Monday, November 9, 2009

Good News and Bad News

Certainly it constitutes bad news if the people who agree with you are buggier than batshit. -- Philip Dick, Valis.

In this week's Sift:
  • Interpreting the Off-Year Elections. The temptation is to read too much into spotty results. But they must mean something.
  • Where Are We on Health Care? The House has passed a bill. That's not like winning the Super Bowl, but it is like getting to the next round of the playoffs.
  • Short Notes. Jon Stewart does a great Glenn Beck impression. Italy convicts the CIA of kidnapping. Bad coverage at Fort Hood. Jobs decline more slowly. Wind power. What you can't learn from porn. And more.

Interpreting the Off-Year Elections
Tuesday was election day in a few places. For weeks, pundits have been trying to read some national trend into this handful of state and local races. But as far as I can see, each one is a unique story. (Matt Yglesias points out that we don't need to read tea leaves in other races to see whether Obama is popular. There are polls for that.)

Republicans won the two governor's races, in Virginia and New Jersey. Democrats won the two House seats, in California and upstate New York. Maine voted down its same-sex marriage law. Here's the meaning I'm reading into those races.

Virginia governor. The Republican candidate, Bob McDonell trounced the Democrat Creigh Deeds. As the Institute for Southern Studies blogger Chris Kromm notes, this race was all about turnout. Obama carried Virginia last year by bringing out a lot of young, black, and Latino voters. This year, without Obama in the race, they stayed home. Tuesday's turnout was only 53% of last year's. Older, whiter voters came out in force and carried the day for the Republicans.

Polls indicate that Obama's support among the young and non-white is still strong. The question is whether they will identify with the Democratic Party rather than just with Obama.

New Jersey governor. It's hard to read any larger significance into Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine's loss, because he tried to tie himself to Obama and failed. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics:
The Garden State results simply prove that New Jerseyans hated Jon Corzine more than they loved Barack Obama. Obama's high ratings weren't enough to save Corzine, who was deeply unpopular because of high property taxes, among other reasons.
New York's 23rd District. This race was great melodrama. The district voted for Obama in 2008, but no Democrat had won its seat in Congress since the 1870s. Its most recent congressman was Republican John McHugh, who is now Obama's Secretary of the Army.

Republicans tried to play it safe by nominating a moderate woman, Dierdre Scozzafava, but the teabaggers were having none of it and defected to Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. National conservatives like Sarah Palin endorsed Hoffman, and when a late poll showed Scozzafava running third with no money to turn things around, she withdrew and endorsed the Democrat, Bill Owens.

Owens won. So the Democratic majority in Congress is one seat bigger than it was last week. Thank you Dierdre. But also, thank you Sarah.

In retrospect, the most amusing thing about this race was the way Fox News covered it. They were all set to proclaim this race as a victory for the right-wing revolution and a warning to any Republican who might compromise with Obama. They cheered Hoffman. When Scozzfava withdrew, they all but endorsed Hoffman on her behalf. On election night they refused to believe what they were seeing, and when they had to admit that the voters disagreed with them, they did their best to downplay the district whose importance they had been pimping for weeks. DailyKosTV collects the full Fox story arc.

California's 10th District. The national media forgot about this election. The Washington Post reported that NY-23 was "the only congressional election in an off-year cycle". But the Nation points out that CA-10 is really the mirror-image of NY-23: Obama appointed its representative Ellen Tauscher to be an Under Secretary of State. Tauscher was a moderate Democrat, and she wanted another moderate to succeed her. But Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi won the Democratic primary by running to the left.

Unlike in NY-23, though, moving to the left did not create an opportunity for Republicans to steal the seat, and Garamendi was elected 53-43. The upshot is that although this seat was already Democratic, it is more reliably liberal now.

Maine Marriage Equality. This was my biggest disappointment of the night. Maine's legislature had passed a same-sex marriage law, which the voters have now repealed by a 53-47 vote. This is a state that sits 15 miles up the coast from Massachusetts, where same-sex marriages have been happening since 2003 without any subsequent sky-falling.

What's up with that? AP has a pretty good analysis: The latest anti-gay-marriage tactic is to claim (falsely) that it will force public schools to teach kids about gay sex. So far, marriage-equality advocates have come up with no better response than to say: "Hey, that's not true." How often does that work?

Doc on First Draft also has a very reasonable post. He points out that it's not the flagrant gay-haters who are the problem, it's the more-or-less ordinary folks.

Laura Clawson explains why New Hampshire's constitution makes it much less likely that it will repeal its marriage equality law like Maine did.

And this is a great graphic. It illustrates support for same-sex marriage by state and by age, and demonstrates what a generational issue this is. The South and Utah are the only places where a majority of the 18-29-year-olds don't support same-sex marriage. The same graphic, plus an amusing conversation with his 7-year-old, appears in Steve Singiser's The Kids Are Alright. Young voters in Mississippi, he points out, are more likely to support same-sex marriage than are elderly voters in Massachusetts.

