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April 15, 2014 9:05 AM How It’s Done: Mark Begich Campaigns On Obamacare

By Mark Kleiman

As long as the polls show the net favorables for “Obamacare” under water, there will be a temptation for Democrats, especially in Red states, to run away from it. That approach is (1) cowardly (2) wrong and (3) futile.

If people hate the ACA, they’re not going to love Democratic candidates.And if Democrats don’t stand up and brag about about the program’s good points, lazy reporters will keep reporting, “objectively,” that it is a disaster, and low-information voters will belive them. There’s a bit of a collective-action problem here; no one wants to be out of step with everyone else, but it’s also a case of “hang together or hang separately.” The only sane approach for Democrats as group is to be loud and proud about what a great idea it is to protect people from the risks of disease, the vagaries of the job market, the rapacity of some elements of the medical-care system, and the cold-bloodedness of health insurers.

Like this ad from the Mark Begich campaign in Alaska:

h/t Martin Longman at Washington Monthly Longman’s piece, about the “hack gap,” is worth reading. I’d add that it applies to politicians as well as pundits.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

April 15, 2014 9:01 AM RBC’s Candidate for Harvard Overseer

By Mark Kleiman

Whenever I hear the term “Harvard Board of Overseers” I imagine a bunch of slavedrivers with whips. That, of course, is grossly unfair: Harvard, like the rest of New England Brahmin society, benefited from slavery, but largely – after the abolition of the legal slave trade in 1808 – without getting its hands dirty: mostly by financing slaveholding. Pecunia non olet, and all that.

It’s also unfair because, as far as I understand it (that is to say, not very far) the real muscle lies with the self-perpetuating Harvard Corporation (“The President and Fellows of Harvard College”) rather than with the elected Overseers.

Presumably most RBC readers were, even in their youth, wise enough to avoid what is laughingly called a “Harvard education” as undergradutes. Most, but not all. And it’s harder to avoid catching a dose of Veritas when seeking a professional degree or doing a Ph.D., so it seems likely that some of you got caught in the toils, or were even forced to take a Harvard degree (without the purported education) as the price of getting tenure. (The Harvard statutes require that every tenured professor hold a Harvard M.A., and the degree is ritually conferred as needed.)

If for any of those reasons you are entitled to sing “Fight Fiercely, Hahvahd,” you are also entitled to vote for the Overseers. That being the case, you will certainly wish to vote for the RBC’s own Lesley Friedman Rosenthal, General Counsel at Lincoln Center, author of a wonderful book on lawyering for not-for-profits, and my friend since she was a sophomore on the banks of the Charles and I was a graduate student who needed help finding footnotes for my thesis. Lesley’s brand of polite, even-tempered, utterly reasonable bomb-throwing is just what the place could use.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

April 14, 2014 7:54 AM Which Pharmacy Chain is Truly Anti-Smoking?

By Keith Humphreys

CVS Pharmacies recently took the remarkable step of ending its sales of tobacco products nationwide. The remaining US pharmacy chains were recently asked to follow CVS’ lead by a range of public health advocacy groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Cardiology, the American Lung Association, Action on Smoking & Health, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, Legacy, the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network and the Trust for American’s Health.

But one prominent organization refused to sign: The American Cancer Society. Peter M. Bach, M.D., wondered why this was so, and more generally why Walgreens, which continues to sell coffin nails, draws more praise from the American Cancer Society than does CVS. His answer:

the society received donations from the pharmacy chain…the chain fund-raises for the Cancer Society from its customers, through things like keypad donations at checkout counters.

The American Cancer Society points out, and Bach acknowledges, that Walgreens is a leader in providing anti-smoking programs for its employees. But this is a paltry financial commitment to the cause compared to that of CVS, which is forsaking $2 billion in annual sales. As Bach sees it, the American Cancer Society is giving Walgreens cover to not acknowledge its hypocrisy:

at the end of the day a corporate vision “to be the first choice in health and daily living for everyone in America” is incongruous with selling the leading cause of preventable death at your cash registers.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

April 11, 2014 8:51 AM Weekend Film Recommendation: Where the Sidewalk Ends

By Keith Humphreys

My tribute to Dana Andrews continues with the film with which he closed out the most glittering decade of his career. In 1944, Andrews and his frequent co-star Gene Tierney, Director/Producer Otto Preminger and Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle made Laura, a classic film of high society longing, love and murder. Take that same foursome, move the story setting down significantly in economic strata and add a dose of brutality and you have this week’s film recommendation: 1950′s Where the Sidewalk Ends.

