Kevin Drum

Republicans Have a Tough Six Months Ahead of Them

| Thu May 5, 2016 12:39 AM EDT

Every living Republican president has decided not to endorse Donald Trump:

Bush 41, who enthusiastically endorsed every Republican nominee for the last five election cycles, will stay out of the campaign process this time. He does not have plans to endorse presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, spokesman Jim McGrath told The Texas Tribune.

....Bush 43, meanwhile, "does not plan to participate in or comment on the presidential campaign," according to his personal aide, Freddy Ford.

I agree that Republicans partly brought Trump on themselves. But only partly. They were hoping for an ideological extremist, and before this year it wasn't obvious either to them or to liberal critics that they might instead get a demagogic populist extremist. All of us assumed that eventually Republicans would nominate a hardcore conservative, and we were all taken by surprise when Trump stepped in instead.

So the truth is that I feel sorry for them. A lot of conservatives have an agonizing choice to make now: either support Trump or, effectively, support Hillary Clinton, a candidate they loathe. If I had a similar choice—say, between supporting a liberal Trump or supporting Ted Cruz—what would I do? I'd like to think I'd bite the bullet and support Cruz. But honestly? I don't know. Serious Republicans have a helluva rough six months ahead of them.

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Here's How Flint's Lead Disaster Is Likely to Affect Its Children

| Thu May 5, 2016 12:06 AM EDT

I've been saying for a while that (a) the elevated lead levels in Flint were fairly moderate and probably didn't cause a huge amount of damage, and (b) the water is now safe to drink. A reader wants me to put my money where my mouth is:

OK. The exact data I'd like to have doesn't seem to be available, but I can provide a rough sense of the landscape. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of children in Flint with elevated blood lead levels (above 5 m/d) rose from 2.4 percent to 4.9 percent. If you plot this out, it suggests that the average increase in BLL was somewhere between 0.2 m/d and 1 m/d. Increases in BLL are approximately associated with a loss of one IQ point per m/d, so this corresponds to an average loss of perhaps half an IQ point. However, most studies are based on children with elevated BLLs throughout their childhood. The elevated blood levels in Flint only lasted for about 18 months, which suggests that even half an IQ point is probably high. It's more like a quarter or a third of an IQ point. That's not even measurable.

Now, this is cocktail-napkin stuff, and I'm not an expert. All I'm trying to do is give you a rough idea of the magnitude of the problem. Anyone who has better data and knows how to analyze it more rigorously is welcome to set me straight if I've made a mistake.

That said, it's unlikely that I'm off by a lot. What happened in Flint was a horrible tragedy, but it's unlikely to have a major cognitive impact on the city's children. However, this is on average. It could have a major impact on individual children, and this is why parents should have their kids tested for lead exposure. This is doubly true in areas of Flint that are known to have had especially high water lead levels.

As for the question about drinking the water today, that's easier to answer: thousands of residential tests confirm that lead levels in Flint's water are below the EPA's action level of 15 parts per billion. What's more, blood testing confirms that elevated BLLs have returned to their 2013 levels. All of this is strong evidence that Flint water is now safe to use.

Conservatives Are Drooling Yet Again Over Hillary's Email Account

| Wed May 4, 2016 8:33 PM EDT

Several years ago a Romanian hacker broke into the email accounts of several high-ranking US officials. One of the email accounts he hacked belonged to Clinton pal Sidney Blumenthal, and it was this hack that eventually led to the revelation that Hillary Clinton had a private email address.

In early April he was extradited from Bucharest, where he had been serving a seven-year prison sentence, and conservatives have been drooling with anticipation ever since. Well, guess what? It turns out the hacker claimed in a jailhouse interview that he had, indeed, downloaded "gigabytes" of Hillary Clinton's email. Imagine that! Let's listen in:

"It was like an open orchid on the Internet," Marcel Lehel Lazar, who uses the devilish handle Guccifer, told NBC News in an exclusive interview from a prison in Bucharest. "There were hundreds of folders."

....A source with knowledge of the probe into Clinton's email setup told NBC News that with Guccifer in U.S. custody, investigators fully intend to question him about her server.

