Kevin Drum

4 Years After Citizens United, Outside Campaign Spending Has Skyrocketed

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 1:25 AM EST

On the 4-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which opened up elections to a flood of outside money, Chris Cillizza posts six charts showing how it's affected campaign spending since 2010. The chart below, based on data from Open Secrets, shows spending on midterm elections through January 21 in order to get a clean comparison of 2014 with previous election years.

Up through 2006, outside spending at this point in the election cycle had been flat for years at a very low level. In 2010, we were on an upward trajectory even before the Citizens United decision was handed down. And 2014? With Citizens United now in full operation, the sluice gates have opened wide. Outside spending is 25 times higher than it was at this point in 2006. Welcome to the future of American elections.

But this is all a bit bloodless. For a more dramatic illustration of what this means in real life, check out Andy Kroll's profile of the DeVos clan and how they use their Amway-driven fortune to support right-wing causes and defund the left.

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Medicaid Enrollment Has Soared Under Obamacare

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 6:07 PM EST

The New York Times reports that Medicaid expansion has been a huge success in West Virginia:

Enrollment in private insurance plans has been sluggish, but sign-ups for Medicaid, the federal insurance program for the poor, have surged in many states. Here in West Virginia, which has some of the shortest life spans and highest poverty rates in the country, the strength of the demand has surprised officials, with more than 75,000 people enrolling in Medicaid....In West Virginia, where the Democratic governor agreed to expand Medicaid eligibility, the number of uninsured people in the state has been reduced by about a third.

It's not just West Virginia, either. Probably not, anyway. Charles Gaba, who is basically the Nate Silver of Obamacare numbers, writes today that he's now pretty sure the total number of enrollments in Medicaid since October 1st isn't the 4 million or so that we previously thought, but more likely 6.2 million. We still don't know for sure how many of these represent new enrollments vs. re-enrollments, but the higher number makes it pretty likely that a very large chunk of this 6.2 million are new enrollees. Anecdotal evidence backs this up, and preliminary figures from the states that break out new enrollees separately suggest that roughly two-thirds of total signups are new enrollees.

If that's true, it means that about 4 million new people have signed up for Medicaid since October 1st. That's 4 million people who feel like this:

Waitresses, fast food workers, security guards and cleaners described feeling intense relief that they are now protected from the punishing medical bills that have punched holes in their family budgets. They spoke in interviews of reclaiming the dignity they had lost over years of being turned away from doctors’ offices because they did not have insurance.

“You see it in their faces,” said Janie Hovatter, a patient advocate at Cabin Creek Health Systems, a health clinic in southern West Virginia. “They just kind of relax.”

We're the richest country in the world. We can afford this.

Earmarks are Back, Baby!

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 3:32 PM EST

Why did so many Republicans vote for last week's budget bill? One reason is that they wanted to avoid getting blamed for another government shutdown. As you'll recall, the last one didn't turn out so well. But Stan Collender says there's another reason:

This is real inside-baseball: An omnibus appropriation provided an opportunity for the leadership to buy support from reluctant members by providing more dollars for their pet programs and projects. The demise of earmarks several years ago plus the use of continuing resolutions (which generally don't provide dollars on a program-by-program basis) to fund the government took that ability away. This was the first appropriations bill in five years where that wasn't the case.

[More....] Virtually every Republican who voted for the bill got some dollars devoted to something, if not many things, that her or his constituents will be very happy to have. In other words, this was the first real return of earmarks since they were banned several years ago and even anti-spending members couldn't resist.

Earmarks are back, baby! But really, I shouldn't be so flippant about it. Nobody likes to see the sausage being made, but the truth is that earmarks are a useful part of the legislative process. Sure, they're a little inefficient, and sure, they can get out of hand. But they don't increase overall spending, and they do provide congressional leaders with a way to whip their troops into line. Human nature being what it is, leaders need at least a few carrots and sticks in order to get anything done, and this is something they've largely lost over the past few decades. It would be a good thing if they got some of them back.

Chris Christie is Losing the Invisible Primary

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 2:53 PM EST

How is Chris Christie doing in the latest presidential polling for 2016? It's hard to care much. It's way too early for these polls to mean anything.

However, the invisible primary for the Republican nomination will be starting in earnest within a year, and even now GOP power brokers are starting to make decisions about who to support. So it probably is worth asking how Christie is doing among Republicans. Dave Weigel answers:

Worse and worse. In the last Quinnipiac poll, 64 percent of Republicans said Christie would be a "good president." Only 18 percent disagreed. That's shrunk to 50 and 22 percent, respectively—a mere 4-point increase in the hard-no number, but a 12-point move from "good president" to "ask me something else." Conservatives, more skeptical in general of Christie, had given him a 54–26 advantage on the "good president" question. That's down to 37–24. Again, not huge movement to "no," just a lot of sliding toward undecided.

