Kevin Drum

And One Chart to Rule Them All

| Sat May 9, 2015 8:34 PM EDT

It feels like it's been weeks since I last created a chart for this blog. I suppose this is because it has been weeks. Today that changes.

Over on the right is the chart that's controlled my life for the past couple of weeks. That's not to say there weren't plenty of others. My potassium level seemed to be of particular concern, for example, but that would make an especially boring chart since it just bounced around between 3.3 and 3.9 the entire time. (They added a bag of IV potassium to my usual daily hydration whenever it fell below 3.6.) Now that I'm home and my IV line is gone, I'm eating more bananas than usual, just to be on the safe side, but that's about it.

But that was nothing. What really mattered was my white blood count. You can see it on the right. For some reason, the two days of actual chemotherapy are called Day -2 and Day -1, and the day of the stem cell transplant is Day 0. On that day, as you can see, my count was around 6500, which is quite normal. Then, as the Melphalan steamrolled everything in its path, it plummeted to ~0 on days 7 and 8. Bye bye, immune system. Finally, on Day 9, as the transplanted stem cells started to morph into various blood products, my count skyrocketed. By the time I was discharged on Day 14, it was back to normal levels.

Fascinating, no? Especially when it's in chart form!

Lessee. Any other news? My fatigue is still pretty heavy, and will stay that way for 2-3 weeks. I didn't realize it would last so long, partly because my doctor waited literally until my discharge date to tell me. But it's for real. It took me two tries to create this post: one session to create the chart, after which I crashed, and a second session to write the text. Not exactly speed demon blogging. What else? I have a nasty metallic taste in my mouth all the time. It sucks. And I think my hair is finally getting ready to fall out completely. This morning my pillow was covered with tiny little pieces of hair, and it's pretty obvious where they came from. On the bright side, my appetite is improving. I'm not yet at the stage where I really want to eat, but I'm mostly willing to eat, which is good enough for now. This may be partly due to the fact that I'm wearing one of those seasickness patches behind my ear to fight nausea. It seems to be working.

Oh, and I can now take a nice, normal shower without first having to spend ten minutes trying to bundle up my catheter so it doesn't get wet. Woohoo!

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Friday Cat Blogging - May 8 2015

| Fri May 8, 2015 3:44 PM EDT
VZ and CC

While Kevin is taking a break and getting better, we're rounding out the usual Friday Cat Blogging routine with some special Mother Jones-affiliated guests.

Today, I'm happy to present CC and VZ. These handsome brothers were adopted from a Berkeley shelter by Ian Gordon, our copy editor. Named Sacco and Vanzetti at birth (I did mention the shelter was in Berkeley, right?), their new family quickly developed nicknames that would be less of a mouthful. Below you'll find CC on the left, and VZ on the right.


These fellas are intrepid neighborhood explorers. Ian reports that they have indoor visitation rights at at least three nearby houses. Don't you wish they'd stop by and class up your joint sometime?

If they did, they just might come bearing gifts. Their phase of hunting, gathering, and gifting mysterious objects to their caregivers is well cataloged on Ian's Look What the Cats Dragged In Tumblr, where you'll find alternately hilarious and discomfiting documentation of undergarments, empty food packages, and decades-old newspapers.

Where do they get this stuff? How do they make their selections? What are they trying to communicate?

The only ones who know aren't talking.

Bonus Friday Cat Blogging - 8 May 2015

| Fri May 8, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

Well, I'm home. I slept in my own bed last night for the first time in two weeks. No cats to greet me, though, since we first have to wait for all my shiny new cells to mature a bit—enough to handle a couple of cats, anyway. The furballs will be back home in three weeks, but in the meantime here are Hilbert and Hopper lounging on my sister's magazine pile. Sadly, the New York magazine on the far left met with a gory death a few days after this picture was taken. It is the price of cuteness.

Why Would an Economic Analysis Want to Ignore American Slavery?

| Fri May 8, 2015 7:00 AM 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 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Ryan Cooper, national correspondent for the Week.

