Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, June 23, 2014 7:01 pm

In which John Oliver shows Dr. Oz how to pander without making potentially life-threatening medical claims

Sunday, June 1, 2014 11:26 am

Please do me a favor: Read “The Case for Reparations”

You don’t owe me a favor, but I’m asking for one anyway: Go read the essay “The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic.

(Yeah, I’m late to it. I was on vacation. Sue me.)

I concede right up front that this isn’t a simple request. Consequently, as you’re about to see, this is the longest “y’all go read this” post in this blog’s 12-year history.

Likewise, “The Case for Reparations” is a long article — 15,000 words or so. And it deals, obviously, with race, a subject that makes most people uncomfortable and, in the U.S., should discomfit everybody.

But there are some other things you should know.

First, the title is a little misleading — perhaps deliberately so — in that most people probably think that “reparations” means cash payments to make up for black people’s having been slaves. In point of fact, Coates does not call for any such thing, let alone specify an amount, an eligibility standard for individuals, or a distribution mechanism. (This fact, should you see the article discussed elsewhere, will be an easy way to tell which commenters have read the article and which have not.)

Second, even if one brings to the article a broader understanding of “reparations,” one should know that Coates, who is black, has only the vaguest idea of what reparations of any kind might look like, that he sees the concept as too complex to be defined by any individual. Moreover, he opposed the idea in principle himself until only a couple of years ago. Even today, he thinks, for example, that affirmative action doesn’t really address the needs created by the circumstances he describes.

Third, the article is less an argument for some form of reparations — though it is that — than it is a piece of historical investigative journalism that explains the widespread, longstanding, and ongoing, theft of wealth from black Americans. Coates’s work, as he himself points out, is not entirely original and builds on the work of professional historians. Unless you’re in academia, you’ve probably never heard of many of those he credits. But Coates adds original reporting to the research of his sources to create a plain-English piece of journalism that would be a shoo-in for a National Magazine Award even if it weren’t advocating a thing.

And let me emphasize again his subject: the widespread, longstanding, and ongoing, theft of wealth from black Americans. This piece isn’t just about slavery, and another way to separate those commenters who have read the piece from those who have not will be that the extent to which a commenter dwells on slavery likely will be in inverse proportion to the likelihood that that commenter has read the article.

The article does several important things. Primarily, it outlines the economic case for some form of restitution for black Americans. But in explaining the basis for that restitution, it also points out how utterly inconsequential arguments about “pathological culture” (my words, not his) as a cause for the woes of black Americans are in this context, like arguing the merits of a rezoning case when the sun is about to explode. And it shows in striking granularity how some ordinary people lived long lives in an era of supposed equality and fairness while still being robbed blind — not just by slavery, not just by private corporations, but also by their own government even as that government claimed to be working for fairness and equality of opportunity.

To call this article a home run would be to grossly understate its significance. Some home runs barely clear the fence. A few reach the upper deck of stadium seats. This one won’t fall back to Earth for years.

So go read it. I’m not asking you to do anything about its subject, not least because I myself have no idea, at this point, what should be done. But just read it and think about it and ask yourself what should be done. The article suggests one starting point, one that wouldn’t result in the transfer of a single dime from anyone to anyone. But every thinking American ought to think about this.

It’s been said in many places by many people that slavery is America’s original sin. That’s true, but it’s only part of the truth, in that the original sin actually encompasses more than slavery. Americans who truly want this country to be what it told the world almost 240 years ago that it wanted to be must grapple with this original sin and how we go about expiating it. I cannot think of a better place to start than this article.

Thursday, May 15, 2014 8:18 pm

Throwing our children’s still-beating hearts into the stone mouth of the free-market idol; or, you’ll never guess whom economist Steven Levitt tried to bullshit.

Anyone who has sat through Econ 102 and higher understands that while lots of things work well in theory, in real life they bump up against human beings who are not nearly as rationally self-interested as theory would have us believe.

Noah Smith likens belief in free markets to idolatry and calls its unblinking supporters “the free-market priesthood.” The good news, he says, is that among econ academics, a little nuance is finally starting to creep into an area of thought that had been dominated for decades by the free-marketeers. The bad news, though, is that popular economics, which is the only kind most Americans are aware of and espouse, hasn’t gotten the memo.

One guy who should know better is Steven Levitt, co-author, with my acquaintance Stephen Dubner, of the “Freakonomics” books. Their new book is called “Think Like a Freak” — i.e., like them. I haven’t read it and so won’t pass judgment on it, but the behavior of Levitt himself is, by his own description in the book, apparently … questionable.

In their latest book, Think Like a Freak, co-authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner tell a story about meeting David Cameron…They told him that the U.K.’s National Health Service — free, unlimited, lifetime heath care — was laudable but didn’t make practical sense.

“We tried to make our point with a thought experiment,” they write. “We suggested to Mr. Cameron that he consider a similar policy in a different arena. What if, for instance…everyone were allowed to go down to the car dealership whenever they wanted and pick out any new model, free of charge, and drive it home?”

Rather than seeing the humor and realizing that health care is just like any other part of the economy, Cameron abruptly ended the meeting…

So what do Dubner and Levitt make of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, which has been described as a radical rethinking of America’s health care system?

“I do not think it’s a good approach at all,” says Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. “Fundamentally with health care, until people have to pay for what they’re buying it’s not going to work. Purchasing health care is almost exactly like purchasing any other good in the economy. If we’re going to pretend there’s a market for it, let’s just make a real market for it.”

Smith brings the pain:

This is exactly what I call “free market priesthood”. Does Levitt have a model that shows that things like adverse selection, moral hazard, principal-agent problems, etc. are unimportant in health care? Does he have empirical evidence that people behave as rationally when their health and life are on the line as when buying a car? Does he even have evidence that the British health system, specifically, underperforms?
No. He doesn’t. All he has is an instinctive belief in free markets. Of course David Cameron didn’t “realize that health care is just like any other part of the economy” after a five minute conversation with Levitt. Levitt didn’t bring any new ideas or evidence to the table.
And it’s not like Levitt’s idea was new or creative or counterintuitive. Does anyone seriously believe that the question of “why is health care different from other markets” had never crossed David Cameron’s mind before? Obviously it has, and obviously Levitt knew that when he asked his question. He wasn’t offering policy advice – he was grandstanding. Levitt wants to present himself as “thinking like a freak” – offering insightful, counterintuitive, original thinking. But if this is “thinking like a freak”, I’d hate to see what the normal people think like!
Surely it has not escaped Levitt’s notice that the countries with national health systems spend far less than the United States and achieve better outcomes. How does he explain this fact? Does he think that there is an “uncanny valley” halfway between fully nationalized health systems and “real markets”, and that the U.S. is stuck in that uncanny valley? If so, I’d like to see a model.
But I don’t think Levitt has a model. What he has is a simple message (“all markets are the same”), and a strong prior belief in that message. And he keeps repeating that prior in the face of the evidence.
I’m am not arguing, nor would I, that free markets are always and everywhere wrong. But Levitt is arguing pretty much the opposite, even though 1) he knows damned well it’s untrue, 2) he knows damned well that control of markets exists on both a quantitative and qualitative spectrum, and 3) he knows a world of empirical evidence derived from both this depression and the last one proves him wrong. I mean, dude, if Alan Greenspan admitted that, much to his surprise, free markets were not always self-regulating and self-correcting, surely you could concede the same?
But no.
I don’t know whether Levitt is insane or just has books to sell, nor will I speculate. But the fact is that he is intentionally saying things about the economy that he knows are false, and the fact is that he knows that these falsehoods that have real and painful consequences for tens of millions of Americans and make America look ridiculous in the eyes of the world. He had the ear of perhaps the second most powerful person in the free world, and he bullshat the guy.  I don’t care why. I just want him to stop.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 7:20 pm

How utterly debased New York Times reporting is in two simple blog posts and why that matters to people who don’t read the Times

First, a key paragraph from the offending Times article:

Few issues ignite such passion among the base of both parties. Democrats argue that the laws are intended to keep poor voters away from the polls because they often have difficulty obtaining identification. Republicans contend cheating is rife in today’s elections.

