Kevin Drum

Louisiana Ran Out of Money. You Won't Believe What They Did Next.

| Mon Jun. 15, 2015 5:54 PM EDT

Bobby Jindal has become such an increasingly pathetic figure that I find it hard to work up the nastiness to even mock him in a blog post these days. But Jordan Weissmann links today to a piece in the Baton Rouge Advocate that's truly mind bending. Jindal desperately needs to raise revenue this year because he's left Louisiana in a huge budget hole thanks to his true-believer tax-cutting mania. But Grover Norquist won't allow him to raise revenues. What to do? Here's the Advocate explaining the Jindal/Norquist-approved SAVE program:

It would assess a fee of about $1,500 per higher education student and raise about $350 million total, but only on paper. Students wouldn’t have to pay anything because an offsetting tax credit for the $1,500. Nor would universities receive any new money.

However, the SAVE fund would create a tax credit for the $350 million that Jindal could use to offset $350 million of the new revenue that legislators are proposing to raise.

I'm not sure that's entirely clear, but I think I understand what's going on. Let's break it down:

  1. SAVE raises $350 million in revenue to help close the budget hole.
  2. It also creates a tax credit that—in theory—offsets the new revenue with a $350 million tax cut. So far this is kosher because there's no net tax increase.
  3. However, SAVE also creates $350 million in new student fees.
  4. Then the tax credit is used—in actual practice—to offset the student fees so students don't have to pay any more than they did before.
  5. The net result is $350 million in new revenue that's not offset.

WTF? All these years Grover Norquist has been terrorizing Washington with his no-new-taxes pledge, but it turns out that this is all it takes to wiggle your way around it? If we'd known this we sure could have avoided an awful lot of stubborn confrontation on Capitol Hill over the past couple of decades. I can think of a hundred ways we can use this dodge in the future.

You know, I live in California and we've engaged in a whole lot of budget smoke and mirrors over the years. So I hardly need smelling salts when I hear about state governments pushing the envelope during budget season. But this truly boggles the mind when it comes to sheer dumbness. Maybe next they'll just start minting their own Louisiana bucks and paying for stuff that way.

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Actually, It Turns Out That November Is the Cruelest Month

| Mon Jun. 15, 2015 3:09 PM EDT

I've been wondering why my health collapsed so badly when I turned 55, and now Science™ has provided the answer. It's because I was born in October, which lags only November for being the net riskiest birth month. Here's the Washington Post:

Mary Regina Boland, Nicholas Tatonetti and other researchers at the Columbia University Department of Medicine examined records for an incredible 1.75 million patients born between 1900 and 2000 who had been treated at Columbia University Medical Center. Using statistical analysis, they combed through 1,688 different diseases and found 55 that had a correlation with birth month, including ADHD, reproductive performance, asthma, eye sight and ear infections.

The researchers emphasize that other environmental factors, like diet, medical care and exercise, are more likely to influence whether you get a disease. And since these numbers are culled from New York City, they may not be applicable to babies born in other places.

Culled only from New York City, huh? And it was just a massive data mining operation looking for correlations at the 95 percent level? This suggests you'd get 84 correlations just by chance. They got 55.

So....maybe not so impressive. Then again, this is all addressed in the paper, and it's far too complicated for me to understand. I mean, what the hell is a "multiplicity correction using FDR (α_0.05, n_1688 conditions)"? Beats me. But everything in this paper is "FDR adjusted." So maybe that means the correlations are legit. Perhaps someone who knows what this means can weigh in in comments.

In any case, if we believe this, it explains why my sister, brother, and mother are all healthy, while I'm a basket case. I was born in the wrong month. But on the plus side, I apparently have a lower than normal risk of cardiovascular diseases, including heart failure. Good to know.

POSTSCRIPT: Everyone gets that I'm just having fun here, right? Honestly, I haven't the slightest idea of whether this stuff holds water. Still, everyone loves simple charts that put them and their friends in buckets, right?

Hillary Clinton Does Not Like the Daily Mail

| Mon Jun. 15, 2015 1:22 PM EDT

From the LA Times:

Clinton campaign gets into another scuffle with the press corps

Hillary Rodham Clinton's long-frosty relationship with the media hit another icy patch in New Hampshire on Monday when campaign officials told major news organizations that certain reporters were not welcome at the candidate’s events.