The next several years will see a rolling 150th anniversary of Reconstruction, my favorite period in American history. From about 1865 to 1877, American society as a whole tried reasonably hard to do right by the freed slaves, before getting tired of the effort and abandoning them to the depredations of racist terrorism. For the next nine decades, black Americans had few if any political rights under the boot heel of Jim Crow.

It's both a shining example of what can happen when a society really tries to right a past wrong, and tragic, infuriating failure of will. But most of all it's very interesting. Things were changing, social orders were being overthrown, historical ground was being broken. At a time when few nations had any suffrage at all, roughly 4 million freed slaves got the vote in a single stroke, perhaps the single starkest act of democratic radicalism in world history.

So it's weirdly fascinating to read conservative historiography of the 19th century, such as this piece by Robert Tracinski at the Federalist, as an example of how Darryl Worley-style historiography irons all the best parts out of American history.

He's interested in trying to prove that a "non-coercive" economy is possible, by which he means that taxes and spending could be dramatically lower than they are today. Thus he charts government spending as a percentage of GDP, finds that it was pretty low for most of the 19th century, and claims victory:

What the left wants is not just to make America’s economic history disappear. It needs to make America’s political system disappear: to make truly small, truly limited government seem like a utopian fantasy that can safely be dismissed. Please bear in mind that this latest example came up in the context of a discussion about the justification for government force. So what they want to describe as an unrealistic fantasy is a society not dominated by coercion.

One might think that when writing a paean to a noncoercive century, it might be a good idea to address the fact that for 60 percent of that century, it was government policy that human beings could be owned and sold like beasts, or that half or more of the national economy was based on that institution. But no, the word "slavery" does not appear in the piece. Neither does "Civil War" or "Reconstruction," which as a literal war against and military occupation of the South would seem fairly coercive.

So speaking of the 19th century as one notably free of coercion is not just utterly risible, it's also a cockeyed way to look at what was good or bad about it. The economy of the antebellum South was founded on the labor of owned human beings, extracted through torture. Slave masters set steadily increasing quotas for cotton picking, for instance, and would flog slaves according to the number of "missing" pounds. As Edward Baptist writes, they thus increased the productivity of slave cotton-picking by nearly 400 percent from 1860 to 1865.

It was akin to the Gulag system of Soviet Russia, except that it had all the power of the red-hot Industrial Revolution, including cutting-edge financial technology, behind it. That combination of slavery plus explosive economic growth and innovation made the antebellum South one of the most profoundly evil places that has ever existed — one that was an absolutely critical part of early industrial growth in both Britain and the North.

But on the other hand, the war that ended slavery, despite involving coercion in the form of organized mass killing, was therefore good! And so was Reconstruction, even though that involved extremely harsh measures against the likes of the KKK. Whether coercion is good or bad depends on just who is being coerced and why.

And that, in turn, puts the lie to conservative complaints that liberals always "blame America first." On the contrary, grappling with the pitch-black periods of history makes the positive notes shine all the brighter. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, the "epoch of slavery is…the quintessential romance of American history." It's just a romance difficult to detect in the GDP statistics.

Attention Parents: Your Neighborhood Matters More Than You Do

| Thu May 7, 2015 12:34 PM EDT

A few days ago Justin Wolfers passed along some new research showing that growing up in a good neighborhood has immensely positive effects on future success:

I will start with the smaller of their two studies....The findings are remarkable....The children who moved when they were young enjoyed much greater economic success than similarly aged children who had not won the lottery....The sharpest test comes from those who won an experimental housing voucher that could be used only if they moved to low-poverty areas. Here the findings are striking, as those who moved as a result of winning this voucher before their teens went on to earn 31 percent more than those who did not win the lottery. They are also more likely to attend college.

....It is rare to see social science overturn old beliefs so drastically. It happened because these scholars returned to an old experiment with a fresh perspective, based on the idea that what matters is how long children are exposed to good or bad neighborhoods. But is this the right perspective?

