Friday, February 22, 2013

New kid on the block

Remember the name Ezra Klein.    He's not exactly new, but I'm just learning how important this brilliant 28 year old liberal journalist is.   He is a writer for the Washington Post and a frequent commenter and fill-in host for MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.  He seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of all policy issues, as well as the hutzpah to call the bluff of exalted pundits who get it wrong. 

Today, he took on David Brooks and managed a total take-down for misstating Obama's position on the sequestration deal.   In his New York Times column, Brooks said that Obama didn't have a plan, when in fact he does -- or, Brooks then said, if he does have a plan, it's nothing but tax the rich, which is not true.  It includes some entitlement reforms and cuts in spending.

Ezra Klein called Brooks to discuss it.   Brooks admitted that his column was "a bit over the top," that the president does have a plan but that the Congressional Budget Office has not scored it.   Klein pointed out that the CBO doesn't score negotiating proposals, which is the stage they're at.

Then Klein challenged him for the position that, if the president puts forth a plan that the Republican's won't pass, that doesn't count as a plan.  Even a moderate Republican like Brooks wants to blame Republican intransigence on Obama.   Brooks then said Obama should propose a centrist plan, such as Robert Rubin would advance.  (Rubin was Clinton's Treasury Secretary.)

Here's Ezra Klein's response: 
But I’ve read Robert Rubin’s tax plan.  He wants $1.8 trillion in new revenues. The White House, these days, is down to $1.2 trillion [meaning that the White House plan is more centrist than Rubin's, a complete undercutting of Brooks' argument.] 
You've got to get up early to keep up with this well-informed young man.   You'll be hearing more about him here on ShrinkRap.    To get the better of such an exalted pundit as David Brooks by correcting his facts is quite a feat.

Both Ezra Klein and Rachel Maddow are exactly what has been missing in journalism lately.   I predict a bright future for this young man.  Two years ago, GQ Magazine named him one of the 50 most powerful people in Washington -- at age 26?   That's impressive.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Support for marriage equality

Yesterday's New York Times printed a full page ad from a group called the Respect for Marriage Coalition that celebrated the support of four very prominent people, with their pictures:

1.  President Barack Obama
2.  Former  First Lady Laura Bush
3.  Former Vice President Dick Cheney
4.  Former Army General and Secretary of State Colin Powell

Note that three of them are celebrated Republican figures, the other a sitting president.

That is extraordinary and wide-ranging support for marriage equality.   I have no doubt that it will have some influence on the Supreme Court Justices when they deliberate on the Proposition 8 case next month.

I don't mean they would kowtow to any authority;  but it is generally accepted that they consider societal opinions and customs in deciding whether to make an expansive decision that would affect all states, or a narrow one that would affect only California.

The fact is that nine states, plus the District of Columbia, now legalize same-sex marriage;  and the last three states to adopt it did so by voter referendum, while one state voted it down.    Public opinion polls now show that a majority support marriage equality -- a rather rapid change.  The military adapted to openly gay service men and women with minimal effect.

The court doesn't like to get too far ahead of the waves of change, but they don't want to be too far behind either.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

First Jan Brewer, now Rick Scott

Two of the most recalcitrant Republican governors (re ObamaCare), Jan Brewer of Arizona and Rick Scott of Florida, have both come around and said their state will expand its Medicaid program to take advantage of the ObamaCare provision.

With those two "defecting" from the hardline anti-Obama cadre, will others be far behind?   Perhaps even our own Gov. Nathan Deal might change his mind?

It really is a good deal for states:   the federal government pays 100% of the cost for new Medicaid enrollees for three years.   What's to lose -- except a chance to bash President Obama and his increasingly attractive Affordable Care Act.


Bless their hearts, they can't help it

Well, I still have my doubts that brain science can explain the current extreme Republican behavior, but another neuroscience study has come up with more supporting evidence for a correlation between brain activity and political party affiliation.

The latest has to do with how people's brains reflect their handling of risk.   The researchers observed functional MRI's of brains of people tasked with making decisions that involve risk.  There was no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in the study as to how much risk they would take, but there were differences in how their brains processed the decision.

