Kevin Drum

The Real Lesson From Emailgate: Maybe the State Department Needs More Secure Email

| Fri Aug. 28, 2015 11:11 AM EDT

David Ignatius talked with "a half-dozen knowledgeable lawyers" and concluded that the Hillary Clinton email affair has been overblown. No big surprise there. Click the link if you want more.

But here's the curious part. Part of Clinton's trouble stems from the fact that sensitive information was sent to her via email, which isn't meant for confidential communications. However, as Ignatius points out, this is a nothingburger. Everyone does this, and has for a long time. But why?

“It’s common knowledge that the classified communications system is impossible and isn’t used,” said one former high-level Justice Department official. Several former prosecutors said flatly that such sloppy, unauthorized practices, although technically violations of law, wouldn’t normally lead to criminal cases.

Why is the classified system so cumbersome? Highly secure encryption is easy to implement on off-the-shelf PCs, and surely some kind of software that plugs into email and restricts the flow of messages wouldn't be too hard to implement. So why not build more security into email and ditch the old system? What's the hold-up?

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Clarence Thomas Can't Catch a Break

| Fri Aug. 28, 2015 10:47 AM EDT

Yesterday the New York Times ran a story saying that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hoisted language from briefs submitted to the court "at unusually high rates." I was curious to see the actual numbers, so I opened up the study itself. Here's the relevant excerpt from Figure 2:

I dunno. Does that look "unusually high" to you? It looks to me like it's about the same as Sotomayor, and only a bit higher than Ginsburg, Alito and Roberts. It's a little hard to see the news here, especially given this:

Since his views on major legal questions can be idiosyncratic and unlikely to command a majority, he is particularly apt to be assigned the inconsequential and technical majority opinions that the justices call dogs. They often involve routine cases involving taxes, bankruptcy, pensions and patents, in which shared wording, including quotations from statutes and earlier decisions, is particularly common.

So at most, Thomas uses language from briefs only slightly more than several other justices, and that's probably because he gets assigned the kinds of cases where it's common to do that. Is there even a story here at all?

Either 35, 36, or 39 Percent of Psychology Results Can't Be Replicated

| Fri Aug. 28, 2015 1:04 AM EDT

The Washington Post informs me today that in a new study, only 39 out of 100 published psychology studies could be replicated:

I wonder if I can replicate that headline? Let's try the New York Times:

Huh. They say 35 out of 100. What's going on? Maybe Science News can tell me:

Now it's 35 out of 97. So what is the answer?

Based on the study itself, it appears that Science News has it right. It's 35 out of 97. Using a different measure of replication, however, the answer is that 39 percent of the studies could be replicated, which might explain the Post's 39 out of 100. And it turns out that the study actually looked at 100 results, but only 97 of them had positive findings in the first place and were therefore worth trying to replicate. But if, for some reason, you decided that all 100 original studies should be counted, you'd get the Times' 35 out of 100.

So there you go. Depending on who you read, it's either 35, 36, or 39 percent. Welcome to the business of science reporting.

Joe Biden Isn't Sure He Has the "Emotional Fuel" to Run for President

Biden finally publicly comments on his potential 2016 run.

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 11:10 PM EDT

This is the first hard evidence we have that Joe Biden is seriously thinking about a presidential run:

On Wednesday he made his first public comments on his potential 2016 run — though not intentionally. CNN posted audio recorded during what was supposed to be a private conference call for Democratic National Committee members in which the vice-president confirmed that he's actively considering entering the campaign...."We're dealing at home with ... whether or not there is the emotional fuel at this time to run," Biden responded.

I've got nothing but sympathy for what Biden is going through right now, but the fact remains: If you're not sure you have the fuel for a grueling presidential campaign, then you don't.

Donald Trump: The Bible Is Great, But, Um, Let's Not Get Into Specifics

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 5:30 PM EDT

As a blogger, it's hard not to love Donald Trump. Here's the latest, in an interview with Mark Halperin and John Heilemann:

I'm wondering what one or two of your most favorite Bible verses are and why.

