Kevin Drum

UC Davis's Effort to Scrub Its Pepper-Spraying Incident From the Internet Worked Pretty Well—Until Reporters Found Out About It

| Fri Apr. 15, 2016 12:26 PM EDT

In an embarrassing revelation, the Sacramento Bee reports that UC Davis has spent $175,000 trying to scrub the internet of references to its infamous 2011 pepper spraying incident. So how did that go? Aja Romano says not so well—and there's a lesson to be learned from this:

As Gawker has been quick to point out, the efforts of both consulting firms failed miserably. As of this morning, "pepper spray" was the second autofill search result I received when I typed "UC Davis" into Google.

In all fairness, while it may suck for UC Davis to be perpetually judged for the actions of one man at an event that took place five years ago, the failure of its efforts to eradicate an unflattering reputation from the web perfectly encapsulates a crucial point about the nature of the internet. More specifically, it speaks to the internet's ability to dismantle privilege and serve as an essentially egalitarian space where having power doesn't necessarily mean you can drown out the voices of the many.

....This is a real and significant question, particularly for victims of revenge porn — people who've had images of themselves distributed online without their consent....Notably, many of the methods that UC Davis's consultants used to try to bury the university's pepper spray incident are the same methods that women are told to use when they're fighting back against revenge porn: creating positive content, "Google-bombing" positive search results, and strengthening one's online "brand" are all go-to strategies for cleaning up a negative internet past.

There's a problem here: "As of this morning," the reason that pepper spraying showed up so widely was because of reports that UC Davis tried to scrub the internet of references to pepper spraying. That put it back in the news. But how about before the SacBee report? I did a Google search that excluded stories about the $175,000 scrubbing effort in an effort to recreate UC Davis's internet presence as of a few days ago. Here it is:

Unless I missed something, the top 50 hits didn't include a single reference to pepper spraying. Every reference you see in a normal search is there solely because of the SacBee report.

Now, there's no telling how much of UCD's success was due to the scrubbing effort, and how much was due to the simple passage of five years. Still, it's likely that the scrubbing was responsible for at least some of it, and that's good news for revenge porn victims: the advice they've been given really does seem to work. Granted, it's probably less effective if you don't have $175,000 to spend on it, so Romano's point about money having power on the internet is still valid. Nonetheless, it's still the right basic approach. After all, it sure seems to have worked for UC Davis.

1For the record, my search term was: "uc davis" -scrub -175 -175K -175,000 -google -image -consultant -online

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We Need to Quit Trying to Cut Middle-Class Income Taxes

| Fri Apr. 15, 2016 11:48 AM EDT

The boffins at the American Enterprise Institute have created an online tool that allows you to investigate the effects of various kinds of tax policy. This sounds like a lot of fun, though I haven't tried it out myself. But Jim Tankersley has:

To break it in, one of AEI's economists, Alex Brill, used the Center's modeling tools to probe our question about middle-class tax relief. He compared several proposals, taken from the current presidential campaign, to see which ones helped the most middle-class taxpayers.

....Brill examined three methods of reducing taxes for middle-income filers, each of which would amount to about a $95 billion tax cut in its first year. One would double the standard deduction that Americans are allowed to claim on their income taxes. One would expand the 10 percent tax bracket to allow more income to be taxed at that low rate, and one would expand the 15 percent tax bracket for the same reason. (Under our progressive income tax system, your income — minus deductions — is taxed at 10 percent for the first chunk of money you earn, and then the next chunk is taxed at 15 percent, and so on, up to a top rate of nearly 40 percent for the highest-earning filers.)

There's a big problem with this: Middle-class Americans barely pay any federal income tax as it is. They're on the hook for payroll taxes, and they pay a smallish share of various other federal taxes (corporate taxes, excise taxes, etc.), but income taxes? The chart on the right is taken from data compiled by the Tax Policy Center, and it's pretty clear: the average middle-class taxpayer forks over only 4.3 percent of their earnings each year on their Form 1040. Even upper-middle-class taxpayers pay less than 10 percent. You have to get to an income above $200,000 before you pay even 15 percent.

