Kevin Drum

Congress Just Can't Help But Fall In Love With a Nuclear Physicist

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 10:23 AM EDT

Maybe you could call this the revenge of the nerds?

He’s blinding them with science.

Or intellectually charming them anyway. That’s how Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz seems to be winning fans in the difficult fight to sell the Iran deal on Capitol Hill....Moniz, a nuclear physicist with mad-scientist hair, has already been credited as the administration’s secret weapon in the lengthy negotiations to secure an Iran deal that will prevent the rogue country from securing a nuclear weapon.

....Moniz can certainly lapse into the technical talk with aplomb — and when he gets to talking about the half-lives of isotopes and the detection technologies that will be deployed to survey Iran’s suspected nuclear activities, he can leave his audience in the dust.

But in the two years since Moniz became Energy Secretary, lawmakers have far more often noted and applauded the former professor’s natural ability to translate complex scientific concepts into digestible terms.

It's funny, in a way. Plenty of highly-qualified scientists have testified before Congress, and mostly they get treated as if they were balky university freshmen. But nuclear physics! That still has cachet. Start talking about the half-lives of isotopes and legislators swoon with admiration.

Except for dumbest among them, of course, who can't tell the difference between an MIT-trained physics PhD and Dr. Phil. That, of course, would be Wisconsin's favorite son, Ron Johnson. He just wanted to talk about the danger of electromagnetic pulses. Nice work, Senator.

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Obamacare Rates In California Will Rise Only 4% in 2016

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 8:28 PM EDT

Obamacare's moment of truth is coming. By now we've heard all the scare stories about a few health insurers in a few states requesting gigantic rate hikes for next year. But over the next few weeks, states are going to start publishing the actual average rate increases that consumers will see in 2016. California released its report today. It's still marked preliminary, but you can expect that the final numbers will be very close to these:

I've highlighted two numbers. First, the overall average rate increase is 4.0 percent. That's way lower than you've seen in the scary headlines. And this is for a state that makes up more than a tenth of the country all by itself.

Second, the price of the second-lowest-price silver plan has gone up 1.8 percent. This is the figure used to calculate subsidy levels, so it's an important one. In fact, here's an interesting consequence of that number: because subsidies will be going up roughly 1.8 percent, and the cost of the lowest-price silver plan is going up only 1.5 percent, the net cost (including subsidies) of buying the cheapest silver plan is actually going down. As you can see in the bottom row, if you shop for the lowest-priced plan, your premiums are likely to decrease about 4.5 percent.

I have a feeling this number is not going to be widely reported on Fox News.

Now, California isn't necessarily a bellwether for all the other states. Because it's the biggest state in the union, it has lots of competition that helps drive down prices. A big population also means less variability from year to year. Also: California's program is pretty well run, and the California insurance market is fairly tightly regulated. All this adds up to a good deal for consumers.

In any case, the headline number here is a very reasonable 4 percent increase in overall premiums, and a 4.5 percent decrease for consumers shopping for the cheapest plans. These are real statewide numbers, not cherry-picked bits and pieces designed to encourage hysteria. Once again, it looks like Obamacare is working pretty well.

This all comes via Andrew Sprung, who has much more detail here.

Sorry Donald, Most Republicans Don't Actually Care That Much About Illegal Immigration

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 5:32 PM EDT

Greg Sargent has an item today noting that by a 63-34 percent margin in a new CNN poll, Republicans believe the main focus of immigration policy should be stopping the flow of illegal immigration and deporting the illegal immigrants who are already here. No big surprise there. But when I clicked over to the poll itself I found a couple of things related to immigration that were kind of interesting.

First, CNN asked "Just your best guess, do you think the number of immigrants coming to the United States illegally has increased or decreased in the last few years?" Among Republicans, 83 percent thought it had increased. Granted, asking about the "last few years" is a little ambiguous, but if you assume at a minimum that it means less than a decade, then 83 percent of Republicans are woefully misinformed. As you can see from the Pew data on the right, the illegal immigrant population dropped considerably in 2008 and 2009 and has been basically flat ever since.

(By the way, among Democrats 61 percent think immigration has increased. That's a little better, but still not exactly a proud moment in voter awareness. It isn't just Fox News that's keeping us all misinformed.)

The second interesting question was one that asked about which issues were most important. This kind of thing always has to be taken with a grain of salt, but even so it's a little surprising how little Republicans actually care about immigration. For all the attention it's gotten from Donald Trump, only 9 percent said it was their most important issue, the lowest showing of any of the issues CNN asked about. The economy and terrorism/foreign policy were far and away the biggest worries among Republicans. Also surprisingly, health care didn't register very high either. The tea party may be yelling endlessly about the need to repeal the worst law since the Fugitive Slave Act, but among all Republicans, only a few rate it as a critical issue.

