Kevin Drum

Obama Getting Taken to the Cleaners By Netanyahu?

| Tue Apr. 1, 2014 7:45 AM PDT

From the New York Times:

Officials involved in the fraught Israeli-Palestinian peace talks said on Tuesday that an agreement was near on extending the negotiations through 2015 in exchange for the release of Jonathan J. Pollard, an American serving a life sentence for spying for Israel. The agreement would also include the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including citizens of Israel, and a partial freeze on construction in West Bank settlements.

I dunno. Maybe Obama wanted to release Pollard anyway. But I doubt it. I'm beginning to wonder if the right-wing hawks are right after all: Obama is a terrible negotiator who gets taken for a ride by anyone willing to put a gun to his head.

Sadly, this is apparently not an April Fools joke. But I think it's safe to say that in return for Pollard's release, Netanyahu will "continue" negotiations, "partially" freeze West Bank settlements—i.e., not freeze them at all—and release a bunch of Palestinian prisoners he had already agreed to release. What a con.

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Senate Report: Torture Didn't Work and the CIA Lied About It

| Mon Mar. 31, 2014 10:28 PM PDT

The Washington Post has gotten hold of the Senate investigation into CIA interrogation practices and—

No, wait. They haven't. They've only learned what the report says "according to U.S. officials who have reviewed the document." It's impossible to say if these sources are characterizing the report accurately, and their summary descriptions of the report make it very hard to judge how fair the report's conclusions are.

But with those caveats and cautions out of the way, what does the report say? This:

Several officials who have read the document said some of its most troubling sections deal not with detainee abuse but with discrepancies between the statements of senior CIA officials in Washington and the details revealed in the written communications of lower-level employees directly involved.

Officials said millions of records make clear that the CIA's ability to obtain the most valuable intelligence against al-Qaeda — including tips that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 — had little, if anything, to do with "enhanced interrogation techniques."

…"The CIA conflated what was gotten when, which led them to misrepresent the effectiveness of the program," said a second U.S. official who has reviewed the report. The official described the persistence of such misstatements as among "the most damaging" of the committee's conclusions.

Detainees' credentials also were exaggerated, officials said. Agency officials described Abu Zubaida as a senior al-Qaeda operative — and, therefore, someone who warranted coercive techniques — although experts later determined that he was essentially a facilitator who helped guide recruits to al-Qaeda training camps.

However, for those of us who think that detainee abuse is, in fact, as important as the lies that were told about it, there's this:

Classified files reviewed by committee investigators reveal internal divisions over the interrogation program, officials said, including one case in which CIA employees left the agency's secret prison in Thailand after becoming disturbed by the brutal measures being employed there. The report also cites cases in which officials at CIA headquarters demanded the continued use of harsh interrogation techniques even after analysts were convinced that prisoners had no more information to give.

The report describes previously undisclosed cases of abuse, including the alleged repeated dunking of a terrorism suspect in tanks of ice water at a detention site in Afghanistan — a method that bore similarities to waterboarding but never appeared on any Justice Department-approved list of techniques.

So the torture was even worse than we thought; it produced very little in the way of actionable intelligence; and the CIA lied about this in order to preserve its ability to torture prisoners.

Anybody who isn't sickened by this needs to take very long, very deep look into their souls. For myself, I think I'll go take a shower now.

What's Wrong With the Fed?

| Mon Mar. 31, 2014 3:32 PM PDT

That's the question Ryan Avent asks today. The reason is simple: In 2012, the Fed announced an inflation target of 2 percent per year, as measured by the PCE index. But they haven't come close to hitting it. Why not?

The chart on the right shows the most recent inflation data. In 2011, PCE inflation measured 2.4 percent. In 2012, it came in at 1.8 percent. That's a little low—especially during a supposed economic recovery—but it's easy to see why no one was alarmed. It's something to keep an eye on, but no one ever said the Fed could fine tune inflation to a few tenths of a point.

