Neera Tanden writes today that our recent contraception debate is basically the end point of a trap set by liberals over a decade ago: in the wake of the partial-birth abortion debacle of the late 90s, Hillary Clinton held a meeting of women's groups in which she urged them to shift the debate toward coverage of contraception in healthcare plans. "And if that debate took place in a way that demonstrated the extremes of the anti-choice position—so be it."

I'm a little skeptical that a single meeting 14 years ago was really the root cause of today's fight, but who know? Maybe it was. More interesting, I think, is the evidence that it wasn't really much of a trap because initially the religious right didn't especially care about it:

It was a Republican Senator, Olympia Snowe, who introduced the Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraceptive Coverage Act (which lacked any sort of “conscience exception”) in 1999, and plenty of Republicans co-sponsored it.

....[In 2000, legislation in New York] — like the original Obama policy — only allowed an exemption for houses of worship, not religiously affiliated hospitals or colleges, perhaps because its authors recognized that the vast majority of employees at these institutions are not Catholic. But the Catholic Church did not actively resist, or try to prevent the bill’s passing....And, in some states, religious groups were silent altogether. In 1999, New Hampshire passed a law requiring contraceptive coverage in all prescription drug plans. (The law was passed by a Republican legislature and signed by a Democratic governor.) Both lawmakers and religious groups never raised the issue of religious liberty during the legislative debate; in fact, there was not a single discussion on that issue according to the legislative history.

Back in the late 70s it was Jerry Falwell and a few others who converted an evangelical movement that was only moderately anti-abortion into the virulent pro-life activists of today. I'm not sure if there's a specific person, or small group of people, who are similarly responsible for this latest turn, but it resembles the previous one in a lot of ways. A decade ago, contraception wasn't a big deal, even among conservative Christians. Today it's a litmus test and the latest battleground in the culture wars.

So what's next?

Did middle-class incomes really decouple from overall economic growth in the mid-'70s? If you look at median family income vs. GDP per capita, the answer is yes. From 1950 through 1975, both grew at about the same rate. After that, median family income grew quite a bit more slowly than GDP per capita.

But wait! You need to make sure to calculate inflation the same way for both measures. And maybe GDP per capita is a bad measure. Plus you need to account for health insurance and other benefits when you calculate median income. And the number of people per household has changed over time. These are all legitimate issues. So Lane Kenworthy redrew the chart to compare apples to apples: median household income vs. average household income. Median income shows only the movement of households that are smack in the middle of the middle class, while average income is similar to overall economic growth since it depends on total national income.

In the chart below, the black lines are the original comparison. The red lines are the new comparison. As you can see, there's really not much difference. "Decoupling," say Kenworthy, "is real and sizable." The rich really are hoovering up a much bigger share of national income than they used to. The only thing left to argue about is why, not whether.

In the upcoming issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris has a cover story called "The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama," a headline almost guaranteed to set your teeth on edge. Normally I'd just blame the copy desk and move on, but since Glastris is both writer and editor, there's no way to let him off the hook for this. What were you thinking, Paul?

But let's move on anyway. Glastris' argument, obviously, is that Obama has been a pretty good progressive president. So why doesn't he get more credit from us lefties?

There are plenty of possible explanations. The most obvious is the economy. People are measuring Obama's actions against the actual conditions of their lives and livelihoods, which, over the past three years, have not gotten materially better. He failed miserably at his grandiose promise to change the culture of Washington...In negotiations, he came off to Democrats as naïvely trusting, and to Republicans as obstinately partisan, leaving the impression that he could have achieved more if only he had been less conciliatory—or more so, depending on your point of view. And for such an obviously gifted orator, he has been surprisingly inept at explaining to average Americans what he's fighting for or trumpeting what he's achieved.

As long as we're piling on, I'd add a few other items to that list. First, Obama seems to despise the progressive base. He and his associates have made that clear over and over again. Second, he allowed Congress to take the lead on most of his domestic agenda. Whether this was smart or not doesn't really matter. What matters is that it makes him seem almost like an observer of events over the past three years, not a commander-in-chief. Third, from a progressive point of view, his record on national security is pretty bad. No, we're not torturing prisoners anymore, but the NSA surveillance program is still in place, American citizens are being targeted for assassination, the Afghanistan war has been escalated, drone attacks have skyrocketed, the state secrets privilege is still being used with abandon, Guantánamo is still open, and Patriot Act abuse seems to be as robust as ever.