When pressed by NBC News, Lazar, 44, could provide no documentation to back up his claims, nor did he ever release anything on-line supporting his allegations, as he had frequently done with past hacks. The FBI's review of the Clinton server logs showed no sign of hacking, according to a source familiar with the case.

Well, I'm sure he's telling the truth, not just making up shit. Naturally Fox News is on the case with a more recent jailhouse interview:

Wearing a green jumpsuit, Lazar was relaxed and polite in the monitored secure visitor center, separated by thick security glass. In describing the process, Lazar said he did extensive research on the web and then guessed Blumenthal’s security question. Once inside Blumenthal's account, Lazar said he saw dozens of messages from the Clinton email address.

Asked if he was curious about the address, Lazar merely smiled. Asked if he used the same security question approach to access the Clinton emails, he said no — then described how he allegedly got inside.

“For example, when Sidney Blumenthal got an email, I checked the email pattern from Hillary Clinton, from Colin Powell from anyone else to find out the originating IP. … When they send a letter, the email header is the originating IP usually,” Lazar explained. 

He said, “then I scanned with an IP scanner." Lazar emphasized that he used readily available web programs to see if the server was “alive” and which ports were open. Lazar identified programs like netscan, Netmap, Wireshark and Angry IP, though it was not possible to confirm independently which, if any, he used.

In the process of mining data from the Blumenthal account, Lazar said he came across evidence that others were on the Clinton server. "As far as I remember, yes, there were … up to 10, like, IPs from other parts of the world,” he said.

So there you have it. Not only did Lazar hack into the Clinton server, but nearly a dozen other hackers did too. And every single one of them, apparently, has said nothing about it until now. Nor have they released any actual hacked emails. And they were all able to do it without leaving behind even the slightest trace.

Nonetheless, the resident expert at Fox News called Lazar's story "plausible."

Sigh. I'm sure this will lead to yet another whirlwind of emailgate activity. Buckle your seat belts.

Obama Visits Flint, Tells the Truth

| Wed May 4, 2016 5:33 PM EDT

President Obama visited Flint today and told residents, "It's not too much to expect for all Americans that their water is safe."

Obama made the comments during a speech in the city on Wednesday, a few hours after he drank filtered Flint water after a briefing by federal officials on the city's lead-contaminated water. He also requested a glass of filtered water during his speech, saying "I really did need a glass of water. This is not a stunt."

The president vouched for the safety of certified filters and encouraged most city residents to start drinking filtered water instead of bottled water. "If you're using a filter ... then Flint water at this point is drinkable," Obama said after taking a brief sip of filtered water, adding that the Environmental Protection Agency says using the filter makes the water safe and drinkable.

The only exception is pregnant women and children under 6, who should continue to use bottled water "out of an abundance of caution," he said.

Good for Obama. He told them the truth: Flint water is safe to drink. My own take is that Flint water is safe for children too, but if I were president I suppose I might back off on that a little. A president's words carry a bit more weight than a blogger's. Still, residential testing shows that lead levels in Flint water have been well below 15 ppb since the beginning of the year. Obama is right about the precautions residents should take (flush your pipes, get blood tests for your kids, etc.), but the bottom line is that most Flint residents should feel comfortable drinking, cooking, and bathing with tap water.

Readers: Please Help Give Me Some Direction For the Next Six Months

| Wed May 4, 2016 2:38 PM EDT

The biggest problem with Donald Trump is that he's a charlatan and a demagogue who could do immense damage to the United States. But this is my blog, which means everything is about me me me. And my biggest problem with Trump is trying to figure out just how much to mock the guy. Given the amount of crap that spills out of his mouth daily, I could do nothing but mock Trump and easily keep this blog churning along for the next six months.

For example, a few weeks ago Trump was asked if women who get abortions should be punished. "The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment," he said. "Yes, there has to be some form." Today, Jonah Goldberg passes along Trump's follow-up on Morning Joe:

WILLIE GEIST: What about what you told Chris Matthews a few weeks ago, which is that women who get abortions should be punished? Do you still believe that to be true?

 TRUMP: No, he was asking me a theoretical, or just a question in theory, and I talked about it only from that standpoint. Of course not. And that was done, he said, you know, I guess it was theoretically, but he was asking a rhetorical question, and I gave an answer. And by the way, people thought from an academic standpoint, and, asked rhetorically, people said that answer was an unbelievable academic answer! But of course not, and I said that afterwards.

