and that’s what they remember. I’m not sure I buy this, but it’s a possibility.

  • How Big Is the National Debt?


    As a public service, I would like to present this FAQ from the Treasury Department explaining the national debt. Here it is, complete and unedited:

    What is the National Debt?

    The term national debt refers to direct liabilities of the United States Government. There are several different concepts of debt that are at various times used to refer to the national debt:

    • Public debt is defined as public debt securities issued by the U.S. Treasury. U. S. Treasury securities primarily consist of marketable Treasury securities (i.e., bills, notes and bonds), savings bonds and special securities issued to state and local governments. A portion is debt held by the public and a portion is debt held by government accounts.
    • Debt held by the public excludes the portion of the debt that is held by government accounts.
    • Gross federal debt is made up of public debt securities and a small amount of securities issued by government agencies.

    Debt held by the public is the most meaningful of these concepts and measures the cumulative amount outstanding that the government has borrowed to finance deficits.

    As of yesterday, total public debt amounted to $17.555 trillion. Debt held by the public amounted to $12.579 trillion. The term “national debt” can refer to either one. Just make sure it’s clear which one you’re talking about.

  • Sponsored Content Really Not a Big Deal, Folks


    Earlier today Josh Marshall announced that TPM had launched a new section called “IdeaLab: Impact,” sponsored by PhRMA, the famously ubiquitous pharmaceutical industry lobby. Henry Farrell was distinctly unimpressed by the news:

    In that spirit, I’d like to introduce a very cool new non-sponsored section myself, “Bullshit Lab: Impact,” focused on the very cool ways in which PhRMA lobbying is affecting real human lives and impacting people and communities living on the margins of global wealth and on the margins of the technological transformations. Except losing the “impacting,” since it isn’t a verb ever seen outside corporate press releases. How, for example, is PhRMA lobbying advancing the ball on shoving insanely demanding requirements into international trade agreements? What are the impactful ways in which PhRMA is impacting high drug prices? What are the cutting edge techniques in which PhRMA is pushing back on patent reform for AIDS drugs in South Africa….Feel free to treat this post’s comments sections as an opportunity to provide further examples, and unleash the real world impacts of innovative lobbying innovations!!

    Sponsored content is all the rage these days, so this was probably inevitable. In fact, I was just reading about it the other day on my Dell Venue 11 tablet. I had just gotten back from Target, which was having a sale on DiGiorno frozen pizzas, and hopped onto Internet Explorer while I waited for the pizza to heat up in my Breville toaster oven. I wanted to read about NYT Now, a “compelling new iPhone® app with quick summaries and updates of top stories from our editors” that the Times announced a couple of weeks ago at South By Southwest Interactive. I found a few blurbs via Google News, but I still want to know more. It sounds exciting! I wonder if I’ll be able to read it on the HTC One Android phone I’m planning to buy from T-Mobile?

    Anyway, like I said, the whole sponsored content thing is probably inevitable, but I doubt it has much actual effect on what journalists choose to write about. Nothing to get worked up about, Henry.

  • Christie Lawyers Engage in Special Pleading For Their Client


    A couple of months ago, Chris Christie hired a legal firm to investigate whether Chris Christie knew about the September 9-12 lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. So they went off and investigated. Among other things, they investigated the charge from David Wildstein that he had mentioned the lane closures to Christie during a September 11 memorial ceremony. Check out the way Christie’s legal firm dealt with this:

    There is, however, no evidence we have seen that the Governor and Wildstein actually had any substantive discussion of the Fort Lee lane realignment at that public event.

    To begin with, it seems incredible that, in a public setting leading up to a 9/11 Memorial event, surrounded by other government officials and scores of constituents seeking photographs and handshakes, anything substantive or inculpatory would have been discussed.

    Moreover, the context of Wildstein’s counsel’s claim that “evidence exists” of the Governor’s alleged knowledge of the lane realignment is critically important….Wildstein’s counsel’s letter was a not-too-subtle attempt to press the Port Authority into granting Wildstein indemnification while, at the same time, to induce federal authorities to grant Wildstein immunity in exchange for Wildstein’s information here.

    ….In any event, even if credited, any passing reference by Wildstein—made in a social, public setting at the time of a public 9/11 Memorial event—to a traffic issue in Fort Lee would not have been meaningful or memorable to the Governor. Indeed, it seems highly unlikely such a brief mention, even if made by Wildstein to the Governor, would have registered with the Governor at all. Only a more substantive conversation about the ulterior motive behind the Port Authority’s traffic study would have registered, and in that public setting, any claim that such a conversation occurred would lack credibility. In any event, the Governor recalls no such exchange.

    Tell me: does this sound like a dispassionate review of the evidence? Or does it sound like the closing arguments to a jury on behalf of a client accused of corruption?

    I have no real opinion about whether Christie knew about the lane closures. My guess is that he didn’t, though that’s mainly because I credit him with not being a complete moron. At this point, my guess remains that Christie set up a nakedly political operation in his office; made it clear what he expected of them; and then let them freewheel without much supervision. The result was a bunch of eager beavers who eventually decided they were invulnerable and started doing really stupid things.

    But those are just guesses. My real interest in this passage is the tone of voice. And that tone is plain: these guys are going out of their way to spin the evidence to exonerate Christie. I suspect the entire report should be read with that in mind.

  • Was Crimea Mainly a Diversion From Putin’s Burgeoning Olympic Scandal?


