Kevin Drum

Congress Has Agreed On a Highway Bill!

| Tue Dec. 1, 2015 7:56 PM EST

Maybe Paul Ryan really is getting a handle on this whole governing thing:

Congressional negotiators have agreed to a $305 billion measure to fund highways and mass-transit projects for five years, the longest in almost two decades—and an unexpected show of agreement after years of clamoring by state transportation officials for money for infrastructure projects.

....The agreement was made possible when lawmakers identified a collection of strategies to offset the costs. Among other things, the measure would raise revenue by selling oil from the nation’s emergency stockpile and taking money from a Federal Reserve surplus account that works as a sort of cushion to help the bank pay for potential losses.

The "strategies" here are necessary because the gas tax has declined over the past two decades, and unlike in past eras, inflationary erosion is no longer being offset by a rapid increase in miles driven. As a result, the highway trust fund doesn't have enough money to pay for all the stuff Congress wants to do. This is being fixed by funding highways partly by gas taxes and partly by other revenue sources, which destroys the principle that "people who use federal transportation systems should pay for the projects."

Of course, this is a dumb principle anyway. Lots of people benefit from transportation infrastructure who don't pay gas taxes. We should just ditch this principle for good and instead fund the government like this:

  1. Collect tax money from various sources.
  2. Put it all in the general fund.
  3. Spend the money as Congress directs.

See? Easy peasy. We still have the problem of matching revenue and spending, of course, but at least we get rid of all the nonsense about funding specific programs from specific sources and worrying about trust funds "going broke." Nothing is going broke. We're just raising money and spending money. If we're worried about a balanced budget, then we have to raise taxes or reduce spending, and it doesn't really matter which taxes or which spending we target. It's all just money.

So I'm perfectly happy that Congress is ignoring the "principle" of funding transportation projects only via gas tax money. On the other hand, the revenue sources they're tapping in order to pass this bill are probably pretty ill considered. Both are in the nature of emergency funds, and both are one-time deals that can't be repeated. But in a world in which taxes not only can't be raised, but can't even be kept the same, I guess there's little choice.

Advertise on

The Great Donald Trump Polling Gap, Not Explained

| Tue Dec. 1, 2015 5:50 PM EST

Here's something pretty interesting: it turns out that Donald Trump does significantly better in robocall and online polls than he does in traditional live-interview polls. Harry Enten shows the difference on the right. As Trump might say, it's yuuuge: a full ten-point difference in the latest polling.

This is peculiar for several reasons. First, this gap didn't really open up until September. Second, we never saw a gap of this size in 2012. Third, since Enten doesn't mention this, I assume other 2016 candidates don't show gaps anywhere near this big.

So what's going on? Enten suggests a few reasons why non-live polls might be a bit less accurate, but in the end he doesn't really know. And whatever the reason, why does it affect only Trump in a substantial way? This is very mysterious. And until people start voting, we don't even know for sure which type of poll is more predictive. It's just another way in which this year's Republican primary is winning awards for all-time weirdness.

It's Not Just Middle-Aged Whites Who Are Killing Themselves These Days

| Tue Dec. 1, 2015 3:02 PM EST

I'm not sure why Josh Marshall decided to write about the Case/Deaton mortality study today, but he did. Here's what he says:

They made a startling discovery. As you would expect, every age and ethnic/racial grouping has continued to see a steady reduction of morbidity (disease) and increase in lifespans for decades. But there's one major exception: middle aged (45-54) white people. Since roughly 1998, disease and death rates for middle aged white men and women has begun to rise.

....We might assume that a middle aged population group, under some mix of economic and societal stress, would be hit by the classic diseases of life stress: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. But that's not it. These people are quite simply killing themselves — either directly or indirectly. According to Case and Deaton's study, the reversal in the overall mortality trend is driven by three causes: drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide and chronic liver disease. In other words, either literal suicide or the slow motion suicide of chronic substance abuse.

I don't really blame Marshall for saying this, since Case and Deaton go to considerable lengths to focus on this age group. But it's just not true. Their own data shows that every white age group has seen a big increase in mortality from suicide/alcohol/drugs. I've tried to make this clear before, but I'll try again today with a brand new chart. This is based on Figure 4 from the Case/Deaton paper and it shows the increase in mortality for all age groups.

The biggest increase isn't from 45-54. It's from 30-34 and 50-54. In fact, 45-49 saw one of the lower increases.

So why did Case and Deaton focus on the 45-54 age group? They explain it themselves:

The focus of this paper is on changes in mortality and morbidity
for those aged 45–54. However, as Fig. 4 makes clear, all 5-y age
groups between 30–34 and 60–64 have witnessed marked and similar increases in mortality from the sum of drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis over the period 1999–2013; the midlife group is different only in that the sum of these deaths is large enough that the common growth rate changes the direction of all-cause mortality.

