Why Is the Murder Rate Increasing?

Over at Vox, Dara Lind has a longish piece about the "Ferguson Effect," the notion that homicides are up because police are afraid to do their jobs in an era of viral videos and public backlash against police violence:

Just like there's been a certain reluctance to admit homicide is rising at all among people who don't want to blame Black Lives Matter protesters for it, there's been reluctance to attribute any rise in homicides to changes in policing....But the reality is that changes in policing do affect crime rates. Indeed, "proactive" policing — in forms that have officers walking around neighborhoods and building relationships with their residents — is one of the most effective things a city can do to prevent crime. You just have to look at the correct scale: Police departments are local institutions, and they affect things on a local scale.

"Gun violence is very local," says crime analyst Jeff Asher. "And changes in gun violence patterns probably have local explanations." So he doesn't give much credence to Comey's version of the Ferguson effect theory — that the hypothetical fear of being the subject of a viral video somewhere is changing how cops around the country do their jobs. "There's little evidence in the places we can measure it," he says, "that proactivity in, say, Louisville, went down because of events in St. Louis or Baltimore."

The problem, of course, is that this kind of thing is difficult to measure, which means the Ferguson Effect is all but impossible to verify. Personally I'm skeptical: homicide rates appear to be up a lot more than overall violent crime rates, and that's hard to square with any kind of policing theory. And it's important to get this right: If we choose the wrong theory about why murder rates are up, we have almost no chance of getting them back down. Liberals and conservatives alike need to be willing to go wherever the data leads them.

The Sad Decline and Fall of Bernie Sanders

So tonight's Democratic primaries basically ended in a tie. There's really nothing of interest left anymore: Hillary Clinton will win the nomination, as we've all known she would for at least the past month.

The one thing I do keep wondering about is what happened to Bernie Sanders. Before this campaign, he was a gadfly, he was a critic of the system, and he was a man of strong principles. He still is, but he's also obviously very, very bitter. I wonder if all this was worth it for him? By all objective measures he did way better than anyone expected and had far more influence than anyone thought he would, and he should feel good about that. Instead, he seems more angry and resentful with every passing day.

I know this happens all the time in presidential primaries. Everyone starts out promising to run high-minded campaigns, but the attacks always come sooner or later—and the targets inevitably believe the attacks are unfair and slanderous. As a result, the losers develop a deep personal disdain for their opponents.

That's what's happened this time, and I suppose there's nothing unusual about it. I don't even blame anyone in particular. Maybe Hillary's team played too rough. Maybe Bernie's team is too thin-skinned. I just don't know. But it's sort of painful to see a good person like Bernie turned into such a sullen and resentful man. And doubly painful to see him take his followers down that path too.

Usually these things fade with a bit of time. Politics is politics, after all. But for Bernie, it's always been more than politics. I wonder if he's ever going to get over this?

Inflation Is...Still Pretty Low

Ylan Mui reports on the latest CPI inflation numbers:

Excluding the volatile food and energy sectors, prices rose a more modest 0.2 percent in April, a measurement economists often refer to as core inflation. Compared to a year ago, that figure has risen 2.1 percent....The solid data helps bolster the case for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates at its next meeting in June.

Mui might well be right that this is how the Fed will choose to respond. But there are a couple of things that make this supposedly scary 2.1 percent number a little less impressive:

  • The core inflation rate did indeed go above the magical 2 percent barrier in December, but it's gone back down for two months in a row since then and is now only barely above 2 percent. It doesn't really look like core CPI is on fire.
  • The Fed doesn't even use core CPI anyway. It uses core PCE as its preferred measure of inflation, and core PCE has been well below 2 percent during the past couple of years. What's more, the markets all seem pretty convinced that inflation will stay below 2 percent. The forward-looking inflation rate has done nothing but tumble since 2013, and it's at 1.7 percent right now.

The Fed might be looking for excuses to raise interest rates, but inflation just isn't it. It remains subdued and well anchored. They'll need some other pretense if they insist on tightening policy rates a bit.

The latest CDC figures on the uninsured are out, and after a small uptick last quarter they were back down again by the end of 2015. The uninsured rate clocked in at 10.3 percent,1 compared to a projection of 11 percent from the CBO back in 2012 (this was the projection published after the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional but before the exchanges were up and running). This means that Obamacare has been consistently running ahead of projections for the past two years.

It's worth noting, of course, that this number could be even lower. If red states adopted the Medicaid expansion, the number of uninsured would likely be around 8 percent or so. Also: among the poor, the number of uninsured has plummeted under Obamacare, from above 40 percent to below 25 percent. Needless to say, this number would plummet even further if red states were willing to accept federal money to help the poor. But they aren't.

