Kevin Drum

George Washington's Cakemaker Gets the Boot

| Mon Jan. 18, 2016 12:11 PM EST

From the New York Times:

Scholastic Publishing said on Sunday that it would halt distribution of a children’s picture book about George Washington and his enslaved household cook amid an outcry over its visual depiction of the former president’s slaves as happy, smiling workers.

....“We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor and illustrator,” it said in a statement. While defending the team that produced the book, the publisher said that without more historical background, “the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”

I find this whole episode pretty astonishing. How did Scholastic not realize that a whole lot of people were going to find this inappropriate and offensive? It took me about two seconds, and I'm not notably steeped in sensitivity toward racial portrayals.

More generally, is it ever appropriate to depict American slaves in children's books like this? I doubt it. Presenting the reality of slavery is a bit much for 7-year-olds. But sanding down the reality is wrong too. All it does is provide a vague misconception that has to be unlearned later. I'm not really sure there's a middle ground that works well for very young readers.

Maybe some of the parents and schoolteachers reading this will have other opinions. Is there any reasonable way to present slavery in books for young children? And what's the age when you can start to present something at least modestly realistic? Comments are open.

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A Second Look at BernieCare

| Mon Jan. 18, 2016 11:23 AM EST

Last night I wrote that Bernie Sanders' universal health care plan was "pretty good." Over at Vox, Ezra Klein says it's vague and unrealistic. Who's right?

Both of us, I'd say. The Sanders plan is mostly a sketch of how he'd fund universal health care, and at that level I'd say it was pretty good if you evaluate it as a campaign document rather than a Brookings white paper. His numbers mostly added up, and from my point of view, his funding sources were roughly appropriate. Half or more of the funding comes from the middle class, with the rest coming from the rich. I'm OK with that.

But how about the actual mechanics of providing health care? Klein is pretty scathing about Sanders' promise that his plan will cover everything with no copays or deductibles:

The implication to most people, I think, is that claim denials will be a thing of the past....What makes that so irresponsible is that it stands in flagrant contradiction to the way single-payer plans actually work....The real way single-payer systems save money isn't through cutting administrative costs. It's through cutting reimbursements to doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and device companies.

....But to get those savings, the government needs to be willing to say no when doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and device companies refuse to meet their prices, and that means the government needs to be willing to say no to people who want those treatments. If the government can't do that — if Sanders is going to stick to the spirit of "no more fighting with insurance companies when they fail to pay for charges" — then it won't be able to control costs.

The issue of how often the government says no leads to all sorts of other key questions — questions Sanders is silent on. For instance, who decides when the government says no? Will there be a cost-effectiveness council, like Britain's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence? Or will the government basically have to cover every treatment that can be proven beneficial, as is true for Medicare now? What will the appeals process be like?

This might sound technical, but it's absolutely critical.

Klein is right that the mechanics of the plan are critical, and I probably should have done more than shrug that off as something that we'd get to later. Still, I think his criticism goes way too far. This is a campaign document. It's obviously aspirational, and asking a presidential candidate to go into deep detail about the drawbacks of his policy is a little much. I can't recall ever seeing that in my life. In a campaign, you sell the high points and then let critics take their shots.

That's not to say that Sanders couldn't have done more than he did. He could have and probably should have. In particular, he should have provided at least an outline of how his plan would work: who it covers, who employs doctors, what drives the cost savings, and so forth.

But my take is that Sanders was trying to accomplish something specific: he wanted to show that universal health care was affordable, and he wanted to stake out a position that Democrats should at least be dedicated to the idea of universal health care. I'd say he accomplished that in credible style. It's fine to hold Sanders to a high standard, but it's unfair to hold him to an Olympian standard that no presidential candidate in history has ever met. We health care wonks may be disappointed not to have more to chew on, but that's life. We'll get it eventually.

