Kevin Drum

Rick Perry Indictment Highlights the Hack Gap Once Again

| Tue Aug. 19, 2014 12:02 PM EDT

Simon Maloy finds five pundits arguing that last week's indictment of Rick Perry was flimsy and obviously politically motivated:

Who are these five pundits downplaying the case against Texas’ Republican governor? In order: New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, MSNBC host Ari Melber, political scientist and American Prospect contributor Scott Lemieux, the Center for American Progress’ Ian Millhiser, and the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis. Five guys who work/write for big-name liberal publications or organizations. This, friends, is the Hack Gap in action.

Ah yes, the hack gap. Where would we be without it? For the most part, it doesn't show up on the policy side, where liberals and conservatives both feature a range of thinkers who bicker internally over lots of things. It mostly shows up on the process side. Is the legal reasoning on subject X sound? Is it appropriate to attack candidate Y in a particular way? Is program Z working well or poorly? How unanimously should we pretend that a mediocre speech/poll/debate performance is really a world-historical victory for our guy?

Both sides have hacks who are willing to take their party's side on these things no matter how ridiculous their arguments are. But Republicans sure have a lot more of them. We've seen this most recently with Obamacare. Obviously liberals have been more positive in their assessments of how it's doing, but they've also been perfectly willing to acknowledge its problems, ranging from the website rollout debacle to the problems of narrow networks to the reality of rate shock for at least some buyers. Conservatives, conversely, have been all but unanimous in their insistence that every single aspect of the program is a flat-out failure. Even as Obamacare's initial problems were fixed and it became clear that, in fact, the program was working reasonably well, conservatives never changed their tune. They barely even acknowledged the good news, and when they did it was only to set up lengthy explanations of why it could be safely ignored. To this day, virtually no conservative pundits have made any concessions to reality. Obamacare is a failure on every possible front, and that's that.

Liberals just don't have quite this level of hackish discipline. Even on a subject as near and dear to the Democratic heart as Social Security, you could find some liberals who supported a version of privatization back when George Bush was hawking the idea in 2005. It's pretty hard to imagine any conservatives doing the opposite.

Is this changing? Are liberals starting to close the gap? Possibly. The liberal narrative on events in Ferguson has stayed pretty firm even as bits and pieces of contradictory evidence have surfaced along the way. The fact that Michael Brown had robbed a convenience store; that he wasn't running away when he was shot; and that a lighter policing touch didn't stop the looting and violence—none of those things have changed the liberal storyline much. And maybe they shouldn't, since they don't really affect the deeper issues. A cop still pumped six rounds into an unarmed teenager; the militarized response to the subsequent protests remains disgraceful; and the obvious fear of Ferguson's black community toward its white police force is palpable. Maybe it's best to keep the focus there, where it belongs.

Still, a bit of honest acknowledgment that the story has taken a few confusing turns wouldn't hurt. Just as having a few liberal voices defending Rick Perry doesn't hurt. Keep it honest, folks.

POSTSCRIPT: And what do I think of the Perry indictment? I'm not sure. When I first saw the headlines on Friday I was shocked, but then I read the stories and realized this was all about something Perry had done very publicly. That seemed like a bit of a yawner, and it was getting late, so I just skipped commenting on it. By Monday, it hardly seemed worth rehashing, especially since I didn't have a very good sense of the law involved.

So....I still don't know. The special prosecutor who brought the indictment seems like a fairly straight shooter, so there might be something there. Overall, though, I guess it mostly seems like a pretty political use of prosecutorial power.

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It Looks Like Obamacare Is Here to Stay

| Tue Aug. 19, 2014 10:46 AM EDT

Republicans may say that Obamacare is still the white-hot issue it's always been, and among their tea party base that might still be true. But if money talks, it turns out that Republicans no longer really believe Obamacare is a winning issue anywhere else. Bloomberg ran the numbers in a few battleground Senate races and discovered that GOP candidates are starting to turn to other issues:

Republicans seeking to unseat the U.S. Senate incumbent in North Carolina have cut in half the portion of their top issue ads citing Obamacare, a sign that the party’s favorite attack against Democrats is losing its punch.

The shift — also taking place in competitive states such as Arkansas and Louisiana — shows Republicans are easing off their strategy of criticizing Democrats over the Affordable Care Act now that many Americans are benefiting from the law and the measure is unlikely to be repealed.

....In April, anti-Obamacare advertising dwarfed all other spots in North Carolina. It accounted for 3,061, or 54 percent, of the 5,704 top five issue ads in North Carolina, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. By July, the numbers had reversed, with anti-Obamacare ads accounting for 971, or 27 percent, of the top issue ads, and the budget, government spending, jobs and unemployment accounting for 2,608, or 72 percent, of such ads, CMAG data show.

As Greg Sargent points out, this doesn't mean Democrats are any more likely to hold the Senate this year. But it does suggest that as time goes by and Obamacare appears to be working fairly well without causing the collapse of the Republic, even the GOP faithful are starting to accept it. More and more, it looks like Obamacare is here to stay.

