Kevin Drum

Sarah Palin Is Such a Creep

| Wed Jan. 20, 2016 2:52 PM EST

I know I said that last night's Palin-palooza would "hold me for a year," but I guess I was wrong. Palin's son Track was arrested Monday on domestic violence charges, and today Palin addressed this:

My own family, my son, a combat vet having served in the Stryker brigade... my son like so many others, they come back a bit different, they come back hardened, they come back wondering if there is that respect... and that starts right at the top.

I'm not happy with liberals who use Track's problems as a way of snickering at Sarah. Yes, when you use your kids as campaign props, you open yourself up to some of this. But parents do their best, and kids sometimes have problems. Whatever Track's problems are, he and his family should be allowed to deal with them in their own way.

That said, if you decide to use your son's problems as a political cudgel, you can hardly expect to others to hold back forever. Palin should be ashamed of herself.

But leave Track alone anyway. He doesn't deserve outsize attention just because his mother is such a creep. I only hope he gets the help he pretty obviously needs.

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Scientists Discover "Most Planet-y" Planet in the Solar System

| Wed Jan. 20, 2016 1:29 PM EST

Oh FFS. We just demoted Pluto because it was too small and didn't do a real planet's job of taking out the orbital trash, but now the boffins at Caltech are claiming we have a ninth planet after all. It's a gazillion miles away, but apparently it's big enough to "clear the neighborhood" and thus qualify as a real planet.

If it's real, that is. So far its existence has merely been inferred from gravitational anomalies in Kuiper Belt objects:

The object, which the researchers have nicknamed Planet Nine [ed note: clever!], has a mass about 10 times that of Earth and orbits about 20 times farther from the sun on average than does Neptune...."This would be a real ninth planet," says [Mike] Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy....Brown notes that the putative ninth planet—at 5,000 times the mass of Pluto—is sufficiently large that there should be no debate about whether it is a true planet....In fact, it dominates a region larger than any of the other known planets—a fact that Brown says makes it "the most planet-y of the planets in the whole solar system."

Ooh. The "most planet-y" object in the solar system! And how do they infer its existence? With sciencey stuff like this:

Well, I'll believe it when I see it. Or, rather, when I see a digitally enhanced CCD image that's been fed into the maw of a supercomputer, thus allowing scientists to assure me at a 5-sigma level that a certain gray pixel has met rigorous statistical tests and really is Planet Nine. After all, seeing is believing.

By the way, if we ever mount an expedition to Planet Nine, it should be pretty interesting. Here's what I expect we'll find:

Global Warming Went On a Rampage in 2015

| Wed Jan. 20, 2016 12:17 PM EST

Remember that old chestnut, the climate chart that starts in 1998 and makes it look like climate change has been on a "pause" ever since? It was always nonsense produced by cherry picking an unusually high starting point, but it was still effective propaganda. But those days are gone for good. 2014 was already considerably warmer than 1998, and last year has now blown away everything in the record books:

The globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for 2015 was the highest among all years since record keeping began in 1880. During the final month, the December combined global land and ocean average surface temperature was the highest on record for any month in the 136-year record.

During 2015, the average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.62°F (0.90°C) above the 20th century average....This is also the largest margin by which the annual global temperature record has been broken. Ten months had record high temperatures for their respective months during the year. The five highest monthly departures from average for any month on record all occurred during 2015.

George Will is now going to have to find some other way to lie about global warming. I don't doubt that he's up to it, but at least he'll have to work a little harder.

ISIS Is Losing

| Wed Jan. 20, 2016 11:17 AM EST

Zack Beauchamp passes along a new leaked document that chronicles the latest travails of the ISIS high command:

According to the document, ISIS is being forced to slash salaries for its fighters by half across its holdings. The document was first reported by researcher Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi on his personal site, as part of a broader cache of documents he acquired. Here's the core passage from the document:

 "On account of the exceptional circumstances the Islamic State is facing, it has been decided to reduce the salaries that are paid to all mujahideen by half, and it is not allowed for anyone to be exempted from this decision, whatever his position."

