Sunday, February 1, 2015

Ezra's Blag

Some thoughts, some links, some stuff.

Andrew Sullivan is leaving blogging.

Crap.

Sullivan — alongside Josh Marshall — basically invented the political blogosphere. So his (temporary?) retirement is giving rise to many a "Blogging Is Dead" column. But blogging isn't dead. I know, because I read a lot of blogs these days, and they're fantastic.

There's Daring FireballSlate Star CodexTa-Nehisi CoatesFreddie DeBoerNoahpinionMarginal RevolutionElizabeth Stoker BreunigPaul KrugmanDigby's HullabalooJared BernsteinBrad DeLongThe Incidental Economist, and Kevin Drum, to name a few. There are plenty of great voices out there.

The blogosphere lives. But Sullivan's decision to hang up his keyboard is nevertheless a marker. Sullivan was the closest we had to someone trying to run a blog with real scale. He was trying to make his blog — and its sizable audience — into a business. But blogging, for better or worse, is proving resistant to scale. And I think there are two reasons why.

The first is that, at this moment in the media, scale means social traffic. Links from other bloggers — the original currency of the blogosphere, and the one that drove its collaborative, conversational nature — just don't deliver the numbers that Facebook does. But blogging is a conversation, and conversations don't go viral. People share things their friends will understand, not things that you need to have read six other posts to understand.

Blogging encourages interjections into conversations, and it thrives off of familiarity. Social media encourages content that can travel all on its own. Alyssa Rosenberg put it well at the Washington Post. "I no longer write with the expectation that you all are going to read every post and pick up on every twist and turn in my thinking. Instead, each piece feels like it has to stand alone, with a thesis, supporting paragraphs and a clear conclusion."

The other reason is that the bigger the site gets, and the bigger the business gets, the harder it is to retain the original voice.

Dave Winer, a blogging pioneer, once defined a blog as "the unedited voice of a person." I think there's a lot of truth to that. But the more readers you have, the more need there is for editing. If I said something dumb in my Blogspot days — which I did, constantly — it hurt me. If I say something dumb today — which I do, but hopefully less constantly — it hurts my writers, and my editors, and my company. My voice needs editing. The cost of being unedited is too high.

Lately, the media is filling with nostalgia for old-school blogging — and promises to revive it. In August, Vox Media's editorial director, Lockhart Steele, dusted off his personal blog for a quick manifesto. It feels only right to blockquote it:

I am bringing back this blog. My goal is to write one item a day, every weekday, more or less, starting today. Some of the posts will be about Vox Media, in the spirit of increasing the transparency into the editorial side of the company in my role as Editorial Director. But this is not primarily a promotional undertaking, because that would suck. I’ll also blog about restaurants, travel, the South Street Seaport, the great city of Charleston, the great state of Maine, ephemera, nonsense, whatever. My hope is to relearn the practice of daily blogging, which used to be the most effortless thing in the world for me but now feels terrifying.

Gawker Media has promised that 2015 will be the year they bring back blogging, too. "As a company, we are getting back to blogging," Nick Denton swore. "It's the only truly new media in the age of the web. It is ours."

As an editor, I miss blogging, too. Early in Vox's life, we made a halfhearted effort at launching some. There was my Blag. Matt's Live Journal. Dylan's Xanga. As the names suggest, the experiment was drenched in nostalgia. But they weren't really blogs and, for a variety of reasons, they didn't really succeed. And I don't really think the other efforts to bring blogs back to large organizations will succeed either. I don't think blogs — at least in the 2005-era sense of the word, the conversational blogs Sullivan was the protector of — work in these large organizations.

And I think this is a problem, or at least a manifestation of a problem. The incentives of the social web make it a threat to the conversational web. The need to create content that "travels" is at war with the fact that great work often needs to be rooted in a particular place and context — a place and context that the reader and the author already share.

I think we're getting better at serving a huge audience even as we're getting worse at serving a loyal one. At Vox, we have some cool ideas that we're going to roll out in the coming months to try to chip away at this problem, but I don't think we're anywhere near a solution.

And for all of us who still love blogs, Sullivan's absence will hurt. I hope this is just his Black Album. I hope he's back soon.

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Explaining why Americans pay so much more for health care than anyone else is really quite easy: Americans are charged higher prices for health care than anyone else.

Here are 15 charts proving the point, but in case you don't want to flip through those graphs (side note: what's wrong with you?), some examples from average pricing data reported by insurers in different countries:

1) A knee replacement costs $25,398 in America and $12,589 in the Netherlands.

2) A standard delivery costs $10,002 in America and $2,251 in Spain.

3) An MRI costs $1,145 in America and $138 in Switzerland.

MRI costs

But those are average prices, and so they hide another quirk of the American health system: the prices different Americans pay vary wildly depending on where they are, who they are, whether they're insured, who they're insured by, and which hospital the ambulance took them to. Cruelly, the uninsured are often charged the highest prices, because if you're too poor to afford insurance, you're also too poor to fight back against price gouging.

None of this makes even a little bit of sense. But Medicare could help fix it.

The 125 percent solution

In Health Affairs, Jonathan Skinner, Elliot Fisher and James Weinstein note data from Castlight Health showing that the price tag on one particular cholesterol test can range from $15 to $343 — and that's just within the city of Dallas, Texas.

And before anyone yells "Free Market!", these prices are rarely, if ever, published, and often they're not even the actual price people pay. If markets are going to work well, both buyers and sellers need a lot of information about how much things cost and how good they are. In health care, buyers are denied basically all of that information, and they're occasionally unconscious when the transaction is being handled. This is not what a functioning market looks like.

But there are exceptions to America's used-car dealership of a health-care system. One of them is Medicare. The way Medicare works — which is the way the health systems in pretty much every other country work — is that it tells hospitals and doctors what it's willing to pay for various services and then they decide whether to accept Medicare or reject it. It's a take-it-or-leave-it offer. Almost all of them take it. More than 90 percent of doctors accepted new Medicare patients in 2012 — a higher number, even, than accepted new patients on private insurance. The result is that Medicare beneficiaries pay much lower, and much more predictable, prices than people with private insurance.

"In the long run," write Skinner, Fisher, and Weinstein, "we need to establish a more transparent system where consumers can choose easily based on reliable quality and price measures." But in the short term, they suggest a simpler solution: why not cap all prices at 125 percent what Medicare pays?

The federal Medicare program has in place a complete system of prices for every procedure and treatment. It's not perfect, but it is uniform across regions, with a cost-of-living adjustment that pays more in expensive cities and less in rural areas. If every patient and every insurance company always had the option of paying 125 percent of the Medicare price for any service, we would effectively cap the worst of the price spikes. No longer would the tourist checked out at the ER for heat stroke be clobbered with a sky-high bill. Nor would the uninsured single mother be charged 10 times the best price for her child's asthma care. This is not just another government regulation, but instead a protection plan that shields consumers from excessive market power.

A public option, but privately run

One way to think about what this proposal would and would not do is to think about the public-option debate. The argument over the public option was slippery and frustrating because there were really two different public options — a strong and a weak one — and both supporters and detractors switched which one they were talking about constantly.

The strong public option would have paid Medicare rates for services and, in doing, save more than $100 billion over 10 years. This is the public option that supporters were talking about when they said the public option would save huge amounts of money and possibly provide a bridge to single payer. It was also the public option that detractors were talking about when they said the public option was a backdoor plan to implement single payer and it would put many private insurers out of businesses. This public option never came anywhere close to becoming law.

The other public option was just a normal insurer that was run by the government. It would pay prices similar to what the other insurers paid, and it wasn't projected to save much money, sign up many people, or pose much of a threat to traditional insurers. This public option almost did become law.

The key point here is that the game changer isn't whether the insurer is public but whether it pays the same low prices as Medicare. Skinner, Fisher, and Weinstein are taking that insight to its logical conclusion: why not just give those prices to private insurers, too?

Well, one answer is that the entire health-care system is organized around being able to charge these high prices. If everyone switched to paying Medicare rates overnight, you would see a wave of hospitals closing and device manufacturers going bankrupt. The system can't take that much change, that fast.

So Skinner, Fisher, and Weinstein want to cap payments at 125 percent of what Medicare pays. This doesn't necessarily bring prices down so much as it brings the variation in prices down. This is a plan to help the people who end up getting truly gouged — it will mean an end, for instance, to uninsured patients being charged 300 percent of what Medicare pays for an appendectomy.

The health industry would freak out, of course, because once prices are capped at 125 percent of Medicare's rates, they know it's a small step to bring them down to 123 percent, or 117 percent, or 115 percent. The 125 percent plan would be a step towards All Payer Rate Setting — which is, more or less, a way of merging the savings of single-payer system with a lot of private insurers.

But that's a good thing. Either it'll force the health-care sector to get serious about setting up that hoped-for "more transparent system where consumers can choose easily based on reliable quality and price measures," or it'll show that that system isn't possible, and we should just do what every other industrialized country does and have the government set health-care prices.

(By the way, have you read Sarah Kliff's "Eight facts that explain what's wrong with American health care"? If you haven't, you should.)