Medicare Advantage Might Not Be a Boondoggle Anymore

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 2:20 PM EDT

I've written periodically in this space about the problems with Medicare Advantage. In a nutshell, it costs a lot more but provides very little in the way of additional services. It's really not much of a poster child for the benefits of program choice.

But wait! Apparently a big part of the problem with MA was the fact that people were allowed to switch in and out of their plans on a monthly basis. If they got sick, they could quickly switch into MA if that was a better deal for them. This obviously raised the cost of MA as sick people switched in to avoid the copays and other limitations of traditional Medicare.

However, that changed in the mid-2000s, when beneficiaries were required to choose a plan and stick with it for a full year. Austin Frakt provides the details of a new study:

By 2006-2007, health differences between beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage and those in traditional Medicare had narrowed....Also, in contrast to studies in the 1990s, more recent work finds that Medicare Advantage is superior to traditional Medicare on a variety of quality measures. For example, according to a paper in Health Affairs by John Ayanian and colleagues, women enrolled in a Medicare Advantage H.M.O. are more likely to receive mammography screenings; those with diabetes are more likely to receive blood sugar testing and retinal exams; and those with diabetes or cardiovascular disease are more likely to receive cholesterol testing.

That Health Affairs paper also found that H.M.O. enrollees are more likely to receive flu and pneumonia vaccinations and about as likely to rate their personal doctor and specialists highly.

So now things are a little murkier. MA still costs more than traditional Medicare, but only by 5-6 percent. And recent evidence suggests that MA beneficiaries might be getting enough additional benefit to justify that much extra money. It's still not clear that MA is worthwhile, but it appears now to be at least worth further study.

Most Songs are Three Minutes Long Because That's How Most of Us Like Them

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 1:10 PM EDT

Kelsey McKinney asks today why popular songs are almost all 3-5 minutes long. The historical basis for this is obvious: 45 rpm singles hold about three minutes of music, so modern pop music was born in an era when technology limited songs to about three minutes or so. But what about more recently?

It makes sense to assume that since the basis of the three-minute song was the 78 and then 45 rpm single, then songs would become longer as technology evolved....But the length of songs had its biggest jump, according to this data, between the '60s and '80s, and very little has changed from the '90s to 2008, a time period when the technology of music changed drastically.

"What drives what is heard on the radio is an artist's desire to have their music hit the mainstream, and a record label's desire to profit from that," Steve Jones, vice president at the Canadian radio firm Newcap, told NPR....Jones is right. The length of a song on an album doesn't matter for anyone except for the artist and fans, but a song that hopes to make money and be played on the radio simply has to be a certain length. Either that, or radio stations will edit the song down to the standard, making it three to four minutes, just like the 45.

But this begs the question. Why do radio stations insist on three minutes? They don't run ads after literally every song, so it's not because advertisers demand it. The obvious answer is that this is, in fact, what most fans want.

The core explanation, I think, is that most popular music simply doesn't have the complexity to sustain itself beyond a few minutes. Both the lyrics and the melodies tend to be fairly simple, and after a few minutes they've exhausted their potential. Compare this to classical music and you see it more clearly. Most classical music is considerably more complex than your average pop song, but even so a single movement of a sonata or a symphony usually clocks in at no more than ten minutes or so. Opera arias—which developed in a pre-technological age and with much more patient audiences—are closer in length to modern pop songs, typically lasting 3-7 minutes.

Obviously there are exceptions to this. There are plenty of examples of longish pop songs, just as there are examples of classical pieces longer than ten minutes. But generally speaking, you need a fair amount of complexity to sustain these lengths, and that's not what most people want. They want simple and hummable, and that means not too long.

White Juries Are Not Kind to Black Defendants

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 10:57 AM EDT

Alex Tabarrok passes along the results of a new study about the racial composition of jury pools and the resulting juries:

What the authors discover is that all white juries are 16% more likely to convict black defendants than white defendants but the presence of just a single black person in the jury pool equalizes conviction rates by race. The effect is large and remarkably it occurs even when the black person is not picked for the jury. The latter may not seem possible but the authors develop an elegant model of voir dire that shows how using up a veto on a black member of the pool shifts the characteristics of remaining pool members from which the lawyers must pick; that is, a diverse jury pool can make for a more “ideologically” balanced jury even when the jury is not racially balanced.

There is, of course, no de jure discrimination at work here. The law treats every defendant and every jury member the same. But that still doesn't mean everyone is treated the same. Far from it.

We Created a Policing Monster By Mistake

| Sat Aug. 16, 2014 12:28 PM EDT

Although I've avoided writing about Ferguson for private reasons, I almost wrote a short post yesterday in order to make one specific point. But it turns out to be OK that I didn't, because Annie Lowrey wrote it for me and did a better job than I would have.

