Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 27 March 2015

| Fri Mar. 27, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

Today I get to spend six hours in a chair getting Cytoxan pumped into my body. So this is it. No more tests or consults. This is the first actual step in the second stage of my chemotherapy. Following this infusion, I will spend a week injecting myself with a drug that (a) stimulates white blood cell production and (b) will apparently make me feel like I have the flu. Next, I spend a week in LA sitting in a chair several hours a day while they extract stem cells from my body. Then a week of rest and then the stem cell transplant itself, which will put me out of commission for a minimum of three weeks.

So no blogging today. Next week is iffy. Probably nothing much the week after that either. Then maybe some blogging during my rest week. And then I'll go offline probably completely for a month or so. It all depends on just how quickly I recover from the transplant. We'll see.

In the meantime, here are Hopper and Hilbert, hale and hearty as ever. Have a nice weekend, everyone.

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Democrats Should Pass the Doc Fix Bill

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 5:07 PM EDT

A bill to permanently reform the ridiculous annual charade over the Medicare "doc fix" passed the House today:

The House overwhelmingly approved sweeping changes to the Medicare system on Thursday, in the most significant bipartisan policy legislation to pass through that chamber since the Republicans regained a majority in 2011.

The measure, which would establish a new formula for paying doctors and end a problem that has bedeviled the nation’s health care system for more than a decade, has already been blessed by President Obama, and awaits a vote in the Senate. The bill would also increase premiums for some higher income beneficiaries and extend a popular health insurance program for children.

But of course there's a problem:

Senate Democrats have been resistant to provisions in the bill that preserve restrictions on the use of federal money for abortion services and extend a children’s health program for only two years, but they are expected to eventually work with Senate Republicans to pass the measure.

This is similar to the problem with the bipartisan human trafficking bill, which Senate Democrats filibustered last week because of a provision that none of its funds could be used to pay for abortions.

I suppose this will get me a lot of flack for being a sellout, but I think Dems should approve both bills. Yes, the abortion provisions are annoying, and go slightly beyond similar language that's been in appropriations bills for decades. But slightly is the operative word here. Like it or not, Republicans long ago won the battle over using federal funds for abortions. Minor affirmations of this policy simply don't amount to much aside from giving Republicans some red meat for their base.

This is mostly symbolic, not substantive. Let's pass the bills.

More Welfare = More Entrepreneurs? Maybe!

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 2:09 PM EDT

Walter Frick writes in the Atlantic about recent research which suggests that a strong social safety net increases entrepreneurship. For example, one researcher found that expansion of the food stamp program led to a higher chance that eligible households would start new businesses:

Interestingly, most of these new entrepreneurs didn’t actually enroll in the food stamp program. It seems that expanding the availability of food stamps increased business formation by making it less risky for entrepreneurs to strike out on their own. Simply knowing that they could fall back on food stamps if their venture failed was enough to make them more likely to take risks.

The same is true of other programs. For example, the Children’s Health Insurance Program:

By comparing the rate of entrepreneurship of those who just barely qualified for CHIP to those whose incomes just barely exceeded the cutoff, he was able to estimate the program’s impact on new business creation. The rate of incorporated business ownership for those eligible households just below the cutoff was 31 percent greater than for similarly situated families that could not rely on CHIP to care for their children if they needed it.

The same is true of recent immigrants to the United States. Contrary to claims by the right that welfare keeps immigrants from living up to their historic role as entrepreneurs, CHIP eligibility increased those households’ chances of owning an incorporated business by 28 percent.

The mechanism in each case is the same: publicly funded insurance lowers the risk of starting a business, since entrepreneurs needn’t fear financial ruin. (This same logic explains why more forgiving bankruptcy laws are associated with more entrepreneurship.)

Personally, I'd tentatively file this under the category of news that's a little too good to be true. After all, I'm a liberal. I want to believe this! And I haven't noticed that European rates of entrepreneurship are especially great, despite the fact that their safety net is much stronger than ours.

Still, what's true in America might be different from what's true in Europe. Different cultures etc. So it's worth reading the whole piece, which is generally pretty nuanced in its claims. At the very least, though, it certainly suggests that a strong safety net doesn't hurt entrepreneurship.

Eventually, Two Billionaires Will Duke It Out For President Every Four Years

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 12:20 PM EDT

This is from yesterday, but I really can't pass it up. Matea Gold and Tom Hamburger write in the Washington Post that presidential candidates are no longer much interested in "bundlers" who can raise a paltry million dollars or so for their campaigns. Terry Neese, a successful bundler for George W. Bush, is their poster child:

This year, no potential White House contender has called — not even Bush’s brother, Jeb. As of early Wednesday, the only contacts she had received were e-mails from staffers for two other likely candidates; both went to her spam folder.

“They are only going to people who are multi-multimillionaires and billionaires and raising big money first,” said Neese, who founded a successful employment agency. “Most of the people I talk to are kind of rolling their eyes and saying, ‘You know, we just don’t count anymore.’ ”

....In the words of one veteran GOP fundraiser, traditional bundlers have been sent down to the “minor leagues,” while mega-donors are “the major league players.”

The old-school fundraisers have been temporarily displaced in the early money chase because of the rise of super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations. This year, White House hopefuls are rushing to raise money for the groups before they declare their candidacies and have to keep their distance.

So does this matter? Does it matter whether candidates get contributions from a thousand millionaires vs. a hundred billionaires? Are their political views really very different?

In a way, I suppose not. Rich is rich. One difference, though, might be in the way specific industries get treated. If you take a ton of money from Sheldon Adelson or the Koch Brothers, you're more likely to oppose internet gambling and specific energy-related regulations than you might be if you were simply taking money from a whole bunch of different gambling and energy millionaires.