And yet, there's still...the entire rest of his record. After all, Obama deserves to be judged by ordinary human standards, not by standards of perfection. A sidebar to Glastris' piece lists Obama's top 50 accomplishments, and I think it was a mistake to create a list so long. It ends up looking like the usual boring laundry list that any president can trumpet. Better to pare it down to 10 really top achievements in order to highlight how many truly major accomplishments Obama has been responsible for. So I did. Except I couldn't get there. I cut it down to 13 and got stuck. Here they are, in the same order as the original Washington Monthly list:

1. Passed Health Care Reform
2. Passed the Stimulus
3. Passed Wall Street Reform
4. Ended the War in Iraq
6. Eliminated Osama bin Laden
7. Turned Around US Auto Industry
9. Repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"
12. Reversed Bush Torture Policies
14. Kicked Banks Out of Federal Student Loan Program
16. Boosted Fuel Efficiency Standards
18. Passed Mini Stimuli (July 22, 2010; December 17, 2010; December 23, 2011)
22. Created Conditions to Begin Closing Dirtiest Power Plants
27. Achieved New START Treaty

These are all big deals. Big fucking deals, to quote our vice president. Unless you're just bound and determined to sulk in your tent while insisting that health care was a sellout and the stimulus was too small and Dodd-Frank was feeble and the mini stimuli were more like micro stimuli, there's just no way around the fact that this is a historically colossal set of progressive accomplishments, especially in the face of a historically hostile political environment.

Obama has gotten more done for the progressive cause than Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, JFK, or Harry Truman.

Now, it's true that any serious accounting also has to include Obama's domestic failures—most notably his feckless housing policy and his inability to pass cap-and-trade—but both of those were very heavy political lifts. (On cap-and-trade in particular, I think in retrospect that it was just flatly never going to happen no matter what Obama did.) There's also his weak record on judicial appointments. So could Obama have done better? Was there a more effective way to deal with an unprecedentedly obstructive Republican Party? On reflection, I doubt it. During Obama's first two years, Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for only 14 weeks. This means that Obama needed two or three Republican votes for every bill, and if he had taken the blustering, partisan attitude that a lot of liberals wanted, he never would had gotten them. Republican obstructionism would have been even more hardened than it was with his more conciliatory attitude. So as annoying as Obama's "most reasonable man in the room" act was to the progressive base, it was probably his best strategy.

I was never an Obamamaniac. Actual politicians are never as good as the versions that star in the reality TV shows that we laughingly call presidential campaigns these days, and Obama was bound to be hemmed in by all the same dynamics that hem in every president. So I don't judge Obama against a standard that expected him to single-handedly lead a progressive revolution. His national security policy has been disappointing but hardly a disgrace. It's just a continuation of the mainstream national security policy that both parties have endorsed for decades with only minor differences. His economic policy since late 2009 has been, perhaps, too concerned with long-term deficits at the expense of short-term job creation, but that's been due more to political realities than to bad instincts. Likewise, his general willingness to compromise has been evidence of a pragmatic desire to get things done, not a sign of insufficient dedication to the cause. He's a president, not the Sun King.

In the current issue of MoJo, Mac McClelland has a cover story, "I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave," about life in a gigantic distribution center that fulfills online orders from some unnamed location in the rural heartland of America. Mac worked as a "picker," someone who dashes around the warehouse and fills up plastic tubs with the specific stuff people have ordered. In days of olde, you did this by referring to a piece of paper called a pick list, but modern warehouses have automated the whole process. In Mac's warehouse, a mobile scanner unit told her what items to get and where to find them, and then marked each item as completed after she scanned it and put it on the conveyor belt to the packing/shipping department.

As you will learn if you read Mac's piece, this is grueling, physical work. You work ten-hour days, you have a quota that requires you to jog through the warehouse the entire time, lunch and potty breaks are short, the temperature is often either stifling or freezing, and there's no real prospect of advancement. Oh, and the pay is pretty crappy too. People don't much like working there.