Needless to say, most Americans have no clue about this. If you ask someone in the middle, they probably figure they're paying 20 percent or more in income tax. This is what gives groups like the tea partiers such power: they're convinced that they already pay mind-boggling rates of income tax that are then thrown away by corrupt politicians on welfare programs for the undeserving. But they don't. Most of them barely pay a dime for these programs.

There are several takeaways from this:

  • We should quit trying to cut middle-class income taxes. They're already really low.
  • If we want programs like pre-K and universal health care, the middle class will have to help pay for it. It can't all come out of the pockets of the rich.
  • Conservatives need to stop saying that 47 percent of Americans pay no taxes. That number is strictly for federal income tax. If you include payroll taxes, state taxes, sales taxes, and so forth, everyone in America but the very poorest pays into the system.

Thus endeth our federal income tax lesson for the day.

Competition Comes to the Cable Industry

| Fri Apr. 15, 2016 10:41 AM EDT

Competition!

President Barack Obama will publicly back regulators’ efforts to open cable set-top boxes to competition, as he issues an executive order Friday designed to stimulate market competition across the private sector.

The order will task federal agencies with identifying markets that the government might be able to help overhaul to the benefit of consumers and businesses. White House officials said federal action can do for the set-top cable box what regulators did for landline telephones more than 30 years ago. Back then, many Americans paid the phone company not only for their landline connection, but for renting the physical phone itself.

Good for Obama. The cable industry is one of the least competitive in the country—and, not coincidentally, one of the least loved. This action won't open up the cable infrastructure itself to competition, but at least it will open up one small part of it.

Like Ma Bell a few decades ago, you can expect the cable companies to issue dire warnings about the vast technical difficulties of making sure cable boxes work properly with their delicate lines, but don't believe it. It's all just hogwash. The technical specifications for interconnection aren't rocket science, and they can be reasonably regulated the same way phone equipment is.

Competition is good. Competition is good. Competition is good. The only people who don't like it are the monopolists who profit from extracting rents from the rest of us. Anything that increases it is a net positive benefit.

Almond Bandits Have Gone High Tech

| Thu Apr. 14, 2016 6:47 PM EDT

Well, here's a headline you don't see every day:

Republicans Apparently Think Zika Only Affects Blue States

| Thu Apr. 14, 2016 2:52 PM EDT

Yesterday the CDC confirmed that the Zika virus does indeed cause birth defects. "There is no longer any doubt that Zika causes microcephaly," the CDC director announced. This confirmation of Zika's threat, said the New York Times, "may increase pressure on Congress to allocate more than $1.8 billion in emergency funding that President Obama requested for prevention and treatment of the outbreak."

Then again, maybe not. Here is Steve Benen explaining what's happened to the White House budget request so far:

Congressional Republicans responded to the request by telling the administration to use $600 million that had been allocated to combat Ebola. The trouble, of course, is that this money (a) is far short of the $1.9 billion needed, and (b) still being used to address Ebola in West Africa.

....Roll Call reported that Congress did pass a bill, intended to create incentives for drug makers to speed work on Zika treatments, but it allocates none of $1.9 billion the administration says is necessary. It’s reached the point at which the White House has stopped being polite and started getting real.

....In response, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) complained that the White House hasn’t given Congress enough information on what, specifically, the $1.9 billion would be used for, fearing that the administration’s plan amounted to the creation of a “slush fund” with money that “could be used for any purpose.”

Well, I think the money is going to be used to fight the spread of Zika. Jesus. The formal 25-page appropriations request is here, and it sure doesn't look like a slush fund. It looks like a detailed request for specific funding to fight the spread of Zika.

Does every single thing have to turn into a partisan food fight? If Rogers has different ideas about how to fight Zika, that's fine. Let's hear 'em. But this is precisely the kind of thing that everyone, liberal and conservative alike, agrees the federal government should do. So for God's sake, let's do it.

