Kevin Drum

Stupid and Loathsome in the Golden State

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 11:41 AM EST

The LA Times reports that California suffered a political triple whammy last week:

First came the end of the once-promising drive for a state constitutional convention....Last week's second blow came when the Assembly rejected Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) as lieutenant governor....The final blow was the revelation that Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and more than a dozen Democrats in Congress have together donated $160,000 from their political treasuries for a November ballot measure to scrap Proposition 11 — the same 2008 redistricting measure described above that caught them by surprise when it passed. They want to wrest back their power to pick their own voters before the reform affects a single election season.

The constitutional convention always seemed like a longshot to me, so I guess its failure doesn't come as a big surprise. But rejecting the eminently qualified and reasonable Maldonado for the inconsequential job of lieutenant governor — apparently because Dems were unwilling to allow a Hispanic Republican to gain a higher profile — was both stupid and loathsome. And making the repeal of Prop 11 their highest priority is — well, let's just go with stupid and loathsome again. These guys aren't really worth a trip to the thesaurus.

The depth of California's political suckitude is hard to fathom. It's like a contest from hell, where both parties try to outdo each other in sleaze and contemptibility. Republicans have a pretty big lead, but it's not insurmountable. Apparently Democrats are out to prove it.

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Yet Another Nutritional Update

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 11:12 AM EST

Apparently scientists are changing their minds yet again. Here's the latest on saturated fat:

For the current study, researchers led by Dr. Ronald M. Krauss, of the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Center in California, pooled data from 21 studies that included a total of nearly 348,000 adults.

Participants, who were generally healthy to start, were surveyed about their diet habits and then followed for anywhere from five to 23 years. Over that time, 11,000 developed heart disease or suffered a stroke. Overall, Krauss and his colleagues found, there was no difference in the risks of heart disease and stroke between people with the lowest and highest intakes of saturated fat.

The article quotes Dr. Robert Eckel, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, cautioning against "over interpreting" the results. So don't go mainlining sticks of lard just yet. But apparently all that animal fat isn't quite the heart attack on a plate we've been led to believe.

Inside the Tea Parties

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 2:21 AM EST

Pam Stout used to think that the federal government was a generally useful to thing have around:

But all that was before the Great Recession and the bank bailouts, before Barack Obama took the White House by promising sweeping change on multiple fronts, before her son lost his job and his house. Mrs. Stout said she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated — even manufactured — by both parties to grab power.

....Worried about hyperinflation, social unrest or even martial law, she and her Tea Party members joined a coalition, Friends for Liberty, that includes representatives from Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project, the John Birch Society, and Oath Keepers, a new player in a resurgent militia movement.

....The ebbs and flows of the Tea Party ferment are hardly uniform. It is an amorphous, factionalized uprising with no clear leadership and no centralized structure.....They are frequently led by political neophytes who prize independence and tell strikingly similar stories of having been awakened by the recession. Their families upended by lost jobs, foreclosed homes and depleted retirement funds, they said they wanted to know why it happened and whom to blame.

That is often the point when Tea Party supporters say they began listening to Glenn Beck. With his guidance, they explored the Federalist Papers, exposés on the Federal Reserve, the work of Ayn Rand and George Orwell. Some went to constitutional seminars. Online, they discovered radical critiques of Washington on Web sites like ResistNet.com (“Home of the Patriotic Resistance”) and Infowars.com (“Because there is a war on for your mind.”).

If you think these folks have a serious chance at building a movement, this piece is pretty scary. But if you think they're such obvious cranks that they'll never be able to organize beyond the PTA level, it's actually a bit of a relief. I'm mostly in the latter camp. What's more, if writer David Barstow is right, their energy is largely driven by hard times. Once the recession starts to abate, they're going to lose a lot of steam.

But whether or not you agree, the whole piece is worth reading.

George Bush's Fact Problem

| Mon Feb. 15, 2010 6:34 PM EST

Former Bush press secretary Dana Perino, responding to a Jonah Goldberg post about press strategies, says:

....it reminds me of something I used to say at the White House when people would complain that we had a communications problem on this or that. Sometimes that was true, but that was usually because we had a fact problem.

Surely this deserves a followup. Perino says that when Bush had a problem getting his point of view across, it was "usually" a fact problem. That sounds like a lot of fact problems. I'd really like to hear more about this.