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2014 was the year that Barack Obama saved his presidency by completely abandoning the theory of his 2008 campaign. It was the year that he accepted that the only way to bring the policy changes he had promised was to abandon the political ideals that first got him elected.

In a Rolling Stone article from August, Reid Cherlin, a former White House press staffer, nailed the irony of the Obama administration's record:

[T]hey have managed over six years to accomplish much of what Obama promised to do, even if accomplishing it helped speed the process of partisan breakdown.

The 2008 Democratic primary was, as Mark Schmitt wrote, a "theory of change" primary. The different candidates didn't disagree all that much about what to do. They disagreed about how to get it done.

Hillary Clinton's argument was that she best understood the conflictual nature of American politics: she had fought these battles before and so she was best positioned to win them in the future. Change would come through mastery of the old politics.

Obama's argument was just the opposite: the conflictual nature of politics, he said, was the product of the people who knew no politics other than conflict. He would win the battle by ending it. Change would come through creating a new politics. Recall the famous "Yes, We Can" speech on the night Obama lost the New Hampshire Democratic primary:

Democrats, independents and Republicans who are tired of the division and distraction that has clouded Washington, who know that we can disagree without being disagreeable, who understand that, if we mobilize our voices to challenge the money and influence that stood in our way and challenge ourselves to reach for something better, there is no problem we cannot solve, there is no destiny that we cannot fulfill.

Our new American majority can end the outrage of unaffordable, unavailable health care in our time. We can bring doctors and patients, workers and businesses, Democrats and Republicans together, and we can tell the drug and insurance industry that, while they get a seat at the table, they don't get to buy every chair, not this time, not now.

It's all right there: Obama would do what so many past presidents had failed to do — pass health reform — and he would do it by ending the partisan divisions and moneyed interests that had broken American politics.

He was half-right.

Obama pushed more change through the political system than any serious observer expected: he passed health-care reform, as well as the largest stimulus and investment package in American history, and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms (which are working better than most realize). He brought the Iraq war to a close, and he actually did find and kill Osama bin Laden. There's much left on his to-do list, but even in places where he's failed to pass his legislative remedies into law — like immigration reform and climate change — he's used or is using executive actions to make huge strides.

But he didn't do all this by fixing American politics. He did all this by breaking American politics even further. Obama hasn't healed the divisions between Democrats and Republicans. Rather, he's one of the most polarizing presidents since the advent of polling:

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There isn't much Obama could have done about this. Party polarization is bigger than any one president. When the Senate Minority Leader says publicly, as Mitch McConnell did, that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," then it's a safe bet that legislative cooperation isn't forthcoming.

One of the more important pivots in the Obama presidency was the administration's recognition of that fact — and its eventual abandonment of the idea that real bipartisanship was possible on divisive issues. The health-reform bill is a good example: it passed in one of the most partisan processes in memory. But it passed. Change came from accepting the reality of modern politics.

But 2014's executive action on immigration saw the White House go a step further. In a move that normally calm Republican commentators decried as "a leap into the antidemocratic dark," Obama ignored the will of congressional Republicans, and, refusing to be cowed by the Democrats' defeat in the 2014 election, used a massive executive action to lift the threat of deportation from millions of unauthorized immigrants.

This is pretty close to the opposite of the way Obama promised to change politics in 2008 — it's harshly partisan, and it's an expansion of executive power. It's the kind of thing that liberals would have freaked out about if President George W. Bush had done it. But, ultimately, the Obama administration decided that if they could only pick one, they preferred delivering on their policy promises to hewing to the spirit of their political ideals.

The same has been true when it comes to the power of special interests in Washington. The health-reform bill got done by cutting side deals with pharmaceutical companies and insurers. Dodd-Frank isn't beloved by banks, but it could have gone a lot further. The Obama administration has put virtually no political capital behind major campaign-finance reforms or other ideas that would fundamentally change how Washington works.

Obama has brought a lot of change to America. But he's done it by accepting — and, in many cases, accelerating — the breakdown of American politics.

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After some brutal end-game polling for Democrats, Republicans look extremely likely to win the Senate tonight. The question is: what happens next?

Republicans already control the House. And Democrats are going to hold the White House. Over the summer, I asked Senate staffers on both sides of the aisle whether Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would actually change anything in Washington, at least between 2014 and 2016, or whether it would just mean continued gridlock. Here's what they told me. (Staffers were granted anonymity so they could speak freely.)

1) Nominations change. There's one big thing that changes the moment Republicans win Senate: nominations. "We would have substantially lessened productivity on nominations, which on the judicial front has actually been one of the unsung success stories of this Congress," says a senior Democratic aide. Since Reid's filibuster reforms, Democrats have been able to confirm executive-branch appointees and non-Supreme Court judges with 51 votes, and so they've gotten a lot of nominees through. That would end. And if there's a Supreme Court vacancy Republicans would have the power to block any nominees Obama offers.

2) Lawmaking wouldn't. Neither side expects legislative productivity to budge much. A Republican takeover wouldn't end legislative gridlock so much as it would move the chokepoint. "The focus for dysfunction would shift from the Senate blocking bad Republican ideas to the President's veto blocking bad ideas, but bad ideas would nonetheless be blocked," says the Democratic aide. If Republicans take the Senate, some ideas will still fall to Democratic filibusters, but more will make it to Obama's desk. He'll have to actually veto things bills like the Ryan budget rather than simply letting them die through Senate inaction.

3) The White House can't hide behind Reid. To Republicans, forcing Obama to rely on the veto rather than Reid is a big deal. There's a "political effect of Obama being forced to show what he's for and what he's against," says one senior Republican Senate aide. "It will be interesting to see how he responds to a Republican effort to roll back regulations or to repeal the parts of Obamacare that members of both parties oppose. Would he agree to some of these things?"

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It would be bigger if they actually built it. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

4) The Keystone XL pipeline might pass. There's one policy that Democrats think might actually pass into law if Reid no longer has the power to control the floor: the Keystone XL pipeline. Enough Democrats support it that if Republicans bring it to the floor in a reasonable way they'll win the vote — and it's not clear Obama will fight with a veto. "People are fed up on Keystone," says an aide to a moderate Democratic senator. "I don't know how Keystone isn't just approved if Republicans take over."

5) Democrats may not be a minority for long. Democrats don't want to lose the Senate. But they're not as worried about it as you might imagine. The reason, mainly, is that they think they'll win it right back. The 2014 map heavily favors Republicans: 21 Democratic seats are up, but only 15 Republican ones. But the 2016 map is even more favorable to the Democrats: as of now, they'll be defending 10 seats to the GOP's 24, and doing it amid the more favorable demographics of a presidential election.

6) Republicans will be facing a lot of primary challenges. Some Republican incumbents won't run for reelection, but most will — and that means much of McConnell's caucus will be worrying about a primary challenge. And if there's one thing Senate Republicans learned from Bob Bennett, Dick Lugar, and Mike Castle, it's that you don't want a reputation for working with Democrats if you're facing a primary anytime soon. "It's a very low bar to be more productive than this Senate," says one Democratic staffer. "But it will be stunning how much lower we can go. I think there's a depth people didn't know we could sink to."

7) Will McConnell run a more open Senate? Senate Republican's biggest complaint with Reid's management of the Senate is he doesn't run an open amendment process. Democrats think this basically ridiculous: the Senate, they say, has never routinely run truly open amendment processes, as they're too unwieldy. But Democrats wonder whether McConnell will try it if he takes over. Republican staffers believe he will — and that it could change the Senate much for the better. "Re-establishing the committee process and re-opening the floor to amendments on both sides would, I think, go a long way toward alleviating some of the tensions that have built up over here," says the senior Republican aide. "There's a pent-up desire on both sides to legislate."

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What kind of Senate would Mitch McConnell run? (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

8) Democrats doubt it. Democratic staffers are more skeptical. "The interesting thing would be whether the Senate Republicans follow through on their professed desire for open amendments (which we would use at least as well as they have to highlight contrasts) or revert to their usual form in past episodes of claiming the majority and act in a vigorously pro-majoritarian way, likely using budget reconciliation to force confrontation over gutting Obamacare," says the senior Democratic aide. "My money's on the latter."

9) Could the Senate finally revolt? Something both sides bring up often is that rank-and-file senators hate the way the modern Senate works. They believe they were sent to Washington to solve the nation's problems. They're embarrassed by how little gets done. They know that their names aren't going to be etched into the history books — at least not positively — unless something changes. And so there is the dream now, as there was in 2012, that after the election, the dam will somehow break, and the Senate will become the Senate again. I'm skeptical of this hope: senators may loathe the condition of the modern Senate, but they're the ones responsible, and they've charted this course as a rational response to their political incentives and policy commitments. Still, it's worth mentioning.

10) Of course, polarization might just get worse. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz put it flatly in a discussion with the Washington Post's Greg Sargent: "We'll have a Republican caucus that is more conservative than it is now, and a Democratic caucus that is more liberal than it is now, [because] you're subtracting moderates from the Democratic caucus, and adding very conservative Republicans to the GOP caucus." In other words, the Senate will get more polarized, and more dysfunctional. And, as mentioned above, a huge number of Senate Republicans will be facing primary challenges before the 2016 election.