Dear Time Magazine: Cut the Crap, Okay?

| Thu Apr. 14, 2016 1:44 PM EDT

Sigh. Matt Yglesias draws my attention to this week's cover of Time, a Trump-friendly warning that we're all doomed thanks to the national debt. Matt takes apart this inane argument just fine, but I'll do it more quickly: You will never have to pay down this debt. Nor will your children. Or your grandchildren. Just forget about it.

And if we ever do have to pay some of it down? We'll get to pay it off over decades, just like any other debt. And the rich will pay a bigger share than you. But I guess "You might someday owe $145 per year" doesn't make a very good magazine cover.

I know the doomsayers don't care, but at the moment we're paying about 2 percent of GDP to service the national debt. The chart below shows how that's skyrocketed since—um, I mean, declined steadily since its height during the Reagan era. Pretty scary, isn't it?

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It's Time to Give the 90s a Rest

| Thu Apr. 14, 2016 12:44 PM EDT

The 1990s sure are being relitigated these days, aren't they? The repeal of Glass-Steagall. Welfare reform. The crime bill. NAFTA.

This is...mostly kind of boring. Glass-Steagall almost certainly had nothing to do with the 2008 financial crisis, and it had been effectively dead for years before it was officially repealed anyway. Welfare payments have gone up dramatically over the past few decades, and the welfare reform law did nothing to stop that growth. Its impact on "deep poverty" has also been substantially overblown. The 1994 crime bill is being viewed through the lens of 2016 with very little effort to understand how people actually felt about crime in 1994. Everyone who was there knows that (a) it was a response to a genuine crime wave, (b) most of the noxious stuff was pushed by Republicans, not Democrats, (c) it had virtually no effect on mass incarceration, (d) Hillary Clinton used the term "super predator" precisely once, (e) black leaders were split over the bill, but plenty of them supported it, and (f) both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supported it anyway. As for NAFTA, Eduardo Porter took that on a few days ago:

The autoworkers’ animosity is aiming at the wrong target. There are still more than 800,000 jobs in the American auto sector. And there is a good case to be made that without Nafta, there might not be much left of Detroit at all. “Without the ability to move lower-wage jobs to Mexico we would have lost the whole industry,” said Gordon Hanson of the University of California, San Diego, who has been studying the impact of Nafta on industries and workers since its inception more than two decades ago.

....For all the brickbats thrown at it, the Nafta trade deal itself had a relatively modest impact, most studies agree. For one thing, the Mexican economy is still tiny compared with that of the United States and its trade surplus has remained relatively small....Nafta is often blamed for dynamics that are not of its making. The surge of Mexican exports in the 1990s was propelled by a sharp devaluation of the peso, which set off the so-called Tequila Crisis. The wave of immigration from Mexico into the United States, which lasted until 2005, was driven by a decline in government subsidies to farmers and an economic collapse that occurred just as millions of young Mexicans were entering their late teens and were desperate for jobs.

....Robust North American trade is also critical to the United States. If Mexico achieved significantly higher living standards, Mr. Trump could save the money for his border wall. Already fewer Mexican migrants are coming to the United States than going. Were Mexico richer, the flows back home to Mexico would probably be greater. And if the real concern is China — another target of Mr. Trump’s ire — a truly integrated North American market would help keep it at bay.

NAFTA was hardly a godsend for American workers, but neither was it the giant sucking sound that Ross Perot and others warned of. Overall, an integrated North American market was—and is—a good idea.

More generally, though, how about if we all focus more on the 21st century? Debates over universal health care are great. Ditto for college costs, pre-K programs, Wall Street regulation, and parental leave. But let's leave the 90s behind. Aside from the destruction of politics wrought by Newt Gingrich, it was a pretty good decade, no matter how some aspects might look from the Olympian view of 2016. It's time to give it a rest.