That's it. The 45-54 group doesn't have the largest increase in death from suicide/alcohol/drugs. The only thing that makes them different is that the increase in these deaths "changes the direction of all-case mortality." In other words, their line on the chart went from sloping up to sloping down. That's the only reason to focus on them: because they crossed the zero line.

But that's purely esthetic. If, say, the mortality rate of one group goes from -3 percent to -1 percent, and the other goes from -1 percent to +1 percent, they've both changed by two percentage points. The latter one, however, goes from negative to positive, and that makes for a dramatic chart. But that's all it does.

I wouldn't care so much about this except that people are drawing a lot of conclusions about "what's wrong with middle-aged whites?" without noticing that the answer might very well be "nothing." A better question is, "what's wrong with America?" As Case and Deaton show, the mortality of middle-aged US whites did indeed start increasing around 1999, while the mortality rate in other advanced countries continued to decline steadily. I'd like to see that chart for all age groups before I tried to draw any conclusions, but it sure seems like we should be focusing on this, not on middle age. It's not clear that middle age really has much to do with any of this.

Syrian Refugee Camps: "Really Quite Nice" or Brutal Hellhole? Ben Carson Explains.

| Tue Dec. 1, 2015 12:03 PM EST

I don't think I'd bother with this if I had something better to write about, but when life hands you lemons, you write a blog post with them anyway. Here is Ben Carson this morning:

Carson last week visited Jordan to tour Syrian refugee camps in an effort to bolster his foreign affairs credentials, something he has been criticized for lacking. Carson called the camps "really quite nice" and suggested they should serve as a long-term solution. On TODAY, he called the Jordanians "very generous people" who have set up camps and hospitals "that work very well" but just lack to the resources to support the efforts.

And here is Carson writing about Syrian refugees on the same day:

Many are now housed in refugee camps, such as the one I visited, the Azraq refugee camp. The Azraq camp is located in a bleak and deserted stretch of desert that was built to house Iraqis and Kuwaiti Gulf war refugees.

....Here is a picture of life in Azraq: The camp is a bleak expanse of row after row of white sheet metal shelters. There is no electricity or air conditioning or heat against the scalding desert summer temperatures or cold winds of winter. Lack of electricity adds further hardship, as people are forced to choose between having light to see their way to the bathroom at night (six shelters share one bathroom) and charging their cellphones, which connects them to family and the outside world.

Seriously, WTF? There was never any question that Carson's photo-op trip to Jordan might provide him with some actual insight that would change his perspective. He's obviously a guy who doesn't do that once he's made up his mind. But can he really not get his story any straighter than this? Which is it, Ben? Are these camps really quite nice or are they a bleak hellhole of freezing desert? Inquiring minds want to know.

No, Marco Rubio Has Not "Killed" Obamacare

| Tue Dec. 1, 2015 10:55 AM EST

From "Team Marco" on Twitter:

Q: Did Marco Kill Obamacare?

A: You bet he did.

Congratulations, senator! I hadn't heard this, and of course I'm devastated. But this should certainly lock up the Republican nomination for—

Hmmm? What's that? This is a wee bit exaggerated? Here's the story: Obamacare includes a program called "risk corridors" that's designed to smooth out insurance company profits during the first few years of the program, when everyone is still trying to figure how to price their plans. The key element is that companies that make less than a certain amount will be compensated. Nicholas Bagley picks up the story from there:

The Obama administration soon came to recognize that the risk corridor program contained a serious flaw: the ACA didn’t appropriate any money to fund it....At Rubio’s insistence, Congress in 2014 passed a budget bill prohibiting the administration from using other funding streams—the budgetary equivalent of looking under the couch cushions for change—to make up for any shortfall.

Rubio’s bill has now come back to bite the administration. On October 1, HHS announced that, for 2014, health plans were owed substantially more under the risk corridor program than they paid in. Unprofitable plans will thus receive just 12.6% of what they were supposed to.

The administration hopes to make it up to these health plans...But there’s another option, one that hasn’t received much attention. When Congress creates an entitlement directly in legislation, the person who’s supposed to get the entitlement can file a lawsuit in the Court of Federal Claims to recover what she’s owed....The same principle holds (1) where Congress vests a federal agency with the power to obligate the United States to make certain payments and (2) the agency welches on those obligations. Here, the ACA instructs HHS to create a risk corridor program requiring the government to pay health plans a given amount of money. If the past is any guide, plans should be able to sue if HHS doesn’t pay them in accordance with the program. That’s so whether or not Congress has appropriated money to fund the program.

