Kevin Drum

Tired of Remembering Passwords? Try Swallowing Them Instead.

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 9:25 AM EDT

Chances are you're bad at passwords. Most of us are. A recent statistic offered up by Jonathan LeBlanc, the global head of developer advocacy at PayPal, suggests that nearly 10 percent of people have a password consisting of 123456, 12345678, or, simply, "password."

LeBlanc has some bold thoughts on improving this state of affairs. As he told the Wall Street Journal last week, "embeddable, injectable, and ingestible devices" are the next step companies will use to identify consumers for "mobile payments and other sensitive online interactions."

From the Journal:

While there are more advanced methods to increase login security, like location verification, identifying people by their habits like the way they type in their passwords, fingerprints and other biometric identifiers, these can lead to false negative results, where valid users can't log in to their online services, and false positives, where invalid users can log in.

Mr. Leblanc pointed to more accurate methods of identity verification, like thin silicon chips which can be embedded into the skin. The wireless chips can contain ECG sensors that monitor the heart’s unique electrical activity, and communicate the data via wireless antennae to "wearable computer tattoos."

Ingestible capsules that can detect glucose levels and other unique internal features can use a person's body as a way to identify them and beam that data out.

To be fair, LeBlanc told the paper that these specific technologies aren't necessarily things that PayPal is planning, but he's been raising the possibility in a presentation he's been giving, and has said the online dealbroker is "definitely looking at the identity field" as a means of allowing users a more secure way to identify themselves.

You don't have to be a "mark of the beast" person or a conspiracy theorist to have concerns. Indeed, what could possibly go wrong with a little implanted device that reads your vein patterns or your heart's unique activity or blood glucose levels just so you can seamlessly buy that cup of Starbucks? Wouldn't an insurance company love to use that information to decide that you had one too many donuts—so it won't be covering that bypass surgery after all?

As the Wall Street Journal cautiously notes, "Mr. Leblanc admits that there's still a ways to go before cultural norms catch up with ingestible and injectable ID devices."

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Tales From City of Hope #1: The Buzzcut Has Landed

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 7:24 PM EDT

Well, I'm here at City of Hope. On Tuesday at 7 am the final round of chemotherapy begins.

I'm staying in a little studio apartment in Parsons Village, which is on the grounds of the City of Hope campus. The picture on the right provides a glimpse of it. Also, as you can see, it provides a glimpse of the new me. As of yesterday I still had quite a bit of hair left, but it was falling out and I was shedding around the house like a Persian cat from hell. So I figured it was time to just shave it off. It's all coming out eventually anyway.

So what do I remind you of? Kiefer Sutherland in Stand By Me? One of the drones from Apple's 1984 commercial? Y'all can decide in comments.

I visited my sister and my mother yesterday, and I'm happy to report that Hilbert and Hopper are in fine fettle. I set up my sister with Skype on her iPad, so now she can call at night and show me the little furballs in real time. Technology FTW.

And don't forget our Spring fundraiser! I'm still hoping you guys contribute generously to the cause. Remember what they say: Every dollar you give helps one of my hairs grow back.

Donate by credit card here.

Donate by PayPal here.

We Didn't Learn Anything From Deepwater Horizon—And We're Going to Pay For It

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 3:13 PM EDT
Oil stains a beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama, following the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April 2010.

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, an event that triggered the nation's worst-ever oil spill. The well leaked for three months and dumped over 200 million gallons of oil into the sea. The explosion itself killed eleven men; the resulting pollution killed a stupefying amount of wildlife, including 800,000 some birds. And despite billions paid out by BP in fines and restoration costs, the economic impact of the disaster remains wide-reaching and ongoing.

But possibly even more outrageous than the spill itself is how little has been done by government to prevent a similar disaster. The oil and gas industry has stayed active in Washington, and managed to fend off serious efforts to curb drilling: Congress has passed zero new laws—not one—to restrict offshore drilling or force it to be safer. The Obama administration has approved over 1,500 offshore drilling permits since the spill. And back in January the administration announced a plan to open new areas in the Atlantic and Arctic for offshore drilling. As my colleague Tim Murphy noted today, Louisiana's oversight of the oil industry is rife with ludicrous conflicts of interest that raise serious doubts about the state's ability to make drilling safer.

In other words, the wounds from BP are scarcely healed, but we're pushing deeper and deeper into offshore drilling.

In fact, well construction in the Gulf is literally pushing into deeper water, where the risks of a spill are even greater. From an AP investigation pegged to the anniversary:

A review of offshore well data by the AP shows the average ocean depth of all wells started since 2010 has increased to 1,757 feet, 40 percent deeper than the average well drilled in the five years before that...

