As part of my ongoing effort to join the 21st century, I bought an iPhone several months ago. Now it's finally time to make some use of it. As it happens, I walk up to the market every day to buy food for dinner,1 so I'd like to start downloading podcasts to listen to on the way. Yesterday, for example, I listened to the Ira Glass retraction of This American Life's Mike Daisey story.

So: any recommendations? What are your favorites? I don't listen to the radio at all, so feel free to recommend anything. Or how about class lectures available as podcasts? Have you come across any especially good ones lately? I'm open to anything, but the ideal recommendation will come in approximately one-hour chunks and be free.

1Why do I do this every day? Because it's a good way to force myself to get outside and walk. I'm a lot more likely to do this if I actually have someplace to go, so unlike most people I buy groceries daily instead of weekly.

On Monday the Supreme Court will hear arguments about the constitutionality of the individual mandate in Obamacare. David Bernstein argues that the key issue is what's become known as the "broccoli test":

As I've argued several times before, the Supreme Court's conservative majority will not uphold the individual mandate if the mandate's defenders are unable to come up with a limiting principle that will prevent a decision upholding the law from eviscerating any remaining limits on Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce.

…In the health care area, can Congress in fact require everyone to eat broccoli?....Maybe it’s a good idea to give Congress the power to regulate whatever and however it wants, though I really doubt it. More to the point, I'm quite sure that the conservative majority is not willing to endorse the proposition that the commerce power is really the Congress-Can-Do-Whatever-it-Wants Power.

I'm not a lawyer, but I think the widespread focus on Congress's interstate commerce power is off base. Properly framed, the broccoli question is not really a hard one to answer. Here's what I think is the basic four-step legal justification for the individual mandate:

  1. The healthcare sector in America is part of interstate commerce. This is beyond dispute.
  2. Congress can regulate the healthcare sector. This follows directly from both the Constitution and many decades of actual practice. This is also beyond dispute.
  3. Broadly speaking, Obamacare is a reasonable effort to regulate the healthcare market. Regardless of whether they personally like the approach Congress took, I don't think it's hard to convince even conservative justices that the overall structure of Obamacare, with its mix of public and private delivery, is a proper exercise of Congress's authority over a large and complex segment of interstate commerce.
  4. The individual mandate is necessary to the proper functioning of Obamacare. Without the mandate, the entire structure of Obamacare fails. This is fairly easy to demonstrate.

The biggest point of contention is #4, and that has nothing to do with the interstate commerce clause. It has to do with the "necessary and proper" clause—and that's a very expansive grant of power. In McCullough v. Maryland, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote: "Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional." The individual mandate may not be the only way to accomplish Congress' goals, but I think the facts of the case provide an extremely strong basis for concluding that it's both "appropriate" and "plainly adapted" to those goals.

So then, what's the limiting rule? Why can't Congress mandate that we all eat broccoli? Answer: because it's not necessary to the proper functioning of any plausibly reasonable healthcare regulatory structure. Congress may have the power to intrude on individual liberty, but it can't exercise that power arbitrarily. It has to be appropriate and plainly adapted to a legitimate broader goal. The individual mandate is. Forcing you to eat your broccoli isn't.

This strikes me, frankly, as a pretty slam dunk legal case. The only question, then, is whether the Supreme Court will treat it as a proper legal question rather than an overtly political one in which they simply express their disapproval of Obamacare or try to cement their reputations on the right by rolling back decades of well-accepted jurisprudence. I realize that this is an act of obvious foolhardiness, but this is why I'm sticking with my prediction that Obamacare and the mandate will be upheld 7-2. I think that Thomas and Alito are true believers who are perfectly willing to overturn two centuries of precedent just to satisfy their own ideological fancies. But I have more respect for Roberts, Kennedy, and Scalia. I think they'll judge the law on its proper legal merits, and conclude that Obamacare is broadly reasonable and the individual mandate is indeed a necessary and proper part of it.

Sometime last year I gave up entirely on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Not the act itself, of course, but the name. I gave on PPACA and I gave up on ACA. President Obama himself seemed to be OK with it being called Obamacare, so I decided that's what I'd call it too.

So naturally I'm pleased that the Obama campaign has now made it official:

The campaign launched a Facebook feed Friday featuring a big “I Like Obamacare” logo. The social network rollout also included a Twitter hashtag that the campaign reported become the top trending topic in the world within hours. On the web, an “I Like Obamacare” frontpage popped up on the Obama campaign website.

In an email to supporters, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said it was time for Democrats to turn the “Obamacare” insult into a badge of honor. “I’m proud of it — and you should be, too,” he wrote. “Here’s why: Because it works.”