....The campaign early on asked the press corps to establish and run a pool system in which a small group of reporters would cover such events and file reports that all reporters could share. The pool duty rotates among a group of roughly 14 news organizations that have committed to send a reporter when their turn comes.

Monday, that turn fell to the Daily Mail. The campaign did not approve. Campaign aides told the paper's reporter, David Martosko, that he would not be allowed into the day's pooled events....To many reporters, the campaign was crossing a line....The pool arrangement is designed to keep campaign officials out of the business of deciding which reporters can represent the media at what events.

The HRC campaign says the problem is that the Mail is a foreign news outlet, but it's hard to take that excuse at face value since they've had no problem with allowing other foreign news organizations in the pool. They also apparently gave no warning that Martosko wouldn't be allowed his turn. (Martosko's version is here.) So what's going on?

Whenever I read stuff like this, I can't figure out what to think. On the one hand, the press is what it is. It's part of the campaign landscape. Even if they act badly, what's the point in deliberately pissing them off, especially in dumb little ways that don't really accomplish anything?

On the other hand, maybe the Clinton folks have decided that the traditional press simply doesn't matter anymore. So the hell with it. She doesn't like the way they treat her, so she's going to screw with them without worrying about it.

I dunno. I really can't make sense out of it.

NOTE: I'm not asking whether the press treats Clinton badly. I think the answer is pretty obvious, but that's not what this post is about. I just want to know what motivates an obvious professional like HRC to keep giving them reasons not to like her.

Will Republicans Repeal Obamacare if They Win Next Year?

| Mon Jun. 15, 2015 11:24 AM EDT

Sarah Kliff argues that if Obamacare survives King v. Burwell, then it's here to stay. There are no further legal challenges that could kill it. Political momentum to repeal it is waning. And most important, the number of enrollees is growing:

Obamacare now has a large and growing constituency: an estimated 10.2 million Americans get coverage through the health law's marketplace (and millions more through Obamacare's Medicaid expansion).

....As more and more people sign up for Obamacare — the Congressional Budget Office expects 24 million people to sign up by 2024 — the politics of repealing Obamacare become worse and worse. The constituency that the law has already developed just keeps growing.

This helps explain why Republicans are tripping over themselves to come up with plans to replace Obamacare's insurance subsidies should the Supreme Court rule against them. Those proposals implicitly acknowledge that it would be bad for Republicans to allow millions of Americans' tax subsidies to dry up, even though legislators still staunchly oppose the law.

I've made exactly this argument myself, so you'd think I'd be in total agreement. But if anything, I think I'm more nervous than I was a year or two ago. I keep expecting Republican fury over Obamacare to wane, but it never seems to. It seems to be every bit the white whale it was six years ago, and it promises to be a big applause line in the 2016 presidential campaign yet again.

So how could repeal happen? Easy. Republicans will control the House in 2017, so that's no problem. Maintaining control of the Senate (narrowly) is a distinct possibility. There's also a perfectly reasonable chance of having President Walker in the Oval Office, and we all know he'd be perfectly happy to sign a repeal bill.

But even in a minority, Democrats would filibuster a repeal, wouldn't they? Sure. But so what? Republicans would simply make it part of a budget bill and pass it by reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority. Any Senate parliamentarian who isn't a hack would determine that this is a violation of the rules, but all that means is that Republicans need to install a hack as parliamentarian who will do what they want. They've done it before, after all. Problem solved. Obamacare repealed.

Now, granted, Republicans have to win both the Senate and the White House for this to happen. The odds are probably against that, but not by a lot. It's well within the realm of possibility. And that would leave only a very thin reed to stand on: the fact that repealing Obamacare would immiserate millions of people and once again turn health care into a living hell for the poor.

Would that be enough to give Republicans pause? I wish I still believed it would be. But I don't. A harsh streak of just plain meanness has taken over the GOP in recent years, and I haven't seen any sign that it's fading away. Maybe this is merely partisan bitterness on my part. I sure hope so. But as near as I can tell, they'd actively enjoy making the lives of the poor ever more harsh in order to save the rich from paying a few taxes. I sure hope we don't get to find out.

