Is Mitt Romney really the Gordon Gekko of presidential candidates thanks to his years of running Bain Capital? Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry sure seem to think so, accusing him of making his millions by wreaking wholesale devastation on innocent companies and hardworking laborers. This is, as you might expect, just a wee bit over the top. Still, before we dismiss the comparison entirely, Dean Baker lists a few of the Gekko-like behaviors that real-life private equity firms sometimes engage in:

It is standard practice for private equity to load firms with debt. This means that taxable profits are turned into tax-deductible interest payments. The difference can be a gain to Bain and other private equity firms, but it is coming at the expense of taxpayers.

In the same vein, private equity companies often engage in complex asset shifting. This can leave a heavily indebted firm with few valuable assets. If it eventually goes bankrupt, the creditors collect little money because the private equity company has transferred the assets with value into an independent company. This can also mean big profits for Bain and other private equity companies, but this is not a gain to the economy.

Another frequent game of private equity companies is to dump pension obligations on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. The reduction in liabilities can mean big profits for Bain and other private equity companies, but does not provide any benefit to the economy.

This, then, is the assignment for some enterprising reporter. Did Bain Capital do this kind of thing during Romney's stint there? Or did they really and truly just work hard to try and turn failing companies around by applying state-of-the-art management techniques? I expect answers from our nation's press corps soon, just as soon as they finish spitballing over whether John Bolton's endorsement of Mitt will finally bring the paranoid wingnut vote solidly into his camp.

A couple of days ago I wrote a post about the cost growth of Medicare compared to the cost growth of private healthcare, along with a bit of speculation for the reason that private healthcare costs have grown faster. The post was a bit rushed, and I'll probably try to expand on it in the future. For now, though, I just want to present a couple of pieces of raw data comparing Medicare costs to private healthcare costs. First, here are the basic BLS figures on overall growth trends, with 1992 indexed to 100:

This tells us that overall costs of private healthcare have grown faster than Medicare, but it doesn't tell us why. It might be demographic, it might be because private insurers cover more procedures, or it might be due to cost growth of specific procedures. The latter is the one I'm most interested in at the moment, so here's a bit of data from a paper by James Robinson earlier this year:

We now know two things:

  • The overall cost of private healthcare has risen faster than Medicare over the past couple of decades.
  • The current price of specific procedures is higher for private insurers than for Medicare.

But here's what we don't know:

  • Has the price of specific procedures gone up faster for private insurers than for Medicare?

Unfortunately, it appears that time series data on specific procedures isn't available, so we don't really know whether private insurers have put as much pressure on providers to keep prices down as Medicare has. It's a good guess that they haven't, but you can't tell for sure from this data. What's worse, even if we assume they haven't done a good job of controlling costs, it's still pretty difficult to say why. These numbers are averages, and they vary by region, by level of competitiveness, by the possibilities for cost shifting, and so forth. More on this later.

Yuval Levin over at The Corner;

I know we’re all supposed to think that the primaries are poised to turn out a weak Republican nominee and that President Obama will swoop in this fall and carry the day with some brilliant pincer move that simultaneously dubs the Republican too extreme, too moderate, too boring, and too weird…

I'm not picking on Levin here, but every once in a while I read something like this and I wonder who they're talking about. Is there anyone on Planet Earth who thinks that Obama is just going to waltz to victory in November? Who exactly are these pundits who have apparently been banging the drum about Obama's November cakewalk? Nobody I read, that's for sure. As near as I can tell, it's nearly unanimous conventional wisdom that this is going to be a very close race despite the fact that the Republican field is weak. Hell, Intrade has only intermittently put Obama's chances over 60 percent for the past year, and he's barely been better than an even bet for the past six months.

At the same time, I also happen to think that Levin is being a wee bit too pessimistic when he hauls out a few bits of polling and economic data that, he says, "suggests there is no self-evident path to re-election for the president." I think Obama's record is a little more popular than he thinks, that Republican obstructionism is a fatter target than he admits, and that Mitt Romney has some glaring weaknesses that Team Obama is going to rip into mercilessly. So Obama is hardly a dead duck. But he's not a shoo-in either, and I really don't think anyone over the past year or so has ever suggested he is.

From the Washington Post today:

An Iranian scientist involved in purchasing equipment for the Islamic Republic’s main uranium-enrichment facility was assassinated Wednesday when a magnetic bomb attached to his car exploded in morning rush-hour traffic, Iranian media reported.

....The killing bore strong resemblance to two 2010 attacks on nuclear scientists and came on the same day as a ceremony for the third anniversary of the killing of another professor, Massoud Ali Mohammadi, who also died in an explosion.

As far as I know, there's no firm evidence that the United States is responsible for this. Maybe Israel has planned and carried out all these attacks. Maybe there's some other explanation. 