This has always seemed fine to me. We have Pell grants and Roth IRAs, so why not Obamacare? Like it or not, that's what everyone calls it, and it's the only widely recognized name that PPACA has. What's more, I never thought of it as an insult in the first place. The masses have spoken, and Obamacare it is.

BATS, based in Kansas City, is the third-largest stock exchange in the country. This morning they went public, offering shares in BATS to the public for the first time. Naturally, shares in BATS were traded on BATS itself.

So what happened? At 10:45 AM trading opened and was halted immediately because of a software glitch. At 11:14:18 trading resumed. At 11:14:19:850 — that is, less than two seconds later — the stock had crashed to one-hundredth of a cent. That is not a typo. Via Zero Hedge, here's a chart showing the first two seconds of trading:

From the Wall Street Journal's report:

The day's events may rekindle questions about the reliability of the stock-market's plumbing, questions that came into sharp focus almost two years ago when the broader market plunged hundreds of points within minutes in what came to be known as the "flash crash."

....BATS, which stands for Better Alternative Trading System, was launched in 2005 by Dave Cummings, a pioneer in high-frequency trading, to compete with more traditional markets such as the NYSE and Nasdaq. It was designed for speed and gained favor with sophisticated trading firms, in part because it rarely had technical glitches.

Take your pick: (a) This is just a software glitch. It could happen to anyone. (b) This is what happens when the financial market is controlled by computer algorithms, not human beings. It may be "just a glitch," but it's a telling one. Next time it could end up being more than just an embarrassing moment.

This week's feline melodrama: Inkblot decided yesterday morning that Domino had possession of the only place in the entire backyard that was suitable for a post-breakfast snooze. THE. ONLY. PLACE. Much hissing ensued and Domino ceded the territory. Inkblot moved in, sniffed the flowers with a smug look on his face, then wandered off after a minute or so. Domino took up residence a few feet away and pretended to be a rabbit. The End.

(For now.)

From the National Law Journal:

AT&T Corp. is accused of wrongly collecting millions of dollars from a government fund intended to bankroll telephone service for hearing and speech-impaired people, but was instead overwhelmingly used by Nigerian scammers, the Department of Justice alleged in a False Claims Act suit announced March 22.

Say what? Did AT&T get scammed itself? If DOJ — and the whistleblower who exposed AT&T's involvement — are to be believed, no. They were making lots of money from a program that was designed to help the hearing-impaired make phone calls by typing text that was then relayed as voice communication by an AT&T operator. But it turns out that because the service is anonymous, it became a favorite for Nigerian scammers too. What's more, AT&T knew it:

On April 6, 2010, an AT&T Inc. manager pondered a drop in volume in the company's government-subsidized service for hearing-impaired callers. Reassuring a colleague in an email, the manager said she was "not ready to throw up flags" because "it was Easter Monday yesterday, which is celebrated in Nigeria."

....The government alleges that scammers operating out of Nigeria used the service to defraud U.S. merchants by ordering goods with stolen credit cards and counterfeit checks. In essence, the government alleges, AT&T's operators became mouthpieces for the scam artists.

AT&T got reimbursed $1.30 per minute for these calls, and the government says as many as 95% of them originated with scammers outside the U.S. A new registration program was put in place in 2008, but DOJ says AT&T did its best to undermine it. Bloomberg summarizes:

“We are expecting a serious decline in [internet relay] traffic because fraud will go to zero (at least temporarily) and we haven’t registered nearly enough customers to pick up the slack,” Burt Bossi, a manager of AT&T’s technical team, said to other managers on Sept. 22, 2009, according to the complaint.

The following month, AT&T changed its registration system from a postcard one to an Internet one where users’ addresses are compared to those on a database called DASH to determine whether the address provided exists. Registrations immediately increased to 40 to 100 a day, the government alleges.

By the end of October 2009, AT&T managers were aware that credit card scams were being conducted by new users, the lawsuit alleges. “This is a consequence of easing registration restrictions,” Dave Claus, a technical manager, said in an e- mail to colleagues cited in the complaint.

Needless to say, AT&T says it did nothing wrong. I expect a settlement soon.

Sorry. Turns out I was totally wrong about Paul Ryan's budget. It really is different from last year's.

As you can see from the chart on the right, his 2012 budget gets 62% of its cuts from programs intended to help those with low-incomes. According to CBPP, this includes $2.4 trillion in reductions from Medicaid and other health care program; $134 billion in cuts to SNAP (food stamps); at least $463 billion in cuts to mandatory programs serving low-income Americans; and at least $291 billion in cuts in low-income discretionary programs.

But here's the thing: last year's Ryan budget got 65% of its cuts from programs for the poor. Progress! Who says Paul Ryan doesn't care about America's non-rich?

