Kevin Drum

Bonus Friday Cat Blogging - 10 April 2015

| Fri Apr. 10, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

Quick health update: the stem cell collection went swimmingly this week. We now have loads and loads of fresh stem cells frozen and waiting for me when I go back for the final stage of chemotherapy. I got home yesterday, and at the moment I'm still fighting off some residual drowsiness from a week full of fairly powerful painkillers, but I've stopped taking them now and should be fine in a day or two. I hope.

The cats are fitting in nicely at my sister's house. Last night they woke her up at 3 am to play, which is certainly a good sign. We have two pictures of the furballs this week. On the top is Hilbert, caught in the act of knocking over (1) Big Ben and (2) the Eiffel Tower from the top of a bookcase. On the bottom, both Hopper and Hilbert are staring intently at the front door even though nothing is there. But you never know. There might be something there any second. Best to keep one's eyes peeled, no?

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Hillary Clinton Is Focusing on the Middle Class—And That's a Good Thing

| Fri Apr. 10, 2015 11:30 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias takes a look at an economic blueprint from the Center for American Progress and suggests it's a useful proxy for Hillary Clinton's upcoming presidential campaign:

In some ways, it defies stereotypes of the Clintons as standard-bearers for neoliberal centrism by endorsing fiscal stimulus and a strong pro-labor union agenda while downplaying the strong education-reform streak of the Obama administration. But it's also notable for the Obama-era liberal ambitions it pushes aside. In the main recommendations for the United States, there's no cap-and-trade or carbon tax in here, no public option for health care, and no effort to break up or shrink the largest banks. Nor is there an ambitious agenda to tackle poverty.

Instead, you get a multi-pronged push to boost middle-class incomes. After an extended period in which Democratic Party politics has been dominated by health care for the poor, environmental regulation, and internecine fights about Wall Street, Hillarynomics looks like back-to-basics middle-class populism. It should in many ways further infuriate Clinton's left-wing intellectual critics — and then further infuriate them by turning out to be an agenda that makes the party's voting base perfectly happy.

....The report is especially striking for its endorsement of labor market regulations not normally associated with the Summers wing of Democratic thinking....On the non-wage front, inclusive growth calls for paid (gender-neutral) parental leave, expanded Family and Medical Leave Act eligibility, and universal paid sick days and paid vacation days — all loosely under the banner of increasing women's labor force participation. Clinton has, in the past, field-tested feminist frames as a means of selling big government.

None of this should come as a surprise. The Great Recession spawned a great deal of government help to the poor from the Obama administration but not a lot for the middle class, and politically the biggest problem Democrats now face is offering concrete programs for the middle class to compete with yet another round of tax cut proposals from the Republican field.

But the truth is that this helps the poor too, in the long run. Middle-class workers with stagnant incomes have become less and less willing to support more spending on the poor. That's just human nature. But if Hillary can successfully get the economy into a higher gear and funnel some of that money to the middle class, eventually things will ease up and it will become easier to win support for higher benefits to the poor.

I don't know if Hillary's proposals will go far enough, but they're the right thing to do. For the time being at least, Washington needs to focus on the middle class for a while.

Even If Walter Scott's Family Wins in Court, the Cop Won't Pay a Dime

| Fri Apr. 10, 2015 9:45 AM EDT
Anthony Scott holds a photo of himself, center, and his brothers Walter Scott, left, and Rodney Scott, right, at his home near North Charleston, S.C., April 8, 2015.

The family of Walter Scott, the man who died on Saturday after being shot eight times by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, has decided to sue Slager, the city of North Charleston, and its police department. The civil lawsuit, which will seek damages for wrongful death and civil rights violations, follows murder charges already filed against the now-dismised officer.

Scott's family is hardly the first to seek civil damages after a police killing. In recent months, relatives of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner have all pursued civil court claims, where success isn't contingent on a criminal ruling against any police officer. But in the event that the Scott family wins a settlement, it's highly unlikely that Slager himself will have to pay. As I reported in January:

Instead, taxpayers will shoulder the cost. Between 2006 and 2011, New York City paid out $348 million in settlements or judgments in cases pertaining to civil rights violations by police, according to a UCLA study published in June 2014. Those nearly 7,000 misconduct cases included allegations of excessive use of force, sexual assault, unreasonable searches, and false arrests. More than 99 percent of the payouts came from the city's municipal budget, which has a line item dedicated to settlements and judgments each year. (The city did require police to pay a tiny fraction of the total damages, with officers personally contributing in less than 1 percent of the cases for a total of $114,000.)