Well, I wouldn't want to get into it because to me that's very personal. You know, when I talk about the Bible it's very personal. So I don't want to get into verses, I don't want to get into—the Bible means a lot to me, but I don't want to get into specifics.

Even to cite a verse that you like?

No, I don't want to do that.

Are you an Old Testament guy or a New Testament guy?

Uh, probably....equal. I think it's just an incredible....the whole Bible is an incredible....I joke....very much so. They always hold up The Art of the Deal, I say it's my second favorite book of all time. But, uh, I just think the Bible is just something very special.

OK, it's not only Trump I love. Props also to Heilemann for asking Trump if he's an OT guy or an NT guy. Who talks about the Bible that way?

We've seen this schtick from Trump before, of course. He's stunningly ignorant, and routinely refuses to answer whenever someone asks about a factual detail more than an inch below the surface. Needless to say, he refuses because he doesn't know, but he always pretends it's for some other reason. "I don't want to insult anyone by naming names," he'll say, as if this isn't his entire stock in trade. Or, in this case, "It's personal," as if he's a guy who leads a deep personal life that he never talks about.

The interesting thing is that this schtick also shows how lazy he is. It's been evident for several days that someone was eventually going to ask him for his favorite Bible verse, but he couldn't be bothered to bone up even a little bit in order to have one on tap. Ditto for everything else. Even when he says something that's going to raise obvious questions the next day, he never bothers to learn anything about the subject. I guess he figures he's got people for that.

Of course, there is an advantage to handling things this way. By shutting down the Bible talk completely, he guarantees he'll never have to talk about it again. I mean, today it's Bible verses, tomorrow somebody might want him to name the Ten Commandments. And since it's pretty obvious that he hasn't cracked open the Bible in decades, that could get hairy pretty fast. Better to shut it down right away.

POSTSCRIPT: So which is Trump? OT or NT? I expect that he admires the OT God more. That's a deity who knows what he wants and doesn't put up with any PC nonsense about it. Plus they built a lot of stuff in the Old Testament: towers, walls, arks, temples, etc. That would appeal to Trump. On the other hand, the New Testament has all those annoying lessons about the meek inheriting the earth, rich men and needles, turning the other cheek, and a bunch of other advice that Trump has no time for.

So: Old Testament. Definitely Old Testament.

How Much Is 1.6 Months of Life Worth?

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 3:04 PM EDT

From Carolyn Johnson at Wonkblog:

With some cancer drug prices soaring past $10,000 a month....

Hey, that's me! A friendly FedEx delivery person just delivered this month's $10,000 supply to me an hour ago. So, what's up?

With some cancer drug prices soaring past $10,000 a month, doctors have begun to ask one nagging question: Do drug prices correctly reflect the value they bring to patients by extending or improving their lives?

A study published Thursday in JAMA Oncology aims to answer that question by examining necitumumab, an experimental lung cancer drug....in a clinical trial, researchers found that adding the drug to chemotherapy extended life by 1.6 months, on average.

....In order to estimate what the price of this drug "should" be based on its value to patients, the research team modeled various scenarios....one additional year in perfect health in the U.S. is worth somewhere between $50,000 and $200,000....Based on their calculations, the drug should cost from $563 to $1,309 for a three-week cycle.

....There are many variables that go into the price of a drug, but mounting evidence suggests that the value it brings to patients is not the biggest factor. "How they price the drug is they price it at whatever the market is willing to bear," said Benjamn Djulbegovic, an oncologist at the University of South Florida.

Well, sure, but this raises the question of why the market is willing to bear such high prices. Why would an insurance company approve a large expenditure for a drug that has only a tiny benefit?

There's a lot that goes into this. Obviously some people benefit from necitumumab by a lot more than 1.6 months—and there's no way to tell beforehand who will and who won't. And it costs a lot to develop these drugs. And patients put a lot of pressure on insurers to cover anything that might help. And, in the end, insurance companies don't have a ton of incentive to push back: if drug prices go up, they increase their premiums. It doesn't really affect their bottom line much.

There's also the size of the total market to consider. The chemo drug I'm currently taking, for example, is only used for two conditions. There's just not a whole lot of us using it. In cases like that, a drug is going to be pretty expensive.