I was reminded of Mac's story Friday night as Marian and I watched the latest episode of Undercover Boss. This is an occasional guilty pleasure, fascinating to me because of the particular morality play that unfolds each week. Basically, the CEO of some large-ish corporation dons a disguise and goes out to toil among the common laborers who work for his company. It's kind of a weird cross between The Prince and the Pauper and Queen for a Day. The boss is typically portrayed as a well meaning but clueless type who eventually comes to appreciate the virtues of the working man (that's the Prince and the Pauper part1), and at the end of the show each employee he's come into contact with is let in on the ruse and given a raft of cash and prizes to help make their working-class lives a little more tolerable (that's the Queen for a Day part).

Friday's episode starred Sam Taylor, CEO of Oriental Trading Company, a huge direct seller of craft and party supplies. Taylor loves OTC because its products are "fun," and he's enamored with the idea of running a company that's dedicated to helping people have fun. And here's the thing: Taylor seems like a perfectly decent guy. Not a moron, not a monster, not a Gordon Gekko.

And yet: when he went to work for a few hours as a trainee picker in OTC's warehouse, he was genuinely shocked to learn that Troy, the guy who shows him the ropes, really doesn't like his job much. Taylor thinks jobs at OTC ought to be fun! Marian and I, who have both worked in manufacturing environments (though never on the floor as pickers), were just sitting there agog. I mean, even in a great company, being a picker isn't any fun and doesn't pay much. Nobody in his right mind actively enjoys the work. It's a way to put food on the table and not much more.

The same thing happened in Taylor's next job, loading boxes into a truck. Not much fun! Packing up finished orders? Not much fun! Scanning stuff and tossing it onto OTC's (admittedly very cool) automated conveyor belt? Not much fun!

This isn't to say there's anything wildly wrong with OTC. There's no way to tell from the edited bits on the show. But it's a distribution company. Most of the warehouse work is physically demanding, all of it boring, it's uncomfortable when temperatures get into the 90s, and the supervisors expect you to keep up a brisk pace no matter what job you have. Not much fun!

Kathleen Geier, guest blogging at the Washington Monthly this weekend, quotes Corey Robin on this subject:

I wish academics, journalists, intellectuals, and bloggers had a more concrete sense of what it’s like to work in an actual workplace in America (not to mention elsewhere). Sometimes, it seems that scholars and writers, if they think about it at all, simply assume the typical workplace to be a seminar room, a newsroom, the cafe around the corner, or their office at home.

Well, maybe not quite that bad. But he has a point. I figure I lead about as sheltered a life as anyone not born into great wealth can lead, but hell, even I have a nodding acquaintance with what a warehouse is like. If I were CEO of a company where distribution was a mission critical part of my operation, I expect I'd have an even better idea. But Sam Taylor apparently didn't. And I imagine there are a lot more like him.

Lots of work is inherently tedious and low paying. That's true even at companies that treat their workers pretty well. No one should be surprised that low-paid warehouse workers don't like their jobs much, just as nobody should be surprised that they aren't very excited about the prospect of retirement ages going up. Retiring at age 70 is fine for talking heads and newspaper columnists, who basically like their work and get paid pretty well, but not so fine for someone whose job is hustling around a warehouse eight hours a day picking stuff off of shelves and tossing it into plastic tubs. Some of the talking heads and columnists who blather on about this probably ought to watch Undercover Boss once in a while. They might learn as much as Sam Taylor did.

1In The Prince and the Pauper, a young prince trades places with a peasant boy and learns what the world looks like from the bottom up. At the end, the switcheroo is corrected and everyone who treated the prince well is richly rewarded. However, although the prince learns a personal lesson from all this, nothing of any real consequence changes in the kingdom and life still sucks for most of the workers. This is almost precisely how Undercover Boss plays out each week.

Virginia Postrel proposes a simple way to take the edge off the current row over forcing healthcare plans to cover prescription contraceptives: make them available over the counter. This wouldn't eliminate the controversy completely, since it would apply only to oral contraceptives, but it might lower the temperature a bit:

Partly because birth-control pills are available only by prescription, people tend to think they’re more dangerous and less well understood than they actually are. In fact, “more is known about the safety of oral contraceptives than has been known about any other drug in the history of medicine,” declared an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health back in 1993. That editorial accompanied an article arguing for over-the-counter sales.... Nearly two decades later, birth-control pills look even safer than they did then, and recent research indicates that women are both able and eager to manage their own purchase decisions.

....Aside from safety, the biggest argument for keeping birth-control pills prescription-only is, to put it bluntly, extortion. The current arrangement forces women to go to the doctor at least once a year, usually submitting to a pelvic exam, if they want this extremely reliable form of contraception. That demand may suit doctors’ paternalist instincts and financial interests, but it doesn’t serve patients’ needs.