This scenario is typical of police departments across the country, says the study's author Joanna Schwartz, who analyzed records from 81 law enforcement agencies employing 20 percent of the nation's approximately 765,000 police officers. (The NYPD, which is responsible for three-quarters of the cases in the study, employs just over 36,000 officers.) Out of the more than $735 million paid out by cities and counties for police misconduct between 2006 and 2011, government budgets paid more than 99 percent. Local laws indemnifying officers from responsibility for such damages vary, but "there is little variation in the outcome," Schwartz wrote. "Officers almost never pay."

Schwartz's study did not include North Charleston or any other law enforcement agency in South Carolina. But if other jurisdictions serve as any indication, Slager likely won't pay a dime, even if a jury finds him guilty of murdering Scott. Out of the 7,000 cases of police misconduct Schwartz studied, only 700 officers were convicted of a criminal charge. And only 40 officers ever contributed to a civil settlement out of their own pocket.

Finally, a Candidate for People Who Think Jeb Bush Isn't WASPy Enough

| Thu Apr. 9, 2015 1:56 PM EDT
Tanned. Tested. Ready. Chafee.

Last week it was Ted Cruz. On Wednesday it was Rand Paul. And now, meet your newest presidential candidate: former Rhode Island Republican senator turned former Rhode Island Democratic governor Lincoln Chafee! Bet you didn't see that one coming.

Rhode Island Public Radio reported the news this morning:

Chafee said the launch of his exploratory committee will be made via videos posted on his website, Chafee2016.com.

"Throughout my career, I exercised good judgment on a wide range of high-pressure decisions, decisions that require level-headedness and careful foresight," said Chafee. "Often these decisions came in the face of political adversity. During the next weeks and months I look forward to sharing with you my thoughts about the future of our great country."

Lincoln Chafee, of the Rhode Island Chafees, won't be the next president, although he does enter the Democratic primary with strong name recognition among people who use "summer" as a verb. Chafee's father, great-great grandfather, and great-great uncle all previously served as governor of the state. Lincoln ran for the family seat only after losing his spot in the Senate in 2006 to Sheldon Whitehouse (of the Rhode Island Whitehouses), whose father had roomed with Chafee's father at some college in New Haven before entering the diplomatic corps (like his father before him).

But there is something worth highlighting in his announcement interview:

Chafee said his focus will be on building a strong middle class coupled with environmental stewardship. Chafee, who voted against former President George W. Bush's Iraq War, noted that Mrs. Clinton voted for it. He said he aims to send a clear message that "unilateral military intervention has damaged American interests around the world."

Did you catch that? It's easy to forget now that she's the email-destroying, dictator-courting villain of Benghazi, but there was a time when Hillary Clinton's biggest weakness was something else entirely: Iraq. Clinton's support for that war (and her inability to assuage its opponents) was the fuel for Sen. Barack Obama's rise in the polls in 2007. Eight years later, the issue has been all but erased from the political debate.

Don't bet on Chafee being the man who brings it back.

These Maps Show Why We Keep Electing Climate Change Deniers

| Thu Apr. 9, 2015 5:45 AM EDT
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) uses a snowball to disprove global warming.

One of the most significant obstacles to addressing climate change is the fact that huge numbers of US politicians reject the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are warming the planet. Why does the situation persist? How can a senator who (literally) holds up a snowball as evidence that global warming is a hoax keep winning reelection? How can someone who declares himself a climate "skeptic" be a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination? As newly released research from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication makes painfully clear, GOP climate deniers actually hold views that are quite similar to those of the voters who elect them.

The Yale research is based on data from more than 13,000 survey responses since 2008. It estimates that nationwide, just 48 percent of people agree with the scientific consensus that global warming is caused "mostly" by humans. While other recent polls have found a somewhat higher percentage who say they believe humans are causing the planet to warm, Yale's numbers are not a good sign for those—like billionaire activist Tom Steyer—who are trying to turn climate change denial into a disqualifying political position.