But here's something I'm curious about: who puts more pressure on insurance companies to cover expensive drugs, patients or doctors? My doctor, for example, was totally gung-ho about my current med. I was much less so after I read some of the clinical studies online. Why? Because most chemo drugs have unpleasant side effects (though mine has turned out OK so far), which means that, like many patients, I'm reluctant to take them unless the benefit is pretty clear cut. Doctors, on the other hand, just want to do whatever they can to help, and have no particular incentive to hold back. So maybe it's doctors who need to be in the forefront of pushing back on expensive drugs. They're the ones in the doctor-patient relationship who know the most, after all.

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Saul Bellow Was 30 Years Ahead of Me

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 1:50 PM EDT

Here's a fascinating little August tidbit, via Jeet Heer on Twitter. It's an excerpt from The Dean's December, by Saul Bellow, published in 1981. Albert Corde, an academic, is talking to a scientist (obviously modeled on the seminal lead researcher Clair Patterson) about the "real explanation of what goes on in the slums":

"And the explanation? What is the real explanation?"

"Millions of tons of intractable lead residues poisoning the children of the poor. They're the most exposed....Crime and social disorganization in inner city populations can all be traced to the effects of lead. It comes down to the nerves, to brain damage."

....Direct material causes? Of course. Who could deny them? But what was odd was that no other causes were conceived of. "So it's lead, nothing but old lead?" he said.

"I would ask you to study the evidence."

And that was what Corde now began to do, reading through stapled documents, examining graphs....What was the message?....A truly accurate method of detecting tiny amounts of lead led to the discovery that the cycle of lead in the earth had been strongly perturbed. The conclusion: Chronic lead insult now affects all mankind....Mental disturbances resulting from lead poison are reflected in terrorism, barbarism, crime, cultural degradation.

....Tetraethyl fumes alone could do it—engine exhaust—and infants eating flaking lead paint in the slums became criminal morons.

What's interesting is the mention of crime. Lead was a well-known neurotoxin by 1981, strongly implicated in educational problems and loss of IQ. So it's no big surprise that it might pop up as a prop in a novel. But nobody was yet linking it to the rise of violent crime. That would wait for another 20 years. And a truly credible case for the link between lead and crime wouldn't appear for yet another decade, when the necessary data became available and technology had advanced enough to produce convincing brain studies. Neither of those was available in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, the germ of the idea was there. In a way, that's not surprising: I've always felt that, given what we know about what lead does to the childhood brain, its link to violent crime should never have been hard to accept. It would actually be surprising if childhood lead exposure didn't have an effect on violent crime.

Anyway, that's it. Your literary connection of the day to one of my favorite topics.

Nerds and Hacks Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose Except Your Chains.

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 12:22 PM EDT

David Roberts has a long post at Vox about tech nerds and their disdain for politics. He highlights one particular tech nerd who describes both major parties as "a bunch of dumb people saying dumb things," and jumps off from there:

There are two broad narratives about politics that can be glimpsed between the lines here. Both are, in the argot of the day, problematic.

The first, which is extremely common in the nerd community, is a distaste for government and politics....a sense that government is big, bloated, slow-moving, and inefficient, that politicians are dimwits and panderers, and that real progress comes from private innovation, not government mandates. None of which is facially unreasonable.

The second is the conception of politics as a contest of two mirror-image political philosophies, with mirror-image extremes and a common center, which is where sensible, independent-minded people congregate.

There's about 4,400 more words than this, so click the link if you want to immerse yourself.

But I have a little different take on all this. The truth is that politics and tech are the same thing: inventing a product that appeals to people and then marketing the hell out of it. Back in the dark ages, this was a little more obvious. Steve Wozniak invented, Steve Jobs sold. It was so common for tech companies to be started by two people, one engineer and one salesman, that it was practically a cliche.

The modern tech community has lost a bit of that. Oh, they all chatter about social media and going viral and so forth. As long as the marketing is actually just some excuse for talking about cool new tech, they're happy to immerse themselves in it. But actually selling their product? Meh. The truly great ideas rise to the top without any of that Mad Men crap. Anyway, the marketing department will handle the dull routine of advertising and....well, whatever it is they do.