Bernie Sanders Releases Outline of Universal Health Care Plan—And It's Pretty Good

| Sun Jan. 17, 2016 8:54 PM EST

With only moments to go before tonight's Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders has finally dropped his universal health care plan. Exciting! I imagine that Team Clinton is poring over it pretty carefully right about now. Here's what he says it does:

Bernie's plan will cover the entire continuum of health care, from inpatient to outpatient care; preventive to emergency care; primary care to specialty care, including long-term and palliative care; vision, hearing and oral health care; mental health and substance abuse services; as well as prescription medications, medical equipment, supplies, diagnostics and treatments…As a patient, all you need to do is go to the doctor and show your insurance card. Bernie's plan means no more copays, no more deductibles and no more fighting with insurance companies when they fail to pay for charges.

....Under this plan, a family of four earning $50,000 would pay just $466 per year to the single-payer program, amounting to a savings of over $5,800 for that family each year.

Well, that sure sounds good. And I'm all in favor of universal health care. But I'm also curious about how he's going to provide comprehensive care like this with no payment by patients at all and at such a low cost. Here are his basic claims:

  • He will raise $630 billion by increasing the employer part of the payroll tax by 6.2 percent.
  • He will raise $220 billion via a 2.2 percent progressive income tax on everyone (he calls it a "premium").
  • He will raise $548 billion in various taxes on the rich along with the end of current tax breaks that subsidize health care.
  • That's a total of $1.4 trillion.
  • Current public spending on health care (mostly Medicare and Medicaid) runs around $1.2 trillion.
  • This means that Sanders is figuring that under his plan total national health care spending will be about $2.6 trillion.

This is considerably less than the $3 trillion we spend now, and Sanders also says his plan will keep spending growth down. This accounts for his claim that his plan will reduce total national spending on health care by $6 trillion over 10 years.

So is this credible? It's close. His taxes will probably raise about what he says. I'm not sure that he can reduce spending as dramatically as he hopes, but he can probably reduce it some. In other words, his sums might not add up perfectly, but they're pretty close.

If there's anything to criticize, it's his statement that the average family of four will pay only $466 per year. The problem here is that while his payroll tax might come from employers, it will end up being paid for by workers—just as existing employer health plans are ultimately paid for by workers. That would cost his family of four about $3,100, putting their total at around $3,600. And if you figure that Sanders is being optimistic about cost savings and will probably need to raise taxes more than he says, our family's total bill probably clocks in at around $4,000.

That's still not bad. An average family pays a whole lot more than that right now via employer health coverage and copays. There's a wee bit of smoke and mirrors here—counting employer plans when he talks about savings but not counting employer taxes when he talks about costs—but that's a small thing. Overall, his numbers are pretty honest.

As for the details of exactly how the plan would work, I don't know. The document on Sanders' website doesn't say much about that. I assume there's another document somewhere, or maybe more to come. Stay tuned.

Can We Spare a Tear for Ted Cruz?

| Sun Jan. 17, 2016 12:32 PM EST

For the past couple of decades conservatives have routinely railed against "coastal elites," "left coast liberalism," and "San Francisco values." The latter is so popular that it has its own Wikipedia page and Bill O'Reilly insists on credit for inventing the term. And it's not just San Francisco that's the target of conservative scorn. It's big cities in general, with Los Angeles, Boston, Washington DC, and New York leading the pack.

Of these, New York City is probably second only to San Francisco. It's home to the soda nazis, the Upper West Side, rent control, the Village, abortion on demand, and, above all, the hated liberal media. Conservatives might live in New York, but they sure don't like its values.

Nonetheless, a whole lot of them are apparently ready to crucify Ted Cruz over his quip about Donald Trump and New York values. They all knew what he meant. Hell, they all agree with him. But any port in a storm, I guess.

Life isn't fair, and Cruz has his share of defenders. And I know it's hard to work up any sympathy for the guy. Anything Cruz does to hasten his own doom is surely karmic justice. But of all the things to go down for, a routine crack about big city liberals surely tops the list for irony.

POSTSCRIPT: But speaking of New York values, has anyone bothered to put together a short montage of Donald Trump saying liberal things throughout the years? It wouldn't be hard, and 60 seconds would be plenty. It seems like a no-brainer, but I don't recall seeing anything like this. Have I just missed it?