....Right now, the American women who have the most choice are those who live near the border with Mexico, where pharmacies sell oral contraceptives without a prescription, generally for about $5 for a one-month supply. A group of researchers [] conducted extensive interviews with more than 1,000 women who live in El Paso, Texas....One result from the El Paso study surprised researchers. “Women who got the pill in clinics were significantly more likely to stop using it during the study — even though they still didn’t want to get pregnant,” Grossman says. That’s a big deal. In fact, he says, “my hope was that we would show that continuation was no worse for the OTC group, but in fact we showed it was better.”

It's not just doctors who resist making oral contraceptives available over the counter. Pharmaceutical companies usually resist it too. After all, it costs them money for extra testing and produces lower profits at the same time, since OTC meds generally have lower margins than prescription meds. That's a lot of resistance to overcome.

But here's an interesting thing. The El Paso study that Postrel writes about did indeed find that women who got their pills at a clinic were more likely to stop taking them than women who bought them over the counter. However, that was only for women who got monthly prescriptions. Women who got six-month supplies had discontinuation rates that were nearly identical to those who bought OTC pills.

This gibes with another study done in California that compared continuous use of contraceptives among women who got monthly supplies vs. women who got yearly supplies. Over the following 15 months, the women who got yearly supplies were less likely to run out, less likely to get pregnant, and less likely to have an abortion.

Making oral contraceptives available over the counter might be a good idea, but it's not something likely to happen any time soon. In the meantime, though, providing women with annual supplies instead of making them visit a clinic or refill their scripts every month might have nearly the same benefit. This would require both doctors and insurance companies to change the way they do business, but given the safety of the drugs and the danger associated with running out, annual prescriptions probably ought to be the default.

Yesterday, having watched the ludicrous Derrick Bell "scandal" evolve in the wingosphere, I took a trip down memory lane and recapped the frenzy of race-baiting that erupted from the right-wing media machine just before the 2010 elections. If recent press reports are correct, 2012 is also an election year, which suggested to me that we just might be in for a repeat performance this summer.

That, however, is pedestrian thinking. Ed Kilgore — who hails from the South; has been involved in politics longer than me; and has a more active imagination than I do — sees a double bank shot at work:

What strikes me about the Bell "scandal," however, is how relatively little it seems to have to do with Barack Obama. The "story" has very quickly moved on from Obama's anodyne introduction of Bell at a 1991 Harvard protest, to Bell's supposed "racialism," and to the "racialism" supposedly suffusing academia and for that matter, educational affirmative action in general.

....It almost seems like what our wingnut friends most want is to poke the stick at racial issues so that can scream about the horrible indignity of being accused of racism, as though they are seeking insulation against future charges of race-baiting. My concern is that's a sign something a lot worse than video of Barack Obama with Derrick Bell could be on the way.

I like the way you think, Brother Ed! Conservatives have long demonstrated a remarkable amount of out-of-the-box creativity when it comes to attack politics, and it's something we could stand to learn from.

I'm not sure I actually believe this one, though. The Bell affair just has too many signs of being a huge cockup, not some cleverly nefarious plot to get a rise out of lefties. The wingers saw Barack Obama + radical critical race guy and they were off to the races.

But is there worse to come? Probably. So I guess Ed and I end up in the same place regardless of how we got there.

There are all sorts of clever ways to game the system so that it looks like you're doing better than you really are. The LA Fire Department, however, decided not to bother with anything fancy:

Federal guidelines call for first responders to arrive on scene in under five minutes 90% of the time. But a former department statistician counted all responses within six minutes, officials explained, which improved the record. Retired Captain Billy Wells, who crunched the data with a hand calculator, said he followed the department's long tradition of using a six-minute response standard.

Wells' successor, Capt. Mark Woolf, said he reluctantly continued using the flawed formula for a time because he didn't want to be blamed for a sudden drop in department performance. "I didn't want to touch that [extra] minute because I knew the data would take a dump," he said.

Apparently the department fessed up after a mayoral candidate complained that response times had dropped due to budget cutbacks. But it turns out that response times had actually dropped mostly because the LAFD finally stopped lying about them. When and why did they stop lying? Sadly, the article doesn't explain. Perhaps we'll find out tomorrow.

