Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 15 August 2014

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

Yesterday, in a surprising act of cooperation, Domino just sat in the sun while I took her picture from a distance. Usually I can get off maybe one or two shots before she realizes what's going on and heads directly over to the camera. Is it because she loves the camera? Distrusts the camera? Just wants to say hi to me? I don't know, but this time she just let me click away. This one reminds me of Inkblot's presidential campaign portrait.

In other news, click here to meet Meatball, possibly the world's biggest cat.

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Open War in Ukraine Is a Little Bit Closer Every Day

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 2:34 PM EDT

"Maybe it’s just me," tweets Blake Hounshell, "but open warfare between Ukraine and Russia seems like a BFD."

Yes indeed. As it happens, we're not quite at the stage of open warfare yet, but we sure seem to be getting mighty close. Remember that Russian "aid convoy" that everyone was so suspicious of? Well, it turns out to be....pretty suspicious. BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg says that upon inspection, many of the 280 trucks turned out to be "almost empty." Yesterday we received reports of a column of Russian military vehicles crossing the border into Ukraine as the aid convoy idled nearby, and that was confirmed by NATO earlier today. A little later, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that Ukraine had destroyed "the majority" of the column.

In one sense, this is nothing new. Ukraine has been saying for months that Moscow is backing pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and more recently Ukraine began an aggressive fighting to expel them. Still, this does appear to be an escalation. Between the mysterious aid convoy and the military column that may or may not have been largely destroyed by Ukrainian forces, warfare is indeed becoming a little more open every day.

Who Should Run Against Hillary?

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 1:14 PM EDT

Andy Sabl surveys the Democratic field today and concludes that, sure enough, Hillary Clinton is the prohibitive frontrunner. Who could challenge her?

Any Democratic candidate jumping in at this point will have to have already demonstrated party loyalty, actual or likely executive skills, and the ability to win a majority of votes in both a party primary and a general election. Moreover, it would help if that candidate had a record of early and loud opposition to doing “stupid [stuff]” in the Middle East...It would help if the candidate had vast personal wealth....as well as strong and deep connections to Silicon Valley, the only serious rival to Wall Street (Clinton’s base) as a source of campaign cash.

So who could this be? Sabl is obviously describing Al Gore, and admits there's zero evidence that Gore has any intention of running. "But if he did, and if he ran as the anti-war and populist—yet impeccably mainstream—candidate that Hillary clearly is not and has no desire to be, things would suddenly get interesting."

I guess so. But that raises a question: Who would you like to see challenge Hillary? I'm not asking who you think is likely to run, just which plausible candidate you'd most like to see in the race.

I suppose my choice would be Sherrod Brown. He's a serious guy who's been in Washington for a long time. He opposed the Iraq War; he's got good populist anti-Wall Street credentials; and he's a solid labor supporter. He's a pretty good talker, and never comes across as threateningly radical. As far as I know, he doesn't have any skeletons in his closet serious enough to disqualify him. (Aside from the fact that he says he has no interest in running, of course.)

Who's your choice? Plausible candidates only. Not Noam Chomsky or Dennis Kucinich. It's surprisingly hard, isn't it? The Democratic bench is actually pretty thin these days.

Europe Agrees to Arm the Kurds

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 12:00 PM 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.

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

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 10:34 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 1:24 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.

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How Software Turns Low-Wage Work Into Constant Chaos

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 12:30 PM 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 10:59 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 3:49 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?

The Paperless Office Has Beaten Out the Paperless Bathroom After All

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 3:12 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.