Donald Trump Is a Mediocre Businessman

| Sun Jan. 17, 2016 1:16 AM EST

I know I've beaten this dead horse before, but I continue to be a little surprised that no one has seriously attacked Donald Trump on his business acumen. After all, it's his big calling card: he knows how to negotiate great deals and he's made a ton of money from them.

But this doesn't seem to be true.1 In fact, he seems to be a pretty mediocre businessman. Today, for example, the New York Times tells the story of Trump's 1988 purchase of the Plaza Hotel. As even Trump admits, he was so enamored of owning it that he overpaid significantly and managed it poorly, something which contributed to his eventual financial downfall:

Once he owned the hotel, Mr. Trump put his wife, Ivana, in charge of renovating it....By 1990, the Plaza needed an operating profit of $40 million a year to break even, according to financial records that Mr. Trump disclosed at the time. The hotel had fallen well short of that goal, and with renovating expenses, in one year it burned through $74 million more than it brought in.

But Mr. Trump didn’t spend a lot of time sweating over the Plaza’s finances. He was too busy with new challenges. A few months after the Plaza deal closed, he purchased the Eastern Air Shuttle for $365 million, and in 1990, he opened the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, which cost $1 billion to build. Some of the loans he took out to pay for deals were personally guaranteed.

....Mr. Trump’s brief ownership of the Plaza...marked the beginning of his transition from an owner of major assets to a manager of major assets. An increasing share of his wealth would come in the future from licensing his name, not just to builders but sellers of suits, cologne, chandeliers, mattresses and more. In professional parlance, he went from “asset heavy” to “asset light.”

The Plaza was a huge money loser. The shuttle was a disaster. Trump never understood the casino business, and his Atlantic City properties started hemorrhaging cash almost as soon as they were completed. All of this pushed him to the edge of personal bankruptcy, which he avoided solely because his banks decided Trump's holdings could be liquidated at a higher price if they allowed him to stay solvent. In the aftermath of this bloodbath, he raised money by taking the remains of his casino and resort properties public. And since this was a public company, we know exactly how well it did: it lost money every single year and went into bankruptcy proceedings in 2004 (and again in 2009 for good measure). Since then, he's mostly bought and managed golf resorts, which has been a good but not great business for him.

Bottom line: When it comes to building and managing tangible assets, there's really not much evidence that Trump has any special talent. He inherited a huge amount of money and nearly lost it all during his first couple of decades in the development business. However, before the money ran out he was able to use it to create the "Trump show" (his words), and in the couple of decades since then his income has come not from building things, but primarily from licensing and entertainment.

Trump seems to have two genuine talents. The first is that he's apparently a masterful reader of people. The second is that he's a hypnotic blowhard, which accounts for his success at both branding and TV, as well as his success at scams like Trump University.

Needless to say, we've seen both of these talents at work on the campaign trail. The first allows him to zero in unerringly on his opponents' most sensitive spots—weaknesses that others frequently don't even see, let alone exploit. The second allows him to mesmerize the media and the public while pulling off the greatest scam of his life.

But as a businessman, he's so-so. He lets his decisions be guided by his gut, and his gut isn't really very good. That's where Trump Plaza, Trump Air, Trump football, Trump City, the Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Steaks, and Trump University come from. That's not much of a recommendation for the presidency.

1Needless to say, he can prove his business mettle anytime he wants to. He just has to open up his books. Show us revenues and GAAP earnings over the past 20 years. Show us return on equity and return on assets. Break it all down by business line so we can see how much is from TV and branding vs. tangible projects. There's nothing hard about it.

An Update on the Yosemite Park Trademark Dispute

| Sat Jan. 16, 2016 8:47 PM EST

I wrote a post yesterday about a New York company that claims it owns the trademark to various locations at Yosemite National Park. Based on the story I read, this seemed obviously outrageous, and that was the tone I took.