The story, as conveyed through one of Ben Hecht’s many outstanding scripts, centers on Police Detective Mark Dixon (Andrews). Dixon’s hatred of gangsters is legendary, and leads him to relentlessly un-Miranda-type behavior toward thugs. He has a particular grudge against mob boss Tommy Scalise (an oleaginous Gary Merrill), for reasons that are revealed during the film. While investigating a murder in which Scalise is involved, Dixon loses his temper one time too many, resulting in a tragic death which he tries to cover up. He hopes to frame Scalise, but suspicion instead falls on an innocent man (sweetly played by Tom Tully) whose dishy daughter (Tierney) turns Dixon’s head. The dark story twists like a knife from there, up to and including the very last scene.

The film has some superb noir cinematography, with the standout shot being a long, fixed point take of a car with Dixon and some mobsters in it approaching and entering a car elevator (in which LaShelle cannily placed the camera) and then rising up off the screen as the men in the car eye each other suspiciously. There are also a number of arresting shots that draw the viewers’ attention to two distinct points on the screen. My favorite is when Andrews is about to tell Tierney the truth but then turns toward the viewer, his face partly shaded. She then talks over his shoulder at the camera, as his face is transfixed with shame and doubt. Preminger set up many scenes this way in his career, challenging the viewer to track both external action and internal reactions in the same shots.

Who gets the credit for these effective framings and the movie’s overall cool look? I have written before about how some directors are more controlling than others of the camerawork. Preminger was a legendary martinet on the set, so one can presume at least some of the photography set ups were his idea. On the other hand, LaShelle was an excellent cinematographer not just in the half dozen films he made with Preminger but also without him: He was nominated for an Oscar nine times! So credit both of them for an effective collaboration, especially LaShelle because Preminger could be such a domineering artist.

Beyond the big names on the marquee, Hecht and Preminger do an exceptional job of letting the smaller parts really sing. Indeed, my favorite scene is when Dixon’s partner (Bert Freed), whom he has treated badly, has to decide along with his wife whether to lend Dixon some money. It’s a slice of real-life — a dowdy middle aged couple making a difficult decision about money — that provides a perfect counterpoint to the larger-than-life story that the glamorous leads are acting out. I don’t put Preminger in the absolute top tier of film makers because he too often tried too hard to force a particular reaction in his audience. But this little scene is one of many in the movie that makes clear he was just a notch below being an all-time great. He left a legacy of many very good films, including this one.

Let me close this review by focusing on the star. The angry, self-destructive and guilt-wracked Dixon is one of Dana Andrews’ finest hours as an actor, and ironically came right at the moment when his career arc was about to begin its descent. Andrews and Tierney work well together, as they did in all of their many collaborations, but his alcoholism and the rise of the Brando/Clift type of male protagonist worked against him from this point in his career onward (though he still had some successes, such as the 1957 film Curse of the Demon, recommended here). Where the Sidewalk Ends is thus a perfect chance to see a fantastic movie star in top form, before more difficult days came to dominate his life.

p.s. Look fast for Tierney’s first husband, Oleg Cassini in the scene where she is modelling dresses.

p.p.s. Want to learn more about Dana Andrews? Click here for my recommendation of a sterling recent biography by Carl Rollyson.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

April 10, 2014 7:03 PM Seeing Our Race and Class Differences, Seeing Past These Differences, Too

By Harold Pollack

The internets are filled with recent reminders of the many ways we fail to recognize our own parochial and privileged perspectives in both intellectual life and in our institutional roles.  The #CancelColbert dustup and the extended debate between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates provide two examples of the current state of play.

As these debates remind us, we are all to some extent rendered parochial by our race and our class positions, and by other things, too. Age and family responsibilities provide obvious sources of difference. Disability status does, as well. I hate blunderbuss labels such as “black activist” or “white liberal,” which flatten out so much human granularity.

Not long ago, I took my family on a tour of the Woodlawn neighborhood immediately south of UC. Our young and fit tour guide got so excited lambasting the university for its historic insensitivity towards the community he neglected to notice that he was walking far too fast for Vincent to keep up. Vinnie and I ended up a few hundred yards behind, accompanied by a nervous publicity flack from the local alderman’s office. I think the guy was worried that we would be accosted or something.

These same distinctive experiences create unexpected connections, too. I spoke last Saturday at my school to admitted students and their parents. A Pakistani-American young woman in a head-scarf sat across from me at our big lunch table. Her father accompanied her. Maybe sixty years old, he sat rather awkwardly looking somewhat out of place in his traditional pakul hat.

