Kevin Drum

America Sucks at Eating Vegetables

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 11:34 AM EDT

Hold on a second. Kelsey McKinney draws my attention this morning to the latest USDA report on the kinds of foods we eat, and the chart on the right shows what it has to say about vegetables.

Is this for real? Since when are potatoes vegetables? I mean, I'm delighted by this news since it means my mother has been wrong all these years when she badgers me about not eating enough vegetables. Hell, it turns out that the bag of potato chips in my pantry apparently counts too. I'll be sure to have some with my lunch today.

Still, I suspect that mom is right, which makes this a pretty depressing chart. Regardless of how the USDA classifies them, I'll continue to put potatoes (and corn) into the starch food group. Aside from that, it appears that we eat plenty of salad (head lettuce, Romaine lettuce, tomatoes) but not much of anything else. All the things we traditionally think of as vegetables (broccoli, peas, beans, etc.) are consumed in such tiny quantities they don't even show up.

That's terrible. Eat your vegetables, America!

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Latest Gallup Numbers Confirm 10-12 Million Newly Insured Under Obamacare

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 11:07 AM EDT

Gallup's latest poll number for the uninsured is out, and it's stabilized now that the open enrollment period for Obamacare has ended. It was 13.4 percent in April and it's 13.4 percent in May:

The fact that the rate stabilized provides some confidence in Gallup's polling, since that's what should have happened once open enrollment ended. This is a drop of about 4 percentage points from the 2011-12 baseline, and represents about 10 million newly insured—a figure that's been confirmed elsewhere and now seems like a pretty good estimate. Add to this the number of children and sub-26ers who are newly insured, and you're probably up to 12-13 million who are newly insured under Obamacare. Some of this comes from people buying insurance through the exchanges; some comes from Medicaid signups; and some comes from people signing up for insurance at work thanks to the individual mandate.

It's possible that other estimates will upend this number over the next few months, but I doubt it. This is probably about what we got from Obamacare. It's up to you to decide if you think it's worth the price.

It Turns Out That Lots of People Don't Like What Google Says About Them

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 12:36 AM EDT

Today we learn the consequences of the recent European court ruling that people can petition Google to remove search results they don't happen to like:

Google Inc. said Tuesday that it had received 41,000 requests from people hoping to delete individual results that turn up for their name in the first four days after it posted a Web page to take the requests late last week....The figure suggests that while a wave of people looking to exercise their new right has crested since Friday, the flood is continuing. The number of requests works out to more than 10,000 a day through the end of day Monday, or roughly 7 a minute, compared with 20 requests a minute in the initial hours after Google posted the web form.

I wonder if this will prompt the morons at the European Court of Justice to reconsider their ruling? Probably not, I suppose.

Chip-and-PIN Credit Cards Coming in 2015?

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 2:46 PM EDT

Sam's Club has announced that it will soon be issuing a chip-based credit card. Hooray! However, it's a chip-and-signature card, not one of the more secure, more logical, and more universal chip-and-PIN cards. But wait:

The other major security technology widely used on credit cards elsewhere [i.e., every country on the planet except ours] is PIN codes, which are more difficult to fake than a scribbled signature. The Sam’s Club cards will be PIN enabled but will primarily verify users by signature. The next generation of the cards, however, will primarily require PIN verification when they are issued next year.

Hold on. When did this happen? A few months ago, America's credit card issuers were insisting that chip-and-signature was the way to go. The transition plans were all in place and it was what everyone had agreed to. Retailers didn't have the technology for chip-and-PIN and consumers didn't want it, because we were all too stupid to get used to using a PIN code with our credit cards.

Now, suddenly, chip-and-PIN is right around the corner? What's going on?

UPDATE: I guess I haven't been paying attention. In December Wells Fargo announced that it would offer chip-based cards on request. "Technically speaking, they are chip-and-signature," says a Wells Fargo spox, "though the chip does have a PIN and can accommodate a PIN-based transaction if the situation required it (e.g. an unattended or offline kiosk.)" And JPMorgan Chase says it will be offering chip-and-PIN cards later this year. I guess the chip-and-PIN bandwagon is starting to gain momentum.

"All of the Above" Is a Perfectly Fine Republican Midterm Strategy

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 12:50 PM EDT

Just a quick note to my fellow liberals. I occasionally see a bit of crowing over the fact that Republicans can't agree on a coherent midterm story. Is it going to be Benghazi? The economy? Obamacare? Bowe Bergdahl? The EPA? Vladimir Putin? Or what? Republicans are in disarray!

I wouldn't count on that. Not all of these things will have the legs to carry them all the way to November, but that doesn't matter. They all reflect badly on Obama, and as this stuff piles up, low-information centrists and leaners all start to think that there must really be something wrong with Obama and his fellow Democrats, even if they don't quite know what. Where there's smoke, there's fire, right?

