Kevin Drum

Working for Uncle Sam

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 1:22 PM EST

A few weeks ago I wondered how the pay of government workers compares to that of comparable workers in the private sector these days. It's a hard question to answer, but USA Today weighs in today with its own analysis:

Overall, federal workers earned an average salary of $67,691 in 2008 for occupations that exist both in government and the private sector, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The average pay for the same mix of jobs in the private sector was $60,046 in 2008, the most recent data available. These salary figures do not include the value of health, pension and other benefits, which averaged $40,785 per federal employee in 2008 vs. $9,882 per private worker, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

....But National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley says the comparison is faulty because it "compares apples and oranges." Federal accountants, for example, perform work that has more complexity and requires more skill than accounting work in the private sector, she says. "When you look at the actual duties, you see that very few federal jobs align with those in the private sector," she says. She says federal employees are paid an average of 26% less than non-federal workers doing comparable work.

This doesn't end the debate, it just adds another data point, and a fairly crude one at that. For one thing, this is just a straight comparison of job titles with no attempt to figure out whether the job requirements are genuinely comparable, and there's no adjustment for things like age and experience. Unsurprisingly, there's also a fair amount of difference between job categories: high-skill occupations (IT workers, lawyers, doctors) tended to be higher paid in the private sector while low-skill jobs (janitors, cooks, PR flacks1) were higher paid in the public sector. And since this is a survey of federal jobs, it means that teachers, the biggest category of public workers, aren't included at all.

So take this with a grain of salt. Still $108 thousand vs. $70 thousand is a pretty big difference, and it would take a lot of data massaging to get rid of it, let alone put private workers 26% ahead. This is a topic that deserves some rigorous study. Via Alex Tabarrok.

1OK, including PR folks in this category was just a joke. Still, they account for the biggest single difference between federal and private workers: $132 thousand vs. $88 thousand. Apparently government agencies really value their flacks highly.

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Outrage O' the Day

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 12:46 PM EST

A Los Angeles elementary school principal has apologized for “questionable decisions” about who to honor during Black History Month:

Lorraine Abner’s letter did not name the individuals. But her apology came after three teachers at Wadsworth Avenue Elementary School were suspended while the Los Angeles Unified School District investigates allegations that they had their first-, second- and fourth-grade students carry pictures of O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman and RuPaul at last Friday’s event.

“Unfortunately, questionable decisions were made in the selection of noteworthy African American role models,” the letter said. “As the principal, I offer my apology for these errors in judgment.”

Where's Jon Stewart when you need him?

More Bad News on Climate Change

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 12:24 PM EST

One of the most dangerous aspects of global warming is the existence of positive feedback loops.  It's the same thing that causes a high-pitched screech when you set up speakers right behind a microphone: you speak into the mike, your voice is amplified by the speakers, your amplified voice is fed back into the mike, back into the speakers, etc. It gets louder with each loop, until eventually the whole system goes haywire.

The same kind of feedback loops are present in the climate, and one of the worst is the melting of the permafrost. Permafrost locks up huge amounts of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas, and the danger is that as the globe warms, the permafrost will melt and release its methane. This will cause the globe to warm even more, which will melt the permafrost even more, and the loop will continue explosively until the permafrost is gone and tremendous amounts of methane have been released.

Well, it's starting to happen. Julia Whitty passes along the news from a new research report:

Arctic seabed stores of methane are now destabilizing and venting vast stores of frozen methane — a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The paper, in the prestigious journal Science, reports the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf — long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane — is instead perforated and leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Melting of even a fraction of the clathrates stored in that shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.

If this continues, there might soon be no way to stop it. As Joe Romm warns, "It is increasingly clear that if the world strays significantly above 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide for any length of time, we will find it unimaginably difficult to stop short of 800 to 1000 ppm." And if that happens, warming of 5°C or more is inevitable, a catastrophe almost beyond imagining.

But the Republican Party continues to believe that if they just deny it's happening, then it's not happening. And since they, along with a small cadre of "centrist" Democrats, control the U.S. Senate, we remain unable to take even modest steps to address this. I'll probably be dead before the suffering starts in earnest, but lots of you have kids and grandkids who won't be. Even some of you Republicans. Just food for thought.

Working the Refs

| Fri Mar. 5, 2010 11:34 AM EST

Over at Media Matters, Jamison Foser raps the media for hyperventilating over reconciliation now that Democrats are using it to pass some healthcare amendments, while ignoring it back when Republicans used it to pass huge tax cuts:

The Senate reconciliation vote occurred on May 23, 2003. In the month of May, only one New York Times article so much as mentioned the use of reconciliation for the tax cuts....And that's more attention than most news outlets gave to the use of reconciliation that month. The Washington Post didn't run a single article, column, editorial, or letter to the editor that used the words "reconciliation" and "senate." Not one. USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press were similarly silent.

....The current hyperventilation about the use of reconciliation is completely inconsistent with the way the media covered reconciliation in 2003. Back then, they didn't treat reconciliation as an unusual or controversial tactic — in fact, they barely noticed it, even when Republicans made noises about firing the parliamentarian they elevated when they fired the previous parliamentarian. 

