• Lunchtime Photo

    This is a chaparral sweet pea, also known as a San Diego Sweet Pea, Wild Sweet Pea, Bolander’s pea, Canyon Sweet Pea, Common pacific pea, Pacific peavine, and San Diego Pea. That seems like an awful lot of names for an otherwise unremarkable plant.

    April 20, 2019 — Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Orange County, California
  • American Hospitals Are Way Too Expensive

    Andrew Sprung has a complaint about Elizabeth Warren, one that I’ve shared in the past:

    For almost two years, I have complained at intervals that Elizabeth Warren is faking it on healthcare — that is, blaming U.S. healthcare dysfunction entirely on the rapine of health insurers and pharma, while giving healthcare providers a pass.

    In presenting her plan to finance Bernie-brand Medicare for All, Warren leads with this rhetorical reflex but then, finally, departs from it. She has to, as the plan’s viability depends on cutting off providers’ most lucrative revenue sources.

    Sprung is right, and no universal health care plan will succeed unless it addresses our real problem. Here’s an example:

    In Britain, a heart bypass costs $24,000. In America the average price is $78,000, and that can skyrocket to $161,000 or more if you’re unlucky enough to get treated at an expensive hospital.

    Why? Because heart surgeons in America are paid more. Hospital rooms cost more. Drugs cost more. And, yes, admin costs are higher. This can’t be cured overnight even with the best health care plan, but it can be slowed down and addressed over time. That should be a goal of any universal health care plan worth the name.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    As you can see, this donkey did not want to cross the road. And as you might expect, it didn’t. Eventually, though, its owner led it a few hundred yards away and then, for some reason, the donkey was happy to cross the very same road. Mysterious are the ways of donkeys.

    UPDATE: This is apparently not a donkey after all. Probably a horse? Opinions differ.

    August 5, 2019 — Chocantá, Colombia
  • The Secret Behind Trader Joe’s

    I’ve always been a little curious about how and why Trader Joe’s has acquired such a cultlike status, and over at Vox this morning Rebecca Jennings tells all:

    Trader Joe’s does not participate in traditional advertising, never has sales, and is known for frustrating product shortages…. The majority of its products are private label, a.k.a. “generic”…. While most grocery stores carry about 50,000 units of product in store at once, Trader Joe’s typically only has around 4,000…. “People don’t think of [Trader Joe’s products] as generic,” Mark Gardiner, author of the book Build a Brand Like Trader Joe’s told Eater. “[They think] ‘it’s Trader Joe’s — that’s the brand,’ and it’s a special brand that you can only get here. The truth is that almost all of this is stuff that you can probably get at another store within a few miles of that Trader Joe’s in a different package with a different name.”

    Basically, they sell a limited selection of generic stuff but they put fun labels on it. Huh.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    I didn’t see any waterfalls on my trip to Chicago, something for which many of you may be grateful. However, that doesn’t mean I’ve run out of waterfalls to show you. This little beauty—not my last one!—is a few miles south of Montebello on the Blue Ridge Parkway. As usual (when I’m not being lazy), there are two versions. The first is a long exposure that softens the water. The second is a normal exposure.

    May 7, 2019 — Yankee Horse Ridge, Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia
    May 7, 2019 — Yankee Horse Ridge, Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia
  • Sondland Revises and Extends, Loops Pence Into Ukraine Scandal

    Mark Hertzberg/ZUMA

    Last month, Gordon Sondland, Trump’s roving loyalist in Europe, testified that there was no quid pro quo in Ukraine. Sure, Trump was holding up military aid, and sure, Trump was balking at a meeting with Ukraine’s new president, and sure, Trump wanted Ukraine’s president to open an investigation into Joe Biden. But that was all just a big coincidence.

    A week later, Bill Taylor, a professional diplomat who is our actual acting ambassador to Ukraine, testified quite differently. He testified that there was indeed a quid pro quo; Sondland knew all about it; and Taylor himself thought it was nuts.