That's so Palinesque it makes me nostalgic for the 2008 election. But is it ridiculous enough to deserve a place on the blog? Or is it just garden variety Trump?

Also: I'm going to spend a lot of time over the next few months agreeing with people like Jonah Goldberg, which is not something I'm used to. Ditto for conservatives agreeing with me, which they're not used to either. This is going to be a weird campaign season.

POSTSCRIPT: The great part about Trump's answer is that, basically, he said, "Hey, the guy asked me a question, so I gave an answer. What are you gonna do?" This is his excuse. It doesn't mean he actually meant what he said. And apparently his supporters are fine with this.

How Badly Off Is the Middle Class?

| Wed May 4, 2016 1:26 PM EDT

I've coincidentally run into a couple of things this week that have sparked a question. The first is from Atrios, who describes in caustic terms how the well-off political class views the world:

I think they see the world as a combination of the way their peers see it (and they're mostly rich!), some 30 year old vision of Middle Class America, and The Poors. They don't get that middle class America are increasingly becoming like the poors. Maybe a bit more money, maybe a bit better lifestyle, but living paycheck to paycheck with student debt and one financial (medical, etc..) event away from nothing.

So is this true? Is the American middle class getting worse off with time? By coincidence, a new paper by John Komlos tries to answer this question. First, he takes a look at income, and comes to the usual conclusion: the richer you are, the more your income has grown over the past few decades (with an odd exception for the very poorest, who have done better than the middle class). But then he goes further: "Income growth is of interest primarily to the extent it is welfare enhancing," he says, and then produces some estimates of welfare growth since 1979. This involves a bunch of Greek letters, including one that can't be estimated at all, but let's ignore all that and just assume that Komlos did his sums properly. His basic result is on the right (I've edited and annotated it to make his estimates a little clearer).

Unsurprisingly, overall welfare doesn't differ much from income: the richer you are, the faster your welfare has increased. Overall, the rich have done spectacularly well, while the middle-class has endured decades of sluggish growth.

But — there's a big difference between "should be better" and "gotten worse." There's no question that middle-class income growth has suffered since the Reagan era. That said, middle-class welfare has nonetheless grown, not declined. Using my rough central estimate of Komlos's numbers (the red line), the welfare of middle-class families has increased about 0.3 percent per year, meaning that middle-class families today are about 10 percent better off than they were in 1979.

I can't stress enough that this is grim news. That number should be way higher. Still, if you want to make the argument that middle-class families today are in deeper absolute financial stress than they used to be ("increasingly becoming like the poors") you need to provide some evidence. I can't find it. I've looked all over, and everything I can find suggests that middle-class families are about as financially secure as they've always been—both in current income and future retirement income. That is, some are doing OK, some are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and some are in deep trouble. Just like always.

Are there any good measures of personal financial stress that cover the past few decades and show an increasing problem? I've read loads of anecdotal pieces, but all they show is that some families have a lot of financial problems. What I want to know is whether more families are having lots of financial problems.

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Republicans Now Have to Face Up to Merrick Garland

| Wed May 4, 2016 11:43 AM EDT

Everybody thinks Donald Trump will lose the general election in November. If that's true, what should Republicans do about the Supreme Court?

  1. Go ahead and confirm Merrick Garland. He's about as good as they're likely to get from a Democrat.
  2. Continue their holdout and let Hillary Clinton nominate someone even more liberal next year.

Decisions, decisions. But it's a live question. Garland is now officially a pretty serious dilemma for Republicans.

Chart of the Day: Cheap Pot!

| Wed May 4, 2016 11:07 AM EDT

It's now been three years since Washington State legalized the sale of marijuana. So what happened? Answer: it got cheaper. The price of pot has fallen from $25 per gram to about $9 per gram, and it's still dropping. Keith Humphreys comments:

Falling pot prices create winners and losers. Because state taxes are based on a percentage of the sales price, declining prices mean each sale puts less money in the public purse. On the other hand, bargain-basement prices undercut the black market, bringing the public reduced law enforcement costs, both in terms of tax dollars spent on jail and the damage done to individuals who are arrested.