ISIS is such a hideous group that it's hard to find anything about them funny. But both al-Qaeda and ISIS have a bureaucratic streak that it's hard not to laugh at. The only thing missing from this memo is a declaration that they're planning to hire McKinsey to help them streamline operations and get back on track to meet FY16 business plan projections.

On a more serious note, this really is a sign that ISIS is not the unstoppable juggernaut that the hair-on-fire brigade insists it is. They've lost large amounts of their territory. Their oil infrastructure has been badly damaged and the global glut of oil makes it a lousy source of revenue anyway. They're surrounded by enemies on all sides. They may be the first terrorist group in history to master social media, but on the ground they're losing. That's likely to continue.

Donald and Sarah Barnstorm Iowa

| Wed Jan. 20, 2016 12:23 AM EST

Oh God. I know I shouldn't do this. I know I shouldn't post snippets from Sarah Palin's endorsement speech for Donald Trump just because they amuse me. But I'm weak. So, so weak. Can you find it in your hearts to forgive me? Please please please? Thanks. Here goes:

On national security: I’m in it, because just last week, we’re watching our sailors suffer and be humiliated on a world stage at the hands of Iranian captors in violation of international law, because a weak-kneed, capitulator-in-chief has decided America will lead from behind. And he, who would negotiate deals, kind of with the skills of a community organizer maybe organizing a neighborhood tea, well, he deciding that, “No, America would apologize as part of the deal,” as the enemy sends a message to the rest of the world that they capture and we kowtow, and we apologize, and then, we bend over and say, “Thank you, enemy.”

Ed note: Actually, our sailors violated Iranian waters and were released after 16 hours. Nobody in the Obama administration apologized for anything.

On Islam: Are you ready for a commander-in-chief, you ready for a commander-in-chief who will let our warriors do their job and go kick ISIS ass?....And you quit footin’ the bill for these nations who are oil-rich, we’re paying for some of their squirmishes that have been going on for centuries. Where they're fightin’ each other and yellin’ “Allah Akbar” calling Jihad on each other’s heads for ever and ever. Like I’ve said before, let them duke it out and let Allah sort it out.

Ed note: Um, which is it? Is Trump going to kick ISIS ass or is he going to withdraw and let Allah sort it out?

On Donald Trump's family values: Oh, I just hope you guys get to know him more and more as a person, and a family man. What he’s been able to accomplish, with his um, it’s kind of this quiet generosity. Yeah, maybe his largess kind of, I don’t know, some would say gets in the way of that quiet generosity, and, uh, his compassion, but if you know him as a person and you’ll get to know him more and more, you’ll have even more respect.

Ed note: Actually, Trump married a model; started an affair with a younger actress; dumped the model; married the actress; started an affair with an even younger model; dumped the actress; and then married model #2. There's no telling how long this one will last.

On Trump's fiscal rectitude: He, being an optimist, passionate about equal-opportunity to work. The self-made success of his, you know that he doesn’t get his power, his high, off of OPM, other people’s money, like a lot of dopes in Washington do. They’re addicted to OPM, where they take other people’s money, and then their high is getting to redistribute it, right?

Ed note: Actually, Donald Trump loves other people's money. That's why he's been involved in no less than four bankruptcies: because he borrowed lots of other people's money and then squandered it.

On her future career as a hip hop artist:

  • No, we’re not going to chill. In fact it’s time to drill, baby, drill down.
  • Cops and cooks, you rockin’ rollers and holy rollers!
  • Right wingin’, bitter clingin’, proud clingers of our guns, our god, and our religion....Tell us that we’re not red enough?
  • Yes the status quo has got to go....Their failed agenda, it can’t be salvaged. It must be savaged.
  • The main thing, the main thing, and he knows the main thing....He knows the main thing, and he knows how to lead the charge.

Ed note: Not bad! Let Dre produce and she might have something here.

OK, that should hold me for another year or so.