Via Rick Hasen, here's a year-old chart from the Center for Responsive Politics showing the rise in campaign spending by undisclosed donors over the past six years. In 2006, less than 10% of spending by outside groups came from undisclosed donors (blue line + part of red line). By 2010 it was up to 47%. This year it's almost certainly even higher. Full set of slides here.

On the left, Inkblot is looking soulfully into the depths of an empty wine glass. The effect is, perhaps, spoiled slightly by the fact that he's perched on top of a nice, warm pizza box, but that just shows that he's a cat of the people. Do you think Mitt Romney ever curls up with a pizza? On the right, in a picture taken earlier this morning, Domino gazes confidently into the future, secure in the knowledge that the carpet cleaning people will be finished soon. Behind her, Inkblot is holding onto Marian for dear life because he's afraid the carpet cleaners will be here forever and he'll never be able to go back into the house again. This is, unfortunately, not very presidential behavior, but no candidate is perfect.

July and August of 2010 were a festival of xenophobia and racial rage from the news organs of the right. Among the topics that generated wall-to-wall coverage on a serial basis that summer were (1) the New Black Panthers, (2) Arizona's new immigration law, (3) the "anchor baby" controversy, (4) the "Ground Zero" mosque, (5) the Shirley Sherrod affair, (6) a new upwelling of birther conspiracy theories, (7) Glenn Beck's obsession with Barack Obama's supposed sympathy with "liberation theology," and (8) Dinesh D'Souza's contention — eagerly echoed by Newt Gingrich — that Barack Obama can only be understood as an angry, Kenyan, anti-colonialist. Plus I'm probably forgetting a few.

But last summer was pretty quiet. Maybe the right had finally learned its lesson? As it turns out, no. Apparently it's just that 2011 wasn't an election year, so there was no point in pushing racial hot buttons all summer long. But 2012 is very much an election year and things are heating up early this time around. I'm speaking, of course, of the latest race-baiting pseudo-exposé on the right: the long-promised video demonstrating just how radical Barack Obama was back in his Harvard Law School days — and probably still is, though of course he's cannily learned to hide his radicalism from the sheeple now that he's president of the United States.

Long story short, the late Andrew Breitbart's site has gotten hold of a video of Barack Obama in 1991 speaking in support of Derrick Bell, a firebrand black law professor at Harvard who, at the time, was demanding that Harvard hire some women of color. Shocking! This video, however, was nothing new. It had been shown on PBS in 2008. Obama's speech had been mentioned in books. BuzzFeed put up the video on their site before the Breitbart folks did. And the Derrick A. Bell who visited the White House last year turned out to be some other guy named Derrick A. Bell, not the famous law professor. The whole thing is a nothingburger. Paul Waldman comments:

From the beginning of Breitbart's enterprise, race-baiting was a key element of his attack on Barack Obama, one that continues even after his death. And he always had plenty of company, from Glenn Beck saying Obama "has a deep-seated hatred of white people," to Rush Limbaugh's repeated insistence to his white listeners that Obama was motivated by racial hatred in everything he did. "Obama's entire economic program is reparations," Limbaugh proclaimed. "The days of [minorities] not having any power are over, and they are angry," he said. "And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That's what Obama's about, gang." When in 2009 he found a story about a white kid getting beaten up by a black kid on a school bus, Limbaugh said, "In Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, 'Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on.'" And yes, he did that last part in an exaggerated "black" accent.

Paul optimistically suggests that the sheer lameness of the Derrick Bell episode demonstrates that the race-baiting precincts of the right have a problem: "they're running out of material." I'd sure like to believe that. But in early 2010, would you ever have guessed that the New Black Panthers would be feted with a multi-week run on Fox News? Or that something called the "Ground Zero mosque" would suddenly burst into prominence based on the hysterical blog posts of Pamela Geller? Or that we'd spend a couple of weeks talking about "anchor babies"?

If you did, you're a lot smarter than me. So I'm more pessimistic. It's an election year, and the idea that Obama is a secret radical remains a common trope among folks like National Review's Andrew McCarthy and his like-minded scribblers. It's also great for ratings among the talking-head set. So I suspect we're going to see a lot more stuff like this. It'll all just be a big coincidence that every few weeks produces yet another "controversy" that happens to appeal to underlying racial resentments, of course. There will be much tut-tutting about hypersensitive lefties seeing racism under every rock.

I hope to be proven wrong about this. We'll see.