    Kimberly Marten suggests that the main reason for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea was entirely domestic. He needed something to divert public attention from a huge unfolding scandal:

    Putin’s scandal was the corruption surrounding the Sochi Olympics. As we all know by now, the construction costs associated with Sochi facilities and infrastructure exceeded $50 billion.

    ….Putin has stayed in power for so long because he has been able to control the snake-pit of competing informal political networks that surround the halls of power in Russia….Members of that network told some Americans privately in 2013 that they believed some kind of reckoning over corruption in Sochi would happen this spring, perhaps when it became clear that tens of billions of dollars in state loans could not be repaid….The public might never have known or understood what was happening, but Putin would have lost face where it matters most—inside Kremlin walls, where he is supposed to be the great informal network balancer. Putin’s Crimean adventure neatly shifted the conversation to other topics, and no one is likely to bring it up again anytime soon.

    ….Diversion could not have been Putin’s only motive. There are certainly deep nationalist, historical, and triumphalist reasons for Putin’s actions, as Joshua Tucker wrote about here in The Monkey Cage last week. But it is striking how little Putin gained in Crimea. The region was subsidized by the rest of Ukraine, and he will now have to fund those subsidies out of the Russian state budget. Russian generators are now keeping the Crimean capital of Simferopol lit, as Ukraine turns off the electricity flowing in from the mainland. Crimea does have a crucial Russian naval base, but Putin already controlled that base without needing to occupy Crimea, because of a treaty that lasted through 2042.

    The only thing that surprises me about this is that it’s presented as a novel thesis. I thought this was widely taken for granted. Obviously there were international triggers for Putin’s actions—the EU association agreement, the downfall of Yanukovich, the expansion of NATO, etc.—but it’s still striking that Putin was willing to give up so much on the international stage for something that, as Marten says, gets him almost nothing in return. By nearly any measure, Crimea simply isn’t much of a plum. If this was his idea of reasserting the Russian empire, Putin has a mighty cramped view of empire.

    But it was massively popular domestically. Whatever else you can say about it, it’s certainly gotten the Russian public firmly on Putin’s side for the time being. I don’t know if anyone can say for sure that this was his primary motive—frankly, I’m not sure Putin himself even knows what his primary motive was—but it seems almost certain that it was a significant one. After all, Putin would hardly be the first world leader to shore up his public standing with a lovely little war abroad.

  • Obama Should Have Personally Announced the Latest Obamacare Deadline Extension


    Chris Hayes used his program tonight to highlight a deadline extension for a health care program—one that happened back in 2006. Here’s how Knight Ridder reported it at the time:

    With pressure mounting to extend next Monday’s enrollment deadline for the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the Bush administration took another small step in that direction Tuesday, waiving penalty fees for very low-income seniors and people with disabilities who sign up late….The move follows a recent administration decision to allow the same impoverished beneficiaries to sign up for Medicare drug coverage until Dec. 31.

    “In other words, you can apply after May 15th without penalty. And that’s important for low-income seniors to understand,” President Bush told a group of older Americans in Sun City Center, Fla., on Tuesday.

    This is mostly being used to show Republican hypocrisy. They’re all yelling and screaming about President Obama’s “lawlessness” in extending the deadline for Obamacare signups, but none of them uttered a peep of protest when President Bush did the same thing. What a bunch of partisan hacks.

    And fair enough. But I have a different lesson to take from this: You’ll notice that Bush treated his extension like something worth taking credit for. He personally announced it. In a speech. That showed up on television. And people heard about it because the press pays more attention to things when the president says them.

    Obama’s deadline extension, by contrast, was passively conveyed to the media via anonymous “administration officials.” Granted, Obama is in Europe at the moment, and maybe he’ll say something personally when he gets back. But even if he does, it’ll be old news by then and nobody will bother with it.

    That’s a missed opportunity. And it’s especially unfortunate given today’s news that 61 percent of the currently uninsured are unaware of the March 31 deadline. It sure seems like the deadline extension would have been a handy excuse to put the president in front of the cameras to tell everyone that they had only a few days left to start the signup process.

  • Republicans Prepare Bill to End NSA Phone Metadata Program


    Earlier this week President Obama announced a proposal to shut down the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata. I thought that was great, but wondered if Republicans would go along. After all, it’s an election year, and it might make a good political football even if lots of Republicans are already on record opposing the program.

    Well, apparently Republicans plan to go along. Dave Weigel reports:

    By Tuesday morning the Republican-run House Intelligence Committee was polishing and promoting the End Bulk Collection Act of 2014, which would grudgingly achieve much of what the White House grudgingly asked for. On Tuesday afternoon, Sens. Rand Paul, Ron Wyden, and Mark Udall strolled into a Senate hallway bustling with reporters to accept the NSA’s partial surrender.

    ….“It’s very clear now that the administration agrees with us,” said Wyden….“They’re looking for congressional permission to stop doing what they’re doing,” said Paul….“The Congress ought to codify what the president’s done so the message is sent to future presidents,” said Udall.

    ….It was exactly what the administration and the NSA’s defenders wanted to hear. They’d never wanted to end metadata collection. They defended it for months….“I passionately believe that this program saved American lives,” said Rogers at an hourlong press conference with Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the committee’s ranking member, where they outlined their bill to end bulk metadata collection….“I started out with, maybe we ought to stick with the program that has been tested, legally overseen, and protects civil liberties. Well, we’re beyond that. We get that.”

    We don’t know exactly what the EBCA will contain, or what it will look like once it’s gone through the sausage factory. At the moment, though, it looks likely that Congress will indeed end the NSA’s metadata collection program. That’s good news. It’s better to have it come from Congress than from an executive order.