Since I officially think Christie never had much of a chance in 2016 to begin with, I suppose these numbers shouldn't mean much to me. But Bridgegate really does seem to be moving Christie from the "slim chance" column to the "no chance" column. You need to have a good reason to gamble on someone with Christie's obvious downsides, and that good reason has always been his appeal to blue-collar America as an honest guy who doesn't pull his punches. When that morphs into a reputation as a guy with control issues who revels in petty reprisals against his political foes, the jig is up. He's got nothing left. The folks with money who are looking for a winner are going to start looking elsewhere.

Hate Obamacare, Love the Benefits From Mumble-Mumble-Care

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 1:42 PM EST

In Time this week, Stephen Brill catches up with a couple who had serious health care issues and desperately needed insurance:

When we spoke in October and Stephanie told me she didn't "think Obamacare will help us," I suggested that she might be mistaken and that if she was unable to get information from the then sputtering website she should consult an insurance broker. (Insurers pay the brokers' fees, not consumers.)

"When they came to my office, Stephanie told me right up front, 'I don't want any part of Obamacare,' " recalls health-insurance agent Barry Cohen. "These were clearly people who don't like the President. So I kind of let that slide and just asked them for basic information and told them we would go on the Ohio exchange"—which is actually the Ohio section of the federal Obamacare exchange—"and show them what's available."

What Stephanie soon discovered, she told me in mid-November, "was a godsend."

This kind of story is quickly becoming a classic, along the lines of "Keep the government out of my Medicare." But I still wonder whether, in the end, this is good or bad for Obamacare. Obviously, getting people signed up is good, regardless of how it happens. But how many people who are benefiting from Obamacare will become supporters of Obamacare? You'd think that virtually all of them would, but if they don't really know they're benefiting from Obamacare, maybe they won't.

Then again, maybe it's all for the best. If Republicans try to cripple Obamacare in some way, the word will quickly go out in all 50 states that Congress is doing something that will damage Kynect or Covered California or Healthy NY or whatever. Maybe that actually makes Obamacare safer than ever.

Teen Employment Isn't Really Very Well Correlated With the Minimum Wage

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 1:12 PM EST

Via Tyler Cowen, here is a chart from Kevin Erdmann that shows raw teen employment figures during periods after the minimum wage was increased. What it shows, roughly speaking, is that in nearly every case, the trend rate of teen employment declined when a minimum wage hike went into effect. He asks: "Is there any other issue where the data conforms so strongly to basic economic intuition, and yet is widely written off as a coincidence?"

But but but.....what about the long-term trend? Between 1954 and 1970 the minimum wage went up steadily in real terms, and so did teen employment. Since 1980 the minimum wage has been declining steadily, and so has teen employment. Is it really possible that changes in the minimum wage would have immediate effects in one direction but long-term effects in the exact opposite direction?

Sure, maybe. But it doesn't seem likely. In terms of short-term effects, what I mostly see are employment declines in 1973, 1979, 1990, 2000, and 2007. And guess what? Those are the dates of the last five recessions in the United States. What's more interesting about this is that teen employment recovered from its immediate decline during the Carter and Clinton years, but didn't recover during the Reagan and Bush years. (And probably not during the Obama years either, though the final results aren't in yet.) Why? That's an intriguing question.

Bottom line: Teen employment has dropped substantially since about 1980. But during that time the real minimum wage has declined from $8 to $6 and then gone back up to a little over $7. Maybe there's a correlation there, but it sure isn't easy to see. Whatever's happening, the minimum wage seems to be a pretty small part of it.

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Ezra Klein Leaving Washington Post After Five Years

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 12:23 PM EST

Back in the day, the the crowning achievement of a political reporter's life was a bylined column in one of the big daily newspapers. Today, that's a steppingstone. Now, the crowning achievement is starting up your own news organization—possibly under the broad aegis of another organization, possibly fully independently.

And so Ezra Klein is leaving the Washington Post after five years to start his own news organization. He's not yet 30, but don't let that fool you. He's still in the sweet spot for starting his own news outlet. Bertie Forbes was 37 when he started Forbes. Jann Wenner was 21 when he started Rolling Stone. The Wallaces were 33 when they started Reader's Digest.

I wish my fellow Irvine native the best in his new venture. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with now that he's free to start up any kind of publication he wants.

The Longer Chris Christie Stonewalls on Hobokengate, the Worse It Is For Him

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 12:47 AM EST

Did Chris Christie's lieutenant governor deliver a message last year to Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, telling her that if she wanted her share of Hurricane Sandy relief funds she needed to get moving on a redevelopment project that Christie was eager to have approved? Everyone in Christie's office is denying it, of course, and today we get this from the New York Times:

Another state official, Marc Ferzan, weighed in on Monday to counter the idea that Hoboken had been shortchanged on its share of hurricane aid. Mr. Ferzan, executive director of the governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, said, “We’ve tried to have an objective process, we have tried to design programs with application criteria that are objective, that prioritize the communities most in need, with the least financial resources.”