Now, an analysis of that paragraph by Felix Salmon, formerly with Reuters and now a senior editor at Fusion. Here’s the money quote:

I’m sure that if you look hard enough, you’ll be able to find a member of the Republican party who believes that cheating is rife in today’s elections. Hell, you could probably even find a member of the Democratic party who believes the same thing. But in general, I don’t think that Republicans believe — or even contend — that cheating is rife.

It’s certainly true that a lot of Republicans support voter ID laws. But you don’t need to think that cheating is rife in order to support such measures. In fact, you don’t even need to think that cheating exists in order to support such measures. It’s entirely rational to support a voter ID law even if cheating is rare or nonexistent, on the grounds that cheating is just too easy right now and that you want to make it harder.

In other words, Peters’s formulation actually does Republicans few favors. If you know anything at all about the voter ID debate, you know that (2) is true and (4) is false. Which means that if you know anything at all about the voter ID debate, and you read Peters’s article, you’ll come away thinking two things:

A) In order to support voter ID laws, you first need to believe that cheating is rife.

B) In general, Republicans are liars.

After all, if you contend that cheating is rife, as Peters says Republicans generally do, you are lying.

And, finally, Jay Rosen at PressThink, with the larger context. Money quote:

So what is that exceedingly crappy paragraph doing there on the newspaper-of-record’s front page? Salmon says it’s laziness. (“He-said-she-said is so easy, for a journalist on deadline, that both journalists and editors tend not to really thinking about exactly what they’re saying.”) Certainly ease-of-use is part of the device’s fading delights.

Here’s how I described the appeal of he said, she said in 2009. It makes the story writable on deadline when you don’t know enough to sort things out. In a “he said, she said” classic:

* No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)

* The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.

* The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter [and the user] in the middle between polarized extremes.

I question whether that between-two-extremes territory, the “you figure it out/for us partisan polarization rules” space is valuable turf in the news business. I doubt that it’s “safe,” either, if you mean by safe: won’t do the brand harm. I think it’s likely to corrode trust over time. A conventional explanation for he said, she said says: it may be lazy or incomplete, but it is also a safe middle ground place to land so you can get the damn paper out!

But it’s not that safe. Democrats argue/Republicans contend/We have No Idea… increasingly won’t cut it for the Times, or its competitors like the FT, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Bloomberg. The upscale, high-information readers the Times wants to charge more money to, the core loyalists who are being asked to finance more of the operation— these users are increasingly likely to know about various preponderance-of-evidence callsindependent of whether the Times knows enough to include that review in its reporting. When this kind of reader comes upon he said, she said reporting on a big story where it’s CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE, as with the right to vote: bad moment for the Times brand.

On the surface, this example appears to favor Republicans. Salmon argues that upon closer inspection, it favors Democrats by demonstrating that Republicans are liars on this issue. My big picture is that any one example isn’t the issue; the phenomenon is the problem. Some days I want to grab every publisher, executive editor, and executive producer in the country, slap them across the face and say what Jonathan Stewart famously said to then-”Crossfire” co-host Tucker Carlson: Stop it. You’re hurting the country.

Several different things can cause this kind of false-balance, he-said/she-said reporting to be published. Time pressure and byline-count requirements can tempt reporters to slap it down and file it without taking the trouble to see whether there is, in fact, a preponderance of the evidence (or preponderance of LACK of evidence) that would allow a reasonable conclusion to be drawn. Editors and publishers, in an era of dwindling circulation and readership and viewership and, correspondingly, ad revenue, don’t want to risk alienating a large segment of the public, even if that segment has been aboard an accelerating handbasket toward intellectual hell for the past half-century.

But you know what? Those are only excuses. If enough consumers of news demand it, news outlets that genuinely want to stay in business — not all do, but that’s a subject for another day — will respond accordingly. That said, those consumers need to target publishers, executive editors and managing editors, not the reporters who write this stuff or their assigning editors. Reporters write this stuff, and assigning editors send it on through to the copy desk, because they believe they can and/or must. If publishers, executive editors and managing editors — and, yes, I’m talking about my friends at the News & Record, among others — send the strong message that this kind of fake-ass reporting cannot and must not be published, then it won’t be. It’s that simple. So apply pressure in the right place; if nothing changes, then you know whom to blame.

Facts matter. Facts have consequences. And, dammit to hell, in the lives of real people, policy trumps politics. Journalists need to be committing journalism like they understand these things. Too many aren’t, and that crap must stop.

Saturday, May 10, 2014 10:46 pm

An even more special kind of stupid

SpecialKindOfStupid

It takes a very special kind of stupid to inherit peace, prosperity and a budget surplus and explode the deficit, allow a horrific terrorist attack, launch a war both illegal and unnecessary (killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in the process), order Americans to carry out exactly the same kind of torture for which we hanged Germans and Japanese after World War II AND push policies that allowed the worst economic crisis in three-quarters of a century.

But it takes an even more special kind of stupid to say, on the subject of George W. Bush, to intelligent Americans, “Who ya gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?” Naturally, these days we do not lack for that very special kind of stupid; we need only turn to Matt Bai, formerly of the Times Almighty and now with Yahoo, to find it:

A graphic this week on FiveThirtyEight.com showed how fewer and fewer Americans blame Bush for the country’s economic morass, even though his successor, Barack Obama, won two presidential campaigns based on precisely that premise.

Bush’s critics will argue that this is testament to how quickly we forget the past. But it has more to do, really, with how we distort the present.

The truth is that Bush was never anything close to the ogre or the imbecile his most fevered detractors insisted he was. Read “Days of Fire,” the excellent and exhaustive book on Bush’s presidency by Peter Baker, my former colleague at the New York Times. Bush comes off there as compassionate and well-intentioned — a man who came into office underprepared and overly reliant on his wily vice president and who found his footing only after making some tragically bad decisions. Baker’s Bush is a flawed character you find yourself rooting for, even as you wince at his judgment.

Not just no, Matt, but hell, no.

I don’t need to read your buddy’s slobbery hagiography: I know what I saw and heard, out of the man’s own mouth, for eight long, painful, and disastrous years. For sheer incompetence, only Buchanan comes close, and in terms of the consequences of his stupidity, he is without peer or even parallel. America is vastly poorer, dumber, less free and yet more vulnerable today than it was in 2000, and the blame for that can be laid squarely at the feet of Li’l Boots McDrydrunk and the monsters he hired. I heard the man talk, so I know for a fact that he is an imbecile. I heard him admit on ABC News that he ordered torture, so I know for a fact that he is an ogre. And you, sir, can go straight to hell with him.

The only thing I’m rooting for where Bush is concerned is a seat in the dock at The Hague. And while oral sex is no longer a crime, public oral sex still is, so, Matt, buddy, next time you sit down to write about Bush 43, I’d look around for cops first.

 

Actually, only PART of the 1% is the problem. But we don’t know which part.

OK, strictly speaking, it’s the top 8%: CNBC commissioned a poll of U.S. households with $1 million or more of investable assets. And to a significant (and, to me, surprising) extent, they think a lot like you and I think on the economy:

  • 51% believe income inequality is a “major problem” for the country.
  • 64% support higher taxes for the wealthy.
  • 63% support increasing the minimum wage.

Now, they don’t think exactly like us; they’re likely to overestimate the effect of a good education and hard work (America tops only the U.K. in social mobility among the 20 wealthiest nations), and they tend to underestimate the effect of inherited wealth and luck.

But the fact remains that close to two-thirds of millionaires think they, themselves, should be paying more taxes and that the minimum wage should be higher. Just thought you should know we have some support among their ranks.

 

 

Thursday, May 1, 2014 7:20 pm

Charlie PIerce on the “states’ rights” argument’s ugly history

A lot of conservative politicians are arguing for a smaller federal government and more “states’ rights.” Unfortunately for them, that argument has a history, and, yes, that history is ugly:

This view of things was litigated at the Constitutional Convention. It failed. It was litigated over the tariff. It failed. It was litigated at Cemetery Ridge. It failed. It was litigated prior to the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. It failed. It was litigated at Central High in Little Rock. It failed. It was litigated on the campus at Ole Miss in 1962. It failed. It was litigated at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It failed. It is the connective tissue that binds modern conservativism inextricably to the remnants of American apartheid because this view of the nature of the nation always was the expression of threat that the slaveholder felt about his way of life. It camouflaged itself in a number of ways involving a number of different issues, but always it was about the fear that, sooner or later, the federal government was going to come and take away the chattel from which you derived your personal economy, and so even what might be beneficial to the nation as a whole must be resisted on the pretext of sovereign states.