Here’s where the second study is critical. While the conclusions of the Moving to Opportunity project are based on following only a few thousand families, Mr. Chetty and Mr. Hendren use earnings records to effectively track the careers and neighborhoods of five million people over 17 years.

Instead of contrasting the outcomes of families in different areas — which may simply reflect different families choosing to live in different areas — they can track what happens to families when they move....Their findings are clear: The earlier a family moved to a good neighborhood, the better the children’s long-run outcomes. The effects are symmetric, too, with each extra year in a worse neighborhood leading to worse long-run outcomes. Most important, they find that each extra year of childhood exposure yields roughly the same change in longer-run outcomes, but that beyond age 23, further exposure has no effect. That is, what matters is not just the quality of your neighborhood, but also the number of childhood years that you are exposed to it.

A crucial advantage of this analysis is that it follows the children through to early adulthood. This matters because a number of recent studies have shown that interventions have effects that might be hard to discern in test scores or behavioral problems, but that become evident in adulthood. The same pattern of years of exposure to good neighborhoods shaping outcomes is also apparent for college attendance, teenage births, teenage employment and marriage.

This may all seem obvious to you—of course good schools and good playmates matter a lot—but professionals in this field have long believed that quality of parenting is by far the most important factor in a child's success. This is a popular and comforting notion that Judith Rich Harris effectively demolished more than a decade ago in The Nurture Assumption, but it hangs on tenaciously anyway. Nor do you have to buy Harris's theories hook, line, and sinker to believe she has the basic shape of the river correct. For example, I happen to think she underplays the evidence that good parenting matters. But not by much. The simple fact is that kids pick up cues about how to act far more from the collective influence of friends, siblings, teachers, TV, babysitters, and others than they do from their parents. It's hardly even a fair contest. As I put it a few weeks ago: 

This means that the single biggest difference you can make is to be rich enough to afford to live in a nice neighborhood that provides nice playmates and good schools.

This, unfortunately, doesn't make things any easier for policymakers. Teaching good parenting skills may be a monumental challenge, but it's no less monumental than somehow conquering poverty and making sure every child grows up in a good neighborhood. There are no easy answers. But at a minimum, it's always better to at least make sure we're pointed in the right direction.

Do Small Businesses Deserve Exemptions From the Minimum Wage?

| Thu May 7, 2015 9:00 AM EDT
Brian Hibbs (far right) and his employees, some of whom may lose shifts or even their jobs, if San Francisco's minimum wage goes to $15.

Brian Hibbs, a Mother Jones reader and owner of Comix Experience, wrote in to object to San Francisco's plan to raise its minimum wage. Conservatives who argue against the minimum wage often point to jobs lost and heavy burdens on small businesses, and progressives largely brush off those arguments as so much Chamber of Commerce propaganda. And then you have guys like Hibbs. Read what he has to say, and then we'll discuss.

I own two comic book stores in SF, and while we're a profitable business and have been for 26 years, we're only modestly profitable, y'know? When you calculate my own salary on a per-hour basis, given that 70-hour weeks are not at all uncommon for me, I don't make much more than the high-end of SF's new minimum wage law.

Raising the minimum wage by 43 percent (from $11.05 today to $15 in 2018) means that we need to generate at least another 80 grand in revenue. Eighty grand. I don't personally make eighty grand in a year. I'm not some kind of fat cat getting rich off the exploitation of my workers or something. And look, if I did manage to increase sales by that amount, I'd sure be hoping that I got to keep a tiny little percentage of it myself.

Just so we're clear: The hole I find myself soon facing isn't one created by escalating San Francisco rents (my landlord is awesome!), or because of competition from the internet (in fact, our sales consistently grow year-over-year, and sales growth has accelerated since the introduction of digital comics), but one solely and entirely created by the increase of the minimum wage.

I'm a progressive; I support fair labor practices, and I try, above all else, to give the folks who work for me absolute agency in their jobs. I have multiple employees who quit higher paying jobs for corporate owners to come work for me, because I actively valued their passions. I don't own a comic book store to make money as my primary goal, right? The primary goal is to wake up the morning and be excited by what you do, to feel like you're spreading your passion, that you're promoting art, and creators and joy—and my staff feels much the same way.