    Faced with this, Sondland had a choice to make. Fess up or risk going to prison for perjury? Today he decided that discretion was the better part of valor and submitted a revised and extended version of his remarks to Congress:

    The testimony offered several major new details beyond the account he gave the inquiry in a 10-hour interview last month. Mr. Sondland provided a more robust description of his own role in alerting the Ukrainians that they needed to go along with investigative requests being demanded by the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani. By early September, Mr. Sondland said, he had become convinced that military aid and a White House meeting were conditioned on Ukraine committing to those investigations.

    ….In his updated testimony, Mr. Sondland recounted how he had discussed the linkage with Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, on the sidelines of a Sept. 1 meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and Mr. Zelensky in Warsaw. Mr. Zelensky had discussed the suspension of aid with Mr. Pence, Mr. Sondland said.

    Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, this is the first time that Pence has been explicitly tied to the quid pro quo. Pence’s previous testimony has been the usual favorite of VPs throughout history: he was out of the loop and knew nothing. But if Sondland is to be believed, that’s not true.

    So now it looks like pretty much everyone knew about Trump’s extortion of Ukraine. He wanted President Zelensky to get in front of a microphone and announce in no uncertain terms that a probe of the Bidens was being re-opened. Once that was done, the money spigot would flow and the doors of the White House would be thrown open.

    And once again for the slow learners: Trump was doing this not in exchange for some kind of US benefit. He was doing it specifically for personal gain in an upcoming election.

    But Republicans continue to pretend that this is no big deal because they’re afraid of what Trump’s base might do to them if they admitted that this was, in fact, a serious abuse of power. And so nothing happens.

    POSTSCRIPT: As I was telling someone last night, this is why I’m perfectly happy for the impeachment probe to go on forever. I don’t think it ruins the Democratic primaries at all, but every week brings new revelations and you never know when someone is accidentally going to let slip something that’s a brand new surprise. I would personally be delighted if the Senate were voting on impeachment next Halloween.

  • Yet Another Health Update

    The Evil Dex™.Kevin Drum

    Why am I blogging at 6:30 am Pacific time? In fact, why have I been blogging and reading all night?

    You may recall that back in 2018 I took 8mg of Dexamethasone once a week. It kept me up all night, and I mostly used those nights to take pictures and to write idiosyncratic explanations of general relativity. In January I rebelled and stopped taking the dex. It took two months to wear off, but by March I felt pretty good—which is to say, normal. In May I took a trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

    Sadly, my cancer load increased, and in July I restarted the dex along with a new drug. In August I was casting around for a trip to take before the dex kicked in, and that’s when I went to Colombia.

    Now, my doctor and I had agreed on an experiment: instead of 8mg of dex once a week, I would take 4mg of dex twice a week. This might allow me to sleep on dex nights and would have milder side effects on the other days.

    The first part worked: with a big slug of Ambien in hand, I could manage 5-6 hours of sleep. Not bad. The second part was a failure. Not only were the side effects just as bad—fatigue, lots of napping, etc.—but they pretty much lasted all week. There was no break from feeling lousy.

    So yesterday I went back to the old regime: 8mg of dex on Monday. So far I’ve noticed two things: I’ve been more talkative than usual and I was up all night despite taking the strongest Ambien I have. I expected that. So I’ll ditch the Ambien completely and just become a talkative night owl on Mondays. I will still suffer the side effects, of course, but hopefully they will last two days, maybe three at most, and I will have at least Thursday-Monday to feel relatively normal. We’ll see.

  • When Is Medicare 4 All Not Really Medicare 4 All?

    Ten candidates squared off in the third Democratic primary debate in Houston on Thursday, September 12. Brian Cahn/ZUMA

    I know that what I’m about to write is obvious to a lot of people, but I think it’s probably worth making a lot more obvious. Here goes.

    Elizabeth Warren announced her Medicare for All plan last week, and since we’re liberals we immediately jumped on it, demanded more details, deconstructed it, analyzed its benefits, and blue-penciled its costs and funding sources. There’s no help for that. As the Geico ad says: we’re liberals, it’s what we do.