The Jet Set

| Mon Feb. 15, 2010 5:52 PM EST

Gerald Seib writes about our broken political system:

On a personal level, senators today lack the natural human bonds that would make it easier for Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, to come together in compromise.

One Senate veteran said the institution became a less pleasant place when lawmakers were given stipends to cover trips back home every weekend, rather than once a month. Senators now commute to Washington rather than live there. They don't see one another's families on weekends, and don't develop as many friendships across party lines. Thus, they find it easier to alienate one another.

Another part of this is the 3-day workweek, which makes commuting home a lot more practical for members of Congress who live west of the Mississippi.

But the only reason I'm mentioning this is that it's striking how often it comes up. The biggest factors in the changing political culture of Washington DC are things like the increasing ideological separation of the parties, the rise of the filibuster, and the growth of polarization based on hot button social issues, and those deservedly get a lot of attention.  But the commuting issue comes up at least as often. If longtime congressional watchers are to be believed, it's as big a problem as any of the others.

I'm not sure if that's true, and if it is I'm not sure if it's cause or effect. But I'd sure be willing to cut back travel stipends and go back to a four or five-day workweek to find out.

In the Economy We Trust

| Mon Feb. 15, 2010 4:20 PM EST

After Vietnam and Watergate, American trust in government plummeted. But how about since then? Has trust continued to decline? John Sides says it's actually gone up and down since the 60s, influenced largely by one thing:

What drives the trend in political trust? By and large, it is the economy. People trust government when times are good. They don’t trust it when times are bad. For the presidential election years from 1964-2008, I merged the trust measure with the change in per capita disposable income, courtesy of Douglas Hibbs....The relationship is striking. The economy explains about 75% of the variance in trust. If you delete 1964, which looks like a potential outlier, the economy still explains 73% of the variance.

In a way, this isn't surprising. It certainly gibes with the well-known fact that presidential elections are largely driven by incumbency and the economy and not much else.

But I have to confess that this one of those results I prefer not to focus on too much. It's sort of like talking about how important luck is in life results. It might be true, but it also induces a sort of fatalism that can be damaging in the long run. It's good for society if people think they have more control over their destiny than they do, and it's good for politicians to think there are things they can do to make people better off and increase their own chances of reelection. If incumbency and the economy are pretty much all there is to it, why bother spending time on actual legislation? It's just a bunch of hard work that probably won't pay off anyway.

And it probably won't. But let's keep quiet about that.

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Evan Bayh Quits in a Huff

| Mon Feb. 15, 2010 1:26 PM EST

The big political news today is that Sen. Evan Bayh (D–Ind.) has decided not to run for reelection. He made this decision four days before the deadline for candidates to qualify for the June primary ballot, leaving Democrats in a considerable bind. Dave Weigel:

Here are two measures of what a surprise this is. One: Ken Spain, spokesman for the NRCC, simply tweets “unreal” as he begins a series of observations about what this means for Democrats. Two: a Democratic strategist confirms to me that Bayh didn’t let anyone at any level of the party know about this, and shares with me an expletive I won’t share about the man himself.

Luke Russert tweets: "Amazing, Bayh told his staff he was done on Friday and didn't call Harry Reid until 25 minutes ago!!!" If that's true, it's pretty remarkable behavior even for someone as famously callow as Bayh.

So why did he quit so suddenly? His official statement says he's frustrated with the Senate because there is "too much partisanship and not enough progress — too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving." Maybe. Alternatively, he's tired of taking hits from party liberals, who aren't exactly fans of his ostentatious centrism and bipartisan preening. That's pretty much Marc Ambinder's take: "He wanted to be POTUS and came to hate the Senate and liberal activists. He wanted no mas."

In any case, Bayh had already raised $13 million for his reelection campaign, and up until a few days ago he was assuring party leaders that he would run. Pulling out at this late date is a pretty explicit show of pique, and an obvious gift to Republicans, whose odds of picking up Indiana in November just went way up. Bayh didn't quite give Democrats the finger on his way out, but he did everything short of it.

Is Health Insurance Good For You?

| Mon Feb. 15, 2010 12:44 PM EST

Does healthcare insurance save lives? Megan McArdle touched off a discussion about this with a recent short article in the Atlantic which points out that when uninsured 64-year-olds go on Medicare, there's no noticeable effect on mortality. I've been a little uninterested in this debate, though, since (a) any short-term effect from Medicare is almost bound to be so small that it's barely measurable, and (b) mortality is a tiny part of the reason I support universal health coverage anyway. Even if universal coverage didn't save a single life, I'd still think it was a good idea for reasons of efficiency, social justice, cost saving potential, and basic human decency, as well as its medical effect on things that are just shy of mortality: preventive care, pain reduction, life improvement, employability, stress reduction, medical bankruptcies, etc.

