Kevin Drum

Uninsured Rate Ticks Up a Bit at End of 2015

| Thu Feb. 11, 2016 12:03 AM EST

Every quarter I take a look at the CDC's survey of the uninsured to see how Obamacare is doing. So far it's doing pretty well. However, the CDC data is always six months behind, and a few days ago I noticed that Gallup's more timely survey showed an increase in the uninsured rate over the last two quarters of 2015. I figured I'd have to wait another month to see if the CDC confirmed this, but their latest data came out earlier than I expected. Sure enough, in the third quarter they show a small increase in the uninsured.

Unfortunately, I don't have anything trenchant to say about this. The data is a little noisy, and this might be nothing more than the usual bouncing around. Or it might represent a normal uptick at the end of the year, as people lose insurance before the new signup period. It's probably not really possible to say until we have quite a bit more data. And it's worth noting that the uninsured rate is still more than a percentage point below the original CBO projection.

But the raw data is the raw data. Good or bad, it's here for everyone to noodle over.

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Does Obama Still Have That Old-Time Magic?

| Wed Feb. 10, 2016 2:21 PM EST

In a few minutes President Obama will be back in Springfield making a speech addressed to his supporters. "You've taken on the painstaking work of progress," he says. "You've helped us find that middle ground where real change is won....I hope you'll tune in today at 2:30 p.m. Eastern." Andrew Sprung figures this is basically going to be an endorsement of Hillary Clinton:

Obama just sent an email to supporters announcing a speech to be delivered this afternoon. I imagine it will be a message "for" Clinton — both to support her and to model a coherent pitch for incremental change.

....Then there's "the painstaking work of progress" and the 'middle ground where real change is won." Those are memes pointed at this moment, in which the frontrunners in both parties are calling for radical, fundamental change.... Incrementalism is a tough sell, but Obama has made it throughout his career, and he does so more effectively than Clinton. He's more successful because he's better at articulating the long-term goal and how the incremental steps move toward them, as well as the historical framework in which those steps fit.

But will it work? Personally, I've always viewed Obama as a cautious, pragmatic, mainstream liberal. But his strongest supporters never saw him that way. They really believed he was going to revolutionize Washington DC and end all the bickering. He'd pass universal health care, rein in Wall Street once and for all, and stop climate change in its tracks.

But he didn't. And the conventional wisdom says that his supporters from 2007—when he first went to Springfield to announce his candidacy—are disappointed in him. He turned out to be just another go-along-get-along guy, and now he wants to foist a go-along-get-along gal on us. Sorry. No sale. We're feeling the Bern these days.

We'll see. But I will say this: If Obama really wants to help Hillary Clinton, he can't afford too much subtlety. Any criticism of radical change will be read by liberals as primarily an attack on Donald Trump unless he makes it crystal clear what he's talking about. Tune in at 2:30 and find out!

Here's Why Bernie Sanders Doesn't Say Much About Welfare Reform

| Wed Feb. 10, 2016 1:24 PM EST

Clio Chang and Samuel Adler-Bell want to know why Bernie Sanders hasn't spent more time blasting the Clinton-era welfare reform law and proposing concrete ways to address poverty:

While Sanders frequently repeats and laments the statistic that one in five American children live in poverty, neither he nor Clinton has put forward a specific plan to address it. And neither spends much time talking about food stamps, housing subsidies, or the Earned Income Tax Credit, all essential programs for the poor.

Liberal pundits have criticized Clinton for defending her husband’s welfare legislation—and for parroting the conservative caricature of welfare beneficiaries as "deadbeats"—but so far, it hasn’t created any serious problems for her campaign. But this, perhaps, is to be expected from a more moderate Democrat. The oversight is arguably a more glaring problem for Sanders, who voted against the welfare bill and harshly condemned it in his 1997 book, but hasn’t made it an issue in the primary. In August, he told Bloomberg, with uncharacteristic restraint, "I think that history will suggest that that legislation has not worked terribly well."