I have staff who are supported by a spouse and are working for me to essentially make pocket money; I have staff who want to be full-time artists, and this helps them get closer to their goal by exposing them to the form and helping them make contacts. I have staff who are actively working toward having their own stores, and I'm basically paying them to get a master's class (though I am fine with that!). I have staff who are full-time students living at home.

I'm not exploiting any of them, I don't think. They all have options, and they all work for me because they want to.

If I can't increase sales by $80,000—which is not something that seems likely, given historical year-over-year gains—then I have to start firing people, or trimming hours of operation. We don't run extravagant overlaps—nearly 60 percent of the hours the stores are open we only have one person on deck; nor do we have a lot of waste or absurd inventory or anything like that. I've survived in a kind of marginal business for 26 years by being a savvy businessperson, and a relatively nimble and predictive one. But firing people, cutting hours…how does that help the employees? How does that help the business expand so I can eventually hire more people?

I have the largest staff of any SF comics business (because I have two locations), and, in point of fact, my two closest competitors have zero employees. Not being impacted by this mandate, they'd have no reason to raise prices in tandem…and really, every reason to not do so. If I raised prices by, let's say, 10 percent to meet this mandate, I'm absolutely positive we'd lose at least 20 percent of our business to stores that didn't raise their prices—thereby putting us at a net negative.

We’re trying to solve this problem by growing our way out of it with a new national, curated Graphic-Novel-of-the-Month Club, but I think that if we’re able to succeed from that (and I am not at all sure we will) it will be because of years of building our exceptional reputation. As a result, I do not at all think that this type of solution is scalable for the average small business. The City of San Francisco’s own Office of Economic Analysis believes the minimum wage hike will cost 15,270 jobs, or 2 percent of the private workforce!

Honestly, if San Francisco had voted for "Minimum Wage must be at least equal to X percent of your net profit" or "Every person in America gets a guaranteed income of $20,000/year paid for by progressive taxes" or some other scheme where you know that people being asked to contribute more can afford it, then maybe we'd be on sounder ideological ground...But I think that the higher minimum wage, the higher you're making the barriers for low-income people and marginal-but-promising businesses to even have a chance to enter the marketplace and to survive in the first place, let alone legacy businesses like ours.

Here's my personal take: It's hard not to feel sympathy for Hibbs, yet it would be a mistake to take his situation as a case for abolishing or making exceptions to the city's minimum wage law. As I've noted elsewhere, raising the minimum wage doesn't tend to decrease overall employment; in general, businesses find new efficiencies and their workers find themselves with more disposable income to spend on things like comics.

Of course, that's probably little comfort to Hibbs, who faces competition from smaller comics stores whose sole proprietors are the ones manning the cash registers. Hibbs may well be able to keep his doors open by downsizing, bringing in volunteers, or drumming up donations from devoted customers (as one local bookstore has done), but when it comes down to it, there simply may not be much of a future for bricks-and-mortar comics stores in a city with astronomical real estate prices.

"I super commiserate with him because we are in almost the identical situation," says Lew Prince, a member of the group Business for a Fair Minimum Wage and the owner of Vintage Vinyl, a record store in St. Louis. Dwindling sales and rising labor costs forced Prince to consolidate his two Vintage Vinyl locations into one. He nonetheless supports increasing Missouri's minimum wage from $7.65 to $12 an hour because he thinks it's the right thing to do. "The job of the business owner is to prepare for the future," he told me. "I have great empathy and sympathy for [Hibbs], but you have to do the job every day, and sometimes the marketplace defeats you."

But maybe that point of view is too harsh. I'd love to hear, in the comments, what Kevin's readers think about all of this.

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Dear Marvel and Sony: We Love Movies for Their Kick-Ass Female Heroes, Too, You Jerks

| Wed May 6, 2015 5:21 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 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Shakesville founder Melissa McEwan.