Point taken. In fairness, though, part of the problem here is the Democrats didn't complain about reconciliation back in 2003. There's no reason for the media to make a fuss if the opposition party hasn't bothered to bring it up, after all.

This doesn't excuse the fact that they keep getting basic facts wrong this time around, like the fact that Dems aren't planning to pass the entire healthcare package through reconciliation, only a small package of amendments. And it doesn't change the fact that the conservative noise machine is way more effective than anything liberals have. Even if congressional Democrats had tried to make an issue out of reconciliation in 2003, they probably wouldn't have gotten much traction.

Still, you have to try. Republicans figure they can get some attention for this kind of nonsense if they yell loud enough, and they're right. Democrats don't even think of it.

How It's Done

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 9:08 PM EST

Speaking of right-wing derangement (it was few hours ago, but we were speaking of it), Glenn Greenwald has the latest over at his place. It's about the "Gitmo 9" smear, but what it's really about is how this stuff routinely gets mainstreamed via credulous treatment by cable news. It's the noise machine in a nutshell. But don't click unless you have a strong stomach.

Holds and Filibusters

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 5:21 PM EST

Matt Yglesias is mad:

The Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, is one of the nastiest, most brutal and evil organizations on the planet....It’s little surprise that the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 has widespread support in the Senate, including 63 Cosponsors. But because the Senate’s rules are dumb, and because Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) is a moral monster, guided by a poisonously misguided ethical compass and a callous disregard for human welfare, there’s been no vote on the bill thanks to Coburn’s hold.

Actually, this is probably unfair to Coburn, who simply has a standing objection to any legislation that isn't fully paid for. That makes him something of a jackass, but not a moral monster. (See Daniel Schulman's piece about more Coburn obstructionism here, for example.)

But what's this business of Coburn putting a "hold" on the bill in question? I always thought holds were for nominees and filibusters were for legislation. So I asked about this via Twitter and was referred to.....Tom Coburn's Senate website, which explains:

A “hold” is placed when the Leader’s office is notified that a Senator intends to object to a request for unanimous consent (UC) from the Senate to consider or pass a measure....Holds can be overcome, but require time consuming procedures such as filing cloture. Cloture is a motion to end debate that requires 60 votes.

I'm still a little confused about this. If you mount a filibuster, you're basically informing the Senate leader that you intend to withhold unanimous consent to pass a bill. This can be overcome with a cloture motion, which requires 60 votes. Likewise, according to Coburn, if you place a hold, you're informing the Senate leader that you intend to withhold unanimous consent to pass a bill. This can be overcome with a cloture motion, which requires 60 votes. So why are there two different names for the exact same process?

On a related note, if the Lord's Army bill has 63 cosponsors, why not just bring it to the floor, cut off debate, and pass it? Coburn's filibuster/hold can delay the bill for a while, but he can't stop it. So what's the holdup?

UPDATE: As I expected, the holdup has to do with the delays involved in breaking a filibuster. But what exactly are those delays? The first is "ripening," which means that cloture motions aren't voted on until two days after they're introduced. But during those two days the Senate proceeds with other business, so that doesn't really cause any calendar difficulties.

The second is that there's a 30-hour post-cloture debate rule. So once cloture is voted on, Coburn and his pals can, if they want, chew up 30 hours of floor time with debate, amendments, quorum calls, etc. But they actually have to do it. If they don't, then presumably the Senate proceeds with other business and there's no real impact.

So the question is: is Coburn really willing to spend 30 hours on the floor for every one of these bills he puts a hold on? And since each senator is limited to one hour of post-cloture debate, can he round up enough friends to take up the rest of the time? Once or twice, maybe he could. But I wonder how many bills he'd be able to do this on before he (and the rest of the Republican caucus) ran out of steam?

There's probably more to it than this. There are a million ways to obstruct business in the Senate, after all, and most bills have to be voted on more than once. But although breaking a filibuster when you don't have 60 votes really is nearly impossible, it seems at least possible that post-cloture obstruction could be reduced a lot if Coburn's bluff were called a few times. Anyone with parliamentary expertise, though, is welcome to chime in on this.

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Skin in the Game

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 3:25 PM EST

Time's Barbara Kiviat is on a new healthcare plan:

I used to be charged co-pays. About $25 a pop for office visits. Now I am under a system of co-insurance. After my yearly deductible, I pay 10% of all my health care costs, up to an annual out-of-pocket maximum.

This has immediately changed my behavior. I hurt my ankle a while back, but how I did that and what is ultimately causing the pain is a mystery. My first foot doctor was stumped. I went to see another one a few weeks ago and [...] one of the technicians fetched me for an X-ray. I asked how much the X-ray would cost. He said he didn't know, but he could try to find out... or would I just like to wait and see the doctor first? I said I'd wait.

The doctor came in and asked me a few questions. I explained that I'd been to another doctor. I repeated what that doctor had told me about the X-ray I'd had at his office. My new doctor examined me and told me that another X-ray wouldn't tell him what he needed to know. And that was how I prevented my very first unnecessary medical test.

