Kevin Drum

Friday Hummingbird Blogging - 13 March 2015

| Fri Mar. 13, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

My physical collapse this week prevented me from taking any new cat pictures, and today I have a full day of workups in preparation for stage 2 of chemo. However, I did snap a new picture of our hummingbird babies yesterday. They seem to be growing nicely.

In the meantime, if you need a cat fix, my sister recommends this Daily Mail article about a human-cat translation device. Spoiler alert: it didn't go well.

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Health Update

| Wed Mar. 11, 2015 1:03 AM EDT

On Tuesday I landed in the emergency room once again, and with the same results: there's nothing wrong with me. Nothing aside from a debilitating fatigue and lassitude, that is. But whatever it is, my oncologist doesn't think it's related to the chemo meds, and the ER doc was unable to find any other likely medical cause. So it's a mystery.

On the good news front, my biopsy results came back and were quite positive. So I'm now firmly scheduled for stage 2 of my treatment, a stem cell transplant at City of Hope. This will happen in April, but there are going to be plenty of preliminaries in the meantime. More details as they become available.

As for blogging, I just don't know. What's happened to me over the past week is unexpected, unexplained, and quite frankly scary. I don't know how I'm going to feel from day to day, but I have a feeling that the next few weeks—or perhaps months—are going to be fairly unpleasant and unproductive. I'll talk to my editors about this shortly and figure out a plan.

Wish me luck.

Once Again, Obamacare Is Turning Out To Be Cheaper Than Expected

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 1:57 PM EDT

Here's some good news: the latest report from the CBO has reduced its estimate of the cost of Obamacare. This is due partly to a slight decrease in the number of people CBO expects to be covered, but mostly due a lower estimate of the cost of insurance premiums. Thanks to this, federal subsidies are estimated at $209 billion less over a ten-year period, and the cost of CHIP and Medicaid is estimated at $73 billion less. However, there are also reductions in expected revenues from Obamacare's excise tax, so the net reduction amounts to $142 billion over ten years. The table below tells the story.

Sarah Kliff has more details here. As she notes, this isn't the first time CBO has reduced its estimate of how much Obamacare will cost: "The CBO is projecting the federal government will spend $600 billion less on health care than the agency expected in 2010, when it wasn't counting even a dollar of the spending in Obamacare. That's simply an amazing fact." Yep.

Yes, Education Matters. But It's Not the Answer to Growing Income Inequality.

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 10:55 AM EDT

David Brooks has a bit of an odd column today:

For many years, Democratic efforts to reduce inequality and lift middle-class wages were based on the theory that the key is to improve the skills of workers. Expand early education. Make college cheaper. Invest in worker training. Above all, increase the productivity of workers so they can compete.

But a growing number of populist progressives have been arguing that inequality is not mainly about education levels. They argue that trying to lift wages by improving skills is an “evasion.” It’s “whistling past the graveyard.”

....Focusing on human capital is not whistling past the graveyard. Worker productivity is the main arena. No redistributionist measure will have the same long-term effect as good early-childhood education and better community colleges, or increasing the share of men capable of joining the labor force.

I don't quite get who Brooks is arguing against here. Larry Summers is the obvious target, but Summers has been clear that he thinks education is important, both individually and for the economy as a whole. He just doesn't think that improved education is likely to have much impact on growing income inequality, which is driven by other factors.

But Brooks never even pretends to address this. I don't think there are any prominent Democrats arguing that education isn't important. Pretty much all of them are on board with good early-childhood education and better community colleges, among other things. That will help individuals and make the American economy stronger.

But will it rein in growing income inequality? As long as inequality is driven primarily by the gains of the top 1 percent—which it is—then it won't. To address that particular problem, we have to look elsewhere.

Sunday Hummingbird Blogging

| Sun Mar. 8, 2015 5:31 PM EDT

I'm feeling just energetic enough today to actually eat lunch (hooray!) and take a picture of the baby hummingbirds in our backyard. They sit there all day with their beaks stuck in the air waiting for mama to come home and deposit something yummy.

Hummingbirds must be pretty stubborn critters. Last year's crop of hummingbird eggs never hatched because the nest was on a thin branch that blew away during the first decent storm of the year. So what happened? This year's nest is in exactly the same spot as it was last year. I guess mama is lucky that we've had pretty mild weather this year.

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 March 2015

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 3:40 PM EST

Today's catblogging is special. As usual, the lighting in our living room is pretty bad, but nonetheless, this is your first glimpse of the commenter known as Inkblot's Aunt—aka my sister Karen. She's been wonderful about helping us out as Marian and I both recover from our various medical problems, and on Wednesday she came over and stayed with me all evening when I was feeling especially bad. You can see her reward in the photo: Hilbert finally decided she was part of the family and plonked down in her arms for a nice hour-long snooze.

By the way, when I head off to stage 2 of my chemotherapy, Karen will be catsitting for several weeks. This means she'll be responsible for using her iPad to capture catblogging photos each week. Depending on how I feel during stage 2, I'll post them as I get them. In any case, be nice to her in comments. Sometime in the next month or two, catblogging will depend on her.

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A Zombie From the 90s Makes the Case For Demanding Strong Encryption

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 2:19 PM EST

Companies like Apple and Google have announced recently that they will start providing their customers with encryption that even Apple and Google don't have the keys for. This means that even if law enforcement officers get a subpoena for data held by the companies, it won't do any good. They couldn't turn over decrypted data even if they wanted to.