Republicans' brains showed more activity in a brain area linked with reward, fear and risky decisions, while Democrats' brains showed more activity in a brain area related to processing emotion and internal body cues.

What does this mean?   It's still in the murky area of small sample size, playing with statistics, and research design.   But several studies now point in the same direction.  The researchers were able to predict a person's political party by looking at their brain function 82.9 percent of the time.

Actually, I think it's more accurate to say that the brain activity is associated with particular values and ideology, and that those are what determine the political party.   That doesn't change anything -- just makes it more understandable.  The correlation is the same.

Oh, Brave New World.   Perhaps one day we'll have to confront the ethics of drug companies marketing pills to make people more compassionate or, worse, more selfish.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A clash of rights

Some of our thorniest legal and judicial challenges result from a clash of two basic rights, like the right to bear arms vs the right to be safe from murder.

Now a Missouri legislator has upped the ante, turning gun control into a clash of the right to bear arms with the right to free speech.

Rep. Mike Leara has introduced a bill in the Missouri legislature to make it a felony to introduce legislation "to further reduce an individual's right to bear arms."

This NRA fever-induced paranoia is reaching a dangerous level.   I hope the Secret Service is being extra cautious in protecting our president.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Fallacious myths

There are so many myths about economic policy that are just plain wrong.   But the "ignorance caucus" (Krugman), the "stupid party" (Jindal), and the "faith-based world" (Bush staff aide), otherwise known as the Republican Party, cling to their myths -- and sell them to the pundits and the people.

Now they're attacking President Obama's call for an increase of the minimum wage from the current $7.25 (last raised in 2009) to $9/hour.  They're trying to discredit it with their myth that "raising the minimum wage kills jobs."

There is some controversy.  A report from the London School of Economics found some correlation.    But Paul Krugman says there is no evidence that, at our current levels, it would make employers not hire people.   They just pass on the higher cost to customers, I presume.

The question is:  is it warranted?   The Center for Economic and Policy Research says that, if the minimum wage had kept pace with increased worker productivity, it would be $21.72.  That is three times what it actually is.

What does this mean?   If I understand correctly, it means that workers have not benefited from the increased productivity.  It's been the corporations, the executives and shareholders who have gotten the benefits, not the workers.

Just another way in which the economic gap between rich and poor has been increasing.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Krugman, again.

Paul Krugman wrote a column (NYTimes 2-11-13) about the Republican's "ignorance caucus" -- their anti-science, anti-truth stance, while at the same time trying to present a changed party that is embracing new ideas.

One thing Krugman pointed out is that they seem to dislike anything that has to do with "applying critical thinking and evidence to policy questions."   In fact, "the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach 'critical thinking skills,' because, it said, such efforts 'have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”'

Another:  the House Republicans are calling for a complete end to federal funding for social science research because, as Krugman scornfully put it, "it’s surely a waste of money seeking to understand the society we’re trying to change."

They do embrace medical research per se, but they are adamantly opposed to any programs that seek to compare different treatments for effectiveness.  They say this will lead to Medicare and Medicaid limiting what treatments they will pay for.   Duh !!!   That's a bad thing, to want to put your money where it will be most effective?   Some drug companies fear they will lose their cash cows that they're marketed with deceptive advertising as "new and improved," when it fact it is not better than older treatments -- it just has bigger profits for the drug companies.

Climate science is another focus of the ignorance caucus.  In Virginia, according to Krugman, Republicans "have engaged in furious witch hunts against scientists who find evidence they don’t like."

House Republicans tried to suppress a Congressional Research Service report that cast doubts on the supposed growth effects of tax cuts for the wealthy.

Backed by money from the NRA, they bullied federal agencies into canceling almost all the research that had to do with studying gun violence in the U.S.

Krugman concludes:
The truth is that America’s partisan divide runs much deeper than even pessimists are usually willing to admit; the parties aren’t just divided on values and policy views, they’re divided over epistemology. One side believes, at least in principle, in letting its policy views be shaped by facts; the other believes in suppressing the facts if they contradict its fixed beliefs

Remember the shocking admission by the Bush staffer who characterized their world as "faith-based" as opposed to their opponenets "reality-based" world.