But then came 2013. There was a fair amount of monthly variability in the data, but the year-end number clocked in at 1.1 percent. That's way too low, especially considering that (a) the previous year had come in below target, (b) inflationary expectations were still well anchored, and (c) the labor market was still noticeably loose. What this means is that the Fed has failed to meet its employment mandate for six full years and is now failing to meet its inflation target too. Avent wants to know what's going on:

This is an extraordinary period of time during which the Fed has failed to meet even the rather lax definition of the mandate it has set for itself by a rather substantial margin. How can we explain this? Some possibilities are:

1) The Fed is technically unable to meet its mandate.

2) The Fed is staffed by incompetents.

3) The Fed is actually pursuing a goal outside its mandate without explaining what that goal is and what the justification is for pursuing it.

4) America's statistics are all wrong. The Fed knows this but has refused to tell anyone else.

Whichever of the above you favour as an explanation, it suggests a need for meaningful reform, either to the personnel at the Fed or to the distribution of macroeconomic responsibilities across government.

My own guess is a little bit of #1 and a lot of #3. I suspect the Fed really is having technical trouble meeting its goals—at least, in a way it's comfortable with. But that's just a guess.

It's less of a guess that the Fed is pursuing goals outside its mandate. It's hardly a secret that there are plenty of Fed governors who are still living in the 70s, petrified of inflationary spirals and determined to keep inflation as low as possible. Not 2 percent. As low as possible. What's more, they consider full employment not a virtue, but a threat. It leads to higher inflation, after all.

I think 2014 is something of a watershed year for the Fed. The hawks can argue that a single year of 1 percent inflation is nothing to worry too much about. This stuff bounces around. But at the very least, they should be on board with getting the inflation rate back up to their stated goal. Given the current employment level and the state of the global economy, this poses little risk. If they aren't willing to do it, they need to come clean that they don't really care about their statutory mandates and are simply substituting their own timeworn fears and class loyalties for the expressed will of Congress.

It's Time to Start Quoting Our Public Figures Accurately

| Mon Mar. 31, 2014 12:12 PM PDT

Jesse Sheidlower makes a point near and dear to my heart today: it's time to get rid of the dashes. You know the ones: f---, n-----, s---, etc. This is not a plea for reporters to write like Hunter S. Thompson, it's a plea to fully report the obscenities uttered by famous people that our news organizations are too delicate to report:

There have been numerous cases in recent years when the use of offensive language has been the news story itself. In 1998, Representative Dan Burton referred to President Clinton with an offensive word. In 2000, a microphone picked up George W. Bush using a vulgar term to describe the New York Times reporter Adam Clymer. In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney insulted Senator Pat Leahy on the Senate floor with yet another vulgarity. In 2007, Isaiah Washington was kicked off the television show “Grey’s Anatomy” for referring to his fellow actor T. R. Knight with a gay slur. This January, Representative Michael Grimm threatened an aggressive reporter, using an obscenity.

These stories were covered widely, but in most cases, the details were obscured. The relevant words were described variously as “an obscenity,” “a vulgarity,” “an antigay epithet”; replaced with rhyming substitutions; printed with some letters omitted; and, most absurdly, in The Washington Times (whose editor confessed this was “an attempt at a little humor”), alluded to as “a vulgar euphemism for a rectal aperture.” We learn from these stories that something important happened, but that it can’t actually be reported.

When a public figure uses an obscenity, it's news. Readers deserve to know exactly what was said. Consider my favorite obscene quote of all time, courtesy of Richard Mottram, a British civil servant:

We're all fucked. I'm fucked. You're fucked. The whole department is fucked. It's the biggest cock-up ever. We're all completely fucked.

You just don't get the flavor if you don't spell out the words. And in the US, we often don't even get the quote with the dashes. As Sheidlower says, we get "a vulgarity" or "a long string of obscenities" or something similar, making us feel like everyone else knows what happened and we're being deliberately left out. It's long past time to knock this off. News outlets should print the news, full stop. If an obscenity is part of it, accuracy and integrity are more important than delicate sensibilities.

LA Times: 9.5 Million Newly Insured By Obamacare

| Mon Mar. 31, 2014 10:44 AM PDT

So how many people are newly insured thanks to Obamacare? Noam Levey of the LA Times provides the current best estimate, based on the latest enrollment and survey data:

As the law's initial enrollment period closes, at least 9.5 million previously uninsured people have gained coverage. Some have done so through marketplaces created by the law, some through other private insurance and others through Medicaid, which has expanded under the law in about half the states.

