Kevin Drum

Paying for Stuff Will Soon Be Almost as Easy and Reliable as Using Cash

| Tue Oct. 28, 2014 12:39 AM EDT

Sarah Halzack describes the difference between between ApplePay and a competing system, CurrentC, due to roll out next year:

Apple Pay's system relies on near-field communication chips, allowing users to wave their smartphones in front of a reader and confirm the purchase with a fingerprint scan. CurrentC, on the other hand, will require shoppers to use their smartphone's camera to take a picture of a code generated by the retailer, a series of steps that may feel slower and more complex to consumers than Apple Pay.

Say what? You have to pull out your phone, open the CurrentC app, and take a picture of a QR code that's displayed on the merchant's screen. If that doesn't work, you have to manually enter a numeric code.

And this is faster and more convenient than swiping a debit card because....what? Am I missing something here?

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Refusing Medicaid Expansion Is Costing Red States a Bundle

| Mon Oct. 27, 2014 8:22 PM EDT

Here's a remarkable chart cobbled together from a survey of state Medicaid directors by the Kaiser Family Foundation. It's a little ugly, but bear with me.

This is a projection of Medicaid enrollment and spending for 2015 that compares states that accepted the Obamacare Medicaid expansion with those that didn't. As you can see, in states that accepted the expansion, enrollment is forecast to cover 18 percent more people compared to only 5.2 percent more in non-expansion states. And as you'd expect, this will cost money: total Medicaid spending will rise faster in expansion states than non-expansion states.

But most of that spending growth is covered by the federal government. It turns out that states which accepted the Medicaid expansion expect state spending to grow more slowly than in non-expansion states.

In other words, the non-expansion states really are shooting themselves in the foot. They're enrolling fewer people, but paying more to do it. They actually prefer spending more money if the alternative is spending less but helping their own poor with medical coverage. Hard to believe.

John Boehner Still Hasn't Sued Obama Over Obamacare. Why Not?

| Mon Oct. 27, 2014 1:27 PM EDT

Three months ago, John Boehner threw a bone to the tea-party faction that was nipping at his heels and demanding action against the lawless tyrant Obama and his executive orders that routinely defied both the Constitution and the duly enacted laws of the land. The bone took the form of a planned lawsuit against the administration because it had delayed certain aspects of the employer and employee mandates under Obamacare.

At the time, I was perfectly OK with Boehner doing this. Why not let courts decide this kind of dispute, after all? That's what they're for. What's more, unlike most of the tea party complaints about lawless behavior, this one seemed at least defensible. And yet, three months later, we still have no lawsuit. Why? Simon Lazarus and Elisabeth Stein suspect that it has to do with Boehner asking for some legal advice from the Congressional Research Service and then quietly getting a report that he wasn't expecting:

CRS reports such as this one are generated in response to requests by members or committees of Congress, though the CRS does not make public the identity of the requester or requesters. This particular report — of which House Democrats were unaware until it appeared — bears the earmarks of an inquiry, requested by the Speaker or his allies, to give some color of legitimacy to their charges of rampant presidential illegality. Instead, the result validates the lawyers’ maxim not to ask a question when unsure of the likely answer.

The Report offers two conclusions: First, under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), no rulemaking procedure was necessitated by the Administration’s initial one-year delay in enforcing the employer mandate, past the ACA’s prescribed January 1, 2014 effective date....Second, the Report states that, when, in February 2014, the Administration announced an additional year’s postponement of full enforcement of the mandate, until January 1, 2016, “informal rulemaking procedures” appeared to be required. In fact, as the report’s authors reference, the Administration had engaged in precisely the type of informal rulemaking process that, the report concluded, was called for. The Administration’s action finalized a September 2013 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, making adjustments in response to comments from interested parties, precisely as prescribed by the APA.

In other words, having been asked whether the Obama administration had crossed all its t’s and dotted its i’s, the CRS’ answer was unequivocal: yes it had. In bland CRS-speak, this seems like a veritable finger in the eye — or perhaps, a blunt warning to the Speaker to drop the lawsuit project.