Each time WikiLeaks posts another round of emails from the Sony hack, there is a garbage trove of misogyny: unequal pay, gendered and racist harassment, Aaron Sorkin waxing sexist, Angelina Jolie dismissed as a spoiled brat. Found among the latest collection was a dispatch from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter to Sony CEO Michael Lynton on the subject of female-centered superhero films, and if it's not exactly as awful as you're already imagining, that's possibly because it's even worse. Sent under the simple subject line "Female Movies," Perlmutter writes:

Michael,

As we discussed on the phone, below are just a few examples. There are more.

Thanks,

Ike

1. Electra (Marvel) – Very bad idea and the end result was very, very bad. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=elektra.htm

2. Catwoman (WB/DC) - Catwoman was one of the most important female character within the Batmanfranchise. This film was a disaster. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=catwoman.htm

3. Supergirl – (DC) Supergirl was one of the most important female super hero in Superman franchise. This Movie came out in 1984 and did $14 million total domestic with opening weekend of $5.5 million. Again, another disaster.

Best, Ike

Case closed, your honor! At Women and Hollywood, Laura Berger quite rightly notes that Perlmutter's list is highly selective and narrowly defined. "It seems fair to assume," writes Berger, "that Perlmutter is referring specifically to female superhero movies. If that's the case, why is something like 'The Hunger Games' omitted from this list? The extremely lucrative franchise is led by a woman, and while Katniss isn't technically a superheroine, she's certainly marketed as one. Isn't 'The Hunger Games' a more relevant example of how female-led films fare at the box office today than, say, 'Supergirl,' which was released over 30 years ago?" Emphasis original.

At ThinkProgress, Jessica Goldstein shows how easily one could selectively compile a list of male-centered superhero flops if one were inclined to make the incredulous assertion, based exclusively on box office returns and not on the inherent quality of the films, that male-centered superhero films don't work.

The three films on Perlmutter's list frankly just weren't very good. Which has to do with their female heroes only insomuch as studios don't generally dedicate equivalent creative and financial resources to female-centered superhero films, because they don't want to "waste" them on films they fear won't succeed at the box office. Thus the vicious cycle continues: Many female-centered superhero films are set up to fail, and then when one fails, the blame is directed at the women at its center, rather than the misogyny at her back.

This is a conversation that happens around every genre of "hero" film: Superhero films, action films, fantasy films, adventure films. The wildly successful male-centered flicks get rattled off as evidence of what "works," and implicit condemnation of what (allegedly) doesn't.

Many of the wildly successful male-centered franchises have, however, a token female character—carefully segregated from other women and girls, lest they get any ideas about taking over the world, I suppose.

When I watched the Superman series, it was for Margot Kidder's Lois Lane, who I was certain was the coolest woman with the most amazing voice who had ever lived.

And we are ever meant to understand that all of the dedicated superfans of these films watched them because of the men, always the men. What Perlmutter and his cohort don't understand, don't consider, or simply don't care about is that there are plenty of us who watched those films for the women.

When I watched the Superman series, I wasn't watching those films for Christopher Reeve; I was watching them for Margot Kidder's Lois Lane, who I was certain was the coolest woman with the most amazing voice who had ever lived. When I watched the Star Wars trilogy, I had zero interest in Luke; I showed up for Leia. When I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, I was watching it as much for Marion as I was for Indy. When I watched Dragonslayer (which admittedly was a commercial flop, but later became a cult classic) over and over until I could say every line, I was all about Valerian. When I watched Romancing the Stone, I was cheering for THE JOAN WILDER.

There were female heroes in my favorite films, and they were the reason I watched them. I imagine there are plenty of little girls (and little boys) who watch The Avengers not because of the guys, but because of the one, remarkable, exceptional (in every sense of the word) female hero in their midst. That doesn't show up in the numbers—nor, apparently, in the imaginations of the men who make creative decisions based on numbers.