But that was probably wrong. I ended up looking into this issue a little more deeply, and it turns out that the whole thing goes back several years and is actually a fairly pedestrian contract dispute. Here's a quick outline of what happened:

  • In 1993, the National Park Service put up the concessions at Yosemite for bid. The winner was Delaware North, which was required to buy the assets of the Curry Company as part of the deal. This included the Ahwahnee Hotel, Camp Curry, and several other pieces of property.
  • In July 2014 the concessions were once again put up for bid, with the winning bidder required to pay Delaware North fair market value for the assets it owned. The real property had been turned over to the government after the 1993 deal closed, but there was still the matter of "other property."
  • The Park Service initially valued the "other property" at $22 million. In December 2014 it increased its valuation to $30 million, which included an estimate of $3.5 million for intangible property. Of this, $1.63 million covered trademarks and other intellectual property.
  • Delaware North disagreed with this assessment. It valued "other property" at about $100 million, which included an estimate of $51 million for intangible property. Of this, $44 million covered trademarks and other intellectual property.
  • Delaware North filed a protest with the GAO over the Park Service valuation, but in April 2015 the GAO dismissed the protest.
  • June 2015 Aramark won the Yosemite contract.
  • In September 2015 Delaware North took the case to court.

And that's pretty much where we stand today. It turns out there's nothing inherently outrageous about Delaware North owning some of these trademarks, as even the Park Service admits. "We have not denied the fact that they do own intellectual property," said Scott Gediman, a spokesman for Yosemite National Park. "But with these trademarks, it's kind of two issues: One, are these trademarks valid, and, two, what is the value of them?" So this is a pretty routine contract dispute. Which trademarks are legit and which aren't? Did Delaware North acquire these trademarks "surreptitiously" or with the knowledge of the Park Service? And how much are they worth? Delaware North says they're worth $44 million. The Park Service says they're worth $1.63 million. The issue is now in court, and Delaware North says it has offered to allow Aramark free use of the trademarks until the dispute is settled. Yesterday, however, the Park Service announced that it would simply rename everything and make the case moot.

It's quite possible that Delaware North's valuation is absurdly high. That's my guess, since the value of these trademarks is mostly due to being attached to Yosemite Park, not to anything special that Delaware North has done to create or exploit them. But I'm no lawyer and I don't know. That's for a court to decide.

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Finally, Police Misconduct Against an Unarmed Black Man Gets Bipartisan Attention

| Sat Jan. 16, 2016 11:20 AM EST

"I normally incline to give the police the benefit of the doubt," says Ian Tuttle over at National Review. And that's true. In fact, it's fair to say that pretty much everyone at National Review supports the police under almost all circumstances. Nobody at NR ever manages to mount much concern over charges of racism—except to ridicule and disparage them as products of liberal victimology, of course—and they have especially little patience for charges of racism in police conduct.

And yet, Tuttle says the case of Cedrick Chatman "bears close scrutiny." Why is that? What's different about Chatman's case? Just this:

Following the release of the Laquan McDonald video and the revelations that Rahm Emanuel & co. almost certainly worked to bury it until after his tough reelection contest, the newly released video of the shooting of Cedrick Chatman in 2013 raises serious questions....The video is not conclusive. But the optics are not reassuring....Policing, even the “routine” aspects of it, is dangerous work, especially on the South Side of Chicago. But this is a case that bears close scrutiny — and so does the relationship between the city’s elected officials and its law enforcement.

Whew. For a moment I thought that NR had gone soft. I figured I might wake up tomorrow and find them running sympathetic stories about #BlackLivesMatter and railing against institutional racism in American law enforcement.

But no. It's just that this makes good ammunition against Rahm Emanuel. All is right with the world.

Friday Cat Blogging - 15 January 2016

| Fri Jan. 15, 2016 3:10 PM EST

A few days ago Marian went out to buy some new cat toys because, you know, a couple dozen clearly wasn't enough. You can see her haul below, all with nice, fresh tails. Once the tails come off—which doesn't take long—they're no fun anymore. But you can't please everyone. Hilbert looks like he's saying "What? That's all? I jumped all the way onto the counter just for this?"

In other cat news, my sister points us to this YouTube video of a cat invading a Liverpool-Spurs soccer match. It's three years old, but who's counting?