I mentioned at some point how many students have caregiving experience with a relative or a sibling. The man suddenly lit up. He pointed to his daughter and said: “That’s her little brother.” This person, whom I had regarded as a forbidding stranger, turned out to be quite smart and funny, and someone with whom I share more than a few powerful personal experiences.

We had a wonderful conversation about the realities of caring at home for a young adult with cerebral palsy and cognitive disabilities in our area. It was the kind of intimate conversation I couldn’t have conducted with many of my young friends in journalism or academia, with whom I otherwise share so many cultural and professional affinities.

Group identities matter—none mattering more than those connected with our national history of white supremacy. We must view these differences without claiming that we have transcended them. We need to see past these differences, too, to recognize human particularity across the obvious divides. These are so much more interesting and more profound.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

April 10, 2014 1:06 PM What Makes Hillary Different

By Seth Masket

Jonathan Bernstein had a good piece up yesterday advising reporters to stop focusing on the question of whether Hillary Clinton will or won’t run in 2016. His argument is that the “will she/won’t she” topic misses the main point about party nominations. She already is running, as are many other people, but only some candidates will make this point publicly known, and only after discussing the idea with potential donors and endorsers and after getting a sense of what the 2016 political environment will look like. The party, broadly speaking, will discourage a lot of potential candidates from running long before the Iowa Caucus or any debates, and it may encourage one or two to run. That’s the nature of the invisible primary.

I totally agree with what Bernstein is saying on this topic, except that I think Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is a bit different. The reason it’s different is that, at least as far as things look for now, the party has already cleared a path for her. Yes, it’s still early, but Democratic party elites have broadly signaled an acceptance of her as the nominee. She will have all the money she wants. The Obama campaign infrastructure has signaled its support for her.

Now, none of this makes a Clinton nomination inevitable. And she also looked very strong at this stage in the 2008 cycle. So, yes, another candidate could emerge (although it’s not obvious who that would be), a scandal could take her down, Democratic elites could decide they’re just not comfortable with her and go looking for someone else, etc. And few people have actually publicly endorsed her yet.

But to the extent that we have signals on this, they’re saying that she’s got the nomination if she wants it. Which means that the main thing standing between her and the Democratic nomination is the question of whether she really wants to do this. Which makes that a pretty good question for the media to be discussing. (Not that anyone really has any insight to offer on the question, of course, but it’s still an important question.)

So, yes, when reporters describe a nomination contest in explicitly candidate-centered terms, as they often do, and ignore the huge influence that party insiders have over who ends up running, they’re missing a lot of the story. But Hillary has a legitimately candidate-centered decision to make, and it doesn’t strike me as wrong to focus on that in her case.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

April 09, 2014 4:22 PM Watch Party Agendas, Not Candidates

By Jonathan Bernstein

We often get it backward when thinking about presidential nominations. Our usual approach — which treats candidates as the key players, looks at things from their point of view, and asks questions about them — is wrong. The real process involves the party defining itself. Candidate choice is mostly an effect of that process, not the reason for it.

This came up today in a nice back-and-forth between Paul Waldman and Ed Kilgore on the influence of Christian conservatives over the nomination. Waldman points out that John McCain and Mitt Romney weren’t the first choices of religious conservatives, and Kilgore argues that Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum came fairly close to winning even though they weren’t particularly strong candidates.

They’re both right. But the question here isn’t so much whether Christian conservatives can dictate their candidate choice (they can’t), but to what extent they control the Republican platform. And I’m not talking about the formal document ratified by the convention; I’m talking about the actual policies of incoming presidents.

After all, one could certainly say that what mattered for Democrats in 2008 wasn’t whether Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John Edwards became the nominee; it was that these candidates all embraced their party’s agenda, most importantly by agreeing that health care reform was a top issue and by accepting a general outline of what reform should look like.

And every leading candidate adopted the party consensus on other issues, too. Take, for example, Supreme Court nominations. There’s no guarantee that Clinton or Edwards would have chosen Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. But it is almost certain that either of them would have selected two justices with very similar views (and, by party consensus, the first opening was going to a Hispanic). Earlier presidents might have had the flexibility to name someone else, but (as George W. Bush discovered when he picked a friend for the high court) those days are long past.

In this era of partisan presidencies, what matters the most is how the party defines itself, not who becomes president. Presidential nominations are as important as ever because they are the process by which the party defines itself and chooses policies. The individual nominees aren’t irrelevant, but they won’t be choosing policies in a vacuum.