1You may have seen news reports that the uninsured rate was 9.1 percent. That number includes everyone, including the elderly, who bring down the average because they basically have a 0 percent uninsurance rate. I use the nonelderly rate because that corresponds to the original CBO estimates.

Our own Tim Murphy, in a triumph of data journalism, reports that if Bernie Sanders "can beat Hillary Clinton in Kentucky's Clinton County, he will have defeated Clinton in all nine of the Clinton Counties in the United States." I have to admit that would be pretty awesome.

But! If Hillary Clinton can beat Bernie Sanders in Montana's Sanders County on June 7, she will have defeated Sanders in all of the Sanders Counties in the United States. Also awesome. Though perhaps not as awesome as the fact that Montana has two counties right next to each other named Phillips and Petroleum.

Jesus. I knew this was happening, but I guess I didn't really know it was happening:

The House Judiciary Committee’s decision to hold hearings a week from today on whether to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen is a victory for the chamber’s far-right caucus, still smarting over the agency’s treatment of conservative groups.

....One of the biggest questions now is whether the 76-year-old tax commissioner will show up for the grilling. IRS officials said Monday they have made no decision on whether Koskinen will accept the Judiciary committee’s invitation to appear May 24 and at a hearing in June.

They're really and truly going forward with this farce? Somehow this stuff continues to surprise me even though it certainly shouldn't by this point.

I think it must absolutely enrage Republicans that Barack Obama has very plainly run one of the cleanest, least scandalous administrations in recent history. Not mistake free, but scandal free. Nonetheless, they keep trying and trying and trying to find something that proves he's the Chicago thug they keep saying he is, and they keep coming up empty. They've spent collective decades investigating Fast & Furious, Benghazi, Solyndra, the IRS, and anything else they can think of, and they keep coming up empty handed. There's never anything there aside from a bit of the usual bureaucratic bungling you can find anyplace in a gigantic organization if you look for it.

So now they're going hold pointless impeachment hearings on an IRS commissioner who only has eight months left to serve anyway? What a bunch of loons.

Prescription Drug Ads on TV Are Horrible

Here's the latest from Pollville:

Robert Blendon, the Harvard professor of health policy who oversaw the poll, was surprised. "There’s something about these ads that bother people a lot more than we would have thought," he said.

I think Blendon needs to watch more TV. Then he'd understand. In any case, I figure that I should always have at least one purely selfish cause that's unsullied by either principle or rational analysis, so maybe this will become my new one. I can't say that I'm especially persuaded by any of the actual policy arguments against drug ads, but damn, they sure are annoying. After watching most television programs these days, I feel vaguely crushed by the miasma of terrible diseases that have been assaulting me for the past hour.

On the other hand, I also figure that cell phone companies and the pharma industry are probably keeping TV afloat almost single-handedly these days. Take away pharma, and it might just collapse completely.

OK, wait. What really happened today with the Supreme Court's non-decision in the contraceptive mandate case? I based my post this morning on a Washington Post story by Robert Barnes that said the court "declined Monday to decide challenges" to the case and quoted the court's order confirming that it "expresses no view on the merits of the cases."

(Not sure you remember what this case is all about? Long explainer here. Short explainer here.)

But David Savage of the LA Times scores it a win for the government: "The Supreme Court on Monday announced a compromise ruling on contraceptives that clears the way for women working for religious organizations to receive the free birth control promised by President Obama's healthcare law."

Conservative David French disagrees: "Although the Court didn’t rule on the merits of the case, the Little Sisters won a significant victory....The Supreme Court vacated the lower court ruling holding that the Little Sisters had to facilitate access to contraceptives....Speaking as a person who’s argued a few cases in courts of appeal — when the court vacates the ruling you’re challenging, that’s a win."

Dahlia Lithwick, it seems, called this one right: "Both sides will claim victory Monday. Women will not lose the right to contraception and the Little Sisters will not pay massive fines."

What accounts for this? Well, eight out of nine appeals courts had ruled in favor of the contraceptive mandate. So by doing nothing, the government temporarily wins 89 percent of its cases. Not bad! On the other hand, the Supreme Court did also vacate the Tenth Circuit ruling against the Little Sisters of the Poor, so they temporarily won their case too. The Lord taketh away, and then the Lord giveth.

So now what? I'm confused. The court had vaguely suggested a compromise that wouldn't require the Little Sisters to affirmatively notify the government that their insurance plan didn't cover contraceptives—something that amounted to a tacit collaboration with evil since it would kick off a process that ended up distributing contraceptives. Instead, all they had to do was buy an insurance plan that didn't include contraceptive coverage, and that was that. Their insurance company would then inform the feds and arrange for separate contraceptive coverage without involving the Sisters in any way. "Both petitioners and the Government now confirm that such an option is feasible," the court's order says.

