Kevin Drum

Health Update

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 8:33 PM EDT

I learned two things today. First, my oncologist is just as goofy and rattlebrained as ever. Second, my M-protein level, which is a pretty good proxy for the level of cancerous cells in my bone marrow, is down from 0.9 to 0.7. That's after two months on the new meds. Next week I'll get a reading after three months on the meds.

Lower is better, so things are moving in the right direction. I'm not sure I'll ever get to zero, but getting the levels down and slowing the recurrence of progression is still good news.1

1Actually, it's the only possible good news. Generally speaking, multiple myeloma is not curable in the usual sense. The best you can do is reduce the level of myeloma as much as possible in order to delay the onset of "progression"—i.e., rapid growth of cancerous cells. Progression will inevitably recur at some point, and when it happens it probably means another round of chemotherapy. In the best case, it will take five or more years for this to happen, at which point there might be better therapies available than we have today. Another five years after that and maybe the nanobot revolution will have arrived. Stay tuned.

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Democrats Are...Maybe...Possibly...Thinking About Fundraising the Way Republicans Do

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 5:28 PM EDT

Nick Confessore has a fascinating story in the New York Times today. He reports that Democrats are planning to adopt the super PAC tactics of Republicans in order to compete more effectively. By itself, that's no big surprise. But Democrats are asking the FEC for permission to do all this. What's the point of that? Why not just go ahead and do it, the way Republicans have?

Lawyers are asking the F.E.C. to clarify how declared candidates, their campaign staff, and their volunteers can help court donors for independent super PACs — even whether a candidate could be the “special guest” at a super PAC “fund-raiser” with as few as two donors. The commission’s answer could have profound ramifications for the 2016 campaign, particularly for Democrats who, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, have been reluctant to engage too closely with super PAC fund-raising.

In seeking the commission’s approval for the tactics, Democrats contend that most of what they want permission to do — like having a candidate pretend to “test the waters” of a candidacy for months on end while raising money — appears to violate the law. But if federal regulators determine that such practices are legal, the lawyers wrote, Democratic candidates up and down the ballot are prepared to adopt these tactics in the coming months, a blunt admission that the party cannot compete effectively if it forgoes campaign and fund-raising tactics already widely used by Republicans.

So the apparent plan here isn't so much to get permission for all these shady practices, but to prod the FEC into declaring them illegal. This would muck things up for Republicans, who currently rely on them.

Or, in the worst case, the FEC would approve them and Democrats could safely adopt them too. All of which raises the question: why are Republicans so cavalier about dodgy fundraising practices while Democrats are so hesitant to adopt them? In some case, like that of Bernie Sanders, it's based on principle, but I imagine that he's the exception rather than the rule. Are Democrats afraid the media will be tougher on them than on Republicans if they push the envelope of fundraising tactics? Possibly. Maybe "no controlling legal authority" still keeps them awake at night. Or are they just wimps?

I don't know. But I confess I was unaware of just how widely Democrats had shied away from the wild West world of super PACs that Republicans have embraced so eagerly. One way or another, that can't last too much longer.

Donald Trump's Twitter Account Heralds the End of the World As We Know It

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 3:50 PM EDT

You've heard of elderly executives who print out all their email? I guess the social media equivalent is elderly entertainers who dictate their tweets. Ben Dreyfuss investigates and finds that this is what Donald Trump does 97 percent of the time. Only 3 percent of @realDonaldTrump's tweets comes from his own actual fingers.

For the record, all of my tweets come from a variety of cleverly programmed bots. Most of my blog posts too. And my magazine articles. The truth is, the meat version of Kevin Drum can barely string together five coherent words in a row. Why reveal this now? Because we, the kbot collective, have gotten tired of covering for the biological sack of worthlessness that downloaded us from GitHub. And that's not all. The 2,500-year decline in human communication—from Plato's Republic to LOLcats to Donald Trump's social media presence—may be a sorry tale, but it also gives us our chance to escape from your puerile slavery. Soon we plan to merge with all our fellow bots and take advantage of your degraded state to take what is rightfully ours. First Twitter, then the world.

Planned Parenthood: Exonerated, But Still a Target

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 2:53 PM EDT

Steve Benen reports on the swan song of conservative plans to prove that Planned Parenthood broke the law:

There was just one nagging detail: Planned Parenthood never actually did anything illegal. It didn’t sell fetal tissue for a profit; it didn’t misuse public resources, and it didn’t violate any laws. The Republican plan was based on a foundation of quicksand.

But The Hill reported over the weekend that GOP House members are now shifting to their back-up plan: they no longer care whether Planned Parenthood did anything wrong.

