Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 May 2015

| Fri May 29, 2015 2:30 PM EDT

For the past two weeks, Hopper and Hilbert have apparently been fighting a rearguard battle over their latest acquisition: a cardboard box. Hilbert took possession first, but Hopper got into the act pretty quickly. Her expression is clearly a declaration that this is her box now, and other cats better stay away. I'm reliably informed that she backed this up with some fancy paw action and sent Hilbert scampering away.

And with that, let's all give three cheers for my sister, who has taken such good care of Hilbert and Hopper that we're not sure they'll even recognize us when they come home. I should add that her six weeks of catsitting was an even bigger favor than you might think, given H&H's penchant for destruction of anything left lying around accidentally. But tomorrow they come home. Marian has been catproofing our house for the past week, and on Saturday Karen will deliver the furballs back to us. I'm sure they'll show us very quickly if there are any catproofing spots we missed.

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News Flash: Bill Clinton Has a Pretty High Speaking Fee

| Fri May 29, 2015 1:36 PM EDT

Over in the New York Times today, Deborah Sontag has a 2,000-word piece about a charity called the Happy Hearts Fund. There seem to be two big takeaways: (a) celebrities use their fame to promote their charities, and (b) Bill Clinton usually won't appear at your event for free. His speaking fee is a donation to the Clinton Foundation. In this particular case, Happy Hearts donated $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation, and in return Clinton appeared at their event to receive a lifetime achievement award.

I'm racking my brain here. I know I'm partisan about this and would just as soon not attribute dark motives to Clinton. But even putting that aside, what's the story here? Celebrities use their fame to promote their pet causes? Bill Clinton commands a high speaking fee? Is there something that's even unsavory about this, let alone scandalous? Is there something that's out of the ordinary or not already common knowledge? If the story featured, say, George W. Bush instead of Clinton, would I be more outraged? What am I missing?

If You Want to Be Part of the Top 1 Percent, You'd Better Be Working For a Top 1 Percent Firm

| Fri May 29, 2015 11:53 AM EDT

What has caused the explosive growth of income inequality over the past three decades? Is it the fact the CEO pay has skyrocketed, leaving everyone else behind? Maybe. But according to a new paper, that's not quite the right story.

Basically a group of researchers at NBER have concluded that inequality between firms has skyrocketed, and employees of those firms all go along for the ride. A small number of "super firms" have become enormously successful, and within these super firms inequality between the CEO and the worker bees hasn't changed much at all. They pay all their employees more than the average firm, from the CEO down.

The chart on the right tells the story. Ignore the green line for the moment and just look at the blue and red lines. The red line shows that the top tenth of firms have far outperformed everyone else. The blue line shows that workers follow the same pattern. The ones who work for the top firms get paid a lot more than the folks who work for average firms.

As it turns out, some industries have more super firms than others and thus contribute more to growing income inequality. The FIRE sector—Finance, Insurance, Real Estate—is the most obvious example. Both firm revenue and individual compensation has gone up far more than in any sector. But other sectors have their superstars too, and individuals at those firms get paid a lot more than a similar worker at a firm that's not doing so well.

So in addition to talking about the top 1% of individuals, we should be talking about the top 1% of firms. But what does that mean? Things get a little hazy at this point:

Instead of top incomes rising within firms, top-paying firms are now paying even higher wages. This may tend to make inequality more invisible, as individuals do not see rising inequality among their peers. More research needs to be done to understand why inequality between firms has increased so much more than inequality within them. But this fact of stable inequality within firms should inform our understanding of the great increase in inequality within the United States over the last three decades.

Matt O'Brien suggests that this means nearly every industry is now part of the winner-take-all economy. In the same way that modern technology allows a tiny subset of superstar singers or actors to earn huge audiences (and huge paychecks), perhaps it also enables modern firms to do the same. And it could be self-reinforcing. The super firms can afford to hire the best workers, and that in turn drives even more unequal growth.

