Kevin Drum

Health Update

| Thu Jun. 4, 2015 12:08 PM EDT

I've been sharing my health status with you guys all along, so I suppose I ought to continue even when the news isn't as positive as I'd like. Here goes.

As you recall, a few days ago I got the 3-week results of my M protein level, a marker for cancerous plasma cells. It had gone down to 0.38, which was an OK result, but not great. It really needs to be zero or close to it. Yesterday I got the 5-week results, and my M protein level has increased to 0.56.

This is obviously bad news. It means I didn't respond very well to the second round chemotherapy and the stem cell transplant. But there's no point in wigging out about it yet. I won't really know what it means until I get a biopsy and talk to my doctor later this month. At the very least, however, it means I'll definitely begin maintenance therapy, and probably sooner rather than later.

For now, that's all I know. In early July I should know more.

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Edward Snowden Didn't Expose the NSA's Bulk Phone Collection Program. Leslie Cauley Did.

| Thu Jun. 4, 2015 11:29 AM EDT

The LA Times complains today that President Obama left someone out when he praised Congress for reforming the Patriot Act to end the NSA's bulk collection of telephone records:

Unacknowledged by the president was the man who can fairly be called the ultimate author of this legislation: former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has been charged with violating the Espionage Act and is now living in exile in Russia. Without Snowden's unauthorized disclosures two years ago, neither the public nor many members of Congress would have known that the government, acting under a strained interpretation of the Patriot Act, was vacuuming up and storing millions of Americans' telephone records. That program will end after a six-month transition period under the bill signed by Obama.

I don't want to minimize Snowden's contribution here. He exposed a vast amount of official secrecy and lying, and did it in a way that produced a lot of public attention. Whether you love him or hate him, he deserves a ton of credit for doing what he did.

But it's been a long-running pet peeve of mine that hardly anyone ever credits the person who was really the first to expose the NSA's bulk data collection program: Leslie Cauley of USA Today. Here she is in May 2006, seven years before Snowden's disclosures:

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY. The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime....The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders.

....For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made — across town or across the country — to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others....With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans.

.....Among the big telecommunications companies, only Qwest has refused to help the NSA, the sources said. According to multiple sources, Qwest declined to participate because it was uneasy about the legal implications of handing over customer information to the government without warrants.

The big difference between Cauley and Snowden isn't so much in what they revealed about the bulk collection program, but simply that the world yawned at Cauley and did nothing. It wasn't until Snowden revealed far more about the NSA's activities that the bulk collection program finally got the attention it deserved.

Snowden deserves credit for that—and, obviously, for providing lots of concrete evidence about the nature of the program. But when it comes to exposing the bulk collection program itself? Cauley told us all about it nearly a decade ago. She's the one who deserves credit for making it public in the first place.

Why Do So Many Obvious Losers Think They Can Be President?

| Wed Jun. 3, 2015 12:39 PM EDT

My body is continuing its revolt against all things good and true, so my mental acuity is scattered at best. But here's something I've wanted to get out of my brain and onto pixels for a while. It's based on nothing at all except my personal opinion. It's not based on polls, nor anything the candidates have said, nor any detailed analysis of which blocs of voters each one will appeal to. It's just my gut feeling. So here it is: my ranking of the 2016 Republican presidential field:

Vanity candidates: 0 percent chance of winning

  • Rand Paul
  • Ben Carson
  • Carly Fiorina
  • Mike Huckabee
  • Rick Santorum
  • George Pataki
  • Lindsey Graham
  • John Kasich

Not quite 0 percent, could maybe catch on if something really lucky happens

  • Bobby Jindal
  • Ted Cruz
  • Marco Rubio
  • Chris Christie
  • Rick Perry

Legitimate candidates with a real shot at the nomination

  • Jeb Bush
  • Scott Walker

Right off the bat, I know there are at least two people on my list who will generate some dissent: Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. But Rand Paul has no chance. Sorry. He has nearly Sarah Palin's instincts at working the press and getting his base excited, but his views are just flatly too far out of the tea party mainstream to win the Republican nomination. As for Rubio, I just don't see it. I know most people would put him down with Bush and Walker as having a legitimate shot, but.....really? The guy kinda reminds me of Pete Campbell on Mad Men. He's got some talent, but no one really likes him that much. And he's kind of an idiot, really. Still, he's young, good looking, and appeals to older tea party types. To me, that means he's an ideal running mate, but has no chance at the brass ring.

The thing that strikes me whenever I actually type up this list is how few legitimate contenders I find. But maybe I shouldn't be surprised. In 2012, I thought from the very start that Romney was the only legitimate contender, and there are twice as many in 2016. Maybe that's fairly normal, actually.

So here's my question. You might disagree with my ranking, but probably not by a whole lot. There just aren't very many candidates who have a serious chance at winning the nomination. So why are so many running? When guys like Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul ran, I understood why. They just wanted a chance to present their views to a national audience. But that can't be what's motivating everyone on this list. So what is it? What is it that's somehow convinced so many obvious losers that they actually have a shot at becoming the next president of the United States?

