Kevin Drum

The Frakt Curve

| Mon Nov. 2, 2009 11:24 AM EST

You've heard of the Laffer Curve?  Today we get the Frakt Curve, courtesy of Austin Frakt, who suggests that trying to increase competition in the healthcare insurance market might reduce costs, but it might not.  It all depends on where we are on the curve:

[When insurer concentration is high] premiums are above the minimum possible level. Insurers are charging above the competitive premium level because they have excessive market power. In this region, higher premiums stem from higher insurer profits and/or lack of administrative efficiency....

[When insurer concentration is low] premiums are again above the minimum because insurers can’t negotiate down to the lowest possible price with providers. Providers have too much power relative to insurers and are charging prices above the competitive minimum. Insurers pass those high prices onto consumers through higher premiums. In this case, higher premiums stem from higher medical costs.

Austin's point is that to a large extent the healthcare battle is waged between insurers and providers.  Since the American healthcare system relies primarily on both private providers and private insurers (and this will be true even if a public option passes), we don't necessarily get the lowest costs when one side or the other is weakened, but when the two sides are fairly equally matched.  Thus, removing antitrust protection for insurers might lower costs or it might not.  It all depends on where we are on the curve right now.

Alternatively, we can try to move the entire curve downward.  Or we could ditch the whole thing and ask the Swedes to please design us a new healthcare system.  But in the absence of either of those things, where you are on the curve dictates whether and how much you need to rein in one half of the healthcare market vs. the other.

UPDATE: Michael Hiltzik makes the case for more insurance industry competition here.

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The Power of Couch Potato-ism

| Mon Nov. 2, 2009 12:28 AM EST

Guess what? Apparently DVRs aren't the commercial killers everyone was afraid they'd be.  Even though DVRs let you skip past ads, it turns out that lots of DVR users are too lazy to bother:

Against almost every expectation, nearly half of all people watching delayed shows are still slouching on their couches watching messages about movies, cars and beer. According to Nielsen, 46 percent of viewers 18 to 49 years old for all four networks taken together are watching the commercials during playback, up slightly from last year. Why would people pass on the opportunity to skip through to the next chunk of program content?

The most basic reason, according to Brad Adgate, the senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, a media buying firm, is that the behavior that has underpinned television since its invention still persists to a larger degree than expected.

“It’s still a passive activity,” he said.

Hard to believe.  Maybe lots of people actually like commercials?  I can't tolerate them, myself. Whenever a commercial break comes on, I start manically flipping through the channels looking for something else.  Maybe a few minutes of a ballgame.  A little bit of CNN.  Anything.  Having to sit through commercials is like having to eat breakfast without something to read in front of me: completely intolerable.

Which really means I should get a DVR and join the 54% of viewers who do skip ads.  Instead I watch shows at their regularly scheduled times and then immediately start channel surfing whenever commercials come on.  Sometimes I get back before the show starts back up, sometimes I don't.  Pretty dumb, I suppose.

Rick Santorum's Crystal Ball

| Sun Nov. 1, 2009 4:41 PM EST

Rick Santorum, yesterday:

When Assemblywomen Dede Scozzafava suspended her campaign because it appeared that her Conservative-party opponent, a Republican, stood a better chance to win on Tuesday she noted that she was a proud Republican....Her announcement today is a lesson to all of us — that even those in our party who may not agree with us on many of our core principles and positions not only still want to be on our team, but want us to win.

Dede Scozzafava today:

State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (R), who dropped from the special election in Upstate New York yesterday, has now thrown her support to Democrat Bill Owens.

"It's not in the cards for me to be your representative, but I strongly believe Bill is the only candidate who can build upon John McHugh's lasting legacy in the U.S. Congress," said Scozzafava in a statement released moments ago.

Italics mine.  Apparently Santorum's version of the Republican Party is not quite so popular as he thought.

Poll Flippery Explained!

| Sun Nov. 1, 2009 2:20 PM EST

Suppose you conduct an opinion poll and get answer X on a particular question.  If you follow up with a question like "But what if....." then X is likely to change.  But how much?  Is there some minimum amount of change you'll get no matter what followup question you ask?

I asked that question a couple of weeks ago, and Dave Munger of Cognitive Daily decided to investigate.  The result was a cheap-and-cheerful nonscientific online poll that gauged whether some people would change their minds no matter what the followup question was.  I've been sworn to secrecy until now, but here are the results:

While it is true that someone changed their answer for each question, in some cases, very few people did. Consider the responses to the question "Should the United States withdraw all troops from Afghanistan?"....While 35 percent of respondents said they'd change their answer if the US kept one base in Afghanistan to address only the terrorist threat, only 4 percent said they'd change their answer to the original question if the US also closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Aside from one genuinely out-of-the-blue question, that seems to have been the baseline: you can get 4% of your respondents to change their minds no matter what the followup is.  That's actually pretty low.

But there's more!  Who changes their minds more, liberals or conservatives?  Click to link to find out.

Media Trend Watch

| Sat Oct. 31, 2009 4:00 PM EDT

Old CW: Drudge rules their world.  New CW: Breitbart rules their world.  Jim DeMint gets it: "We don't need The Washington Post to cover things anymore.  Something can get on a conservative blog, then on Fox News, then it's everywhere."