The tally draws from a review of state and federal enrollment reports, surveys and interviews with insurance executives and government officials nationwide.

....Republican critics of the law have suggested that the cancellations last fall have led to a net reduction in coverage. That is not supported by survey data or insurance companies, many of which report they have retained the vast majority of their 2013 customers by renewing old policies, which is permitted in about half the states, or by moving customers to new plans.

Rand's latest survey data suggests that the share of uninsured adults has declined from 20.9 percent last fall to 16.6 percent as of March 22. Gallup has also shown a decline in the uninsured, and its March poll will show a further decline, according to Gallup Editor in Chief Frank Newport. More details at the link.

Apple Has Patented Clicking on Phone Number to Dial a Phone? Seriously?

| Mon Mar. 31, 2014 9:15 AM PDT

The New York Times tells us today that Apple's lawsuit against Samsung is really just a proxy for its war against Google's Android operating system. That's not news. But this just makes me want to pound my head against a wall:

In the case set to open this week, Apple’s legal complaint aims at some of the features that Google, not Samsung, put in Android, like the ability to tap on a phone number inside a text message to dial the number. And although Google is not a defendant in this case, some of its executives are expected to testify as witnesses.

I know we all mock some of the things that seem to be patentable these days. I sure do. And who knows? Maybe those things really aren't quite as obvious as we all think they are. But tapping a phone number on a phone in order to dial it? There is no plausible universe in which several thousand designers wouldn't think of doing that. Somebody needs to put a leash on Apple before the venomous ghost of Steve Jobs drags them into a rabbit hole of techno-legal vengeance from which they never recover. Enough.

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Who's Really Behind Newsweek?

| Mon Mar. 31, 2014 7:50 AM PDT

When Newsweek reappeared on newsstands a few weeks ago after publishing its last print edition in 2012, it provided a jolt of instant credibility for its purchaser, International Business Times, the publisher of a website of the same name. But who is IBT? There have been rumors for some time that it was founded—and is still directed—by David Jang, the charismatic Korean leader of a Christian sect known as "the Community," but those rumors have never really been confirmed.

Until now. In the latest issue of Mother Jones, Ben Dooley reports on the results of a multi-year investigation based on financial statements, thousands of internal messages, and dozens of sources. It turns out that IBT's ties to Jang go much deeper than previously established:

  • The Jang-founded Olivet University and IBT are linked to a web of dozens of churches, nonprofits, and corporations around the world that Jang has influenced or controlled, with money from Community members and profitable ministries helping to cover the costs of money-losing ministries and Jang’s expenses.
  • IBT’s CEO and chief content officer have been in frequent contact with Jang about the direction of the company, receiving advice on personnel decisions, business strategy, and font selection.
  • Money from other Community-affiliated organizations funded IBT’s early growth.
  • Olivet students in the United States on international student visas say they worked for IBT full-time for as little as $125 a week.
  • Jang sees Community-affiliated media organizations, including IBT, as an essential part of his mission to build the kingdom of God on Earth.

As Dooley says in his article, there's nothing unusual about business leaders associating with people or institutions that share their values. But if there's nothing unusual about the ties that IBT's leaders have to Jang and the Community, why have they been so eager to downplay them? Click the link to learn more.

Health Insurance Rates Are Going Up Next Year, But It's Nothing to Panic Over

| Sun Mar. 30, 2014 2:11 PM PDT

The LA Times has a piece today about the next battleground for Obamacare: rate increases for 2015. The warnings are already coming thick and fast:

WellPoint Inc., parent of California's leading health insurer in the exchange, Anthem Blue Cross, has already predicted "double-digit-plus" rate increases on Obamacare policies across much of the country.

.... Health insurers aren't wasting any time sizing up what patients are costing them now and what that will mean for 2015 rates. Hunkered down in conference rooms, insurance actuaries are parsing prescriptions, doctor visits and hospital stays for clues about how expensive these new patients may be. By May, insurance companies must file next year's rates with California's state-run exchange so negotiations can begin.