America Is a Dystopian Hellhole and Don't You Forget It

| Fri Jan. 15, 2016 2:53 PM EST

It is, of course, normal for Republicans to claim that Democrats have screwed everything up and vice versa. That's what political parties do. But as I (and many others) have noted before, it's remarkable just how apocalyptic Republicans are this year. Listening to the GOP debate last night, you might have barely avoided slitting your own throat in despair over the destruction of a once-great country that we've all witnessed over the past seven years.

As a public service, I figured I would collect the most ominous statement from each candidate last night. Obviously this is a judgment call in some cases, since there were so many to choose from. But there's also a surprise. Here are my choices:

Bush: The idea that somehow we're better off today than the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated president of the United States is totally an alternative universe. The simple fact is that the world has been torn asunder.

Carson: You know, when you go into the store and buy a box of laundry detergent, and the price has gone up — you know, 50 cents because of regulations....And everything is costing more money, and we are killing our people like this....It's the evil government that is putting all these regulations on us so that we can't survive.

Trump: Our military is a disaster. Our healthcare is a horror show....We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people....Those two young people — those two horrible young people in California when they shot the 14 people....Many people saw pipe bombs and all sorts of things all over their apartment. Why weren't they vigilant? Why didn't they call? Why didn't they call the police?...We have to find out — many people knew about what was going on. Why didn't they turn those two people in so that you wouldn't have had all the death? There's something going on and it's bad. And I'm saying we have to get to the bottom of it.

Rubio: This president is undermining the constitutional basis of this government. This president is undermining our military. He is undermining our standing in the world....The damage he has done to America is extraordinary. Let me tell you, if we don't get this election right, there may be no turning back for America.

Kasich: In this country, people are concerned about their economic future. They're very concerned about it. And they wonder whether somebody is getting something to — keeping them from getting it. That's not the America that I've ever known.

Christie: When I think about the folks who are out there at home tonight watching....They know that this country is not respected around the world anymore. They know that this country is pushing the middle class, the hardworking taxpayers, backwards, and they saw a president who doesn't understand their pain, and doesn't have any plan for getting away from it.

And the surprise? There's nothing on this list from Ted Cruz. He had plenty of criticisms of Obama, but I looked at everything he said last night and there was really no hint of America going to hell in a handbasket. I didn't expect that, but I'll bet it's deliberate. Maybe he knows something the rest of field doesn't?

Charts of the Day: Which One Do You Believe?

| Fri Jan. 15, 2016 2:28 PM EST

Over at the motherblog, Kristina Rizga has an interesting piece about what happens when you try to integrate majority-black schools. Basically, nobody likes it. The poorer (mostly black) parents don't like the idea of a bunch of rich folks coming in and pushing them around. The richer (mostly white) parents don't like the idea of their kids going to a low-performing school. But Kristina points to a substantial body of research showing that, in fact, white kids do fine when they move to schools in poorer black neighborhoods. In fact, they might even do better on a variety of metrics.

The whole piece is worth a read, but because I'm a nerd I going to use it as an excuse for a statistics lesson. One of the links in the piece is to a recent report from the federal government about the black-white achievement gap. It contains three charts of note. The first is on the right, and it shows white test scores in schools with different densities of black students. Basically, it confirms the worst fears of white parents: as the percentage of black kids goes up, the test scores of the white kids go down.

But wait. Maybe the white kids in majority-black districts are lower performing to begin with. So let's control for income. That gets you the chart on the bottom left. Not so bad! Then let's control for some other characteristics. Bingo! If we do a proper job of comparing apples to apples, white kids actually do better when they go to schools with very high densities of black students. White fears turn out to be entirely unfounded.

So here's the question: which chart do you believe? The one with the raw data? Or the ones with all the fancy-pants statistical controls? Are the controls legitimate? Or are they just the result of a bunch of liberal analysts in the Department of Education torturing the data until they get the politically correct result they want?

Even statisticians might disagree about this. So how are laymen supposed to understand it? If you were a parent and these were your kids we were talking about, which chart would you believe?