The thing about many of the films I mentioned is that they're generally regarded as good movies. They were made with monumental investments of care and attention. And they didn't have to be male-centered, but they got that care and attention because they were.

What would happen if a female-centered hero were given the same mighty powers? Welp.

Our Country's Cartoonish Gun Debate Isn't Just Idiotic—It's Really Damaging

| Wed May 6, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
"Pew, pew, pew!"

Kevin Drum doesn't write much about guns, which is why I'm going to keep on it a bit here and honor him by rolling out the red carpet for a bunch of grating 2A trolls to stampede into the comments thread.

How exactly is that going to honor Kevin, you ask? By underscoring what his legions of intelligent readers already know: These dudes could learn a thing or three from Kevin Drum. He's open-minded and deeply curious. He asks shrewd questions and tests his own assumptions. He respects data. And he's a damn fine writer—clear, to the point, and not always entirely correct but who the hell cares because he's right there chatting with you as if happy hour has come early today and the drinks are already on the table. (Godspeed, Kevin—we miss you, we're stoked that you're on the road back to full-time badass blogger, and we'll see you again soon.)

So, to the subject at hand: Late last week, I spoke with Michael Krasny on KQED's Forum about our deep investigation into the economic toll from gun violence, which dings America for no less than $229 billion a year. (Yes, that's capital-B billion, further explained visually here and methodologically here.) The project has made waves not just for that staggering sum, but because we spent months digging up the elusive data behind it, from the personal to the societal. Yet, as listeners called into the show with questions, I was quickly reminded of just how ridiculously dumb and polarizing the gun debate really is—thanks to both sides—even in the face of groundbreaking information.

After a former US Marine came on the air and criticized the National Rifle Association for lying, the next caller, another gun owner, promptly denounced him for speaking against the Second Amendment and being "full of it." (Which in this arena is basically the equivalent of a puppy's kiss.) That was followed by a woman who wanted to know what could be done to prevent gun manufacturers from manufacturing guns, whether "we could stop it at the source."

And that, in a nutshell, is pretty much the state of America's gun debate. Here's more of it—but also some vivid stories and data from those who know gun violence firsthand:

Having reported on this subject intensively for the last three years, I'm still not totally sure whether guns kill people or people kill people, but I'm almost certain that you can be riddled to death with inanities. (See, for the umpteenth time: "Knives, baseball bats, and hands and feet kill people too!!")

But while there are offenders at both ends of the spectrum, one side is fundamentally responsible for the enduring standoff. The NRA's power tends to be regarded as legendary in politics and in the media, though it's probably overstated, especially nowadays. Still, the gun lobby has pulled off a messaging feat decades in the making—its leaders perpetually blasting away with the idea that any discussion of guns in America can be nothing other than a brutal dichotomy. You're either a defender of constitutional liberty, their premise goes, or you're an anti-freedom "gun grabber." Barack Obama's mass seizure of law-abiding citizens' firearms may have yet to materialize six-plus years in, but the NRA is taking no chances, already preparing as it is for Hillary Clinton's own nefarious plans.

The NRA's former "point person" in Congress now agrees that research on gun violence is essential.

More than just inciting the imagination of the NRA's political base, this construct evidently has become the default setting for the national debate. Some of the blame also falls on the gun-control movement, which expends considerable energy pontificating about how the NRA is evil. Of course, this bleak if cartoonish disconnect hardly reflects most Americans' attitudes about firearms, gun owners included.

But it has caused some very real, very serious collateral damage, according to numerous public health experts I've spoken with. The American medical community is nearly unanimous that gun violence is a serious public health threat, and yet, as we detailed in the aforementioned investigation, there remains precious little research on the problem, let alone funding to do more. As Mark Rosenberg, the former director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control put it during another recent radio conversation, the entrenched gun debate itself carries a steep price:

This is really destructive to our ability to make progress. It's posed as an "either or," and this was done by strategists working for the NRA over a long period of time. They wanted people to think that either you protect the rights of all gun owners to keep their guns, or you do research on gun violence, and that the two are diametrically opposed. And they had a zero-tolerance philosophy that said, "You can't even discuss research on gun violence because that leads down the slippery slope of all of us losing our guns." And that's led us into the morass where we are today.

