Thursday, December 31, 2009

Perriello, Snyder, And Kilroy

I just gave out the my first campaign contributions of this cycle -- to Tom Perriello, Vic Snyder, and Mary Jo Kilroy. All 3 are vulnerable Democrats from fairly conservative districts who voted for the stimulus bill, cap & trade, and health care reform.

You can see Nick's data on how much more liberal they are than their districts here. Kilroy is the 154th most liberal congresscritter, and she represents the 192nd most liberal district. In other words, she's moving her district 38 places left of where you'd expect it to be. Perriello has the 247th most liberal voting record in the 261st most liberal district. (I also like the fact that he co-founded a pretty awesome international human rights organization before going to Congress.) Both of the above two candidates are vulnerable first-term representatives, so they can't be expected to perform at Vic Snyder levels of heroism -- 117th most liberal in the 249th most liberal district.

Video Game Of the Decade

Rather than do lists, this is probably the way to go. The (console) video game of the year is clearly one of the Halo series. It's hard to remember, given the success of the Call of Duty franchise, as well as Valve console releases such as Team Fortress II or Left 4 Dead, but there was a time when first-person shooters were almost exclusively the province of PCs. The Halo franchise proved you could make an FPS for a console system. I picked Halo 2 since it helped usher in the era of online console play as well, which is the other real turning point in the decade of gaming.

A strong argument can be made that Guitar Hero or Wii Sports ought to be the game of the decade, since they both signficantly broadened the number of people who played video games.

What A Long, Strange, Trip It's Been

At the end of 2009, both for the country and for me personally, things seem to have gone in unanticipated directions. In December of 1999 I was a sophomore in college, and I wasn't think all that much about very long term plans. To the extent that I was, they didn't look anything like my current life. At the time I mostly tried to stay away from politics, thinking that Washington consensus had been reached, that the iron cage of bureaucratic capitalism would keep the American ship of state from going too far off course, instead pushing us towards further modest expansions of the welfare state. Of course, I probably thought a lot of other crazy things at the time too.

For the country, the  '00s really do feel like the lost decade. For most people, the standard of living is basically where it was at the start of the decade, if not slightly worse, only, we have much better cell phones and televisions, and more people have high-speed internet connections. I suppose medicine is probably a lot better in certain fields. That's not nothing. But it feels weak if you're measuring the accomplishments of a decade.

The '10s should be an interesting decade. There are two major underlying technical trends that should open lots of new pathways for innovation. First, the pressure to move to sustainable levels energy consumption and sustainable sources will grow, not shrink. I don't really know what this means for the world, other than that it will increase living standards as we stretch each unit of electricity further and further. Second, bandwidth and storage capacity will continue to fall in price at alarming rates. This has all sorts of possible consequences, and the world could go in several directions. At the moment, traditional hard drives are ridiculously cheap, but slow. In fact, over a local network, the network is now often faster than the hard drive. If this continues, it means that learning how to index the information we store in long term storage will become increasinly important. On the other hand, Solid State Disks hold the promise of increasing disk access speeds. At the moment they're significantly more expensive, but because they involve fewer moving physical parts they may start dropping in price much faster. Combine that with the fact that bandwidth may eventually be cheap enough to drop your cell phone/Internet bill to zero (or rather, to drop the price of the bill to the price of the content, not the price of moving the content around), and the future of information transfer looks very, very interesting.

Sidenote: I feel like search engines are become less useful over the past decade. Is this true? Or are the questions I'm asking of search engines more complicated? Or maybe they got good enough that I forgot how to search effectively. What's you're experience been?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Moon Review

I had my first encounter with the Twilight franchise yesterday, as a bunch of friends went out to see New Moon. [There would be a spoiler warning here, but it seems kind of pointless.] It surpassed my low expectations, largely because the plot allowed Robert Pattinson to spend a mercifully short amount of time onscreen. Really, it could've been a nifty movie if they'd just edited that guy out of all the scenes in which he appears. Kind of an angsty girl themed Garfield Minus Garfield.

As you'd expect, I was rooting for the werewolves. I was pretty sure, going in, that the vampires were going to be the big winners, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well the werewolves did. They protected the girl and ate one of the bad vampires in the course of doing so. Go team! And while the scene at the end would've been irritating from any other perspective, I was happy with how our boy handled it. It's taken me years to figure this out, but when a werewolf is crazy about a girl who's crazy about a vampire, he's just got to cut his losses and get out of there.

Simple Answers to Simple Questions

Ross Douthat on DHS Secretary and Former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano:
Now pause a moment and consider: Why on earth did she ever take this job?

Foreclosures in the US:

This has been another edition of Simple Answers to Simple Questions.

I say this as someone who was hopping mad at the decision to make Napolitano DHS Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius HHS Secretary, and, to a lesser extent, Tom Vilsack Ag Secretary. At the time it all seemed crazy. But right now, incumbent governors across the country are in a tremendous state of flux because of the terrible state of the economy. The Obama administration is a big fan of not getting their knickers in a twist over the latest ginned up controversy, so I expect that this, too, shall pass.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Air Travel: Very Safe

As Nate Silver observes, even frequent fliers doesn't stand much risk of being on board a plane that experiences a terrorist incident. Lightning strikes and death by rattlesnake or bear attack are more likely, but we haven't devoted billions of dollars in government resources to reducing lightning strikes or bear attacks.

Presumably the hysteria around terrorist attacks on airplanes (and plane crashes as well), is the sense of a lack of control. It's well documented that travel by car is more dangerous on a per-mile basis than travel by airplane, but driving gives the illusion of being in charge of one's fate, or at least being able to control one's risk factors. Likewise, people who don't go backpacking stand very little chance of encountering a bear or rattlesnake. But lots of people end up in situations where flying is the only practical option. Convincing ourselves that a one-in-ten-million risk is acceptable shouldn't be that hard. I'm not sure "get a grip" is a winning political message these days, but someone needs to figure out how to make it happen before we choke airline travel to death.

Fear Not The Pants Bomber

The standard response to terrorist attacks is to freak out and get paranoid about the terrifying terrorist menace.  But in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas pants bomber, that's the opposite of the right response.  I mean, just read what happened, lifted here from Wikipedia:
Passengers and crew aboard the plane said Abdulmutallab spent about 20 minutes in the bathroom as it approached Detroit and then covered himself with a blanket after returning to his seat, the Justice Department said. They then heard popping noises and smelled a foul odour and some saw Abdulmutallab’s trouser leg and the wall of the plane on fire, it said. When asked by a flight attendant what he had in his pocket, he replied “explosive device.” The device consisted of a six-inch (15-cm) packet of powder and a syringe containing a liquid, which were sewn into the suspect’s underwear, according to media reports.

Passengers reported smelling smoke and saw that something in his lap was on fire. Fellow passenger Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch film director, jumped on Abdulmutallab, and he and other passengers subdued him as flight attendants used fire extinguishers to douse the flames. At this point, Abdulmutallab was taken toward the front of the airplane cabin, and was seen to have lost his pants due to the fire, and had burns on his legs. 
So here's the story as we presently have it.  The terrorist goes to the bathroom for twenty minutes to rig up his syringe and explosive powder packet.  He comes back to his seat, pushes the button... and sets his pants on fire.  Passengers see what's happening and jump all over him.  Nobody is hurt except the terrorist, who suffers a burned ass and other lower-body injuries.  

