Kevin Drum - August 2014

Europe Agrees to Arm the Kurds

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 11:00 AM EDT

What are the odds that Iraqi Kurdistan will ever be able to secede and form its own sovereign state? That depends in large part on whether the United States and other countries support Kurdish independence, which so far they haven't. Today, however, the EU officially encouraged its members to "respond positively to the call by the Kurdish regional authorities to provide urgently military material."

Is that a step toward accepting Kurdish independence? Maybe, but only a smidge. The EU statement also said that arms shipments should be done only "with the consent of the Iraqi national authorities." And the Guardian reports that, "At the same time the EU reiterated its firm commitment to Iraq’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity."

If the new Iraqi government works out, this probably leads nowhere. But if the new government is no more competent or inclusive than Maliki's, this could end up being a tacit first step toward Kurdish secession. Wait and see.

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A California Hospital Charged $10,000 for a Cholesterol Test

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 9:34 AM EDT

By now, I assume we all know that hospitals charge widely varying rates for similar procedures. But it's often hard to pinpoint exactly what's going on. Sometimes it's due to the amount of regional competition. Sometimes the procedures in question vary in ways that simple coding schemes don't pick up. Some doctors are better than others. And of course, hospitals inflate their list prices by different amounts.

All that said, be prepared for your jaw to drop:

Researchers studied charges for a variety of tests at 160 to 180 California hospitals in 2011 and found a huge variation in prices. The average charge for a basic metabolic panel, which measures sodium, potassium and glucose levels, among other indicators, was $214. But hospitals charged from $35 to $7,303, depending on the facility. None of the hospitals were identified.

The biggest range involved charges for a lipid panel, a test that measures cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of fat (lipid), in the blood. The average charge was $220, but costs ranged from a minimum of $10 to a maximum of $10,169. Yes, more than $10,000 for a blood test that doctors typically order for older adults, to check their cholesterol levels.

A lipid panel! This is as standardized a procedure as you could ask for. It's fast, highly automated, identical between hospitals, and has no association with the quality of the doctor who ordered the test. You still might see the usual 2:1 or 3:1 difference in prices, but 1000:1?

So what accounts for this? The researchers have no idea. No insurance company will pay $10,000 for a lipid panel, of course, so the only point of pricing it this high is to exploit the occasional poor sap with no health insurance who happens to need his cholesterol checked. Welcome to health care in America. Best in the world, baby.

White House Tightens Up Arms Shipments to Israel

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 12:24 PM EDT

The Obama administration has tightened up the process for providing arms to Israel:

White House and State Department officials who were leading U.S. efforts to rein in Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip were caught off guard last month when they learned that the Israeli military had been quietly securing supplies of ammunition from the Pentagon without their approval.

Since then the Obama administration has tightened its control on arms transfers to Israel. But Israeli and U.S. officials say that the adroit bureaucratic maneuvering made it plain how little influence the White House and State Department have with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu —and that both sides know it.

....U.S. officials said Mr. Obama had a particularly combative phone call on Wednesday with Mr. Netanyahu, who they say has pushed the administration aside but wants it to provide Israel with security assurances in exchange for signing onto a long-term deal.

....While Israeli officials have privately told their U.S. counterparts the poor state of relations isn't in Israel's interest long term, they also said they believed Mr. Netanyahu wasn't too worried about the tensions. The reason is that he can rely on the firmness of Israeli support in Congress, even if he doesn't have the White House's full approval for his policies. The prime minister thinks he can simply wait out the current administration, they say.

Well, I'd say the prime minister is probably right. It's not as if Obama has actually done much of substance to put pressure on Israel despite endless provocations from Netanyahu, but it's a very good bet that the next president will do even less. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is the heavy favorite, and she's made it crystal clear that her support for Netanyahu is complete and total. On the Republican side, it doesn't really matter who the nominee is. As long as it's not Rand Paul, Netanyahu can expect unquestioning fealty.

And in the meantime, he can count on the US Congress not really caring that he publicly treats the US president like an errant child. I keep wondering if one day he'll go too far even for Congress, but I've mostly given up. As near as I can tell, there's almost literally nothing he could do that would cause so much as a grumble.