There's an old joke my grandfather used to tell. A man goes into his doctor and says "Doctor, everything has gone wrong! I'm sick. I lost my job. My wife has left me. I don't know what to do!"

His doctor replies, "Smile. At least things can't get worse."

So the guys smiles. And then things got worse.

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Perhaps the single best thing that's happened to political journalism in the time I've been doing it is the rise of political science.

In 2005, when I came to Washington, knowing political science wasn't a legitimate form of knowing about politics, or at least it wasn't presented as one to young journalists like me. There were a few reporters who kept up with the profession — the late, great David Broder was known for attending the American Political Science Association's annual convention, for instance — but, on the whole, political journalism dealt with political science episodically and condescendingly.

But that's changed. Last week, the American Political Science Association held its annual convention in Washington, D.C. It was an appropriate choice. Washington is listening to political scientists, in large part because it's stopped trusting itself.

Political journalists always had an advantage over political scientists: politicians would talk to them. A PhD was nice, but if you couldn't get the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee on the phone, what did you really know about what was going on in Congress? Political journalists admired the technical skills of economists and the inside knowledge of Hill staffers. But political journalists had better sources of information than political scientists, who were trying to learn about the messy work of people in Washington by screwing around with data sets in their office in Illinois.

But over the last decade, the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee became an unreliable narrator. So did pretty much everyone else working in American politics. If you spent 2008 and 2009 talking to (then) Sen. Max Baucus you would have believed that health reform would be a bipartisan bill. You would have believed that because he believed that. And he believed that because he had been close friends with his Republican counterpart, Sen. Chuck Grassley, for years. They would work this out.

They didn't. I remember interviewing then-Sen. Kent Conrad, the then-chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and a member of Baucus's failed "Gang of Six." I asked him why the Gang hadn't come to a compromise. I'll never forget his response. "I honestly don't know," he replied. And he really didn't.

American politics is changing. Politicians are losing power and political parties are gaining it. A politician's relationships might once have been a good guide to her votes. Today, the "D" or "R" after a politician's name tells you almost everything you need to know.

Part of the rise of political science is the result of the blogosphere. Crooked Timber, the Monkey Cage, the Mischiefs of Faction and other poli-sci blogs have let political scientists speak for themselves. But that's only benefitted political science because what they've said has been worth listening to.

Political scientists traffic in structural explanations for American politics. They can't tell you what an individual senator thinks, or what message the president's campaign will try out next. But they can tell you, in general, how polarized the Senate is by party, and whether independent voters are just partisans in disguise, and how predictable elections generally are. They can tell you when American politics is breaking its old patterns (like with the stunning rise of the filibuster) or when people are counting on patterns that never existed in the first place (like Washington's continued faith in the power of presidential speeches).

As politicians lose power and parties gain power, these structural explanations for American politics have become more important. That's what I've found, certainly. Talking to members of Congress and campaign operatives is useful, but not terribly reliable. Politicians are endlessly optimistic — in their line of work, they almost have to be — and they want to believe that they and their colleagues can rise above party and ignore special interests. But they usually can't. They begin every legislative project hoping that that this time will be different. But it usually isn't. An understanding of the individual dynamics in Congress or in the White House can be actively misleading if it's not tempered by a sense of the structural forces that drive outcomes in American politics.

And so the more that political journalists heard from political scientists, the more they began to listen. Today the Monkey Cage sits at the Washington Post. Political scientists like Brendan Nyhan and Lynn Vavreck write for the Upshot at the New York Times. There are a half-dozen forecasting models trying to predict the 2014 election — all of which owe a lot to work done by political scientists, and a few of which are actually built and maintained by political scientists. Young political journalists I talk to know a lot more about political science and how to use it to inform their reporting than they did when I came to town. And readers are better for it.

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Ex-union strategist Richard Yeselson makes a crucial point in his discussion of organized labor with the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn:

What's ironic about that is that unions are inherently conservative institutions, which historically developed parallel with the development of capitalism itself. They are as much a part of capitalism as Henry Ford or Apple. Unions use contracts — and there's nothing more intrinsic to capitalism than the right of contract — to link their members to the fortunes of the companies they contract with.

This is a point often lost in the debate about unions: they're an international phenomenon that has flourished almost everywhere that capitalism has flourished. And that's because they've played a critical role in making capitalism work for the people who make capitalism work.

Capitalism can generate more wealth and faster advances in living standards than any other economic system yet discovered. But it doesn't share that wealth and those advances naturally. Bargaining power is a crucial mediator in capitalism, and workers often end up with too little of it — and if that imbalance persists, then the entire system is imperiled, as capitalist systems can't survive without the support of the working class. Unions are one way to correct that imbalance. They've often saved capitalism from itself, and done so over the objections of the capitalists.

That's partly why you'll find unions pretty much everywhere you'll find capitalism. But right now, in the United States, unions are badly weakened:

Unions US vs OECD

(Data: OECD)

And, not at all coincidentally, the gains of capitalism are increasingly narrowly shared:

Unions inequality

(Economic Policy Institute)

That chart doesn't prove the rise in inequality is all about the decline in union density; no major scholars of inequality think that. But the rise in inequality is partly about the decline in union density — and the decline in union density is partly the result of the some of the other factors (globalization, technological change) behind the rise in inequality.

For more, read Yeselson's full interview at the New Republic. One point he makes that's worth considering: while unions have fallen further and faster in America than in other countries, the decline of union density is also an international issue (as, of course, is rising inequality). And for data viz geeks, Danielle Kurtzleben's seven charts showing the state of organized labor are worth checking out.

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Labor Day is a day of rest that commemorates years of war. Congress inaugurated the holiday just days after President Grover Cleveland sent 12,000 federal troops to break the Pullman strike. The tactics were bloody; U.S. deputy marshals killed two men, and wounded many more.

That was 1894, an election year. Cleveland needed a way to win workers back to his side. He saw an opportunity in a federal holiday honoring workers — as well as organized labor.

"The movement for a national Labor Day had been growing for some time," writes PBS Newshour. "In September 1892, union workers in New York City took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday. But now, protests against President Cleveland's harsh methods made the appeasement of the nation's workers a top political priority. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland's desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike."

Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, said Labor Day would be "the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed."

He did not say it would be a good day for barbecues.

A simple place to start the discussion of rights and wrongs is with Labor Day itself. Labor Day is a federal holiday, which means that federal employees get the day off, and some federally chartered businesses have to give their employees the day off. But there's no guarantee that workers in private businesses will get the day off with pay — Time reports that data collected by Bloomberg BNA shows roughly 40 percent of employers require some employees to come into work on Labor Day.

It's not just Labor Day. The United States is the only developed country in the world that doesn't guarantee workers in private businesses any paid days off at all, as this chart from the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows:

vacation holidays

CEPR

This isn't to say that paid vacation days are unknown to American workers. Many, even most, workers get a few each year. Workers with in-demand skills won't accept a job where they can't take a day off now and again. But workers with less bargaining power often have to accept jobs where they don't get paid days off. The result is that the people with the worst jobs are least able to take the occasional vacation.

America is the richest country the world has ever known. We can afford to guarantee workers a few days of paid rest a year.

Further reading: Danielle Kurtzleben rounds up seven charts showing the state of the American labor movement and Chad Broughton reflects on Labor Day's radical origins.

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- Elizabeth Drew's Washington Journal is as good as everyone says. It's a reported diary Drew kept through the Watergate period, and it summons the confusion and terror of the time in a way that no neat history can match. At one point, Carl Albert, then the Speaker of the House, is asked for his reaction to a new batch of revelations. "I have passed the point of reacting," he replies.

In the introduction, Drew says that legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn told her, "write it so that forty years from now people can say, ‘So that's what it was like.'" She did.

- Members of Congress are saying the word "Obamacare" less often. At least judging by their press releases. At the Upshot, Derek Willis mined congressional press releases for the word "Obamacare." In June, July and August of 2013, "Obamacare" was mentioned 530 times. This summer, it only showed up 138 times. And this summer, unlike last summer, is an election year. It's suggestive evidence that members of Congress think Obama is losing its potency as a political issue.

- The New Middle East Cold War. "The leading countries of the Middle East and North Africa are engaged in an intense, multipolar, and multidimensional struggle for influence and power," write Brian Katulis and Peter Juul. "This competition goes beyond Shia-Sunni sectarian divisions and involves traditional tools of power projection — such as military aid and economic assistance — as well as new forms of power projection, including direct investments in media outlets, non-state actors, and political movements. The region's wealthier, more politically stable states compete with each other by proxy — and in some cases, directly — on the ground in poorer and politically polarized states."

- There's a good reason the airline canceled your flight. And it wasn't to save money. Amy Cohn, a professor of industrial and operations engineering, lays out the hard math behind flight cancellations. "Strategically canceling a small number of flights and inconveniencing a small number of passengers can prevent delays and other hassles for a far larger number of passengers," she writes. But canceled flights are a lot more annoying today than they used to be because airlines leave fewer empty seats, and so they're not able to easily rebook the passengers they strand.