Where Are We on Health Care?
The House passed a health-care bill Saturday -- which is a lot further than the Clinton administration ever got when it tried to reform health care. The Senate is unlikely to pass the same bill for a variety of reasons, both liberal and conservative. So the big question now is whether the Senate will pass something. If they do, that gets the bill into a conference committee where the Senate and House work out their differences.

Getting provisions into the House bill at this point is like getting into your team into the next round of the playoffs. Anything in either the House bill or an eventual Senate bill is at least going to be talked about by the conference committee. Any provision that doesn't make it into either bill is pretty much dead.

In the Senate, different health-care bills were passed by the five relevant committees, and it's up to majority leader Harry Reid to decide which provisions make it into the bill that will be presented to the whole Senate. That's important, because amendments to that bill will take 60 votes. If, say, the public option is in the bill, then it will take 60 votes to take it out. If it's not in the bill, it will take 60 votes to put it in. Neither amendment would be likely to pass.

TPM has a good summary of the House bill in general terms.

But because the public option is, well, public, it won't want to do the unpopular things that insurers do to save money, like manage care or aggressively review treatments. It also, presumably, won't try to drive out the sick or the unhealthy. ... The nightmare scenario, then, is that private insurers cotton onto this and accelerate the process, implicitly or explicitly guiding bad risks to the public option. In theory, the exchanges are risk-adjusted, and the public option will be given more money if it ends up with bad risks, but it's hard to say how that will function in practice. ... The most important factor here will be the strength of the risk adjustment in the exchanges, so keep an eye on that.
The biggest liberal objection to the House bill is its anti-abortion provision, in which no insurance plan paid for (even partially) with a government subsidy can cover abortions. In practice, this will make it very hard for poor women to get abortions. What the Senate or the eventual conference committee will do with that is unknowable at this point.

Nicholas Kristof destroys the "self-aggrandizing delusion" that we have the best health-care system in the world. But he has stopped saying that our system is worse than the Slovenians', because it annoys the Slovenians.
They resent having their fine universal health coverage compared with the notoriously dysfunctional American system. As far as I can tell, every Slovenian has written to me. Twice. So, to all you Slovenians, I apologize profusely for the invidious comparison of our health systems. Yet I still don’t see anything wrong with us Americans aspiring for health care every bit as good as yours.
Kristof goes on to make a really interesting point I hadn't heard before:
there is one American health statistic that is strikingly above average: life expectancy for Americans who have already reached the age of 65. At that point, they can expect to live longer than the average in industrialized countries. That’s because Americans above age 65 actually have universal health care coverage: Medicare.

Kristof references a report funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and published on the web by the Urban Institute. The report compares U.S. health care to that of other countries, and notes one possible cause of the American system's underperformance:
As compared with the residents of other countries, many more Americans and chronically ill Americans say they skip medicines or medical appointments due to cost.
Keep that fact in mind when conservatives talk about their favorite health-care idea: health savings accounts. As one HSA advocate puts it:
If Americans were given incentives toward health savings accounts, we would see health-care costs plummet. For example, if a person who is employed full time received a voucher for health insurance from their employer and placed that money into a health savings account, then that money could gather toward paying for health services. This also encourages individuals to only use health services if needed, also causing a decrease in health-care costs.
In practice "use only if needed" is another way of saying "skip medicines or medical appointments due to cost". Because it's usually only in retrospect that you know whether you needed care. Hardly anyone goes to the emergency room just because they're bored. But a lot of people seek medical help when they don't know whether they need it or not. If cost keeps them from finding out, some will develop more serious conditions and some will die.

DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas destroyed Tom Tancredo while debating healthcare on MSNBC Friday. The moderator had just brought up the Veterans' Administration as an example of single-payer healthcare in the U.S., and Tancredo claimed that veterans would rather have vouchers to buy private insurance. Markos laughed at this, and when Tancredo told him to talk to the veterans, he said: "Tom, I'm a veteran. OK? I did not get a deferment because I was too depressed to fight in a war that I supported in Vietnam."

Tancredo -- who did precisely that -- huffed and puffed and then stalked off the set. Watch.

Short Notes
Jon Stewart's parody of Glenn Beck is one of his best pieces ever. He has Beck's gestures, props, weird leaps of logic, and inappropriate emotional affect down pat. His take on the "war" between the Obama administration and Fox News is pretty good too.

Italy is schooling the United States on the rule of law, but we're not listening. As part of its rendition program, the CIA kidnapped Muslim cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr off the streets of Milan in 2003, then flew him to Egypt where he was tortured.

Wednesday an Italian court concluded that kidnapping is kidnapping, even if you're the CIA. It convicted 23 Americans of their role in the felony. The convictions were in absentia, because we refused to extradite the defendants. But the 23 had better stay in the U.S., because police in other countries might not be so understanding when an Italian kidnapping conviction pops up on their computer screens.