The obvious answer to Kilgore and Waldman is that Christian conservatives cannot impose their candidate. But they have a pretty strong veto against candidates they find unacceptable; a strong grip on policy in quite a few areas (most notably abortion); and influence on other policies (say, immigration), though that influence often is contested. And when group influence is challenged, one of the main ways a dispute can be resolved, at least temporarily, is in the presidential nomination process — sometimes through compromise, sometimes through one side winning. Party actors must eventually settle on a nominee. That means the policies that person will run and govern on, and the process of getting elected, force party groups to decide what their priorities are and to negotiate the terms of the party coalition.

Talking about he candidates is often more fun, but the main action is a party story.

[Cross-posted from Bloomberg View]

April 09, 2014 11:54 AM The Real Exercise of Free Speech

By Martin Longman

If you think the Koch Brothers are morally reprehensible, you might want to avoid buying products like Angel Soft, Soft ‘n Gentle, or Quilted Northern toilet paper, Brawny paper towels, Dixie plates and cups, or napkins made by Mardi Gras, Sparkle, Vanity Fair, or Zee. Those are all products made by Georgia-Pacific, which is owned by Koch Industries. If you buy those products, you are putting money in the hands of the Koch Brothers that they will use to fund your political enemies.

Does anyone seriously think there would be something morally questionable about avoiding those products for political reasons? Would anyone argue that avoiding those products amounted to a restriction of the Koch Brothers’ First Amendment rights? Would anyone be taken seriously if they stated that my refusal to buy Brawny paper towels was a form of intolerance?

So, why are so many people questioning the threatened boycott of Firefox by people who don’t want to do business with a company whose CEO donated money to support the passage of Proposition 8?

Are we compelled to buy products from companies that are led by people we think are morally reprehensible? If we raise awareness of the political views of CEOs and ask people to not buy their companies’ products are we restricting free speech or utilizing it?

[Cross-posted at Booman Tribune]

April 09, 2014 9:40 AM “Almost Awesome in its Evilness.” Jon Gruber on States’ Rejection of Medicaid Expansion

By Harold Pollack

Over at healthinsurance.org, I interviewed MIT economist Jon Gruber on the state of ACA.  We discussed a huge range of things, ranging from the case for the “Cadillac tax” to lessons of the botched rollout. It was a pretty upbeat conversation. But Jon was characteristically blunt regarding states that have declined ACA’s Medicaid expansion:

Jon: I think, Harold, the single thing we probably need to keep the most focus on is the tragedy of the lack of Medicaid expansions. I know you’ve written about this. You know about this, but I think we cannot talk enough about the absolute tragedy that’s taken place. Really, a life-costing tragedy has taken place in America as a result of that Supreme Court decision. You know, half the states in America are denying their poorest citizens health insurance paid for by the federal government.

So to my mind, I’m offended on two levels here. I’m offended because I believe we can help poor people get health insurance, but I’m almost more offended there’s a principle of political economy that basically, if you’d told me, when the Supreme Court decision came down, I said, “It’s not a big deal. What state would turn down free money from the federal government to cover their poorest citizens?” The fact that half the states are is such a massive rejection of any sensible model of political economy, it’s sort of offensive to me as an academic. And I think it’s nothing short of political malpractice that we are seeing in these states and we’ve got to emphasize that.

Harold: One of the things that’s really striking to me is there’s a politics of impunity towards poor people, particularly non-white poor people that is almost a feature rather than a bug in the internal politics in some of these states, not to cover people under Medicaid, even if it’s financially very advantageous to do so. I think there’s a really important principle to defeat this politically, not just because Medicaid is important for people, but because it’s such a toxic political perspective that has to be … It has to be shown that that approach to politics doesn’t work because otherwise, we will really be stuck with some very unjust policies that will be pursued with complete impunity in some of these places.

Jon: That’s a great way to put it. There are larger principles at stake here. When these states are turning - not just turning down covering the poor people - but turning down the federal stimulus that would come with that.

[…]

They are not just not interested in covering poor people, they are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars of injections into their economy in order to punish poor people. It really is just almost awesome in its evilness.

More here.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

April 08, 2014 2:12 PM Moral Hazard

By Michael O'Hare

One of the nice things about living in a civilized society is being able share the risk of catastrophe across populations larger than your family and close friends.  We have all sorts of machinery for this, private and public, from welfare to fire insurance to fire departments, arrangements that protect each of us, for example, from either needing savings accounts large enough to pay for a whole new house (or a triple bypass heart operation) with cash, or being on the street, or dead, if chance rolls us snake eyes or boxcars.

