Kevin Drum

Today's Proposal In Legislative Transparency: You Amend It, You Own It

| Mon Jul. 6, 2015 5:37 PM EDT

Last week Wisconsin Republicans tried to sneak language into a budget bill that would have gutted the state's open records law. Sadly for them, they got caught and had to withdraw the proposal—which, Gov. Scott Walker hastily assured us, "was never intended to inhibit transparent government in any way." Uh huh.

This kind of sleazy behavior is hardly uncommon, but there's one bit of it that's equally common and even sleazier:

State Republicans have refused to disclose who inserted the language into the budget legislation, which was approved late Thursday evening. Before dropping the provisions entirely, the governor's office said Friday it was considering changes to the proposals concerning public records law, but would not comment as to whether Walker was involved in the proposals in the first place.

Here's my proposal for transparency in legislating: every change in every law has to be attributed to someone. There's no virgin birth here. Someone wrote this language. Someone asked that it be inserted. Someone agreed to insert it. You have to be pretty contemptuous of your constituents to clam up and pretend that no one knows where it came from.

This kind of puerile buck-passing is way too common, and it needs to stop. Maybe if they knew their name was going to be attached, legislators would think twice before inserting egregiously self-serving crap like this.

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There Are Things That Erode Public Trust in Science. Primordial Gravity Waves Aren't One of Them.

| Mon Jul. 6, 2015 2:05 PM EDT

I had to laugh just a little when I read this last night:

Jan Conrad, an astroparticle physicist, claims that "The field has cried wolf too many times and lost credibility," and he worries that false discoveries are undermining public trust in science. He lists some dubious results which have caused a stir amongst physicists and the general public over the past couple of years, including the faster-than-light-neutrinos that weren’t, the primordial gravitational waves that are probably just dust, and several Dark Matter candidates which remain shrouded in uncertainty and contradiction.

When nutritionists constantly change their minds about what's good or bad for us, that undermines public trust in science. This is because everyone eats, and stories about diet and nutrition are plastered all over TV, social media, blogs, magazines, newspapers, and every other form of human communication.

But those primordial gravitational waves that are probably just dust? I'm here to assure you that 99.9 percent of the world doesn't give a shit. Most people have never heard of it. Most of the ones who have heard of it don't understand it. And almost by definition, most of the ones who do understand it have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the conditional nature of delicately measured new results in fields like astrophysics.

So put me in the camp with Jon Butterworth, who wrote the linked article, and Chad Orzel, who argue that the very fact of releasing preliminary results and then correcting them if they turn out to be wrong is what distinguishes science from pseudoscience. Nor, as Butterworth points out, would it help to keep results under wraps until everything is neat and tidy. "As I said at the time regarding the false faster-than-light neutrinos, imagine the conspiracy claims if the data had been suppressed because it didn’t fit Einstein’s theory."

All true. But really, the most important thing is simply that controversies on the bleeding edge of physics are of interest to only a tiny fraction of humanity, and most of them already know when and how to be skeptical. As for the rest of us, we just turn on our cell phones every day and marvel at how cool science is. Nothing about neutrinos or gravitational waves is going to change that.

A Reporter Reveals How the Press Treats Hillary Clinton

| Mon Jul. 6, 2015 1:10 PM EDT

In what is obviously a carefully calculated bit of Bob Somerby bait, Jonathan Allen today reveals "the media's 5 unspoken rules for covering Hillary." Here's the nickel summary:

  1. Everything, no matter how ludicrous-sounding, is worthy of a full investigation by federal agencies, Congress, the "vast right-wing conspiracy," and mainstream media outlets.
  2. Every allegation, no matter how ludicrous, is believable until it can be proven completely and utterly false. And even then, it keeps a life of its own in the conservative media world.
  3. The media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith until there's hard evidence otherwise.
  4. Everything is newsworthy because the Clintons are the equivalent of America's royal family.
  5. Everything she does is fake and calculated for maximum political benefit.

Read the whole thing for all the details. Bottom line: "This is a problem for Clinton, and it seems unlikely to go away." Yes indeedy.

Food Irradiation: Great Technology, Lousy Name.

| Mon Jul. 6, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

Roberto Ferdman interviews Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, about why the public's aversion to GMO foods has stayed strong even as the scientific consensus has become nearly unanimous that GMO foods are safe. Toward the end, though, he finally get to my hot button food issue:

Can you think of other forms of technology that have overcome consumer fears?

