Kevin Drum

Republicans Prepare Bill to End NSA Phone Metadata Program

| Wed Mar. 26, 2014 4:18 PM PDT

Earlier this week President Obama announced a proposal to shut down the NSA's bulk collection of telephone metadata. I thought that was great, but wondered if Republicans would go along. After all, it's an election year, and it might make a good political football even if lots of Republicans are already on record opposing the program.

Well, apparently Republicans plan to go along. Dave Weigel reports:

By Tuesday morning the Republican-run House Intelligence Committee was polishing and promoting the End Bulk Collection Act of 2014, which would grudgingly achieve much of what the White House grudgingly asked for. On Tuesday afternoon, Sens. Rand Paul, Ron Wyden, and Mark Udall strolled into a Senate hallway bustling with reporters to accept the NSA’s partial surrender.

....“It’s very clear now that the administration agrees with us,” said Wyden....“They’re looking for congressional permission to stop doing what they’re doing,” said Paul....“The Congress ought to codify what the president’s done so the message is sent to future presidents,” said Udall.

....It was exactly what the administration and the NSA’s defenders wanted to hear. They’d never wanted to end metadata collection. They defended it for months....“I passionately believe that this program saved American lives,” said Rogers at an hourlong press conference with Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the committee’s ranking member, where they outlined their bill to end bulk metadata collection....“I started out with, maybe we ought to stick with the program that has been tested, legally overseen, and protects civil liberties. Well, we’re beyond that. We get that.”

We don't know exactly what the EBCA will contain, or what it will look like once it's gone through the sausage factory. At the moment, though, it looks likely that Congress will indeed end the NSA's metadata collection program. That's good news. It's better to have it come from Congress than from an executive order.

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New Dwarf Planet Named After Joe Biden

| Wed Mar. 26, 2014 2:27 PM PDT

Guess what? Joe Biden now has a dwarf planet named after him:

The new planetoid, estimated about to be about 250 miles wide, is now 7.7 billion miles from the sun. That is about the closest it gets. At the other end of its orbit, the planetoid, which for now carries the unwieldy designation of 2012 VP113, loops out to a distance of 42 billion miles....For convenience, the scientists shorten the 2012 VP113 designation to VP, which in turn inspired their nickname for planetoid: Biden, after Vice President Joseph R. Biden.

Appropriately, the actions of the Biden dwarf suggest the presence of something more powerful in the neighborhood:

Intriguingly, the astronomers said that details of the orbits hint at perhaps an unseen planet several times the size of Earth at the solar system’s distant outskirts....Trujillo and Dr. Sheppard point out that Sedna and 2012 VP113 have similar values for one orbital parameter known as the argument of perhelion, as do several other bodies at the edge of the Kuiper Belt. That could be a sign of the gravitational influence of an unseen planet.

Computer simulations showed that the data could be explained by a planet with a mass five times that of Earth at a distance of 23 billion miles from the sun, too dim to show up in current sky surveys.

The bad news is that if this turns out to be true, it "could reopen the debate over the definition of 'planet.'" Please. Not that. Haven't we done enough damage to the solar system already?

Opposition to Obamacare Appears To Be Shrinking as Problems Get Resolved

| Wed Mar. 26, 2014 11:00 AM PDT

The latest Kaiser Health Tracking Poll is out, and Greg Sargent summarizes the highlights: "Views of the ACA remain unfavorable, but the gap is narrowing.....Support for repeal continues to shrink....Crucially, a majority, 53 percent, say they are tired about hearing about the law and want to move on to other issues....Most of the ACA’s individual provisions are wildly popular."

There's one other interesting note from the latest poll, along with one frustrating note. First the interesting note. On Monday I mentioned that views of Obamacare had become dramatically less favorable among the uninsured. Apparently that was short-lived. Here's the latest:

This suggests that the main reason for the blip was Obamacare's well-publicized rollout problems. Once those got addressed, and people were able to sign up without too much hassle, opinions turned back around.

And now for the frustrating note. I've mentioned several times before that a simple approval/disapproval question about Obamacare is misleading. The problem is that there's a fair chunk of the population that disapproves of Obamacare not because it's a government takeover of health care, but because it doesn't go far enough. These are people who are perfectly happy with the idea of national healthcare, but want Obamacare to do more. This is obviously not part of the standard conservative critique that we automatically think of whenever we hear about "disapproval" of Obamacare.