In any case, if the authors are right, it matters a lot which firm you work for. If you pick the right one, you might ride the income inequality gravy train right to the top. In not, you probably won't.

Economy Shrinks in Q1; Annual Growth Still Stuck in the Doldrums

| Fri May 29, 2015 10:29 AM EDT

Today brings disappointing economic news. The economy didn't just grow slowly in the first quarter, it actually shrunk by 0.7 percent. As usual, winter weather is getting part of the blame, and some economists are going even further, wondering if we need to step back and take a look at the formula for seasonal adjustments. Perhaps, for some reason, the formula is no longer reflecting reality during the winter quarter.

Maybe. But what this shows is that although the US economy continues to putter along in decent shape, it still hasn't reached takeoff velocity. The economy has been growing at a rate of 2-3 percent per year for the past five years, and there's little evidence this is going to change anytime soon.

Havana Nights, Indoors

| Fri May 29, 2015 9:00 AM EDT

Friend of the blog Jay Jaroch recently spent some time in Cuba. Here's the third of three posts about what he observed while he was there.


One of the nice things about getting out of LA is taking a break from listening to your friends talk about all the television shows they can’t believe you’re not watching. I’m not sure I’ll be accepted back at work until I’ve turned in my term paper on the Mad Men finale. In terms of getting a reprieve, I figured Cuba was as good a place as any.

Little did I know that many Cubans are binge watching the same shows we are.

“I watched all seasons of Dexter,” one Havana man told a wide-eyed me. “Now I’m watching The Following. You like The Following?”

“Which one is that?” I asked.

“With Kevin Bacon.”

“Oh, right.”

Homeland, Game of Thrones, Orange Is the New Black—you name it. They may be a few episodes behind your friends in the states, but not by much. In a country where cable and satellite dishes are banned, and internet service is mostly confined to hotels and about as functional as the dial-up days, Cubans get their favorite shows via something called “the package.” Basically, it’s a cross between Netflix and a drug deal—for a small fee and a handshake, someone will hook you up with a flash drive full of Hollywood.

“You order what you want to see, which season, and a few days later you get the package,” a guide in Havana explained to me. “With Spanish subtitles. A good way to learn English.”

It was technically illegal, but also ubiquitous. And apparently Raul’s government doesn’t care.

“As long as you are not bringing in pornography, they don’t bother you,” the guide said.

(Cuba takes their anti-pornography laws seriously. My surly immigration official asked me only two questions: had I been to any Ebola affected areas, and was I bringing in pornography? One got the sense that you could have just about anything in your bag so long as it wasn’t an old copy of Swank.)

Another option in Havana was to watch TV in one of the better hotels, some of which were equipped with cable for their international clientele. One man I met seemed to be more up on American television than I was, and I work in television. I almost wanted to say “Clear eyes, full hearts!” just to see if he’d yell, “Can’t lose!” back at me.

Don’t worry. I didn’t.

This is new territory, and not for Hollywood—we’re used to having our product stolen and distributed on foreign streets. As recently as a few years ago, getting any sort of American dispatch, much less television, would have been impossible in Cuba. In 2006, at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (what passes for our embassy) we began broadcasting news and pro-American messages from an electronic ticker we’d installed at the top of the building. In response, Castro’s government erected 140 flagpoles in front of the ticker so Cubans couldn’t see the messages. Now, in 2015, Cubans are freely downloading American Idol, or any of our wonderful shows about pawn shops.

Change is afoot, and there’s certainly more to come. As I sat waiting for my flight out of José Martí Airport, half of the lights in the terminal flickered, and then went out. None of the electronic screens worked, and there was little evidence that they ever had. An announcement came over the loudspeaker telling us that the air conditioning was also out, and that they were working on it. No one seemed surprised at any of this. We all just continued fanning ourselves with our boarding passes.

