Kevin Drum

Russia Is Not Exactly a Big Winner in the Crimean Dispute

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 2:36 PM PDT

So how are things going on the anti-Russia front? A quick recap:

Last week President Obama announced sanctions on high-ranking Russians. He also signed an executive order allowing him to impose sanctions on Russian industry. France has threatened to cancel the sale of two warships to the Russian navy. The G8 has effectively kicked Russia out of the club. Ukraine has cut off electricity to Crimea. The countries on Russia's borders are increasingly united against their next-door neighbor. The Russian economy, hardly robust in the first place, has already begun to tank. Ukraine has agreed to sign an association agreement with the European Union, precisely the action that Vladimir Putin so desperately tried to head off last year—and which triggered the Maidan protests that brought down the Ukrainian government. Today, European leaders made it clear that further economic sanctions against Russia were likely in the near future. And that's just so far.

And what has Russia gotten in return? Ten thousand square miles of territory that, nationalistic pride aside, mostly represents a political and economic drain on the state. That Putin sure is a master geopolitical strategist, isn't he?

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Conservatives Are the Big Roadblock to Improving Head Start

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 12:19 PM PDT

Robert Gordon and Sara Mead say that Head Start is better than a lot of its critics give it credit for:

But this much is true: Head Start could do better....Evaluations suggest that strong state preschool programs sustain gains in reading, math, or both in ways that Head Start doesn’t. There’s no reason to think Head Start can’t produce similar results. In fact, some individual Head Start programs already do: Kids in them achieve vocabulary gains more than twice the Head Start average. But it will require some changes.

Some of the program’s defenders may bristle at such talk, for fear that any questioning of Head Start’s effectiveness will reinforce the arguments of [Paul] Ryan and those eager to downsize or even eliminate the program. But now is the time to talk about improving Head Start. Replicating results from the best Head Start programs would be a big boost for our nation’s poorest youngsters, enabling many more of them to start school much better prepared.

This is the eternal problem. There are plenty of liberals who would like nothing more than to make Head Start—and pre-K programs in general—better than they are today. In fact, if there's any group which should be most concerned about making sure that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently and that social programs show real results, it's liberals.

So why is there often so much resistance to improvement? Obviously inertia is part of it. Most of us tend to get a little lazy once we find a comfort zone. But there's a more substantive reason too: As Gordon and Mead say, defenders of social welfare programs know that acknowledging problems won't lead to kumbaya sessions with conservatives where we all agree on improvements. It merely gives conservatives fodder for arguments to cut spending on the poor.

This sounds simpleminded and uncharitable. So be it. But the plain truth is that there are vanishingly few conservatives who are genuinely dedicated to improving social welfare programs. They just want to cut taxes and cut spending. Sometimes this is out in the open. Sometimes it gets hidden in the language of "block grants." Sometimes it's buried even further in spending caps that obviously starve domestic programs without admitting that any particular program will ever get cut. But one way or another, it's there.

So what's the answer? I wish I knew. But as long as conservatives remain dedicated to using problems with social programs as nothing more than convenient excuses to get the Fox News outrage machine rolling, progress is going to be hard to come by.

Who Gets Special Access to Comcast's Customers? Who Decides?

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 10:46 AM PDT

Things that make you go "hmmm":

Apple Inc. is in talks with Comcast Corp. about teaming up for a streaming-television service that would use an Apple set-top box and get special treatment on Comcast's cables to ensure it bypasses congestion on the Web, people familiar with the matter say.

....Under the plan Apple proposed to Comcast, Apple's video streams would be treated as a "managed service" traveling in Internet protocol format—similar to cable video-on-demand or phone service. Those services travel on a special portion of the cable pipe that is separate from the more congested portion reserved for public Internet access.

People familiar with the matter said that while Apple would like a separate "flow" for its video traffic, it isn't asking for its traffic to be prioritized over other Internet-based services.

Making video-on-demand operate properly requires careful engineering. It doesn't work if you just dump it out on the public internet and call it a day. However, that careful engineering costs money, and it's not unfair for companies to demand reasonable compensation of some sort if they're the ones who bear the costs.

But who decides what's reasonable and what isn't? In a competitive market, the market eventually decides. Price signals and competition do the heavy lifting with only light government regulation to set a level playing field and police the worst abuses. But when companies like Comcast have effective monopoly control over internet access in their territories, who decides then? There are no market forces to rely on, which means that Comcast gets to decide unilaterally. So, for example, when Netflix finally agrees to pay a fee to Comcast for delivery of its video content, the quality of Netflix transmissions miraculously goes up almost instantly. Apparently there were no infrastructure issues at all and no special buildout costs. It was just a matter of Comcast extorting some extra revenue from Netflix.