This month, Kaiser asked about this in more detail than before. Among those who disapprove, they asked why they disapproved. Here's what they got:

So close! The bottom two answers are clearly right-wing concerns. But the first one is mixed. "Cost concerns" is split between people who think the subsidies are too low (left-wing criticism) and those who think it's a budget buster (right-wing criticism). Those are very different things. This was a great opportunity to really get a read on how much right-wing opposition there really is to Obamacare, but this poll  doesn't quite do it. Maybe next time.

Narrow Networks Are Going to Bite a Lot of Obamacare Customers

| Wed Mar. 26, 2014 9:54 AM PDT

A few days ago, reader JF sent me an email about a problem he's had with his new Obamacare policy:

I’m a single dad living in LA. I have been underemployed/unemployed for the past few years, and until January had been paying through the nose for an individual policy for myself and my son. I am very familiar with the ins and outs of health insurance and I’m used to checking with every provider beforehand to quantify out of pocket costs. It was a godsend to have affordable insurance as of January. I qualified for a heavily subsidized Silver plan. I want the ACA to work, and to work well.

It didn’t for me. Here’s what happened. The first time I sought care under my new policy it was in January for a standard annual checkup. I’m a healthy guy so for me it’s a few questions from the doctor and then they draw blood. My ACA plan allowed me to get this care with a co-pay of $3.

Then I got the bill from the blood lab for $800. The doctor sent it to a lab outside the ACA network. Yeah, I know, I could have double checked with the doc to make sure the blood was sent to an in-network lab (I had already checked once). Bottom line is that a CBC blood test is going to cost me EIGHT MONTHS worth of my subsidized insurance premiums.

Here’s the bad story on the horizon: Imagine what’s going to happen when millions of newly insured people, not savvy about how to police health care costs, start to get bills that far exceed what CoveredCA or promised them? “My Obamacare policy cost me $800 for a blood test” is the next headline. It’s in line with the horror stories from Steven Brill last year.

I think progressives need to start talking about this because it should be addressed by our side, not just to avoid mid-term election embarrassment, but because poor folks can be harmed by it. Hand waving this away as “we got poor people insurance, our job is done” is a mistake.

How common are experiences like this? Common enough that a recent Commonwealth Fund report explicitly addresses this precise problem. Andrew Sprung saw the report, and it triggered his memory about a similar problem he had a few years ago when he checked himself into an ER with chest pains:

The ER team decided to keep me overnight and informed me that I would be checking out against advice if I left early. By the time I'd had two EKGs it was clear nothing was wrong with my heart, but I subjected myself to a CT-scan with stress test, an ultrasound, and a $20k tab of which we paid nothing except maybe a $100 deductible (and which the self-insured hospital network essentially paid itself, I suppose).

So I was weak and foolish — with one exception. At the beginning, I had to sign a release agreeing to pay for any out-of-network care I received in-hospital. The attending doctor was at hand at the time. I asked him if he was in-network. He said he didn't know. I said, how can you not know? He said his office dealt with "hundreds" of insurance plans. He offered to check. I said please do. He came back a few minutes later and said he had confirmed that he accepted the insurance plan provided to employees of the hospital he was standing in.

So there are several lessons here. First, narrow networks aren't unique to Obamacare. They've been a growing problem with private insurance plans for years (see chart on right). Second, it gets worse with Obamacare in some states because of the narrow networks supported by nearly all ACA insurers. For example, JF confirmed to me that he had a Blue Shield plan, but that's not the whole story. "The blood lab in question is in network for Blue Shield, but not for Blue Shield CoveredCA plans, as per everyone I’ve spoken to about it."

Third, it's really hard to be alert enough all the time to avoid this. You have to remember to ask every time. You have to ask every doctor, and you have to ask for every lab test. And most doctors don't know, and don't really want to be bothered finding out. So you have to be very, very persistent.

And most of us aren't very, very persistent. Especially if, say, we're in an ER worried that chest pains might be an indication of an oncoming heart attack.

How big a deal is this? I don't have any way of knowing. But JF is certainly right that it's the kind of thing that can give Obamacare a bad name if it happens often enough. Unfortunately, there's no plausible legislative tweak to address this, since Republicans are implacably opposed to improving Obamacare in any way, shape, or form. At best, there might be a way to partially address it with HHS regulations.

In any case, buyer beware. If you have any kind of health coverage at all, this is probably something to keep in mind. If you have an Obamacare policy, especially in a narrow-network state like California, it's something to keep doubly in mind.