Over at Austin Frakt's place, Harvard's Michael McWilliams basically agrees. He surveys the full literature and concludes that looking for differences in mortality over a period of a year or two isn't likely to produce firm results one way or the other, but that the effect of insurance on overall health is pretty much indisputable:

To date, numerous studies have found consistently beneficial and often significant effects of insurance coverage on health across a comprehensive set of outcomes and a broad range of treatable chronic and acute conditions that affect many adults in the U.S., including hypertension, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, diabetes, HIV infection, depressive symptoms, acute myocardial infarction, acute respiratory illnesses, and traumatic injuries (McWilliams 2009).  In particular, several studies have robustly demonstrated positive effects of near-universal Medicare coverage after age 65 on self-reported health outcomes and clinical measures of disease control, particular for adults with cardiovascular disease or diabetes who make up two-thirds of the near-elderly (Decker and Remler 2004; McWilliams et al. 2007, 2009).

....How many lives would universal coverage save each year?  A rigorous body of research tells us the answer is many, probably thousands if not tens of thousands.  Short of the perfect study, however, we will never know the exact number.  In the meantime, we can let perfect be the enemy of good.  Or we can recognize the evidence to date is sufficiently robust for policymakers to proceed confidently with health care reforms that promise substantial health and financial benefits for millions of uninsured Americans.

I'd toss in a cool chart on some aspect of this debate, but unfortunately the scholarly version of McWilliams's piece costs $41.19 (plus tax!), which exceeds my research budget for the month. But the bottom line is pretty simple: health insurance improves health, and improved health almost certainly saves lives.

But remember: even if it doesn't, it improves health. That's what everyone should be focused on.

UPDATE: Friend-of-the-blog RSA sends along a copy of McWilliams's article, but sadly it contains no charts. However, it does contain a table outlining the results of his literature review. Basically, his goal was to review results since 2002, and what he found was 30 studies that showed positive and statistically significant correlations between insurance and health outcomes, compared to nine that showed no significant results. Details below:

12 Ticked Off Men

| Mon Feb. 15, 2010 11:50 AM EST

You've heard of jury nullification, but how about jury rebellion? Apparently it's the latest thing. Here's what happened during a recent trial to settle a suit for emotional distress brought by a sheriff's deputy:

[Tony] Prados, an ex-Marine, leaned forward in the jury box and asked in a let-me-get-this-straight tone of voice: "He's brave enough to go out and get shot at by anyone but he couldn't handle this?" he said of the locker-room taunting. Fellow jury candidate Robert Avanesian, who had also unsuccessfully sought dismissal on financial hardship grounds, chimed in: "I think severe emotional distress is what is happening in Haiti. I don't think you could have such severe emotional distress from that," he said of the allegations in the deputy's case.

The spontaneous outbursts of the reluctant jurors just as Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James R. Dunn was about to swear them in emboldened others in the jury pool to express disdain for the case and concerns about their ability to be fair, and to ratchet up the pathos in their claims of facing economic ruin if forced to sit for the three-week trial.

In this time of double-digit unemployment and shrinking benefits for those who do have jobs, courts are finding it more difficult to seat juries for trials running more than a day or two. And in extreme cases, reluctance has escalated into rebellion, experts say.

After three days of mounting insurrection, lawyers for both the deputy and the sergeant waived their right to a jury trial and left the verdict up to Dunn.

In fairness, the story presents virtually no actual evidence that this kind of behavior has increased lately. But we've all probably imagined doing something like this, haven't we?

Book Bleg

| Sun Feb. 14, 2010 2:06 PM EST

I was just looking at my vast pile of books that have been read but not shelved — it goes back about four years now — and aside from Moby Dick it turns out that I haven't read a new piece of fiction for nearly 12 months. Actually, scratch that. I know I have a Charles Stross book on my Kindle that I read last spring. So that's one new piece of fiction in the last year.

This is bad. I need recommendations. Good new nonfiction is fine too, but really, I need to dive back into some fiction. Help me out. What have you read and enjoyed lately?