An "all of the above" strategy will probably work just fine for Republicans. I doubt that the outrage over Bowe Bergdahl will last long, for example, but the weak White House response to it just adds to the perception that Obama is a weak manager and maybe Republicans are right about him. In November, even if nobody remembers Bergdahl, plenty of people will retain a vague memory that something wasn't quite right about that whole Afghanistan thing. And because of that, they'll pull the lever for their local Republican.

Obama's EPA Regs Reward Republican Obstructionism

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 11:40 AM EDT

Jamelle Bouie thinks Republicans are shooting themselves in the feet with their mindless obstructionism:

If Republicans are outraged by the announcement, they only have themselves to blame....In 2009, President Obama threw his support behind climate legislation in the House, and the following year, a group of Senate Democrats—including Kerry—began work with Republicans to craft a bipartisan climate bill. The process fell apart, a victim of bad management from the White House, election year politics, an embattled and fearful Sen. Lindsay Graham—the South Carolina senator at the center of the negotiations—and the growing tide of Republican anti-Obama sentiment, which would culminate that fall with a huge GOP victory in the House of Representatives.

....With a little cooperation, Republicans could have won a better outcome for their priorities. They could have exempted coal from more stringent spectrum of regulations, enriched their constituencies with new subsidies and benefits, and diluted a key Democratic priority. Instead, they’ll now pay a steep substantive price for their obstruction, in the form of rules that are tougher—and more liberal—than anything that could have passed Congress.

I think this misreads Republican priorities. Sure, they care about the details of the regulations. And sure, they knew perfectly well that Obama had threatened to act via the EPA if Congress failed to pass a bill. But neither of those were things they cared all that much about.

Note the bolded sentence above. What Republicans really care about is winning elections.1 They were pretty sure that cooperating on a cap-and-trade bill would hurt them in the 2010 midterms, and they were probably right about that. It wasn't a popular bill, and they would have been forced to take partial credit for it if it had passed. Instead, they were able to run a clean, rage-filled campaign against Obummercare, cap-and-tax, and the pork-ocrat "stimulus" bill. As I recall, that worked out pretty well for them.

And what price did they pay? Well, now the EPA is proposing regs that are....maybe slightly worse than the original cap-and-trade bill, but not all that much, really. Policy-wise, then, they've lost at most a smidgen but no more.2 And guess what? There's another midterm coming up! This is all perfectly timed from the Republican point of view. They get to run hard against yet another lawless-Obama-job-killing-socialist-war-on-coal-executive-tyranny program. What's not to like?

1Democrats too, in case you're keeping score at home. Libertarians not so much.

2It's worth noting that they have Obama's relentless technocratic pragmatism to thank for this. If Obama had really wanted to punish Republican constituencies for opposing the cap-and-trade bill, he could have proposed a bunch of command-and-control mandates that would have hit red states and the coal industry in the gut. If Obama were truly the business-hating socialist tyrant of their fever dreams, that's what he would have done. Instead, he proposed regulations that were as flexible and efficient as possible within the restrictions of the Clean Air Act. That's why, in the end, Republican obstructionism didn't really hurt them that much.

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Rich Doctors Like Republicans; Sorta Rich Doctors Like Democrats

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 10:22 AM EDT

We jabber a lot these days about how the real action in income inequality lies in the 1 percent. That is, the big increases haven't really been between the earnings of, say, teachers and computer programmers, but between computer programmers and Wall Street traders. And rising inequality is even more apparent within the 1 percent: The super rich in the top 0.1 percent are pulling away from the merely rich in the top 1 percent at an astonishing rate.

Today, Sarah Kliff points us to a kinda sorta related chart that's pretty eye-opening. As high earners, you'd think that doctors would be more likely to contribute money to Republicans than Democrats. But it turns out that isn't true. A new analysis in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that merely well-off doctors—your allergists, your pediatricians, your pulmonologists—favor Democrats. It's only when you get into the territory of medical royalty—your surgeons, your urologists, your radiologists—that political contributions start to heavily favor Republicans. Even within one of the best paid professions in the country, there's a class divide, with the haves favoring Republicans and the have-nots favoring Democrats. That's fairly remarkable.

Idiots Are Pointing Lasers at Airplanes a Lot More Often These Days

| Tue Jun. 3, 2014 9:49 PM EDT

WTF?

Reports of people pointing lasers at aircraft have ballooned nationwide, jumping from 384 in 2006 to 3,960 in 2013, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Aware of that increase and the danger posed to pilots and travelers by lasers, the FBI began offering rewards for information leading to arrests in the 12 cities that frequently saw the most incidents.

....California often leads the country in reports of flashing lasers at aircraft, Eimiller said. Federal records also show the number of reported incidents have increased in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Jose, San Diego and Oakland from 2011 to 2013.

Why has laser flashing suddenly become the moron's prank of choice? Even the Beavis and Butthead set usually have the minimal common sense to choose dumb stunts that will kill, at most, a carload of people. What's going on here?

In any case, for the next 90 days you can earn a $10,000 reward if you stake out your local airport and catch one of these guys. Go to it.