Mike Pence is one of the more prominent politicians to make this argument lately, but he’s far from the only one. And any student of American history, whether Republican, Democrat or unaffiliated, ought to know that this argument has been dishonest since 1787.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 11:22 pm

Remember how the IRS was only targeting conservative groups?

Filed under: More fact-based arguing, please — Lex @ 11:22 pm
Tags: , , ,

Yeah, me neither.

Darrell Issa needs to be impeached, and every screaming RWNJ who was accusing the Obama administration of persecution and yadda yadda yadda needs to sit down and drink an icy cold, 1-liter mug of STFU. I have had it with you people.

Friday, April 11, 2014 8:43 pm

Duke Power, trees, and simple questions

We here in the ‘boro have a chronic problem: We live in the ice belt — Virginia reliably gets snow in the winter, South Carolina reliably gets rain, but we’re as likely to get freezing rain and sleet as anything else. And with ice comes falling tree limbs and entire trees. And with those come downed power lines. In our most recent ice storm, a lot of people were dark for close to a week.

Duke Energy wanted to minimize this problem by trimming back trees that are near power lines. Residents (including me, in my ignorance) protested.

Now Duke proposes to reduce the problem by injecting a chemical called Cambistat into the ground near trees adjacent to power lines. The good news is, Cambistat will make blossoming trees blossom even more aggressively while slowing the rate of limb growth. This, in turn, will reduce the frequency with which trees near power lines have to be trimmed back.

(I and others have argued that, over time, burying power lines would save Duke Energy, and therefore ratepayers, money by reducing costs associated with repairing downed lines, utility poles, transformers, etc. I still believe that to be true, but not only would the trenching required to bury lines kill a lot of trees all by itself by damaging their roots, it’s also beside the point of this discussion.)

The bad news about Cambistat? Its active ingredient, paclobutrazole, is a chemical about which almost nothing is known but which might be toxic. Relatedly, not a few local residents grow ornamentals, and even herbs, fruit or vegetables, near trees that would be so treated. And pines and cedars, the trees most vulnerable to ice breakage, wouldn’t even be treated.

But remember: We simply don’t know what the effects of exposure to the chemical would be, whether pure or in the diluted form of an herbicide, whether short-term or long-term. On the other hand, with chemical toxicity, unlike in criminal trials, lack of evidence does not automatically equate to a not-guilty verdict.

So friend and local blogger Billy Jones asked a simple question of a tree service that had responded to a Facebook post of his:  “How will Cambistat affect my nearby herb and vegetable gardens?”

From a pure PR standpoint, the response he got made the mendacity of the tobacco companies back in the day look urbane and collegial. That made Billy both angry and even more curious. Me, too, and I don’t even grow stuff.

 

Thursday, April 3, 2014 6:12 am

Phil Berger and Thom Tillis think they’ve found themselves some voter fraud. Fine. Let’s see if they’re right.

Fred sent me this link (thank you, sir), which purports to claim “widespread” voter fraud in North Carolina during the 2012 general election. That link in turn links to a news release issued jointly on Wednesday by Phil Berger, the state Senate GOP leader and father of one of the Republicans trying to succeed Howard Coble in the 6th Congressional District race, and Thom Tillis, the state House speaker and one of the Republicans seeking Kay Hagan’s U.S. Senate seat this year. They write:

[We have learned of] more alarming evidence of voter error and fraud discovered by the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

Initial findings from the Board presented to the Joint Legislative Elections Oversight Committee today show:

  • 765 voters with an exact match of first and last name, DOB and last four digits of SSN were registered in N.C. and another state and voted in N.C. and the other state in the 2012 general election.
  • 35,750 voters with the same first and last name and DOB were registered in N.C. and another state and voted in both states in the 2012 general election.
  • 155,692 voters with the same first and last name, DOB and last four digits of SSN were registered in N.C. and another state – and the latest date of registration or voter activity did not take place within N.C.

These findings only take into account data from the 28 states who participated in the 2014 Interstate Crosscheck, leaving out potential voter error and fraud in the 22 states that do not participate in the consortium.

My first reaction, which I admit is kind of geeky and inside-baseballish, is: Show your work, guys. Post the board’s findings online even if it’s in hard-to-search .pdf format. (As of now, the State Board of Elections itself hasn’t done it.) Otherwise, you’re asking me to trust a couple of demonstrably untrustworthy pols, although I’m gonna  set that point aside and examine this argument as if it were being made by someone with no obvious political interest one way or the other.

That said, the massive gap between the number reported in point 1 (with SocSec numbers) and the number reported in point 2 (no SSNs) leaves an awful lot of room for speculation and even more for  mismatched records. Cops have access to info that I didn’t have as a reporter, but when I was doing investigative stuff, particularly on people with very common names, I always tried to get an SSN. That’s the gold standard of unique identifiers.

All point 3 says — allowing for the elision between being registered and casting a ballot, which is actually enormous; I wonder why? — is, “and the latest date of registration or voter activity did not take place within N.C.” That’s a big-ass loophole, considering that “voter activity” can be as simple as changing a phone number and that N.C. counties, last I checked (which I admit was years ago),  purge their voters rolls typically only once every four years — immediately after a presidential election.

But, OK, let’s put this in the light most favorable to the authors: Even with all my caveats, no fewer than 765 voters appear to have voted in both N.C. and another state in the 2012 general election, per elections data. Voter fraud is a felony, and if that report is true, all 765 should go to prison. I’d be happy to be the person to slam the door on ‘em.

Problem is, it won’t be true, because — and this is a national shame and embarrassment, but a topic for another time — voter-registration data is some of the dirtiest mass public info out there. (The reason is that it attempts to gather a large amount of basic information about a lot of people, and in a society as dynamic and mobile as ours, that pool of data is changing in small but measurable ways thousands of times a day, on average.) Now, our friends Berger and Tillis claim to have attempted to “clean up” voter rolls, but they have done so in ways that give advantages to likely Republican voters while creating barriers for the young, the very old, racial and ethnic minorities, women, convicted felons and other likely Democratic voters. But that’s also an issue for another day, as is the Republicans’ reluctance to look into voter fraud in absentee balloting, where most of the real voter fraud takes place, because absentee voters are more likely to vote Republican.)

But don’t take my word for it that the 765 alleged cases aren’t real. Examining 765 records, one at a time, to determine whether or not the registrant committed a crime would take a while, but not that long. So I encourage — nay, challenge — the State Board of Elections to refer the case to the SBI and get it done. And assuming that happens, I think you’re going to find that many, and probably most, of those 765 are paperwork errors of some kind. A person was recorded as having voted in one state or the other — or at all — when he/she in fact did not vote. Whatever. Because that’s what almost always happens. Because the data is always that dirty.

That’s what I think will happen. I might be wrong, but I doubt it.

Pro-voter ID types hop on preliminary numbers like this because they look like proof of serious undermining of the very bedrock of democracy, the vote. Unfortunately, when it gets down to proving actual voter fraud, those numbers fold like a cheap card table into something a lot less impressive, interesting or dangerous, thereby undermining their rationale for voter ID as well as their rationale for other limits on voting rights alluded to above.

The bottom line here is that 765 cases is a manageable number to check into. So let’s check. Let’s have the State Board of Elections turn these cases over to the SBI for investigation. Let’s see what we learn. I’m eager to find out.

Heck, I might even be more eager than Phil Berger and Thom Tillis.

UPDATE, 4/3: Commenter George Barnett below wisely adds, “Keep in mind too that even if this does turn out to be true voter IDs would not have prevented it.” No, they wouldn’t have.

Thursday, March 27, 2014 8:53 pm

Thought for the day, rugged-individualism edition …

… from Helaine Olen at Reuters:

To presume home-buyers put into predatory loans by mortgage brokers working for outfits like Countrywide Financial could have stopped the housing market implosion if they knew a bit more about balancing their checkbook is absurd. Just as absurd as thinking a high school class in money management could help someone two decades later decipher a 100-page, single-spaced mortgage origination document loaded with “gotcha” clauses.

But our self-help culture doesn’t allow us to admit we might not be able to overcome greater economic woes on our own. In fact, it often makes our individual situations worse when things don’t work out.