The Apple case is different in the details, but it raises the same basic principle: Who decides? Who gets special access to Comcast's customer base? Who gets shut out? The market can't provide any guidance because Comcast has little genuine competition in this space.

So who decides?

Chart of the Day: Social Security Is More Important Than Most People Think

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 9:06 AM PDT

EBRI's annual Retirement Confidence Survey is out, and you can find it here if you want to read the whole thing. In a nutshell, retirement confidence dropped sharply in 2008 when the Great Recession started, and finally started to increase a bit this year for the first time since then. Nonetheless, the number of people who are confident they have enough to retire on is still around 55 percent, way below the 70 percent who felt this way during the 90s and aughts.

There are plenty of interesting facts and figures about retirement in the report, and I've excerpted an interesting pair of charts about worker expectations of Social Security below. These numbers have bounced around a bit over the years, but generally speaking, only about a third of active workers think Social Security will be a major part of their retirement. In reality, about two-thirds of actual retirees report that Social Security is a major part of their income. Keep that in mind the next time you hear someone blithely talking about cutting Social Security benefits, especially among low-income workers.

It's Time For Some Obamacare Success Stories

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 7:44 AM PDT

Vincent Rizzo, who suffers from Type 2 diabetes, has gone without health insurance for 10 years. "We got 30 denial letters," his wife says. But then along came Obamacare, and now both Rizzos are covered for $379 a month, with a $2,000 family deductible. Michael Hiltzik compares their story to that of all the Obamacare horror stories making the rounds:

You haven't heard Rizzo's story unless you tuned in to NBC Nightly News on New Year's Day or scanned a piece by Politico about a week later. In the meantime, the airwaves and news columns have been filled to overflowing with horrific tales from consumers blaming Obamacare for huge premium increases, lost access to doctors and technical frustrations — many of these concerns false or the product of misunderstanding or unfamiliarity with the law.

While Rizzo was working her way to thousands of dollars in annual savings, for example, Southern California Realtor Deborah Cavallaro was making the rounds of NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, CBS, Fox and public radio's Marketplace program, talking about how her premium was about to rise some 65% because of the "Unaffordable" Care Act. What her viewers and listeners didn't learn was that she hadn't checked the rates on California's insurance exchange, where (as we determined for her) she would have found a replacement policy for less than she'd been paying.

So why do we hear so much about folks like Cavallero, and Bette from Spokane, and the infamous Julie Boonstra? Good question. More to the point, with Obamacare's website problems largely solved, and with the initial signup period coming to a close with a relatively high participation rate, will we start hearing these stories soon? Especially in swing states where the horror stories are getting so much play? Click the link for some speculation.

Chart of the Day: Republicans Stick Together No Matter What Kind of District They Represent

| Sun Mar. 23, 2014 10:52 AM PDT

Here's an interesting chart from Ryan O'Donnell. It shows voting patterns for members of Congress based on what kind of district they represent. Among Democrats, as you'd expect, their voting records become more progressive as their districts become more strongly Democratic (blue line). What's more, there's a sharp break at zero. When a district becomes even slightly majority-Democratic, voting records become sharply more progressive.

But you see nothing of the kind among Republicans. The red line is nearly flat. There's virtually no difference in their voting records regardless of how strongly Republican their district is. Even when they represent moderately Democratic districts, it doesn't matter. They still vote monolithically conservative.

Now, it's possible that this is merely an artifact of Republicans being the out-of-power party. When you're faced with a president of the opposite party, maybe it's just easier to maintain a united front of obstruction. Someone could shed some light on this by creating a similar chart for 2001-06, when it was House Democrats who were facing a president of the opposite party.

But I suspect that's not it. Or at least, not the whole story. Modern Republicans are both more cohesive and more ideological than Democrats (virtually none have a progressive score above 20, while lots of Democrats have scores below 80). Nor do they pay a price for this. Voters in pinkish districts don't seem to mind electing members of Congress with strongly red voting records. I guess they figure that as long as they vote against higher taxes, it doesn't much matter if they waste time on lots of symbolic sops to the tea party.

Could Democrats in light bluish districts act the same way? They sure don't seem to think so. Comments?

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What's the Difference Between Barton Gellman and Glenn Greenwald?

| Sun Mar. 23, 2014 8:58 AM PDT

Glenn Greenwald makes a point worth repeating today about the steady publication of stories based on the documents Edward Snowden provided to several media outlets last year:

(1) Edward Snowden has not leaked a single document to any journalist since he left Hong Kong in June: 9 months ago. Back then, he provided a set of documents to several journalists and asked that we make careful judgments about what should and should not be published based on several criteria. He has played no role since then in deciding which documents are or are not reported.