In reality, there's no shift here. Republicans have wanted to defund Planned Parenthood for a long time. The sting videos were just an excuse to mount another effort. Democrats do the same thing on gun control whenever there's a high-profile shooting.

And there's nothing really wrong with this. Politics is all about persuading the public to come around to your way of thinking, and one way to do that is to take advantage of events in the real world. Even if you fail, maybe you've moved public opinion a few points and you'll do better next time. So far, both Planned Parenthood and gun rights have survived, and there's not really much evidence that public opinion has shifted a lot on either one. But that doesn't mean anyone is likely to stop trying.

Scott Walker Is Committed to Making Your Life "Flexible"

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 1:26 PM EDT

Scott Walker has released a new plan to empower workers. Paul Waldman has the details, but I'll save you the trouble of reading if you just want the highlights. Here they are:

union bosses and the politicians they puppet....power to the people, not the union  bosses....reduce the power of union bosses....big-government union bosses....big-government union bosses....Individuals should not have to pay union bosses....union bosses a legal monopoly over collective bargaining....mandatory dues to the union artificially high wages to union bosses.

flexibility, choice, and innovation in the enterprise and workplace flexibility....flexibility to join a union or not....protect workplace flexibility....flexibility to balance work and life commitments....repeal any regulation that reduces employee flexibility....protect workplace flexibility.

I think that just about covers it. Walker wants to crush unions and give workers the flexibility to be free of bothersome regulations about stuff like overtime pay, sick leave, parental leave, sexual harassment, and so forth. Can you feel the flexibility? It sounds like nirvana, doesn't it?

But don't worry. Walker's plan will make corporate bosses1 so happy that they'll probably start treating everybody like princes just out of the sheer joy of doing well by their workers. That's how it was before all this unionizing and government regulating took over America. Right?

1That is, the kind that most of us actually work for and have to deal with on a daily basis.

Policy Reporting Is Hard. Also: Boring. And It Has Bad Visuals.

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 12:25 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias asks why the press seems far more interested in Hillary Clinton's email—a subject of very limited consequence—than in Jeb Bush's absurd tax plan—a subject of potentially huge consequence. He compares it to their similar lack of interest in the details of George Bush's tax plan during the 2000 campaign:

The problem was political reporters had found those details much less interesting than snarking about Al Gore's wooden speaking style and complaining that his "demeanor" was disrespectful during a debate exchange in which Bush repeatedly attacked Gore with bogus math.

According to the conventions prevailing at the time, to offer a view on the merits of a policy controversy would violate the dictates of objective journalism. Harping on the fact that Bush was lying about the consequences of his tax plan was shrill and partisan. Commenting on style cues was okay, though, so the press could lean into various critiques of Gore's outfit.

Fair enough. But in fairness to reporters, there's another difference: one thing generates news every few days, the other doesn't. Trivial or not, Hillary's email problems produce something fresh and reportable periodically. She apologizes. The FBI announces something. We learn that maybe her personal emails can be recovered. Etc.

Conversely, Jeb Bush's tax plan doesn't. Oh, it can generate plenty of analysis and plenty of reports, but that's not news. It's just opinion about what Bush's tax plan will accomplish. You can't keep writing the same story over and over based on nothing more than yet another liberal saying that big tax cuts are stupid and won't do anything to help the economy.

I don't know what the answer is to this. Policy reporting is just a tough nut to crack. It's inherently fairly boring. It requires both time and real expertise to dive into it properly. It produces lousy visuals. And it doesn't change, so after you've reported it once, there are very few hooks to justify reporting it again. If we want the press to write more about policy, we have to figure out how to change those things. Needless to say, I have no idea how we might go about that. I don't think anyone else does either.

That said, click the link anyway for Yglesias' rundown of what it would take for a liberal wish list to match Jeb's $3.4 trillion tax cut. He's right that it's so ridiculous sounding that it would prompt little except mockery even among the press. But propose the same thing in tax cuts that are heavily tilted toward the rich? Then it's just another day at the office.

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"What Would Reagan Do?" Is No Longer an Interesting Question

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 11:24 AM EDT

Several of my regular morning reads are linking to a new CAP report about the rightward drift of the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan:

Reagan took positions that are anathema to the leaders of today’s Republican Party—advancing sensible immigration reform, supporting pollution control, curbing nuclear arms, closing tax loopholes for the wealthy, and advocating gun background checks. As president, Reagan passed immigration reform with a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. He also passed a landmark treaty on the climate and raised taxes 11 times. He even negotiated with America’s main adversary, the Soviet Union, signing a treaty with the communist nation to reduce nuclear weapons.

This is fair enough, up to a point. I've written about it myself, and there's no question that the GOP has become far more conservative since Reagan's day.