One thing this tells me is that our security procedures are actually having a pretty impressive effect.  Sure, the terrorist managed to smuggle some potentially dangerous things past security, but he basically accepted defeat on the question of bringing a proper bomb.  So he smuggles this syringe-and-powder system, which could bring down a plane if everything worked right, but which has a much greater chance of failure, and ends up just blowing up his own pants.  And then the terrorism-wary passengers grab him.  

I don't want to be all Rumsfeld here with talk of how the enemy is desperate and in their last throes.  But looking at this, you have to say that it wasn't a particularly impressive attempt.  And it failed in a semi-comical way, because our security measures forced the terrorist to use unreliable methods.  I'm getting on a plane in about a week, and the events of Christmas don't make me nervous.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Peter Orszag, America's Most Eligible Nerd

I really wanted to find a study showing that Peter Orszag is making a mistake in proposing to someone he's been dating for six months. But I can't. There doesn't seem to be much data on the divorce rates for marriages based on the length of relationship prior to marriage engagement. Or, if the data does exist, I can't find it. Anyway I'm sure there's someone at the OMB who tried to answer this very important question.

The Near-Uniqueness of Parker Griffith

Apologies for the late turnaround, but I had trouble tracking down the right spreadsheet to make my point. But it's a good one.

Parker Griffith's defection to the Republican party raises an important question for electioneers: how many more Parker Griffiths are out there? Can Democrats expect another five defections, or, more likely, retirements? The most like answer is that Griffith isn't alone, but he's part of a very endangered species of Southern Democrat.

The important thing to recognize about Parker Griffith's district is that it's part of the "White South". Winning in this district requires the votes of white voters who are significantly less likely to vote for Democrats than typical white voters, and there aren't enough African-Americans in the district to offset the tendencies of the district's white voters. In fact, here's a complete list of Congressmen who, on election day 2008, represent more hostile terrain on this score than Griffith:
  1. MS-04: Gene Taylor
  2. LA-06: Don Cazayoux
  3. TX-22: Nick Lampson
  4. TX-17: Chet Edwards
  5. MS-01: Travis Childers
  6. SC-05: John Spratt
  7. NC-02: Bob Etheridge
  8. LA-03: Charlie Melancon
  9. UT-02: Jim Matheson
  10. GA-08: Jim Marshall
  11. AL-05: Bud Cramer (now Parker Griffith)

Two of these Members—Cazayoux and Lampson—lost there seats. A third, Charlie Melancon, is giving up his seat to run for the Senate against Diaper Dave Vitter. The rest of this list is filled with Reps who make Democrats nervous, either because they might retire, or because their voting records are terrible. Now, some of these guys are effective enough that they can probably fend off a real challenger. But even if they can't, this list is pretty small, and only Spratt and Edwards provide a ton of value to the caucus.

Obviously, this isn't an exhaustive list of vulnerable Democrats. But the list of Democrats more vulnerable than Parker Griffith is pretty small. Chris Carney and some of the White South Democrats from Tennessee and Arkansas might be more vulnerable, but only by a small margin. But even including these members, there aren't enough seats here to end the Democrats' majority.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

David Broder Will Never Get What He Wants

A couple days ago, David Broder wrote an article bemoaning the fact that the vote on the health care bill will follow partisan lines. As usual, he wants it to be bipartisan, or at least claims that he wants that. But if he really cares about getting members of both parties to support the same piece of legislation, he's found himself an utterly ineffective way to support it.

Say you want something. Anything. Maybe you want a public option in the health care bill, or campaign finance reform, or America to go to war against Antarctica. Or maybe you want bipartisanship in the Senate. What you do is, you focus on the culprits -- the influential opponents of the public option who could choose otherwise, or the special interests who are blocking campaign finance reform, or the dirty penguin-lovers in the Senate. Or the people who were politically positioned to cross party lines, but chose not to of their own volition. And you call them out. Or you can find your heroes -- people who do what you wanted, and extol their awesomeness.

What you don't do is just declare a pox on everyone's houses and go home. In a two-party system, politics is a zero-sum game, and nobody loses when there's a pox on both houses. So poxy moves that hit both sides have no net effect on anything. If your only way of complaining when you don't get what you want is to do something that has no net effect on the players, you'll never get what you want. If you want bipartisanship, you may have to get partisan in your criticisms. You have to call out the people who could've done the bipartisan thing but spectacularly failed to do so. If they happen to be in one party, turn your invective on that party. That would involve becoming partisan for bipartisanship's sake. It might feel uncomfortable, but if you refuse to do that, nobody has any reason to do what you want for fear of being criticized by you.

Going partisan in defense of bipartisanship is something that Broder doesn't do in his article, and -- if I understand the guy -- it's something he'll never do. No party has to worry that if they obstruct business, filibuster, and refuse to negotiate in good faith, David Broder's wrath will fall on them alone. And that's why the one thing he pines for so loudly is the thing that he'll never be able to effectively push for.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cricketer Trash Talk

I'm spending the Christmas holiday at a colleague's house in Brisbane, and cricket, which I don't know very well, is on TV. This gives me an occasion to pass on perhaps the most awesome bit of trash-talk I've heard of in sports, which actually took place between two cricketers.

Australian bowler Glenn McGrath asks Zimbabwean batsman Eddo Brandes, "Why are you so fat?" To which Brandes responds, "Because every time I fuck your wife, she gives me a biscuit."

It gets even funnier when you think about it. A sexual relationship that proceeded on those terms would be kind of awesome.

Shakespeare And The Singular 'They'

It's hard to know how to properly do gender-neutral singular pronouns. When you don't know the gender of the one person you're referring to, are you supposed to use the unpleasantly gender-asymmetric 'he', the similarly asymmetric 'she', the accurate but clunky 'he or she', the unpronounceable 's/he', the usually plural 'they', or the freakishly neologistic 'zie'? Sometimes you can reorganize the sentence to avoid these problems, but other times it's more trouble than it's worth.

It was hard for me to overcome elementary-school inhibitions and go with 'they', but Shakespeare really helped. Here's the Bard using singular 'they' when the gender of the person being referred to is unknown:
Arise; one knocks; good Romeo, hide thyself.

Not I; unless the breath of heartsick groans,
Mist-like, infold me from the search of eyes.


Hark, how they knock! Who's there?
Turns out that singular 'they' was used a lot in the old days before 18th century grammarians came along and cost us a useful pronoun. Of course, singular 'they' isn't perfect, as in some cases context will leave it ambiguous with the plural 'they.' But 'he' and 'she' have even worse ambiguities, some of the other options are hard to say, and 'zie' is just too weird.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Historical Enemies Of Christmas

Probably the most historically significant enemies of Christmas celebrations have been Christian conservatives. Under Oliver Cromwell's rule in England and under Puritan colonists in New England, Christmas celebrations were banned. In England, this briefly caused fans of Christmas, including those more sympathetic to Catholicism and the King, to engage in pro-Christmas rioting. It seems that these rioters were better than average for rioters, as all Wikipedia says about them is that they "decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans."

According to one historian, the modern conception of Christmas as a secularized family-oriented festival of gift-giving was heavily shaped by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. This influential work was adapted into a cartoon by Disney in 1983, leading to Scrooge McDuck's starring role in the DuckTales animated series in 1987, and then the surprisingly awesome DuckTales 8-bit Nintendo game in 1989.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

And To All A Good Night

It's December 25th on the East Coast. If it's surprising to you that blogging is limited these days, go hit up a Chinese restaurant, or maybe pick up your pre-ordered bucket of fried chicken.