I hope everyone manages to restrain their Obamacare hysteria over this. Here in California, we've played this game annually for years. Health insurers in the individual market propose wild increases in their premiums—10 percent, 20 percent, sometimes even 30 percent—and then dial them back a bit after consumer outrage blankets the media and the Department of Insurance pushes back. But even then, we routinely end up with double-digit increases. Just for background, here are the average annual rate increases requested by a few of California's biggest insurers over the last three years:

  • Anthem Blue Cross: 10.7%
  • Aetna: 12.1%
  • Blue Shield: 15.4%
  • HealthNet: 12.0%

And this doesn't include changes in deductibles or out-of-pocket maximums. Add those in, and the annual proposed increases are probably in the range of 15-20 percent. Obamacare, of course, limits both those things, which means that in the future insurance companies will have to put everything into rate hikes instead of spreading the increases around to make them harder to add up.

Bottom line: if we end up seeing double-digit rate increases, it will be business as usual. Insurance companies will all blame it on Obamacare because that's a convenient thing to do, but the truth is that we probably would have seen exactly the same thing even if Barack Obama had never been born. So let's all keep our feet on the ground when the inevitable huge rate increase requests start flowing in. It's mostly an insurance company thing and a healthcare thing, not an Obamacare thing.

Friday Cat Blogging - 28 March 2014

| Fri Mar. 28, 2014 12:00 PM PDT

This week, in a feat of breathtaking middle-aged athleticism, Domino leaped into the empty laundry hamper and then leaped out a few minutes later. All by herself. I honestly didn't think she still had it in her. But she seemed to enjoy herself for the few minutes she was in there, and then followed me around to find out what happened to all the clothes that had been taken out. Later on, of course, she curled up and took a nap on the fresh laundry. Quite a life, isn't it?

Raw Data: By 2017, Obamacare Will Be Covering 36 Million People

| Fri Mar. 28, 2014 11:26 AM PDT

Megan McArdle asks, "Is Obamacare now beyond repeal?" Good question! McArdle goes through the various estimates of enrollment figures, concluding that something in the neighborhood of 5.5-6.5 million people are likely to sign up this year, depending on how much enrollment accelerates in the last few days of March and how many people drop out because they fail to pay their premiums. That sounds reasonable to me. Then this:

Does that mean that Obamacare will basically be beyond repeal, as its supporters hope? It certainly makes things harder. But we still don't know how many of these people are newly insured, or how many of the previously insured like these policies better than their old policies — nor how much pressure it is going to end up putting on the budget. Those are things we won't know for quite a while. But if it were impossible to ever cut off an expensive entitlement that goes to the middle class, TennCare would never have been cut.

But there's something missing here. It's something that nearly everyone has neglected in the frenzy to figure out what's happening right now. Here it is: the world doesn't stop in 2014. Enrollment of around 6 million makes Obamacare hard to repeal, but for now that's not really what's holding it in place. What's holding it in place is the fact that Democrats control the Senate and Barack Obama occupies the White House. And even if the Senate switches parties next year, I think we can all agree that Obamacare is going nowhere as long as Obama stays president. So 2017 is the earliest it could even plausibly be repealed.

But what do things look like in 2017? The chart on the right shows the latest CBO estimates. By 2017, a total of 36 million Americans will be covered by Obamacare. Of that, 24 million will have private coverage via the exchanges and 12 million will be covered by Medicaid. Those are very big numbers. Even if Republicans improbably manage to get complete control of the government in the 2016 election and eliminate the filibuster so Democrats can't object, they'll still have to contend with this.

Does this make Obamacare invulnerable? Of course not. Nothing makes it invulnerable. It's always possible, though it seems vanishingly unlikely at this point, that it will fail so badly that even Democrats sour on it in a couple of years. It's also possible that Republican hostility will remain so furious that they just flatly don't care about 36 million constituents. And maybe they won't care that the health care industry is fully invested in Obamacare and will fight efforts to get rid of it.

Anything is possible. But when you talk about the chances of repealing Obamacare, you should be talking about 2017. And if you're talking about 2017, then the number that matters isn't 6 million, it's 36 million. That's a mighty big nut to crack.