A perfect example is pasteurization in milk. At [first] it was very strange to people, and no one knew what to think about it. But today it’s widely accepted and viewed as improving the safety of milk.

Another one is microwaves. Everyone has them in their home today, but back in the 1970s it was close to zero. It took a bit for them to catch on, for people to warm up to them.

But then there are things like food irradiation that are perfectly safe but people seem to be permanently skeptical of.

Food irradiation! Dammit, Lusk is right: despite the fact that it includes the word "radiation," food irradiation is completely harmless. It's also really effective at killing the pathogens that cause all those periodic outbreaks of food poisoning you hear so much about. Irradiate your hamburger and you can safely cook it medium rare if you want. Irradiate your lettuce and worries about e. coli are a thing of the past. I wish someone made a cheap, personal food irradiation machine. I'd irradiate everything I ate. Unfortunately, irradiation machines tend to be the size of a dump truck and cost several million dollars, so that's not in the cards.

Maybe the Japanese should get in on this. They're pretty good at miniaturizing things; they're pretty good at selling consumer tech; and they've got a huge domestic market of people who are gadget and technology crazy and probably aren't afraid of irradiated food. Although I could be wrong about that, what with Hiroshima in their past and Fukushima in their present.

Anyway, food irradiation. It's cheap on an industrial scale, totally harmless, and makes your food safer. What's not to like?

California Should Allow Physician-Aided Suicide

| Mon Jul. 6, 2015 11:06 AM EDT

Greece has pressed the self-destruct button, and no one knows what will happen next. Here in California, we are debating whether to create a self-destruct button, and no one knows what will happen next.

(Did you like that segue? Huh? Did you?)

In California's case, the self-destruct button comes in the form of SB 128, and it is both more personal and more literal than Greece's:

The measure, which would allow terminally ill people to end their lives with a doctor's help, passed the Senate last month on essentially a party-line vote, 23-15 — Democrats for, Republicans against.

Because the bill whips up emotion about morality based on religious beliefs and raises questions concerning medical ethics, it makes many legislators uncomfortable politically and personally.

The proposal is slated for its first Assembly hearing Tuesday in the Health Committee. But sponsors say it's short two to five votes. Ten are needed to clear the 19-member panel.

A handful of Southern California Democrats, mostly Latinos under pressure from the Catholic Church, are withholding support.

Great. Yet another reason for me to be revolted by the Catholic Church. If they believe that suicide is a sin, that's fine. They should forbid suicide among Catholics. But I'm not Catholic, and it's no sin for me. So go mind your own business, folks, and represent the will of all Californians, who overwhelmingly support bringing our state into the 21st century. There is no excuse for forcing terminal patients to endure excruciating pain for months if they don't want to. It's time to put the Dark Ages behind us.

Greece's Big Fat No

| Sun Jul. 5, 2015 2:56 PM EDT

It appears that the Greek referendum is headed toward a landslide No vote. With about half of the votes counted as I write this, the No vote is very strongly in the lead and Greece's interior ministry has released an official projection showing the No side winning 61 percent of the vote.

There are a couple of takeaways from this. First, I obviously don't know squat about the Greek temperament. Let's see now. What exactly is it that I said a few days ago? Oh yes, here it is:

In the end, the Greek public will be unwilling to back Tsipras in Sunday's referendum and will vote to accept the European deal as is. The potential catastrophe of default and leaving the euro is just too scary for most of them to contemplate....So that's my prediction. Unless Tsipras caves completely beforehand, the referendum will be held on Sunday and Greeks will vote to stay in the euro and accept Germany's terms. It will basically be an unconditional surrender.

In technical terms, that was totally fucking wrong. Instead of caving in, the Greeks told Europe to take a hike. They refused to accept the austerity plan put in front of them and instead voted to support prime minister Alexis Tsipras's effort to demand better terms. In general, that means they want Europe to (a) offer debt relief, (b) permit the Greek government to pass a higher budget supported by higher taxes; and (c) go a little easier on pension cuts.

The second takeaway is....oh forget it. Why listen to me anymore after this predictive debacle? Anyway, I don't think anyone even knows what's next now. Tsipras obviously has a vote of confidence and will stay in power. Angela Merkel and the rest of the Troika will have to decide whether to make a few concessions or simply refuse and let Greece twist in the wind. I honestly have no idea what they'll choose. And the ECB will have to decide whether to keep Greece's banks on life support for a while longer.

Stay tuned. It's going to be a fascinating few weeks for those of us who don't actually live in Greece and have to personally face the possibility of economic catastrophe.