Here's Why Phoenix Is Ground Zero for the VA Health Care Scandal

| Tue Jun. 3, 2014 2:18 PM EDT

I've steered clear of the VA story for the past few days, though not for the obvious reason. Basically, I got to the point where the collective hypocrisy over the whole thing became too much to take. Rather than write an epic rant I might later regret, I decided to just shut up.

However, in one of my last posts on the topic, I urged everyone to keep at least two things in mind. First, there's a difference between the backlog of vets trying to establish eligibility for VA health care and wait times for vets who are already in the system. Second, always ask: "compared to what?" If you're claiming that VA health care is terrible on some metric or another, tell us how that compares to private sector health care.

Today, Phil Longman comes along to write knowledgeably about both topics. In particular, he takes on the second one. Here's Longman on wait-times:

Here’s a key relevant fact that is just the opposite of what most people think. For all the wars we’ve been fighting, the veterans population has been falling sharply....I have visited VA hospitals around the county and often been unnerved by how empty they are. When I visited two of the VA’s four state-of-the-art, breathtakingly advanced polytrauma units, in Palo Alto and Minneapolis, there was hardly a patient to be found.

But at the same time there is a comparatively small countertrend that results from large migrations of aging veterans from the Rust Belt and California to lower-cost retirement centers in the Sun Belt. And this flow, combined with more liberal eligibility standards that allow more Vietnam vets to receive VA treatment for such chronic conditions as ischemic heart disease and Parkinson’s, means that in some of these areas, such as Phoenix, VA capacity is indeed under significant strain.

This regional imbalance in capacity relatively to demand makes it very difficult to manage the VA with system-wide performance metrics. Setting a benchmark of 14 days to see a new primary care doc at a VA hospital or clinic in Boston or Northern California may be completely reasonable. But trying to do the same in Phoenix and in a handful of other sunbelt retirement meccas is not workable without Congress ponying up for building more capacity there.

VA managers have known for years that some of their facilities were gaming the system by using paper lists and other tactics to mask long wait times. Mariah Blake has the whole story here. In other words, contrary to the legion of pundits who seem to have discovered the phrase "perverse incentives" just last week, VA managers aren't drooling idiots who didn't realize that incentive systems can be gamed. They knew it perfectly well and were trying to fix it. Rather, the problem was that (a) they failed to set different goals for different facilities, and (b) they're apparently lousy at oversight.

Regional imbalances also explain why these problems show up only in some facilities and not in others. And it also explains why, on average, VA wait times are actually pretty good and why VA patients generally rate their care higher than private-sector patients. It helps you get a handle on the "compared to what?" question.

Longman's piece isn't an apology for the managers who gamed the system in order to spike their bonuses—or for their higher-ups who failed for years to get this under control—but it does explain why it's happening in some places and not in others. And there's more to come:

As I’ll argue further in future posts, the key question to ask when confronting the real deficiencies of the VA is “compared to what?” Once that context is established, it becomes clear that VA as a whole continues to outperform the rest of the American health system, making its true lessons extremely important to learn.

Longman is well worth reading if you genuinely want to understand more about how the VA works and how it compares to health care elsewhere. He'll make you smarter, not dumber.

Courts Should Be More Willing to Weigh in on "Political" Disputes

| Tue Jun. 3, 2014 12:34 PM EDT

Does the Bowe Bergdahl outrage on the right have legs? Yesterday I didn't think so. Today I'm not so sure. We'll see.

I want to steer clear of the fever swamp stuff for now,1 but one aspect of all this prompts me to finally get around to writing something that's been on my mind for a while. One of the questions surrounding the Bergdahl prisoner swap is whether President Obama broke the law by releasing five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo without giving Congress its required 30-day notice. Republicans says it's a clear violation of the law. Obama says the law is an unconstitutional infringement of his Article II authority as commander-in-chief. Who's right?

Here's the thing: these kinds of disputes happen all the time in various contexts. Federal and state agencies take various actions and then go to court to defend them. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. It's pretty routine stuff.

And that's what should happen here. Congressional Republicans should challenge Obama in court and get a ruling. This would be useful for a couple of reasons. First, it would be a sign of whether Republican outrage is serious. If it is, they'll file suit. If they don't file, then we'll all know that it's just partisan preening. Second, we'd get a ruling. The scope of the president's authority would become clear. (Or at least clearer.)

But this doesn't happen very often. Sometime problems with standing are at issue, but not usually. Congress has standing to challenge this. No, the more usual reason is that it's hopeless. Courts traditionally treat disputes between the president and Congress as political, and decline to weigh in.

This is fine if a dispute truly is political. But this, like many other so-called political disputes, isn't. It's a clear question of how far the president's commander-in-chief authority extends and what authority Congress has to limit it. If Republicans truly believe Obama violated the law, they should be willing to go to court to prove it. And courts should be willing to hand down a ruling. It's a mistake to simply wash their hands of these kinds of things.

1Speaking of which, you should have seen my Twitter feed after yesterday's Bergdahl post. Hoo boy.