Kevin Drum

Uber vs. Taxis: Round 2 in the Big Apple

| Fri Jul. 24, 2015 9:15 AM EDT

On Monday I passed along some news about a study of cost and wait times for Uber vs. taxis in low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles. In a nutshell, Uber was both cheaper and faster. Now, the same folks who did the LA study have done a quickie follow-up in the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. It's based on a very small sample—so treat it with caution—but it found that although Uber was no cheaper than New York cabs, the wait time for a car was significantly less. Plus this:

Observations in which the taxi company refused to send a driver speak to the unreliability of dispatch taxi service in lower-income and geographically dispersed community districts of New York City. Of the total number of attempted dispatch taxi rides, the company was unable to send a driver within 30 minutes 38% of the time. Although it is possible these specific taxi companies did not serve the boroughs of Brooklyn or Queens except when dropping off or picking up a rider from the airport, this lack of clear information contributes to the difficulty riders new to the city generally or merely a particular part of the city face when attempting to travel around the city via car service.

The full report is here. As with the LA report, it was funded by Uber.

It's worth noting—though it should be obvious—that nothing in this report addresses various other concerns about Uber: pay and working conditions for drivers, regulatory compliance, privacy issues, etc. It's just data about one specific thing: how Uber compares to cabs on the metrics of price and convenience.

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Surprise! EPA's New Power Plant Rules Aren't Going to Destroy America After All.

| Fri Jul. 24, 2015 12:13 AM EDT

Whenever a new environmental regulation gets proposed, there's one thing you can count on: the affected industry will start cranking out research showing that the cost of compliance is so astronomical that it will put them out of business. It happens every time. Then, when the new regs take effect anyway, guess what? It turns out they aren't really all that expensive after all. The country gets cleaner and the economy keeps humming along normally. Hard to believe, no?

Apologies for the spoiler, but can you guess what's happening now that President Obama's new carbon rules for power plants are about to take effect? Mitch "War on Coal" McConnell has been issuing hysterical warnings about these regulations for years, but the Washington Post reports that—sorry, did you say something? You've already guessed, have you?

More striking is what has happened since: Kentucky’s government and electric utilities have quietly positioned themselves to comply with the rule — something state officials expect to do with relatively little effort....“We can meet it,” Kentucky Energy and Environment Secretary Leonard Peters, speaking at a climate conference, said of the EPA’s mandate.

The story is the same across much of the country as the EPA prepares to roll out what is arguably the biggest and most controversial environmental regulation of the Obama presidency....Despite dire warnings and harsh political rhetoric, many states are already on track to meet their targets, even before the EPA formally announces them, interviews and independent studies show.

Iowa is expected to meet half of its carbon-reduction goal by next year, just with the wind-power projects already planned or in construction. Nevada is on track to meet 100 percent of its goal without additional effort, thanks to several huge ­solar-energy farms the state’s electricity utilities were already planning to build. From the Great Lakes to the Southwest, electric utilities were projecting huge drops in greenhouse-gas emissions as they switch from burning coal to natural gas — not because of politics or climate change, but because gas is now cheaper.

“It’s frankly the norm,” said Malcolm Woolf, a former Maryland state energy official and now senior vice president for Advanced Energy Economy....“We’ve yet to find a state that is going to have a real technical challenge meeting this.”

Try to contain your surprise.

It's Not Just Social Security Anymore. Jeb Bush Wants to Destroy Medicare Too.

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 5:12 PM EDT

Republicans have been talking for years about "reforming" Social Security. Usually this involves privatizing it in some way, which they insist that people will love. In fact, they'll love it so much that, um, Republicans don't dare suggest that their reforms should apply to current recipients. Or to people who are within even a decade of retiring. Why exempt these folks? There's a lot of blah blah blah when you ask, but the real reason is that these people vote, and they actually pay attention to Social Security. They know perfectly well that the current system is a better deal for them. It's only younger workers, who don't pay as much attention and have been brainwashed—by conservatives—into believing that Social Security will never pay them a dime anyway, who give this nonsense the time of day. Even if the GOP's reformed version of Social Security is a lousy deal, anything is better than nothing. Right?