- About three-quarters of the images in today's Ikea calendars are actually CGI. This anecdote is amazing: "The real turning point for us was when, in 2009, they called us and said, 'You have to stop using CG. I've got 200 product images and they're just terrible. You guys need to practise more.' So we looked at all the images they said weren't good enough and the two or three they said were great, and the ones they didn't like were photography and the good ones were all CG!"

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On Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul published an interesting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal criticizing the "interventionists" in both the Democratic and Republican parties who seem blind to the role past American interventions have played in the Middle East's current crises.

The piece includes some boilerplate criticisms of the Obama administration ("feckless," "veering," etc), as well as a broadside against Republican Party hawks who warned of catastrophe if the US failed to strike Syria. "What they were advocating for then — striking down Assad's regime — would have made our current situation even worse, as it would have eliminated the only regional counterweight to the ISIS threat," Paul writes.

It also includes a sharp hit on Hillary Clinton. "We are lucky Mrs. Clinton didn't get her way and the Obama administration did not bring about regime change in Syria," Paul writes. "That new regime might well be ISIS."

The article never comes close to saying what Paul wants to see done in the Middle East. But Paul's skepticism of the consequences of intervention and his focus puts him closer to Obama's outlook than to more hawkish members of both the Democratic and Republican parties. When Paul says that "only after recognizing the practical limits of our foreign policy can we pursue policies that are in the best interest of the U.S.," you can imagine the president pumping a fist.

Which makes the Democratic National Committee's response all the more telling. DNC Press Secretary Michael Czin fired back at Paul with a statement that reads as if it's been copied-and-pasted from a 2005 Republican National Committee attack on a liberal Democrat. It's worth reading in full:

"It's disappointing that Rand Paul, as a Senator and a potential presidential candidate, blames America for all the problems in the world, while offering reckless ideas that would only alienate us from the global community.

"Unfortunately, this is nothing new for Paul. Last week he criticized American policy to the president of another country on foreign soil. This week he's blaming the Obama Administration for another nation's civil war. That type of "blame America" rhetoric may win Paul accolades at a conference of isolationists but it does nothing to improve our standing in the world. In fact, Paul's proposals would make America less safe and less secure.

"Simply put, if Rand Paul had a foreign policy slogan, it would be - The Rand Paul Doctrine: Blame America. Retreat from the World."

This is the brain-dead patriotism-baiting that Democrats used to loathe. Now they're turning it on Paul.

There are a few things worth noting here. The first is the ferocity with which the DNC responded to an attack that was, in truth, aimed more at Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama,. The second is the degree to which a Rand Paul-Hillary Clinton race would scramble the politics of national security, with Democrats running against Paul in much the way Bush ran against Kerry. And the third is that it's still the case in foreign policy, the real divide isn't left vs. right, but interventionists vs. non-interventionists.

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I'm going to be a bad pundit for a second and confess uncertainty: I don't know what I think of President Obama's rumored executive action to lift the deportation threat against millions of unauthorized immigrants. It could be a perfectly sensible policy or a worryingly undemocratic one. But since there are literally no public details about what it is or even whether it will happen it's hard to make a call. (On a related note, I also don't know what I think of the iPhone 9.)

That said, I want to make a broader point about Ross Douthat's column calling it "lawless, reckless, a leap into the antidemocratic dark."

Douthat may, depending on the details of the policy, be right that Obama intends to push presidential authority beyond where it should properly go. But he skips too lightly over the role congressional dysfunction plays in empowering the executive branch. "Incompetence and gridlock are significant problems, indeed severe ones, but they're happening within the context of a constitutional system that allows for — and can survive — congressional inaction," he says.

That's true, so far as it goes. But one way the system survives congressional action is that power flows to non-congressional branches. When Congress does less the executive branch, the courts, and the Federal Reserve do more. Presidential overreach is partly a response to congressional dysfunction.

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This is not the problem. (BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)

We miss this basic fact of American politics in part because we've chosen a poor metaphor to describe congressional dysfunction: gridlock. As anyone who has tried to drive the Beltway at rush hour knows, gridlock is what happens when nothing moves. You just sit on the highway cursing your fate. But that's not what happens when Congress collapses into inaction. Instead, action takes the city streets.

That's in part because a big chunk of Congress wants it to take the city streets. Just as Congress is too divided to do anything; it's also too divided to stop the other parts of government from doing something. Congress can't pass a law solving the immigration crisis but it also can't pass a law stopping Obama from trying to solve it. It can't pass a law regulating carbon emissions but it also can't pass a law stopping the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon emissions. And that's because big portions of Congress want these actions to be taken; they happen because they enough congressional support to survive.

A point made by skeptics of Obama's executive actions is that inaction is a congressional choice that needs to be respected. But if Congress is making a choice when it doesn't pass a bill to do something, it's also making a choice when it doesn't pass a bill to stop another branch of government from doing something. Inaction cuts both ways as an expression of congressional will.

Which is not to say it's good when power flows away from Congress. The legislative branch is more democratic, more accountable, and more powerful than the other branches of government. The Supreme Court can strike down laws but it typically can't fix them. The Federal Reserve can make money cheap but it can't use that cheap money to build roads. The EPA can regulate carbon emissions but it can't price them. The president can lift the threat of deportations — or even pardon unauthorized immigrants — but he can't create a real legal status. When Congress falls into dysfunction the federal government's actions become more convoluted, more bureaucratic, and less efficient. There's a reason people prefer highways to city streets.

And there are, of course, real dangers to the president repeatedly stretching his powers. Conservative critics go too far when they pretend that Obama's actions are unprecedented. President Jimmy Carter, for instance, unilaterally pardoned hundreds of thousands of draft dodgers — an action more extreme than anything Obama is said to be considering. At the same time, there do need to be limits on the president's ability to win policy fights by selectively enforcing laws. Liberals should consider Yuval Levin's hypothetical:

Let's imagine that a Republican wins the presidency in 2016, and that Republicans have a majority in the House while Democrats have a majority in the Senate. And let's say the president and House Republicans try to lower everyone's personal income-tax rates by 10 percent. The House manages to pass a bill to enact such an across-the-board cut, but Senate Democrats kill it. And let's imagine that the president then proceeds to announce that, given how helpful he believes his preferred course of action would be to the economy, he will just implement the rate cut himself: His administration will not enforce any legal penalties against people in the 35 percent bracket who only pay a 25 percent tax on their incomes, people in the 25 percent bracket who only pay 15 percent, and so on.

That's far-fetched, but it's easy to imagine more modest applications of the same idea.

Congressional dysfunction doesn't justify any particular executive action. But it should worry both liberals and conservatives who fear the steady expansion of the president's powers. Congress is going to be divided for a long time. Even as demographic changes make it easier for Democrats to win presidential elections, geography and redistricting make it nearly certain Republicans will hold the House well into the next decade. The result is that this kind of bitterly polarizedutterly ineffectivewildly unpopular Congress is likely to be the norm.

The less Congress is able to do, the more that other power centers in the government will feel they need to do. The system will survive congressional inaction, but it will survive it in part by leaping into the antidemocratic dark.

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The National Review recently published an odd, but interesting, essay by Charles W. Cooke about "America's nerd problem."

The article begins by accusing a number of writers, broadcasters, politicians and scientists (including myself, Matt Yglesias and Dylan Matthews; as well as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Al Gore) of being faux-nerds: "Theirs is the nerd-dom of Star Wars, not Star Trek; of Mario Kart and not World of Warcraft; of the latest X-Men movie rather than the comics themselves."

Yglesias defends himself against the scurrilous accusation that he's not a a true trekkie here. And anyone who doubts Matthews' nerd credentials has never met him. Still, I'll cop to some of the charges: I prefer Mario Kart to World of Warcraft and have little patience for either Star Trek or Star Wars. My knowledge of old X-Men comics, however, is embarrassingly complete (and let's not get started on X-Force).

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It’s like a magazine, but it’s for nerds.

Nerd-offs aside, Cooke's essay, though putatively about progressivism, is an interesting window into the state of contemporary conservatism. The old conservative critique of nerds — or, to be more precise about it, technocrats and intellectuals — was that their approach to knowledge was fundamentally flawed.

"I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University," William F. Buckley, the founder of The National Review, famously said. (I admit the data here is poor, but I would guess that the Boston telephone directory tilts towards Star Wars while the Harvard faculty favors Star Trek.)

Yuval Levin, one of conservatism's foremost thinkers, has argued that America's two political traditions are rooted in this debate.

He's written a book about the arguments between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, which he frames as a disagreement about what we can know in society, with Burke prizing "social knowledge" and Paine prizing "technical knowledge." Conservatism, he's argued, emerges from the Burkean tradition: it is skeptical of what the nerds can know and reverent of what the common man has learned — that's where you get Buckley's quote, for instance. Liberalism, he says, is just the reverse.

Cooke's essay is convoluted and expresses, at times, both pro- and anti-nerd sentiments. But the framing is clear, and it reflects an emergent trend in conservatism. Its argument isn't the classically conservative argument that the left is full of nerds and their ambitious, arrogant designs should be mistrusted; it's that the left is full of faux-nerds who lack scientific training but nevertheless wear glasses — and their ambitious, arrogant designs should be mistrusted. Or, to put it more simply, the problem isn't nerds so much as liberal poseurs.