More later.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Procedural Reform, Not Ultimatum Games, Can Rein In Policy Nihilists

It's hard to feel confident after how up-and-down the process has been for the last several months, but it looks like we've finally got enough votes to get health care reform past a filibuster and into conference, which is the biggest hurdle in the whole process. Jacob Hacker and Paul Krugman will take the deal we've got, and so will I. The public option that mattered was the one that could negotiate rates somewhere close to Medicare, and I've been convinced by Ezra that the weak public option we had at the end thing was a good thing not worth dying for. Regulated competition on the exchanges is what we'll have to count on to keep private insurers under control. Sounds plausible enough.

I don't want to be too tough on the Public Option Or Nothing ultimatum that Jane Hamsher and other activists were pushing people in Congress to accept -- I think they had an ultimately positive effect on the process, and they were using the only tools available. What they didn't do, however, was get the public option through the Senate. And here it's a good time to reflect on why the tools they had aren't especially effective in passing major domestic legislation.

History suggests that the costs of not passing health care reform once you've made a big push for it are devastating. I don't just mean that you lose the next election badly like in 1994 -- you get knocked out of the game for 15 years, and then you crawl back with a proposal half as strong as you had the last time. The gap between success and failure is tremendous, and the gap between half-success and failure is pretty huge too.

Under these conditions, people who are indispensable to your efforts but can credibly claim that they don't care about the outcomes have the bargaining power to demand huge concessions. That's Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman. Blue Dogs in the House are in a slightly worse position, as they may not have the deep public support to hold onto their seats if the bill fails and post hoc rationalizations of failure make Democrats look bad. But Nelson and Lieberman can force ultimatums that you have to accept if you don't want to wait another 15 years for something half as good.

You can try to push counter-ultimatums as the public option activists did, and maybe you'll have some success as long as you keep your goals small and achievable (no Stupak in the Senate bill, for example). But you just can't go up against the Nelsons and Liebermans when they've dug in and expect your ultimatums to beat theirs. Everybody knows that progressives have a lot more to lose if a bill doesn't pass than egoistic nth term policy nihilists do. There's not much you can hold over the nihilists' heads, because they don't care about policy outcomes. So progressives have to fold or be crushed. Again, I'm not faulting the activists for trying to push progressive representatives into ultimatum games -- at the time, that's the only tool they had. But at this point you have to come out and say that it's not a great tool.

What we need, first, is a bunch of reforms inside the caucus that will give mainstream Democrats leverage over the policy nihilists. Most importantly, we can't keep going with a system that assigns committee assignments and chairmanships on the basis of seniority. That just rewards people who care about staying in power and are never willing to take one for their principles or the team. Allowing Democratic Senators to vote for their committee chairs, as Republicans do, and perhaps also having an option by which a recalcitrant Senator could have his seniority reset to 0 for the purpose of committee assignments by a vote of the caucus would be an excellent idea. Ideally, this would involve the creation of a new Senate Butt Committee, dedicated specifically to legislation pertaining to the butt, which could be Lieberman's lone committee assignment. But even without this additional proposal, the idea has merit.

As for large-scale reforms, abolishing the Senate > eliminating the filibuster > using reconciliation for more stuff. The first of those is basically impossible, given that such a bill would have to pass the Senate with a Constitutional Amendment size majority, but it's the kind of Overton Window move that one has to wholeheartedly support because it is in fact the right proposal. (Tell me again why states each need 2 votes whether they have a million people or 20 million?)

So how do you and I as grassroots progressive Democrats influence our Senators enough to do something to move all this stuff forward? As usual, Matt Yglesias has a bunch of good ideas. I have a nifty idea too, which involves this dude, and if some stuff works out right I'll be posting about it pretty soon.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Anti-Choice Leaders in Ben Nelson's Nebraska Let Him Off The Hook

More and more anti-abortion folks in the state of Nebraska and elsewhere, including, notably, the Catholic Health association, have suggested that the Casey amendment to restrict federal funding for abortion is sufficient.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Fight Senator With Senator

I'm happy to be philosophytalking my mouth off Down Under, far away from the blow-by-blow on the health care stuff, but catching up on my blog reading is giving me the flavor of the moment. Depressing.

If I have one constructive suggestion to offer, it's that the people who have the best chance of reining in the Nelsons and Liebermans of the world are their fellow Senators. I can't imagine that the majority of the Democratic caucus is happy with the way those two are endangering the bill. Making it clear filibustering health care reform results in your seniority being reset to 0 for purposes of committee assignments and chairmanships would give them the right incentives. One way to put the question is "why doesn't Reid do this?" but I'm thinking the better question is, "Why don't 40+ Democratic Senators get together and demand this?" For the vast majority, the expected costs of being the one who goes astray and gets smacked down are much lower than the expected costs of being the one whose priorities are frustrated by Lieberman types doing ridiculous things in the future.


Physical violence is never the answer, kids. But sometimes it can make you feel better. Or, something. Anyway, if you need a break, go watch Adam Samberg's skit "People Getting Punched Right Before Eating" (embedding disabled), featuring guest appearances by Bon Jovi, Dave Grohl & Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, and dancing zombies.

Yes, it's as awesome as your current mental image. I feel better already.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why Beating Lieberman Mattered, Until It Didn't

[If you're a reader who shies away from coarse language, you may want to skip this post]

As a matter of moral and political practicality, I think as much as the current deal has large, crap sandwich-esque elements to it, there is a lot to like in the bill. In the main, it returns health insurance to being something more akin to social insurance than it currently is. It also makes insurance affordable for a large number of people (and yes, I still need to do a post about how the bill is as good or better than Massachusetts on this score, despite my previous carping) and will reduce preventable deaths and other sickness-related reductions in quality of life. It also fully or partially unwinds some policy errors of the previous decade, such as Medicare advantage and the overpayments to pharmaceutical companies.

But as a matter of long term politics for progressives, it's hard to say that this bill is good news. Because we're still somebody's bitch. And since this whole political blogging thing got revved up in 2002-2003, a large animating factor was the desire for liberals to stop being everybody's bitch. Howard Dean's campaign message was basically that Democrats should stop being George W. Bush's bitch. The 2006 camaign finally put House Democrats in a situation where they could stand up and say that. In 2008, certainly some of the anti-Clinton sentiment grew out of a desire not to be under the thumb of the Clintonistas--not just Hillary, but various centrist figures such as Richard Holbrooke, Larry Summers, Mark Penn, and so on. On that score, things have worked out well in some cases, and not so well in others. But right now, none of that matters because we're all Joe Lieberman's bitch. There's some debate about the extent to which this is true because President Obama is letting himself be dragged around the nose by Lieberman, Nelson, et al. because he agrees with them more than the progressives, and the extent to which it's just the result of the current structure of Senate politics and there isn't much of a choice if Obama doesn't get anything done. Either way, it's not good.

Being anybody's bitch, especially being Joe Lieberman's bitch, doesn't feel good. So there is a question going forward of how we get out of this situation; how it is to convince the White House and Senate leadership that they should fear progressive objections as much as they fear "centrist" objections. That's not going to be possible when it comes to health care, or, I fear, when it comes to climate change. But it might be true for something else, like banking reform, or appointing Fed chairs who only pay attention to the "price stability" part of their mandate and not the "full employment" part, or continuing to fund the war in Afghanistan, or other priorities such as education reauthorization.