Thomas Scheff, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently published a paper in the journalCultural Sociology claiming that in highly individualistic cultures like the United States, where people are encouraged to “go it alone,” shame is the price we pay for not achieving success.

Viewed through this prism, you can think of the constant simmering anger in our culture as the road rage of self-help culture. Fearing the humiliation of failure, we aggressively lash out at others who prove the self-help nostrums a lie.

This could be the reason that many, including Republican members of Congress, blame the long-term jobless for their own plight, and cut off their unemployment checks. We say those who fell prey to predatory lending weren’t misled, but were greedy.

According to the tenets of self-help, the victims of the American economic collapse need not a helping hand, but a kick in the pants.

True, self-help advice is not always fully useless. Saving money, for starters, is certainly more likely to lead to a prosperous life than not putting anything aside at all. Yet all too often, knowledge and individual action are not enough.

Self-help causes us to take the political and economic problem of increasing income inequality and make it personal. That’s both morally wrong and financially ineffective.

That we fall for it only makes it worse.

I would add that the fact that we fall for it is no surprise when you watch how much and how deeply American media of all political stripes (or none at all — movies produced purely for entertainment, for example, often include this theme) drill this message home. As we are bombarded by and marinated in those messages, the notion that many if not most great things we’ve accomplished could only have been accomplished by teams, groups, companies, communities, or the states or the federal government becomes the dog that didn’t bark: We’re so used to, and have so absorbed, this self-reliance tenet that we fail to note its all-too-frequent systemic failures.

We’re all in this together, folks. And before we can act like it, we — or most of us, anyway — have to think like it.

(h/t: Fec)

Friday, December 6, 2013 7:35 pm

Quote of the Day, Response to Cardinal Timothy Dolan Edition

So Cardinal Timothy Dolan went on Press the Meat this past Sunday to argue that Catholic doctrine on gays and women has been “caricatured” by Hollywood and the media and that the Church has been “outmarketed” in spreading its message. No, he really said this. So Charlie Pierce responds:

And the Founder assured us that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church, and you’re arguing that you got “outmarketed” by the Sundance Festival?

(Dolan also argued that the Pope “can’t make doctrinal changes,” which would surprise the hell out of most Catholics, the Pope included. You can’t make this stuff up.)

Thursday, November 14, 2013 7:52 pm

Senate Republicans continue to abuse the filibuster

Senate Republicans have filibustered three of President Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court. (There are three vacancies on an eight-judge panel.) The GOP has accused Obama of 1) “court-packing” and 2) appointing “radicals” to those seats.

“Court packing,” like so many words Republicans like to toss around, has an actual meaning. Also, like so many of the words Republicans toss around, it does not mean what they think it means. It stems from the 1930s, when FDR became so frustrated at opposition in the federal courts to some of his New Deal measures that he contemplated increasing the number of seats on the Supreme Court and elsewhere in the federal judiciary to create room for majorities who would uphold his policies. (That didn’t happen, by the way; natural turnover solved some of his problem over time.) But today’s GOP calls filling existing vacancies “court packing.” Uh, no.

Now, then, as for the radicals: The most liberal of the three D.C. Circuit nominees is probably Cornelia “Nina” Pillard. And how radical is she?

Well …

Pillard’s nomination was easily the most controversial for conservatives in the Senate, who voiced concerns over her “radical” views connecting reproductive rights to gender equality as well as her history working on significant cases such as United States v. Virginia, which opened the Virginia Military Institute to women, and Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, which successfully defended the Family and Medical Leave Act against a constitutional challenge.

Gee. That sounds bad. But was it?

It’s hard to imagine evidence of “radicalism” being much more feeble. You don’t exactly have to be Catharine MacKinnon to believe that states denying women the same educational opportunities as men violates the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Indeed, Pillard’s position won at the Supreme Court 7-1. Similarly, arguing that the FMLA—which passed the Senate 71-27—was applicable against state employers is not exactly revolutionary. The Supreme Court agreed in a 6-3 opinion authored by noted left-wing fanatic William Rehnquist (who also voted with the majority in the VMI case.)

Sooooo … the cases about which Pillard is getting the most grief are cases in which she 1) prevailed, and not narrowly, at the Supreme Court, with 2) William Rehnquist, one of the most conservative justices to sit on the high court in the past 75 years, agreeing with her.

In related news, the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt (with whom I have my own problems, but that’s a story for another time) to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency also was filibustered. That marked the first time a sitting member of Congress had been denied an up-or-down vote on a presidential appointment since 1843. No, that’s not a typo.

It’s almost as if Senate Republicans aren’t actually concerned about nominees’ competence, character, or even politics. It’s almost as if they’re concerned about … well, something else. But I can’t quite put my finger on it. I wonder what it might be?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 7:17 pm

Facts matter, so does context, ACA Part CCXXII!Q*%.

It is factually accurate to state that Obama’s claim that “most people” would be able to keep their existing health insurance coverage under Obamacare was inaccurate if you’re looking at people with individual policies. (Most people insured through their employers will, in fact, continue to be.) It is even factually accurate to say that Obama kept claiming that even after he should have known better — i.e., he lied on that point, at least for a while.

But economist Dean Baker adds some relevant context that, while not getting Obama off the hook for saying stuff he should have known to be false, also makes clear that insurers also played a role and that policy holders shouldn’t have been totally surprised:

[The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" columnist, Glenn Kessler] presents evidence showing that 48.2 percent of individual plans are in effect less than 6 months and 64.5 percent are in effect less than year. Extrapolating from this evidence on the rate at which individuals leave plans, Kessler calculates that less than 4.8 percent of the people in the individual market have a plan that would be protected by this grandfather provision. …

… while Kessler is correct that the grandfathering protects relatively few people because policies tend to be short-lived, this data also raises an issue about the pain caused by earlier than expected cancellations. Kessler’s data show that almost half of the plans will be held by people for less than six months and almost two-thirds will be held for less than a year. This means that most of the people being told that their plans are being cancelled probably would have left their plans in the first half of 2014 anyhow. While no one wants to buy insurance more than necessary, it hardly seems like a calamity if someone expected to leave their policy in March and will now have to arrange insurance through the exchange for two months.

Furthermore one has to ask about the role of insurers in this process. Kessler’s data imply that more than three quarters of the people in the individual market signed up for their policies for the first time in the last year. Didn’t insurers tell people at the time they sold the policies that these plans would only be in effect through the end of December because they did not comply with provisions in the ACA? If the insurers did inform their clients at the time they purchased their policies then they would not be surprised to find out now that they will need new insurance. If the insurance companies did not inform clients that their plans would soon be terminated then it seems that the insurers are the main culprits in this story, not the Obama administration.

UPDATE, 11/13/13: Just a thought: Insurance companies have known for three years what the standards for policies would be under the ACA. They had plenty of time to prepare. In many cases, however, they chose to screw consumers and blame it on Obama.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 7:57 pm

Obama lied about keeping your existing health-insurance policy … or DID he?

Actually, The Washington Post (among others) did the lying, as economist Dean Baker helpfully notes:

The Washington Post joined Republicans in hyping the fact that many individual insurance policies are being cancelled with insurers telling people that the reason is the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The second paragraph comments on this fact:

“The notices [of plan cancellation] appear to contradict President Obama’s promise that despite the changes resulting from the law, Americans can keep their health insurance if they like it.”

It would have been useful to point out that the plans that were in effect as of the passage of the ACA were grandfathered. This means that any insurers that cancel plans that were in effect prior to 2010 are being misleading if they tell their customers that the cancellation was due to the ACA. It was not a mandate of the ACA that led to the cancellation of the plan, but rather a decision of the insurer based on market conditions.

But Obama is black!

Also, if you really want to know what’s going on in the economy, just read Baker’s blog every day. It’s called Beat The Press, and that’s what it does. Pretty much the only thing he ever posts about is mistakes made by major news-media outlets in coverage of economics, and he never lacks for material, averaging about 3-4 posts per day. He also doesn’t have to go far afield for material: The major print, broadcast and cable outlets keep him supplied without his having to go beat up on a 22-year-old cub reporter in East Buttville to flesh out an item. I started reading him several years ago, and in less than a week, I arrived at the conclusion that where economics coverage is concerned, American news  media just ought to be ashamed, full stop. This matters not only in and of itself but also because the income and wealth of working people and the middle class are under siege right now by the 1%, who are counting on people’s economic ignorance to let them do what they want to do, which is rob us blind. Baker is our Thin Blue Line. Read him and support him.