But I've never really heard this argument about Medicare. Until now. Here's Jeb Bush:

A lot of people recognize that we need to make sure we fulfill the commitment to people that have already received the benefits, that are receiving the benefits. But that we need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something—because they’re not going to have anything.

Boom! If we don't gut Medicare, they'll have nothing. When they turn 65 they'll be out on the street dying, with no one to help them. Why? Because Democrats let the system go bankrupt. Wouldn't it be much better to offer them some crappy, rationed system instead? At least it's something, after all.

Jesus. You'd think we were Greece. Oh wait—these guys do think that Democrats are turning us into Greece. So I guess it makes a kind of sense.

In any case, Jeb sure picked the wrong time to make this pitch. Just yesterday we got the latest projections for Social Security and Medicare. If they're correct, the cost of both programs will top out at a combined 12 percent of GDP by the middle of the century and then flatten out. That's about 3 percent of GDP more than we're spending now.

So this is what Jeb is saying: Right now the federal government spends about 20 percent of GDP. We can't afford to increase that to 23 percent of GDP over the next 30 years. That would—what? I don't even know what the story is here. Turn us into Greece? Require us to tax millionaires so highly they all give up and go Galt? Deprive Wall Street of lots of pension income they can use to blow up the world again?

Beats me. This whole thing is ridiculous. Over the next 30 years, we need to increase spending by 1 percent of GDP per decade. That's it. That will keep Social Security and Medicare in good shape. Why is it so hard for people to get that?

Picture of the Day: El Niño Is Coming, and It's a Big 'Un

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 1:07 PM EDT

Here it is: surface sea temperature anomalies caused by this year's super El Niño. There are two major hot spots: off the coast of Peru, where water is upwards of 4°C warmer than usual, and off the coast of Seattle, where water is about 3°C warmer than usual. Buckle up, folks.

Benghazi Committee Now Aiming Its Popguns at Iran Deal

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 11:47 AM EDT

Back when Trey Gowdy was appointed to lead the House Select Committee on Benghazi, a friend of mine told me I should withhold judgment for a while. Gowdy might be a true believer conservative, but he wasn't a hack like Darrell Issa. His committee might actually do a fair job.

I was skeptical, but I didn't really know much about Gowdy except for his captivatingly unkempt hair (since cleaned up a bit, sadly). So I waited. Before long, the committee was leaking snippets of testimony taken out of context, a favored tactic of Issa. Then it seemed to morph into a full-time attack machine aimed at Hillary Clinton. And now, just to prove that things can always get stranger, Gowdy has inserted himself into the Iran nuclear deal.

It turns out that Gowdy wants to interview John Kerry's chief of staff, Jon Finer. No problem. However, the State Department told Gowdy that Finer wouldn't be available next Tuesday because he had to accompany Kerry to a Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on the Iran deal. Steve Benen picks up the story:

Kerry’s chief of staff, Jon Finer, has actual work to do and needs to be available to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The State Department made clear to Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), in writing, that it “will not be possible” for Finer to speak to the Benghazi panel on July 28.

So, Gowdy scheduled a meeting and demanded that Finer appear on July 28. If he has a relevant role to play in helping address concerns over the nuclear deal, too bad.

When House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and GOP leaders created the House Select Committee on Benghazi, critics predicted a ridiculous escapade that would do little to shed light on the deadly terrorism, and would instead become a sad, partisan spectacle.

Republicans appear to have gone out of their way to prove the critics right. It didn’t have to be this way.

