Kevin Drum

Are Republicans Finally Giving Up on Killing Obamacare?

| Sat Apr. 18, 2015 11:44 AM EDT

Let me say right up front that I'm skeptical of the following report. But then, maybe I'm blinded by partisanship. Who knows? In any case, here is Noam Levey writing in the LA Times today:

After five years and more than 50 votes in Congress, the Republican campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act is essentially over. GOP congressional leaders, unable to roll back the law while President Obama remains in office and unwilling to again threaten a government shutdown to pressure him, are focused on other issues, including trade and tax reform.

Less noted, senior Republican lawmakers have quietly incorporated many of the law's key protections into their own proposals, including guaranteeing coverage and providing government assistance to help consumers purchase insurance.

....At the same time, the presumed Republican presidential front-runner, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has shown little enthusiasm for a new healthcare fight. Last year, he even criticized the repeal effort...."Only 18% of Americans want to go back to the system we had before because they do not want to go back to some of the problems we had," Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster [said]...."Smart Republicans in this area get that," he added.

Well, maybe. Levey concedes that there will still be plenty of calls to repeal Obamacare during the 2016 presidential campaign, but he believes that in practice, Republicans will be unwilling to seriously gut a program that's now providing health coverage for 20 million Americans, a number that will only increase over the next two years.

This is an argument I've made myself on multiple occasions, so I ought to be sympathetic to it. And I guess I am. On the other hand, I've been repeatedly astonished at the relentlessness of the GOP base's hatred of Obamacare. Over and over, I thought it would fade out. Maybe when the Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional. Maybe when Obama won in 2012. Maybe when the law finally took full effect in 2014. But like the Energizer bunny, their unholy enmity toward the law just kept going and going and going.

So is Obamacare Derangement Syndrome finally burning itself out? I guess I'll believe it when I see it. But maybe.

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No Wonder Teens Are Huffing Nicotine

| Sat Apr. 18, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
The online version of Lorrillard's Sports Illustrated ad featured "zoom-in" magnification.

You thought Big Tobacco was on the wane in the United States?

(Insert cartoon villain voice:) "Mwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaaa!"

In fact, the domestic tobacco industry is on the rebound thanks to its heavy investment in smoking "alternatives"—a.k.a. e-cigarettes, nicotine-delivery devices marketed in a variety of kid-friendly flavors. (The federal government banned the marketing of flavored tobacco cigarettes back in 2009.)

Friday Cat Blogging - April 17 2015

| Fri Apr. 17, 2015 3:30 PM EDT
Inspector Picklejuice

Friday catblogging is, of course, a core tradition around these parts. And as the blog welcomes new names and faces while Kevin concentrates on getting better, who said they all have be human? The door's always open for Hilbert and Hopper to drop in, but we're going to round out the feline mix with a smattering of cats who are blessed to have a Mother Jones staff member as their human companion.

First up? The Oakland-based menagerie of creative director Ivylise Simones, who oversees all of MoJo's lovely art and photography.

On the right is seven-year-old Inspector Picklejuice, a shelter acquisition picked up by Ivylise when she was living in Brooklyn. On the left you'll find Frankie the Cat. This affectionate two-year-old also came from a shelter, joining the Simones household in 2014. 

 

 

I'm told these two get along splendidly. Sure looks like it!

If you recognize Picklejuice's handsome features, it may be from his widely acclaimed Instagram feed, or perhaps from his star turn in our September/October 2014 issue: click through to see him—he's the looker playing in the box on the far right. (How'd he end up in a magazine illustration? I'll just say that it helps to have friends in the right places.)

Here's another of the good Inspector, keeping a close eye on happenings from a favored perch high in the loft. It's an ideal spot to partake in two of his favorite hobbies: sleeping, and sitting around while awake.

 

 

It takes a good five foot vertical hop over open space to get up there. Impressive!

Why the Euro Is a Selfish Jerk

| Fri Apr. 17, 2015 2:30 PM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 through today to pitch in posts and keep the conversation going. Here's a contribution from Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University whose sharp insights on addiction, drug policy, and many other topics have helped make the Reality-Based Community group blog a must read.

The Euro is the Windows 8 of the economic policy design world: In both cases, it's very hard to understand how putatively smart people worked so hard to create a product so ill-suited to the needs of those who were supposed to rely on it. At this point, this isn't much of a secret: as Kevin Drum pointed out back in 2011, a common currency deprives markets and nations of tools that normally ameliorate the effects of capital flow imbalances, inflation spikes, and crushing debt payments. Kevin and other people who understand fiscal policy better than I ever will (e.g., Matt O'Brien and Paul Krugman) convinced me long ago that the Euro was designed with a lack of understanding of (or an unwillingness to grapple with) basic lessons of economics. 

But speaking as a psychologist, the common currency's fundamental design flaws don't end there: the Euro creators should have thought harder about what social scientists have learned about how compassion and cultural identity interact.