Monday, October 28, 2013 8:38 pm

Econ 101, 2013 version

It’s so simple even Bill Maher gets it:

This is the question the Right has to answer. Do you want smaller government with less handouts or do you want do you want a low minimum wage because you cannot have both. If Coronel Sanders isn’t going to pay the lady behind the counter enough to live on, then Uncle Sam has to. And I for one is getting a little tired of helping highly profitable companies pay their workers.

And spare me the crap about how raising the minimum wage kills jobs because 1) it doesn’t, 2) CEO pay relative to worker pay is at an unprecedented height, and it ain’t because CEOs are, in general, competent at running providers of goods and services rather than gaming the system, and 3) corporate profits are at an all-time high.

Sunday, October 27, 2013 9:50 pm

Oh, I’M sorry, you were worried about the DEFICIT and not whether Americans had health care?

Read this and weep, you freakin’ sociopaths:

The Affordable Care Act is already working: Intense price competition among health plans in the marketplaces for individuals has lowered premiums below projected levels. As a result of these lower premiums, the federal government will save about $190 billion over the next 10 years, according to our estimates. These savings will boost the health law’s amount of deficit reduction by 174 percent and represent about 40 percent of the health care savings proposed by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform—commonly known as the Simpson-Bowles commission—in 2010.

Moreover, we estimate that lower premiums will lower the number of uninsured even further, by an additional 700,000 people, even as the number of individuals who receive tax credits will decline because insurance is more affordable.

In short, the Affordable Care Act is working even better than expected, producing more coverage for much less money.

And just because you’re evil and you suck, you should also read the whole damn report, while I make an adult beverage out of vodka and your bitter, bitter tears.

Friday, October 25, 2013 7:21 pm

But Obamacare will kill small businesses!

Not so much, says New Yorker business/economics writer James Surowiecki:

[T]he overwhelming majority of American businesses—ninety-six per cent—have fewer than fifty employees. The employer mandate doesn’t touch them. And more than ninety per cent of the companies above that threshold already offer health insurance. Only three per cent are in the zone (between forty and seventy-five employees) where the threshold will be an issue. Even if these firms get more cautious about hiring—and there’s little evidence that they will—the impact on the economy would be small.

Meanwhile, the likely benefits of Obamacare for small businesses are enormous. To begin with, it’ll make it easier for people to start their own companies—which has always been a risky proposition in the U.S., because you couldn’t be sure of finding affordable health insurance. As John Arensmeyer, who heads the advocacy group Small Business Majority, and is himself a former small-business owner, told me, “In the U.S., we pride ourselves on our entrepreneurial spirit, but we’ve had this bizarre disincentive in the system that’s kept people from starting new businesses.” Purely for the sake of health insurance, people stay in jobs they aren’t suited to—a phenomenon that economists call “job lock.” “With the new law, job lock goes away,” Arensmeyer said. “Anyone who wants to start a business can do so independent of the health-care costs.” Studies show that people who are freed from job lock (for instance, when they start qualifying for Medicare) are more likely to undertake something entrepreneurial, and one recent study projects that Obamacare could enable 1.5 million people to become self-employed.

Even more important, Obamacare will help small businesses with health-care costs, which have long been a source of anxiety. The fact that most Americans get their insurance through work is a historical accident: during the Second World War, wages were frozen, so companies began offering health insurance instead. After the war, attempts to create universal heath care were stymied by conservatives and doctors, and Congress gave corporations tax incentives to keep providing insurance. The system has worked well enough for big employers, since large workforces make possible the pooling of risk that any healthy insurance market requires. But small businesses often face so-called “experience rating”: a business with a lot of women or older workers faces high premiums, and even a single employee who runs up medical costs can be a disaster. A business that Arensmeyer represents recently saw premiums skyrocket because one employee has a child with diabetes. Insurance costs small companies as much as eighteen per cent more than it does large companies; worse, it’s also a crapshoot. Arensmeyer said, “Companies live in fear that if one or two employees get sick their whole cost structure will radically change.” No wonder that fewer than half the companies with under fifty employees insure their employees, and that half of uninsured workers work for small businesses or are self-employed. In fact, a full quarter of small-business owners are uninsured, too.

Obamacare changes all this. It provides tax credits to smaller businesses that want to insure their employees. And it requires “community rating” for small businesses, just as it does for individuals, sharply restricting insurers’ ability to charge a company more because it has employees with higher health costs. And small-business exchanges will in effect allow companies to pool their risks to get better rates. “You’re really taking the benefits that big companies enjoy, and letting small businesses tap into that,” Arensmeyer said. This may lower costs, and it will insure that small businesses can hire the best person for a job rather than worry about health issues.

The U.S. likes to think of itself as friendly to small businesses. But, as a 2009 study by the economists John Schmitt and Nathan Lane documented, our small-business sector is among the smallest in the developed world, and has one of the lowest rates of self-employment. One reason is that we’ve never had anything like national health insurance. In a saner world, changing this would be a reform that the “party of small business” would celebrate.

But we don’t live in a saner world, now, do we?

 

Friday, October 18, 2013 7:56 pm

Hey, Paul Cox of Leicester, NC — why did you go on Hannity’s show and lie about Obamacare?

Because you did, and you’ve been busted.

Thursday, October 17, 2013 8:39 pm

The center cannot hold because there isn’t one

A poll conducted by Esquire magazine and NBC purports to identify and take the measure of what it calls “The New American Center” among American voters.

I am not a polling expert, but I have enough polling experience and experience in both quantitative and qualitative research to grasp that this conceit is crap. (Thus no link.)

Americans are more culturally divided than they have been since the eve of the Civil War, and there’s a wealth of more rigorous polling at PollingReport.com to substantiate that claim. Moreover, rigorous polling on policy ideas that simply presents the ideas in context without labeling them as conservative or liberal, Republican or Democratic, shows that Americans actually prefer liberal policies in general, not moderate or conservative ones. They want to soak hell out of the rich, just for starters.

Since this garbage first appeared on Esquire’s politics blog, I’ve been awaiting the input of that blog’s primary writer, Charlie Pierce. I hoped that he wouldn’t be muzzled on this subject. And it seems, to my delight, either that he hasn’t been or that he doesn’t care:

There are three kinds of people who claim to be centrists in this country today. There are embarrassed Republicans. There are lazy people. And there are liars. There is no fourth alternative. We have seen vividly the intellectual exhaustion of self-proclaimed centrists in the laughable attempts to blame both sides for the reign of the morons. We have seen vividly the intellectual dishonesty of self-proclaimed centrists demonstrated by the No Labels and Fix The Debt scams, both of which involve little more than selling out the social safety-net. We even seen the intellectual vacuity of self-proclaimed centrists in the results of this poll, in which we see some vague mumbling about the deficit that will eat us in our beds, but a strong desire to raise taxes on the very wealthiest among us, which I guarantee you none of the people who proclaim their centrism the loudest believes is a centrist position.

So to the list of yellow lines and dead armadillos that you can find in the middle of the road, you may add embarrassed Republicans, lazy people and liars. That’s it, although I might soften Charlie’s position a bit and rephrase “lazy” as “low-information” people in some cases, because it takes time and effort to get informed. Some people don’t bother, and “lazy” fits them. But plenty of others are working multiple jobs, raising kids and just trying to get by and can’t get informed. Them, I don’t blame so much.

But I sure as hell blame the mainstream media that too often are their only sources of information. And while Esquire’s political reporting generally has been far better than this, NBC, perhaps with the exception of Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, has been as egregious an offender as exists out there. I’m sure David Gregory considers himself a centrist. He’s not. He’s a conservative moron.

Read more: Response To New American Center – I Hate Centrism – Esquire
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Visit us at Esquire.com

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 8:58 pm

There is a different, and much lower, bar for conservatives

After pseudohistorian David Barton, who has been making money for more than two decades now by telling bald-faced lies about the Founding Fathers, published a “nonfiction” book so bad that it was repudiated by its own publisher, you would think that no one in conservative political circles would want to be caught dead next to him. He’d been called a liar by secular historians, evangelical historians, and his own publisher. Did I mention that his own publisher said his book was a pack of lies? Next to that, having your book voted “least credible history book in print” by readers of History News Network is nothing.