The funny thing about this is that for all the damage Republican investigations did to Bill Clinton in the 90s, their encore performance has gone miserably. In the Obama era, committee after committee has bombed. Fast & Furious, Solyndra, Benghazi, net neutrality, the IRS, and dozens more: all have petered out with hardly enough to make Obama blush, let alone do him any real damage. The fact is that Obama has run a remarkably clean administration, and Republicans just can't stand it. They just know that the socialist-in-chief is scheming to destroy America if only they can dig up the evidence. So they keep digging maniacally.

But the digging goes nowhere, because there's no there, there. I don't think they'll ever admit it, though.

Yet More Magical Unicorn Thinking From Right Wing on Iran Nuclear Deal

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 10:59 AM EDT

I've been waiting for a while now for a plausible conservative alternative to President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, and Max Fisher informs me today that Michael Oren has stepped up and done just that in the pages of Politico. Except for one thing: the increasingly unhinged former ambassador to the US may have a plan, but it's about a million miles from plausible.

You should read Fisher's whole post, but I'm going to skip the long preamble and get straight to Oren's proposal. Here it is:

Israel would have embraced an agreement that significantly rolled back the number of centrifuges and nuclear facilities in Iran and that linked any sanctions relief to demonstrable changes in its behavior. No more state support of terror, no more threatening America’s Middle Eastern allies, no more pledges to destroy the world’s only Jewish state and no more mass chants of "Death to America." Israel would have welcomed any arrangement that monitored Iran’s ICBMs and other offensive weaponry. Such a deal, Israeli leaders across the political spectrum agree, was and remains attainable.

That would be great, of course. But not exactly plausible. Here's Fisher:

All of these are politically impossible and, in some cases, physically impossible....Try to imagine a US negotiator actually asking for this. "The inspections procedures of uranium mines look good here, and we are satisfied with the limits on centrifuge research and development. But we require a binding commitment that no one in your political system will speak certain combinations of words about Israel anymore." We might as well demand that Iran give us a unicorn that we can ride all the way to Candy Mountain.

....Is it really worth blowing up a historic nuclear deal — one that will substantially and verifiably limit Iran's nuclear program, with global cooperation — over the possibility that one of the Iranian ayatollahs might not be legally forbidden from saying the wrong words?

These are poison-pill demands, and very lazy ones at that. They are not designed to be implemented, but rather to raise the political bar for any nuclear deal beyond what can be achieved.

And what about sanctions? Surely the other countries that are parties to the deal would quit in disgust if the US demands were as ridiculous as Oren suggests they should be. Indeed they would, but Oren says that if they drop out we should threaten to sanction them. Fisher: "This is indeed a specific proposal. But it is also insane. Oren is arguing that Obama should threaten to blow up the world economy, including America's own economy, just to secure some vague improvements to the Iran deal."

Fisher is right: this is nuts. It's basically just an excuse not to ever conclude a deal with Iran, and instead to (a) keep sanctions in place forever and (b) bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. Some plan. The first part is impossible, and the second part would do little except to convince Iran to redouble its efforts to build a bomb.

But I guess this is what passes for sounding tough in conservative land. God help us.

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No, Smartphones Aren't Responsible for the Drop in Teen Sex

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 11:55 PM EDT

Over at Wonkblog, we learn that American teenagers are having less sex than they used to. But why?

Crotchety adults may joke: Maybe they’re too busy messing with their iPhones.

That’s actually a decent theory, said Dr. Brooke Bokor, an Adolescent Medicine Specialist at the Children's National Health System. More teenagers than ever have smartphones....Many are more comfortable searching in private for credible information about sexual health....They could be better educated about the risks.”

....Another possible driver of the sexual slowdown is the growing popularity of the HPV vaccine, which is now widely offered to boys and girls as young as 11. The shots, of course, come with an educational conversation. Kids learn earlier about the prevalence of STIs and how they're spread.

Alert readers will understand immediately not only why these aren't decent theories, but why they're ridiculous ones. In case you need a hint, it's in the chart on the right.