Ms. Zimmer has complained that Hoboken received just two grants worth $342,000 out of $290 million the state had to pass along to municipalities for mitigating flooding and other storm damage. She pointed out that 80 percent of Hoboken, a densely packed city that encompasses only about a square mile, was underwater after the storm.

There's something fishy going on here. If Christie wants to discredit this allegation, there are two simple things he can do:

  • Have Ferzan release documents showing that Hoboken has, in fact, gotten a fair share of that $290 million.

  • If Hoboken hasn't gotten a lot of Sandy aid, have Ferzan explain credibly why this was reasonable based on where the damage was greatest.

If I understand things correctly, the governor's office has explained that there are two pots of money, flood mitigation and Sandy relief funds—and they say Hoboken has gotten $70 million in relief funds, mainly paid out directly to local residents and businesses. But that's not what Zimmer is complaining about. She's charging that Christie held up Hoboken's share of the $290 million flood mitigation fund. So far, though, all that Christie's office has said in its defense is that "Hoboken has not been denied on a single grant application for recovery efforts under the current programs for which they are eligible."

This shouldn't be hard. These numbers ought to be easily accessible, and it's in Christie's interest to get them out in public view as soon as possible, before this story metastasizes. If Hoboken has gotten more mitigation funding than Zimmer says, Ferzan should say so. If it hasn't, he should explain why, and he should do it in mind-numbing detail. What's the holdup?

Was Your Daughter Killed in a Car Crash? Database Marketers Want to Know.

| Mon Jan. 20, 2014 10:49 PM EST

Do you ever wonder just how much personal information all those database marketing folks know about you? The short answer is: A lot. One company alone processes 50 trillion transactions a year and boasts that it has collected 1,500 "data points" each on 500 million active consumers worldwide (including a majority of adults in the United States). Try reading this and this if you want to get up to speed. But for pure creepiness, it's hard to beat this:

A suburban Chicago couple who lost their teenage daughter in a car crash last year feels as if they were victimized again after receiving a letter from OfficeMax Thursday. The envelope was addressed to Mike Seay, but the second line read "Daughter Killed in Car Crash."

Seay's 17-year-old daughter, Ashley, was one of two teens killed in a crash last April when their SUV veered off the road and slammed into a tree in Antioch.

Yep. "Daughter killed in car crash" is an entry in somebody's database record for Mike Seay. And why not? Grieving parents might be a soft target for certain kinds of goods and services, after all. You have to take advantage of those kinds of opportunities.

How to Use Public-Private Partnerships to Screw the Poor

| Mon Jan. 20, 2014 6:51 PM EST

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is now behind an Iron Curtain-like paywall, which is too bad since apparently they ran a great story yesterday about Georgia's practice of using private companies to collect fines and fees in the criminal justice system. I'll farm out the job of summarizing the story to the Economist's Jon Fasman:

It works like this: say you get a $200 speeding ticket, and you don't have the money to pay it. You are placed on probation, and for a monthly supervisory fee you can pay the fine off in instalments over the course of your probation term. The devil, as ever, is in the details....Those supervisory fees vary markedly: in Cobb County, for instance, just north of Atlanta, the government charges a $22 monthly fee. Private companies charge $39, and often add extra costs on top of that to cover drug testing, electronic monitoring and even classes they decide offenders need.

....Even worse, people who fail to pay the fines imposed by these private companies can find warrants for their arrests sworn out and the period of their probation extended. I spoke with an attorney for a couple in Alabama who say they were threatened with Tasers and the removal of their children if they did not pay the company what they owed. In 2012 a court found that the fees levied by private-probation companies in Harpersville, Alabama, could turn a $200 fine and a year's probation into $2,100 in fees and fines stretched over 41 months.

Isn't that great? It's the free market at work, all right. It reminds me of last year's piece in the Washington Post about the privatization of the debt collection in Washington DC:

For decades, the District placed liens on properties when homeowners failed to pay their bills, then sold those liens at public auctions to mom-and-pop investors who drew a profit by charging owners interest on top of the tax debt until the money was repaid.

But under the watch of local leaders, the program has morphed into a predatory system of debt collection for well-financed, out-of-town companies that turned $500 delinquencies into $5,000 debts — then foreclosed on homes when families couldn’t pay, a Washington Post investigation found.

As the housing market soared, the investors scooped up liens in every corner of the city, then started charging homeowners thousands in legal fees and other costs that far exceeded their original tax bills, with rates for attorneys reaching $450 an hour.

You may remember this as the story of the 76-year-old man struggling with dementia who was thrown out on the street and had his house seized because of a mix-up over a $134 property tax bill. That in turn might remind you of all the stories you've heard about civil asset forfeiture, where local police agencies groundlessly extort property from people convicted of no crimes, and then use the money "for purchasing equipment and getting things you normally wouldn’t be able to get to fight crime."

Makes you proud to be an American, doesn't it?