Should Bernie Sanders Support Reparations?

| Tue Jan. 19, 2016 9:36 PM EST

A few days ago, someone asked Bernie Sanders if he supported the payment of reparations to African-Americans. He said he didn't—and then, as with every other subject he's asked about, used it as a springboard to talk about the "real issue" of poverty and income inequality. Ta-Nehisi Coates was pretty unimpressed:

Sanders says the chance of getting reparations through Congress is “nil,” a correct observation which could just as well apply to much of the Vermont senator’s own platform....Sanders is a lot of things, many of them good. But he is not the candidate of moderation and unification, so much as the candidate of partisanship and radicalism....Sanders should be directly confronted and asked why his political imagination is so active against plutocracy, but so limited against white supremacy.

Coates is unhappy that Sanders is so reticent about reparations, but this strikes me as an odd criticism. A couple of years ago Coates famously wrote an Atlantic article titled "The Case for Reparations," and after reading it I concluded that he was reticent about reparations too. He certainly made the case that black labor and wealth had been plundered by whites for centuries—something that few people deny anymore—but when it came time to talk about concrete restitution for this, he tap danced gingerly. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

Broach the topic of reparations today and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay? But if the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution. For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for “appropriate remedies.”

....Scholars have long discussed methods by which America might make reparations to those on whose labor and exclusion the country was built. In the 1970s, the Yale Law professor Boris Bittker argued...$34 billion....Today Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor, argues for something broader: a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.

....Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely....What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.

If you say "reparations," an ordinary person will almost certainly understand it in a very specific way: A disbursement of money to blacks to atone for slavery and its aftermath. But despite the provocative title of his piece, Coates never squarely endorses this. Instead, he suggests we pass a bill that would study slavery. He writes approvingly of Ogletree's proposal for job training and public works. And he wants a "full acceptance" of our past along with a "national reckoning" about its consequences.

I'm not being coy when I say that after I read this, I couldn't tell whether or not Coates supported reparations in the sense that most people understand them. And since I'm sure that's the sense in which Bernie Sanders was answering the question, I'm not quite sure what Coates is criticizing here. To my ear, Sanders sounded a lot like Ogletree, who Coates seems to have no problem with. So what's his problem with Sanders?

POSTSCRIPT: Since someone is bound to ask, I don't support reparations myself because I don't think they would do any good. But maybe I'm wrong. I can be convinced otherwise.

And if I am wrong, I've never thought that practical considerations are an insurmountable obstacle. A simple solution is to try to roughly equalize black and white net worth, which would require payment of about $50,000 to every black person in the country. That would be expensive but affordable over a course of 10 or 20 years. Nor would the supposedly sticky subject of "who's black?" be all that difficult. About 95 percent of the cases would be easy, and the rest would go to an arbitration panel of some kind. The arbitration might be messy, but it would hardly be the first time we've done something like this.

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The Real Republican Problem Is an Appallingly Shallow Bench

| Tue Jan. 19, 2016 3:20 PM EST

For what it's worth, I want to toss out a theory of what's happening in this year's GOP primary. Basically, there's no Mitt Romney or John McCain.

Here's what I mean. In the past two cycles, Republicans have offered us Snow White and the Seven Loons. In 2008 the loons were Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, Alan Keyes, and some other also-rans. In 2012 it was Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and a few others. Both of these primaries were clown shows, but in both cases there was one savior: John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

This year the saviors were Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, but both have turned out to be horrible candidates. Rubio is a little better on the campaign trail, but he doesn't have the gravitas to unite the middle of the party behind him. So that leaves us with the loons. Donald Trump is currently leading the loon pack, but honestly, it could have been anyone. Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, Chris Christie. They all have loon appeal, but not quite as much as Trump (so far, anyway).

It just goes to show that Mitt Romney was a better candidate than we gave him credit for. He was too stiff and too rich, but he had presidential credibility; he was able to subdue the loon pack; he chose a non-loon as running mate; and he ran a fairly decent non-loon campaign against Obama. He didn't win, but just imagine how much worse any of the others would have done.

So the big story isn't so much Trump as it is the failure of the Republican Party to field even a single decent mainstream candidate. The Democrats aren't much better, but at least they have one. The truth is that both parties seem to have an appallingly shallow bench. I don't quite know why, but to me that's a bigger story than Trump. He's just the latest clown in a party full of them.