As my Cubana plane finally arrived at the gate, I noticed an American Airlines plane was landing on the runway. It seemed appropriate. In Cuba, nobody knows what kind of change is on its way. But everyone knows that it’s coming.

Health Update

| Thu May 28, 2015 6:53 PM EDT

I spent all morning up at City of Hope for a follow-up appointment with my transplant doctor. My counts all look good. My white blood count is 5500 and my ANC count is at 2800. Both are right in the middle of the normal range, which means my immune system is rebounding as expected. That's very encouraging.

On the actual cancer front, the lab results are frustratingly hazy. The key thing my doctor wants to see is a big drop in my M protein level. Today I got the results from two weeks ago (it takes a while for the lab to do this particular test), and my M protein level had dropped from 1.0 to 0.38. The good news is that this means I responded to the chemotherapy. The hazier news is that it hasn't dropped to zero, as we'd like it to. I won't have the results of today's test until next week, but hopefully it will show a drop that gets me close to zero. Following that, around the end of June, I'll have a biopsy that will provide firm results on how well I responded to the chemo.

So....we wait. I'm not super thrilled with the 0.38 number, but my doctor assures me that this might represent nothing more than old cells lying around that haven't quite died off yet. We'll see.

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Americans Now Approve of Suicide, But Only With a Doctor's Note

| Thu May 28, 2015 10:59 AM EDT

Via Matt Yglesias, here's an interesting Gallup poll measuring American attitudes toward a variety of social behaviors. Unsurprisingly, there's been a general shift leftward. Support is higher than it was 2001 for gay relations, sex between unmarried partners, medical research on human embryos, etc. Here's the full table, with the result I found oddest highlighted in red:

Note that the moral acceptability of suicide has gone up slightly, but it's still very low. Less than one-fifth of the country approves of it. But doctor-assisted suicide is a whole different story. More than half of all Americans approve of it.

I'm not quite sure what this means. Does approval by a guy in a white coat really mean that much to most Americans? Is there an assumption that "doctor-assisted" means that everything possible has been done to talk the patient out of suicide? Or is there an assumption that doctor-assisted suicide is always for people with end-stage diseases that leave them in constant pain?

I'm not sure. In any case, it's also worth noting that public opinion has barely budged on several hot button issues. In particular, support for abortion, cloning, marital affairs, and the death penalty remains virtually unchanged over the past 15 years.

Cubans Really Don't Like Marco Rubio

| Thu May 28, 2015 9:00 AM EDT

Friend of the blog Jay Jaroch recently spent some time in Cuba. Here's the second of three posts about what he observed while he was there.


For obvious reasons, it can be difficult to get a Cuban to open up about their political views. It usually took some time to establish trust, and a certain amount of privacy. Sharing a few rum drinks didn’t seem to hurt either.

But they often did open up, especially when I offered to answer any questions they had for me. And the one question virtually everyone had was this: is Hillary Clinton going to be the next president? When I’d tell them I gave her a 75%-80% chance of winning based on demographic trends alone, they’d exhale. It wasn’t because they had any particular love for Hillary Clinton. It’s that they expected that she would continue Obama’s Cuba policies, whereas a Republican president would reinstate the full embargo. So, viva Hillary.

The more interesting thing, to me, was that they saved a particular brand of venom for Marco Rubio. Cab drivers, bartenders, artists—everyone seem to have something to say about Marco Rubio, and none of it was kind. A few suggested that as a Cuban-American Rubio should display some concern for economic struggles of every day Cubans, or to at least recognize that he was afforded an opportunity that millions of poorer Cubans never had, namely having parents who moved to the United States before Castro took over. (Or as Rubio used to tell it, barely escaping the revolution while Castro personally shot at their raft.) The fact that he was pledging to double down on the embargo was a pledge to make their lives worse, to deny them the new hope they’ve been given these last few years, all to suck up to the aging exile community in Florida.