"Sorry, America," he concludes. "Science is important. But these are not the nerds you're looking for."

A version of this transition can be seen in the Republican Party's lurch from George W. Bush to Paul Ryan. The left's knock on Bush (and, before him, Reagan) was that he was dumb and inarticulate; the right's riposte was that the left prized the wrong kind of knowledge, and that Republicans were smart enough to know that ordinary Americans were a helluva lot wiser than Ivy League elitists. And the right was comfortable in that response: it was an argument they kept winning at the polls.


But after Bush's disastrous presidency and Obama's political successes, today's Republicans don't want to towel snap the Democratic Party's nerds. They want to out-nerd them. The party's standard-bearer, insofar as there is one, is Paul Ryan. He became the GOP's champion after video of him blasting President Obama with charts and graphs during the Blair House debate over health-care reform went viral. The National Review called it "a devastating critique" that proved "that the Democrats just don't have an answer to Ryan's arguments." (The answer to Ryan's arguments was that they were mostly wrong.) A few weeks later Real Clear Politics wrote that you could easily imagine Ryan at a Star Trek convention.

Ryan then became the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee on the strength of his unusually detailed budgets, which, again, were contrasted with Obama's faux-wonkery: "In an era that seemingly rewards shallow oratorical excellence over substance (see Obama, Barack Hussein), his political brilliance is the capacity to educate on a vision, run on a record of accomplishment, and — yes — stand on his feet and talk persuasively about both," enthused conservative economist Doug Holtz-Eakin at the Daily Caller.

Even the case for Ted Cruz gets made in terms of a nerd-off with Obama.

"Cruz went to Princeton University, where he was a national champion debater, and got a law degree from Harvard. Cruz's legal career was objectively more impressive than Obama's," wrote Jonah Goldberg at the National Review. "He clerked on the appellate court and for Chief Justice William Rehnquist on the Supreme Court. He held numerous prestigious jobs in and out of government. Like Obama, he taught law, but Cruz was also the solicitor general of Texas and argued before the Supreme Court nine times." His World of Warcraft guild could probably crush Obama's.

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The most important fact about campaign contributions is barely anyone makes them. About one-half of one-percent of adult Americans gave more than $200 to a federal candidate in the 2011-2012 cycle. About four percent contributed if you look at donations under $200.

And there's huge inequality in these donations: the big donors matter much, much more than the small donors. The Sunlight Foundation calculates that "more than a quarter of the nearly $6 billion in contributions from identifiable sources in the last campaign cycle came from just 31,385 individuals, a number equal to one ten-thousandth of the U.S. population."

Think about all that when you look at this graph:

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The chart comes from Ray LaRaja and Brian Schnaffer and it shows what most people intuitively know: the small minority of people who fund American politics are much, much more politically polarized than the vast majority of people who don't contribute to campaigns.

Which makes sense. You're a lot likelier to contribute to a political campaign if you think the fate of the nation rests of your guys defeating the other guys. You're a lot less likely to contribute to political campaigns if you don't much care which party wins.

But what happens next makes sense, too: politicians have to appeal to the people who fund their campaigns. The people who fund their campaigns really believe the other party is terrible. And so spending a lot of time working across the aisle or questioning your party's political strategy is not going to make your donors very happy.

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MIT economist Jonathan Gruber's off-the-cuff comments about Obamacare's subsidies are the exception that proves the rule: they're getting so much attention precisely because they're the only example where anyone even appears to believe that Congress, without telling anyone, decided to turn Obamacare into an absolute disaster by withholding subsidies from states that didn't set up their own insurance exchanges.

The result is perverse: in recent days, Gruber's comments are getting more attention than testimony from the Democratic and Republican congressional aides who wrote the bill. They're getting more attention than what the Congressional Budget Office (which Gruber advised) was told by Congress. They're getting more attention than the recollections of the very best reporters who covered Obamacare — notably Sarah Kliff and Julie Rovner. They're getting more attention than the debate in every state that chose to use a federal exchange. They're getting more attention than the way the Obama administration understood (and implemented) the law. They're getting more attention than the way the Supreme Court interpreted the law in 2012.

They're getting more attention, in fact, than everything else Gruber has ever said or written about the law. This is a guy who cared so deeply about Obamacare's success that he literally published a comic book about it. His most important contribution to the Obamacare debate — technical simulations used by HHS that modeled how many people would get insurance under different scenarios — always assumed subsidies reached into every state. No journalist who interviewed Gruber (myself included) ever heard him mention that states that don't set up exchanges don't receive subsidies. He himself says he never believed that and the off-the-cuff comments were "speak-os".

This is like uncovering tape of Michael Bay saying there's nothing he hates seeing more in a movie than an explosion. It requires us to throw out pretty much everything Gruber has done publicly and instead believe that he thought dozens of states would be implementing Obamacare without subsidies — a nightmare of a policy outcome that would have given him a nervous breakdown — but the only times he ever mentioned it were at two Q&A sessions in 2012.

Gruber's comments aren't getting so much attention because anyone actually believes them. They're getting so much attention because some people want other people to believe them.

The real Obamacare debate

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Jon Gruber’s Obamacare comic book weirdly left out that Jon Gruber thought Obamacare dozens of states wouldn’t get subsidies. (Scan by Harold Pollack)

It would be much simpler if the argument about Obamacare could simply be about what it's actually about: some people believe the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a good law. Others believe it's a bad law and they would like to see it repealed.

The problem is that the people who believe it's a bad law haven't won the elections necessary to repeal it. So they've turned, in desperation, to the courts. But the Supreme Court doesn't strike laws down for being bad. It strikes them down for being unconstitutional, or incomprehensible. And that's forced Obamacare's critics to make some very weird and very weak arguments.

The Halbig challenge has led to one of those arguments. There's a version of this challenge that makes some sense. The argument is that Democrats, in their haste to pass the bill, worded a key sentence poorly. Congress's intent is perfectly clear in the law but the Supreme Court's five Republican appointees should rely on a "plain text" reading of the law as an excuse to gut the bill. (As is often the case in legal fights over politically polarized topics, opinions on the legal question are driven by opinions on the political question: I have yet to find anyone who believes the Supreme Court should rule for Halbig who doesn't also believe Obamacare should be repealed.)

But Obamacare's opponents don't feel very good about making that case. It sounds too much like winning by cheating. And what are conservatives who previously condemned "legislating from the bench" to say if the Supreme Court's five Republican appointees overrule Congress's clear intent so they can take health-insurance subsidies away from millions of people?

And so a stronger version of the Halbig claim has emerged: that Congress really did intend to withhold subsidies from states that didn't set up their own exchanges — they just didn't tell anybody or ever debate it, no journalists or health wonks found out about it during the legislative process, and no one involved in the writing of the bill thought to mention it while Obamacare was being implemented. This is less a serious theory about Obamacare than an attempt to pull off a Jedi mind trick.

This stronger version of Halbig was mostly ignored until Gruber's comments: his remarks are the first that even plausibly seem like they back this thesis, despite the fact that they're not reflected in any of Gruber's work and Gruber says he misspoke.

But then the point isn't that anyone actually believes the stronger version of the Halbig claim. Rather, there are a lot of people who believe Obamacare is a bad law, and right now, pretending to believe the more ridiculous version of Halbig seems like the most promising path to wounding it. And so here we are.

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I spent the last week traveling. Part of the trip was to see family. Part of the trip was a conference. In both cases, though, people wanted to talk about the same thing: the 2016 presidential election. Would Hillary run? Did Rand Paul have a chance? Was Chris Christie finished?

I'm not a very fun person to have these conversations with. My answer to pretty much any question related to the 2016 presidential election is the same: I don't know — and neither does anyone else. Here's why:

1. In June 2006  — so at about this point in the 2008 presidential cycle  —  Gallup asked Democrats who they wanted to see their party nominate in 2008. The results, in order: Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, John Edwards, John Kerry, Wesley Clark, Joe Biden, Russ Feingold, Mark Warner, Tom Daschle, and Tom Vilsack.

2. In other words, at this point in the 2008 election, the professional pollsters at Gallup didn't even think to ask voters about the candidate who would ultimately win the nomination — and the presidency. It seemed ridiculous, at that time, to believe Barack Obama would run. Meanwhile, only three of the 10 candidates in the poll ended up running for president.

3. In the same poll, Gallup asked Republicans to handicap their upcoming primary. The results, in order: Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Bill Frist, George Allen, Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, and George Pataki.

4. So of the nine candidates that Gallup thought most likely to run for the Republican nomination, only four of them actually ran.

5. In July 2006, the unemployment rate was 4.7 percent. Most observers would have thought it absurd to suggest that the 2008 election — and the next president's first term — would be dominated by a global financial crisis and an unemployment rate that would soon rise to 10 percent.

6. One year ago today, no one had heard of Bridgegate and Chris Christie was still a favorite for the Republican nomination. One week ago today there was little reason to believe that Russian-backed separatists — or maybe even Russia — would shoot down a Malaysia Airlines flight, killing hundreds of European travelers. What politics is about today is probably not what it's going to be about a year from today.