Pundit Watch

| Sat Oct. 31, 2009 2:17 PM EDT

Good news!  The Washington Post has picked the ten finalists in its "America's Next Great Pundit" contest.  I know you don't have time to read them all, so I'll summarize:

Richter: Bring back the Office of Technology Assessment.
Haber: Where I come from, five plus one equals eight.  What's more, Nevada will both lose and gain a congressional seat after the 2010 census.
Martin: These days, everybody wants it all.  Also: my dad is driving my mother crazy.
Jackson: Barack Obama needs to stop whining.  Bush 43 wasn't so bad.
Gyamfi: Cable news is stupid.
Huffman: I want to be the next Dave Barry.
Esper: Healthcare is an important issue.
Khalil: Surprise! Arab-Americans watch Fox News.
Khan: Women like to yak, and Obama should capitalize on this.

I know what you're thinking: this is only nine columnists.  What's the deal?  Answer: there's a tenth, but for some reason her column isn't up yet.  Not sure why.

By the way, the ten winners include a Nobel Prize winner, a Bush 43 assistant secretary of commerce (guess which one), a senior correspondent for the American Prospect, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former researcher at the Kennedy School of Government, an Atlantic Media fellow, and a small-town newspaper editor.  Not exactly a crowd of just plain folks.  It might have been more fun to read the other 4,790 entries.

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Apocalypse Soon

| Sat Oct. 31, 2009 12:55 PM EDT

Via the mysterious Will, io9 has a guest post this week from Chanda Phelan, a graduate of Pomona College who recently completed a thesis on post-apocalyptic literature.  Basically, she looked at 423 books, poems, and short stories about the apocalypse (full list here) in order to try and divine trends on just what the fictional causes of fictional apocalypses are.  Fun!

Anyway, the result is a gigantic chart, partly excerpted below.  And some discussion:

I wanted to see if there were patterns in how writers saw the monster. As it turned out, the patterns were clearer than I imagined. Nuclear holocaust was really popular after 1945; that's to be expected. But the precipitous and permanent drop in nuclear war's popularity after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 (see chart)? That surprised me.

....The easily spotted trends make the patterns' total collapse in the mid-1990s even weirder. Human-created apocalypses shrink dramatically, and there's a sudden spike of unexplained apocalypse scenarios at the turn of the century. What happened? One possibility is that every End started to feel clichéd. The terror of a possible nuclear war faded, and no new extravagant ways to kill ourselves appeared to replace it.

My theory: most the explained apocalypses hightailed it to the movie theater, where practically the whole point of apocalyptic storytelling is to show you exactly how the planet is destroyed in loving IMAX/Technicolor/Dolby CGI detail.  This wouldn't really be on my mind except that I've now seen the trailer for 2012 about a hundred times — it feels like a hundred times, anyway — and apparently the purpose of the movie is to make the entire genre obsolete by rolling up every disaster movie trope ever invented into one ultimate 2-hour extravaganza never to be surpassed.  Everything will be destroyed.  Every manner of destroying things will be used.  Every cliche will be exploited.  When you're done, you will never need to see another disaster movie ever again!

Which is fine with me.  I'm just wondering if they'll even pretend to tell a story while all this mayhem is going on.  Or is that too old school these days?

POSTSCRIPT: I also have a question about the chart: what happened in 2000?  Not a single work of planet-ending fiction in the entire year?  Really?

Quotes of the Day

| Sat Oct. 31, 2009 11:20 AM EDT

From Maria Walter, United Airline's director of merchandising, on the barrage of innovative, second generation fees coming soon to a flight near you:

[Walter] told conference attendees that the airline wants passengers to see the new offers as "options," not as fees. "Options are different than fees," she said.

Walter was speaking at the Ancillary Revenue Airline Conference, an entire event dedicated to brainstorming newer, subtler, and more annoying fees.  And then there's this, from legendary LA talk show host Michael Jackson, on what the triumph of "vitriolic, unsympathetic, bombastic" talk radio means about America:

That we're amazing. That we can put up with all of that and more! It's the best country in the world.

I admire Jackson's optimism.  I don't really share it, but I admire it.

Shielding Reporters

| Fri Oct. 30, 2009 9:05 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that a deal on a federal shield law is near:

The Obama administration, leading Senate Democrats and a coalition of news organizations have reached tentative agreement on legislation providing greater protections against fine or imprisonment to reporters who refuse to identify confidential sources.

....Protection under the so-called shield law would also be extended to unpaid bloggers engaged in gathering and disseminating news.

....In civil cases, the litigants seeking to force reporters to testify would first have to exhaust all other means of obtaining the information. Even then, the judge would apply a “balancing test,” and the burden would be on the information seekers to show by a “preponderance of the evidence” why their need for the testimony outweighed the public’s interest in news gathering.

Ordinary criminal cases, as in prosecutors’ effort to find out who leaked grand jury information about professional athletes’ steroid use to The San Francisco Chronicle, would work the same way, except that the balancing test would be heavily tilted in favor of prosecutors....Most cases involving disclosure of classified information would work the same way as criminal cases.

This is....better than nothing, I suppose.  But most of the high-profile trials of the past few years that involved confidential sources have been criminal cases, and it doesn't sound as if this compromise proposal provides very much real-world protection in these cases.  But news organizations support it, so maybe it's better than it sounds.  I'll be curious to hear some media lawyers weigh in on it.

The Pause That Distresses

| Fri Oct. 30, 2009 8:34 PM EDT

I happen to think that the evils of sugary soft drinks have probably been a wee bit overblown, but even at that it's a little hard to believe that the American Academy of Family Physicians would create a "corporate partnership" with Coca-Cola that's designed to "develop consumer education content related to beverages and sweeteners" in return for a six-figure fee.  And yet they did.

I'm not surprised they did this, mind you.  I'm just surprised they sold out so cheaply.  Seems like this ought to be worth at least a million bucks or so.