President Obama Has Finally Gone Too Far

| Thu Apr. 14, 2016 10:56 AM EDT

The tyranny of President Obama's reign of terror knows no bounds. Now it extends to shaking down the creators of Game of Thrones:

During HBO's Sunday red carpet for the premiere of Season 6's first episode, the showrunners confirmed that the president will receive advance episodes of the show. "When the commander in chief says, 'I want to see advanced episodes,' what are you gonna do?" Benioff said.

Did he threaten them with an IRS audit? Drop hints that the FCC might want to look into HBO's business practices? "Suggest" that his union pals might be upset if he didn't get the screeners? Truly the man has no conscience.

Donald Trump Is Now Way Out Ahead of Ted Cruz

| Wed Apr. 13, 2016 9:13 PM EDT

Two days ago—two!—I posted a Pollster chart showing that Ted Cruz had nearly caught up to Donald Trump on a national level. This was based on polling through April 6, and today we have polling results through April 11. Look what's happened:

Yikes! The head-to-head between Trump and Cruz has gone from 39-38 to 53-25. Trump now has a 28-point lead over Cruz, about as big as any he's had since the beginning of the year.

Maybe this is just a temporary spike—or, then again, maybe April 6 was the temporary spike. Either way, this is an extraordinary amount of movement for an aggregate measure in just five days. Did something happen on April 6 that I missed?

UPDATE: Sam Wang says this spike is just the effect of one high-end-of-the-range poll (NBC/SurveyMonkey) and one super-high poll (YouGov). I don't expect aggregates to move so strongly based on just one or two polls, but it looks like he's right. Those two polls by themselves added 27 points to Trump's lead. So I guess there's no need to panic just yet.

Premium Increases Under Obamacare Have Stayed Really Low

| Wed Apr. 13, 2016 8:27 PM EDT

The Department of Health and Human Services has issued a report on 2016 premium increases under Obamacare. This is useful information if you want to answer the following question:

How much do actual Obamacare users have to pay for coverage?

Of course, if this is the question you're interested in then you have to take into account all the data. You can't cherry pick just one or two providers; you can't focus on just the states with the highest increases; you can't ignore the fact that lots of people shop around for the best price each year; and you can't pretend the federal subsidies don't exist. You have to take a look at the nationwide average of what users actually paid. When you do, it turns out that premiums increased about 4 percent this year in the federal marketplace.

But that's not the only question you might want to ask. There's also this one:

How has Obamacare affected the cost of health coverage more generally?

You can't answer this by looking only at Obamacare because there's nothing to compare it to. You can't compare Obamacare premiums to premiums in the individual market prior to 2013, because the individual market excluded sick people. Naturally premiums used to be lower. Nor can you compare Obamacare premiums to premiums for employer health care. The coverage is completely different. It's apples to oranges.

But there are other things you can look at. For example, you can look at the cost of employer coverage over the past decade or so. If Obamacare has devastated the insurance market or jacked up the cost of health care, it will show up here. And this is a nice, clean series for the entire period that provides an apples-to-apples comparison. You can see it on the right.

Long story short, nothing much has happened. The annual increase in premiums declined to about 5 percent in the mid-aughts, and since Obamacare passed it's been about 3 percent. Nothing to see here.

Now, we only have two years of data since Obamacare passed, so this is still pretty tentative. And you might also be interested in how coverage has changed and what kind of out-of-pocket costs workers are bearing these days. Those are all worthwhile things to look at depending on what questions you're asking.

But if you want to know about the cost of health care coverage, the answer is pretty simple. Since Obamacare has gone into effect, its users have seen modest premium increases. This year it's around 4 percent in the federal marketplace. And employer premiums have stayed steady too. Over the past couple of years, they've increased about 3 percent annually.

Maybe this will change as time goes by. But for now, Obamacare doesn't look like it's done any damage at all to the price of health insurance. In fact, it might have helped. That's what you see if you take a fair look at all the data.