Southern White Women Are Apparently in Pretty Bad Shape These Days

| Tue Jan. 19, 2016 2:19 PM EST

Since I happened to mention the famous Case/Deaton mortality study in the previous post, here's the latest from Andrew Gelman. As you may recall, Case and Deaton concluded that mortality among middle-aged whites from suicide, alcohol, and drug poisoning had skyrocketed over the past two decades. This set pundits afire with theories about what was going on, but Gelman has done some age adjustment to the cohorts that Case and Deaton used, and then broken up the data by gender, and then by geographic area. Here's what he gets:

After 2005, there's no effect on middle-aged men at all. It's all women. And if you break it down further, nearly the entire effect is concentrated among women in the South. But why? Gelman punts:

I don’t have any explanations for this. As I told a reporter the other day, I believe in the division of labor: I try to figure out what’s happening, and I’ll let other people explain why.

I think that's wise. For one thing, if you slice the data in a different way, you might get a different result. What's more, as I've mentioned several times, the increased mortality affects the young too, not just the middle aged. So if you spun some brilliant theories about why middle-aged whites are so damn depressed these days, you might want to rethink things. Your new theory needs to explain why the young and the middle-aged are dying in greater numbers, and you also need to explain why it's affecting primarily women in the South. Good luck.

Study: End-of-Life Care in US Is About Average

| Tue Jan. 19, 2016 1:32 PM EST

Here's a cheeful headline over at Wonkblog:

Dying of Cancer in the U.S. Is Not as Bad as Most People Think

Huh. I'll bet many people beg to differ. Luckily, someone thought better of this claim and changed the headline:

The U.S. is not as bad at end-of-life care as most people think

That's more like it. But is it true? Ezekiel Emanuel1 is part of a team that's done some comparative research on this subject,2 and he says it is. But when I read carefully through the Wonkblog piece, here are the takeaways:

  • End-of-life hospital spending for American cancer patients is pretty high.
  • American cancer patients experience more aggressive (and probably more unwanted) end-of-life interventions than cancer patients in other countries.
  • They are twice as likely to be admitted to the ICU as in other countries.
  • Nearly 40 percent received last-ditch chemotherapy — more than patients in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands.
  • Only 75 percent of cancer patients are hospitalized during their last six months, compared to 89 percent in Belgium.

To my gimlet eye, this looks like four bad things and one good thing: our hospitalization rate is lower than in other countries. That really is good news, and is probably the result of better hospice and palliative care. Still, our hospitalization rate isn't a lot lower. We're making good progress on this, but it's not really something to crow about too much.

Oddly enough, this article bothers me not for any personal reasons, but because it's the second time in the last few months that I've seen a disturbing phenomenon: reporting of scientific papers that passes along the author's spin uncritically. We saw this recently with the Case/Deaton paper, which was widely reported as showing a specifically middle-aged problem even though that's not what the paper demonstrated. But Case and Deaton spun it that way, so that's what showed up everywhere. This time it's a paper that shows only a bit of modestly good news on the end-of-life front, but it's getting reported as a mythbusting finding because that's how one of the authors is spinning it.

In this case, there's another piece of badly misleading data: that the US spends about as much on end-of-life care as other countries. But the study includes only hospital costs, which are obviously lower in the US if we hospitalize less than other countries. What's more, the study also omits physician costs in the US. If that were included, and if hospice costs were included, US spending would look a lot higher. You can sort of figure this out if you read the paper, but the chart that's helpfully included makes no mention of it.

Moral of the story: as usual, be careful reporting about studies. Read the fine print. Don't take the authors' interpretation as gospel.

1Yes, yes, Rahm Emanuel's brother.

2The seven countries he compared were the United States, Germany, Norway, Belgium, Great Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands.