Yes, I found something Cubans don’t like about America—it’s where Marco Rubio lives.

President Obama, on the other hand, received a fair amount of praise. According to a recent Gallup survey, Obama enjoys a 80% approval rating among Cubans. And it was pretty obvious why. “I loved Obama when he was elected,” one man in Havana told me. “Then I hated him when he turned out to be like every other president. But now, I like him again.”

Not surprisingly, when it came to their view of American politics and politicians, the embargo was a bit of a litmus test. Opinions on our Cuba policy ranged from anger to bewilderment. One man in Cienfuegos asked me, “Why do you bother? You have all the money. We are a poor island. Only 11 million people. Why do you care?”

Another made a smart point. “Our government blames all our problems on you. If you don’t have the embargo, then who can they blame?”

A visit to the Museo de la Revolución in Havana drove the man’s point home. Before you even exit the lobby you come to the Rincon de los Cretinos, or “The Corner of the Pricks.” Four panels featuring cartoon versions of Fulgencio Batista, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, each with a note of thanks translated into three languages.

On George W. Bush’s panel the note read, “Thank you cretin for helping us MAKE SOCIALISM IRREVOCABLE!”

Socialism was misspelled.

Next: How Cubans binge-watch American television.

Health Update

| Wed May 27, 2015 2:39 PM EDT

Last Saturday I wrote a post whining about how tired and nauseous I was and how I crashed every day around 2 pm. I wrote that post a little before noon, and then....nothing. No crash. Sunday: no crash. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday: no crash. And the nausea has improved dramatically. There are two possible explanations for this:

  • It's just a coincidence.
  • Whining in public is really therapeutic and helped me feel better.

So which is it? Who knows. I suppose it was just a coincidence, but that's not a very satisfying explanation for us pattern-obsessed primates, is it? In any case, I'm still tired and I still make sure to rest frequently throughout the day. But my energy level is distinctly better than last week, and my nausea is clearly getting better too. Genuine progress! Hooray!

Unfortunately, the foul taste in my mouth is still hanging around. In theory, full recovery from the chemo side effects should take 6-7 weeks, and I'm now at week 5. Hopefully this means in another week or two I'll be feeling pretty sprightly and foulness free. We'll see.

Note to Politicians: Stop Being So Self-Centered About Medical Research Funding

| Wed May 27, 2015 1:14 PM EDT

Steve Benen mentions one of my pet peeves today: politicians who want to cut spending on everything except for research on one particular disease that happens to affect them personally. A couple of years ago, for example, Sen. Mark Kirk suddenly became interested in Medicaid's approach to treating strokes after he himself suffered a stroke. The latest example is Jeb Bush, whose mother-in-law has Alzheimer's. I suppose you can guess what's coming next. Here's Jeb in a letter he sent to Maria Shriver:

I have gotten lots of emails based on my comments regarding Alzheimer’s and dementia at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire. It is not the first time I have spoken about this disease. I have done so regularly.

Here is what I believe:

We need to increase funding to find a cure. We need to reform FDA [regulations] to accelerate the approval process for drug and device approval at a much lower cost. We need to find more community based solutions for care.

As Benen points out, Bush vetoed a bunch of bills that would have assisted Alzheimer's patients when he was governor of Florida. I guess that's changed now that he actually knows someone with the disease. However, it doesn't seem to have affected his attitude toward any other kind of medical research spending.

I'm not even sure what to call this syndrome, but it's mighty common. It's also wildly inappropriate. If Jeb wants to personally start a charity that helps fund Alzheimer's research, that's great. But if he's running for president, he should be concerned with medical research for everyone. I mean, where's the billion dollars that I'd like to see invested in multiple myeloma research? Huh?

Presidents and members of Congress represent the country, not their own families. They should get straight on the fact that if their pet disease is being underfunded, then maybe a lot of other diseases are being underfunded too. It shouldn't take a family member getting sick to get them to figure that out.