Drillers are exploring a "golden zone" of oil and natural gas that lies roughly 20,000 feet beneath the sea floor, through a 10,000-foot thick layer of prehistoric salt...

Technology now allows engineers to see the huge reservoirs beneath the previously opaque salt, but the layer is still harder to see through than rock. And it's prone to hiding pockets of oil and gas that raise the potential for a blowout.

Drilling in the Gulf makes up less than one-fifth of US crude oil production, and an even smaller share of total oil production if you count unconventional oil from fracking. So it wouldn't be a crippling blow to our energy supply to consider putting the brakes on offshore drilling—if not forever, at least until we feel secure that we've done enough to prevent another Deepwater Horizon.

Meanwhile, our expansion into deeper and riskier drilling is happening even though there are still an average of two offshore drilling accidents every day.

Who Subsidizes Restaurant Workers' Pitiful Wages? You Do

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 8:45 AM EDT

For Americans who like to eat out occasionally, the full-service restaurant industry is full of relatively affordable options—think Olive Garden, Applebees, or Chili's. But these spots aren't exactly a bargain once a hefty hidden cost is factored in: The amount of taxpayer assistance that goes to workers earning little pay.

Food service workers have more than twice the poverty rate of the overall workforce, and thus more often seek out public benefits. A new report published last week by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), a restaurant workers' advocacy and assistance group, calculated the tab and found that from 2009 to 2013, regular Americans subsidized the industry's low wages with nearly $9.5 billion in tax money each year. That number includes spending from roughly 10 different assistance programs, including Medicaid, food stamps, and low-income housing programs like Section 8.

Here's the breakdown per program:

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United

The amounts were calculated by combining Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics figures on the programs' cost and enrollments with the number of Americans working in full-service restaurants.

ROC also found that employees at the five largest full-service restaurant companies alone cost taxpayers about $1.4 billion per year. According to the report, these five companies employ more than half a million of the sector's more than 4 million workers.

Here's another striking statistic: If you add up these five companies' profits, CEO pay, distributed dividends, and stock buy-backs, the total comes to a bit more than $1.48 billion—almost exactly what taxpayers spend on these five companies' workers, $1.42 billion.

ROC's report notes another key point: Polling shows that most Americans want a tax system that requires Corporate America to pull its weight. If customers start realizing that their meal costs a lot more than the check says, they just might lose their appetite.

It's Spring Fundraising Time!

| Sat Apr. 18, 2015 1:22 PM EDT

Our annual Spring Fundraising Drive is wrapping up at the end of the month, but as you all know, I'll be recuperating from my final round of chemotherapy in lovely Duarte, California, right about then. But I didn't want to be left out, so I asked if I could post my note a little earlier than I usually do.

I figure if there's ever been a time when I'm allowed to get slightly more maudlin than usual, this is it. (But just slightly. I have a reputation, after all.) I've been writing for Mother Jones since 2008, and it's been such a great job that it's almost getting hard to remember ever working for anyone else. They've provided me with more freedom to write whatever I want than anyone could hope for. That's been great for me, and I hope for all of you too.

Writing for the print magazine has been a huge gift as well, and it's something I dearly hope to return to when all the chemotherapy is over and my strength is back to normal. It's been a privilege to share pages with such an amazingly talented bunch of journalists.

Truthfully, I've been blessed to have such a great editorial team over the past few months, as well as such a great readership. You guys are truly the best to go through something like this with.

So here's the ask: Mother Jones has done a lot for me and a lot for you over the past few years, and when I get back they're going to keep right on doing it. That makes this fundraising request a little more personal than usual, but if there's ever been a time for you to show your appreciation, this is it. If you can afford five dollars, that's plenty. If you can afford a thousand, then pony up, because you're pretty lucky, aren't you? Either way, when I get back I sure hope to see that my readers have really stepped up to the plate.

Readers like you are a big part of what makes Mother Jones such a unique place. Your support allows me to write about what’s truly important, rather than obsessing over whatever generates the most clicks and advertising revenue. And it's not just me. It gives all of us the independence to write about issues that other places won't touch. It means that we ultimately answer to you, our readers, and not a corporate parent company or shareholders (and you've never been shy about letting us know what you think!).

Thanks for helping make Mother Jones what it is, and for making the last seven years some of the best of my life. And thanks in advance for whatever you can give to keep both me and Mother Jones going strong. Here are the links for donations:

Donate by credit card here.

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Welfare Reform and the Decline of Work

| Sat Apr. 18, 2015 11:55 AM EDT

A recent paper suggests that over the past two decades there's been a decline in the desire of people outside the labor force to ever get jobs. Why?