So....immigration and Obamacare probably aren't going to be gigantic issues this year among Republicans—or in the general election. As usual, the economy will be #1, and #2 will probably be terrorism and foreign policy in general.

Added Sugar Is Your Enemy, Not Aspartame

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 12:51 PM EDT
Viktorija Reuta/Shutterstock; M. Unal Ozmen / Shutterstock

Why does anyone still choose sugared sodas over artificially-sweetened sodas? One reason is taste. If you don't like the taste of aspartame or saccharin, then that's that. Another reason might be a rare medical condition that makes you allergic (or worse) to certain artificial sweeteners.

But that probably accounts for only a small fraction of the people who continue to drink sugared sodas. The rest are most likely convinced that artificial sweeteners are bad for you. But they're wrong. It's sugar that's bad for you. Aaron Carroll brings the research:

One of the oldest artificial sweeteners is saccharin. Starting in the 1980s, Congress mandated that any product containing it be accompanied by the following: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”....There was a problem, though. This link has never been confirmed in humans....Based on these newer studies, saccharin was removed from the carcinogen list in 2000. But by that time, opinions were set. It did little to make anyone feel safe.

....Aspartame was introduced in the United States around the time that saccharin began taking a beating....But in 1996, a study was published in The Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology titled “Increasing Brain Tumor Rates: Is There a Link to Aspartame?” Most people ignored the question mark....There were any number of problems with this logic....Because aspartame was approved in 1981, blaming it for a rise in tumors in the 1970s seems impossible. Finally, much more comprehensive studies couldn’t find links....A safety review from 2007, published in Critical Reviews in Toxicology, found that aspartame had been studied extensively and that the evidence showed that it was safe.

....But what about sugar?....Epidemiologic studies have found that even after controlling for other factors, one’s intake of added sugars is associated with the development of type 2 diabetes, with a 1.1 percent increase in prevalence for each can of sugar-sweetened soda. A study following people for an average of more than 14 years published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine found that those in the highest quintile of added sugar consumption had more than twice the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those in the lowest quintile, even after controlling for many other factors.

Anyway, that's what science says. Unfortunately, science also says that presenting facts to people almost never changes their minds. In fact, it can do just the opposite as people respond defensively to the notion that they've been wrong for a long time. So I suppose no one reading this is actually going to switch to diet sodas. Instead they'll cherry-pick studies that support their previous point of view. Or claim that all the studies exonerating artificial sweeteners are funded by big business and not to be trusted. Or perhaps make an outré claim about how aspartame interacts with gluten and animal fat to produce....something or other.

That's life, I guess. However, I suggest that you swamp Professor Carroll's inbox with all these insights instead of bothering me with them. He's the expert after all. Or, just switch to water. Then you won't have to worry about it.

Wait? The Robots Aren't Coming After All?

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 11:58 AM EDT

Over at Vox, Matt Yglesias laments that, contrary to scare stories in the media, robots aren't taking away our jobs. In fact, productivity has dropped steadily over the past few decades. That wouldn't be true if automation were taking away work while producing more goods and services.

True enough. But what about the future?

Of course, all this might change. The power of Moore's Law — which states that the power of computer chips doubles roughly every two years — is such that the next five years' worth of digital progress will involve bigger leaps in raw processor power than the previous five years. It's at least possible that we really will have a massive leap forward in productivity someday soon that starts substantially reducing the amount of human labor needed to drive the economy forward.

But robots are never going to take all the jobs.

I have one question: Why not?

There are a couple of possible answers to that question. The first is that we'll never manage to invent true AI, which will prevent robots from ever being able to perform a wide range of tasks that humans perform easily. The second is that we will invent AI, but....something something something. I don't really understand the second answer. I'll grant that humans might continue to be CEOs and legislators and a few other things just to make sure that we're still ultimately in charge of the world ourselves. And who knows? We might even decide that we prefer human art even if we can't tell the difference, the same way an original Rembrandt is worth a lot more than even a perfect copy.

But that would still mean robots taking over 99 percent of the jobs. If you don't believe AI is coming anytime soon, then I understand why you think this will never happen. But if you do accept that AI is coming in the medium-term future, then why won't robots take essentially all the jobs? What exactly is it that they won't be able to do?

China's Stock Market Back In Trouble

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 11:07 AM EDT

Thanks to government support, the Shanghai stock index has rallied for the past few weeks after a month of losses. Today it plummeted again, apparently due to the government withdrawing its support. From the Wall Street Journal:

Authorities may want to “test whether the market has recovered its resilience,” said Fu Xuejun, a strategist at Huarong Securities. “The government wants to use state funds to stabilize the market, not to prop it back to 5000 points overnight.”

Well, I guess that test didn't work. According to the Journal, Monday's drop came as a big surprise. "I am positive that we will see state support emerging again in the next two days," said Jacky Zhang. Maybe so. But if the fundamentals aren't there, even the Chinese version of government support can't keep things propped up forever. It's only a matter of time until we see the market plummeting again.