But you have to remember that Barton’s market is the same people who think Jesus rode dinosaurs, as Politico — and God forgive me for linking to it — explains:

Barton has huge standing among “social conservatives that make up a significant base of a caucus electorate,” said Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican website. “You want to appeal to those people if you’re a Ted Cruz or a Rand Paul.” …

But to his critics’ astonishment, Barton has bounced back. He has retained his popular following and his political appeal — in large part, analysts say, because he brings an air of sober-minded scholarship to the culture wars, framing the modern-day agenda of the religious right as a return to the Founding Fathers’ vision for America.

“It has been shocking how much resistance there is to critically examining what Barton says,” said Scott Culpepper, an associate professor of history at Dordt College who has critiqued Barton’s scholarship. “I really underestimated the power of the political element in evangelicalism.”

In March, Barton gave his presentation on America’s biblical heritage to dozens of state legislators in Kansas. In May, he spoke at the official National Day of Prayer breakfast at the Fort Leonard Wood Army base in Missouri. He rallied activists at the National Right to Life Convention in June with a rousing speech drawing on the Declaration of Independence to make the case for abortion restrictions. Cruz followed Barton in the program and echoed his analysis to thunderous applause.

“I’m not in a position to opine on academic disputes between historians, but I can tell you that David Barton is a good man, a courageous leader and a friend,” Cruz told POLITICO. “David’s historical research has helped millions rediscover the founding principles of our nation and the incredible sacrifices that men and women of faith made to bequeath to us the freest and most prosperous nation in the world.”

This fall, Barton will share that message before audiences in Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas. He also continues to travel to Washington to lead his signature Capitol tours — sponsored and often attended by members of Congress — at which he expounds on America’s Christian roots.

Radio host Glenn Beck’s publishing company, Mercury Ink, has even announced plans to republish “The Jefferson Lies,” although a spokesman would give no details about timing, print run or whether the manuscript would be edited to address the criticism. [I just bet -- Lex.]

Barton’s enduring popularity “embarrasses the academic community,” Throckmorton said. But, he added, no matter how loud the scholarly chorus, Barton has a trump card: His message “is useful politically.”

Indeed, political strategists say Republican candidates are wise to consult Barton and hitch their wagon to his star.

Your Republican Party, America. Be proud. And ask yourself: If they’re willing to lie about the Founding Fathers, what else are they willing to lie about? An easier question might be: What are they not willing to lie about?

Friday, July 19, 2013 7:05 pm

Retired SCOTUS justice John Paul Stevens rips Chief Justice Roberts a new orifice on voting rights …

and you could drive a Hummer through it as long as you kept the wipers going to clear the windshield of blood. Stevens doesn’t just mock Roberts’s “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty among the States,” he demonstrates that at no time in U.S. history has it existed anywhere outside John Roberts’s rear end. (Yet the Court majority in Shelby County are all, all honorable originalists.)

Stevens continues:

The statistics set forth in Roberts’s recent opinion persuasively explain why a neutral decision-maker could reasonably conclude that at long last the imposition of the preclearance requirement on the states that lost the Civil War—or more precisely continuing to use the formula that in 1965 identified those states—is not justified by the conditions that prevail today. The opinion fails, however, to explain why such a decision should be made by the members of the Supreme Court. The members of Congress, representing the millions of voters who elected them, are far more likely to evaluate correctly the risk that the interest in maintaining the supremacy of the white race still plays a significant role in the politics of those states. After all, that interest was responsible for creating the slave bonus when the Constitution was framed, and in motivating the violent behavior that denied blacks access to the polls in those states for decades prior to the enactment of the VRA.

The several congressional decisions to preserve the preclearance requirement—including its 2006 decision—were preceded by thorough evidentiary hearings that have consistently disclosed more voting violations in those states than in other parts of the country. Those decisions have had the support of strong majority votes by members of both major political parties. Not only is Congress better able to evaluate the issue than the Court, but it is also the branch of government designated by the Fifteenth Amendment to make decisions of this kind.

In her eloquent thirty-seven-page dissent, Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, described the extensive deliberations in Congress over the preclearance requirement, the precedents holding that the Court has a duty to respect Congress’s decisions, and the reasons why the preclearance remedy should be preserved. Indeed, she captured the majority’s principal error concisely and clearly when she explained that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

I hope everyone who wrote all the crap about Roberts being concerned about his Court’s place in history after it upheld the Affordable Care Act will now take it back, but I’m not optimistic.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013 7:26 pm

Is race a factor in stand-your-ground laws?

You tell me:

graph

(Read the article, too.)

 

Friday, July 12, 2013 7:51 pm

“Best [health care] in the world, my ass.”

Aaron Carroll at the Incidental Economist brings the pain:

There’s a ridiculously fantastic manuscript over at JAMA that you should go read right now. “The State of US Health, 1990-2010: Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors“: …

I’m a health services researcher, and I’m obsessed with outcomes. One of the first major projects of this blog was a two-week series on quality in the US health care system. I’ve written numerous times about what kills us. This study specifically looked at the burden of disease, injuries, and risk factors in the US versus other countries. The methods are amazingly detailed.

So how did we do compared to other countries? Not well. Between 1990 and 2010, among the 34 countries in the OECD, the US dropped from 18th to 27th in age-standardized death rate. The US dropped from 23rd to 28th for age-standardized years of life lost. It dropped from 20th to 27th in life expectancy at birth. It dropped from 14th to 26th for healthy life expectancy. The only bit of good news was that the US only dropped from 5th to 6th in years lived with disability.

There’s a chart I’d like to highlight. This is the rank of age-standardized years of life lost rates among the 34 OECD countries in 2010.  The numbers in each cell show the rank of the country in years of life lost for each cause (1 is best). The countries are sorted overall on age-standardized all-cause years of life lost.  The colors show if the age-standardized years of life lost for a country is significantly lower than the mean (green), indistinguishable from the mean (yellow), or higher than the mean (red) for all OECD countries. …

Things don’t look so good for the US. There’s an awful lot of red there. A little bit of yellow. One green. Best in the world, my ass. …

What we have here is a prioritization issue. We spend a lot of time worrying about colon cancer. It’s ranked 11th in 2010. We spend a lot of time worrying about breast cancer. We have walks, and ribbons, and whole months dedicated to it. It’s ranked 13th. Prostate cancer? Men are obsessed with it. It’s ranked 27th. But more years of life are lost to lung cancer than to prostate cancer, colon cancer, and breast cancer combined. Ischemic heart disease causes four times as many years of life to be lost each year as prostate cancer, colon cancer, and breast cancer combined. Stroke is 3rd. COPD is 4th. Traffic accidents are 5th. Suicide is 6th. None of these things get the national attention, or resources, that they deserve. [emphasis added]

In short, we have a lousy health-care system, and the reason we have a lousy health-care system is because we choose to have a lousy health-care system. This isn’t about Obamacare, or health insurance in general, or even how much money we have available to spend on health care. It’s about where we put our research and treatment dollars, and the study shows we’re not putting them anywhere near where they would do the most good. That’s a problem we can fix, but we have to choose to fix it.

 

Thursday, June 27, 2013 9:32 pm

Guess why the IRS only targeted Tea Party groups

Because Darrell Issa told it to, that’s why:

The Treasury inspector general (IG) whose report helped drive the IRS targeting controversy says it limited its examination to conservative groups because of a request from House Republicans.

A spokesman for Russell George, Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration, said they were asked by House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) “to narrowly focus on Tea Party organizations.”The inspector general’s audit found that groups seeking tax-exempt status with “Tea Party” and “patriots” in their name did receive extra attention from the IRS, with some facing years of delay and inappropriate questions from the agency.

But top congressional Democrats have wielded new information from the IRS this week that liberal groups were also flagged for extra attention on the sorts of “be on the lookout” lists (BOLOs) that also tripped up conservative groups.

The spokesman for the Treasury inspector general noted their audit acknowledged there were other watch lists. But the spokesman added: “We did not review the use, disposition, purpose or content of the other BOLOs. That was outside the scope of our audit.”