Kiviat is a fan even though the new plan costs her more than the old one. Just knowing how much everything costs — and being responsible for a chunk of it — makes her a better healthcare consumer.

Now, before the HMO/PPO revolution, this sort of plan was pretty standard and healthcare costs skyrocketed anyway. What's more, since a big part of healthcare spending is for emergency services that nobody shops around for and big ticket items that exceed the out-of-pocket caps on these plans, it's not clear how much this kind of "skin in the game" would really save. Still, with some caveats that I won't go into right now, I think this is a good idea. Even if the effect on healthcare inflation were modest, that's better than nothing. And taming healthcare costs isn't going to be done with one big idea; it's going to be done by implementing a whole bunch of little ideas that each have a small effect.

Still, as Kiviat notes, a minimum requirement for making this work is knowing how much healthcare costs you in the first place. And this is something that really does, in theory, have bipartisan support: Democrats and Republicans both say that doctors and hospitals should be transparent about the cost of all the various procedures they offer. And Rep. Steve Kagen (D–Wisconsin) has introduced a bill that would require just that. It says that healthcare providers shall:

publicly disclose, on a continuous basis, all prices for such items, products, services, or procedures in accordance with this section....The disclosure required under subsection (a) shall be made in an open and conspicuous manner; be made available at the point of purchase, in print, and on the Internet; and include all wholesale, retail, subsidized, discounted, or other such prices.

And there's the rub. There is no "price" for an ankle X-ray. There are only prices. If Kagen's bill were law, Kiviat would have been confronted with something like this:

X-Ray, Ankle, Single View

Medicare: $145
Medicaid: $98
Aetna: $156
   • With bundling discount: $141
Anthem Blue Cross: $157
   • After March 18, 2010: $203
Cigna: $168
Uninsured: $578
   • Discounted price if you complain hard enough: $275
   • Discounted price if you complain even harder: $198
Etc.

Actually, it would be way more complex than that. But you get the idea: it's not as simple as it sounds. However, this might be a feature, not a bug. Not only might healthcare consumption be improved by making prices transparent, but it might be improved by showing everyone just how arbitrarily different people are treated depending on what kind of insurance they have. It's worth a try.

The Right's Latest Derangement

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 2:16 PM EST

One of the things that I'm simultaneously impressed and repelled by is the right's ability to invent bizarre new smears where ordinary people would see no potential at all. How do they do it? The latest example comes from John McCormack at the Weekly Standard, whose headline blares:

Obama Now Selling Judgeships for Health Care Votes?

Where does this come from? It turns out that Obama has nominated University of Utah law professor Scott Matheson to a judgeship on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Matheson is the brother of a congressman, Jim Matheson, who will be voting on healthcare reform in a couple of weeks. "The timing of this nomination looks suspicious," McCormack says darkly. The acerbic Jon Chait, after noting Scott's stellar qualifications, comments:

McCormack, before proceeding to speculate that the nomination is intended to pay off his brother, does concede, "Matheson appears to have the credentials to be a judge." Come on, let's not be so naive here. Sure, he's a Stanford alum, Rhodes scholar, Yale Law School graduate, Harvard profesor, U.S. Attorney, and law school dean. Maybe that makes him "qualified" by the rock-bottom standards of this administration, even if he's no Harriet Miers.

The real problem here, I think, is that McCormack isn't really cut out for this kind of thing. This is Glenn Beck material, as he demonstrates so eloquently in his response to the news about Matheson: "Can I tell you something. How many times does someone from Utah need to be the linchpin that almost destroys the Republic?"

Now that's the ticket! Forget about healthcare and pivot immediately into some grand conspiracy theory about the role of Utah in the destruction of the Republic. Beck is even a Mormon, but he doesn't let that stop him. That's what we all admire about the guy.

Anyway, terrific stuff. Enjoy it while you can, because tomorrow it will be something new.

Grammar, Commas, and You

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 1:29 PM EST

Today is, apparently, National Grammar Day. James Joyner, in the course of musing on changes over his lifetime, says:

I never know where to put a comma anymore. We’ve certainly become much stingier in their use in recent years. The trailing comma in lists, for example, is gone.

Not on this blog, pal! I'll use the Oxford comma til the day I die. Never let The Man take away your commas.

Gossip Alert

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 1:04 PM EST

Via Drudge via Twitter, here's the latest from gossip site Radar.com:

EXCLUSIVE: John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, is seriously considering stepping down from the nation’s highest court for personal reasons, RadarOnline.com has learned exclusively.... RadarOnline.com has been told that Roberts, 55, could announce his decision at any time.

This is, obviously, not true.1 But what I'm curious about is where something like this comes from. When it's celebrity gossip, you figure it comes from one of the thousands of sycophants and hangers-on that infest Hollywood and the celebrity world in general. But the Supreme Court? Who the hell peddles phony gossip about the Supreme Court?

1Yes, yes, maybe it is true. Then I'll eat my words. But come on.

UPDATE: Question answered! It came from a Georgetown law professor who was playing a trick on his class. Apparently all it took was a quick text message from a student for this to hit the big time.