The point of her post is simple: Two decades ago violent crime really was out of control, and it seemed reasonable to a lot of people that police needed to respond in a much more forceful way. We can argue forever about whether militarizing our police forces was an appropriate response to higher crime rates, but at least it was an understandable motivation. Later, police militarization got a further boost from 9/11, and again, that was at least an understandable response.

But at the same time the trend toward militarization started in the early 90s, the crime wave of the 70s and 80s finally crested and then began to ebb. Likewise, Al Qaeda terrorism never evolved into a serious local problem. We've spent the past two decades militarizing our police forces to respond to problems that never materialized, and now we're stuck with them. We don't need commando teams and SWAT units in every town in America to deal with either terrorism or an epidemic of crime, so they get used for other things instead. And that's how we end up with debacles like Ferguson.

Police militarization was a mistake. You can argue that perhaps we didn't know that at the time. No one knew in 1990 that crime was about to begin a dramatic long-term decline, and no one knew in 2001 that domestic terrorism would never become a serious threat. But we know now. There's no longer even a thin excuse for arming our police forces this way.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 15 August 2014

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

Yesterday, in a surprising act of cooperation, Domino just sat in the sun while I took her picture from a distance. Usually I can get off maybe one or two shots before she realizes what's going on and heads directly over to the camera. Is it because she loves the camera? Distrusts the camera? Just wants to say hi to me? I don't know, but this time she just let me click away. This one reminds me of Inkblot's presidential campaign portrait.

In other news, click here to meet Meatball, possibly the world's biggest cat.

Open War in Ukraine Is a Little Bit Closer Every Day

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 2:34 PM EDT

"Maybe it’s just me," tweets Blake Hounshell, "but open warfare between Ukraine and Russia seems like a BFD."

Yes indeed. As it happens, we're not quite at the stage of open warfare yet, but we sure seem to be getting mighty close. Remember that Russian "aid convoy" that everyone was so suspicious of? Well, it turns out to be....pretty suspicious. BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg says that upon inspection, many of the 280 trucks turned out to be "almost empty." Yesterday we received reports of a column of Russian military vehicles crossing the border into Ukraine as the aid convoy idled nearby, and that was confirmed by NATO earlier today. A little later, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that Ukraine had destroyed "the majority" of the column.

In one sense, this is nothing new. Ukraine has been saying for months that Moscow is backing pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and more recently Ukraine began an aggressive fighting to expel them. Still, this does appear to be an escalation. Between the mysterious aid convoy and the military column that may or may not have been largely destroyed by Ukrainian forces, warfare is indeed becoming a little more open every day.

Who Should Run Against Hillary?

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 1:14 PM EDT

Andy Sabl surveys the Democratic field today and concludes that, sure enough, Hillary Clinton is the prohibitive frontrunner. Who could challenge her?

Any Democratic candidate jumping in at this point will have to have already demonstrated party loyalty, actual or likely executive skills, and the ability to win a majority of votes in both a party primary and a general election. Moreover, it would help if that candidate had a record of early and loud opposition to doing “stupid [stuff]” in the Middle East...It would help if the candidate had vast personal wealth....as well as strong and deep connections to Silicon Valley, the only serious rival to Wall Street (Clinton’s base) as a source of campaign cash.

So who could this be? Sabl is obviously describing Al Gore, and admits there's zero evidence that Gore has any intention of running. "But if he did, and if he ran as the anti-war and populist—yet impeccably mainstream—candidate that Hillary clearly is not and has no desire to be, things would suddenly get interesting."

I guess so. But that raises a question: Who would you like to see challenge Hillary? I'm not asking who you think is likely to run, just which plausible candidate you'd most like to see in the race.

I suppose my choice would be Sherrod Brown. He's a serious guy who's been in Washington for a long time. He opposed the Iraq War; he's got good populist anti-Wall Street credentials; and he's a solid labor supporter. He's a pretty good talker, and never comes across as threateningly radical. As far as I know, he doesn't have any skeletons in his closet serious enough to disqualify him. (Aside from the fact that he says he has no interest in running, of course.)

Who's your choice? Plausible candidates only. Not Noam Chomsky or Dennis Kucinich. It's surprisingly hard, isn't it? The Democratic bench is actually pretty thin these days.

Europe Agrees to Arm the Kurds

| Fri Aug. 15, 2014 12:00 PM EDT

What are the odds that Iraqi Kurdistan will ever be able to secede and form its own sovereign state? That depends in large part on whether the United States and other countries support Kurdish independence, which so far they haven't. Today, however, the EU officially encouraged its members to "respond positively to the call by the Kurdish regional authorities to provide urgently military material."

Is that a step toward accepting Kurdish independence? Maybe, but only a smidge. The EU statement also said that arms shipments should be done only "with the consent of the Iraqi national authorities." And the Guardian reports that, "At the same time the EU reiterated its firm commitment to Iraq’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity."

If the new Iraqi government works out, this probably leads nowhere. But if the new government is no more competent or inclusive than Maliki's, this could end up being a tacit first step toward Kurdish secession. Wait and see.