From Paul Waldman, on Rick Santorum's latest video apocalypse:

Holy crap! Was that a shot of Barack Obama forcing a little girl to bite the head off her beloved guinea pig? Maybe not, but almost. Apparently, it will take Obama only two years to turn America into some combination of "The Day After" and "Saw."

Paul isn't exaggerating. Santorum's ad really does open with a Saw-like shot of a flock of crows shrieking as they fly away from an abandoned, windswept little town. The Santorum campaign is really getting desperate.

Via Joe Weisenthal, this chart from BarCap shows the growth of the tech sector with and without Apple. Take Apple's stock out of the equation, and instead of growing 8% over the past year, the tech sector has shrunk about 3%. It's true that you can see an effect like this on any kind of aggregate index if you remove the top performer, but given the size of the tech sector this is a pretty stunning example of the effect.

Paul Krugman comments on the Obamacare court case being argued today:

We know, or I think we know, that a single-payer system — in which the government collects taxes, and uses the revenue to provide health insurance — would be constitutional. I mean, I don’t think the court is about to strike down Medicare.

Well, ObamaRomneycare is basically a somewhat klutzy way of simulating single-payer. Instead of collecting enough revenue to pay for universal health insurance, it requires that those who can afford it buy the insurance directly, then provides aid — financed with taxes — to those who can’t. The end result is much the same as if the government collected taxes from those under the mandate and bought insurance for them....It is in no sense more interventionist, more tyrannical, than Medicare; it’s just a different way of achieving the same thing.

Agreed. This whole case has a serious air of angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin. The individual mandate is enforced by a tax penalty, and if it were called a tax penalty it would be OK. But since it's called a fine it's unconstitutional! Congress can tax everyone and then provide them with health insurance — outsourced to a private company if it wants to. But it can't require everyone to simply buy the exact same health insurance directly for the exact same price! Raich may seem like a precedent that binds conservatives to uphold Obamacare, but Raich was an as-applied challenge. The current case is a facial challenge!

And on and on. Maybe these distinctions really matter. But to an awful lot of people, they sure sound an awful lot like mere excuses to reach a conclusion they want to reach. That's because, broadly speaking, it's nearly impossible to argue that Obamacare is even close to pushing the envelope on Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce. It's aimed at a particular sector (healthcare) and uses a particular method (the mandate) to accomplish its goals, but lots of acts of Congress use slightly new and different ways of accomplishing legitimate goals. The methods of 1787 just don't map precisely onto 2012.

We'll see. If the conservative justices are simply bound and determined to make their mark and overturn Obamacare, they will. But if they do, they're going to have to torture the law pretty hard to get there.

More here from Adam Serwer on possible outcomes.

Yesterday I asked for podcast recommendations. I got loads of 'em! So now, as a public service, I figure I should provide you with a rough Top Ten list culled from comments and emails. The full comment section has a lot more than just the podcasts below, and you should take a look if you're in the market for something a little different, but here were the favorites:

  1. Radiolab won by a mile. The entire stable of NPR shows also got a lot of votes, including Planet Money, Car Talk, This American Life, Foreign Dispatch, and others.
  2. In Our Time was the only show that came close to Radiolab. The rest of the BBC radio lineup got lots of recommendations too.
  3. The Bugle, a news sendup from John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman.
  4. Philosophy Bites, "podcasts of top philosophers interviewed on bite-sized topics..."
  5. "The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877," a Yale University course by David Blight. The Open Yale series in general got a lot of strong recommendations.
  6. History of Rome, a massive, ongoing series of podcasts "tracing the history of the Roman Empire, beginning with Aeneas's arrival in Italy and ending (someday) with the exile of Romulus Augustulus, last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire." So far it's up to episode #172, which covers Attila the Hun's invasion in 451 AD, so it must be getting close to wrapping up.
  7. WTF, comedy with an attitude from Marc Maron.
  8. The B.S. Report, sports talk from ESPN's Bill Simmons.
  9. The New Yorker's stable of podcasts, incuding Comment, Political Scene, Fiction, and Out Loud. 
  10. Slate's stable of podcasts, including Gabfest, Culture Gabfest, and Double X Gabfest.

On the technology side, there were also several recommendations for Downcast as an alternative to iTunes. And, of course, lots of other recommendations that were a little farther off the beaten path than the ones above. Click the link for more. Enjoy.

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.