7. My point? Ah yes, my point. All the punditry about Hillary Clinton's weaknesses and Elizabeth Warren's strengths and Jeb Bush's machinations are about the world as it is now. But the sure thing about the world as it is now is that it's different than the world as it will be in 2016. Analyzing the 2016 election based on the 2014 world is like analyzing the 2016 Superbowl based on the 2014 NFL season: there's some valuable information there — it's interesting, for instance, that Hillary Clinton is polling so much better now than she was in 2006 — but you can be sure you're going to get a lot wrong.

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On Tuesday, I wrote about the GOP's Obamacare jiu-jitsu: they got Democrats to abandon their dream of single payer, embrace a basic approach to health-care reform originally designed by Republicans, and do the hard work and pay the high electoral price of passing and implementing the law.

The problem is that Republicans experienced this historic policy success as a crushing defeat. They're jiu-jitsu masters who believe themselves to be pathetic losers.

If this all had been a devious plan, the next step would be obvious. Now that Democrats did the hard work of passing Romneycare into law and Republicans have won some elections based on the backlash, they can adopt the policy polls say voters actually want: mend Obamacare, don't end it.

The basic structure of Obamacare is perfectly amenable to many Republicans — it was, after all, originally developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation and given legislative form by Senate Republicans. But since Democrats wrote and passed the version that became law, they built on that structure in ways Republicans didn't like. They raised taxes, expanded Medicaid, heavily regulated private insurance products, and so on. Which is all to the good for Republicans: they can disown everything people hate about Obamacare and build on the parts that they like.

The alternative is going to be disastrous for Republicans in 2016: by then, around 30 million people are likely to depend on Obamacare for insurance coverage in some way. A presidential candidate promising to end that coverage by repealing the law rather than improving it through conservative reforms is going to go down in flames. That's particularly true because they'll be running against a Democrat, like Hillary Clinton, who will be promising to fix whatever people don't like about Obamacare.

This is a case conservatives like Avik Roy and Doug Holtz-Eakin have made before. And Roy e-mailed to point out that no less an authority on jiu-jitsu than Chuck Norris has endorsed it.

What state officials (and our conservative representatives in Washington) need to do is leverage (jiu-jitsu) Obamacare's next chess moves and offer more fiscally responsible and freedom-loving alternatives or reforms, such as some version of Avik Roy's "Obamacare jiu-jitsu" and his four-step solution to tackle the U.S. health-care behemoth. It includes:

Step 1: Replace or fix Obamacare's exchanges

It starts by improving the market orientation of Obamacare's insurance exchanges. With the states' pressure and even the leverage offered them via last summer's Supreme Court decision, they and Republicans in Congress can reduce the excessive mandates, regulations and subsidies in Obamacare. Utah, for example, created a health-care exchange that is far more palatable and market-oriented than the one offered through Obamacare.

Step 2: Migrate Medicare enrollees into the exchanges

The next step would be to move Medicare patients into Obamacare's (reformed) exchanges. Roy explains, "For example, Congress could agree to raise Medicare's eligibility age by three months every year for the foreseeable future [and] transfer the ‘dual eligible' population - seniors who are enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid - onto the exchanges." Roy adds, "In effect, over time, this would gradually introduce premium-support-style reforms into the retiree population, without requiring Congress to get bogged down in complicated reform legislation."

Step 3: Let more people buy insurance on their own

The third step would be that "Congress could consider reforms of Obamacare's employer mandate - for example, exempting businesses with fewer than 200 employees, or eliminating it entirely - so as to stimulate economic growth while improving the market for individually purchased health insurance."

Step 4: Offer Medicaid patients a way out of that broken system

The last step would be to "move the Medicaid population into the [reformed] exchanges. ... Another approach could be to give Medicaid's long-term care program back to the states, in exchange for federalizing Medicaid's acute-care, pediatric, and dual-eligible populations."

"When I think of Obama and Obamacare," Norris concludes, "I can't help but think of the words of Rickson Gracie, retired Mixed Martial Arts world champion and a member of the renowned Gracie family, who once said, 'If size mattered, the elephant would be the king of the jungle.'" I have no idea what that means in this context but I certainly wouldn't say that to Chuck Norris's face.

Anyway. Republicans should probably listen to Chuck Norris. Surely a man this good at roundhouse kicks is a sound legislative tactician:


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A few months after Obamacare's launch — back when HealthCare.Gov still seemed like a computer virus built by Ted Cruz to forever discredit the federal government — I attended a dinner where an Obamacare skeptic laid out a simple test for predicting the program's survival: were insurers joining or fleeing?

We know now that they're joining. Obamacare will offer more insurance choices in 2015 than it did in 2014. And that's because insurers believe Obamacare is working. They see enrollment above expectations; consumers who are basically happy with their insurance; an undeniable drop in the uninsured population; people paying their premiums; exchanges that are going to work better in 2015 than they did in 2014; a law that's costing less than expected; an age mix that will likely improve as the individual mandate toughens; and a political system that isn't likely to repeal the law now nor ever.

Put simply, they see a new and growing business. And they want to be part of it.

Insured

Amidst all this Paul Krugman points out something I've noticed too: "what you get whenever you suggest that things are going OK is an outpouring, not so much of disagreement, as of fury. People get red-in-the-face angry, practically to the point of incoherence, over the suggestion that [Obamacare's] not a disaster."

Part of that is a bad information loop: conservative coverage of Obamacare tends to be a parade of horror stories, coming disasters, and promises that a political reckoning is right around the corner. The tone of the coverage in conservative quarters today isn't all that different than it was during the law's initial weeks, when it really was a disaster. And if you already know that Obamacare is a catastrophe, articles suggesting otherwise will look like dangerous, partisan spin.

But deeper than the coverage is the tribalism: the unrelenting focus on the law, and its close association with President Obama himself, has made Obamacare a vessel for the core political war of our age. Obamacare is a stand-in for Obama himself, and for even for liberalism. So much has been invested in Obamacare's failure that its success would be ideologically catastrophic for its critics.

Which is pretty strange, actually. Because Obamacare's success is going to end up validating some pretty important conservative ideas — and, potentially, forestalling some liberal ones.

The liberal dream wasn't a health-care system where success can be partly measured by the enthusiasm of private insurers. The liberal vision was single payer, or some kind of France-like multi-payer system. The first version of a national health-care proposal with the basic shape of Obamacare was when Senate Republicans presented it as an alternative to Bill Clinton's health-care plan.


There is a read of the last two decades in which Republicans pulled off the greatest act of policy jujitsu in American history: they got Democrats to abandon their dream of single payer, adopt a Republican health-care plan, and do the hard work and pay the high political price of passing and implementing the law. It's an astonishing policy victory that Republicans experienced as a shattering political defeat.

The weirdness of this was evident in the 2012 election, where the Republican nominee couldn't run on his signature achievement as governor of Massachusetts because the Democratic president had stolen it from him.

Some Republicans, at some times, recognize that there's much for conservatives to like in Obamacare. In a 2013 column for Reuters, Avik Roy and Doug Holtz-Eakin wrote, "The great irony of Obama's triumph, however, is that it can pave the way for Republicans to adopt a comprehensive, market-oriented healthcare agenda." The reason it could do that was so many of the ideas in Obamacare were conservative in the first place. The Affordable Care Act may not be a conservative law but it's a law built upon a conservative platform — or at least a platform that's much more conservative than the alternatives.

Which isn't to say there aren't policies in Obamacare that conservatives hate. The law expands Medicaid and finances itself by raising taxes on the rich — both of which are approaches to health reform that Republicans loathe. But that's another reason for conservatives to rejoice over Obamacare's recent success. Initially, those were the only parts of the law that worked: for all the federal government's failings, it knows how to tax rich people and add people to Medicaid. What was collapsing was the part Republicans helped come up with: the regulated insurance exchanges that are core not just to Obamacare, but also to Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare reforms.

Luckily for conservatives — and for Obamacare — the exchanges ultimately did work. The basic structure conservatives had developed for health-care reform was viable. And much as Roy and Holtz-Eakin predicted, Obamacare is proving a platform where conservatives can push the health-care system in directions they prefer: it's given them leverage to force conservative reforms to Medicaid that the Obama administration would never have accepted, for instance. And it's easy to imagine some future Republican president pulling Medicaid or Medicare entirely into the exchanges and, in doing, pulling America further away from a single-payer health-care system.

Obamacare isn't nearly as pure a victory for liberalism, nor a defeat for conservatism, as is often portrayed. Just as Republicans look back on Bill Clinton's presidency more fondly, and just as today's Democrats find a lot to like in George H. W. Bush's administration, Republicans are one day going to look back on Obama — and Obamacare — and find quite a bit to like.

Read Vox's full guide to Obamacare here.

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A new Rasmussen poll finds that 68 percent of Americans think elections are rigged in favor of incumbents. And they're basically right.

The term "rigged" might go a tad far. The problem here isn't fraud. In elections, like in so much else, the scandal is what's legal.

Incumbents get a voice in gerrymandering — meaning that the politicians, in an inversion of the normal rules of democracy, get to choose their voters. They begin raising money starting the day they're elected so by the time their reelection rolls around their challenger is at a severe financial disadvantage. They have name recognition and ground games that few challengers can match, and they can do favors for influential people and organizations throughout their district. And because so much of Congress works on seniority, they can argue, plausibly, that they'll be more effective for their constituents than their challenger.