Did the Housing Bubble Also Spur a Microwave Oven Bubble?

| Wed Mar. 26, 2014 8:50 AM PDT

A few days ago, when I read this piece in Quartz about the decline in microwave oven sales, I was suspicious. "A shift in eating habits—which favors freshness and quality over speed and convenience—has left a growing number of microwaves dormant on kitchen counters," said the author.

Hmmm. Maybe. But although there might well have been a trend toward freshness and quality among the kind of people who read Quartz, I'm less convinced that this is true of the nation at large. The frozen pizza section of my supermarket sure doesn't seem to have shrunk lately. Still, I didn't really have a good explanation for the decline in microwave sales. But Megan McArdle does:

So people are shifting toward built-in microwaves — and sales of microwaves peaked in 2006. This doesn't suggest a trend toward fresher food to me; it suggests that the housing bubble produced a surge in demand for microwaves, as contractors and homebuilders installed them above half the ovens in the U.S. When the housing bubble popped, demand sank precipitously. Because people replace built-in appliances much less often than they do the ones on their countertop, it's taking a long time to recover.

I don't know if this is the explanation either, but it sounds fairly plausible as at least part of the explanation. Generally speaking, I'd add that microwave technology hasn't improved or changed a lot in the past decade, so most of us don't have much incentive to buy a new one as long as the old one is still working. After I read the Quartz piece, for example, I tried to think of what I use our microwave for, and I only came up with four things: melting butter, pre-cooking potatoes, heating pasta sauce, and reheating leftovers.1 I remember that a while ago Marian and I were thinking about getting a new one for some reason (stuck door latch?), but ended up not bothering. It just wasn't ever urgent enough to get us truly motivated to shop around.

1Microwave popcorn is an invention of Satan. It will never be found on my shelves.

Administration Announces Yet Another Obamacare Extension

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 6:20 PM PDT

This is about the least surprising announcement of the week:

The Obama administration has decided to give extra time to Americans who say that they are unable to enroll in health-care plans through the federal insurance marketplace by the March 31 deadline.

Federal officials confirmed Tuesday evening that all consumers who have begun to apply for coverage on, but who do not finish by Monday, will have until about mid-April to ask for an extension. Under the new rules, people will be able to qualify for an extension by checking a blue box on to indicate that they tried to enroll before the deadline. This method will rely on an honor system; the government will not try to determine whether the person is telling the truth.

I suppose conservatives are going to throw their usual fit over this, but it's neither unexpected nor very serious. Unlike the renewal delay and the employer mandate delay, which are both calculatedly political and of long duration, this one is merely an attempt to allow as many people as possible to enroll. It's pretty justifiable, and it only extends the deadline by a few weeks. Nothing to get hot and bothered about.

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Today I Am Showered With Riches

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 3:51 PM PDT

I'm rich! This is from today's mailbag:

This is all thanks to the price-fixing suit against Apple and five big book publishers. The timing is kind of bad, though: I've been buying my books from Barnes & Noble lately because the Kindle app on Windows is kind of sucky. On the other hand, my Windows tablet mysteriously died last night, so for now I'm back to my old Android tab anyway. So maybe the timing is OK. I guess it depends on how quickly I recover from my pleurisy and get down to the mall to get my Windows tab replaced. Seems like everything is breaking these days.

WEDNESDAY MORNING UPDATE: My Dell Venue Windows tablet suddenly came back to life after two days of not responding to anything. That's just damn peculiar.

The Hobby Lobby Case Probably Doesn't Depend Much on What the Law Says

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 11:34 AM PDT

So the Hobby Lobby case was heard today, the latest in a long string of challenges to Obamacare. (Next up: whether the law allows subsidies only for policies bought on state exchanges, not on the federal exchange.) In short, the question in this case is whether Obamacare's requirement that insurance policies cover contraception is legal.