Ancient History

To follow up on the new counterintuitive wonk defense of Harry Reid, if we were to break out the nostalgia file and see what the activists thought of our Congressional leaders in 2005, when Reid managed 45 Senators and Pelosi led about 202 House members, we would find people loving Reid's pugilistic attitude in the Senate while being frustrated with Pelosi's inability to maintain united opposition. Indeed, I believe that at the time people were singing the praises of one Ben Nelson, who, despite being conservative, managed to be more liberal than his state's electoral record would allow. At no point after 2006, at which point frustration with Reid really began (at the time, he had a 51 seat majority but only if you count Joe Lieberman), did anyone make much of an observation about the different institutional structures of the Senate and the House.

Reid has what is basically an impossible job. Last night on Maddow, Barney Frank observed that there appears to be a new constitutional amendment that any operation in the Senate requires 60 votes to pick its collective nose. In addition, partisanship and ideology have realigned in a way not seen since before the Progressive era. Taking these two in combination, and Senators' previous experience in the body bears very ittle relation to the way it operates today. The fact that the Senate can accomplish anything outside of reconciliation is a near miracle.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Joe Lieberman's Latest Nonsense Explanation is Nonsense

Yesterday, Joe Lieberman was called out for flip-flopping away from his previous position that Medicare buy-in in a three-month time span. Pointing out that spiking the bill would lead to a large number of preventable deaths would be "rude" but of course true. Still, the truth hurts, and in face of he came up with a tissue-thin excuse to justify his actions. You see, Max Baucus did such a darn good job of regulating the rate at which insurance premiums can vary based on age that there's no need to offer Medicare buy-in. Everyone will already have an affordable insurance option! (If you think the words "Max Baucus" and "good job" don't belong in the same sentence, I'm with you.).

Conveniently, I've been paying attention to the question of age ratios since the initial Finance Committee markup. So let's take a quick stroll down memory lane:
  • The intial Chairman's mark set the "age ratio" at 5-to-1. That is, if a 27-year-old non-smoker paid $200/month for an insurance policy, the insurer could charge a 55-year-old non-smoker $1000/month. In contrast, both the House and the Senate HELP Committee set the ratio at 2-to-1.
  • After some outcry from Jay Rockefeller (and, I believe, Olympia Snowe (!)), Baucus lowered the ratio to 4-to-1 prior to markup.
  • Rockefeller proposed an amendment to lower the ratio to 2-to-1 to match the House bill and the HELP Committee. This failed in the Finance Committee
  • Harry Reid's blended bill, reconciling the two Senate bills, set the age ratio at 3-to-1.
To get a sense of what this would mean at the individual level, I pretended to be a 27 year-old male living in Watertown, Massachusetts. The average Bronze premium for such an individual is about $300/month. This means that a 55-year old non-smoker earning $44,000/year—let's call him "Moe Seligman", for the sake of argument—could face premiums of up to $900/month, or $10,800/year. Medicare spending per enrollee in the state was approximately $8100. Now, the Massachusetts Bronze plans are actually better than Medicare, but they are not $2,700 better. They're about $1100 better (Medicare has an actuarial value of about 47.5%; the MA Bronze plans have a value of 56.5%; the average annual health costs for people aged 65+ are about $12,000/year; 9% of $12,000 is $1080). If Finance had accepted Rockefeller's amendment to shrink the age ratio to 2-to-1, then it's plausible that private insurance will be "affordable" for the 55-64 age group (if you think spending almost a quarter of your income on a not-particularly comprehensive insurance plan is "affordable"). But as it stands, with a 3-to-1 ratio, Lieberman's opposition to Medicare buy-in will cost these folks a net of roughly $1600 per year.

Today, perhaps some intrepid "youthful" reporter will have as much intestinal fortitude as Ezra, and ask why it is that Joe Lieberman insisted upon changes to the bill that will lead near-seniors to overpay for their insurance by at least $1600.

Update: To make matters worse, Lieberman keeps talking about how "generous" the subsidies are, as though maybe the government is spending too much money to help people afford insurance. There are two rejoinders to this. One is that letting people buy into Medicare would probably lead the government to spend less on subsidies, since Medicare drives a harder bargain than private insurance. Second, Lieberman seems to be implying that if he ruled the world, he would make insurance more expensive for those earning less than 400% of FPL. While the CBO's latest estimate suggests people are actually getting a decent deal (and I'll have more on that later), this is insane.

Monday, December 14, 2009

It's Not All on Congress

One thing that has bugged me about the ongoing critique of Matt Taibbi's "Obama is a tool of Goldman Sachs" piece is that it moves the onus of passing decent legislation entirely from the White House to Congress. Of course, the President could veto legislation he found lacking. Indeed, the one time that Obama has issued a real veto threat—the threat to veto any attempt to revive F-22 funding—Congress obliged and sent him a clean Defense bill.

Obviously, there's a noticeable difference here. The coalition to kill the F-22 was cross-partisan in a way that banking reform, health care, and climate change aren't. But at present, at least publicly, no one in the White House is considering forming a committee to study the feasibility of beginning to try to issue veto threats. You'd think that given the general weakness of the product produced by Congress, the White House might try to use some of its enumerated powers to get something more effective.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

New Zealand And Environmental Fairness

I'm in Sydney right now, having flown in Friday afternoon from New Zealand. The trip is going well. As I'm giving four talks next week, you probably won't see much blogging from me soon, but after that things should get a little better.

Last week I was riding down to a conference with some Kiwis. They told me that the sheep-dotted hillsides of New Zealand mostly used to be forests a century ago, before being cut down for grazing land by European settlers. Now we look at those lovely hills and think, 'That's New Zealand.' Literally, that's right, but the country only got that way because of a thing that people did. And it's a thing that in the modern world, we don't want people to do. For a variety of reasons ranging from biodiversity conservation to climate change, we don't want people to cut down forests.

Right now, the burden of not doing massive deforestation for agricultural purposes is going to fall primarily on poor nations where farming is a big part of the economy. Other developing nations will face the same problem on other questions -- if you're transitioning from agriculture to cheap dirty manufacturing right now, you're going to be more bothered by regulations on how much carbon a smokestack can belch than you will be if you're transitioning from sophisticated manufacturing to a knowledge economy. But in this case too, there's the fact that we did the farming to dirty smokestacks move in our past as well. We had the chance to make all these transitions without any restrictions about carbon or biodiversity or anything like that.

So what's fair here: for the same restrictions to apply to everybody at the same date, or for the same laws to apply to everybody when their economy is the same age? At one level, the answer is that it doesn't matter what's fair -- we just need to do whatever we can to keep climate change from messing up the world. (This is one of the times when I'm happy to be a utilitarian, so my moral theory need not choose one of these two notions of fairness over the other. I just want whatever maximizes aggregate happiness.) I'm guessing that the only practical solution will fit the first way of construing fairness much better than the second. But as often happens when there are a couple different ways to construe notions of fairness, each of which advantages a different group, the people who don't get their way are going to feel resentment that the people who get their way aren't going to see as justified.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Party Like It's 1988

I'd like to think I could take credit for this, but I'm pretty sure that others have observed that the Village seems convinced that Democrats are trapped in some '80s vintage Groundhog Day scenario. The tremendous credence given to the idea that Mike Huckabee's commutation of Maurice Clemmons will be a disqualifying political liability and the legitimacy afforded to the anti-global-warming furor are at least partly of the same piece. They both were political winners for Republicans. For much of the DC press, the traumas inflicted upon Democrats by the spotted owl, Willie Horton, welfare queens, and various other Reagan-era bugaboos seem to be alive and kicking, 20 years later.

I'm not sure what evidence would convince reporters that the political salience and dynamics of crime, environmentalism, and social spending have changed. How many more electoral drubbings would Republicans have to take?