Paul Krugman says he misjudged the way Paul Ryan's latest budget proposal would be received:

Where I was at least somewhat wrong was in my expectations about how the Very Serious People would treat his latest outing. I thought they would still treat him as a heroic deficit hawk, never mind the fact that his plan is really about transferring money from the poor to the rich, with no credible deficit reduction at all. That, after all, is what they did last year — he even received an award for fiscal responsibility.

But I’m not seeing that this time. Overall, the response seems muted, maybe out of embarrassment. But leaving aside the predictable right-wing cheerleaders, it looks as if the emperor’s nakedness is now common knowledge.

This is an uncharacteristically optimistic view. I don't think the reaction to Ryan was muted because everyone suddenly realized he was a fraud. Reaction was muted because this year's Ryan budget is pretty much the same as last year's Ryan budget. That made it boring, and that's the punditocracy's greatest sin. News outlets don't cover boring stuff. Beyond that, though, I see no reason to think that general attitudes toward Ryan have changed. Liberals still think he's a charlatan; conservatives still think he's the second coming of Ronald Reagan; and the Beltway VSPs still think he's a VSP.

Ironically, there really was one part of Ryan's plan that was different this year: his approach to Medicare reform. But virtually no one outside the wonkosphere seems to have noticed. I guess that's the price of being a bore.

As you may recall, the health insurance market doesn't work well if companies are allowed to cherry pick their customers. If that's allowed, companies will all chase after the youngest, healthiest customers, leaving the older ones high and dry — and there are plenty of ways of doing this. It's not a matter of only signing up companies that can prove their workforce has an average age of 28; it's a matter of targeting certain kinds of companies, or shaping your plans so they appeal to a younger cohort. Apparently the latest version of this scam involves selling group health policies to small companies that are supposedly self-insured:

Some insurers are chasing after much smaller customers with new plans designed to limit employer payouts for big claims using what's called stop-loss policies. This guarantees that businesses won't be responsible for anything over a certain amount per employee, perhaps as low as $10,000 or $20,000, with the rest paid by an insurer. Regulators and health-policy experts say this arrangement undercuts the notion of self-insurance since employers aren't bearing much of the risk, and it allows companies to circumvent some state insurance rules.

"This is not real self-insurance. This is clearly a sham," said Mark Hall, a professor of law and public health at Wake Forest University who has studied the small-business insurance market. "Regulators have good reason to be concerned about the potential harm to the market."

Self-insurance is attractive for many reasons, particularly the prospect of lower costs. It's exempt from state insurance regulations such as mandated benefits, granting employers the flexibility to design their own benefit package and the opportunity to reap some of the savings from employee wellness programs. A federal law, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, governs self-funded plans. Some aspects of the Affordable Care Act do apply to self-insurance, such as the elimination of caps on lifetime benefits and some preventive care at no cost.

Yeah, it's a scam. Self-insurance is for companies big enough that they can count on losses evening out. Small companies can't do it because a single million-dollar cancer could wipe them out.

So what's the answer? Easy! Sell small companies on the idea of "self insuring," but only up to $10,000 per employee. After that, the insurance company pays the bill. The advantage to employers is that they get to evade the usual insurance regulations. The advantage to insurers is that small companies tend to be young companies.

Needless to say, an insurance policy with a $10,000 deductible is still an insurance policy. Likewise, these shiny new self-insurance plans are still insurance policies. They look, walk, and quack like ducks. They're ducks. An HHS spokesman says they will "provide more clarity" about their legality soon. Hopefully that clarity will be an outright ban.

From Rick Santorum, telling a campaign crowd that a vote for Mitt Romney is no better than a vote for Barack Obama:

If you’re going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk with what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate of the future.

Did Santorum really mean this? Or did he mean that voters will perceive Romney as an Obama-lite? Given the context, I suspect the former, but it doesn't really matter. What matters, yet again, is that Santorum is taking a beating from conservatives over this remark. The same people who mostly gave Eric Fehrnstrom a pass for the original Etch A Sketch comment are now going after Santorum for taking advantage of it. The clear message is: we're now in general election mode. No serious criticism of Romney from the right is allowed. It's over.

See also the sort-of-endorsement of Romney from conservative icon Jim DeMint and the tepid-but-real endorsement from Jeb Bush. The establishment is speaking. It's over.

Which is great! Unlike all those mythical campaign reporters who are supposedly so riveted by this year's Republican spectacle that they want it to go on forever — who are these people, anyway? — I've had way more than enough. It's over, and I'm glad it's over. Maybe we can actually talk about something other than candidate gaffes and other assorted campaign atrocities for a few months. Please?