For consumers who enjoy pot occasionally while suffering no adverse effects from it, low prices will be a welcome but minor benefit....On the downside, young people tend to be price-sensitive consumers, and their use of inexpensive pot may rise over time, as might that of problematic marijuana users.

Are falling prices in Washington due to legalization? That seems like a reasonable guess. On the other hand, if the folks at priceofweed.com have things right, $9 per gram is roughly the market rate everywhere west of the Rockies. So there might be something else going on. Maybe legalization in Washington and Colorado have affected the entire regional market. Or maybe there's been a bumper crop of pot in Mendocino County. It's a little hard to say without more data.

How Smart Is Donald Trump?

| Wed May 4, 2016 12:43 AM EDT

Donald Trump is now officially the presumptive Republican nominee for president. But what kind of chance does he have of winning in November?

I'd guess "pretty slim," but it depends on a couple of things. First, does anything horrible happen between now and the election—say, a terrorist attack, a financial crash, or Hillary Clinton being indicted for her email woes? Any of those could sweep him into office, but since they're entirely unpredictable there's not much point in worrying about them.

Second, just how smart is Trump? Here's what worries me: in retrospect, we can see that Trump played the rest of the GOP field like a Stradivarius. He somehow managed to get his strongest competitors, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, out of the running early. He didn't waste much energy on obvious losers like Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Then he zeroed in on Marco Rubio. In the end, he was left only with Ted Cruz, possibly the most disliked man on the planet.

Was this deliberate? The entire Republican Party would have rallied around Rubio if he'd been the last man standing, and that could very well have turned things around. But Cruz was never much of a threat to Trump. He's got a smarmy personality that doesn't appeal to the public, and a contemptuous disposition that has made virtually every Republican politician on Capitol Hill into a sworn enemy. Even faced with a Trump freight train bearing down on them, they couldn't bring themselves to circle the wagons and work for a Cruz victory.

So: Did Trump actively try to make sure that Cruz would be his final opponent? Is he that smart and that proficient at executing a long-term strategy? Or did he just get lucky? The answer to that question might determine what happens in November.

Fighting Cancer Has Gotten a Lot More Expensive Since 2000

| Tue May 3, 2016 7:06 PM EDT

Cancer drugs are expensive. No surprise there. But Carolyn Johnson reports on a study showing that they've become spectacularly more expensive over time:

The [study] examined 32 cancer medications given in pill form and found that their initial launch list prices have steadily increased over the years — even after adjusting for inflation. The average monthly amount insurers and patients paid for a new cancer drug was less than $2,000 in the year 2000 but soared to $11,325 in 2014.

Shazam! That makes the rise of university tuition seem like peanuts. Still, at least prices should go down as time goes by and competing medications come to market. Right? No siree:

A study published Monday in Health Affairs examined what happened to the prices of two dozen cancer drugs after launch and found that pharmaceutical companies on average increased prices 5 percent above inflation each year. That inflation dwarfed ameliorating effects from competing drugs being introduced, which resulted in an average discount of about 2 percent. And the biggest hikes — of about 10 percent — coincided with the drugs receiving approval for other conditions. In other words, when a drug became useful to a larger number of patients, the price shot up.

The findings highlight the often mind-boggling ways that drug prices behave. Launch prices for cancer drugs have soared over time; after launch, those prices also increase steadily, despite competition from other treatments and even as the drugs are used by more patients.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of ways this makes sense. First, pharma companies might well price new cancer drugs moderately in order to get them on formularies and build up market share. Then, once they've been approved and doctors start to get familiar with them, they raise the price a bit each year. No one's going to remove a drug from their approved formulary just because of a measly little 5 percent price increase, after all.

Second, cancer drugs can legitimately become more valuable over time. It's one thing to have the original clinical studies, but the true efficacy of a new drug is still a bit iffy until oncologists start prescribing it in large quantities and get personal experience with it. Once that happens—assuming the results are good—demand for the drug goes up and the market will bear a higher price. When doctors find a drug that produces good results with acceptable side effects, they quite reasonably get attached to it.

That said, I'm guessing that the main driver of these price increases is because they can. Without these drugs, you die. That makes it pretty tough for an insurance company to say no regardless of what the price is.