Things look even more discouraging when you use the researchers' snazzy interactive maps to break down the estimates by congressional district. The blue districts on the map below are places where the researchers' statistical model predicts that fewer than half of respondents believe that humans are primarily responsible for climate change. Yellow/orange districts are places where at least half of respondents accept the scientific consensus. As you can see, there's an awful lot of blue—according to the data, 58 percent of US congressional districts have majorities that don't accept the climate science.

congressional districts
Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

The margin of error on the data makes it impossible to rank with certainty the districts with the most climate denial. Still, the two darker blue portions on the map are noteworthy—these are the only congressional districts in the country in which under 40 percent of residents are estimated to accept the scientific consensus. Texas' 1st District (where 38 percent believe the science) is represented by Louie Gohmert, a Republican who thinks that the world "may be cooling" and that the rising level of carbon dioxide is a good thing because it will mean "more plants." Alabama's 4th District (39 percent believe climate science) is represented by Republican Robert Aderholt, who has argued that "Earth is currently in a natural warming cycle rather than a man-made climate change." And it's hard to see on the map, but California's 12th District has the highest percentage of residents projected to believe that humans are causing climate change—65 percent. That district is in San Francisco, and it's represented by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Adding elected officials' party affiliations to the Yale data makes it clear that these aren't simply one-off examples: In the average district with a Democratic member of Congress, 54 percent of adults believe humans are largely responsible for global warming; in the average GOP-controlled district, less than 46 percent agree.

Similar patterns exist at the state level:

state map
Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

In Oklahoma—home to snowball-wielding climate denier Sen. James Inhofe—just 44 percent of residents believe humans cause global warming, according to the researchers' estimates. The same is true in Kentucky, which is represented in the Senate by Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul. Paul has said that he's "not sure anybody exactly knows why" the climate is changing.

One final note: Take a look at the early presidential primary and caucus states—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. According to the Yale data, none of these states have majorities that accept the scientific consensus. (Nevada, at 50 percent, is the best of the four.) And when you consider that Republican primary voters are far more hostile to climate science than the general population, there seems to be very little incentive for GOP presidential candidates to embrace the truth about global warming.

The GOP's Campaign to Make You Hate The IRS Is Kind of Genius

| Wed Apr. 8, 2015 3:46 PM EDT

People hate the IRS. Of course they do! When Pew Research asked people earlier this year how they feel about various parts of the government, every agency received positive marks—except the IRS. And last month, Rasmussen found that a scant 31 percent of voters trust the tax agency to fairly enforce the law. Let's face it: the agency tasked with taking money out of paychecks is never going to be popular.

But people have even more reason to despise encounters with the agency these days, thanks to a concerted effort by Republicans in Congress to slash the tax collector's budget. From the front page of today's Washington Post:

Since 2010, Republicans on Capitol Hill have slashed the IRS budget by $1.2 billion, or about 17 percent, adjusting for inflation. Just this fiscal year, $346 million was cut.

By contrast, cuts across the rest of the government have been far more modest and concentrated. Between 2012 and 2014, automatic spending reductions shrank non-defense spending, as adjusted for inflation, by 1.3 percent, while IRS spending was chopped 5.6 percent, according to Scott Lilly, a budget expert at the Center for American Progress.

Those budget cuts have made dealing with the IRS this tax season a true pain in the ass. As the Washington Post details, just four in ten callers to the IRS's help line are actually able to get assistance from a real human, while the number of unintentional hang-ups from an overworked phone system have ballooned. And the cuts are actually costing the government: thanks to a 5,000-person reduction in the agency's staff over the past four years, tax cheats can more easily skate by.

Attacking the IRS is one of the simplest lines a politician can roll out. It's a favorite rhetorical turn for presidential candidate and senator Ted Cruz, who's said he'd like to "abolish the IRS, take all 125,000 IRS agents and put them on our southern border," to applause at this year's CPAC.

Meanwhile, Democrats are wary about offering an equally vocal defense of the IRS, hesitant to be tarred as just typical tax-and-spenders. Sure, President Obama has included increases for the agency in his congressional budget requests, but it's never been a major issue that he'd consider wielding his veto pen over. But without a more robust defense, the IRS could wither away and replace the DMV as a punch line for why government doesn't work.