How Software Turns Low-Wage Work Into Constant Chaos

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 11:30 AM EDT

I'm glad to see Jodi Kantor of the New York Times write about the way low-wage workers are abused via scheduling software that turns their lives into an endless series of daily emergencies:

Ms. Navarro’s fluctuating hours, combined with her limited resources, had also turned their lives into a chronic crisis over the clock. She rarely learned her schedule more than three days before the start of a workweek, plunging her into urgent logistical puzzles over who would watch the boy....“You’re waiting on your job to control your life,” she said, with the scheduling software used by her employer dictating everything from “how much sleep Gavin will get to what groceries I’ll be able to buy this month.”

Last month, she was scheduled to work until 11 p.m. on Friday, July 4; report again just hours later, at 4 a.m. on Saturday; and start again at 5 a.m. on Sunday. She braced herself to ask her aunt, Karina Rivera, to watch Gavin, hoping she would not explode in annoyance, or worse, refuse.

....Along with virtually every major retail and restaurant chain, Starbucks relies on software that choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of its 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when....Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes. “It’s like magic,” said Charles DeWitt, vice president for business development at Kronos, which supplies the software for Starbucks and many other chains.

I don't know what the answer to this is, but it's yet another way that the lives of low-income workers have become more and more stressful over time. There's just no such thing as regular hours anymore, and for parents of small children this turns their lives into nonstop chaos. Read the whole thing to get a taste of what this means. Working a low-wage job at a national chain isn't what it used to be even a couple of decades ago.

UPDATE: Starbucks has responded in an email from Cliff Burrows, the group president in charge of United States stores, to its workers:

Mr. Burrows told them the company would revise its software to allow more human input from managers into scheduling. It would banish the practice, much loathed by workers, of asking them to “clopen” — close the store late at night and return just a few hours later to reopen. He said all work hours must be posted at least one week in advance, a policy that has been only loosely followed in the past. And the company would try to move workers with more than an hour’s commute to more convenient locations, he said.

Good for Starbucks. This doesn't address every scheduling issue their workers face, but it's a good start. It would be nice if others big chains followed their example.

Everyone Is Now Officially Banned From Whining About Presidential Vacations. Forever.

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 9:59 AM EDT

Yes, yes, yes: sign me up as a charter member of the movement to STFU about presidential vacations. Both sides do it. Bush got hit with criticism from Democrats. Obama gets it from Republicans. Clinton got it. Reagan got it. Fine. We're all guilty. Now let's just stop.

No more golf mockery. No more charts showing how many days Bush took off compared to Obama. No more whining about how this week—yes, this very week!—is the worst week ever in history for a vacation because the world is in crisis. You know why? Because there's always a crisis somewhere in the world.

So that's it. Don't argue about it. Just stop. Right now. It is officially the stupidest thing in the world.

Take Two: What's Behind the Religious Conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 2:49 PM EDT

Earlier today I recommended a Fareed Zakaria video about the roots of the current civil wars in Syria and Iraq. Sam Barkin, a professor at UMass Boston, emails to say that Zakaria's history is faulty:

While reading your post of about an hour ago on arming the Syrian rebels, I clicked on the embedded video of Fareed Zakaria's five-minute historical primer. He makes what seems to be a compelling case about the historical complexities of Syria. There's just one problem. His history is wrong. Really quite wrong, in a way that makes me worry about his analysis.

He claims that three contemporary countries in the Levant—Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon—were intentionally set up by the European colonial countries with minority-rule governments, explicitly for divide-and-rule purposes. In Iraq, it's true, the monarchy was Sunni (it also wasn't Iraqi, but that's a different story). The British did deal with the local elites, as they tended to do in their protectorates, and the local elites were by and large Sunni, but that was a pre-existing condition.

However, in the two French-protectorate countries, Syria and Lebanon, the French at no point tried to empower minorities at the expense of ethnic/religious majorities. In Syria, which is roughly three-quarters Sunni, almost all of the heads of state and government until 1970 (it may in fact be all of them, I didn't have the patience to check) were Sunni. The central role of the Shiite Alawites in the security service did not begin until after Assad senior consolidated power after the 1970 coup. And I can assure you that the French were not fans either of Assad or of the Ba'ath party more generally. Lebanon, meanwhile, was designed by the French specifically to be Christian majority (in fact, the French redrew the map of Lebanon in 1920 to ensure such a majority). The Christians probably remained a majority in Lebanon into the 1960s.