We conjecture that two mechanisms could explain these results. First, the EITC expansion raised family income and reduced secondary earners's (typically women) incentives to work. Second, the strong work requirements introduced by the AFDC/TANF reform would have, through a kind of “sink or swim” experience, left the “weaker” welfare recipients without welfare and pushed them away from the labor force and possibly into disability insurance.

This comes via Tyler Cowen, who attended an NBER session this morning conducted by the authors of this study. He came away thinking they probably hadn't made a strong case. Still, an interesting hypothesis that probably deserves followup.

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Are Republicans Finally Giving Up on Killing Obamacare?

| Sat Apr. 18, 2015 11:44 AM EDT

Let me say right up front that I'm skeptical of the following report. But then, maybe I'm blinded by partisanship. Who knows? In any case, here is Noam Levey writing in the LA Times today:

After five years and more than 50 votes in Congress, the Republican campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act is essentially over. GOP congressional leaders, unable to roll back the law while President Obama remains in office and unwilling to again threaten a government shutdown to pressure him, are focused on other issues, including trade and tax reform.

Less noted, senior Republican lawmakers have quietly incorporated many of the law's key protections into their own proposals, including guaranteeing coverage and providing government assistance to help consumers purchase insurance.

....At the same time, the presumed Republican presidential front-runner, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has shown little enthusiasm for a new healthcare fight. Last year, he even criticized the repeal effort...."Only 18% of Americans want to go back to the system we had before because they do not want to go back to some of the problems we had," Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster [said]...."Smart Republicans in this area get that," he added.

Well, maybe. Levey concedes that there will still be plenty of calls to repeal Obamacare during the 2016 presidential campaign, but he believes that in practice, Republicans will be unwilling to seriously gut a program that's now providing health coverage for 20 million Americans, a number that will only increase over the next two years.

This is an argument I've made myself on multiple occasions, so I ought to be sympathetic to it. And I guess I am. On the other hand, I've been repeatedly astonished at the relentlessness of the GOP base's hatred of Obamacare. Over and over, I thought it would fade out. Maybe when the Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional. Maybe when Obama won in 2012. Maybe when the law finally took full effect in 2014. But like the Energizer bunny, their unholy enmity toward the law just kept going and going and going.

So is Obamacare Derangement Syndrome finally burning itself out? I guess I'll believe it when I see it. But maybe.

No Wonder Teens Are Huffing Nicotine

| Sat Apr. 18, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
The online version of Lorrillard's Sports Illustrated ad featured "zoom-in" magnification.

You thought Big Tobacco was on the wane in the United States?

(Insert cartoon villain voice:) "Mwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaaa!"

Not. Friggin'. Likely. In fact, the domestic tobacco industry is on the rebound thanks to its heavy investment in smoking "alternatives"—a.k.a. e-cigarettes, a.k.a. nicotine-delivery devices marketed in a variety of kid-friendly flavors. (Marketing flavored tobacco cigarettes has been banned since 2009.)

Kevin had a post on Thursday about the soaring numbers of kids who've tried e-cigs. On Friday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially announced the results of a new CDC study in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Control.

Any moron knows e-cigs are just drug-delivery devices, but the phrasing of the Tobacco Control Act means the FDA can't regulate them as such.

From 2011 to 2013, the researchers reported, the number of middle- and high-school students using e-cigs tripled. In 2013, more than 250,000 kids who had never smoked tobacco reported using e-cigarettes, and 44 percent of those kids said they had "intentions" of trying regular cigarettes in the next year. (About 1 in 5 American adults currently smoke.) Not surprisingly, kids who had more exposure to tobacco advertising were more likely to say they intended to try smoking.

You'll often hear vaping proponents argue that e-cigs help smokers kick the tobacco habit, thereby saving lives. And that may be true: Inhaling tobacco smoke, which still kills more than 480,000 Americans every year, is almost certainly more deadly than huffing nicotine vapors.

The one group you won't hear the smoking cessation argument from is e-cig manufacturers. That, ironically, is because products intended to help people quit tobacco products are regulated far more strictly than the tobacco products themselves. The same goes for drug-delivery devices, which is why manufacturers fought very hard to make certain the FDA didn't put e-cigarettes in that category.

Not that the agency didn't try. The FDA initially sought to regulate e-cigs as drug-delivery devices, for what else could they be? But the manufacturers promptly sued, and were handed a huge win. Judges bought the industry's argument that, under the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, any product that contains nicotine derived from tobacco and makes no therapeutic claims can be be regulated as a tobacco product—which makes it, presto, not a drug delivery device.