There Is One Word In This Deal That Needs To Change

TPM: "That buy-in option would initially be made available to uninsured people aged 55-64 in 2011, three years before the exchanges open".

As Chris Bowers points out, this opens Medicare to at most 3.24 million people. In other words, bupkis. A compromise in the House wherein anyone above 55 can buy into Medicare would be a reasonable compromise.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Preserving the BCS Mirage

What Matt Yglesias said.

It's almost as if the BCS (and the separate bowl entities) are trying to get Congress to investigate them for antitrust violations. Sadly, both Texas and Idaho are represented by Republicans in the Senate, and Boise State is represented by "Democrat" Walt Minnick, so there is not much opportunity for bipartisan consensus this year. We need to root for a powerhouse to emerge at New Mexico or New Mexico State. At the very least these teams should face BCS-conference opponents.

The Best of A Bunch of Bad Options

As the Public Option continues to decay in the Senate, I think my preferred alternative would be a triggered public option, with most of the parameters written by mainstream Democrats. But Chris Bowers tells me that ain't gonna happen. So now it looks like folks are dusting off the idea of letting those near retirement age buy into Medicare. This idea, which has been kicking around since at least the Clinton administration, is better than almost anything else being discussed on both politics and policy. After all Republicans have spent the last week claiming to be the champions of Medicare by fighting to preserve every dollar spent on Medicare, showing reckless disregard for the program's solvency and no particular interest in trying to find savings that won't have an impact on health outcomes. I'd love to see the press conference where Mitch McConnell tries to explain why he doesn't want younger than 65 to have access to this lovely government program.

The alternatives are just grim. We're down to some strange idea of a plan being run by the Office of Personnel Management. Except it wouldn't be administered by the government in any real way; it would just be outsourced to a non-profit or a collection of non-profits. It's totally unclear that this would accomplish anything as a cost control measure; it wouldn't do much to improve Americans' confidence in government action; and it would insure even fewer people than the other crippled public option compromises on the table. The trigger alternative, as Bowers suggests, won't lead to a particularly robust public option. But Medicare is a program people like. Giving the people more of it seems worthwhile.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original caption:
"Aboard Air Force One, President Barack Obama discusses his Afghanistan speech with Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, en route to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in West Point, N.Y, Dec. 1, 2009."

Here's Anna Terheim covering Fleetwood Mac's "Little Lies":

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Less Cancer Screening is a Technocracy, not Discrimination

To be very clear about this, there have been nearly equivalent studies showing that early prostate cancer screening doesn't do much to reduce prostate cancer mortality. No one said anything about these studies giving men an excuse to take the a heteronormative "tough it out" approach and avoid seeing a doctor. Dana Milbank didn't write columns with quotes from stunned advocacy and awareness groups. Prostate cancer survivors in the Senate like John Kerry and Chris Dodd didn't demand amendments that mandated full first dollar coverage for current levels of PSA screening (in fairness, Senator Mikulski has rolled back the language to allow the hope of some flexibility hear, if at some point the relevant agency can change their recommendations without creating a firestorm on Capitol Hill or in the White House). Tom Coburn didn't start making shit up about how the Democrats would tax your ... well, I think my readers have gotten the picture.

America has two problems relating to breast-cancer screening. One is the inequity in access to screening; poor and/or non-white women are less likely to get screening than middle-class and/or white women. The other is that those women who do get screening receive frequent and early screening that ends up detecting a larger number slow-growing, non-fatal than peer countries. In addition, mammograms in general produce a lot of false positives, so we're putting lots of patients through a lots of anxiety and unpleasant treatment that's not saving very many, if any, lives. In the UK, women at standard breast cancer risk (no BCRA, no family history of breast cancer) are guaranteed one mammogram every three years starting some time between 50 and 53 (women at elevated or high risk are guaranteed US levels of screening). France (which has the #1 quality health care system in the world) offers breast cancer screening starting at age 50 every two years. Germany? Same as France. The rest of the industrialized world seems to think that the harms caused by early screening—and let's be clear on this, complications due to treatment of a non-fatal cancer are definitely harm—outweigh the benefits. This isn't discrimination, this is going where the evidence is taking us. Yes, that line has abused by pro-discrimination types throughout history. But that doesn't mean that every time it's used, there's discrimination afoot.

Ring The Alarm / And I'm Throwin' Elbows

Item one: "Sen. Ben Nelson told reporters today he will filibuster the health care bill if it doesn't contain an abortion amendment similar to Rep. Bart Stupak's amendment that passed attached to the House health care bill last month."

Item two: "Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has asked top administration officials to make certain changes to the Senate health care bill as part of discussions that suggest her vote is up for grabs"

My crude read is that this is the White House's way of telling Ben Nelson (and Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman and the rest of them) that they won't get to hold the bill hostage. They've never been particularly committed to the public option, and the Senators from Maine have actually been pretty good on affordability issues. Threatening to go elsewhere for the last two votes is a good way to make temper the demands of the moderates.

Pop quiz: a public option with Stupak rules? Or a crappy trigger without Stupak? Discuss.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Donkeylicous Everywhere

Because one blog clearly isn't enough, and because I can't bring myself to be on DoD conference calls with Real Journalists and say "Hi, this is Nicholas Beaudrot from Donkeylicious", I'm doing a day's worth of guest blogging over at Attackerman. Here's my first post on what "July 2011" really means.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Go For It! Part Deux

Towards the end of yesterdays Cardinals-Titans game, I tweeted, "ARI up 17-13. 4th and 1 on TEN 44, 6 minutes to go, Go for it! #whatwouldbillbelichickdo". I'm pretty sure he would. After all, your opponent's 44 is almost the definition of the "Maroon Zone": too close to punt, but too far to kick a field goal. On the ensuing drive, the Titans completed a bomb that took them to Arizona's 24 yard line. The receiver fumbled, but the Cardinals couldn't make anything out of their next possession. After punting to the Titans' one yard line, Vince Young drove his team ninety nine yards for the game-winning TD.

This sequence highlights the basic premise of go-for-it boosters. To win, your opponent needs to score points. To score points, your opponent needs the ball. If you go for it on fourth down and get it, you deny your opponent the thing he needs most: the ball. Had the Cardinals decided to go for it with 6 minutes left, they could have gone into their four minute offense to burn some clock. If they could make it just another 10 yards, they'd be in field goal range, meaning the Titans would have needed overtime or a 2-point conversion to win the game. In an era of weaker offense and lower passing completion percentages, punting made more sense. In todays high-octane offense times, holding the ball becomes more important.

(photo from flickr user rexhammock )

Let There Be Data!

Several folks asked for raw data on House Freshmen Report Card. Ask and ye shall receive!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Wanker of the Day

Evan Bayh.

In general the cable news freakout related to the party-crashers exemplifies Village paranoia. I suppose Bayh thinks it's good that he's telling the Villagers what they want to hear.

Happy Birthday Nick!

Right now, it's Nick's 30th birthday on both sides of the world. Happy birthday, Nick!

The Nick:Neil ratio of this blog is going to move upward quite a bit over the next two weeks, I think, as I fly around Australia and New Zealand giving philosophy talks. But after that, things should get back to their usual state.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday Kitsch Drum FC

The rapid pace at which Black Friday has become an official holiday during which the press covers very little beyond shopping mania is, odd. Also odd: Megadeth. Here's the only known FC (zero misses) of Good Mourning/Black Friday:

Leave nominations for future kitsch covers in the comments.