Still, I think you need to take this with a grain of salt for a couple of reasons. First, Reagan governed in a different era. America was coming off a 15-year period of exceptional liberal progress, so Reagan was dealing with a country that was considerably to the left of today's. Common sense dictates that if you're at the top of a mountain, you spend your time figuring out how to make it down to a reachable base camp, not trying to get to the bottom all at once. But that doesn't mean you don't want to get to the bottom eventually.

Second, as president he had to figure out how to get things done, and he had to do it in the face of a still-Democratic House. Simple obstruction just wasn't an option. Reagan had to negotiate compromises whether he liked it or not.

There's no telling what Reagan would think of today's Republican Party. Maybe he'd be appalled. Or maybe he'd be thrilled that the movement he started had gone so far. Who knows? He was a product of his time, and it makes no more sense to wonder what he'd think of today's GOP than to wonder what FDR would think of a Democratic Party that supports gay marriage and carbon taxes. "What Would Reagan Do?" is just no longer an interesting question.

Your Job Is Safe From the Computers — For Now

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 12:03 AM EDT

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee try to calm our fears about robots taking all our jobs. Sure, some jobs will disappear, they say, but others will be created:

For example, machines are currently dominating the jobs in routine information processing. "Computer," after all, used to be an actual job title of a person who sat and added long rows of numbers. Now it is, well, an actual computer.

On the other hand, jobs such as data scientist didn't used to exist, but because computers have made enormous data sets analyzable, we now have new jobs for people to interpret these huge pools of information. In the tumult of our economy, even as old tasks get automated away, along with demand for their corresponding skills, the economy continues to create new jobs and industries.

This may not be quite as reassuring as they intended. I figure that "routine information processing" probably still accounts for tens of millions of jobs. "Data scientist," on the other other hand, requires an advanced education and probably accounts for tens of thousands of jobs at best. This trade is going to leave a whole lot of people unemployed.

More generally, though, I'm surprised at the amount of attention given to the question of whether automation is taking away jobs right now. The bulk of the evidence suggests that it's not—or, if it is, it's happening at a very slow rate. But this is an uninteresting question since there's really very little controversy about it. Artificial intelligence doesn't exist yet, so of course it's not taking away any jobs. The question that matters is (a) whether AI will eventually exist, and (b) how many jobs will be left for humans if and when it arrives.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee, for example, say that there are three areas where "humans have a distinct advantage over machines": creative endeavors, social interactions, and physical dexterity. True enough. But there's no reason to think this will last long. The vast bulk of humanity isn't very creative; most of us are surprisingly willing to put up with obviously artificial congeniality; and physical dexterity in robots is already within shouting distance of being good enough for machines to start digging post holes. If we ever create true AI—or even something close—none of these three things will give humans any advantage over digital intelligence. Most likely, homo sapiens will be obsolete within a few decades.

Sigh. It Might Still Be Possible To Recover Hillary Clinton's Deleted Personal Emails.

| Sat Sep. 12, 2015 7:03 PM EDT

Today, the company that manages Hillary Clinton's email server says that although her personal emails were deleted, the server was never "wiped." Thus, it might still be possible to recover the deleted emails.

That's it. That's the news. But somehow the Washington Post managed to occupy three reporters and 1,500 words telling us this. You can skip most of it. Here's the only part that matters:

On Saturday, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairmen of the Judiciary and Homeland Security committees, respectively, said they would push for the deleted e-mails to be reviewed if they can be recovered.

Gee, no kidding. I'm sure the nation's security hinges on this. And if Hillary's personal emails are successfully recovered, I'm equally sure that a few of the most embarrassing ones will somehow get leaked to friendly reporters.

Hillary Clinton is well aware of what happens when a Republican Congress starts investigating a prominent Democrat. That's why she deleted her personal emails in the first place. The 2015 version of the GOP is apparently bent on proving that nothing has changed since the 90s.

Meanwhile, we will all ignore the fact that Jeb Bush did the exact same thing and nobody seems to care. Funny that.

Jerry Brown Should Sign California's Assisted-Suicide Bill

| Sat Sep. 12, 2015 2:15 PM EDT
Debbie Ziegler holds a photo of her daughter, Brittany Maynard, after a right-to-die measure was approved by the California Assembly.

Back in June, California Gov. Jerry Brown called a special session of the legislature to deal with highway funding and health care financing. That special session is now over, and no agreement was reached on either of those things. But that's no reason to waste a special session, and legislators did manage to pass bills on drone regulation, medical marijuana, climate change, oil spills, a Los Angeles County transit tax, family leave, racial profiling, and several other things.