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Let the 2016 Presidential Poster Wars Commence!

| Wed Apr. 8, 2015 9:20 AM EDT
Michael Mechanic

Is this the first salvo in the 2016 presidential campaign poster wars? This past week, somebody plastered this poster—guerilla style—at well-trod locations around San Francisco.

What was the artist thinking? Was this a subtle jab at Cruz's hubris or a bona fide attempt to promote the guy—or just a cool design? I could see it psyching up the GOP base in Kevin's Orange County stomping grounds. But in San Francisco? Only 13 percent of this city voted for Romney. A Ted Cruz fan hoping to boost the Texas senator's presidential hopes would be wasting his time posting these around here—even if they are pretty cool looking.

Maybe the message was meant to reach rich tech libertarians who have moved north from Silicon Valley and might be game to donate. You know, the crew who admire Ron and Rand Paul and seem to have forgotten that the tech industry was built on massive government funding. Then again, given Cruz's head-scratching position against net neutrality—he's called it "the biggest regulatory threat to the internet"—he's not likely to get much love from the tech world. Even the Obama-haters on Cruz's Facebook page had to ridicule his position.

My favorite Cruz poster to date went up last March around Beverly Hills, where Cruz was slated to appear at the annual dinner of the conservative Claremont Institute. (The artists, being artists, got the hotel wrong.) But Cruz was indeed, as the poster joked, "loving it." Here's what he tweeted:

I just hope Bernie Sanders, the left's favorite bomb thrower, decides to run. I'm dying to see what street artists will make of him. 

Arkansas Will Force Doctors to Tell Women Abortions Can Be "Reversed"

| Tue Apr. 7, 2015 4:37 PM EDT

As conservative lawmakers pass a record number of anti-abortion laws, it is staggering to consider how many require doctors to tell patients information that has no basis in science. Five states now require abortion providers to inform women about a bogus link between abortion and breast cancer. Several states mandate that doctors say ending a pregnancy can lead to mental health conditions like clinical depression—another falsehood, in the eyes of most mainstream medical groups.

Now there's a new crop of legislation to add this list: laws forcing doctors to tell women planning to take abortion-inducing drugs that they may be able to change their minds mid-treatment.

On Monday, Arkansas became the second state to pass such a law, just over a week after Arizona's Republican governor signed a similar measure. A spokeswoman for Americans United for Life, the legal arm of the anti-abortion movement, confirmed that both laws are based on the group's model legislation.

Critics have slammed these bills as propagating a lie based on "junk science." According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), "Claims of medication abortion reversal are not supported by the body of scientific evidence."

Americans United for Life has not only backed the bills, but has enthusiastically endorsed a new procedure pioneered by George Delgado, a pro-life doctor who claims to have reversed abortions.

Most drug-induced abortions require two pills taken a few days apart. The initial dose, of mifepristone, blocks the progesterone hormones that help sustain the pregnancy. The second dose, of misopristol, causes contractions that flush out the pregnancy. Delgado says he's stopped abortions by injecting supplemental progesterone between the two rounds of medicine. The evidence backing his discovery, however, is incredibly thin. As Olga Khazan writes for The Atlantic:

Women who only take the first pill already have a 30 to 50 percent chance of continuing their pregnancy normally, according to ACOG. The progesterone advice is based on a study by Delgado in which he analyzed six case studies of patients who regretted their abortions and were given progesterone. Four out of the six patients went on to deliver healthy infants. In other words, the limited evidence we have suggests that taking progesterone does not appear to improve the odds of fetal survival by much. The abortion pill binds more tightly to progesterone receptors than progesterone itself does, one reproductive researcher told Iowa Public Radio, and thus the hormone surge is unlikely to do much of anything.

As Cheryl Chastine, an abortion provider at South Wind Women's Center in Kansas, put it recently, "Even if these doctors were to offer a large dose of purple Skittles, they'd appear to have 'worked' to 'save' the pregnancy about half the time."

That's why, on the small chance that a woman does regret her abortion midway through, ACOG-affiliated doctors say they would simply tell her not to take the second pill.