Oops. This doesn't mean Boehner can't still file his lawsuit, of course. It was all pretty much symbolism and bone-tossing in the first place, so it hardly matters if he ends up losing the case a year or two from now. But it could have proven embarrassing, especially if the CRS report became public, which, inevitably, it did. This stuff never stays under wraps forever.

So perhaps Boehner has decided to hold his fire. He has bigger fish to fry right now, and I doubt he was ever all that excited about the lawsuit anyway. For now, it's become just another shard on the ever-mounting bone pile of tea party outrage about a president doing stuff they don't happen to approve of.

Here's Two and a Half Cheers for No-Drama Obama

| Mon Oct. 27, 2014 12:01 PM EDT

On Saturday I promised to both agree and disagree with Matt Yglesias, but I never quite got around to the agreeing part. So let's do that today. Yglesias was writing in response to a fairly typical complaint from Josh Green that President Obama is too aloof, too cerebral, and too technocratic to satisfy the public's "emotional needs" in a national leader. But Yglesias points out that Obama's firm, low-key disposition served him well when the rest of the world went into panic mode over the passage of Obamacare after Democrats lost control of the Senate in 2010:

There's no single optimal temperament for all times and all places. Obama, by temperament, is a cool cucumber. I am not. At times, Obama might have been better served by a more emotional approach and an itchier trigger finger. But Obama was right during the political crisis of January 2010.

He was also right back in October of 2008 when the American banking sector seemed to be collapsing....Obama's opponent, John McCain, was never one to underreact. Most observers greatly appreciated the younger senator's ability to keep things in perspective and his evident dedication to trying to learn the relevant facts....Similarly, two months earlier, McCain was proclaiming "we are all Georgians now" in response to Putin's incursion into South Ossetia. A systematic overreactor would have had his finger much more on the public pulse when Ebola first arrived in Dallas. But he also might have embroiled the country in a nuclear war with Russia.

....Journalists have systematic professional incentives to overreact....The hot temperament consequently tends to dominate in the ranks of the media....But more than a political pose, an aversion to purely symbolic action has genuinely served Obama well at critical moments....Obama's approach to the economy has been far from flawless, but it's not a coincidence that the USA has performed better since 2008 than Europe or the United Kingdom and weathered its financial crisis far better than Japan did in the 1990s.

The Deepwater Horizon crisis passed. The American Ebola crisis will also pass. HealthCare.gov got fixed. The Russian economy is reeling in the face of sanctions. Osama bin Laden is dead. The economy is growing. Obama hasn't always been a very effective pundit-in-chief (acute crisis moments aside, his inability to articulate public anger at Wall Street has been remarkable) but that's not actually his job. On the big stuff, he's been effective. And that's not a coincidence.

I always find it difficult to strike just the right tone on this. Unlike Yglesias, I am a fairly cool cucumber, and I'm frankly relieved to have a president whose temperament is roughly in sync with my own. At the same time, I'm well aware that I'm not typical, and that like it or not, the presidency is a bully pulpit that often demands a certain demonstrativeness in order to resonate with the public. Overtly emotional appeals worked well for Bill Clinton and overtly nationalistic ones worked well for George Bush. In Obama's case, however, it really is sometimes hard to tell if he's truly engaged with problems the way he should be. Occasional leaks from White House insiders that Obama is "furious" about something or other doesn't get the job done.

That said, Obama has good reason to be contemptuous of the 24/7 news cycle and the way it's affected politics. Obviously reporters aren't much interested in writing "Problem X continues to be steadily addressed" day after day. They want action! They want news! And these days, they don't even want it daily. They pretty much want it hourly.