Just think about how crazy this is: Nicotine is highly addictive. At low doses it's a stimulant, at higher doses a serious poison. (The tobacco plant and other nightshades actually produce it as an insecticide, and it's sold for that use, too, with a stringent warning label.) If nicotine were marketed as medicine, you couldn't just buy it at the corner store in a dozen alluring flavors. Yet because the manufacturers make no medical claims, they can do what they want. Never mind that the 2009 law was written before e-cigarettes were widely marketed* in the United States.

Ah, screw it. Just give me the Piña Colada.

*Corrections: E-cigs had been invented, but were not then sold by tobacco companies or marketed widely in the United States. Some readers took exception with my use of "tobacco-friendly" to describe the judges who decided the case. Indeed, that wasn't fair—the tobacco act's wording gave the vape companies a loophole. Finally, nicotine does have legit medical uses. The article has been revised accordingly.

Friday Cat Blogging - April 17 2015

| Fri Apr. 17, 2015 3:30 PM EDT
Inspector Picklejuice

Friday catblogging is, of course, a core tradition around these parts. And as the blog welcomes new names and faces while Kevin concentrates on getting better, who said they all have be human? The door's always open for Hilbert and Hopper to drop in, but we're going to round out the feline mix with a smattering of cats who are blessed to have a Mother Jones staff member as their human companion.

First up? The Oakland-based menagerie of creative director Ivylise Simones, who oversees all of MoJo's lovely art and photography.

On the right is seven-year-old Inspector Picklejuice, a shelter acquisition picked up by Ivylise when she was living in Brooklyn. On the left you'll find Frankie the Cat. This affectionate two-year-old also came from a shelter, joining the Simones household in 2014. 

 

 

I'm told these two get along splendidly. Sure looks like it!

If you recognize Picklejuice's handsome features, it may be from his widely acclaimed Instagram feed, or perhaps from his star turn in our September/October 2014 issue: click through to see him—he's the looker playing in the box on the far right. (How'd he end up in a magazine illustration? I'll just say that it helps to have friends in the right places.)

Here's another of the good Inspector, keeping a close eye on happenings from a favored perch high in the loft. It's an ideal spot to partake in two of his favorite hobbies: sleeping, and sitting around while awake.

 

 

It takes a good five foot vertical hop over open space to get up there. Impressive!

Why the Euro Is a Selfish Jerk

| Fri Apr. 17, 2015 2:30 PM EDT

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 through today to pitch in posts and keep the conversation going. Here's a contribution from Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University whose sharp insights on addiction, drug policy, and many other topics have helped make the Reality-Based Community group blog a must read.

The Euro is the Windows 8 of the economic policy design world: In both cases, it's very hard to understand how putatively smart people worked so hard to create a product so ill-suited to the needs of those who were supposed to rely on it. At this point, this isn't much of a secret: as Kevin Drum pointed out back in 2011, a common currency deprives markets and nations of tools that normally ameliorate the effects of capital flow imbalances, inflation spikes, and crushing debt payments. Kevin and other people who understand fiscal policy better than I ever will (e.g., Matt O'Brien and Paul Krugman) convinced me long ago that the Euro was designed with a lack of understanding of (or an unwillingness to grapple with) basic lessons of economics. 

But speaking as a psychologist, the common currency's fundamental design flaws don't end there: the Euro creators should have thought harder about what social scientists have learned about how compassion and cultural identity interact.

In asking nations to entrust their economic fate to the Euro, its designers were assuming that Europeans have a reservoir of goodwill among them. That goodwill was supposed to ensure, for example, that no prospective member had to worry that a powerful member would use its Euro-derived leverage to turn the screws on a weaker member which was—to pick an example out of thin air—wracked by colossal levels of debt, unemployment and economic misery.

But that's exactly what the Germans have done to the Greeks. Why aren't the Germans overcome with sympathy for the Greeks? It's not that Germans are selfish or hard-hearted: after all, they have spent ten times the current GDP of Greece helping the economically struggling people of the former East Germany

Social psychology researchers have identified a powerful in group bias in willingness to help others, whether it's hiring someone for a job or supporting social welfare programs for the poor. Human beings are, in short, more inclined to help other people whom we perceive as being a member of our tribe.

Human psychology wouldn't cause as many problems for the Euro if there was a strong European identity, if a West German was as likely to consider an East German a tribe member as they would a Greek or a Spaniard or an Italian. But when most Germans and Greeks look at each other, they fundamentally see someone who speaks a different language and hails from a different culture with a different history—and for that matter was a military enemy within living memory.

With no shared sense of tribe comes a sharp reduction in compassion and attendant willingness to help.  The elites who designed the Euro may genuinely have believed and even felt a sense that Europe is all about "us", but the currency's recent struggles show that for too many Europeans, it's more about us and them.