Greece Talks Once Again (Yawn) Coming Down to the Wire

| Mon Jun. 15, 2015 10:31 AM EDT

Once again, talks with Greece are coming down to the last hour:

Last-ditch talks aimed at breaking the impasse between Athens and its international creditors have collapsed in acrimony with European Union officials dismissing Greece’s latest reform package as incomplete in a step that pushes the country closer to leaving the eurozone.

What had been billed as a last attempt to close the gap between Alexis Tsipras’s anti-austerity government and the bodies keeping debt-stricken Greece afloat was halted late on Sunday after less than an hour of negotiations in Brussels.

You can click the link for more details, but the story is pretty much the same as always. Greece wants to accept modest reforms (a bit higher VAT here and there, some reforms to reduce tax evasion) while the Europeans and the IMF want bigger concessions, including cuts to pensions.

So either Grexit really is close, and we're all going to find just how bad it really is, or else—as usual—everyone is waiting until literally the last second to make the concessions necessary on both sides. Both the chief economist of the IMF and the head of the ECB are urging compromise as I write.

Want to follow this in real time, just like a soccer match? The Guardian has you covered! Just click here. At this particular moment there appears to be a fair amount of table thumping between Greek members of the European Parliament and Mario Draghi. Mostly theater, as near as I can tell.

Are We Really In Control of Our Own Outrage? The Case of Social Media and Tim Hunt.

| Sun Jun. 14, 2015 12:23 PM EDT

British scientist Tim Hunt. We all know his story by now, don't we? Here's a quick refresher:

  1. In 2001 he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
  2. In 2015, speaking in Korea, he decided to make a Sheldonian1 joke about women in the lab. "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls ... three things happen when they are in the lab ... You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry."
  3. Social media immediately erupted into a firestorm. Within days he was fired by University College London and the European Research Council and had essentially been exiled from the scientific community in Britain.

There's no disagreement about either the inappropriateness of Hunt's remark or the insufficiency of his "explanation" the next day. What I'm more interested in, however, is the binary nature of the punishment for this kind of thing. As recently as 20 years ago, nothing would have happened because there would have been no real mechanism for reporting Hunt's joke. At most, some of the women in the audience might have gotten together later for lunch, rolled their eyes, and wondered just how much longer they were going to have to put up with this crap. And that would have been that.

Today, remarks like this end up on social media within minutes and mushroom into a firestorm of outrage within hours. Institutions panic. The hordes must be appeased. Heads are made to roll and careers ended. Then something else happens to engage the outrage centers of our brains and it's all forgotten.

Neither of these strikes me as the best possible response to something essentially trivial like this. Ignoring it presumes acceptance, while digital torches and pitchforks teach a lesson that's far too harsh and ruinous, especially for a first-time offense.

The fact that media outlets had limited space and were unlikely to report stuff like this hardly made it right to ignore it in 1995. Likewise, the fact that social media has evolved into an almost tailor-made outrage machine for every offensive remark ever uttered doesn't make it right to insist on the death penalty every time someone says something obnoxious.

I'm whistling into the wind here, but why do we allow the current state of the art in technology to drive our responses to things like this? Hunt deserved a reprimand. He deserved to be mocked on Twitter. That's probably about it. He didn't deserve the guillotine. One of these days we're going to have to figure out how to properly handle affairs like this based on their actual impact and importance, not their ability to act as clickbait on Facebook. We all have some growing up to do.

1Sheldonian (Shell • doe’ • nee • un) adj. [TVE < OE sheldon, valley with steep sides] 1. awkward, socially inept behavior, esp. among male scientists toward women.

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Every Four Years, We Vote For Our Heart's Desire

| Sat Jun. 13, 2015 6:37 PM EDT

After listening to Hillary Clinton's official announcement speech, Ezra Klein has a question:

Clinton name-checked almost every center-left policy idea in existence: universal pre-k, guaranteed paid sick days, massive investments in clean energy, rewriting the tax code, raising the minimum wage, and so on....Many of these ideas are good. But there's a Democrat in the White House right now. He supports these ideas, too. And yet, they languish in press releases and stalled legislation. How will Hillary Clinton make them law?