Republicans are much exercised over the incentives to laziness and fecklessness these programs breed in poor people; as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell observed, if the lower classes don’t set us a good moral example, what’s the use of them?  The phenomenon, a real concern in insurance programs, is called moral hazard, the additional risk (above the likelihood of purely random occurrence) posed by insured parties behaving more carelessly if they are insured than if they are not, and most insurance schemes include protections against it.  If you have fire insurance on your factory,  a guy from the insurance company will stop in to check your sprinklers; if you are getting unemployment insurance, you are required to be looking for work. We even forbid people from taking some kinds of risk at all; you may not take junior out for a drive if you are not sober and he doesn’t have the right kind of car seat.

It seems to me to be rather more a disease of the rich than the poor though, and today’s exhibit A is the insouciant, clueless, response of the Kaufmans to criticism of their loony idea of sailing across the Pacific with a sick toddler, and the zillion-dollar rescue this stunt triggered.  I guess they could claim that they pay their taxes, and those are their insurance premium for getting plucked out of the ocean, but seriously…in a lot of places, getting rescued in the mountains when you wander off the trail alone and break an ankle triggers a bill, and should.  The Kaufmans’ yacht club pals, many of whom own and run banks “too big to fail”, also like to build houses on barrier beaches and get new ones at public expense when they wash away.

Plain old commercial insurance, when there’s a way to enforce requirements, is often a good solution to this problem.  In this case, it has to go with a policy of charging for response.  If it’s properly underwritten, a premium is informative of the size of the risk, but the response cost has to be included.  The fire department’s response to your house fire, not just the damage from the fire, should be billable and covered by your insurance policy so you can properly evaluate the real cost of not keeping the brush around your house under control, and sea rescues of recreational sailors should absolutely be chargeable, and known to be so, as a matter of policy.  We are not going to let a named infant die in the ocean because his parents are reckless, so denying service to the uninsured is a non-starter here.

The Kaufmans wouldn’t have to bet their whole net worth (probably at least what this little adventure cost; a navy frigate is a very expensive ambulance by the hour) to have fun; they could buy insurance for the trip (and the insurance company would set some rules for it).  If the premium turns out to be discouragingly high and they decide to play on the beach, well, that’s a good outcome, and a prima facie case that their amusements are not worth, to them, what they really cost everyone. If they pay it and go anyway, that’s OK too, or at least judgeable on other grounds (we let parents subject their kids to all sorts of risks, like teaching them that the world is 6000 years old, or that they don’t have to send thank-you notes).  What’s not OK with me is letting people play games like this with my money.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

April 08, 2014 11:26 AM PhRMA and the Political Economy of Sponsored Content

By Henry Farrell

Two speculations and an announcement following up on previous posts on Talking Points Memo and sponsored content. First, the reason why TPM and some other policy/politics sites are moving towards sponsored content looks to me to have a lot to do with the advertising market. Politics junkies are not specifically attractive subjects for advertising, as one can tell from the ads in most policy focused print journals (which tend towards mobile phones with big friendly buttons for elderly people etc). I would guess that policy focused websites have relatively low clickthrough rates for standard ads, and in any event standard ads are a game where Google dominates (and is able to squeeze websites). Hence, sponsored content is an obvious way of monetizing readers – it allows people trying to sell a policy message to persuade policy focused readers more easily, using formats which strongly resemble the ways that these readers are used to consuming journalistic information rather than advertising.

Second, I suspect that editors of policy websites do not think of sponsored content as standard advertising, since it isn’t, no matter how they justify this to the public and themselves. Instead, they implicitly distinguish between ‘respectable’ organizations, which they could plausibly take sponsored content from without damaging their reputation and self-conception too much, and ‘unrespectable’ organizations which they don’t want anything to do with. Big Beltway lobby groups, no matter how evil, fit into the first category. Religious cults and governments fit into the second. I would be prepared to bet a good deal of money that Josh Marshall would not have treated a proposal from the Church of Scientology for a ‘sponsored channel’ on psychological science as advertising content which you accept because if you start refusing you are entering into an editorial role etc etc etc. He’d have refused it, because it would have damaged TPM’s credibility. NB too that sponsored content from the Church of Scientology in a political magazine is not a crazy hypothetical.

The point isn’t that TPM, or other media groups are unusually hypocritical here or uniquely susceptible to getting into bed with problematic organizations. We live in a fallen world, where it’s hard to remain pure, and where many people and organizations arguably behave worse. I would bet significant amounts of money that Marshall wouldn’t accept a deal with the Chinese government to run sponsored content in an ‘East Asian Politics Channel.’ I would be completely certain that he would absolutely refuse a deal where the Chinese government had some editorial control over this hypothetical channel’s contents. It turns out that many universities aren’t quite so fussy.