One reason for this restraint may be simple: perhaps Sanders believes that the best approach to poverty is to enact his broad economic revolution. Once that's done, poverty will start to decrease.

But there's another possible reason: maybe welfare reform has turned out not to be an especially big deal. After all, by 1996 the old AFDC program accounted for only about $20 billion in spending, a tiny fraction of total welfare spending—and the difference between AFDC spending and the TANF spending that took its place is even more minuscule. The truth is that it's barely noticeable compared to increases in social welfare spending during the 90s from changes to CHIP, EITC, the minimum wage, and so forth.

On that score, it's worth taking a look at social welfare spending more broadly. But what's the best way? We spend just shy of a trillion dollars a year on social welfare and safety net programs, but that number bounces up and down when the economy goes into recession and more people need help. That tells us more about the economic cycle than it does about anti-poverty programs. Instead, we need to look at spending per person in poverty. This gives us a better idea of how policy has responded to poverty over the past few decades. So here it is:

I chose 150 percent of the poverty level as my metric, but the truth is that it doesn't matter much. This chart looks pretty much the same whether you show total spending, per capita spending, or spending per family below the poverty level. If you remove Medicaid from the mix, the spending increase isn't as steep but otherwise looks little different.

There are two obvious takeaways from this. First, overall spending on social welfare programs has increased by 3x since 1980. That's pretty substantial. Second, if the 1996 welfare reform act had any effect on this steady rise in spending, you'd need a chart the size of my house to make it out. Perhaps Bernie Sanders knows this, and understands that in the great scheme of things, welfare reform just isn't worth fighting over anymore.

The 2016 Election Is Likely to Be a Close One

| Wed Feb. 10, 2016 12:06 PM EST

Those are words that should cause any real progressive of any gender to damn near have an aneurysm." It's hard to argue with that.

So far, no problem. Those are all good reasons to vote for Bernie. But what comes next is pretty disturbing:

Much as I support Sanders' lifelong, rock-ribbed liberalism, I might have been persuaded to vote for a Democrat somewhat to the right of him in hopes of bringing some moderate Republicans along for the ride—especially in view of that party's clown car primary. But none of those halfway-reasonable leftists ran: not Al Gore, not Russ Feingold, not Elizabeth Warren. And the very clownishness of that madly tootling Republican vehicle, I believe, virtually ensures that whichever Democrat secures the nomination will win the general.

I wonder how common this belief is? Not too common, I hope, because it's wishful thinking in the extreme. Democrats have held the White House for eight years and the economy is in okay but not great shape. Those are not great fundamentals for a Democratic victory.

Now, it's also true that demographic shifts are making the electorate steadily more Democratic. And candidate quality matters: If Republicans nominate a Donald Trump or a Ted Cruz, they'll be shooting themselves in the foot. Nonetheless, every bit of history and political science modeling suggests that this will at least be a close election—and possibly one that favors Republicans at the start.

You should vote for whomever appeals to you. But if you're operating under the delusion that Democrats can literally nominate anyone they want because nobody sane will vote for any of those crazy Republicans, you'd better think twice. This is a belief that betrays both a lazy liberal insularity about the nature of the electorate and an appalling amnesia about a political era that's brought us Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Dick Cheney, Paul Ryan, and the entire tea party. This election is no runaway, folks.

You May Officially Stop Wigging Out About Twitter

| Wed Feb. 10, 2016 11:03 AM EST

Finally we have some closure. Not in the presidential campaign, of course, which remains in chaos, but in our Twitter feeds. Today we learned that Twitter's new "algorithm" is apparently a feature that curates which tweets you see first if you've been away for a while:

The company, based in San Francisco, announced on Wednesday that it would start showing a selection of tweets that a user who has been away from the service might want to see. “There are lots of people on Twitter who follow hundreds or even thousands of accounts,” Jeff Seibert, Twitter’s senior director of product, said in an interview. “When they come back to Twitter, there’s actually too much for them to catch up on.”