....That’s small consolation to the co-ops that needed risk corridor payments now to stay afloat. But the question for health plans isn’t whether they’ll get paid. It’s when. Marco Rubio hasn’t killed Obamacare and he hasn’t saved taxpayers any money. All he’s done is throw a wrench in the works.

A wrench is a wrench, I suppose. Republicans are fanatically opposed to poor and working-class folks getting decent health care, so anything that helps the cause should be welcome on the campaign trail—especially among the GOP's elderly supporters, who already get government health care.

Elsewhere, Mitch McConnell is going after the really poor by promising to use reconciliation to repeal Obamacare's Medicaid expansion. Apparently this is making some Republicans nervous, since it means taking away a benefit from their own constituents, but Ol' Mitch says they shouldn't worry: Obama will just veto the bill anyway. You'd almost think Congress didn't have anything useful to do judging by the GOP's attachment to an endless stream of symbolic legislation. Do these guys really believe that extracting a presidential veto is some kind of historic victory or something?

Quote of the Day: Ted Cruz Angling For Some of That Trump Magic

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 7:44 PM EST

From Ted Cruz, apparently feeling gloomy today over Donald Trump's ability to get attention with outrageous statements:

The overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats. The media doesn't report that.

Huh. Could be, I suppose. Most convicted felons are pretty poor, and poor people tend not to vote for Republicans. Why would they? Of course, they tend not to vote for Democrats, either. They just don't vote.

Presumably, Cruz got his data from this study, which estimates that 73 percent of "hypothetical felon voters" would vote for Democrats. However, a more recent study that looks at how many actual felons register as Democrats puts the number at 62 percent for New York, 52 percent for New Mexico, and 55 percent for North Carolina. That's still not bad, Democrats! You have the felon vote cornered. Except for one thing: only about a third of them registered at all, only about a fifth have active registration records, and only about 10 percent or so actually voted for president recently. Liberals may generally be in favor of allowing released felons to vote, but it sure isn't because they think it will help them at the polls. Working for felon voting rights is about the most inefficient and futile way imaginable of getting out the vote.

In any case, anyone can play this game. Just find some demographic group that tends to vote for Party X, and then find some bad thing also associated with that group. In this case, poor people tend to vote for Democrats, and felons tend to be poor. Bingo. Most felons are Democrats.

Or this: rich people tend to vote for Republicans, and income-tax cheats tend to be rich. So most income-tax cheats are Republicans.

Or this: Middle-aged men tend to vote for Republicans, and embezzlers tend to be middle-aged men. So most embezzlers are Republicans.

We could do this all day long, but what's the point? The whole exercise is kind of silly. If Ted Cruz wants some attention, he's going to have to do better than this.

Advertise on

Like a Zombie, You Just Can't Kill Countrywide Financial

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 3:44 PM EST

Back at the height of the housing bubble, Countrywide Financial was responsible for about 15 percent of all the mortgage loans in America. This turned out to be disastrous because the people who ran Countrywide showed no interest at all in the quality of the loans they originated. Thanks to this, their business eventually imploded and in 2008 they were acquired by Bank of America.

But fear not. The executives behind Countrywide are still around, and they're still shoveling out the loans:

PennyMac, AmeriHome Mortgage and Stearns Lending have several things in common.

All are among the nation's largest mortgage lenders — and none of them is a bank. They're part of a growing class of alternative lenders that now extend more than 4 in 10 home loans.

All are headquartered in Southern California, the epicenter of the last decade's subprime lending industry. And all are run by former executives of Countrywide Financial, the once-giant mortgage lender that made tens of billions of dollars in risky loans that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis.

This time, the executives say, will be different.

You betcha! I'm sure these folks have all learned their lessons and will never push the mortgage envelope again. We can all breathe easy.

Today in State Secrets: The FBI Wants Both Your Day and Evening Phone Numbers

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 2:20 PM EST

Back in 2004, the FBI served Nicholas Merrill with a National Security Letter. Merrill owned Calyx Internet Access, and the FBI wanted him to turn over transactional records about his clients. As usual with NSLs, this was done without a subpoena or a court order. Merrill was forbidden from revealing the contents of the NSL or even publicly acknowledging that he had received an NSL.

Merrill went to court, and US District Judge Victor Marrero initially ruled against him. Merrill subsequently reached an agreement with the government that allowed him to discuss the NSL but not to reveal which records the FBI had requested. Merrill continued to fight, and today, in Merrill v. Lynch,1 Marrero finally ruled definitively in his favor. In cases like this, the government has to demonstrate that disclosure would cause specific harm, and Marrero found that they hadn't done so. Among other things, he points out that the Department of Justice itself already publishes a manual that includes sample language for NSLs. It includes most of the transactional data the the FBI requested from Merrill, and the remaining items would hardly be difficult for a potential target to figure out.