But that's a crappy attitude toward problem solving. There have been times and places when Obama probably has been a little too disengaged, either in the planning process or in responding to crises. Healthcare.gov is an example of the former, and the sequester/debt limit/fiscal cliff battles may be examples of the latter. For the most part, though, his approach has been pretty sound. There was little the government could do about Deepwater Horizon, and high-profile interference probably would have been as counterproductive as the recent panic-stricken Ebola quarantine orders from the governors of New Jersey, New York, and Florida. Obama has instead been radiating calm and working behind the scenes to prevent Ebola from becoming just another partisan football. He's urging us to adopt evidence-based responses that don't undermine the longer-term fight against Ebola, and that's the right call.

America is a big place. The world is even bigger. We have big problems that don't get solved in a day. I don't want to pretend that Obama has an ideal management style, when he plainly doesn't. But given what he's dealing with, Obama's management style is pretty damn good. And you know what? The dirty little secret of management is that half the battle—maybe more!—is avoiding lots of stupid stuff that you have to clean up afterward.

Obama may not always give us the emotional sustenance we want, or mount a pretense of whirlwind action to satisfy the cable nets, but he gets things done. Anyone who can count on their fingers can pretty easily figure out, for example, that he's had a more successful presidency than either Clinton or Bush. Slow and steady doesn't win every race, but it wins a lot of them.

Kobani Still Holding Out -- But Is That Good News?

| Mon Oct. 27, 2014 10:20 AM EDT

Like Mark Thompson, I've been a bit out of circulation for the past couple of weeks—enough to pay only minimal attention to Iraq, anyway—and also like Thompson, I'm a little surprised to come back and discover that Kobani is still holding out against ISIS. This is largely thanks to the US bombing campaign, and Thompson isn't sure what to think of this success:

While that’s obviously good news in the short term for the city’s 200,000 largely-Kurdish residents, it’s tougher to handicap what it means for the long-term U.S.-led effort to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.

Earlier this month, U.S. military officers were speaking of ISIS’s “momentum,” and how its string of military successes over the past year meant that quickly halting its advance would likely prove difficult if not impossible. Yet, as far as Kobani is concerned, that seems to be what is taking place.

But that raises the stakes for the U.S. and its allies. Having smothered ISIS’s momentum, an eventual ISIS victory in the battle for Kobani would be a more devastating defeat for the U.S. military than an earlier collapse of the town.

There are concerns that the focus on saving Kobani is giving ISIS free reign elsewhere in its self-declared caliphate—that the U.S., in essence, could end up winning the battle while losing the war.

“The U.S. air campaign has turned into an unfocused mess,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote Friday. “The U.S. has shifted limited air strike resources to focus on Syria and a militarily meaningless and isolated small Syrian Kurdish enclave at Kobani at the expense of supporting Iraqi forces in Anbar and intensifying the air campaign against other Islamic State targets in Syria.”

The flip side of this is the obvious one: have patience. “Here we are not three months into it and there are critics saying it’s falling apart; it’s failing; the strategy is not sound,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. “The strategy is sound and it’s working and there’s no plans to deviate it from right now.”

If we're really engaged in a years-long battle against ISIS, then a few months here or there doesn't matter much. And saving Kobani isn't just a moral good, but can also demonstrate to others that ISIS is not some magical, unstoppable force destined to overrun Iraq. It's just an ordinary group of guerrilla soldiers who can be defeated with determination and patience. Stay tuned.

Housekeeping Finale

| Sun Oct. 26, 2014 9:09 PM EDT

I am home and the cats are becoming re-acquainted with their long-lost daddy. Monday should bring a return to normalcy. That is all.

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Profiles in Mainstream Media Courage

| Sun Oct. 26, 2014 2:05 PM EDT

Laura Poitras, the journalist who first worked with NSA leaker Edward Snowden and later wrote groundbreaking stories with Glenn Greenwald about the stunning growth and reach of the US surveillance state, describes her initial interaction with the mainstream media in an interview with Astra Taylor:

Q: Other journalists were afraid to work with Snowden.