On a broader note, though, it has the potential to alienate the electorate even more. Things are bad enough already, but when it becomes clear that presidential candidates are practically being bought and sold by a literal handful of the ultra-rich, how hard is to remain uncynical about politics? Pretty hard.

In the end, maybe this doesn't matter so much. Big money is big money, and most people are already convinced that big money controls things in Washington DC. Still, as bad as things are, they can always get worse. Eventually, perhaps each successful candidate will be fully funded by a single billionaire willing to take a flyer with pocket money to see if they can get their guy elected. This is not a healthy world we're building.

Middle East War Suddenly Getting a Lot More Warlike

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 11:17 AM EDT

I'm a little behind on the news right now, but it sure looks like things are getting a whole lot hotter in the Middle East. Here are a few headlines:

Saudi Jets Strike Yemen in Bid to Halt Houthis

Tikrit airstrikes draw U.S. into battle between militants and Iraqi forces

Obama Says He Will Delay Withdrawal of U.S. Troops from Afghanistan

Iran-backed rebels loot Yemen files about U.S. spy operations

U.S. Role in Middle East Revamped Amid Chaos

That last headline comes from the Wall Street Journal, and seems to sum things up pretty well. The story includes this:

[Kenneth] Pollack, the former CIA analyst, said the military campaign in Yemen is unlikely to have a positive effect on the country’s fractured dynamics.

“The idea that this is going to produce some kind of a peaceful settlement is ridiculous,” Mr. Pollack said. “The more likely outcome is it just prolongs the stalemate.” The Persian Gulf countries could consider the use of ground troops to make progress, which should be a concern for the U.S., he said.

What could go wrong?

Housekeeping Note

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 6:27 PM EDT

I'll be busy with various tests and doctor appointments all day Wednesday, so no blogging. I should be back on Thursday, health permitting.

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Has Israel Given Up On Democrats?

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 11:46 AM EDT

Israel is doing its best to spy on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West. No surprise there. But the Obama administration believes they've taken things too far:

The spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal, current and former U.S. officials said....The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.

....“People feel personally sold out,” a senior administration official said. “That’s where the Israelis really better be careful because a lot of these people will not only be around for this administration but possibly the next one as well.”

The upshot of all this is that support for Israel is rapidly becoming a partisan issue. “If you’re wondering whether something serious has shifted here, the answer is yes,” a senior U.S. official said. “These things leave scars.” This is not likely to be good for Israel in the long term.

Television Is a Vast Disease-Laden Wasteland

| Mon Mar. 23, 2015 2:57 PM EDT

Jason Millman writes:

Maybe you've noticed that prescription drug ads are everywhere these days — more so than usual. You wouldn't be wrong.

Oh yes, I've noticed. It's one reason I watch less TV than I might otherwise—especially shows that are pitched to, um, mature demographics. I feel like I'm simply bombarded with ads about terrible diseases and all the terrible side effects that the advertised drugs might cause. Maybe I'm just having a harder time tuning out this stuff than usual, but I find it immensely depressing to be surrounded by reminders of disease every time I turn on the TV. Anyone else feel the same way?

Beware the Hype of New Medical Studies

| Mon Mar. 23, 2015 12:58 PM EDT

Julia Belluz thinks the democratization of medical research may have gone too far:

I often wonder whether there is any value in reporting very early research. Journals now publish their findings, and the public seizes on them, but this wasn't always the case: journals were meant for peer-to-peer discussion, not mass consumption.

Working in the current system, we reporters feed on press releases from journals and it's difficult to resist the siren call of flashy findings. We are incentivized to find novel things to write about, just as scientists and research institutions need to attract attention to their work. Patients, of course, want better medicines, better procedures — and hope.

But this cycle is hurting us, and it's obscuring the truths research has to offer.

The truth, Belluz says, is that virtually all initial studies of promising new therapies fail to pan out. Only 6 percent of new journal articles each year are well-designed and relevant enough to inform patient care. Of these, only a fraction end up in a product that successfully makes it to market.

Dr. Oz may be the face of bad medical advice, but the fact is that it's all around us. We're all desperate for cures—I'd certainly like to see one for multiple myeloma—but most of them just don't go anywhere. Belluz has more about the siren call of new miracle cures at the link.

Three Cheers For the California Miracle!

| Mon Mar. 23, 2015 11:21 AM EDT

Oh dear. Here's some bad news for Ted Cruz on his very first day as an official presidential candidate:

For years, business lobbyists complained about what they derided as "job killer" laws that drive employers out of California. Rival state governors, notably former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, made highly publicized visits to the Golden State in hopes of poaching jobs.

But new numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tell a different story. Total jobs created in the 12 months ending Jan. 31 show California leading other states. California gained 498,000 new jobs, almost 30% more than the Lone Star State's total of 392,900 for the same period.

Them's the breaks. There's no more "Texas Miracle" for either Cruz or Rick Perry. We're in the middle of a California Miracle right now.

So how is Sodom on the Pacific pulling this off? Actually, that's pretty easy to answer. California was hit hard by the housing bubble, while Texas wasn't. So California's economy took a big hit during the recession and the slow recovery, while Texas did pretty well—aided and abetted by a rise in oil prices.

Now everything has turned around. California is rebounding strongly from the housing crisis while Texas is suffering from the global collapse in oil prices. There is, frankly, nothing very miraculous about either story. It's just the business cycle at work in a fairly normal and predictable way.

In fact, you may recall that there was never much of a Texas Miracle in the first place. It was mostly just PR bluster, as the chart on the right shows. The thick green line shows the unemployment rate in Texas compared to its neighboring states, and Texas is right smack in the middle—and it always has been. It's better than half a dozen nearby states and worse than another half dozen. It is, sad to say, entirely average. That's not something Texans are likely to take kindly to, but numbers don't lie.