Politics, by contrast, leans the other way. Inventing new stuff helps, but the real art is in selling your ideas to the public and convincing your fellow politicians to back you. It's all messy and annoying, especially if you're not very socially adept, but it's the way human beings get things done.

Well, it's one of the ways. Because Roberts only tells half the story. As much as most tech nerds disdain the messy humanness of politics, it's equally true that most politicians disdain the eye-rolling naivete of tech nerds. You wanna get something done, kid? Watch the master at work.

In politics, you have the wonks and the hacks—and it's the hacks who rule. In tech, you have the nerds and the salesmen—and it's the nerds who rule. There are always exceptions, but that's the general shape of the river.

But guess what? The most successful nerds have always been the ones who are also willing to figure out what makes people tick. And the most successful politicians have been the ones who are willing to marry themselves to policy solutions that fit their time and place. That doesn't mean that nerds have to slap backs (Bill Gates never did) or that successful politicians have to immerse themselves in white papers (Ronald Reagan never did), but wonks and hacks and nerds and salesmen all need each other. The political hacks and the tech nerds need to get together and get messy. And more important: they have to genuinely respect each other. When that happens, you have a very, very powerful combination. So get to work.

TGIAS: Finally, August Is Almost Over

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 11:39 AM EDT

August is almost over. Huzzah! Kids are back in school, the weather will soon turn balmy, and we only have to pay attention to Donald Trump for a few more days. In September we'll have more important stuff to obsess over. Right?

Well, we can hope. In the meantime, Dan Drezner has a question:

For this entire calendar year, I’ve heard how the current crop of GOP presidential candidates “showcase[s] the party’s deep bench of talent”....And, to be fair, this seemed to be a fair analysis. There are no fewer than nine sitting and former governors of big states in the field....And yet, after all the declarations, we’re at a political moment when Trump is clobbering all of these talented politicians in the polls — and doing so by honing the lessons he learned from reality television.

....So here’s my question: What does it say about the deep GOP bench that none of them have managed to outperform a guy who has no comparative political advantage except celebrity and a willingness to insult anyone who crosses his path?

I've had the same thought myself. Nor is this a partisan question: the Democrats have such a weak bench this year that there's literally only one truly plausible candidate in the entire field. And this isn't because Hillary Clinton is so widely beloved: there's just no one else around who seems to have the usual bona fides to run for president. Hell, even the sitting vice president, usually a shoo-in to run, has a public persona that's a little too goofy to make him a strong candidate.

In other words, there are hardly any decent candidates in the entire country. What the hell is going on?

But Drezner actually prompts another question that's been rattling around in my brain: Is there anyone out there who could be the Democratic equivalent of Donald Trump? There was some inane blather earlier this month comparing him to Bernie Sanders, but that was always pretty preposterous. Sanders is a serious, longtime politician. He may be too extreme for you, but he's not a buffoon.

More specifically: Is it even possible that someone like Trump—no political experience, buffoonish, populist, boorish—could ever make a big impact in a Democratic primary? It's never happened before, but then, it's never happened quite this way in the Republican primary either. It makes me wonder. What if Trump had held on to his lifelong liberal beliefs instead of "evolving" so he could compete as a Republican? What would be the fate of a liberal Donald Trump? Would a big chunk of the liberal base embrace him?

US Economy Growing Faster Than We Thought

| Thu Aug. 27, 2015 10:49 AM EDT

This is welcome news:

The U.S. economy expanded at a brisker pace than initially thought in the second quarter as businesses ramped up spending, a hopeful sign for an economy that has been repeatedly buffeted by bad weather, domestic political standoffs and overseas turmoil.

Gross domestic product, the broadest sum of goods and services produced across the economy, expanded at a 3.7% seasonally adjusted annual rate in the second quarter of 2015, the Commerce Department said Thursday, up from the initial estimate of 2.3% growth.

Average growth in the entire first half of the year was still fairly sluggish, thanks to a miserable first quarter, but today's news might be evidence of some decent acceleration in the economy. Given all the bad news of the past month or so, this comes as a bit of a relief.