In asking nations to entrust their economic fate to the Euro, its designers were assuming that Europeans have a reservoir of goodwill among them. That goodwill was supposed to ensure, for example, that no prospective member had to worry that a powerful member would use its Euro-derived leverage to turn the screws on a weaker member which was—to pick an example out of thin air—wracked by colossal levels of debt, unemployment and economic misery.

But that's exactly what the Germans have done to the Greeks. Why aren't the Germans overcome with sympathy for the Greeks? It's not that Germans are selfish or hard-hearted: after all, they have spent ten times the current GDP of Greece helping the economically struggling people of the former East Germany

Social psychology researchers have identified a powerful in group bias in willingness to help others, whether it's hiring someone for a job or supporting social welfare programs for the poor. Human beings are, in short, more inclined to help other people whom we perceive as being a member of our tribe.

Human psychology wouldn't cause as many problems for the Euro if there was a strong European identity, if a West German was as likely to consider an East German a tribe member as they would a Greek or a Spaniard or an Italian. But when most Germans and Greeks look at each other, they fundamentally see someone who speaks a different language and hails from a different culture with a different history—and for that matter was a military enemy within living memory.

With no shared sense of tribe comes a sharp reduction in compassion and attendant willingness to help.  The elites who designed the Euro may genuinely have believed and even felt a sense that Europe is all about "us", but the currency's recent struggles show that for too many Europeans, it's more about us and them.

Bonus Friday Cat Blogging - 17 April 2015

| Fri Apr. 17, 2015 11:00 AM EDT

My sister has given me loads of catblogging photos to choose from, and this week I'm choosing this one. I understand that Hilbert contested Hopper's right to this spot for a bit, but Hopper defended herself and is now queen of the chair. She has quite the regal presence.

In the meantime, padded coat hangers have been dragged downstairs, temporary window coverings have turned into cat toys, and someone is apparently pulling blue masking tape down from somewhere. On the brighter side, both cats have decided that jumping up on the couch and snoozing next to Karen while she reads or watches TV is really not a bad alternative to whoever those folks were who used to provide laps and cat food.

I understand more cat blogging will be coming later. Keep your eyes peeled.

Just How Racist Are Schoolteachers?

| Fri Apr. 17, 2015 9:20 AM EDT

It's no secret that black kids are more likely to be suspended from school than white kids—three times more likely, according to a 2012 report from the Office of Civil Rights. And now a study published this week in Psychological Science may shed some light on just how much of a role racial bias on the part of educators may play.

Stanford psychology grad student Jason Okonofua and professor Jennifer Eberhardt designed a study where active K-12 teachers from across the country were presented with mocked-up disciplinary records showing a student who had misbehaved twice. Both infractions were relatively minor: one was for insubordination, the other for class disturbance. The records' substance never changed, but some bore stereotypically black names (Darnell or Deshawn) while others had stereotypically white names (Jake or Greg). Teachers answered a series of questions about how troubled they were by the infractions reflected in the documents, how severe the appropriate discipline should be, and the likelihood that the student was "a troublemaker."

The teachers' responses after learning about the first infraction were about equal, regardless of the student's perceived race. But after hearing about the second infraction, a gap in discipline emerged: On a scale of one to seven, teachers rated the appropriate severity of discipline at just over five for students perceived to be black, compared to just over four for students perceived to be white. That may not seem like a big difference, but on one-to-seven scale, a single point is a 14 percent increase—well beyond what is typically accepted as statistically significant.

A follow-up experiment of over 200 teachers took the questioning further, and found that teachers were more likely (though by smaller margins) to judge students perceived as black as engaging in a pattern of misbehavior, and were more likely to say they could "imagine themselves suspending the student at some point in the future."

Okonofua and Eberhart, Association for Psychological Science

"Most school teachers likely work hard at treating their students equally and justly," says Okonofua. "And yet even amongst these well-intentioned and hard-working people, we find cultural stereotypes about black people are bending their perceptions towards less favorable interpretations of behavior."

Many studies have looked at the subconscious racial prejudice of snap judgments—my former colleague, Chris Mooney, wrote an excellent feature on the subject last December. But according to the authors, this is the first study to look at the psychology behind the racial gap in school discipline. And, as Okonofua said, "The research shows that even if there's no race effect for an initial interaction, the stereotyping can play out over time. That's really important because in the real world, there are sustained relationships."

And the research may have implications for other kinds of sustained relationships between two levels of authority: say a boss and an employee, a prison guard and a prisoner, or a judge and a repeat offender.

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Vaping Among Teens Skyrockets in 2014

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 5:50 PM EDT

Is this chart on the right, from the Washington Post, good news or bad? On the one hand, teen cigarette use has plummeted from 16 percent to 9 percent over the past four years. On the other hand, the total rate of teen smoking—cigarettes plus e-cigarettes—has risen from 17 percent to 22 percent. The rise in e-cigarette use spiked especially sharply in 2014, more than tripling in a single year.

