Kevin Drum

Flint Probably Has Bigger Problems Than Lead Pipes

| Thu Feb. 4, 2016 12:38 PM EST

The latest from Flint:

Mayor Karen Weaver is calling for immediate removal of lead pipes from Flint's water distribution system, and is expected to detail her request at a news conference later Tuesday, Feb. 2....Replacing all of Flint's lead service lines has been estimated to cost more than $60 million.

The latest from New Jersey:

Eleven cities in New Jersey, and two counties, have a higher proportion of young children with dangerous lead levels than Flint, Mich., does, according to New Jersey and Michigan statistics cited by a community advocacy group....In New Jersey, children 6 years of age and younger have continued to ingest lead from paint in windows, doors and other woodwork found in older homes, particularly in older, poorer cities, said Elyse Pivnick, director of environmental health for Isles, Inc., a community development organization based in Trenton.

"In light of the Flint debacle, we wanted people to understand that water is not the only thing that's poisoning children," she said. "Most people think the lead problem was solved when we took lead out of gasoline and new homes in the 1970s, but that's not true."

I suppose it's inevitable that residents of Flint want to replace their lead pipes. But it's probably unfortunate. At this point, Flint's water pipes are almost certainly pretty safe, and will become even safer over the next few months as properly treated waters rebuilds the scale inside the pipes. A multi-year program to replace them will most likely have no effect at all on childhood lead levels.

So what would I spend $60 million on if I had the choice? Two things:

  • Lead paint abatement in older homes. The biggest danger points are window casings in old homes, because the friction from opening and closing windows eats through newer layers of paint and exposes old lead paint, which is then ground into lead dust.
  • Soil testing and cleanup. This is decidedly unsexy, but in modern cities this is where most of the lead is. Lead from gasoline spent decades settling into urban soil after we burned it in our cars, and every summer, when the weather dries up, it gets "resuspended" and becomes a source of lead poisoning all over again.

In both cases, the lead poisoning mechanism is the same: small children get lead dust on their fingers and then lick it off. This is one of the reasons that lead poisoning is a much smaller problem for adults than for children. Lead in small doses doesn't affect mature brains strongly, and even if it did, adults mostly don't play in the dirt and then lick their hands. Kids do.

The first step in soil abatement is mapping: figuring out which spots have the highest levels of lead contamination. The next step is cleaning it up. There are multiple ways of doing this, some cheap and some expensive, and only a professional evaluation can determine the best method in specific areas.

Anyway, that's that. The problem, of course, is that there's no chance at all that anyone is going to give Flint $60 million to clean up its soil and its old windows. But someone might give them $60 million to replace their lead pipes. It won't do nearly as much good, but at least it's something.

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The Party Is Deciding....On Marco Rubio?

| Thu Feb. 4, 2016 11:39 AM EST

Over at FiveThirtyEight, they're taking The Party Decides out for a spin by tracking the most important sign of just how the party decides: endorsements. This is allegedly the key metric for predicting the nomination, and they report that young Marco Rubio is now solidly in the lead and moving ahead quickly:

Although four more endorsements and a slight lead in points do not make Rubio a lock as the choice of Republican elected officials, this bump is a sign that members of Congress could be starting to see him as the most acceptable option for the nomination....Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led our list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.

....Iowa caucus winner Ted Cruz has slowly been picking up points as well — he’s added seven since the beginning of the year — though he has yet to receive an endorsement from a sitting senator or governor.

Poor Ted. Everyone hates him, so the only endorsements he can get are from a few backbench House members. I guess he'll show them when he's sitting pretty in the Oval Office next year.

Yes, Bernie Sanders Is Questioning Hillary Clinton's Integrity

| Thu Feb. 4, 2016 10:39 AM EST

Greg Sargent points us to this exchange yesterday on CNN:

WOLF BLITZER: Are you suggesting that Secretary Clinton is beholden to Wall Street and big money?

BERNIE SANDERS: No. What I’m simply saying is a fact. She recently reported that her Super PAC received $25 million. $15 million of that came from Wall Street. I will let the American people determine what all of that means.

And here is Sargent on what Sanders is doing:

He says our political economy is in the grip of an oligarchic elite, resulting in a massive upward redistribution of wealth in recent decades and rendering government paralyzed from doing anything about it....Sanders constantly points to the funding of her campaign — and her acceptance of speaking fees — as symptomatic of this problem. But Sanders does not want to take the final step and say that Clinton personally is making the policy choices she does precisely because she is beholden to the oligarchy, due to its funding of her campaign. The upshot is that Sanders is indicting the entire system, but doesn’t want to question the integrity of Clinton herself — or perhaps doesn’t want to be seen doing that. This is the central tension at the heart of Sanders’s whole argument.

Is it true that Sanders is just too nice a guy to name names? Maybe. But I'm a little less inclined to be generous about this kind of thing. To my ears, it sounds more like typical political smarm. "Hey, I'm not saying she's a crook. I'm just saying she drives a pretty nice car, amirite?" Contra Sargent, I'd say that Sanders is very much questioning the integrity of Clinton herself, and doing it in a pretty familiar way.

Marco Rubio Lashes Out Against Call For Religious Toleration

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 7:36 PM EST

President Obama, during a speech today at a Baltimore mosque:

If we’re serious about freedom of religion — and I’m speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain the majority in this country — we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths. And when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up. And we have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion.

Marco Rubio, commenting a couple of hours later on Obama's speech:

Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today: he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims....It's this constant pitting people against each other that I can't stand.

There you have it. Ask Christians to reject the politics of bigotry, and you're pitting people against each other. And Marco Rubio, for one, will have no part of that.

UPDATE: Revised to include exact quote from Rubio.