Tweets in this update can come from any time, from minutes to hours ago. The idea is to put important tweets up top so the user does not have to wade through less interesting information.

....To avoid another panic among its more loyal users, Twitter is carrying out the latest change slowly. Users will initially have the option to switch on the new feature in the settings menu before it becomes a default setting. Everyone who doesn’t like it will be able to turn it off.

Now see? That's not so bad, is it? I will definitely be giving this a try. If it doesn't work out for me, I'll turn it off.

Quote of the Evening: America Currently Suffering Worst Economic Catastrophe in Recorded History

| Tue Feb. 9, 2016 11:55 PM EST

I know Trump has said this before, so technically it's hardly new. Still, I mean, it's...it's...oh hell:

I am going to be the greatest jobs president that God ever created. Remember that. Don't believe those phony numbers when you hear 4.9 percent and 5 percent unemployment. The number's probably 28, 29, as high as 35. In fact, I even heard recently 42 percent. Do you think if we had 5 percent unemployment, do you really think we'd have these gatherings?

Yeah, Trump "heard" 42 percent recently. You betcha. Trump hears a lot of things, sort of like Joan of Arc. In any case, I assume Trump keeps saying this because it goes over well with his audiences. Why might this be?

  • Trump fans are really bad at arithmetic.
  • Trump fans know an ungodly number of unemployed people in their immediate circle of friends.
  • Trump fans are really eager to believe the government is lying to them.
  • Trump fans don't actually know what unemployment is.
  • Trump fans don't really have a clue what he's saying. It's just mumbo jumbo delivered with authority, and they love it.

I dunno. Could be all of the above, I suppose.

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Well, That Was a Boring Night in New Hampshire

| Tue Feb. 9, 2016 11:09 PM EST

This has been a shockingly surprise-free evening. Trump and Sanders were both expected to win by about 20 points, and that's what they did. The next four Republicans were expected to bunch up, and that's what they did. Kasich did a little better and Rubio a little worse than the polls showed, but that's all. As for Chris Christie, he bet the farm on New Hampshire and now the mortgage is due. He's toast.

So is Kasich, by the way. I'm afraid a 16 percent showing in New Hampshire isn't going to be strong enough to do him any good. More and more, it's starting to look like Trump vs. Cruz for all the marbles, with Rubio and Bush still having outside shots as spoilers.

I guess Trump was the big winner tonight. He won big, he's got good numbers in South Carolina, and the race for second place was close enough that probably nobody is going to pull out. As long as Trump is competing with a bunch of rabble, instead of one or two well-funded competitors, he'll probably keep doing pretty well. The only question left is whether the chump faction of the Republican Party is big enough to actually deliver him the nomination. I think I no longer have an opinion about that.

Heavy Drinking Is Primarily a Women's Problem

| Tue Feb. 9, 2016 8:25 PM EST

Back in 2005, South Dakota adopted a program called 24/7 Sobriety. It's pretty simple: if you're convicted of drunk driving, you have to take a breath test twice a day while you're on pretrial release or probation. If you fail, you get tossed in jail for a couple of days.

So how has it worked out? According to a new study in Lancet Psychiatry, pretty well. Previous studies had already demonstrated a 12 percent drop in repeat drunk driving, and the new study shows that 24/7 also contributed to a drop of 4.3 percent in all-cause mortality. That's a lot of lives saved. Mark Kleiman has more of the details here.

So far, none of this is a big surprise. But another result of the study is more interesting: the decline in mortality was largest among women even though men make up the vast majority of drunk driving cases. The chart on the right shows the numbers. All-cause mortality barely budged for men but was down 8.3 percent among women. Even more startling, the decline in mortality was mostly due to fewer deaths from circulatory problems and external injuries.

But why? The authors make a few suggestions:

A well publicised programme such as 24/7 Sobriety...might promote a general deterrent effect. Another potential mechanism is a reduction in drinking-related problem behaviours among participants, which might reduce mortality among non-participants (eg, domestic violence).