A: There’s a strong culture of fear among journalists right now, because the government is cracking down on both journalists and sources....We involved [Washington Post journalist] Bart Gellman when Snowden wanted to release one document early, and Gellman used the Snowden archive to break the PRISM story about mass electronic surveillance. He was going to come with me to Hong Kong to meet Snowden, and the Post became very nervous and pulled out. They told me not to go. I felt like I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t go, so I went.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Social Networking Employs More People Than We Think

| Sun Oct. 26, 2014 11:39 AM EDT

This is a pretty amazing story from Wired reporter Adrian Chen about the army of workers who spend their days monitoring the raw feeds of social networking sites to get rid of "dick pics, thong shots, exotic objects inserted into bodies, hateful taunts, and requests for oral sex" before they show up on America's morning skim of Facebook and Twitter:

Past the guard, in a large room packed with workers manning PCs on long tables, I meet Michael Baybayan, an enthusiastic 21-year-old with a jaunty pouf of reddish-brown hair....Baybayan is part of a massive labor force that handles “content moderation”—the removal of offensive material—for US social-networking sites. As social media connects more people more intimately than ever before, companies have been confronted with the Grandma Problem: Now that grandparents routinely use services like Facebook to connect with their kids and grandkids, they are potentially exposed to the Internet’s panoply of jerks, racists, creeps, criminals, and bullies. They won’t continue to log on if they find their family photos sandwiched between a gruesome Russian highway accident and a hardcore porn video.

....So companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us. And there are legions of them—a vast, invisible pool of human labor. Hemanshu Nigam, the former chief security officer of MySpace who now runs online safety consultancy SSP Blue, estimates that the number of content moderators scrubbing the world’s social media sites, mobile apps, and cloud storage services runs to “well over 100,000”—that is, about twice the total head count of Google and nearly 14 times that of Facebook.

Given that content moderators might very well comprise as much as half the total workforce for social media sites, it’s worth pondering just what the long-term psychological toll of this work can be.

We often hear about how the new app economy is largely a jobless economy, but thanks to the general scumminess of human beings maybe that's less true than we think. Cleaning up the internet for grandma is a grueling, never-ending job that, for now anyway, can only be done by other, less scummy, human beings. Lots of them.

It's true that the "basic moderation" jobs are largely overseas and don't pay much, but second-tier moderators are mostly US-based and are paid fairly well. As you'd expect, though, most don't last long. Burnout comes pretty quickly when you spend all day exposed to a nonstop stream of torture videos, hate speech, YouTube beheadings, and the entire remaining panoply of general human degradation. That's what the rest of Chen's story is about. It's a pretty interesting read.

Quick Treatment Update - And Thanks

| Sat Oct. 25, 2014 8:09 PM EDT

I had my first round of chemo about six hours ago, and I had no reaction at all. No nausea, no vomiting, no nothing. I ate lunch an hour afterward. Obviously this may change as things progress, but so far I seem to be tolerating the treatment regimen well. That's good news. And my back continues to slowly get stronger and less painful.

The outpouring of prayers and good wishes has been genuinely heartening. Thank you to everyone for all the comments, tweets, and emails. They truly mean a lot to me. And to Nora and Jason from Chicago: Thanks for the flowers! They're lovely.

On a related note, several people have asked if I need any financial help. As it happens, MoJo provides excellent health coverage (mine is through Kaiser), so I'm well covered on that front. Beyond that, as many of you know, my previous career has left me in very good financial shape. So I'm one of the lucky ones: All I have to do is worry about following my treatment plan and getting better. I have no money worries, and plenty of family and friends (and cats!) rooting for me and ready to take care of me when I need help.

That's the latest. And here's the best news: Depending on how things go tonight, I may be able to go home tomorrow. Hooray!

Amazon Must Be Stopped - Sort Of

| Sat Oct. 25, 2014 11:44 AM EDT

Enough of this cancer nonsense. Let's agree and disagree with Matt Yglesias today (not that I'm comparing him with cancer, mind you).

First off, the disagreement. In the current issue of the New Republic, Franklin Foer pens a righteous rant against Amazon as an evil, marauding monopoly that needs to be crushed. It warmed the cockles of my heart, since Amazon's almost Luthor-like predatory strategies against startup competitors leave me cold. That's one reason I choose not to do much business with them. But legally? I may not like the way Amazon went after Diapers.com, but let's face it: they're nothing close to a monopolist in that space. Yglesias is right that in most of their business lines they should be left alone. Walmart and Target and Google and a tsunami of aggressive startups will keep them plenty busy.