Yet Another Look at BernieCare

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 5:35 PM EST

I hope you'll pardon a bit of real-time navel-gazing. It won't take long. A couple of weeks ago Bernie Sanders released an outline of his single-payer health plan, and I pronounced it "pretty good." A week later, Emory's Kenneth Thorpe took a detailed look at Sanders' plan and basically concluded that it was fantasy. Why the huge difference between us?

It has little to do with the details of the Sanders plan. We're both looking primarily at the financing. Here was my reasoning:

  • Total health care outlays in the United States come to about $3 trillion.
  • The federal government already spends $1 trillion.
  • Sanders would spend $1.4 trillion more. That comes to $2.4 trillion, which means Sanders is figuring his plan will save about $600 billion, or 20 percent of total outlays.
  • I doubt that. I'll buy the idea that a single-payer plan can cut costs, but not that much. I might find $1.7 or $1.8 trillion in extra revenue credible, which means that Sanders is probably lowballing by $300 billion or so—which, by the standards of most campaign promises, is actually not that bad. I'd be delighted if a single Republican were that honest about the revenue effects of whatever tax plan they're hawking at the moment.

But Thorpe says Sanders is off by a whopping $1.1 trillion. Yikes! Where does that come from? There are several places where Thorpe suggests the Sanders plan will cost more than Sanders thinks, but the main difference is shown in the table on the right. Thorpe, it turns out, thinks the Sanders plan would cost an additional $1.9 trillion in the first year. So he and I are roughly on the same page.

But I stopped there. I basically assumed that both costs and revenues would increase each year at about the same rate, and that was that. Thorpe, however, figures costs will increase substantially each year but tax revenues will increase hardly at all. So that means an increasing gap between revenue and spending, which averages out to $1.1 trillion over ten years.

Other details aside, then, this is the big difference. If Sanders' new taxes fall further and further behind each year as health care costs rise, then he's got a big funding gap that he would have to make up with higher tax rates. But if he can keep cost growth down to about the same level as his tax revenue growth, his plan is in decent shape.

So which is it? Beats me. This is the kind of thing where the devil really is in the details, and even a small difference in assumptions can add up to a lot over ten years. Still, I was curious to see why Thorpe and I seemed to diverge so strongly, and this is it. Take it for what it's worth.

And Now For a Short Dental Interlude

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 2:21 PM EST

I'm off to the dentist. My teeth are actually in fine shape, but when you hit your 50s all the fillings you got in your 20s and 30s apparently start to go south, so they have to be removed and refilled. Or so my dentist says, anyway. Today I get two or three of them replaced. I don't remember exactly. Hopefully she does.

UPDATE: It was three. Two of them were old silver fillings, which she hates because of the mercury. So out they came.

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The Republican Field Is Shrinking Rapidly

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 1:06 PM EST

I know how easy it is to lose track of things. So just for the record, we're now down to seven real candidates on the Republican side of things:

  • Cruz
  • Rubio
  • Bush
  • Trump
  • Carson
  • Christie
  • Kasich

This doesn't count the three dead-enders who haven't officially quit yet: Jim Gilmore, Rick Santorum, and Carly Fiorina. By my figuring, New Hampshire should kill off Bush and Carson and get us down to five real candidates. Maybe even Kasich and Christie, too. For all practical purposes, by next Wednesday we might finally be down to our long-fabled three-man race.

The Excuses Are Flying High in Trumpworld

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 12:00 PM EST

Watching Donald Trump make excuses for yet another business failure is edifying. Here's Trump on why he lost in Iowa:

I think we could've used a better ground game, a term I wasn't even familiar with....But people told me my ground game was fine. And I think by most standards it was.

Hey, "people" told him his ground game was fine! And it was. By most standards. Anyway, Iowa doesn't really matter. And Ted Cruz cheated. And the grass was wet. And the sun was in his eyes.

This is Trump all over. He hops from one failure to another, always with a handy excuse. Football is a lousy business. Eastern Airlines ripped me off. The Plaza would have done great if the economy hadn't turned down. Atlantic City was overbuilt. I never really had anything to do with Trump University.

This is the same guy who thinks that running America will be child's play. It's so easy. Just watch. But he's such a lousy manager that he never bothered to learn what a "ground game" is—which is roughly the equivalent of understanding about food costs if you run a restaurant.

I wouldn't hire Donald Trump to run a lemonade stand, let alone the United States of America. I don't think I could stand the pity party. He needs to take his daddy issues to a shrink, not the Oval Office.

Here's Some Context For Blood Lead Levels in Flint

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 11:05 AM EST

I don't have any special point to make with these charts. They show blood lead levels in children over the past couple of decades for a few selected states, and they're meant only to provide a bit of context for reporting about Flint. Complete data is here if you're curious about how your state is doing.

For comparison, at the height of the water crisis Flint reported BLLs above 5 m/d for about 6 percent of its children. The latest round of testing suggests that Flint is now down to 3 percent.

Chart of the Day: Another Sign That Dodd-Frank Is Working

| Wed Feb. 3, 2016 12:25 AM EST

Via Matt O'Brien, this chart from JP Morgan shows financial sector leverage over the past few decades. As you can see, leverage skyrocketed during the Bush era, which contributed to the 2008 financial meltdown, and then plummeted shortly thereafter. Then it flattened out for a couple of years, and under normal circumstances it probably would have started to climb again when the economy began to recover. Two things stopped it: Dodd-Frank and Basel III, both of which mandated higher capital requirements and thus lower overall leverage levels. This has reduced Wall Street profits but made the banking system safer for everyone.

In other words: financial regulation FTW. Nothing is perfect, and Wall Street is doing everything it can to undermine Dodd-Frank during the rulemaking process, but if it accomplishes nothing except encouraging less leverage it will have done its most important job.