Still, the FBI argued that there were some differences, and those should be kept secret. Marrero provides an example that he finds singularly unimpressive:

Many of the remaining redactions in the Attachment are even harder to justify than the categories discussed thus far. For example,  the Government seeks to prevent Merrill from disclosing that the Attachment requested "Subscriber day/evening telephone numbers" even though the Government now concedes that the phrase "telephone number" can be disclosed. The Court is not persuaded that there is a "good reason" to believe that disclosure of the fact that the Government can use NSLs to seek both day and evening telephone numbers could result in an enumerated harm, especially if it is already publicly known that the Government can use NSLs to obtain a telephone number, more generally.

Thanks to Marcy Wheeler for pointing this out. You may consider it your entertainment for the day. That is, you could consider it in that light if it weren't a pretty important subject. And unfortunately, the court's ruling is quite narrow: the only reason Marrero changed his mind is because the investigation has been closed, the target has been revealed, and virtually everything else about the NSL is already public. In other words, this will have very little impact on the government's future power to issue tens of thousands of NSLs with virtually no oversight. We now know what information the FBI wanted in 2004, but we're no closer to knowing what they routinely ask for today.

Full details here.

1Yes, seriously. Nicholas Merrill vs. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

The Paris Attacks Had Zero Impact on the Republican Race

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 12:33 PM EST

Here's the most recent Pollster aggregate of the GOP primary contest. Donald Trump's scheme to prove that Republican voters are the most gullible people on the planet continues apace. (Seriously folks: you all have blowhards in your life, don't you? You know what they're like, and you wouldn't trust one of them to be dogcatcher, let alone president. Surely you recognize Trump as one of the same breed?)

But enough of that. The reason I'm putting up the latest standings is this: despite the maunderings of various pundits, it looks like the Paris attacks had exactly zero impact on the race. All five of the leading candidates were on a trajectory before the attacks, and they continued that trajectory very precisely afterward. There's not so much as a blip in the polling data.

Debates seem to have an effect on Trump and Carson. Nothing much seems to have had an effect on the others. They've been on cruise control for the past month. But the Paris attacks? Whatever you felt about the candidates before, apparently they made you feel exactly the same way afterward, except more.

Here's What It's Like to Work at Planned Parenthood

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 11:32 AM EST

Last night, Bryn Greenwood, who worked for Planned Parenthood in the late 90s, tweeted about her experience:

I worked at a #PlannedParenthood clinic in Kansas for 3 years. My coworkers & I were subjected to the following acts of terrorism:

  • Gasoline was poured under our back door & ignited 4 times. Twice while the clinic was occupied, causing patients to be evacuated.
  • Butyric acid (used as a stink bomb) was poured under our doors & into ventilation system so many times I lost count. Clinic evacuated.
  • 2 cherry bombs were left on our doorstep after hours, causing damage & clinic closure. Imagine what it's like going to work after that.
  • We received hundreds of phone calls, threatening to torch our clinic & to kill the "murdering whores" who worked there.
  • 3 times someone drove by at night & shot out our windows. Picketers stood on the sidewalk & harassed employees as we swept up broken glass.

Our clinic didn't perform abortions. We did well woman exams, pregnancy tests, dispensed birth control, & treated STIs. Our clinic offered free & low cost services in a low income neighborhood, but every day the "pro-life" movement tried to frighten us. The goal was to make us afraid to come to work, to make us quit, to make us close the clinic. That's terrorism. That's how terrorism works.

This is what life is like for women's health providers, even ones who don't perform abortions. I guess I'd urge caution about calling this terrorism, since I'm not sure it does us any good to expand the scope of crimes that are part of the "war on terror." Historically speaking, that hasn't been great for liberal values. Still, it's hard to argue that the goals and methods aren't pretty terrifying—and that's even without Greenwood mentioning the personal threats implicit in photographing license plates and publishing names and addresses of clinic workers, which are common tactics.

After two days of near silence, Republican presidential candidates are finally "praying" for the victims of the Colorado attack. They could hardly avoid it when they were booked on national TV—and anyway, praying is always okay, even for sinners. Especially for sinners, in fact. It's a turn of phrase that doesn't risk showing even the slightest desire to protect Planned Parenthood from future attacks. Republicans might not want Planned Parenthood workers killed, but they sure don't seem to mind if their angry hordes do everything just short of that.