The admission from the inspector general comes as Democrats have sharpened their criticism of George, with Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) dubbing the audit fundamentally flawed on Monday.

Levin, the top Democrat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, stressed to The Hill on Tuesday that the inspector general did not say the audit was limited to Tea Party groups when it was released in mid-May.

The Michigan Democrat also maintained that the audit’s shortcoming had emboldened Republicans to try to link the targeting of Tea Party groups to the White House.

“You need to get at the facts. And those facts weren’t given to us, even when asked,” Levin said. “The Republicans used the failure of the IG to spell out what they knew as an opportunity to totally politicize this.”

No. You can’t be serious. Darrell Issa politicize something? Issa withhold material information so as to propagate a falsehood widely? Never in a million years.

You know, I’ve been saying that to the best of my knowledge, which I’ll admit isn’t comprehensive, what went on at the IRS went on because of the disproportionately larger number of GOP-leaning tax-exempt groups created since Citizens United. Other people insisted, however, that the disproportionate focus on Tea Party groups meant this wasn’t accidental, that it was part of a conspiracy. Well, they were right and I was wrong. But I’m pretty sure a conspiracy originating with Darrell Issa wasn’t what they meant.

Now why, you ask, would as high a ranking GOP member as Issa do such a thing? I’ll tell you why. The Tea Party is basically indistinguishable from the wingnut GOP base. And while the GOP leadership is perfectly happy to use those rank-and-file people during elections, the only agenda item they really care about is hoovering more money upward to the rich. That’s all. Nothing else. The Tea Party people have a somewhat more complicated agenda, and for them to gain too much power in the party would mean interference with, or at least distraction from, the top agenda item.

So, if you’re a Tea Party member, remember this: Barack Obama didn’t sic the IRS on you. Darrell Issa did. And he did it because he wants your money, end of story. You vote however you want, but you need to be sure to take that fact into the voting booth with you when you do.

Friday, April 12, 2013 6:50 pm

Quote of the day, is our children learning edition; or, measure everything and don’t do anything you can’t measure

From Kay at Balloon Juice, with emphasis in the original except where noted:

Michelle Rhee came to Ohio and lobbied my state legislature on her last national tour. She was treated like a celebrity. No one questioned any of her claims, which is unsurprising if you actually live in this state because all of her reforms involve union busting, pension looting and shifting public money to private operators(emphasis added). She’s a Right wing ideologue’s dream come true. They bought it because they believed it before she walked onto the floor that day.

The school reform industry response to the Atlanta cheating scandal was to call for better test security. As usual, the reform industry spokespeople are missing the larger point, the bigger picture. The truth is they based their reforms on high profile “turn arounds” in Atlanta and (especially) DC. If the scores in these places where they ran their experiments were bullshit, they “reformed” the US education system based on bullshit. They’re supposedly “data-driven” and most of them are billionaires. I shouldn’t have to point this out.

Hire an independent prosecutor like they did in Atlanta. Let’s find out. In the meantime, get a different opinion on “school reform.” Stop relying on the billionaires who backed this, the politicians who swallowed it without question, the hundreds of lobby shops who now exist because of it and the celebrities who promote it to evaluate it. They’re biased, they’re all in, they believe they are the “best and the brightest” and the top-tier analysts and executives are making a lot of money. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Well, disaster for ordinary taxpayers. For the grifters (and, remember, grifters are gonna grift), not so much.

Thursday, March 7, 2013 7:55 pm

March 7 study break, “NC Medicaid IS NOT BROKEN” edition

h/t: Fec

Disclosure: Jeff Shaw of the N.C. Justice Center is a classmate in my current grad program. Further disclosure: He is not a bullshitter.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 7:12 pm

Also, if you don’t want to repeat after me, kids, repeat after economist Dean Baker: The deficit problem is not an entitlements problem.

Listen to the man before you go giving away your — and my — Social Security and Medicare:

The gang for gutting Social Security and Medicare (aka “The Campaign to Fix the Debt”) are running in high gear. During the long election campaign they gathered dollars, corporate CEOs and washed up politicians for a full-fledged push in the final months of the year. They are hoping that the hype around the budget standoff (aka “fiscal cliff”) can be used for a grand bargain that eviscerates the country’s two most important social programs, Social Security and Medicare.

They made a point of keeping this plan out of election year politics because they know it is a huge loser with the electorate. People across the political and ideological spectrums strongly support these programs and are opposed to cuts. Politicians who advocated cuts would have been likely losers on Election Day. But now that the voters are out of the way, the Wall Street gang and the CEOs see their opportunity.

It is especially important that they act now, because one of the pillars of their deficit horror story could be collapsing. Due to a sharp slowing in the rise of health care costs over the last four years, the assumption that exploding health care costs would lead to unfathomable deficits may no longer be plausible even to people in high level policy positions.

As we all know, the large budget deficits of the last four years are entirely due to the economic downturn caused by the collapse of the housing bubble. The budget deficit was slightly over 1.0 percent of GDP in 2007 and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections showed it remaining low for the near-term future. The origin of the large deficits of the last few years is not a debatable point among serious people, even though talk of “trillion dollar deficits, with a ‘t’” is very good for scaring the children.

However, the big stick for the deficit hawks was their story of huge deficits in the longer term. They attributed these to the rising cost of “entitlements,” which are known to the rest of us as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

While they like to push the notion that the aging of the population threatened to impose an unbearable burden on future generations, the reality is that most of the horror story of huge deficits was driven by projections of exploding private sector health care costs. Since Medicare and Medicaid mostly pay for private sector health care, an explosion in private sector health care costs would eventually make these programs unaffordable.

As some of us have long pointedout, there are serious grounds for questioning the plausibility of projections that the health care sector would rise to 30 or 40 percent of GDP over the rest of the century. Recently a paper from the Federal Reserve Boarddocumented this argument in considerable detail.

Even more important than the professional argument over health care cost projections is the recent trend in health care costs. While the CBO projections assume that age-adjusted health care costs rise considerably more rapidly than per capita income, in the last four years they have been roughly keeping pace with per capita income.

In fact, in the last year nominal spending on health care services, the sector that comprises almost two-thirds of health care costs, rose by just 1.7 percent. This is far below the rate of nominal GDP growth over this period, which was more than 4.0 percent. While at least some of this slowing in health care costs is undoubtedly due to the downturn, it is hard to believe that it is not at least partially attributable to a slower underlying rate of health care cost growth.

CBO and other budget forecasters can ignore economic reality for a period of time (they ignored the housing bubble until after its collapse wrecked the economy), but if it continues, at some point they will have to incorporate the trend of slower health care cost growth into their projections. When this happens, the really scary long-term deficit numbers will disappear.

A projection that assumes that health care costs will only rise as a result of the aging of the population, and otherwise move in step with per capita income, will lop tens of trillions of dollars off the most commonly cited long-term deficit projections. It would cost some deficit hawks, like National Public Radio, more than $100 trillion of their long-term deficit story. This would be a real disaster for the deficit hawk industry.

This is why the Campaign to Fix the Debt and the rest of the deficit hawk industry will be operating at full speed at least until a budget deal is reached over the current impasse. If CBO adjusts its long-term health care cost projections downward then their whole rationale for gutting Social Security and Medicare will disappear. Now that is really a crisis.

And in light of today’s horrid front-page News & Record article on the so-called fiscal cliff, here’s a question for Greensboro peeps: Would it really be too much trouble to get Jeff Gauger and his crew at the N&R to introduce some fact-based economic coverage? The voters last week seemed to indicate a taste for that kind of thing.

OK, if you don’t want to repeat after me, kids, repeat after Kevin Drum: There. Is. No. Fiscal. Cliff.

The former Calpundit and Political Animal econowonk, now with Mother Jones, explains it all for you:

Which part has the worst effect: the spending cuts or the tax increases?

That’s tricky! CBO estimates that the effect per dollar is greater for spending cuts than tax increases: roughly a dollar of GDP for every dollar of spending cuts versus about half a dollar of GDP per dollar of tax increases.

However, the absolute size of the tax increases is much larger than the absolute size of the spending cuts. Overall, CBO estimates that the spending cuts will reduce GDP by about 0.8 percentage points; the end of the payroll tax holiday will reduce GDP about 0.7 percent; and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts will reduce GDP by 1.4 percentage points.