One of Rosenberg's fiercest old adversaries, former Republican Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas—who in his own words "served as the NRA's point person in Congress"—now agrees with Rosenberg. After the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado (which cost that community at least $100 million), the two published a joint op-ed in the Washington Post: "We were on opposite sides of the heated battle 16 years ago," they wrote, "but we are in strong agreement now that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries and that ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners. The same evidence-based approach that is saving millions of lives from motor-vehicle crashes, as well as from smoking, cancer and HIV/AIDS, can help reduce the toll of deaths and injuries from gun violence."

Read their whole July 2012 piece, look at the findings from our new data investigation, and you'll also begin to see—another 100,000 deaths, 250,000 injuries, and one unthinkable elementary school massacre later—just how much we still don't know.

Tales From City of Hope #13: Badass Blogger Edition

| Tue May 5, 2015 1:18 PM EDT

My white blood count is now up to 2.4. More importantly, my ANC level is up to 2000. ANC is the front line of my immune system, and any number above 1000 means it's working adequately. So if you're sick and you sneeze on me, you are no longer likely to kill me. You'll just give me a cold.

So I'm basically out of the woods. But not entirely. I have months of recuperation ahead, and complete success won't be confirmed until a follow-up biopsy in 60 days. And then I have a difficult decision about whether I should enter maintenance therapy.

In the meantime, one of my sister's graphic arts pals whipped up the image on the right. It is titled "Kevin the Badass Blogger" and available in a limited edition to those savvy enough to copy stuff from the internet. For extra credit: can you figure out whose body I've been shopped onto?

And speaking of images, last night I thought I'd try to improve things around here by downloading Photoshop Express to replace the crappy freeware image editing app I've been using. So I did. But apparently PE works only with a keyboard and mouse. It has no touch support. In 2015. WTF?

Obamacare Is a Boon for the Working Poor, and That's Probably Good for All of Us

| Tue May 5, 2015 9:00 AM 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 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Andrew Sprung.

One thing I've always appreciated about Kevin is that his commitment to economic justice is grounded in political realism. That balance was on display in his postmortem on the Democrats' drubbing in November:

[W]hen the economy stagnates and life gets harder, people get meaner. That's just human nature. And the economy has been stagnating for the working class for well over a decade—and then practically collapsing ever since 2008.

So who does the WWC [white working class] take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor. In particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn't matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the WWC makes it more than any. That's because they're closer to it. For them, the poor aren't merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They're the folks next door who don't do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars. For a lot of members of the WWC, this is personal in a way it just isn't for the kind of people who read this blog.

And who is it that's responsible for this infuriating flow of government money to the shiftless? Democrats. We fight to save food stamps. We fight for WIC. We fight for Medicaid expansion. We fight for Obamacare. We fight to move poor families into nearby housing.

This is a big problem because these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class.

As Kevin acknowledges, this is an age-old problem for Democrats. It's "unfair" in that there's overwhelming evidence that safety-net programs like food stamps, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit "have positive effects on health, educational attainment, earnings and employment years later," as Jared Bernstein recently wrote.

There's no denying the perception that Kevin fingers is a political force, and it's one partly grounded in reality, in that safety net programs (for the non-elderly at least) do most directly benefit those at the bottom of the income distribution.

The Affordable Care Act is a really stark exemplar of this good policy/tough politics conundrum. For almost its entire life its approval ratings have been underwater, pulled down in part by low marks from working class Americans. Most of the Affordable Care Act 's supporters assume that the law has remained unpopular because, as Jonathan Chait put it, "[Republicans'] lies got halfway around the world before the truth could get its pants on." And that's largely true. But it's also true that its impact on Americans' incomes look something like this:

That chart is a very simplified takeaway from a study by Brookings economists Henry Aaron and Gary Burtless, one that starkly illustrates whom the ACA spends money on via premium subsidies and Medicaid benefits. It's the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution.