I don't have any insight yet on the Fort Hood shootings, but Glenn Greenwald wrote a very interesting post on the media's early coverage, most of which turned out to be false. (Among other mistakes, they reported multiple shooters.) He sympathizes with the impossibility of reliably separating truth from rumor in the early moments of a big story, and says that he routinely ignores all the details he hears during the first day of such a story's coverage.
The problem, though, is that huge numbers of people aren't ignoring it. They're paying close attention -- and they're paying the closest attention, and forming their long-term views, in the initial stages of the reporting. Many people will lose their interest once the drama dissolves -- i.e., once the actual facts emerge. Put another way, a large segment of conventional wisdom solidifies based on misleading and patently false claims coming from major media outlets.

Athenae at First Draft has the solution, if any media outlet wants to implement it:

The first day, the first hours: Cut out all the analysis, all the nonsense, and just tell us what you see. What you can prove. What you know is real. That's what we need. That's the best thing that can be done in this scenario. That's the only useful thing. That's what people need the most. That's the job.

The networks' impulse to get-it-fast rather than get-it-right is what the Yes Men exploited in their fake chamber-of-commerce news conference.

The economy is starting to lose jobs at a slower rate. But this late in a typical recession it wouldn't still be losing jobs at all.
Paul Krugman discusses the anti-health-care rally that Michelle Bachman led outside the Capitol Thursday, and the overall seizure of the Republican Party by paranoid elements of the Right. For years Republican leaders have given such people only "empty symbolism" like votes in Congress on doomed prayer-in-school or anti-abortion Constitutional amendments.
Once elections were won, the issues that fired up the base almost always took a back seat to the economic concerns of the elite. Thus in 2004 George W. Bush ran on antiterrorism and “values,” only to announce, as soon as the election was behind him, that his first priority was changing Social Security. But something snapped last year.

Krugman worries that the country might soon face a larger version of what is happening in California:

In California, the G.O.P. has essentially shrunk down to a rump party with no interest in actually governing — but that rump remains big enough to prevent anyone else from dealing with the state’s fiscal crisis. If this happens to America as a whole, as it all too easily could, the country could become effectively ungovernable in the midst of an ongoing economic disaster.

Speaking of California, Governor Schwarzenegger's veto of Assembly Bill 1176 contained some interesting subtext. If you read down the first column of the seven lines that make up the body of his message to the legislature, it says "fuck you". The Governator characterizes this as "a total coincidence".

When an Obama official called Fox News "the research arm or communications arm of the Republican Party", maybe she had it backwards. The tail wags the dog now.
Another interesting Krugman point: Obama has no political motivation to reduce the deficit, because if he did no one would notice. Krugman quotes a study from the Clinton era:
Yep: after one of the biggest moves toward budget balance in history, a majority of Republicans, and a plurality of all voters, believed that deficits had increased.

Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams gives men this sage advice:
thinking that you can learn to make to love to a woman from watching porn is like thinking you can learn to drive from watching "The Fast and the Furious."

AP's science writer Seth Borenstein debunks the "global cooling" myth.

Before Fox-News-owner Rupert Murdoch bought it, the Wall Street Journal was a schizophrenic newspaper: Its editorial pages were wild-eyed wingnut crazy, while its news pages were generally factual and about as objective as newspapers get. That may be changing, and not in a good way. In this article, the WSJ starts using the term death tax on its news pages.

Death tax is an iconic example of focus-group-tested spin. In the 1990s, Republicans started denouncing "the death tax" because the correct term, federal estate tax, sounded too reasonable. Estates are something rich people own, so the federal estate tax sounds like a tax on the rich -- which it is. (In 2009 an estate has to be over $3.5 million before any federal estate tax is owed.) But since everybody dies eventually, a "death tax" sounds universal. As a result, lots of poor and middle class people think they will pay a "death tax" when they really won't.

The success of the death-tax label has led to even more aggressive spin, like the Republicans' attempt to label the Democratic Party as the "Democrat Party" -- which just sounds worse for some reason. Maybe we'll soon be seeing that in the WSJ news columns too.

Glenn Greenwald points out that the Washington Post is filling the WSJ's old role: Its news reporting is still generally good, but it's editorial page has become "a leading outlet for right-wing advocacy".

SNL lays it on Goldman Sachs for getting H1N1 vaccine sooner than many schools and hospitals.

A few weeks ago I told you about a survey of Oklahoma high school students that Strategic Vision claimed to have done, and why Nate Silver thought they made their numbers up. Well, an Oklahoma state representative had all the seniors in all the public schools in his district answer the same questions, and guess what? Their answers were much better than what Strategic Vision reported.

For example, in the SV survey, only 23% of students could name George Washington as our first president. But 98% of the actual students could. Nate is standing by his charge that SV made their results up.
Wind power became more real to me last week, when I took my familiar drive from Chicago to my hometown in Quincy, IL and passed a new wind farm off Highway 136. Later in the trip I also passed this wind farm in Mendota. People complain about the big windmills' looks, but I kind of like them. Their slow, easy motion suits the rural landscape.

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