    Fine. But we all recognize that it doesn’t matter, don’t we? For starters, to put her plan in place we’d need to win the presidency and the Senate, and that’s a tough task. Then we’d need to eliminate the filibuster, which is very, very unlikely since a few Democrats have already said they wouldn’t join in.

    But suppose we miraculously do all that. Actual legislation depends mostly on the Senate, not on President Warren or Speaker Pelosi. This means that health care legislation can’t be more progressive than the 50th most liberal senator, which is likely to be someone like Joe Manchin or Doug Jones. So even in the best case we won’t get the M4A plan that Warren is campaigning on. Not even close.

    What this means is that these M4A plans shouldn’t be treated like real legislation to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office. Rather, they should be treated like Republican tax cut proposals. Nobody bothers to analyze them (except for liberal think tanks, natch) because no one takes them seriously. They are meant merely as markers to show where your heart is. A weak plan shows that you’re a RINO. A big tax cut shows you’re a strong conservative. And a ridiculous plan shows that you’re a lunatic—which might or might not be a good thing depending on the mood of the electorate.

    So forget the details. Warren and Sanders are deliberately selling themselves as lunatics. Their plans mean nothing except that they are true blue liberals. Don’t try to read any more than that into them. Biden and Buttigieg and Booker are demonstrating that they’re part of the mainstream Obama wing of the party. And Amy Klobuchar is . . . not trying to demonstrate her DINO credentials, but she’s close.

    Bottom line: stop sweating the details. Candidate plans aren’t meant to pencil out with a lot of precision. They’re rough drafts designed to show where their hearts are at. Smart analysts will mostly take them that way.

  • Pretrial Hearing for Overdue Library Books Set for Wednesday

    This is from CNN, explaining the possible sentence Melinda Sanders-Jones could face for returning a couple of library books (very) late:

    If the books have a value of less than $200, Sanders will face no more than 93 days in prison or a maximum fine of $500, per the Michigan State Penal Code.

    Apparently, after many attempts to notify MSJ about the late books, her case was turned over to the Eaton County Economic Crimes Unit, which seems to take this kind of thing much more seriously than the Orange County library system did when I was a kid. Once again, we boomers got the best of things but then ruined it for Millennials, who are paying the price for our refusal to properly fund libraries now that we’re all retired and using our generous pensions to buy expensive tablets for our reading habits.

    FWIW, the Eaton County library people say there’s more here than meets the eye, so hot takes are discouraged. A pretrial hearing is set for Wednesday morning, and I assume CNN will be there to vividly describe the jackboot of county government pressing down on the neck of an oppressed library patron.

    POSTSCRIPT: Of course, there have been times and places when library books were given the respect they deserve. Who can ever forget the memorably described crisis of conscience that overwhelms the teenage Max Jones when he decides he has to run away from home only to remember that he still has a library book he has to return?

    He was all the way back to his own door when he remembered the library book. He stopped in sudden panic. He couldn’t go back. They might hear him this time—or Montgomery might get up for a drink of water or something. But in his limited horizon, the theft of a public library book—or failure to return it, which was the same thing—was, if not a mortal sin, at least high on the list of shameful crimes.

    He stood there, sweating and thinking about it. Then he went back, the whole long trek, around the squeaky board and tragically onto one he had not remembered. He froze after he hit it, but apparently it had not alarmed the couple in the room beyond.

    At last he was leaning over the SV receiver and groping at the shelf. Montgomery, in pawing the books, had changed their arrangement. One after another he had to take them down and try to identify it by touch, opening each and feeling for the perforations on the title page. It was the fourth one he handled. He got back to his room hurrying slowly, unbearably anxious but afraid to move fast. There at last, he began to shake and had to wait until it wore off.

    Melinda Sanders-Jones is being charged with theft of property. But is it really theft, especially if the books are eventually returned? It’s a pretty question, probably best left for the boffins of Philosophy Today, but note that for Max Jones it’s a moral certainty so simple he never even thinks about it: yes, failure to return a library book is theft.¹ Come on, people.

    ¹Starman Jones, 1 Juv.7 21, 22 (Scribner’s 1953)