The injections might not only be useless—large doses of progesterone can actually be dangerous: "There can be cardiovascular side effects, glucose tolerance issues, it can cause problems with depression in people who already had it," Ilana Addis, a gynecologist who opposed the Arizona measure, told The Atlantic. "And there are more annoying things, like bloating, fatigue, that kind of stuff. It's an unpleasant drug to take."

The new Arkansas law requires the state's health department to write up information on abortion reversal for doctors to make available to patients, and it's not yet clear if the health department will promote Delgado's specific method. Meanwhile, Arkansas Right to Life is already promoting the services of doctors who are "trained to effectively reverse" abortions, and more than 200 physicians around the country have told pro-life groups that they are willing to conduct the procedure.

More Fabulous Health News

| Tue Apr. 7, 2015 2:22 PM EDT

I continue to be a star patient. Final results from yesterday clocked in at 5.2 million stem cells. Apparently I only need two million for the transplant, but they like to get a double sample in case I need another transplant a few years down the road. So four million is the goal.

So why am I still here? Good question. I don't really have a good answer, though. Just in case? More is always better? This is actually a SPECTRE front and they use excess stem cells to breed an undefeatable clone army that will take over the world?

Not sure. In any case, stem cell collection has gone swimmingly and I'll soon be out of here. Now there's only one step left: the actual second round chemo itself followed by transplanting my stem cells back into my body. That begins on April 20.

BY THE WAY: The folks here, who have much more experience with cancer meds than your standard ER facility, are quite certain that my excruciating back pain on Friday was a side effect of the Neupogen. So that's that. Today was my last shot of Neupogen, which means I can get off the pain meds in the next day or two.

This Iconic California Drought Photo Is Pretty Personal for Me

| Tue Apr. 7, 2015 7:00 AM EDT

If you've seen any photos of the current California drought, you've probably seen some variation on these striking before-and-after images of this bridge near Lake Oroville:

California Department of Water Resources

Seeing those images popping up everywhere has been a little weird for me since that bridge used to be named after my grandfather. 

My grandfather, B. Abbott Goldberg, was the deputy director of California's Department of Water Resources from 1961 to 1966. He was one of the legal architects of Gov. Pat Brown's California Water Project, the massive, contentious undertaking that built the infrastructure that currently supplies 25 million people and 1 million acres of farmland. He argued and won two Supreme Court cases, the details of which are mind-numbingly arcane. But they were essential to realizing Brown's vision for mastering the natural resource that he saw as essential to the state's survival.

Winning the West's water, my grandfather explained in a University of California oral history project, was almost a religious mission. His colleagues, he said, "had come up and they had transmitted to me, certainly, the tradition of the Old West, that water is the limiting resource and that by bringing water to the thirsty land, you were in effect doing the Lord's work and that there was nothing more important for the people of California than providing an adequate water supply."

He was proud of his work, whose effectiveness was evident in Californians' unquestioning expectation of plentiful, cheap water. When the state went through the big drought of 1976-77, he noted, "There wasn't a murmur about a shortage of domestic water in Southern California…I didn't find anybody beating the doors down to thank us for what had been done. The fact that it took some forty years to achieve it was just forgotten." Later in his life, he read Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner's critique of the growth-at-all-costs mentality embodied in the Water Project. He wasn't a fan.

Not that he couldn't see the other side. In his oral history interview, conducted in 1979, my grandfather admitted to some conflicted views about California's relationship with water. Sounding like a good Northern Californian, he mused, "Someplace along the line, the idea began to dawn on me that really Southern California was an environment essentially hostile to human occupation…[B]ut what are you going to do about the millions of people already down there?" And: "I do remember saying to someone that really, the only solution to the water problem was birth control."

He even indulged the what-if question that every thinking Californian asks once they've been here long enough: "I sometimes wonder, maybe it would have been better to let California dry up and blow away, and keep it the way we used to know it."

Which brings us back to the bridge, another symbol of Californians' ambition and ambivalence. After the state named it after my grandfather in the late '60s, local lawmakers objected, insisting it be renamed the Enterprise Bridge, after a town of the same name that had been inundated by Oroville Dam—one of the signature features of the California Water Project.