My Trip Down Under

In three days I fly off to Australia. I'll be giving a bunch of talks on my research there and in New Zealand. I return to Singapore in early January. If you're curious about where I'll be or want to meet up or something, my info is on my philosophy blog. Blogging here may be a little bit sparse in the next two weeks or so, because of how I'll be living it up with philosophers in the Southern Hemisphere.

You're especially encouraged to drop me a line if you want to hang out Down Under sometime around New Year's Day, when I'm just going to be wandering aimlessly around Eastern Australia and New Zealand.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gobble Gobble Gobble

Jane Pepperdene taught my senior year English class. She's one of those teachers that the school system needs more of. Jane died last Friday in her home of Decatur. She is survived by the hundreds of students whose lives she touched.

I'm thankful for having Jane in my life, and for the fact that the Internet has preserved at least something she said.

That is all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Lots of people are writing about Sarah Palin. And lots of people are writing about people writing about Sarah Palin, often saying "gahhh people are paying way too much attention to Sarah Palin!" I'm basically on everybody's side here.

There are a bunch of strange phenomena surrounding Sarah Palin that say something important about our politics and generate lots of fodder for analysis. So people spend lots of time chewing that fodder. This is as it should be. Lots of people (I'm thinking of Ezra here) have better things to do, so they will go away from the Palin conversations and do better things. That is also as it should be. Palin also is kind of a Big Shiny Object that attracts attention, so people who like to chatter about Big Shiny Objects will chatter about her. And that's okay too.

So, carry on, everybody.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Is The Filibuster Good for Individual Senators?

Yglesias: "[the 60-vote Senate requirement] allows each individual senator to drive a harder bargain in the horse-trading and log-rolling sweepstakes in a manner that rarely serves the public interest". Does it? Clearly it allows Olympia Snowe and Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to drive a harder bargain. But what about the rest of the Democratic caucus? Would anyone find it credible if Jack Reed said he would join Republicans in filibustering the HCR bill? Would he really end up wringing concessions for quahog harvesters? I find myself doubful of his prospects. It seems to me that the filibuster is only individually good for those Senators who for ideological or political reasons are already likely to oppose progressive legislation. That's a good reason for those Senators to oppose an end to the filibuster, but it's not a good reason for your run-of-the-mill member of the body. This goes for Republicans to; the filibuster is mainly a tool for preserving the status quo, meaning that Jim Demint's free-market utopia would stand a better chance (but still not a good one) of enactment if it needed only fifty votes.

The Senate is basically debating a bill written by Max Baucus and edited by Harry Reid, and to some extent by other members of the Finance Committee. That leaves 46 Senate Democrats who've close to zero input on the current bill. If I were one of those 46 I'm not sure I'd feel great about that arrangement.

The Filibuster And The Future

Ezra has the small-d democratic case against the filibuster. But I'd like to make the small-p progressive case against the filibuster as well.

Western societies have been changing over the last couple centuries in a few fairly steady ways. For one thing, technology keeps getting better. For another thing, old prejudices like racism, sexism, and homophobia are slowly declining. So if you make it easy to change the laws, you make it easy for a society to have the laws that people want in a high-tech, unprejudiced society. But if you make it hard to change the laws, you stick us to laws from the past. The filibuster is basically a way of making it very hard to change big laws, so it keeps us a couple decades behind the present.

It's pretty clear that progressives have anti-prejudice reasons to oppose the filibuster -- we don't want another scenario where Dixiecrats are using it to keep Southern blacks from having rights. But I think progressivism is also the view more suited to a high-tech world. As technology gets better, you become able to make more and more cool stuff. Not just in the sense that now there are iPhones, but also in the sense that antibiotics are inexpensive and available. If you're stuck to laws from a time when there was less stuff, your social welfare programs are going to reflect that condition by being more stingy. Maybe you're only going to feed the hungry, because that's all they could do in the old days, when you've got enough resources to heal the sick as well.

There's a technocratic case that goes along with this. Having the economy of the future is great in a lot of ways, but weird new problems come up that you didn't expect. You put enough carbon into the atmosphere to mess up the climate. Financial institutions become capable of doing complicated things that crash the economy. Your employer-based health care system starts swallowing up 16% of GDP. At a very general level of description, these aren't problems specifically for people who have progressive views. They're things that, say, Edmund Burke would've recognized as genuine ills, and it's only the weird interest-group structure within the Republican Party that makes them seem like partisan concerns.

Now, you don't solve these problems by smashing everything up and living in a cave. You do it by devising regulatory or social-welfare solutions to them. And if those solutions need 60-vote supermajorities, it's a lot harder to put them into practice.

The Best Reasonable Idea Ever

I'm really happy to see the growing number of Congressional Democrats, many of them quite powerful, who want the Afghan War to be paid for in the budget. The big focus of this is, of course, Afghanistan. But it's good in lots of other ways.

One thing I love about the whole effort is how it presses the fact that the health care legislation in Congress actually reduces the deficit. This is the sort of thing that the CBO has affirmed and wonks are going to know and newspapers will have in utterly forgettable ways and ordinary people are not going to realize. But when it comes up in the surprising way that it does here -- "We had to make sure health care reform wouldn't increase the deficit, so the Afghan War shouldn't either" -- it's a neat new way to get the message across.

I have no idea how this will all turn out, because it's pretty novel, but if David Obey's bill somehow succeeds and we end up generating the norm that wars must be paid for, that's going to be a truly world-historical development. A future in which War or Car doesn't really work as a blog idea because we don't blow enough money to coat NH and VT in gold leaf without seriously weighing the tradeoffs is a future I want to live in.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bill White And Everybody Else For Governor

Chris Cilizza covers the excitement surrounding the possibility that Houston mayor Bill White will enter the race for Governor of Texas. This weakens our position in the Senate race, as that's what White was running for before. On the Republican side, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson is leaving the Senate seat to challenge Gov. Rick Perry in the primary. I don't know why all the top-tier people are trying to become governor -- among the 50 states, the Texas Governor is one of the weaker state executives.

The office does, however, come with the power to appoint creationists to the State Board of Education. Since Texas is the largest unified textbook market in the country, Republican Texas governors are a menace to children across the land.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Favre And The Iraqis

If any of the football-interested readers who came for Nick's Belichick 4th down post are still around, they might be interested in seeing that unhappy Iraqi detainees are taunting Wisconsin National Guardsmen about Brett Favre.

Forget all those guys out in caves who don't know what the Lambeau Leap is. Iraqi militants who understand the ins and outs of NFL rivalries will be dangerously effective in infiltrating our culture.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Today's Senate HCR Debate

I stomached a few hours of the House debate I don't think I can bring myself to watch the second round of carnage, even if the opposition in the Senate from most members is more reasoned in tone. The only thing I have to say is that I really, really hope that Robert Byrd has been taking his vitamins.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Donkeylicious Asks, Democrats Provide

Via Eric Martin, it looks like Obey, Larson, and Murtha are requesting that we raise revenue to pay for the war in Afghanistan! Just like we asked.

Also via Obsidian Wings, Lindsay Beyerstein has her first article in Newsweek about how the Stupak stuff isn't going into the Senate bill, making it very likely that it'll die in conference committee. (Congratulations, Lindsay!)

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

President Barack Obama opens the door of the Oval Office to welcome Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Oct. 29, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Today's Kitsch Cover is Jimmy Eat World covering The Prodigy's "Firestarter"

Firestarter - Jimmy Eat World

Leave your captions and nominations for future kitsch covers in the comments.