So telling the story of Syria (either current Syria or Greater Syria) as one of a history of sectarianism and minority rule is simply historically factually wrong. And it leaves me wondering if Zakaria really doesn't know the history, or if he's taking some serious historical liberties in order to make his point.

In a nutshell, Barkin is saying that only in Iraq can you argue that a minority-rule government was originally installed by a colonial power. In Lebanon it was a case of demographic changes turning a Christian majority into a minority, and in Syria the minority Alawites took power long after the French had withdrawn. Zakaria is right that in all three cases, conflicts between religious minorities and majorities are still central to what's going on today, but the historical backdrop is more complicated than he allows.

I thought this was worth passing along. Anyone else care to weigh in?

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The Paperless Office Has Beaten Out the Paperless Bathroom After All

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 2:12 PM EDT

Back when I was in the document imaging business, we joked that the paperless office would become a reality about the same time as the paperless bathroom. In other words, even those of us in the biz didn't really believe in the hype of the paperless office.

I haven't paid much attention to any of this for well over a decade, but today John Quiggin comes forward to tell me that, in fact, the paperless office is finally starting to come true:

Paper consumption peaked in the late 1990s and has fallen sharply since 2005....The annual rate of decline (-0.9 per cent) is unimpressive in itself, but striking when compared to the growth rate of 5.7 per cent observed from 1985 to 1999, at a time when talk of the paperless office was particularly prevalent. Compared to the ‘Business as Usual’ extrapolation of the previous growth rate, office paper consumption has declined by around 40 per cent.

....Of course, the “paperless office” myth wasn’t just a prediction that digital communications would replace paper one day. It was a sales pitch for a top-down redesign of work processes, which, for the reasons given by Sellen and Harper, was never going to work.

That's interesting, though not too surprising. It takes a long time for habits to change, and sometimes you just have to wait for old generations to retire and allow new ones to take their place. I imagine that 20- and 30-somethings are way more comfortable with a purely digital information flow than folks in their 40s and 50s, and that's probably responsible for much of the decline in office paper use since 2005.

As an aside, I should add that top-down redesign of work processes sometimes gets a bad rap that it doesn't deserve. For casual work processes it doesn't work that well, and the hype of the 90s really was overdone. But there are also lots of clerical production processes that are highly rule-bound and can be redesigned just fine. Insurance claims agents these days almost never see a piece of paper, for example. It's all scanned and indexed so that everything—both paper and digital documents—can be viewed on screen instantly.

And I wouldn't be surprised if even casual work processes become far more digital in the fairly near future, especially as software gets better, cloud storage becomes commonplace, and high-speed connectivity becomes all but universal. If you can look up movie times on your phone, you can keep track of schedules and due dates on your phone too. That sounds like something of a pain to me, but I'm 55. I'll bet if I were 25 it would sound a whole lot more attractive than being forced to work with messy bundles of paper that can't be searched and have to be carried around everywhere to be useful.

Quote of the Day: Honda Is Keeping Car Thievery Alive

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 12:23 PM EDT

From Josh Barro:

One of the factors that keeps car theft going in the United States is the reliability of old Hondas.

Think about the advertising possibilities! Hondas are built so tough that thieves want them no matter how old they are. If you're wondering what this is all about, Barro is explaining why car thefts in New York City have declined by 96 percent over the past couple of decades. In a nutshell, the answer lies in high-tech ignitions:

The most important factor is a technological advance: engine immobilizer systems, adopted by manufacturers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These make it essentially impossible to start a car without the ignition key, which contains a microchip uniquely programmed by the dealer to match the car.

Criminals generally have not been able to circumvent the technology or make counterfeit keys....Instead, criminals have stuck to stealing older cars. You can see this in the pattern of thefts of America’s most stolen car, the Honda Accord. About 54,000 Accords were stolen in 2013, 84 percent of them from model years 1997 or earlier, according to data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

This has created a virtuous circle. Only old cars are vulnerable, and they aren't worth much. That makes it less lucrative to run illegal chop shops, which makes it harder for thieves to sell their cars. This in turn allows police forces to concentrate more resources on the small number of thefts (and chop shops) remaining.