Rather, it’s that the categories of ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ that journalists (or, for that matter, academics and university administrators) work with, are sociological, rather than stemming from deep principle. They’re open to question and criticism. PhRMA – the organization that Talking Points Memo is working together with is a ‘respectable’ player in Washington DC politics. It’s a big policy actor, with deep pockets and a lot of influence. It is also in my opinion (and the opinion of most scholars working on access to knowledge issues), an organization that has done a lot to corrupt political debate in the US and elsewhere, pushing for policies that have led to widespread misery and indeed (e.g. in the case of AIDS drugs in South Africa), deaths. Hence the announcement. Over the next while, I’ll be looking to publish pieces from a variety of sources talking about the political activities of PhRMA and the pharmaceutical industry in general. One of the reason why PhRMA gets away with so much is because a lot of people don’t know what it has been responsible for. In an ideal world, PhRMA would be treated, like the Church of Scientology, as a pariah. Over the next few weeks, I hope we’ll be able to make the case for why.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

April 07, 2014 10:01 PM Pulling Jockeys in the Race for Scottish Independence

By Keith Humphreys

Scottish support for leaving the United Kingdom is at 47% in the most recent poll, to the surprise of some members of the Tory Party (Whose proper name of course is The Conservative and Unionist Party). Now that independence seems more than remotely possible, some fingers are being pointed among Unionists for allegedly not campaigning hard enough to prevent Scotland’s departure. Some of this is fear of complacency among those who truly support the union, but suspicion of pulling jockeys runs high on this issue, and for good reason.

By tradition and identity, the Tories strongly support a United Kingdom. However, they can also count. With but one seat in all of Scotland versus 41 for Labour, Tory political prospects in England and Wales would be much rosier for Scotland’s exit. The 2010 election results for example would have produced an outright win for the Tories, with no need to enter into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Pro-independence groups point out correctly that since the war, Scottish voters have rarely swung national election outcomes. But it is not clear why that time frame is the relevant one given how lopsided is the current allocation of seats.

For Labour, the shoe is on the other foot. Scotland has been kind to Labour over the last generation, sending a gaggle of MPs to Westminster and also providing many high profile leaders including Gordon Brown and Tony Blair (even though the latter was eventually seen as a Sassanach by many people in the land of his birth). Scottish independence would mean a less liberal electorate in England and Wales, and less chance of Labour gaining a simple majority of seats in Westminster in 2015 and thereafter. If current polling holds up in 2015, Labour could squeak to a majority without Scotland, but many Labour politicians and voters would rather not have it be such a close-run thing.

The ongoing debates are thus bringing out the best in some politicians (like John Major), who are arguing against political interest for what they see as a national good. They also at times are bringing out the worst in other politicians, who make public speeches firmly taking one stand and then anonymously leak the opposite sentiments to journalists.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

April 07, 2014 5:14 PM Bring Back Congressional Earmarks - But the Right Way

By Moira Campion McConaghy

Over the past few election cycles, Congressional earmarks have come to epitomize the worst in “pork-barrel” spending and government waste. Thanks to a combination of bad optics, wasteful behavior, and opaque practices, congressionally-directed appropriations spending justifiably became the target of popular and political vitriol.

Take, for example, the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” where the late Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska (then president pro tempore of the Senate) and Alaska Congressman Don Young (then chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee) set aside $453 million worth of funds to be spent over five years on two massive and controversial projects in their state. (One of these projects would even have been named “Don Young’s Way.”).

Organizations such as Citizens Against Government Waste and Taxpayers for Common Sense had a field day pointing out what they saw as bad behavior.  Political pork soon became a political liability, not just for the direct offenders, but for everyone in Congress. Members eager to disavow their own Bridges to Nowhere began adopting personal policies against submitting earmark requests for their states or districts. Eventually, Congress instituted an all-out ban on earmarks, which continues today.

But if the plan behind banning earmarks was to bring all budget decisions out into the open, the approach has failed miserably. The process of federal funding is actually losing transparency under the new state of affairs. Members are now resorting to “steermarks,” influencing agencies of the executive branch behind closed doors, in order to obtain funding for their priorities. The New York Times, for example, reported that some lawmakers have been furiously lobbying agencies to fund pet projects - and potentially using their power to fund broader agency operations as leverage. Even beginning to track these activities is impossible.

Moreover, the ban on earmarks has actually robbed the political process of a useful tool.