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Happy Independence Day!

| Sat Jul. 4, 2015 1:15 PM EDT

Jeez, what am I doing, blogging about serious stuff today? Well, that's it. I'm going to go clean the grill or watch a parade or do something else that's date appropriate. Have a happy 4th, everyone!

Obamacare Rates May Be Going Up Significantly in 2016 -- Or Maybe Not

| Sat Jul. 4, 2015 1:10 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that insurers are asking for significant rate increases for 2016:

Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans — market leaders in many states — are seeking rate increases that average 23 percent in Illinois, 25 percent in North Carolina, 31 percent in Oklahoma, 36 percent in Tennessee and 54 percent in Minnesota....The rate requests, from some of the more popular health plans, suggest that insurance markets are still adjusting to shock waves set off by the Affordable Care Act.

It is far from certain how many of the rate increases will hold up on review, or how much they might change. But already the proposals, buttressed with reams of actuarial data, are fueling fierce debate about the effectiveness of the health law.

....Insurers with decades of experience and brand-new plans underestimated claims costs. “Our enrollees generated 24 percent more claims than we thought they would when we set our 2014 rates,” said Nathan T. Johns, the chief financial officer of Arches Health Plan, which covers about one-fourth of the people who bought insurance through the federal exchange in Utah. As a result, the company said, it collected premiums of $39.7 million and had claims of $56.3 million in 2014. It has requested rate increases averaging 45 percent for 2016.

The rate requests are the first to reflect a full year of experience with the new insurance exchanges and federal standards that require insurers to accept all applicants.

I'd continue to counsel caution until we get further into the process. Big rate increase requests have been the opening bids from insurance companies for years, and they usually get knocked down to something much more reasonable by the time the regulatory process is finished. It's also the case that if lots of young people have been paying the tax penalty instead of getting insured, that might change as the penalty goes up. It was $95 in 2014, went up to $325 this year, and goes up to $695 in 2016. At some point, more and more of these folks are going to decide that they really ought to get something for their money instead of just paying a penalty to the IRS, and that will help broaden the insurance pool.

Still, the bottom line here is that credible evidence is growing that we might see biggish rate increases in 2016. They won't be the monster increases that Fox News will be hyping endlessly, but they might be bigger than us liberal types expected. We'll know in a few months.

On Independence Day, Pentagon Shows Off Some Real Fireworks

| Sat Jul. 4, 2015 12:20 PM EDT

From W.J. Hennigan on the front page of this morning's LA Times:

As diplomats rush to reach an agreement to curb Iran's nuclear program, the U.S. military is stockpiling conventional bombs so powerful that strategists say they could cripple Tehran's most heavily fortified nuclear complexes, including one deep underground....U.S. officials say the huge bombs, which have never been used in combat, are a crucial element in the White House deterrent strategy and contingency planning should diplomacy go awry and Iran seek to develop a nuclear bomb.

....U.S. officials have publicized the new bomb partly to rattle the Iranians. Some Pentagon officials warned not to underestimate U.S. military capabilities even if the bunker-busters can't eliminate Iran's nuclear program. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested at the same Pentagon news conference Thursday that airstrikes might be ordered multiple times if Iran tries to build a bomb.

The usual questions present themselves. (1) This is obviously a piece that was spoon-fed to the press. Why now? (2) Who is it targeted at? Iran, or our allies? Or Israel? (3) Is it credible? Does anyone truly believe that Obama will bomb Iran if talks fail? (4) Credible or not, does this kind of saber rattling do more harm than good? Discuss.

China Halts IPOs in Peculiar Attempt to Prop Up Stock Market

| Sat Jul. 4, 2015 12:05 PM EDT

The latest from China, where the stock market continues to plummet:

China has decided to suspend new stock sales and establish a market-stabilization fund aimed at fighting off the worst equities selloff in years, as concerns grow among China’s leadership that the stock-market malaise could be spreading to the other parts of the world’s second-largest economy.

...Previous steps including an interest-rate cut by the central bank have failed to impress investors, many of whom have been forced to unwind their leveraged bets as stocks continue to drop.

Chief among the decisions made is to halt new initial public offerings in a bid to preserve liquidity in an increasingly volatile market, the people said. Officials also discussed the setup of a market-stabilization fund.

Another odd move that I don't entirely understand. Do IPOs reduce market liquidity in any significant way? Put another way: Am I missing something here, or is this just another panicky move by the Chinese authorities that's unlikely to make things better?