In any case, it turns out that Hondas remain the most stolen cars in America because they're still worth something even if they were built before 1997. Looked at a certain way, that's a badge of pride. In another decade, though, even Hondas from the Seinfeld era won't be worth stealing. And that will put car thieves almost entirely out of business.

Arming the Syrian Rebels Wouldn't Have Stopped ISIS

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 11:42 AM EDT

Did the United States make a huge mistake by not aggressively supporting and arming the Free Syrian Army back in 2011-12? Did this decision produce a power vacuum that prompted the rise of ISIS in Iraq? Marc Lynch says no to the first question:

The academic literature is not encouraging. In general, external support for rebels almost always make wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve....Worse, as the University of Maryland’s David Cunningham has shown, Syria had most of the characteristics of the type of civil war in which external support for rebels is least effective.

....Syria’s combination of a weak, fragmented collage of rebel organizations with a divided, competitive array of external sponsors was therefore the worst profile possible for effective external support....An effective strategy of arming the Syrian rebels would never have been easy, but to have any chance at all it would have required a unified approach by the rebels’ external backers, and a unified rebel organization to receive the aid. That would have meant staunching financial flows from its Gulf partners, or at least directing them in a coordinated fashion. Otherwise, U.S. aid to the FSA would be just another bucket of water in an ocean of cash and guns pouring into the conflict.

And he says almost certainly no to the second question as well:

The idea that more U.S. support for the FSA would have prevented the emergence of the Islamic State isn’t even remotely plausible. The open battlefield and nature of the struggle ensured that jihadists would find Syria’s war appealing. The Islamic State recovered steam inside of Iraq as part of a broad Sunni insurgency driven by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bloody, ham-fisted crackdowns in Hawija and Fallujah, and more broadly because of the disaffection of key Sunni actors over Maliki’s sectarian authoritarianism. It is difficult to see how this would have been affected in the slightest by a U.S.-backed FSA (or, for that matter, by a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq, but that’s another debate for another day). There is certainly no reason to believe that the Islamic State and other extremist groups would have stayed away from such an ideal zone for jihad simply because Western-backed groups had additional guns and money.

Had the plan to arm Syria’s rebels been adopted back in 2012, the most likely scenario is that the war would still be raging and look much as it does today, except that the United States would be far more intimately and deeply involved.

Supporters of more aggressive military action have an easy job: all they have to do is point out what a mess the Middle East is today. And they're right: it's a mess. The obvious—and all too human—conclusion to draw is that things would be better if only we'd done something different three years ago. And the obvious different thing is more military support for the Syrian rebels.

But this is a cognitive error. Most likely, if we had done something different three years ago, the entire region would still be a mess—possibly a much worse mess—and we'd be right in the middle of it, kicking ourselves for getting involved in yet another quagmire and wondering if things would have gone better if only we'd done something different three years ago. Except this time the "something different" would be going back in time and staying out of things.

It's human nature to believe that intervention is always better than doing nothing. Liberals tend to believe this in domestic affairs and conservatives tend to believe it in foreign affairs. But it's not always so. The Middle East suffers from fundamental, longstanding fractures that the United States simply can't affect other than at the margins. Think about it this way: What are the odds that shipping arms and supplies to a poorly defined, poorly coordinated, and poorly understood rebel alliance in Syria would make a significant difference in the long-term outcome there when two decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq barely changed anything? Slim and none.

Read Lynch's entire piece for more detail on why intervention would almost certainly have been doomed in Syria. And, once again, I recommend the five-minute primer above from Fareed Zakaria about what's at the core of the Syrian civil war and why it's highly unlikely that we should be involved. It's well worth your time.

A Republican Lawsuit Against Obama Will Mostly Just Piss Off Democrats

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 10:22 AM EDT

Here's an interesting tidbit via Greg Sargent. The latest McClatchy poll asked voters what they think of (a) impeaching Obama and (b) suing Obama. A full 45 percent of Republicans favor impeachment and 57 percent favor suing him. But if John Boehner's lawsuit goes forward, how will that impact voting in November? The answer is not very comforting for Republican strategists:

The lawsuit, it turns out, acts to motivate Democrats considerably more than Republicans. If Boehner & Co. were hoping to use this as a way of motivating their base to turn out in November, it looks an awful lot like it backfired.