As you can see, the percentage of teens who report ever having intercourse has been dropping since the late 80s, and dropped especially sharply during the 90s. There were no smartphones in the 90s. There was no HPV vaccine in the 90s. No matter how appealing these theories might be at first glance, neither is even remotely credible as an explanation for the decline in teen sexual activity.

So what's the answer? How about video games? Or hip hop? Or energy drinks? I have no evidence for any of these, and clean-living adults might be scandalized at the idea that any of them could have tangible benefits, but they're all better theories than smartphones or the HPV vaccine. At least the timing fits decently.

These provocations aside, I suppose you're now expecting me to get serious and suggest that the decline in childhood lead exposure is responsible for the drop in teen sex. Maybe! There is, after all, some evidence that reduced lead exposure is associated with the drop in teen pregnancy over the past few decades, and it's reasonable to suspect that less teen pregnancy might be the result of less teen sex. But there are at least two problems with this. First, pregnancy rates can go down even if sex doesn't, simply due to more widespread use of birth control. Second, the data on teen sex comes from the CDC, and their cohort breakdown doesn't seem to fit the lead theory. In particular, the percentage of ninth graders reporting sexual experience didn't start dropping until 2001, and if lead is responsible you'd expect the youngest cohort to drop earlier than older cohorts. At first glance, then, I'm not sure lead explains what's going on. But it might. I'd just need to see more and better data to be sure.

In other words: we don't really know for sure why teen sex is down. What we do know is that on a whole range of measures—crime rates, pregnancy, drug and alcohol use, cigarette smoking, math and reading proficiency, high school completion—teenagers have become better behaved over the past couple of decades. They just aren't as scary as they used to be. That's a little hard to take if you're a social conservative who's convinced that liberal values are destroying America, but it's true nonetheless. And good news too.

Medicare Cost Projections Are Down Stunningly in 2015 Report

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 5:16 PM EDT

As long as we're on the subject of annual trustees reports, the 2015 Medicare report was released today too. And if the Social Security report was slightly good news, the Medicare report is, once again, spectacularly good news. Here's the 75-year spending projection from ten years ago vs. today:

Ten years ago, Medicare was a runaway freight train. Spending was projected to increase indefinitely, rising to 13 percent of GDP by 2080. This year, spending is projected to slow down around 2040, and reaches only 6 percent of GDP by 2090.

Six percent! That's half what we thought a mere decade ago. If that isn't spectacular, I don't know what is.

The 2005 projection was based on past performance, which showed costs rising ceaselessly every year. That turned out to be wrong. This year's projection is also based on past performance, which shows that costs have flattened substantially since 2008. Will it turn out to be wrong too? Come back in 2025 and I'll tell you.

In any case, this illustrates the big difference between cost projections for Social Security and Medicare. Social Security is basically just arithmetic. We know how many people are going to retire, we know how long they're going to live, and we know how much we're going to pay them. Do the math and you know how much the program will cost us. It can change a bit over time, as projections of things like GDP growth or immigration rates change, but that happens at the speed of molasses. There are very few surprises with Social Security.

Medicare has all that, but it also has one more thing: the actual cost of medical care. And that's little more than an educated guess when you start projecting more than a decade ahead. Will costs skyrocket as expensive new therapies multiply? Or will costs plummet after someone invents self-sustaining nanobots that get injected at birth and keep us healthy forever at virtually no cost? I don't know. No one knows.

Beyond that, it's always foolish to assume that costs will rise forever just because they have in the past. Medicare is a political program, and at some point the public will decide that it's not willing to fund it at higher levels. It's not as if it's on autopilot, after all. We live in a democracy, and after lots of yelling and fighting, we'll eventually do something about rising medical costs if we simply don't think the additional spending is worth it.

Still, the news for now is pretty good. I happen to think the slowdown in medical costs is real, and will continue for some time (though not at the extremely low rates of the past few years). For more on this, see here, here, and here. Others think it's a temporary blip due to the recession, and big increases will return in a few years. We'll see.