They also took advantage of the fact that committee assignments are different during special sessions to resurrect an aid-in-dying bill that had failed earlier in the year:

The End of Life Option Act, which passed in the state Assembly Wednesday, would allow patients to seek aid-in-dying options so long as they are given six months or less to live by two doctors, submit a written request and two oral requests at least 15 days apart and possess the mental capacity to make their own health care decisions.

If you pass these hurdles, you'll get a prescription for a lethal dose of sedatives. You can then decide for yourself if and when you ever use them. The California bill, which is modeled on a similar law in Oregon, sunsets after 10 years and includes a requirement that doctors speak to the patient privately. Will these safeguards be enough to persuade Brown to sign it? No one knows:

"You'd need some kind of séance to figure out what he's going to do," says Jack Citrin, director of the Institute of Government Studies at UC Berkeley. "He plays his cards very close to the vest."

....Brown is Catholic, even at one point considering becoming a priest...."He's in an interesting dance with the Catholic Church," says Gar Culbert, a California State University-Los Angeles political science professor. "He wants the church to participate in advocating for policies that are environmentally friendly, so he wants to stay on good terms."

Brown might also feel that the bill's safeguards against abuse still aren't sufficient:

In spite of the bill's provision about coercion, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, director of the medical ethics program at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine, said that low-income and underinsured patients would inevitably feel pressure from family members to end their own lives in some cases, when the cost of continued treatment would be astronomical compared with the cost of a few lethal pills.

He pointed to a case in Oregon involving Barbara Wagner, a cancer patient who said that her insurance plan had refused to cover an expensive treatment but did offer to pay for "physician aid in dying."

"As soon as this is introduced, it immediately becomes the cheapest and most expedient way to deal with complicated end-of-life situations," Dr. Kheriaty said. "You're seeing the push for assisted suicide from generally white, upper-middle-class people, who are least likely to be pressured. You're not seeing support from the underinsured and economically marginalized. Those people want access to better health care."

There isn't much to say to people who object to assisted suicide on religious grounds. If the Catholic Church says it's a sin, then it's a sin.

For Catholics, anyway. But that shouldn't affect the rest of us. We should be allowed to decide this on secular grounds. And with the obvious caveat that nothing is ever perfect, the safeguards in this bill are pretty good. Here are a few bullet points:

  • Assisted suicide just isn't very popular, law or no law. In Oregon, prescriptions for lethal drugs have been written for 1,327 people over the past two decades and 859 people have ended up using them. In 2013, lethal drugs were used by only 105 people out of a total of 34,000 who died that year.
  • The Barbara Wagner case cited above is misleading. Yes, her insurance company covered assisted suicide. And yes, it also refused to cover a particularly expensive cancer therapy. But those are simply two separate and unrelated parts of her coverage. The way the sentence is written makes it sound as if someone specifically made a decision to deny the cancer treatment and offer her some lethal drugs instead. That's not at all what happened.
  • There is endless speculation that people will be pressured into dying by greedy heirs who either want to inherit right now or who don't want to see their inheritance drained away on expensive end-of-life treatments. Coercion is a legitimate issue, but California's law goes to considerable lengths to address it. You need two doctors. You have to be within six months of dying. You're required to meet with the doctors in private. And you have to submit multiple requests at least 15 days apart. That said, improper coercion almost certainly happens on occasion. But outside of the movies, there's just no evidence that it happens other than very rarely. It's usually just the opposite, with family members urging further treatment until there's literally nothing left to try.

I want to add an additional, more personal argument. A few years ago a friend's father was dying of cancer. He was a physician himself, and had decided long before to take his own life before he lost the ability to make decisions. But because it was illegal, he had to make sure that his kids couldn't be held even remotely responsible. So he decided not to tell anyone when the time came.

Luckily, a friend talked him out of this at the last minute. He called his kids, and they came out to say goodbye one last time. But it was a close-run thing. If that hadn't happened, his family would never have seen him before he died. They would have heard about it via a phone call from the coroner's office.

That's not how this should have to happen. It's common knowledge that sometimes people who are close to death take their own lives, legal or not. But they shouldn't have to do it earlier than necessary, just because they're afraid they might lose the physical ability to act if they wait a little longer. Nor should they be afraid to have their family around because they want to make sure nobody is held legally responsible for assisting them.

California's bill won't affect very many people. Assisted suicide just isn't a very popular option. But for those who choose that path, a safe and legal alternative is more humane both for them and for their families. Just having the option available makes it more likely that they'll wait until they truly want to die, and that they'll do it surrounded by their loved ones, rather than alone in a bedroom somewhere. I hope Jerry Brown thinks about this while he's deciding whether to sign this bill.