But wait a second. There are two parts to the Bush tax cuts: the middle-class cuts and the cuts for the rich.

Right. And here’s the thing: CBO figures that letting the middle-class tax cuts expire would shrink GDP about 1.3 percentage points.

But that’s almost the entire effect of letting the Bush tax cuts expire.

Right. And everyone agrees we should extend the middle-class tax cuts. So if we did that, but let the tax cuts on the rich expire, it would have virtually no impact on growth.

So that would make a ton of sense. Are we going to do that?

Good question! Republicans are dead set against it, so it’s going to be a big fight.

What about the payroll tax holiday?

Everyone seems willing to let that end, so that’s not really very controversial.

Why is that? It has a pretty big effect.

Beats me. It would make a lot more sense to extend the payroll tax holiday than to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich, but Republicans are opposed to the tax holiday and Democrats have already caved in on this. Mostly it’s because they’re worried that extending it would set a precedent for keeping payroll taxes lower forever, and that would hurt Social Security’s finances.

Conversely, Republicans care a lot about tax cuts for the rich. At the moment, they claim they’ll kill any deal to avoid the fiscal cliff unless they get to keep them.

Are they serious?

Yep.

There’s more, but that’s the gist. Having just been told by voters not to blow up the economy any more, the GOP is dead set on doing and the Dems are less than fully dead set on stopping them. Sigh.

There is some good news, though. President Obama has been asking the Republicans for $1.6 trillion over 10 years in tax increases ever since the Great Debt Ceiling Joke of 2011. He campaigned for a year on that very proposal. And on Nov. 6, he won by a — what’s that word, again? Oh, yeah, landslide. So, Mitch the Turtle and the Weeping Cheeto can just take that.

Oh, and Kevin also says, for the love of God, stop talking about raising the retirement age.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012 5:28 pm

No consequences

Some of the biggest names of political punditry spent the days leading up to yesterday predicting not just a Romney win, but a Romney landslide. Now they’re hoping you’ll forget that so that they can keep their overpaid sinecures (or, as they were called in “Blazing Saddles,” their phony-baloney jobs). But even though I seldom make predictions (more on which in a minute), I knew these people were full of crap, and I wanted to memorialize their fecal fullness so that perhaps voters, if not current and potential future employers, would have some idea just how seriously to take not only their powers of prognistication, which can fail anyone at any tmie, but also their grip on current reality, which, for most people, can be allowed little or no down time without serious consequences.

Fortunately, The Blaze has compiled a handy list of some of our most prominent prognosticators and their predictions:

  • CNBC Anchor Larry Kudlow: ” ”I am now predicting a 330 vote electoral landslide.”
  • MSNBC host Joe Scarborough: “But my gut tells me there are two likely scenarios: (1) President Obama will squeak out a narrow Electoral College victory or (2) Mitt Romney will carry Ohio and be swept into office by a comfortable margin. After practicing politics for 20 years, I suppose I would rather be in Mitt Romney’s shoes than Barack Obama’s. Incumbents who are under 50 percent two weeks out usually go down to defeat.”
  • Addled GOP whore Karl Rove: ““In addition to the data, the anecdotal and intangible evidence–from crowd sizes to each side’s closing arguments–give the sense that the odds favor Mr. Romney. They do. My prediction: Sometime after the cock crows on the morning of Nov. 7, Mitt Romney will be declared America’s 45th president. Let’s call it 51%-48%, with Mr. Romney carrying at least 279 Electoral College votes, probably more.”
  • Addled Washington Post whore George Will: “George Will outlined a huge Romney Election Day in an interview on ABC’s ‘This Week,’ predicting a 321-217 landslide that included nearly every swing state including Minnesota.”
  • Toe-sucking whore (or sucker of whores’ toes; I can never keep that straight) and Faux News contributor Dick Morris: “Reasonable voters saw that the voice of hope and optimism and positivism was Romney while the president was only a nitpicking, quarrelsome, negative figure. The contrast does not work in Obama’s favor. His erosion began shortly after the conventions when Indiana (10 votes) and North Carolina (15) moved to Romney (in addition to the 179 votes that states that McCain carried cast this year). Then, in October, Obama lost the Southern swing states of Florida (29) and Virginia (13). He also lost Colorado (10), bringing his total to 255 votes.And now, he faces the erosion of the northern swing states: Ohio (18), New Hampshire (4) and Iowa (6). Only in the union-anchored state of Nevada (9) does Obama still cling to a lead. In the next few days, the battle will move to Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (15), Wisconsin (10) and Minnesota (16). Ahead in Pennsylvania, tied in Michigan and Wisconsin, and slightly behind in Minnesota, these new swing states look to be the battleground. … The most likely outcome [in the Senate]? Eight GOP takeaways and two giveaways for a net gain of six. A 53-47 Senate, just like we have now, only opposite. Barack Obama’s parting gift to the Democratic Party.”
  • Washington Examiner and Almanac of American Politics editor Michael Barone — the one guy among these clowns, in other words, who is even reputed to do actual reporting: “Bottom line: Romney 315, Obama 223. That sounds high for Romney. But he could drop Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and still win the election. Fundamentals.”

Keep in mind, please, that the only reason these people have jobs is that they are supposed to know something about this stuff. (Not that I want their jobs, but I did better than all of them.) But the emperors have no clothes; their bare bums glistened this morning in the (here in Greensboro, anyway) bright autumn sun. They. Don’t. Know. Shit.

But you know who did? Nate Silver. The numbers guy. The nerd. The reporter. (He correctly called the Tea Party surge in 2010, too, in case you think he’s just a partisan who got lucky.) He stuck to his numbers even on his Twitter feed; this appears to have been the closest he ever came to gloating:

Note the time: 9:29 p.m. Eastern last night. Polls in a lot of states hadn’t even closed yet. And what had Nate done to that point? Only correctly predicted 30 states out of 30 that had been called to that point. More specifically, he had correctly predicted them in June.

Credit where due: Dean Chambers, the guy who ran the “Unskewed Polls” site, which a lot of Republicans were using before the election to try to convince themselves and others that Nate Silver’s poll sampling was overly weighted toward Democrats, told Business Insider today, “Nate Silver was right and I was wrong.” Not only that, he also called some other conservative pollsters out by name, particularly Scott Rasmussen, saying, “He has lost a lot of credibility as far as I’m concerned.”

UPDATE: Earlier today, Sarah, Proud and Tall at Balloon Juice had the following to say about the foregoing hacks:

In a fair and just society, political pundits who got things this [expletive] wrong would never be listened to again. When their names were mentioned, people would mutter embarrassedly and try to change the subject. If they ever tried again to appear on television or write a column about politics, people would point and laugh at their cluelessness until stuff came out their noses. Children would throw turds at them in the street and pin “Kick Me” signs to their backs. The sheer shame engendered by their own stupidity would trap them at home forever, dressed in the tattered rags of their reputations, wearing only one shoe and constantly revisiting the rotted ruins of a table laid with celebratory cake and Romney/Ryan How to Vote cards.

Upon reflection, and upon reminding myself that both of Obama’s victories have had as much to do with America’s evolving demographics as anything else, I’m inclined to go a little less harshly on these folks than is Sarah, but only for this reason: Sarah seems to think that the point of political pundits is to get things right. After a night and day of reflection, I’ve come to a slightly different conclusion, which is that their point isn’t to get things right, it’s to provide entertainment and psychological sustenance for the aging, dying cohort that is the Fox/GOP base right now. It’s about telling an audience what they want to hear, not what they need to know. And among the corporate entities that employ the above-named miscreants, Fox, at least, hasn’t always been completely dishonest about what it was trying to do.

‘NOTHER UPDATE: Besides Silver, two other people nailed this year’s EV count, although I don’t know as much about their methods as I do Silver’s (and I don’t know all that much about Silver’s except that it doesn’t involve his gut): Democratic strategist Chris Lehane and Josh Putnam, who professes political science at my alma mater, Davidson. (h/t commenter Scott Denham.) It’s worth clicking through to that chart and noting that of the prognosticators with a political affiliation, only one Democrat, CNBC’s Jim Cramer, scored worse than the best-scoring GOP pundit, Ross Douthat of the New York Times. Douthat predicted a 271-267 Obama victory and was the only one on his side to predict an Obama win at all.

I wouldn’t take financial advice from Cramer, either.

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