Today's Econ 101 Quiz: What Happens When You Reduce the Cost of Being an Asshole?

| Tue Jan. 19, 2016 11:44 AM EST

Annie Lowrey and Abraham Riesman have decided to quit Twitter. Why? Mostly because it's a soul-draining hive of scum and villainy:

Lowrey: Over the years, as an official woman-on-the-internet, I've encountered some truly insane garbage on Twitter. You write a story about Social Security reform, and then someone tells you to swim out into the ocean until you're too tired to swim anymore and you drown. There's also the persistent nagging by the godforsaken lunatic assholes, like the Obamabots, for instance. But that's not really the stuff that bothers me. It's the little stuff. The mansplaining from well-intentioned friends. The forest-for-the-trees criticism of my grammar. The sincere complaints about my vocal fry every time I go on a radio program, podcast, or television. (Read this in a suuuuupper-scratchy voice? Go fuck yourselves.) The constant, degrading references to me as my husband's wife.

Finally, I decided to wash my hands of the whole thing when I wrote something about poverty and proceeded to get a flood of nasty, sexist tweets and emails — just days and days of it. It was impossible to defend myself, and impossible to work, and impossible to focus, and I just wanted to leave the internet forever. It really messed me up for a few days: Why put things out there if you're not going to be able to have even a semblance of a good conversation about them? Why put things out there if people are going to attack you rather than the work?

Riesman: My "epiphany" came in two parts, both of them pretty bland. I'd tweeted something about Star Wars, and someone I don't know somehow saw it and tweeted a link to it with a snarky comment attached. At that point, a notorious asshole whose name I won't mention saw that person's tweet and retweeted it. All of a sudden, dozens and dozens of the asshole's followers decided to hurl insults at me and do weird stuff like [blah blah blah].

....But the final straw didn't come until my aggravation was compounded the next day. In the mid-afternoon, I got into a fight on Twitter with a reviewer from a low-end culture site who had some idiotic opinions about a cartoonist I enjoy. The reviewer is a person of no major consequence in the critical world, and the site is widely derided, but I still felt compelled to get into an argument with her. I wasted nearly an hour doing so and found myself exhausted afterward.

This is the basic problem with Twitter: It's too damn big and too damn easy to use. Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, people had to do some work if they wanted to casually trash you. Maybe write a letter to the editor. Or dig up your home address and write a letter to you. On rare occasions, they might even call you on the phone.

Then email came along and made the ALL CAPS insult genre a lot easier: just click a link, pound out a few sentences, and hit Send. Easy peasy. Still, no one saw your brilliance except the target, and you rarely got a response. It was progress, but still not very satisfying.

Then came Twitter. It was even easier than email. Just hit Reply or RT and do your thing. You're limited to 140 characters, so it's not very much work. Everyone who follows you gets to see it, and your target knows it—so they sort of feel obligated to defend themselves. And to make things even better, while the 140-character limit is great for random vituperation, it's a tough limit for reasoned response. And to make things even more better, getting a mob of fellow outrage junkies to follow your lead isn't just easy, it's almost inevitable. It practically happens on its own.

Doesn't that sound great? It sure does!

But on the receiving end? Not so much. You can repeat zen koans to yourself all you want—ignoring an asshole is the first step toward enlightenment—but it's tough. There's just so many of them. Sure, a hundred assholes is only 0.001 percent of the nation's assholes, but mental statistics just aren't enough to overcome the emotional tsunami of raw assholery aimed at you you you.

Basically, Twitter is the perfect platform for two things: snark and assholery. And it's not always easy to tell them apart. I have a pretty firm rule about never replying to assholes, but sometimes I make mistakes. I ignore someone who's asking a good faith question because my asshole detector goes off thanks to the tone of the tweet (most often because it's easy to strike the wrong tone in 140 characters). Likewise, sometimes I engage people who I mistakenly assume have a good faith criticism, only to quickly discover they're just looking for a fight. Life is tough on the internets!

Anyway, in the end this is a lesson about economics. What happens when you vastly reduce the cost of being an asshole? Answer: the supply of assholes goes up. That's what Twitter has done for us. It's also provided a decent platform for entertaining snark; breaking news; and pleasant chatting that's open to anyone who wants to participate. Is the tradeoff worth it? It all depends on how good you are at ignoring assholes and not getting addicted to internet fights. So how good are you? If you'll just wait a moment, I'm sure BuzzFeed will post a quick test to tell you.