Not quite. The government made it clear that the court's proposed compromise would work for organizations with outside insurance plans. But what about organizations that are self-insured? The government had this to say:

The order correctly anticipated that the alternative process it posited would not work for the many employers with self-insured plans....Accordingly, to relieve self-insured employers of any obligation to provide contraceptive coverage while still ensuring that the affected women receive coverage without the employer’s involvement, the accommodation establishes a mechanism for the government to designate the employer’s TPA as a “plan administrator” responsible for separately providing the required coverage.

....The government’s designation of the TPA must be reflected in a written plan instrument. To satisfy that requirement, the accommodation relies on either (1) a written designation sent by the government to the TPA, which requires the government to know the TPA’s identity, or (2) the self-certification form....Self-insured employers could not opt out of the contraceptive coverage requirement by simply informing their TPAs that they do not want to provide coverage for contraceptives.

When it comes to the court's proposed compromise, it looks to me as if the government decidedly didn't "confirm that such an option is feasible" in the case of self-insurers. One way or another, self-insurers still have to notify somebody that they don't want contraceptive coverage, and that means the notification comes from the organization itself. But if they have to do that, why not just fill out the form they've been complaining about from the start? Notification is notification.

In the end, I suppose I go back to the whole "punt" view of this case. A bunch of appeals courts will now spend years hashing this out, with access to free contraceptives available in some places but not in others. Then, sometime down the road, this whole mess will end up back at the Supreme Court. So I guess the question of which side won depends on who you think is going to win November's election. A continuation of Obamacare and the confirmation of a liberal justice to replace Scalia would certainly make the feds a winner. A repeal of Obamacare and the confirmation of a conservative justice would make the Little Sisters a winner. Place your bets.

Oklahoma has been resisting expansion of Medicaid for years, but they might finally be ready to cave in:

A bust in the oil patch has decimated state revenues, compounded by years of income tax cuts and growing corporate subsidies intended to make the state more business-friendly. Oklahoma's Medicaid agency has warned doctors and other health care providers of cuts of up to 25 percent in what the state pays under Medicaid.

....In the poverty-wracked south­eastern corner of the state, where 96 percent of babies in the McCurtain Memorial Hospital are born to Medicaid patients, most health care would end, said hospital CEO Jahni Tapley. "A 25 percent cut to Medicaid would not put my hospital in jeopardy, because we are already in jeopardy," Tapley said. "A 25 percent cut would shutter our doors for good, leaving 33,000 people without access to health care."

....Under the proposal, which would be funded in part with a $1.50-per-pack tax on cigarettes, Oklahoma would shift 175,000 people from its Medicaid rolls onto the federal health exchange created by the Affordable Care Act.

Oklahoma's governor is calling this "Medicaid rebalancing," but her constituents are too sharp for her. They know what's going on: "They can call it Medicaid rebalancing, but there's only one federal program that offers a 9-to-1 federal match, and that's Obamacare," said Johnathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs. There's just no fooling some people.

Anyway, it's good to see that they're not planning to fund this with, say, an increase in the income tax or the oil tax or the corporate tax. That might actually hit rich people, and God knows that would be the wrong way to pay for indigent services.

Donald Trump's Feuds Now Span the Atlantic

Let's be fair at the outset. British PM David Cameron has called Donald Trump's Muslim ban proposal "divisive, stupid and wrong." On Monday, a spokesman confirmed that Cameron stood by his comments. At the same time, newly elected London mayor Sadiq Khan said Trump's views were "ignorant, divisive and dangerous."

So: stupid, ignorant, dangerous, wrong, and divisive x 2. You have to figure that Trump won't let that stand. You'd be right:

Asked about Cameron's remarks, Trump said he didn't care, but then added, "It looks like we're not going to have a very good relationship. Who knows, I hope to have a good relationship with him but it sounds like he's not willing to address the problem either."

He continued: "Number one, I'm not stupid, okay? I can tell you that right now. Just the opposite. Number two, in terms of divisive, I don't think I'm a divisive person, I'm a unifier, unlike our president now, I'm a unifier."

....Trump also had words for Sadiq Khan, who became the first Muslim to hold the office of mayor of London when he was elected earlier this month...."Let's take an I.Q. test," Trump said Monday, adding that Khan had never met him and "doesn't know what I'm all about."

"I think they're very rude statements and frankly, tell him, I will remember those statements. They're very nasty statements."

I recommend the Wonderlic test. It's nice and short, and will also provide some idea of which man would make a better NFL quarterback.