Don't Pay Attention to Obamacare Rate Increase Horror Stories

| Tue Jun. 2, 2015 2:24 PM EDT

I wrote about this once before, but it's worth repeating: don't pay too much attention to scare stories about gigantic increases in Obamacare premiums next year. Insurers that request increases of more than 10 percent are required to get clearance from state and federal regulators, which means that the only increase requests that are public right now are the ones over 10 percent. Jordan Weissmann explains what this means:

“Trying to gauge the average premium hike from just the biggest increases is like measuring the average height of the public by looking at N.B.A. players,” Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Foundation told the Times. Moreover, some states may ultimately end up rejecting the gaudiest requests if they're deemed unjustified.

How skewed is the federal database? Here's one telling illustration from ACAsignups.net founder Charles Gaba. In Washington State, 17 insurers submitted health plans for next year, requesting an average rate increase of 5.4 percent. Only three of those companies asked for a big enough hike to show up on the federal rate review site. Together, they requested bumps averaging 18 percent, more than three times larger than the actual statewide mean. That gap should make everyone think twice before drawing conclusions from yesterday's data dump.

This will be the first year in which insurance companies have a full year of experience with Obamacare to draw on. Does that mean it's possible that rates will go up a lot, now that they know what they're in for? Sure, it's possible. But so far there's really no evidence that the demographics of the Obamacare population are very different from what the companies expected. Nor are companies dropping out of Obamacare. In fact, in most states competition is increasing. All that suggests that Obamacare premiums will rise at a fairly normal rate next year. For the time being, then, don't pay too much attention to the Fox News horror stories. We've heard them all before.

Is Campaign Finance Reform Really the Key to Winning the White Working Class?

| Tue Jun. 2, 2015 11:10 AM EDT

Stan Greenberg says that white working-class voters aren't lost to the Democratic Party. In fact, most of them strongly support a progressive agenda in the mold of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. The problem is that they don't trust the system, and they want to see reform first, before they're willing to vote for Democratic candidates with expansive social welfare programs:

Three-quarters of voters in the twelve most competitive Senate battleground states in 2014—states flooded with campaign money—support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. Three in five of those voters support “a plan to overhaul campaign spending by getting rid of big donations and allowing only small donations to candidates, matched by taxpayer funds.”

....Yet most important for our purposes are the results for white unmarried women and working-class women. These groups both put a “streamline government” initiative ahead of everything except protecting Social Security and Medicare. They want to “streamline government and reduce waste and bureaucracy to make sure every dollar spent is a dollar spent serving people, not serving government.” They gave even greater importance than white working-class men to streamlining government. For these women, being on the edge means feeling more strongly that government should pinch pennies and start working for them.

....What really strengthens and empowers the progressive economic narrative, however, is a commitment to reform politics and government. That may seem ironic or contradictory, since the narrative calls for a period of government activism. But, of course, it does make sense: Why would you expect government to act on behalf of the ordinary citizen when it is clearly dominated by special interests? Why would you expect people who are financially on the edge, earning flat or falling wages and paying a fair amount of taxes and fees, not to be upset about tax money being wasted or channeled to individuals and corporations vastly more wealthy and powerful than themselves?

I'll admit to some skepticism here. Are working-class voters, white or otherwise, really pining away for campaign finance reform? The evidence of the past 40 years sure doesn't seem to suggest this is a big winner. Still, times have changed, and the influence of big money has become far more obvious and far more insidious than in the past. Maybe this really is a winner.

As for streamlining government, my only question is: where's the beef? That is, what kind of concrete plan are we talking about here? "Streamlining" seems a little too fuzzy to capture many votes.

In any case, read the whole thing if this is the sort of thing you enjoy arguing about. It's food for thought at the very least. As for me, I'm off to see my doctor. I'll be back sooner or later depending on how streamlined his office is.

Rand Paul Didn't Kill the Patriot Act

| Mon Jun. 1, 2015 11:22 AM EDT

I was down with a stomach bug this weekend, so I didn't follow events in the Senate as closely as I usually would have. But Rand Paul sure seems to be getting a lot more credit than he deserves for how things went down. As near as I can tell:

  • Mitch McConnell just flat screwed up. He figured he could panic everyone into extending the Patriot Act by waiting until Sunday to reconvene the Senate, and he figured wrong.
  • Rand Paul did indeed delay things by refusing unanimous consent to take up a compromise bill.
  • But events went the way they did because a majority of the Senate opposed McConnell and wanted a compromise bill, not because of anything Rand Paul did.
  • The upshot of Paul's actions is that the compromise bill has to wait until Tuesday for a vote, which means the Patriot Act will be expired for a couple of days. This is not really a big deal in anything other than symbolic terms. The compromise bill is going to be passed one way or another, and that would have been the case regardless of anything Paul did.