GOP : ACORN :: Democrats :

Diebold? That seems roughly correct. Diebold may have been engaged in some nefarious (or, more likely, negligent) activity, but they weren't really anywhere close to the center of the Republican universe.

The difference, of course, is that while progressives have to deal with the black box voting people at conferences and rallies and such (and they have a point! It's just not my #1 issue!), they tended to be shunted to the side. And while I think lefties tend to exaggerate the importance of Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachman, Louie Gohmert, and the like, the GOP has still mainlined the crazy a bit more than Democrats did during their out years.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The 'Bronze' Tier is Dead! Long Live the 'Lead' Tier

It occurs to me that one simple way to get consumers to avoid the crappy Bronze plans would be to rename them. Right now, based on the quality of insurance, plans are either 'Bronze', 'Silver', 'Gold', or 'Platinum'. But "Bronze" means third place, and is most often heard in the context of the Olympics. Third place in the Olympics sounds pretty good! We would be better off naming the top tier Gold, the second tier Silver, and the third tier Bronze.

After that, Congress should rename the the lowest tier of coverage so that it sounds like crappy insurance in addition to being crappy insurance. You could name it the 'Lead' tier, since lead is both a cheap metal and something that's actually bad for your health.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Forcing People to Buy Crappy Insurance

On page 112, we get to some serious bad news. My big fear was that Harry Reid would stay below the $900 billion by watering down the minimum benefits package. This would let the CBO continue to say that however many people are "insured" but not really get into the details of the quality of their coverage. I think I was right:

13 (A) BRONZE LEVEL.—A plan in the bronze
14 level shall provide a level of coverage that is de
15 signed to provide benefits that are actuarially
16 equivalent to 60 percent of the full actuarial
17 value of the benefits
provided under the plan.

This is the point where I snarkily suggest that pro-reform conservatives, who seem to be coalescing around "universal catastrophic insurance" as the latest phantom alternative health reform, should start supporting the current bill. As written, the Bronze plans will be, if not universal, certainly a popular form of individual catastrophic insurance with some first-dollar coverage for certain pre-existing conditions preventative care tacked on. Insurance with a 60% actuarial value is worse than the insurance offered by over 99% of employer-based plans (search for "exhibit 2"). And, of course, people are notoriously optimistic when it comes to assessing their own risk exposure; lots of folks will opt for these crummy bronze plans, not set aside much savings, and hope they don't get sick.

In Massachusetts, 42% of the total population in the Connector, and 58% who don't choose the Young Invincible plans, end up purchasing Bronze insurance. That's a lot of folks who will end up with very high deductibles and co-payments. In theory this is supposed to give people incentive to choose low-cost treatment options. But of course we're not all MDs who are well equipped to determine the optimal course of treatment in many cases, so we just end up cutting back on health care across the board, rather than keeping the "good" health care and throwing out the "bad" health care.

This is, in my view, a suboptimal solution. Subsidies are supposed to help with this, but that just feels backwards to me. Why make people buy weak insurance, then subsidize their deductible, rather than just subsidize the purchase of better insurance? I think they really ought to either make bronze plans really unattractive to all but the cheapest of the cheap, or otherwise set the minimum level of coverage closer at 70% or even higher (I think Rockefeller wanted it at 73%, which sounds good to me).

Good News

I'm up to page 80 (out of 2074) of the health care bill, and this is by far the best bit of news I've gotten to:
13 ‘‘(A) such rate shall vary with respect to
14 the particular plan or coverage involved only
15 by—
20 ‘‘(iii) age, except that such rate shall
21 not vary by more than 3 to 1 for adults

22 (consistent with section 2707(c)); and

The Senate Finance version of the bill that left Committee limited the age variation to 4:1, which would let insurance companies price anyone over 50 out of the market. The House version limits it to 2:1. The fact that the Senate has already shifted to 3:1 means that things are moving in the right direction.

On to page 81 ...

Republicans In Favor of Higher Insurance Premiums, Unnecessary Patient Stress

Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) has decided that an independent advisory panel's suggestion to scale back mammogram recommendations is the front lines of government-controlled health care. This is roughly 100% poppycock. First off, said advisory panel has no authority to change anything. Second, there's a decent amount of evidence that the panel's right anyway. The US of A has high cancer survival rates. But we also diagnose more cancers. If you look at the death rate due to breast cancer (as opposed to the survival rate among diagnosed patients), the US isn't really a world leader. In the United Kingdom, regular mammograms start at age 50 and continue once every three years. The new recommendations suggest starting at age 50 with screenings every 2 years. Mammograms have a notoriously high false positive rate, especially in the United States, where one in seven patients returns for further testing, as opposed to less than one in ten in the UK. That's a lot of women who have to sit through several weeks thinking they might have breast cancer, and a lot of money spent on testing.

Thankfully, Ms Blackburn is not a Senator, so she can't force the executive branch to bend to her wishes by placing a hold random nominations.

Also, in the interest of gender equality let me add that the same thing goes for prostate cancer. As with breast cancer, the survival rate among diagnosed patients is very high, but the survival rate among the overall population is average. One read is that Americans are more cancerous and better treated. Another read is that Americans are overdiagnosed, with a number of patients receive treatment for "marginal" cancer that isn't life threatening.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

House Freshmen Report Card

Of the 50 or so new Democratic seats in the House, which members are voting more liberally than their district might suggest? And which are unnecessarily conservative? We can use the Cook Partisan Voting index to estimate the shape of each district's electorate, and then measure members' performance using DW-NOMINATE ratings. This isn't imperfect, but likely accurate to a first approximation. The chart below the distance between each members rank in the DW-NOMINATE score and subtracts their district's rank in the PVI score. A positive score (DW-NOMINATE > PVI) means the member is to the right of their district. A negative score means they're to the left. Then I counted the number of Dems who are at more than 175 slots more liberal than their district; those 151 to 175 slots more liberal; 126 to 150 slots more liberal; and so on. The result looks something like this:

As you can see, most Democrats who took over GOP-held seats in the past two elections are pulling their district to the left. That's because most seats are swing seats being replaced by not-super-conservative Democrats, or lean-Republican seats where any Democrat is more liberal than the district. Among '06 freshmen, the two best Democrats are John Hall in suburban NYC, and Bruce Braley in Eastern Iowa. The worst are Joe Courtney in Connecticut, who's become something of a China hawk; Ron Klein, whose deal I don't know; and Joe Donnelly, who's 100% anti-choice. These numbers are somewhat different if you use the 110th Congress and the PVI based on the 2004 and 2000 elections; for example between 2006 and 2008, Carol Shea-Porter shifted to the right as the result of a tough reelection fight, while her district went way to the left with Obama on the ticket.

Among '08 freshmen, the Democrat who is furthest to the left of his district is ... wait for it ... Bobby Bright. That's right, the second most conservative Democrat (behind Walt Minnick, who's basically useless) is also the freshman who is farthest to the left of his district, simply because his district is so conservative. Now, Chet Edwards manages to hold a more conservative district with a significantly less conservative voting record, but he's an entrenched incumbent. After Bright comes Frank Kratovil, who's more or less in the same boat; then Eric Massa, Betsy Markey, Alan Grayson (shocker!), and Harry Teague. The worst of the bunch are Jim Himes, Dan Dreihaus, Dina Titus, Dan Maffei, and Gary Peters.