I've heard pros and cons about e-cigarettes for the past couple of years, and I can't say I have a settled opinion about them. Taken in isolation, it's safe to say that no kind of nicotine delivery system is good for you. But traditional cigarettes are certainly more harmful than e-cigarettes, so to the extent that vaping replaces tobacco smoking, it's a net positive.

But that huge spike in 2014 is cause for concern. At some point, teen vaping starts to look like a serious net negative even if it's accompanied by a small drop in traditional cigarette consumption. I'm still not sure what to think about this, but I'd say these latest figures from the CDC move my priors a bit in the direction of stronger regulation of e-cigarattes.

And if you don't live in California and are wondering what the fuss is over my state's anti-vaping campaign, here's the ad that's been assaulting my TV for the past couple of months. It's paid for by revenue from good ol' Proposition 99, I assume.

Corporate Lobbyists Outspend the Rest of us 34 to 1

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 1:55 PM EDT

Lee Drutman looks at the real problem with lobbying in the American political system:

Looking at lobbying in the aggregate, what jumps out is the stark imbalance in resources. Corporations blow everyone else out of the water. Business accounts for roughly 80 percent of all reported lobbying expenditures, about $2.6 billion dollars a year now.

....Meanwhile, the types of organized interests who we might expect to provide a countervailing force to business — labor unions, groups representing diffuse public like consumers or taxpayers — spend $1 for every $34 businesses spend on lobbying, by my count. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying annually, consistently 95 represent business. In interviewing 60 corporate lobbyists for my book The Business of America is Lobbying, I asked them to identify the leading opposition on an issue on which they were currently working. Not a single lobbyist volunteered a union or a “public interest” group.

....This growing imbalance has had two major effects on the political system. First, it is increasingly difficult to challenge any existing policy that benefits politically active corporations....Second, the sheer amount of lobbying has created a policymaking environment that now requires significant resources to get anything done. Which means that, with increasingly rare exceptions, the only possible policy changes on economic policy issues are those changes that at least some large corporations support.

Lobbying is inevitable. You might even say that it's nothing more than politics in its purest form. But if that's true, American politics has become almost purely a game played by big corporations and their allies. The rest of us—which is to say, practically all of us—are left with nearly no say in what happens.

Republican Judges Set to Rule on Republican Objection to New EPA Regs

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 12:13 PM EDT

Things that make you go "hmmm":

Environmental attorneys say they are confident the court will reject the emergency appeal.

Nevertheless Thursday's hearing, before three Republican-appointed judges, marks the first of what promises to be a series of legal hurdles for climate-change rules.

The subject is Obama's new rules mandating greenhouse gas reductions from power plants, which energy industry attorneys say is "double regulation" since the EPA already regulates other stuff at power plants. No, that doesn't make much sense to me either. Still, the two bolded phrases above might have been believeable together a few decades ago, but not so much now. If it's a Republican panel, I think there's at least a decent chance that we'll get a Republican ruling, regardless of whether it makes any legal sense.

Chris Christie's Social Security Proposal is Cruel and Callous

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 11:14 AM EDT

So Chris Christie is going to campaign on the bold idea of reducing Social Security benefits. My guess is that Christie is going to learn that Social Security remains the third rail of American politics, and will get therefore get charred to a crisp before much longer. For this and many other reasons, we probably don't have to worry much about Christie.

Still, it's worth looking at his proposal. It has two parts:

  1. "I propose a modest means test that only affects those with non–Social Security income of over $80,000 per year, and phases out Social Security payments entirely for those that have $200,000 a year of other income."

Even a lot of us liberal types don't have a big objection to this. But there's a problem here: I don't have exact numbers in front of me, but I'd guess that perhaps 5 percent of retirees have outside incomes of $80,000 and maybe 1 percent have incomes over $200,000. A phaseout that affects such a small number of retirees would hardly save anything. At a guess, maybe it would reduce total payouts by 1-2 percent or so.

But here's the second part of Christie's proposal:

  1. "I’m proposing we raise the age to 69, gradually implementing this change starting in 2022 and increasing the retirement age by two months each year until it reaches 69."

Ouch! As Matt Yglesias points out, life expectancy for the poor at age 65 has barely budged over the past three decades, sitting stubbornly at about 15 years. A 2-year cut forces the poor to work longer and effectively slashes their lifetime Social Security payout by nearly 15 percent. This is a huge reduction for anyone with a low income, and it's especially cruel since it would mostly target people who perform manual labor and have the hardest time working into their late 60s.

I am part of a dwindling band of liberals who is willing to cut a deal on Social Security that would reduce future payouts in return for higher funding rates. Unfortunately, this was never going anywhere because conservatives weren't willing to deal on the funding side, and it's even deader today because liberals are increasingly demanding increases in Social Security, not cuts.

But regardless of how you feel about all this, you should hate Christie's proposal. As I and others have pointed out repeatedly, raising the retirement age is the worst possible way of fixing Social Security's finances, doing its work primarily on the backs of low-income workers while making only token demands on the rich. It's a cruel and callous proposal and everyone should recognize it for what it is.