This has led to calls from the FBI and elsewhere to provide "backdoors" of some kind for use by law enforcement. This would be a kind of master key available only under court order. But security experts argue that this makes encryption fundamentally useless. If you deliberately build in a weakness, you simply can never guarantee that it won't be exploited by hackers. Encryption is either secure or it's not, full stop.

Over at The Switch, Craig Timberg provides an interesting recent example of this. Back in the 90s, we were fighting this same fight, and one temporary result was the government's mandate that only a weak form of encryption could be exported outside the U.S. This mandate didn't last long, but it lasted long enough to get incorporated into quite a few products. Still, that was 20 years ago. What harm could it be doing today?

The weaker encryption got baked into widely used software that proliferated around the world and back into the United States, apparently unnoticed until this year.

Researchers discovered in recent weeks that they could force browsers to use the old export-grade encryption then crack it over the course of just a few hours. Once cracked, hackers could steal passwords and other personal information and potentially launch a broader attack on the Web sites themselves by taking over elements on a page, such as a Facebook “Like” button.

....The existence of the problem with export-grade encryption amazed the researchers, who have dubbed the flaw “FREAK” for Factoring attack on RSA-EXPORT Keys....Nadia Heninger, a University of Pennsylvania cryptographer, said, “This is basically a zombie from the ‘90s… I don’t think anybody really realized anybody was still supporting these export suites.”

For vulnerable sites, Heninger found that she could crack the export-grade encryption key in about seven hours, using computers on Amazon Web services....More than one third of encrypted Web sites — including those bearing the “lock” icon that signifies a connection secured by SSL technology — proved vulnerable to attack in recent tests conducted by University of Michigan researchers J. Alex Halderman and Zakir Durumeric. The list includes news organizations, retailers and financial services sites such as americanexpress.com. Of the 14 million Web sites worldwide that offer encryption, more than 5 million remained vulnerable as of Tuesday morning, Halderman said.

This is an object lesson in deliberately building vulnerabilities into encryption technology. Maybe you think you've done it perfectly. Maybe you think nobody but the proper authorities can ever exploit the vulnerability. But the chances are good that you're wrong. In the case of FREAK, we were wrong for nearly 20 years before we figured out what was going on. There's no telling how long we might be wrong if we deliberately do this again.

Yet Another Health Update

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 12:40 PM EST

I promised another health update last night, so here it is. I know that some of you are interested in this, while others find it tedious, so I'll put it all below the fold. Here's the nickel summary: There's a good chance I'm going to continue feeling lousy for a couple of weeks or so, but I should start to improve after that.

Republicans Are Already Prepping for Possible Government Shutdown in the Fall

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 12:01 PM EST

The Supreme Court will rule later this year on the question of whether Obamacare subsidies should be repealed in states that don't run their own insurance exchanges. That would gut a major portion of the law, and Jonathan Weisman reports today that because of this, "the search for a replacement by Republican lawmakers is finally gaining momentum."

I'm not quite sure how he could write that with a straight face, since I think we all know just how serious Republicans are about passing health care reform of their own. In any case, I think the real news comes a few paragraphs down:

Aides to senior House Republicans said Thursday that committee chairmen were meeting now to decide whether a budget plan — due out the week of March 16 — will include parliamentary language, known as reconciliation instructions, that would allow much of a Republican health care plan to pass the filibuster-prone Senate with a simple majority.

Representative Tom Price of Georgia, the House Budget Committee chairman, said that reconciliation language would be kept broad enough to allow Republican leaders to use it later in the year however they see fit, whether that is passing health care legislation over a Senate filibuster or focusing on taxes or other matters.

If this is true, it means that Republicans are prepping for yet another government shutdown over Obamacare. Any budget that tried to essentially repeal Obamacare in favor of a Republican "replacement" would obviously be met with a swift veto, and that would lead inevitably to the usual dreary standoff that we've seen so often over the past few years.

Of course, this will all be moot if the Supreme Court upholds Obamacare in the way common sense dictates. Still, it's something of a sign of things to come. Shutdown politics is pretty clearly still alive and well in the GOP ranks.

The Hack Gap Lives!

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 11:33 AM EST

I've been following the news a little vaguely over the past few days, but I noticed an interesting confirmation of the hack gap in the treatment of Hillary Clinton's email affair. Perhaps you noticed too? There was, obviously, a difference in the way liberals and conservatives treated the news that Hillary had used a private email address for all her correspondence while she was Secretary of State. But it was a matter of degree, not attitude.

On the liberal side, I saw a lots of people seriously questioning what had happened. And not just here in the pages of MoJo. I saw it on MSNBC. I saw it in newspaper columns. I saw it in blog posts. Lots of liberals treated this as a legitimate issue and suggested that Hillary had some serious questions to answer. This didn't just come from a few iconoclasts, either. It came from all over the place, and was generally viewed, at the least, as an example of questionable judgment, if not proof that Hillary is the antichrist we've always known she was.

I know the counterfactual game can get a little tiresome sometimes, but still: it's hard to imagine the same thing happening if a heavy Republican frontrunner had done something like this. The hack gap lives.