What about incumbents--who are the crappiest Democrats? It's a bit harder to see any patterns. Here are the 13 Democrats at least 75 slots more conservative than their districts:


Kendrick Meek and Artur Davis are running for the Senate as black men in the South while holding safe seats. They don't really count; if we were to use their score from the 110th Congress, they would show up as more conservative than their district, but not this conservative. Pelosi is in the leadership so that doesn't really count either since she rarely votes. Of the remaining ten members, I count four members of the Congressional Black Caucus—Gregory Meeks, Laura Richardson, Charlie Rangel, and Edolphus Towns. Rangel is in the leadership, and both he and Edolphus Towns are at least fairly liberal. That leaves Meeks and Richardson as the real standouts from the CBC. Some of the other members on this list have been the targets of primaries before—Dan Lipinski, Jane Harman—so the others on this list may attract challengers in the future.

One last chart, this is a chart of white Southern Democrats. We're going to use the CQ South, defined as the old Confederacy plus Kentucky and Oklahoma:


Simply by virtue of holding more conservative districts, most white Southern Democrats are pulling their district to the left. It's not immediately clear what we should expect from these members. They're not all going to be Chet Edwards, an entrenched incumbent who represents deep-Red territory, yet seems to be more liberal that one quarter of the caucus.

Only seven of these 41 members are to their district's right (17%), better than to 17 out of 51 members of the '06 and '08 classes (33%). Six of those seven represent safe seats. These are reps who are dealmakers like Jim Cooper, (who's slightly to the right of his Nashville-based district), or have such liberal districts it's simply hard to get to their left (Lloyd Doggett in Austin). The exception is John Barrow (D-GA12; photo from Wik). Barrow represents a seat that was redrawn by state Republicans in 2005. He won his 2006 reelection in a nail-biter, but cruised to victory in 2008, winning 66-34. His district appears to have shifted to the left, though his large margin may in part be due to Obama's presence on the ticket and his district's large African-American population. He must think that the 2010 electorate will look like the 2006 electorate, because despite the fact his seat appears fairly safe, he's still behaving like an extremely conservative Democrat.

If people are casting about for members who deserve a primary challenge, Dan Lipinski is an obvious target, as is Jane Harman. Donna Edwards may provide a template for running challenges to entrenched CBC incumbents. And while it's tempting to go after members who have tried to stymie health care in a high-profile way coughMikeRosscough, don't forget about members who are doing their district a disservice. John Barrow is a "more Democrat" when his district deserves a "better Democrat". That may not be in the cards in 2010, but with Obama on the ticket in 2012 it's definitely something worth considering.

If people find this stuff useful, I may post more charts. What do you want to see? Blue Dogs? Stupak Dems?

I'll upload the spreadsheet soon, but at the moment Google Docs is misbehaving.

Should I Buy These Carbon Offsets?

I'm going to be flying around Australia and New Zealand this December and January to give a bunch of philosophy talks. A bunch of the airlines down there offer carbon offsets. It sounds good and I've been buying them. Is this the thing to do, or is there some weird counterintuitive reason that it's a bad idea? And of course I'd like cap and trade / a carbon tax / any politically feasible way of averting the planetary disaster where traditional crops fail in poor countries so lots of people die and the refugees flee to our Atlantises.

In Waxman Vs. Stupak, Bet On Waxman

In a story that brings one of our most loved heroes together with one of our most hated villains, here's what happened when the House Energy and Commerce Committee was working on the health care bill. Brian Beutler reports that the legislation had a provision where none of the federal funds being authorized could be used to pay for abortions, except in the case of incest, rape, or to protect the mother's life. (I assume that this got edited out later when they merged the bill with the bills from Miller and Rangel's committees.) And then:

A day before the bill passed out of committee, Stupak co-sponsored, and voted for an amendment written by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA)--distinct from the now notorious "Stupak amendment"--that would have limited the government's ability to include abortions in benefits plans to cases of incest, life of the mother, and forcible rape.

The Pitts amendment actually passed, 31-27, with the support of several Democrats and all Republicans. But the "forcible" language--legally significant--was a bridge too far.

In a parliamentary maneuver, chairman Henry Waxman actually voted "aye", according to a House aide, in order to retain the prerogative of bringing it up for a second, unsuccessful vote. Between votes, Waxman conferred with some of the bill's Democratic supporters to convince them to help shoot it down.

One of them, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), agreed to flip his vote. Another--Rep. Zack Space (D-IN)--didn't vote at all the first time around, but voted against it on its second pass. And that was enough to kill it.

If I get this right, Waxman and Gordon flipping their votes takes it to 29-29, and Space's vote puts Team Human Decency over the top.

I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy, so this story makes me feel optimistic about the future. There may be very bad people in the House Democratic Caucus. But Henry Waxman is on our side, and if there's any way for the good guys to win, he's going to find it. People wondering how the Stupak amendment will fare in conference committee should take note.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Final Word

Nate Silver thinks Belichick made the right call.

To remind everyone, Silver got his start in sports, not politics. He's well within his comfort zone.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Don't Lose Your Edge, Bill!

Predictably, the talking heads have already begun raking Bill Belichick over the coals for his decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 from their own 28 yard line with 2:08 on the clock. However, if you look at the math, the Pats' head coach appears to have made the correct decision.

The following paragraph has been edited for clarity, in addition to flipping the sign in the equations written to reflect what I actually wroete

On 4th down, with 2 yards or fewer to go, New England has gained a first down on approximately 66% of its attempts with Tom Brady as quarterback. The Colts had no timeouts one timeout. If the Patriots gain a first down, the game ends; they can simply kneel on the ball three times slowly walk to burn a few seconds, then take a knee on each down to end the game. If they don't gain a first down, the Colts would still need to score a touchdown to win the game. Let's give the Colts a probability P of getting the six if the ball starts at the 28 yard line. So if the Patriots try for the first, their chance of losing is
(Probability of 4th down failure) x
(Probability of Colts scoring a TD from the 28 Yard line) = 0.33P
The average New England punt nets about 40 yards. Let's give the Colts a probability Q of scoring a TD on a driving starting at the Indianapolis 32. Then, the chance of the Patriots losing is simply Q. For Belichick's decision to make sense, we just have to believe that he gave his team a higher chance of winning lower chance of losing. In math terms, that would mean 0.33P > Q 0.33P < Q. Doing some algebra leaves you with P > 3Q P < 3Q. In other words, for the Patriots to have made the right decision, we only have to believe the Colts odds of scoring a TD on a drive starting 28 yards from the end zone are less than three times the odds of the same outcome starting from 68 yards out. The win probability graph for the game suggests that, given 1st-and-10 from New England's 29, the Colts had roughly a 51% chance of winning in the actual situation. We have to believe that their chances under the punt scenario were below 17% above 17% for Belichick to have made a bad good decision. Considering the Colts' have scored touchdowns on 30% of their offensive possessions, my guess is that this was a good one.

Tom Brady is sitting in the postgame press conference doing yeoman's work trying to explain this to a roomful of stunned sports reporters in a language that they can understand. I don't envy him in this moment.

Update: Okay, the Patriots made one error
3rd and 2 at NE 28
(Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short right to W.Welker (J.Powers).

Timeout #3 by NE at 02:08.

4th and 2 at NE 28
(Shotgun) T.Brady pass short right to K.Faulk to NE 29 for 1 yard (M.Bullitt).

The punt team should not have come on the field, forcing the Patriots to call a timeout. With the time out in hand, New England could have challenged the spot on the 4th down play, or allowed the Colts to score quickly so they could try for a comeback field goal (speaking of which, why didn't they let the Colts score a TD on the first play from scrimmage so they could try for a comeback field goal).