With respect to circulatory deaths among women, one might consider reduced stress due to partner’s cessation of heavy drinking. There might also be spillovers due to changes in the drinking behaviour of participants’ family and friends. A husband’s drinking affects his wife’s drinking during the transition into married life and early in the marriage, and transitions in drinking behaviour can have spousal effects even later in life.

This is, obviously, speculative. Still, it confirms our intuition that heavy drinking affects friends and family as much or more than it does the heavy drinker himself. Heavy drinkers are far more likely to assault their wives and girlfriends; are more likely to trigger drinking in others; and just generally cause lots of stress and anxiety in those around them. When you cut out the heavy drinking, all of those things are reduced significantly. And the biggest beneficiaries are women.

The Russians Are Doing Surprisingly Well in Syria

| Tue Feb. 9, 2016 6:05 PM EST

In the interest of keeping myself honest, I should acknowledge that—so far, at least—the Russian incursion in Syria has apparently gone a lot better than I expected:

Under the banner of fighting international terrorism, President Vladimir Putin has reversed the fortunes of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad....Government forces are now on the offensive, and last week they scored their most significant victory yet....“The operation is considered here to be quite successful,” said Evgeny Buzhinsky, a retired lieutenant general and senior vice president of the Russian Center for Policy Studies in Moscow. It could probably continue for one year or longer, he said, “but it will depend on the success on the ground.”

....“Putin can afford to play geo­political chess in the Middle East because it does not cost much,” said Konstantin von Eggert, an independent political analyst based in Moscow. Entering the conflict in Syria has allowed Putin to combat what he sees as a U.S. policy of regime change, show off his military muscle and reassure allies in the region that Moscow is a loyal partner, von Eggert said.

In the past couple of days, thanks to Russian help, Assad has come ever closer to taking control of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city:

Gains by Assad and his allies in the past month have squeezed overland supply lines to Turkey that may represent the last bulwark against defeat for the rebels in northern Syria.

Assad, who was on the verge of defeat in mid-2015 before Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped in with military support, has wrested back the initiative. His army last week broke a three-year siege of two villages north of Aleppo. The city is almost encircled, apart from a narrow stretch of contested territory.

The Russian air force has acquitted itself better than I expected, and Assad's forces have taken advantage of Russian air support better than I expected. It's still early days, of course, and there's a lot more to Syria than Aleppo. Russia could still find itself drawn into a long, pointless quagmire down the road. But it hasn't yet.

Over the past decade, Putin has taken on several small-scale military incursions: in Georgia in 2008; in Crimea in 2014; and now in Syria. But small though they may be, they've been executed competently and they've provided the Russian army with invaluable real-world experience. Apparently that's paid off.

Arizona Is Paying a High Price for Cracking Down on Illegal Immigration

| Tue Feb. 9, 2016 3:15 PM EST

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting look today at the costs and benefits of immigration across the Southern border. After Arizona cracked down on illegal immigration in 2007, their population of undocumented workers dropped by a whopping 40 percent—and it's stayed down since then:

Arizona is a test case of what happens to an economy when such migrants leave, and it illustrates the economic tensions fueling the immigration debate.

Economists of opposing political views agree the state’s economy took a hit when large numbers of illegal immigrants left for Mexico and other border states, following a broad crackdown. But they also say the reduced competition for low-skilled jobs was a boon for some native-born construction and agricultural workers who got jobs or raises, and that the departures also saved the state money on education and health care. Whether those gains are worth the economic pain is the crux of the debate.

You should read the whole thing if you want all the details, including the fact that wages increased about 15 percent for a small number of construction workers and farmworkers—though Arizona's unemployment rate more generally has been no better than its neighbors'. Beyond that, though, the Journal provides only a graphic summary that doesn't really summarize much. So I've helpfully annotated it for you. It sure looks to me like Arizona has a very long way to go before the benefits of reducing illegal immigration will come anywhere close to the costs.