The result is that very few congressional elections are seriously competitive. Reelection rates for incumbents tend to hover around 90 percent — and they occasionally get perilously close to 100 percent. In 1998, for instance, the House reelection rate was a stunning 98 percent. Those numbers are slightly inflated because incumbents who think they'll lose don't always run for reelection. But they're basically right — and that's been true even in recent years, when tea party primaries have gotten so much press.

The powers of incumbency are so strong that overall congressional approval ratings barely affect congressional reelection rates as this Washington Post graph shows:

Relection

People hate Congress, but for all kinds of reasons, they tend to like their particular member of Congress, or at least they end up preferring him or her to the alternative.

So yes, the game is rigged in favor of the incumbents. But ultimately voters are the ones who have rigged it. If we think gerrymandering gives incumbents an unfair advantage we could do what Canada did and get rid of partisan gerrymandering entirely (a very worthwhile Canadian initiative). If the problem is money than we could simply refuse to vote in a single member of Congress who won't pass the kind of campaign-finance reform Larry Lessig is pushing.

Politics often gets explained in the passive voice. But passivity is a choice. And a lot of what's wrong in American politics could be swiftly fixed by an active electorate.

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Consider what happens if Speaker John Boehner wins his lawsuit against President Barack Obama: the court will order Obama to implement the Affordable Care Act's employer mandate without further delay. Which, given that Obama only delayed the mandate until 2015 and court cases can take a long time to wind their way through the legal system, might mean the court will order Obama to do something he has already done.

What's even odder about the suit is that Boehner hates Obamacare's employer mandate. And the business groups that back Boehner hate Obamacare's employer mandate. So Boehner is lifting heaven and earth to get the court to demand Obama more rapidly enforce a policy Boehner hates, that Boehner's allies hate, and that Obama says he's going to start enforcing in a few months anyway.

It's as if Pat Riley was suing LeBron James to force him to begin playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers sooner.

The constitutional argument

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"This seat is taken." "So sue me." (Pete Souza/White House)

Boehner's argument is that this isn't about the mandate at all. It's about the Constitution. "In 2013, the president changed the health care law without a vote of Congress, effectively creating his own law by literally waiving the employer mandate and the penalties for failing to comply with it," he wrote. "That's not the way our system of government was designed to work. No president should have the power to make laws on his or her own."

The point of the lawsuit, in other words, is to set precedent ensuring neither Obama nor any future president can choose to riff on the laws passed by Congress. The case is so narrowly tailored because that's what gives it the best chance of success.

Boehner's concern is confusing given that he was House Majority Leader in May 2006, when President George W. Bush chose to waive Medicare Part D's penalties for low-income and disabled seniors who signed up late. "Officials determined that collecting the fees from poor beneficiaries would cost more than the penalties themselves," reported McClatchy. The article goes on to suggest that the Bush administration's move was partially motivated to make sure Congress did not pass legislation permanently removing the late-enrollment penalties.

There is little evident difference between Obama's unilateral delay of the employer mandate in Obamacare and Bush's unilateral delay of the late-enrollment penalties in Medicare Part D. But Boehner sees one as a threat to the republic while the other passed like a breeze in the night.

Which isn't to say Boehner isn't sincere — or even that he's wrong. People are much better at identifying executive overreach in presidents from the other party, and much angrier once they find it. But this lawsuit is optional for Boehner. It's a bit hypocritical. It's almost certainly going to fail. And if it succeeds and Republicans win in 2016, it might be a disaster for the next Republican president.

Boehner needs a good reason to take this on.

Lawsuit > Impeachment

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You do not want this man’s job. (Caleb Smith/Boehner’s office)

There's another possible reading of Boehner's lawsuit. Under this theory, Boehner's lawsuit isn't so much about reversing what Obama has done as it's about stopping what Republicans might do.

The Republican Party is growing angrier and more obsessed by Obama's executive actions every day. "Serious as the policy disagreements roiling Washington are, none is as important as the structural distortion threatening constitutional equilibrium," wrote George Will. "Institutional derangement driven by unchecked presidential aggrandizement did not begin with Barack Obama, but his offenses against the separation of powers have been egregious in quantity, and qualitatively different."

As a result, calls for impeachment are mounting. "The many impeachable offenses of Barack Obama can no longer be ignored," wrote Sarah Palin. "If after all this he's not impeachable, then no one is."

Palin isn't the Republican leader she once was. But Boehner knows that she's damn good at reading the party's conservative base. He's watched ideas like this move from ridiculous to inevitable in an instant (see Government Shutdown, 2013). He also watched what happened the last time Republicans tried to impeach a president who was more popular than they were: they lost the midterm election and Newt Gingrich had to resign as Speaker of the House.


The unusually involved process Boehner has chosen for this lawsuit permits it to act as a kind of mini-impeachment process — but one that doesn't end in a disastrous impeachment vote. Rather than simply suing Obama on his own Boehner is bringing the resolution before the House: there will be a committee process and then a floor process in which Republicans will be able to lay out their case against Obama's executive overreach, much like they would be able to during an impeachment process.

Assuming House Republicans ultimately back Boehner's lawsuit, it will begin a lengthy legal process as the case winds its way through the courts. House Republicans will be able to go back to their districts and tell their base that they're doing something radical and even unprecedented to bring Obama to heel. Meanwhile, Boehner can argue that attempting impeachment before the case finishes would be counterproductive: if Republicans raise impeachment as a remedy there's no way the courts will get involved. They'll just let Congress work it out.

Boehner is letting Republicans throw as many parties as they want in the House so he can make sure they don't drink and drive home.

Some conservatives suspect Boehner is trying to distract them. "Boehner's lawsuit is nothing more than political theater and a further Republican waste of taxpayer dollars," wrote Red State's Erick Erickson. "If the Republican leaders in the House are too chicken to use their constitutional powers to rein in the President, they should just call it a day and go home." Andrew McCarthy, author of "Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama's Impeachment", calls Boehner's lawsuit "a theatrical exercise in futility."

But that's the thing about theatre: it's incredibly distracting. Boehner's particular legislative genius is his ability to keep House conservatives from detonating the Republican Party while maintaining just enough conservative credibility to retain his speakership. This might be his masterstroke.

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Ex-IRS official Lois Lerner didn't want anyone reading her instant messages.

In an April 2013 missive uncovered by House Republicans, Lerner asks a member of the agency's IT department whether her instant messages can be searched in the event of a congressional inquiry. She notes that she's previously told colleagues that "we need to be cautious about what we say in emails." When she finds out that her messages aren't searchable unless someone else saves them, she replies, "perfect."

The facts here fit both sinister and innocuous interpretations.

Let's begin with the sinister interpretation. Here's what we know about Lerner: she managed a division of the IRS that subjected conservative groups applying for 501(c)4 status to improperly harsh scrutiny. She lost a huge chunk of her e-mails in a hard drive crash that came shortly after Rep. Dave Camp asked the IRS whether conservative groups were facing improper scrutiny. She was clearly worried about whether her electronic communications would be visible amidst a congressional inquiry.

Moreover, the IRS, in general, has lost some documents it was supposed to keep and failed to provide some documents it was supposed to offer. And its failure to promptly notify the National Archives and Records Administration about Lerner's lost e-mails violated the law. When Lerner testified before Congress she pled the Fifth.

It doesn't look good.

The innocuous interpretation goes like this: The IRS's improper scrutiny also fell on progressive groups. There's still no evidence of any organized effort to target conservative groups for political reasons. Lerner's hard drive crash was ill-timed but hard drive crashes happen. Her panicked e-mails attempting to restore the files are evidence that nothing sinister was afoot — while conspiracies are possible, they usually don't involve multiple individuals in the IT department and a paper trail.

As for her warning to her colleagues to watch what they say in e-mails and IMs, that's a banal, responsible point for an IRS supervisor to make: people e-mail all kinds of dumb jokes, and make all kinds of dumb comments, that they wouldn't want read aloud at a congressional hearing — so it behooves them to remember their e-mails could be read aloud at a congressional hearing. If Lerner was really a criminal genius making sure she could cover her tracks, it's absurd to believe that in 2013, more than two years after she supposedly wiped her e-mails in a fake hard-drive crash, she would e-mail this query to another IRS employee — knowing the e-mail would be archived and searchable — rather than walk over and ask her in person.

Lerner is gone from the IRS, of course. So the ongoing lawsuits and investigations are more about learning what happened then attempting to stop something that is happening. And we should learn what happened. Politicization at the IRS is a special kind of problem and it should be investigated thoroughly.

But something that shouldn't get lost amidst the focus on Lerner is the root problem: the unclear definition of which groups qualify for 501(c)4 status and which don't. It's the murk of that rule that led to the IRS's scrutiny of both conservative and progressive political groups. A clear law would ensure that individuals like Lerner have less discretion over the process. But there's been a lot more interest among House Republicans in trying to uncover a scandal than in fixing the problem, and since Democrats see little political upside in keeping focus on the IRS, they also haven't made it a priority.