Well, yeah, that's a good question. It's also a good question for the Republican nominee, who will probably have to face a Democratic Senate, and at the very least will have to face Democratic filibusters. That means a Republican president might be able to cut taxes, but not a whole lot more.

I dunno. Maybe that's enough for Republicans. Get in a few tax cuts, appoint some conservative judges, and prevent anything new from happening. Nobody's ecstatic, but everybody's satisfied.

In any case, I doubt it's an issue for Hillary either. As near as I can tell, Americans seem to vote for president based almost solely on affinity. That is, they vote for whoever says the right things, with no concern for whether those things are obviously impossible or little more than self-evident panders. It's kind of amazing, really. Most voters seemingly just don't care if presidential candidates are lying or stretching or even being entirely chimerical. They merely want to hear the desire to accomplish the right things. Every four years, they really do take the word for the deed.

I suppose it's like that everywhere, not just America.

No, We Won't Leave You Alone

| Sat Jun. 13, 2015 1:47 PM EDT

In response (I assume) to my nasty post about libertarians a few days ago, Cameron Belt tweets:

leaving people alone, what a radical idea!

This is pretty standard libertarian stuff, and on a personal level I'm sympathetic. I'm not quite a hermit, but I really do like to be left alone most of the time.

But for some reason it got me thinking. I wonder if the people who repeat this bromide understand just how radical an idea it actually is. Humans are, and always have been, social, hierarchical creatures. In every society since civilization began,1 it's been all but impossible to be left alone. It's such an unusual thing, in fact, that those who manage to spend a lot of time in solitude are often spoken of with reverence and awe. Spending even a few days in solitude is powerful enough that it's been a rite of passage in a surprising number of cultures.

But for the other 99.9 percent of us, the norm is to be among, dependent, and answerable to other people. Family members, priests, bosses, governments, neighbors, police, creditors, merchants, and hundreds of others. In any society with more than about two people this is, and always has been, how humans organize themselves. We are gossipy and we are bossy. We are busybodies, we are rulemakers, we are rebels, we are moral scolds, and we are friends. (And enemies.)

So yes: leaving people alone really is a radical idea. Probably unworkable too, but that's secondary. We are all merely hairless primates and we just aren't going to mind our own business. Best get used to it.

1Yes, yes, I'm sure there's an exception somewhere. Spare me.

Friday Cat Blogging - 12 June 2015

| Fri Jun. 12, 2015 2:45 PM EDT

Who can resist a cat in a basket? Hilbert quite enjoyed rolling around in this one, massaging himself on the wicker. He obligingly held this pose for a few seconds before rolling around to massage a different part of his body. When he was done, he hopped out and went to sleep.

The TPP Is Dead. Now Let the Scapegoating Begin.

| Fri Jun. 12, 2015 2:16 PM EDT

The House just voted down fast-track authority for the TPP, handing President Obama a stinging defeat. This happened mainly because too few Democrats voted to support it. But why? Here's the Washington Post:

Lawmakers said the White House has pushed harder on trade than any legislative issue since the health-care reform effort during his first year. After keeping trade on the back burner, Obama joined forces with business-friendly Republicans after the midterm elections in pursuit of a rare bipartisan deal and launched a fierce effort to win support from his usual Democratic allies over the intense opposition of labor unions.

And here's the New York Times:

A president who has long kept Congress at arm’s length may have paid a price. Representative Henry Cuellar, Democrat of Texas, said Mr. Obama mustered rousing applause Friday morning as he went through the battles he had fought with fellow Democrats — on labor organizing, health care access and environmental protection. But he could not change minds.

“I wish there had been much better outreach,” Mr. Cuellar lamented.

So either Obama made this his #1 priority or else Obama barely bothered to lobby for it. I assume that eventually one narrative or the other will stick and we'll all agree on just what Obama did.

UPDATE: Sorry, I jumped the gun. TPP is dead for now, but Obama may get another bite at the apple next week. It all depends on whether he's able to negotiate a more liberal version of Trade Adjustment Authority to couple to the fast-track bill. The trick is appeasing Democrats sufficiently without losing too many Republican votes. Could be a busy weekend.