But it's hardly farfetched to think that the U.S. is involved, one way or another. And if we are, it means we're in the business of deliberately targeting Iranian civilians for death, with the goal of frightening their scientists and thus slowing down Iran's nuclear program. There is, needless to say, a word that describes the act of killing civilians as a way of spreading fear and alarm. We all know what it is, don't we?

I can't think of anything super insightful to say about this, but the Pew Economic Mobility Project has a new fact sheet out that includes the chart below. In the early 70s, most women who got divorces suffered a large income drop while very few divorced men did. Today, the numbers are about equal. Likewise, the number of divorced women whose income increases substantially following a divorce has nearly doubled. The basic reason for this is pretty obvious, and the data itself isn't new, but it's still kind of interesting to see the raw numbers.

Ezra Klein on Jon Huntsman's third-place showing in last night's primary:

Huntsman's weak finish led many to suggest that the GOP was no place for moderates. But the truth is that Huntsman's campaign didn't prove that, or anything like it. For all Huntsman's signaling and hinting, his policy platform is no more moderate than Romney's. In fact, it might be less moderate.

Ezra goes on to explain that on a policy level, Huntsman is actually one of the most conservative guys in the race. And he's right. It's endlessly annoying to hear pundits refer to him as a moderate kind of guy without, seemingly, knowing anything about his actual political views.

And yet, it's not entirely baseless. Policy isn't the only thing that matters, after all, and I'd argue that Huntsman quite likely is moderate in two important ways. The first is the one that lots of people have already pointed out: he doesn't spend all his time making apocalyptic statements about Barack Obama being the anti-Christ and Democrats leading the United States into penury and decline. He says he believes in evolution and global warming rather than claiming these are vast conspiracies of the scientific community. This kind of thing matters.

But there's something else that matters even more, and that's the second way in which Huntsman is genuinely moderate. This is, granted, supposition on my part, but I suspect that Huntsman is more willing to compromise than most of the other candidates. He might want to cut the capital gains rate to zero, but if he could strike a deal with Democrats for a useful bit of tax reform that didn't include a cap gains cut, I think he'd probably do it. He's not beholden to the tea party base for anything, he's not committed to a worldview in which compromise is treason, and as president he'd be free to horse-trade and negotiate in normal presidential fashion. I'm not so sure that, say, Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich would want to, and I'm not sure that Mitt Romney would feel able to. This is a big deal.

Of course, he's not going to win this year, so none of this matters immediately. But we might see him again in 2016.

I guess I'm expected to say something about tonight's primary. So here it is. Mitt Romney has always been the inevitable nominee. After Iowa, he continued to be the inevitable nominee. After tonight, he is, still, the inevitable nominee. In other words, nothing happened.

I've been talking with the MoJo brain trust for a while about whether we should require registration for commenters. The pros and cons are fairly obvious, I think, and we've pretty much come to the conclusion that we should do it. Before we do, though, I wanted to run it by my readers. If you like the idea, which would probably improve the general tone of commenting, let us know. If you hate the idea because you'd have to register, let us know. This is your chance to weigh in.

In comments, of course.

From Ars Technica:

Aaron Swartz [] was arrested Tuesday on charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, “unlawfully obtaining information from,” and “recklessly damaging” a “protected computer.” He is accused of downloading 4.8 million documents from the academic archive JSTOR, in violation of its terms of use, and of evading MIT’s efforts to stop him from doing so.

Swartz is a founder of the advocacy organization Demand Progress. In a statement, Demand Progress executive director David Segal blasted the arrest. “It’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library,” he said. Demand Progress also quoted James Jacobs, the Government Documents Librarian at Stanford University, who said that the arrest “undermines academic inquiry and democratic principles.”

This affair has raised a lot of hackles among the infovore set, but I'm a little stumped about why I should be outraged. As James Joyner says, maybe this should have been a civil matter, not a criminal one (though Swartz did break into an MIT network closet to do all this), but beyond that does anyone really think JSTOR should just sit idly by as their entire archive is downloaded? Would the librarians at Stanford sit idly by if someone backed up a semi and started shoveling hundreds of thousands of books into it? Sure, there's no evidence that you're planning to steal the books. Maybe you intend to return them all in two weeks. But come on. Are we really all expected to be that stupid?

Likewise, Swartz may say that he had no intention of putting his 4.8 million documents online, but come on. It's a pretty safe assumption, no? Swartz's suggestion that he just wanted to perform a research project is a wee bit improbable.

As near as I can tell, Swartz is basically engaging in civil disobedience, publicly breaking a law that he considers unjust in order to generate publicity. Fine. But one of the tenets of civil disobedience is that you accept that you're breaking the law and accept the consequences. Now he is.

UPDATE: This story is actually several months old. Sorry for not noticing that.

The Week So Far

What have we learned over the past couple of days? A short list:

This is going to be a fun year, isn't it?