Recent ACA enrollment data bears this out. Of the 11.7 million buyers of private health plans on the ACA exchanges, over 60 percent have incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The 11 million beneficiaries of the Medicaid expansion all have incomes under 138 percent FPL. Taken together, those numbers mean about 80 percent of the law's direct beneficiaries have incomes below 200 percent FPL.

Sliced another way, about half (48 percent) of private plan buyers in the 37 states using healthcare.gov had incomes ranging from 150 to 300 percent FPL, a more or less working class range. But more than half of those were at the lower end, 150 to 200 percent FPL.

The truth is, the ACA private plan market works best for people with incomes under 200 percent FPL. That's the cutoff point for the beefy if little-known cost-sharing subsidies that reduce deductibles and copays and make the coverage comparable to (or, for those under 150 percent FPL, better than) that offered by high-quality employer-sponsored policies. A recent study by Avalere Health showed that people with lower-incomes who qualify for such subsidies are snatching up private plans from ACA exchanges—but uninsured buyers at higher income levels haven't been nearly as enthusiastic. It would be great if more generous subsidies could make the exchange plans more attractive to those relatively better-off Americans on the upper end of the scale, but Democrats allocated what the political traffic would bear.

A genuine long-term bend in the healthcare cost curve would be worth all the Bowles-Simpson-type spending cut/tax hike plans ever conceived.

So how do the ACA's offerings to the uninsured benefit the working class, white or otherwise? For starters, 200 percent of FPL, the upper end of the sweet spot for ACA benefits, is a working class income; it's just under $40,000 for a family of three, and about two-thirds of median income. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 34 percent of Americans have incomes below that threshold.

But income in the U.S. is volatile. According to the economist Stephen J. Rose, in 2010, 7 to 8 percent of working-age U.S. adults were below the poverty line, but in the five years prior, about 18 percent spent at least one year in poverty. The same ratio may not hold for the 200 percent FPL level, but it seems fair to assume that half of U.S. households will fall below it at some point.

Pre-ACA, health insurance status was also highly volatile. A 2008 study by Mathematica Policy Research found that while nearly 18 percent of non-elderly adults were uninsured as of January 2001, 35 percent had been uninsured at some point over the three years prior. Of those, 60 percent went without coverage for at least a year. Extend the volatility caused by our employer-based health insurance system over a lifetime, and a very large percentage of Americans who don't always live in poverty are likely to need an affordable fallback at some point.

There's much more to be said (and studied) about how the ACA may benefit the working class and indeed all of us. The law will have multiple positive and negative impacts on employer-sponsored insurance, on the way care is organized and paid for, on hospital consolidation, Medicare, and so on.

Meanwhile, Republicans will continue to hammer Democrats over every real and perceived negative effect. (Watch out for that in 2018, when the most generous employer plans will be subject to the so-called Cadillac Tax, which could spur cuts to some workers' coverage). And it's not at all clear that Democrats will get much credit for some of the law's biggest upsides.

In the longest view, if the ACA really is contributing to a long-term slowdown in the growth of US healthcare spending—admittedly a big 'if,' though the data is promising—it could secure the nation's fiscal future and be a boon to everyone, poor or not. As Peter Orzag kept telling us back in 2009, "healthcare reform is entitlement reform." A genuine long-term bend in the healthcare cost curve would be worth all the Bowles-Simpson-type spending cut/tax hike plans ever conceived.

At the same time, the ACA has already cut the ranks of the uninsured by 15 million, reducing the uninsured rate among non-elderly adults from 17.6 percent to 10.1 percent, as estimated in a just-published Urban Institute study. In states that accepted the Medicaid expansion, it's cut the uninsured rate of the poor in half. For the middle class—very broadly defined by Urban as those in households between 138 percent and 400 percent FPL—it's raised the insured rate by 7.6 percentage points.

That's a monumental accomplishment, and Democrats paid for it in political blood. We should honor them for that.