For one thing, earmarks help maintain the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches. Without direction from Congress, all discretion to make project funding decisions becomes centralized at the federal agencies, who can be far removed from jurisdictions in need. Congressionally-directed spending helps offset that often murky bureaucracy by ensuring that local interests across the country aren’t ignored, or fall victim to a particular administration’s priorities or partisan interests.

Earmarks can also help engender a sense of fairness among widely disparate geographies and populations. For example, senators from smaller or wealthier states can point to these projects as leveling the playing field, offseting instances, such as “formula funding,” where their jurisdictions get less money because of their smaller size or their demographics.

Most importantly, earmarks help satisfy the need of lawmakers to demonstrate progress to their constituents. The local impact of bringing funding home has true value, much like the benefits of helping local high school students apply to West Point or the other service academies, or helping a constituent who’s having trouble getting their Social Security benefits. Retail politics incentivizes members to overcome ideology and collaborate on tough issues, with the implication that intransigence will not be rewarded. In other words, earmarks are bargaining chips. They establish the common ground that enables legislative activity.

While efforts to restrict and then ban this practice were certainly well-intentioned, the vilification of earmarks has come at a significant cost to bipartisanship and policymaking. As we enter the home stretch of a second fractious Congress without earmarks, the time is ripe to consider reviving earmarks - but the right way.

First, however, we must once and for all agree on what actually constitutes an earmark. Different committees, presidential administrations, and external advocacy groups have coined a wide variety of definitions over time, creating uncertainty and further limiting the scope of potential bipartisan agreement. Once we’ve agreed on what we need to regulate, we can use the following suggested ground rules for a new and improved earmarking process - one that promises to the American people to be free of waste, fraud, and abuse:

1)    Disclose Everything. Members of Congress must be willing to return to the practices instituted by Democrats in 2007 of providing full background information on their proposed earmarks. This means publicly-available and searchable data for each request, including the name and location of the recipient, the purpose of the project, and a certification that the supporting member and their immediate family members have no pecuniary interest in the endeavor.

2)    Don’t Mess with Science. This is one area where a modified ban on earmarks still makes sense - but not because of the problem of waste. Congressionally-directed spending of funds allocated to science-based agencies and offices including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health exposes basic research and development efforts to controversy and politicization, as anyone who remembers Sen. Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece” awards can attest. In many cases, the benefits of these efforts are not immediately recognizable to laypeople, and the vast majority of elected officials and congressional staff lack sufficient training and expertise to assess the full merits and potential of specific scientific proposals. These programs should be allowed to function under their time-tested peer review processes.

3)    Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep. Earmarks should never be used on efforts that would require multiple years of continued support, such as for salaries for individuals whose jobs could be lost at the end of the fiscal year. The reason for such a limitation is simple: without the power of omniscience, members will never be able to guarantee multi-cycle funding with 100 percent confidence, and changes in political environments can jeopardize the long-term sustainability of initiatives that become overly dependent on congressionally-directed spending.

4)    Demand Accountability on the Back End. The appropriations process should not end with a bill’s enactment into law; transparency in earmarking also means that the public has a right to know whether or not a project had the intended positive effect. This requirement could be satisfied through a reporting requirement imposed on the earmark recipient, convening follow-up hearings on earmark use, or creating new subcommittees on investigations and oversight for each legislative committee engaging in earmarking.

In the past decade, we have seen congressional policies on directed spending swing from one extreme to another; from bridges to nowhere to a complete eradication of earmarks that leaves behind elected officials who have little to no reason to work together. The key now is to find a middle ground that incentivizes collaboration and bipartisanship while minimizing any potential for corruption. In employing a new system with clear definitions, complete transparency, minimized potential for controversy, and assured accountability, such a compromise is within reach. Done right, the “bridge to nowhere” could become a bridge to progress on bipartisanship and legislative achievement.

[Cross-posted at Republic 3.0]

April 07, 2014 5:08 PM Wingers ‘R’-Stupid Dept.

By Mark Kleiman

Stephen Colbert is indeed a comic genius. He does a completely over-the-top impression of a factually clueless and ethically impaired wingnut. And yet actual non-elite conservatives seem to think he really believes the nonsense he mouths. That would be impossible unless it turned out to be the case that most conservative voters believe a whole bunch of stupid sh*t.

Now of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of smart conservatives, as well as bunch of smart grifters who have discovered that pretending to believe for real what Colbert’s character pretends to believe ironically is easier than working for a living. And of course it doesn’t mean that conservatives have a monopoly on stupidity; no one who has spent any time in Blue Blogistan could believe that. (Cf. #cancelColbert.)