I haven't written about it before because I'm frankly not sure what to say. As with so many other recent cases, the law seems pretty clear to me. There's no precedent for corporations having rights of religious freedom in the first place, and that alone seems like enough to toss the case out. But even if they do, the plaintiffs have to show that the contraception requirement imposes a "substantial burden" on them. Their argument is that if they don't comply, they'll get hit by substantial penalties. But that's ridiculous. The question is whether complying with the law is a substantial burden. In other words, does insurance coverage that includes contraception cost them more than insurance coverage without it? The evidence on this is fuzzy, but it seems to be fuzzy only on the question of whether there's any cost at all. Even if there is, it appears to be small. There's simply no serious evidence that the cost of complying with the law is large in financial terms, and it's obviously not large in operational terms since Hobby Lobby literally has to do nothing except continue buying insurance from the same carrier they've always bought it from.1

So that's where we stand. There's no precedent in the past two centuries that gives corporations First Amendment religious freedom rights. And as near as I can tell, the contraception mandate imposes, at most, only a tiny burden on Hobby Lobby.

But none of that seems to matter. It doesn't matter that I'm not a lawyer and might be wrong about all this. Others with the intellectual chops to know this stuff have made similar arguments in much more detail. And anyway, I thought the same thing about the original Obamacare case. It simply didn't seem legally tenable. But it almost carried the day. A frail argument, invented a couple of years earlier and with exactly zero precedent behind it, came within a whisker of getting five votes on the Supreme Court.

This sure seems to be a similar case. The law doesn't really matter. Four justices just don't like the Obamacare mandate and will vote anywhere and at anytime to strike it down. Four justices will vote to uphold the mandate. Anthony Kennedy will provide the swing vote. It's also possible, I suppose, that John Roberts will vote to uphold the mandate, simply on the principle that having upheld Obamacare once before on a slim technicality, he's not going to relitigate it over and over on increasingly trivial details.

So....I don't know. In cases like this, the legal arguments seem like little more than window dressing. Everyone knows the outcome they want, and they tailor their opinions to produce those outcomes. Maybe that's too cynical. I guess we'll find out next June.

1Oddly enough, I don't really buy the contention that the burden is small because, after all, Hobby Lobby can simply choose not to provide health insurance at all. Technically, this might be a good argument, but it doesn't really feel right to me. If the price of complying with the law is eliminating health insurance for Hobby Lobby's entire employee base, that sure seems pretty substantial to me, even if the federal government isn't directly coercing its choices one way or the other.

Incompetent Scheming Is Just as Bad As Competent Scheming

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 9:58 AM PDT

A couple of months ago I wrote about new evidence suggesting that several big Silicon Valley firms had explicitly agreed not to hire away each others' workers. This case has now gotten more attention, and Tyler Cowen comments about it:

I would suggest caution in interpreting this event.  For one thing, we don’t know how effective this monopsonistic cartel turned out to be.  We do know that wages for successful employees in this sector are high and rising.  Many a collusive agreement has fallen apart once one or two firms decide to break ranks, as they usually do. [More follows about how this might play out in the real world]

Cowen is an economist, and I don't want to knock him for doing some economic analysis. Still, this is the kind of thing that gives economics a bad name. Who cares if this scheme was effective? Maybe it was the Keystone Kops version of collusion. What matters is merely that they tried. These companies felt perfectly justified in conspiring to hold down wages in a tight labor market. Like so many titans of capitalism, they think free markets are great just as long as workers who are in high demand don't get any fancy ideas about what that means.

Throw the book at them. If their scheme didn't work, it just means they're incompetent plotters. But they're plotters nonetheless.

People Who Know the Koch Brothers Sure Don't Like Them Much

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 9:37 AM PDT

This is apropos of nothing in particular, but Dave Weigel draws my attention today to a new GWU/Battleground poll that gives us approval/disapproval ratings for an eclectic bunch of people that happens to include the Koch brothers. It turns out that they're more unpopular than anyone else on the list. Weigel comments on what this means for the Democrats' anti-Koch offensive:

I generally agree that the Koch focus (Kochus?) is a poor substitute for a positive Democratic agenda, if such a thing is possible, but I don't see anything in the poll that contradicts the Democratic strategy. Charles and David Koch never, ever do TV interviews, choosing to exercise their influence behind the scenes of political groups, and they're known by two out of five Americans?

Given their low profile, you'd hardly expect the Kochs to be a household name. And yet, nearly half of all Americans have heard of them, and among those who are in the know they're very unpopular. So maybe the Democratic strategy of personalizing the robber-baron right by demonizing the Kochs is paying off. Give it another few months and maybe the Kochs will be a household name.

On the other hand, keep in mind how unreliable these polls are. It's possible that half the people who claim to have heard of the Koch brothers think they're the rap duo who performed at the Grammys a few weeks ago. Maybe if Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were less annoying, the Kochs would have done better in this poll.