Am I missing something big here? I don't begrudge Paul getting some good press for what he did. Politics is theater, and Paul has worked hard to make this a front-page issue. Still, there just wasn't a majority in favor of extending the Patriot Act, and that's what made the difference.

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Bonus Homecoming Cat Blogging - 30 May 2015

| Sat May 30, 2015 5:39 PM EDT

Everyone is back home. It took Hilbert about a minute to settle in and recognize everything. Hopper took a little more convincing. She spent several hours sniffing everything in sight before she finally decided things were OK.

In the top photo, Hilbert has taken possession of his favorite teal chair. It's as if he never left. Below, Hopper finally hopped into my lap after lunch and purred herself to sleep, which surely means she's now settled in too. If you look closely, you'll also see that my hair is starting to grow back. But you have to look pretty closely.

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 May 2015

| Fri May 29, 2015 2:30 PM EDT

For the past two weeks, Hopper and Hilbert have apparently been fighting a rearguard battle over their latest acquisition: a cardboard box. Hilbert took possession first, but Hopper got into the act pretty quickly. Her expression is clearly a declaration that this is her box now, and other cats better stay away. I'm reliably informed that she backed this up with some fancy paw action and sent Hilbert scampering away.

And with that, let's all give three cheers for my sister, who has taken such good care of Hilbert and Hopper that we're not sure they'll even recognize us when they come home. I should add that her six weeks of catsitting was an even bigger favor than you might think, given H&H's penchant for destruction of anything left lying around accidentally. But tomorrow they come home. Marian has been catproofing our house for the past week, and on Saturday Karen will deliver the furballs back to us. I'm sure they'll show us very quickly if there are any catproofing spots we missed.

News Flash: Bill Clinton Has a Pretty High Speaking Fee

| Fri May 29, 2015 1:36 PM EDT

Over in the New York Times today, Deborah Sontag has a 2,000-word piece about a charity called the Happy Hearts Fund. There seem to be two big takeaways: (a) celebrities use their fame to promote their charities, and (b) Bill Clinton usually won't appear at your event for free. His speaking fee is a donation to the Clinton Foundation. In this particular case, Happy Hearts donated $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation, and in return Clinton appeared at their event to receive a lifetime achievement award.

I'm racking my brain here. I know I'm partisan about this and would just as soon not attribute dark motives to Clinton. But even putting that aside, what's the story here? Celebrities use their fame to promote their pet causes? Bill Clinton commands a high speaking fee? Is there something that's even unsavory about this, let alone scandalous? Is there something that's out of the ordinary or not already common knowledge? If the story featured, say, George W. Bush instead of Clinton, would I be more outraged? What am I missing?

If You Want to Be Part of the Top 1 Percent, You'd Better Be Working For a Top 1 Percent Firm

| Fri May 29, 2015 11:53 AM EDT

What has caused the explosive growth of income inequality over the past three decades? Is it the fact the CEO pay has skyrocketed, leaving everyone else behind? Maybe. But according to a new paper, that's not quite the right story.

Basically a group of researchers at NBER have concluded that inequality between firms has skyrocketed, and employees of those firms all go along for the ride. A small number of "super firms" have become enormously successful, and within these super firms inequality between the CEO and the worker bees hasn't changed much at all. They pay all their employees more than the average firm, from the CEO down.

The chart on the right tells the story. Ignore the green line for the moment and just look at the blue and red lines. The red line shows that the top tenth of firms have far outperformed everyone else. The blue line shows that workers follow the same pattern. The ones who work for the top firms get paid a lot more than the folks who work for average firms.

As it turns out, some industries have more super firms than others and thus contribute more to growing income inequality. The FIRE sector—Finance, Insurance, Real Estate—is the most obvious example. Both firm revenue and individual compensation has gone up far more than in any sector. But other sectors have their superstars too, and individuals at those firms get paid a lot more than a similar worker at a firm that's not doing so well.

So in addition to talking about the top 1% of individuals, we should be talking about the top 1% of firms. But what does that mean? Things get a little hazy at this point:

Instead of top incomes rising within firms, top-paying firms are now paying even higher wages. This may tend to make inequality more invisible, as individuals do not see rising inequality among their peers. More research needs to be done to understand why inequality between firms has increased so much more than inequality within them. But this fact of stable inequality within firms should inform our understanding of the great increase in inequality within the United States over the last three decades.

Matt O'Brien suggests that this means nearly every industry is now part of the winner-take-all economy. In the same way that modern technology allows a tiny subset of superstar singers or actors to earn huge audiences (and huge paychecks), perhaps it also enables modern firms to do the same. And it could be self-reinforcing. The super firms can afford to hire the best workers, and that in turn drives even more unequal growth.

In any case, if the authors are right, it matters a lot which firm you work for. If you pick the right one, you might ride the income inequality gravy train right to the top. In not, you probably won't.