Disability Insurance Is Going to Be a Big Deal In Next Year's Presidential Campaign

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 2:35 PM EDT

Another year, another report from the Social Security Trustees. Here's the basic chart, which shows the combined Social Security Trust fund becoming insolvent in 2034, one year later than last year's projection. At that point, if nothing is done, benefit checks will be reduced about 25 percent.

There's not much change since 2014, as you'd expect since this stuff doesn't change a lot from year to year. The bigger news is that if you pull apart OASI (old age benefits) from DI (disability), it turns out that DI is going to be insolvent next year. Everyone has known this for a while, so it's no big shock. But next year is an election year, which means Congress either needs to come up with a fix this year, while everyone is mesmerized by Donald Trump, or else put it off until next year, when they'll have to do it under the blazing white klieg lights of a presidential campaign.

It'll probably be next year, since Social Security traditionally doesn't get fixed until it's literally a few days away from not sending out checks to people. That should make this a great campaign issue between Republicans, who think DI is going broke because too many lazy bums are gaming the system, and Democrats, who mostly think it's going broke because boomers are retiring and the economy is still weak.

So who wins this argument? Republicans have a story that will appeal to their base audience, but when you finally get to the point where checks to disabled people are being reduced—or not being sent out at all—that tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully. Public opinion will likely end up on the side of the disabled, especially since the usual fix (moving a bit of money from OASI to DI) is cheap and painless.

But we'll see. In any case, this is a fight that can't be avoided. You can count on it becoming a focal point of next year's campaign.

CFPB Wins $700 Million Deceptive Practices Case Against Citibank, So Ted Cruz Wants to Shut Them Down

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 12:25 PM EDT

Steve Benen points out today that Ted Cruz wants to eliminate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because it "does little to protect consumers." Ironically, this comes on the same day that the CFPB won a case against Citibank for deceptive practices that resulted in a $700 million fine. But irony is not a Republican strong suit, and most of them not only want to eliminate the CFPB, they want to eliminate all of Dodd-Frank while they're at it.

This is not a big surprise since (a) Republicans have hated Dodd-Frank all along and virtually all of them voted against it, (b) it's an Obama thing, nuff said, and (c) it forces big banks to treat consumers fairly, and Republicans don't like laws that force big banks—or any other big business—to treat consumers fairly. Benen comments:

If the Dodd/Frank were actually imposing unreasonable burdens on well intentioned financial institutions, the complaints might be worth considering, but the fact remains that Wall Street reform is an under-appreciated success story. The repeal crusade is misguided on political and policy grounds.

This actually brings up a point worth repeating: one of the prices we pay for extreme political polarization is the inability to tweak big laws after they're passed. No Democrat would claim that Obamacare is perfect, for example. With a few years of experience under our belts, there are some things we now recognize could have been done better. But it's impossible to tweak the law because Republicans flatly refuse to cooperate. It's repeal or nothing. To their base, tweaking the law would be a tacit admission that Obamacare can be improved, and that's effectively treason to the cause. It's a socialist nightmare and it has to be torn out root and branch, period.

The same dynamic is true of Dodd-Frank. You can make a good case, for example, that the Dodd-Frank rules pose an unnecessary burden on small community banks that are obviously no threat to the financial system. But even if Democrats would now be willing to loosen the compliance requirements for banks under a certain size, there's no way to make it happen. It's a tweak to the law, and supporting that tweak merely helps Dodd-Frank stay on the books. Better to keep the law as crappy as possible so that opposition to it stays as strong as possible.

We see this play out over and over. Modern legislation is inherently complex and needs to be periodically tweaked to keep it working properly. When you can't do that, it steadily gums up the works and keeps everyone in a seething fury about how incompetent the federal government is.

Which is the whole point, of course. Welcome to the modern Republican Party. The more they can make a hash out of government operations, the better off they are.