....(2) Publication of an NSA story constitutes an editorial judgment by the media outlet that the information should be public. By publishing yesterday’s Huawei story, the NYT obviously made the editorial judgment that these revelations are both newsworthy and in the public interest, should be disclosed, and will not unduly harm “American national security.” For reasons I explain below, I agree with that choice. But if you disagree — if you want to argue that this (or any other) NSA story is reckless, dangerous, treasonous or whatever — then have the courage to take it up with the people who reached the opposite conclusion: in this case, the editors and reporters of the NYT.

There's more at the link, but it's worth noting that although Greenwald himself is the subject of routine suggestions of treason-esque behavior, very rarely is the Washington Post's Barton Gellman given the same treatment. But Gellman has been responsible for some of the biggest stories to date based on the Snowden documents.

Why the difference? Obviously Greenwald has placed himself in the public eye more than Gellman has, but that's hardly sufficient explanation. What matters is what gets published. And the truth is that, as near as I can tell, nearly every single document that Greenwald has published so far would also have been published by the Post or the New York Times if they had gotten to it first. He hasn't done anything that these pillars of American journalism haven't done too.

What Are Your Favorite Comedies?

| Sat Mar. 22, 2014 9:00 AM PDT

They say you can tell more about a person by what he laughs at than by what he cries at. With that in mind, here are ten of my favorite film comedies in no particular order. As you can see, I basically like jokefests. There is little trace of sophistication here:

  • Real Genius
  • Life of Brian
  • Office Space
  • Groundhog Day
  • Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
  • Airplane!
  • This is Spinal Tap
  • Dodgeball
  • Galaxy Quest
  • The Big Lebowski

Marian and I both thought this Minute Maid commercial was funny. I remember telling her that it showed the difference in our senses of humor. I liked it for the first part; she liked it for the second part:

Among older, classic comedies, I would probably choose anything starring Cary Grant and let it go at that. What are your favorites?

JUST FOR THE RECORD: I limited my list to one film per actor/director. So only one Monty Python film, one Steve Martin film, one Abrahams/Zucker film, etc. There are no Mel Brooks films because I'm not really much of a Mel Brooks fan.

Friday Cat Blogging - 21 March 2014

| Fri Mar. 21, 2014 11:53 AM PDT

In the previous post I mocked Richard Branson's advice that "You only live one life, so I would do the thing that you are going to enjoy." However, I was referring only to human beings in that post. Cats are different. Domino has taken Branson's advice fully to heart and does only things that she enjoys. For example, curling up on her favorite blue blanket and giving me the eye. She enjoys that! A few minutes later she will follow one of her other passions and curl up on the patio. Then she'll curl up on my lap. You get the idea. She is fully committed to doing only what she loves.

Here's Some Better Life Advice Than Richard Branson's

| Fri Mar. 21, 2014 11:47 AM PDT

Richard Branson has a life tip for us all: "You only live one life, so I would do the thing that you are going to enjoy." Tyler Cowen says, "The rest of the advice, more pedestrian, is here."

Holy cow! What could possibly be more pedestrian than that? Is there any rich and successful person in the entire world who hasn't given the rest of us this advice?

Now, in fairness, Cowen was referring to the other piece of Branson's advice: have a sofa in your kitchen. "The truth is, so long as you've got a kitchen which has space for a sofa, and a bedroom, and a partner that you love, you don't necessarily need the add-ons in life." Uh huh. Can I translate this? "If you have enough money to buy a house with a ginormous kitchen that can comfortably accommodate a sofa, you're probably doing OK." If I tried to put a sofa in my kitchen, there would be no kitchen left.

I know I'm being cranky, but I am sick to death of rich people telling us to "follow our passion" or something similar. (In a 10-part list, Branson repeats this advice in five different forms.) Some of us, of course, are lucky enough to get to do that. I've come pretty close, for example. But for most of us, this is a recipe for going broke. That's because, sadly, the world tends to assign a low market value to most of our passions.

Here's some better advice: try to avoid stuff that you hate. I admit that this is less uplifting, but it's generally more achievable and produces reasonable results. You might not ever get your dream job, or your dream house, or your dream partner, because that's just the way the lottery of life works. But with a little bit of effort, you might be able to avoid a soul-crushing job, a two-hour commute, and an empty relationship. Maybe. It's worth a try, anyway.

But honestly, most of us are better off saving our passions for our hobbies. This won't get me invited to give any commencement speeches, but it's still pretty solid advice.