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Donald Trump Explained in Four Words

| Sun Jul. 26, 2015 12:02 PM EDT

If you want to understand Donald Trump—and I wouldn't blame you if you don't—this paragraph from the Post should do it:

“Finally, I can attack!” Trump said at a packed rally at Oskaloosa High School. “Wisconsin’s doing terribly. It’s in turmoil. The roads are a disaster because they don’t have any money to rebuild them. They’re borrowing money like crazy. They projected a $1 billion surplus, and it turns out to be a deficit of $2.2 billion. The schools are a disaster. The hospitals and education was a disaster. And he was totally in favor of Common Core!”

In a private email, Walker supporter Gregory Slayton wrote, "As you've seen Gov Walker is now well ahead of everyone not named DumbDumb (aka Trump) in the national polls." The Wall Street Journal made the email public, and that was that. Finally, Trump could attack.

This is what he lives for. But only if he can pretend that the other guy started it. John McCain called his supporters crazies. Lindsey Graham called Trump a jackass. And now a Walker fundraiser called him DumbDumb. Finally! It must have been killing Trump to hold back on Walker until he had the appropriate casus belli.

That's Trump. He lives for the fight. And despite being worth $10 billion (or whatever) he always manages to feel like he's the aggrieved party. If this reminds you of any particular bloc of voters, now you know why he's doing so well in the polls.

Health Update

| Sat Jul. 25, 2015 8:54 PM EDT

This has come up in comments a few times recently, so here's a quick update.

Short answer: I'm fine.

Slightly longer answer: As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I didn't respond to the stem cell transplant, so we're trying a new chemo med. The good news is that I don't seem to be suffering any side effects so far. But it often takes more than a month for these things to show up, so we're not out of the woods yet. As for whether it's working, it will be several more months before we know.

All that aside, I feel pretty good these days. Not totally back to normal, but 80-90 percent of the way there. I still have a bit of mild stomach nausea periodically, and my neuropathy shows no signs of going away, but my energy level is pretty good and I'm eating enough for two people. At the moment, my only real problem is that I'm tired from not getting enough sleep. But that's nothing to worry about. I've been taking sleep meds for the past six months, and wanted to wait until I was feeling better to get off them. That time has come, so I'm tapering off under my doctor's instructions. It's actually going better than I expected, but there's still a price to pay. Until my body gets back into the habit of falling asleep and staying asleep on its own, I'm going to be a little short on shuteye. With any luck, this will only last a few more weeks.

Republicans Is Weird, Summer 2015 Edition

| Sat Jul. 25, 2015 12:29 PM EDT

No, this isn't about Donald Trump. It's about Sen. Mike Lee of Utah—who plans to offer yet another amendment to repeal Obamacare, but this time with a special super-duper secret sauce added to the upcoming highway funding bill:

Lee said he will try to re-offer the Obamacare repeal as a special amendment that is directly related to highway funding. Under Senate rules, amendments that are directly related, or germane, to the underlying legislation can pass with just 51 votes.

Lee knows that the chair of the Senate is likely to reject his logic that Obamacare repeal is germane to highway funding, so he plans to use the nuclear option. That means he will formally object to the ruling of the chair, which requires a 51-vote simple majority — then he plans to move on to the coveted simple majority vote.

....If his plan works, Lee gets to tell his supporters that he’s responsible for a major vote to kill the health care law he reviles. The House voted to repeal the law in February, so the two chambers could then theoretically conference the bills — leaving it up to Obama to veto a bill to kill his own signature policy achievement.

So the plan is simple: have Republicans declare ex cathedra that repeal of Obamacare is germane to highway funding, and then pass Lee's amendment with 51 votes. It's brilliant! All that's missing are the sharks with lasers attached to their heads!

Aside from being mind-numbingly stupid1, it also won't work. Democrats will just filibuster the entire highway bill, or else they'll vote for it and then Obama will veto the entire mess. Result: Obamacare stays in place but our highways continue to crumble into dust. Nice work, Senator! It's good to see that the Republican Party remains committed to the sober, responsible kind of leadership that makes our great nation the envy of the world.

1It's times like this that I regret the recent banishment of "retarded" from polite conversation. Because I think we all know that it's the word that really fits here.2

2Though I suppose there's no reason to insult the developmentally disabled by comparing them to Mike Lee.

Friday Cat Blogging - 24 July 2015

| Fri Jul. 24, 2015 2:45 PM EDT

Hopper and Hilbert like to (a) play-wrestle with each other, and (b) jump up on the fireplace mantel. Here they are doing both. Hopper has lately been taking control of these affairs, finally realizing that she's the real alpha cat in the household even if her brother is bigger. As she's finally figured out, being alpha is more about will and energy than about size, and she's got both. Nonetheless, you can see in this picture about how seriously she takes it.