But it remains the case that there’s no conservative version of Colbert: someone who recites liberal nonsense deadpan. And it’s also the case that, if there were, the mass of liberal voters would probably notice that they were being made fun of, rather than nodding in agreement. Whatever their native IQs, consumers of America’s “conservative” media have been trained to act just like stupid people. Otherwise, how could they have been expected to vote to put Sarah Palin within one unreliable heartbeat of the Presidency?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

April 06, 2014 9:53 AM Who Are the Long-Term Unemployed?

By Anne Kim

After, Republicans blocked a third attempt by Senate Democrats to pass an extension of jobless benefits in early February, the Senate recently struck a bipartisan deal that could retroactively restore benefits that expired at the end of last year.

Emergency federal jobless benefits are principally aimed at helping “long-term unemployed” workers who’ve exhausted their state benefits - typically after 26 weeks. Advocates for the extension say as many as 2 million jobless Americans could ultimately end up without help.

Some FAQs about long-term unemployment:

What does it mean to be “long-term unemployed”?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines workers as “long-term unemployed” if they’ve been jobless for 27 weeks or more.

How many workers fit into that category?

In February, BLS reported that nearly 3.7 million Americans were long-term unemployed in January 2014, including nearly 2.5 million Americans who’ve been out of work for a year or more. Long-term unemployed workers account for about 2.4 percent of the total workforce.

What’s the demographic makeup of the long-term unemployed?

The U.S. Joint Economic Committee, BLS, the Pew Research Center and the Urban Institute have all published comprehensive analyses on the demographics of the long-term unemployed.

For the most part, these analyses find that society’s more vulnerable workers are also more likely to be long-term unemployed.

  • The Urban Institute, for example, found that among long-term unemployed workers in 2012, 18.1 percent were high-school dropouts, 13.3 percent were single parents, and 34.1 percent were living below the poverty line.
  •  BLS found that among male workers, 41 percent of black men have experienced a spell of long-term unemployment, versus 19 percent of white men and 26 percent of Hispanics. This analysis also found that 41 percent of men without a high diploma have been long-term unemployed, versus just 11 percent for men with a four-year degree or more.
  •  Pew, however, reports that even though highly-educated workers are less likely to become unemployed in the first place, they are just as vulnerable to long-term joblessness once they become unemployed.  According to Pew, 31 percent of unemployed workers with a bachelor’s degree in 2012 were jobless for a year or more.

Which industries and occupations were hit hardest?

While long-term unemployment cuts across all sectors, these analyses have found that the hardest hit workers were in manufacturing, construction and leisure and hospitality.

Where is long-term unemployment most severe?

The Pew Center on the States has created an interactive map showing state-by-state concentrations of long-term unemployment.Here are the top states as of December 2013 with the highest percentage of long-term unemployed workers as a share of all unemployed:

  • New Jersey - 46.6 percent
  • Florida - 46.2 percent
  • Rhode Island - 44.6 percent
  • New York - 44.4 percent
  • Connecticut - 43.4 percent
  • North Carolina - 43.3 percent
  • Georgia - 41.8 percent
  • Illinois - 41.3 percent
  • Mississippi - 40.8 percent
  • California - 40.5 percent

Why is long-term unemployment a problem?

In comparison to past recessions, many more people who’ve lost work have been unemployed long-term. In May 2010 - after the official end of the recession - long-term unemployed workers accounted for as much as 46 percent of the total unemployed, according to BLS.  In January 2014, the long-term unemployed still accounted for 35.8 percent of all unemployed. During the 1982-83 recession, by contrast, long-term unemployed workers made up at most 26 percent of the jobless.

One major issue is that many of long-term unemployed workers may end up never rejoining the workforce.  As the JEC report puts it:

As job searches drag on, skills atrophy and networks fade, making it harder for the long-term unemployed to find work. In addition, technological advancements and shifts in high-growth sectors of the economy likely mean that the location of and knowledge and skills required for jobs of the future will not be the same as those of the jobs that were lost in the recession.

And if these workers do eventually find work, they are likely to do so at lower wages, says BLS. Four years out, men who had been long-term unemployed end up with average hourly wages that are about 7 percent lower than when they had a job.

There are potentially broader fiscal impacts of long-term unemployment as well. Pew argues that in addition to increased federal spending on unemployment insurance and other safety net programs such as SNAP (formerly food stamps), the federal government collects less revenue in income and payroll taxes. Even though the number of long-term unemployed has declined by 1.1 million over the last year, the economy will feel the effects of long-term joblessness for some time to come.

[Cross-posted at Republic 3.0]

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