Kevin Drum

It's Spring Fundraising Time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Welfare Reform and the Decline of Work

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

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

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

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

Are Republicans Finally Giving Up on Killing Obamacare?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Wonder Teens Are Huffing Nicotine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday Cat Blogging - April 17 2015

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

Why the Euro Is a Selfish Jerk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bonus Friday Cat Blogging - 17 April 2015

| Fri Apr. 17, 2015 11:00 AM EDT

My sister has given me loads of catblogging photos to choose from, and this week I'm choosing this one. I understand that Hilbert contested Hopper's right to this spot for a bit, but Hopper defended herself and is now queen of the chair. She has quite the regal presence.

In the meantime, padded coat hangers have been dragged downstairs, temporary window coverings have turned into cat toys, and someone is apparently pulling blue masking tape down from somewhere. On the brighter side, both cats have decided that jumping up on the couch and snoozing next to Karen while she reads or watches TV is really not a bad alternative to whoever those folks were who used to provide laps and cat food.

I understand more cat blogging will be coming later. Keep your eyes peeled.

Just How Racist Are Schoolteachers?

| Fri Apr. 17, 2015 9:20 AM EDT

It's no secret that black kids are more likely to be suspended from school than white kids—three times more likely, according to a 2012 report from the Office of Civil Rights. And now a study published this week in Psychological Science may shed some light on just how much of a role racial bias on the part of educators may play.

Stanford psychology grad student Jason Okonofua and professor Jennifer Eberhardt designed a study where active K-12 teachers from across the country were presented with mocked-up disciplinary records showing a student who had misbehaved twice. Both infractions were relatively minor: one was for insubordination, the other for class disturbance. The records' substance never changed, but some bore stereotypically black names (Darnell or Deshawn) while others had stereotypically white names (Jake or Greg). Teachers answered a series of questions about how troubled they were by the infractions reflected in the documents, how severe the appropriate discipline should be, and the likelihood that the student was "a troublemaker."

The teachers' responses after learning about the first infraction were about equal, regardless of the student's perceived race. But after hearing about the second infraction, a gap in discipline emerged: On a scale of one to seven, teachers rated the appropriate severity of discipline at just over five for students perceived to be black, compared to just over four for students perceived to be white. That may not seem like a big difference, but on one-to-seven scale, a single point is a 14 percent increase—well beyond what is typically accepted as statistically significant.

A follow-up experiment of over 200 teachers took the questioning further, and found that teachers were more likely (though by smaller margins) to judge students perceived as black as engaging in a pattern of misbehavior, and were more likely to say they could "imagine themselves suspending the student at some point in the future."

Okonofua and Eberhart, Association for Psychological Science

"Most school teachers likely work hard at treating their students equally and justly," says Okonofua. "And yet even amongst these well-intentioned and hard-working people, we find cultural stereotypes about black people are bending their perceptions towards less favorable interpretations of behavior."

Many studies have looked at the subconscious racial prejudice of snap judgments—my former colleague, Chris Mooney, wrote an excellent feature on the subject last December. But according to the authors, this is the first study to look at the psychology behind the racial gap in school discipline. And, as Okonofua said, "The research shows that even if there's no race effect for an initial interaction, the stereotyping can play out over time. That's really important because in the real world, there are sustained relationships."

And the research may have implications for other kinds of sustained relationships between two levels of authority: say a boss and an employee, a prison guard and a prisoner, or a judge and a repeat offender.

Vaping Among Teens Skyrockets in 2014

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 5:50 PM EDT

Is this chart on the right, from the Washington Post, good news or bad? On the one hand, teen cigarette use has plummeted from 16 percent to 9 percent over the past four years. On the other hand, the total rate of teen smoking—cigarettes plus e-cigarettes—has risen from 17 percent to 22 percent. The rise in e-cigarette use spiked especially sharply in 2014, more than tripling in a single year.

I've heard pros and cons about e-cigarettes for the past couple of years, and I can't say I have a settled opinion about them. Taken in isolation, it's safe to say that no kind of nicotine delivery system is good for you. But traditional cigarettes are certainly more harmful than e-cigarettes, so to the extent that vaping replaces tobacco smoking, it's a net positive.

But that huge spike in 2014 is cause for concern. At some point, teen vaping starts to look like a serious net negative even if it's accompanied by a small drop in traditional cigarette consumption. I'm still not sure what to think about this, but I'd say these latest figures from the CDC move my priors a bit in the direction of stronger regulation of e-cigarattes.

And if you don't live in California and are wondering what the fuss is over my state's anti-vaping campaign, here's the ad that's been assaulting my TV for the past couple of months. It's paid for by revenue from good ol' Proposition 99, I assume.

Corporate Lobbyists Outspend the Rest of us 34 to 1

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 1:55 PM EDT

Lee Drutman looks at the real problem with lobbying in the American political system:

Looking at lobbying in the aggregate, what jumps out is the stark imbalance in resources. Corporations blow everyone else out of the water. Business accounts for roughly 80 percent of all reported lobbying expenditures, about $2.6 billion dollars a year now.

....Meanwhile, the types of organized interests who we might expect to provide a countervailing force to business — labor unions, groups representing diffuse public like consumers or taxpayers — spend $1 for every $34 businesses spend on lobbying, by my count. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying annually, consistently 95 represent business. In interviewing 60 corporate lobbyists for my book The Business of America is Lobbying, I asked them to identify the leading opposition on an issue on which they were currently working. Not a single lobbyist volunteered a union or a “public interest” group.

....This growing imbalance has had two major effects on the political system. First, it is increasingly difficult to challenge any existing policy that benefits politically active corporations....Second, the sheer amount of lobbying has created a policymaking environment that now requires significant resources to get anything done. Which means that, with increasingly rare exceptions, the only possible policy changes on economic policy issues are those changes that at least some large corporations support.

Lobbying is inevitable. You might even say that it's nothing more than politics in its purest form. But if that's true, American politics has become almost purely a game played by big corporations and their allies. The rest of us—which is to say, practically all of us—are left with nearly no say in what happens.