However, there's an exception: e-books. Yglesias has no sympathy for big book publishers, and he has a point. These are pretty gigantic companies in their own right, and although I suspect he gives their business practices short shrift in some important ways, there's not much question they often seem pretty antediluvian. But this goes too far:

It is undeniably true that Amazon has a very large share of the market for e-books. What is not true is that Amazon faces a lack of competition in the digital book market. Barnes & Noble — a company that knows something about books — sells e-books, and does so in partnership with a small outfit called Microsoft. Apple sells e-books and so does Google.

Amazon has a huge share of the e-book market, and pretty much everyone—including Yglesias, I think—believes that Barnes & Noble is only a few steps from the grave. Unsurprisingly, Nook funding is in free fall. Sony has exited the e-book market and Kobo isn't far behind. Even Apple, as mighty as it is, has only a tiny market share after several years of trying.

In theory, this is a great opportunity for an innovative startup. Startup costs are modest since there's no physical inventory to worry about. Publishers are eager for new entrants. Maybe a smart startup could appeal to consumers with a great new e-reader concept. Or a better recommendation engine. Who knows? There are loads of possibilities. The problem is that no startup can possibly compete with a huge incumbent that's willing to sell e-books at a loss. There's no VC on the planet willing to fund a trench war like that.

So Amazon really does have a monopoly position in this market that it sustains via predatory pricing and heavy-handed business practices—against publishers both big and small—that might make John D. Rockefeller blush. Tim Lee pinpoints a big part of the problem:

I mostly agree with my colleague Matt Yglesias's argument that Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers. But there's at least one way US law gives Amazon excessive power, to the detriment of publishers, authors, and the reading public: ill-conceived copyright regulations lock consumers into Kindle's book platform, making it hard for new e-book platforms to gain traction.

....In 1998 [music publishers] got Congress to pass the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which made it a federal crime to unscramble encrypted content without the permission of copyright holders.

....While the law was passed at the behest of content creators, it also gave a lot of power to platform owners. If you buy a movie on iTunes, you're effectively forced to continue buying Apple devices if you want to keep watching the movie. Tools to transfer copy-protected movies you've purchased from iTunes onto another platform exist, but they're illegal and, accordingly, not very user-friendly.

Amazon has taken advantage of the DMCA too. Kindle books come copy-protected so that only Amazon-approved software can read it without breaking the law. Of course, software to convert it to other formats exists, but it's illegal and accordingly isn't very convenient or user-friendly.

And that creates a huge barrier to entry.

Aside from my general distaste for Amazon, I happen to think the Kindle app is kind of sucky. The Nook app is better, so I buy my e-books via Barnes & Noble. But the Nook app has its own problems, and you may prefer Kindle. That's great! Competition! But I'm keenly aware that B&N is likely on its last legs, and then what? Amazon will have even less incentive to improve its reader, especially on less popular platforms.

I like competition. And it can't be emphasized too much that the DRM issue is driven heavily by publishers, not just by Amazon. Nor is there a simple solution. Arguments of the techno-utopian "information wants to be free" crowd aside, there are pretty self-evident reasons why authors and publishers don't want their books to be instantly available for free within a week of being published.

Nonetheless, this is a problem that begs for a solution. Partly it's driven by DMCA restrictions. Partly it's driven by those antediluvian publishers. And partly it's driven by Amazon's genuine monopoly position in the e-book market, which stifles innovation and promises to get even worse in the future.

So sure, leave Amazon alone in most of its business lines. But in e-books? Nope. They're a monopoly in every sense of the word, and they use predatory practices to stay that way. They may offer cheap books, but in the long run it's vibrant competition that truly benefits consumers. Regulating Amazon would hardly solve all our e-book problems—far from it—but it would be a start.