If the problem at the IRS was really centered on Lois Lerner than it is likely fixed now that she's gone. But it went deeper than that, and a Congress that puts this much focus on what Lerner did wrong should be trying harder to make sure it can't happen again.

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There is no creature more revered in American politics than the moderate voter. Unlike the ideologues and partisans destroying politics, the moderate is free of cant and independent of party. She yearns for politicians who get along, who govern reasonably and incrementally, who steer a course between the extremes of the left and the right. The problem with Washington is that her pleas so often go unheard.

The only problem is moderates are largely a statistical myth — and efforts to empower them may, accidentally, lead to the rise of more extreme candidates.

The statistical mistake behind the myth of the moderates

What happens, explains David Broockman, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, is that surveys mistake people with diverse political opinions for people with moderate political opinions. The way it works is that a pollster will ask people for their position on a wide range of issues: marijuana legalization, the war in Iraq, universal health care, gay marriage, taxes, climate change, and so on. The answers will then be coded as to whether they're left or right. People who have a mix of answers on the left and the right average out to the middle — and so they're labeled as moderate.

But when you drill down into those individual answers you find a lot of opinions that are well out of the political mainstream. "A lot of people say we should have a universal health-care system run by the state like the British," says Broockman. "A lot of people say we should deport all undocumented immigrants immediately with no due process. You'll often see really draconian measures towards gays and lesbians get 16 to 20 percent support. These people look like moderates but they're actually quite extreme."

The result is that voters who hold gentle opinions that are all on the left or the right end up looking a lot more extreme than voters who hold intense opinions that fall all over the political spectrum. Broockman offers this table as illustration:

Moderate_table

Digging into a 134-issue survey, Broockman and coauthor Doug Ahler find that 70.1 percent of all respondents, and 71.3 percent of self-identified moderates, took at least one position outside the political mainstream. Moderates, in other words, are just as likely as anyone else to hold extreme positions: it's just that those positions don't all line up on the left or the right.

For Ahler and Broockman, this solves a puzzle. They note that many states have implemented election reforms to wrest the process away from partisans and empower average voters to elect the moderate politicians they really want. These reforms include open primary elections, nonpartisan redistricting, and public funding of elections. But "the bulk of studies on these reforms finds little evidence that they improve moderate candidates' fortunes."

The answer, Ahler and Brookman realize, is simple: these voters don't want moderate candidates because these voters aren't actually moderates.

What moderates want is often extreme

In a draft paper, they prove this through a battery of surveys and experiments testing whether people want a candidate who agrees with them on the issues or a candidate who is described as moderate. Unsurprisingly, they want the candidate who agrees with them on the issues. For that reason, Broockman says, "It's just not clear that empowering average voters will help moderate politicians win."

There's even reason to believe "average voters" — which is to say, less politically engaged voters — hold more extreme opinions: engaged Democrats and Republicans tend to adopt the positions held by their parties, and parties tend to adopt positions that are popular, achievable and workable. So voters who follow their parties end up pushing ideas in the political mainstream. Voters who aren't as interested in politics and who don't attach themselves to a party push the ideas they actually like, irrespective of whether they're popular or could attract 60 votes in the Senate or would be laughed at by policy experts.

The other problem is that the term "moderate" makes it sound like there's one kind of moderate — which is where the idea emerges that there's some silent moderate majority out there waiting for their chance to take back politics. But someone who believes in punitively taxing the rich and criminalizing homosexuality is not going to form a coalition with someone who believes in low taxes and gay marriage, even though both of these voters would look moderate on a survey.

The deeper point here is that the idea of the moderate middle is bullshit: it's a rhetorical device meant to marginalize some policy positions at the expense of others. There's no actual way to measure it, or consistent definition animating it, and it doesn't spontaneously emerge in any of the data.

"Moderate" as a political weapon

In one of their paper's most interesting sections, Ahler and Broockman look at the results of a survey that gave people seven policy options that ranged from extremely liberal to extremely conservative on 12 different issues.

12_issues

"On only two of the 13 issues — environmental/energy policy and gay rights — is the truly centrist response the modal preference," they write. "This equals the number of issues on which the modal preference is one of the outside-the-mainstream policies."

On marijuana, the single most popular positions was full legalization. On immigration, it was "the immediate roundup and deportation of all undocumented immigrants and an outright moratorium on all immigration until the border is proven secure." So are these positions really the moderate ones? Or is the moderate position discovered through some process of averaging out the poll results? Or is the moderate position just the one espoused by people in power — because, after all, that's where a lot of survey respondents are taking their cues from.

"When we say moderate what we really mean is what corporations want," Broockman says. "Within both parties there is this tension between what the politicians who get more corporate money and tend to be part of the establishment want — that's what we tend to call moderate — versus what the Tea Party and more liberal members want."

That's the problem with using a term that doesn't describe either an identifiable group of voters or a clearly defined ideology to describe policies. "Moderate" is simultaneously one of the most powerful and least meaningful descriptions in politics — and it's become little more than a tool the establishment uses to set limits on the range of acceptable debate. It's time to get rid of it.

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Dhaka, Bangladesh is among the world's most congested cities. With 7 million residents, only seven percent of the land is covered with roads. (As comparison, about 25 percent of the land in Paris is covered in roads, as is about 40 percent of the land in Washington, DC.) The whole city only has 60 traffic lights — and they don't all work.

Michael Hobbes works on human rights in Bangladesh, among other places, and in an essay for The New Republic, he says that "whenever I ask people in Dhaka what their main priority is, what they think international organizations should really be working on, they tell me about the traffic." Traffic, he argues, isn't just a nuisance. It's "one of the defining development challenges of our time."

Much of the problem in Dhaka comes from the rickshaws crowding the road. But any attempt to herd them into a single lane, or limit their use, will be a political nightmare. "One and a half million people drive rickshaws for a living, plus another few hundred thousand own and repair them."

Another option might be making cars pay more to use special roads — and then using that money to build the necessary infrastructure. But, Hobbes writes, "car owners are a small part of the population, but a highly influential and politically necessary one. Having a car-and a driver, of course-is a major perk of being a government official or business executive." They don't take well to higher taxes.

Meanwhile, there's the paradox of infrastructure investment to worry about: major transportation projects take a long time to complete, and during that period, they often make traffic much, much worse.

The result is that little can be done. But Hobbes' piece makes an important point (and don't miss the photos!): too often, people hear about "development challenges" and they imagine the horrors of extreme poverty, like malaria and starvation. But the world has more than halved the number of people living in extreme poverty since 1990 — and experts increasingly believe it's possible to end extreme poverty altogether by 2030. Most of the world now lives in middle-income countries, and a large majority of the world will soon live in cities. If those middle-income countries are to become rich, and if their residents are to have good lives, then traffic is one of the central developmental challenges of the coming decades.

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Transformers: Age of Extinction is the fourth Transformers movie made by Michael Bay, and it's inarguably one of the four best Transformers movies Michael Bay has ever made. Even so, a lot of "critics" seem to have misread the movie entirely. At the New York Times, A.O. Scott frets over the film's "narrative incoherence." At Salon, Andrew O'Hehir says the movie leaves us "measurably stupider than we were before."

These reviews miss the point so badly that you wonder whether they weren't written by Decepticons.

Transformers 4 is a master class in global economics. Over the course of 166 minutes — long for a film, sure, but short for a graduate-level econ seminar — Bay destroys economic shibboleths as if they were a major metropolitan area concealing the Autobots from Lockdown. His lessons are pitiless: inequality will keep rising, job security will keep falling, and American companies will contort themselves into all kinds of embarrassing positions to suck up to China.

And Michael Bay will keep making all of the money because he understands the changing economy much, much better than you do.

1. The real money is in owning machines

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If I can take a truck’s job, you don’t think I can take your job? (Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)

Transformers 4 made more than $300 million worldwide on its opening weekend — the biggest haul of any movie released in 2014.

But no one believes Transformers 4 had the best acting of any movie in 2014. And it sure as hell didn't have the best plot. What it did have is the most, and most beautiful, robots and explosions of any movie released in 2014 — and perhaps of any movie ever. Michael Bay isn't a genius at working with actors or scripts. He's a genius at working with computers.

In his book "Average Is Over," the economist Tyler Cowen writes that in the future, "workers more and more will come to be classified into two categories. The key questions will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you?"

Bay's skills are a complement to the computer. Without Bay, the computers can't make a movie. Without the computers, Bay can't make his movies. Together, though, Bay and the computers can make billions of dollars — while directors who mainly know how to work with human actors struggle.

This holds beyond movies, too. The most profitable hedge funds amp computers up with algorithms that let them trade faster than human beings can blink. The world's leading manufacturers run plants where a few humans oversee miles of machines. As machines begin to make all the money, that money goes to the people who own or improve the work of the machines.

"If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery," writes Cowen. "If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch."

2. Human workers are dispensable

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Shia LaBeouf transformed into someone who is no longer necessary for these movies. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Remember Sam Witwicky? Of course you don't. I'm writing this in an incognito window on the computer of someone I hate, because if you even mention Sam Witwicky on the internet, Michael Bay will send an Autobot to destroy your house.

Sam Witwicky was the main human character of the first three movies. He was played by Shia LaBeouf, before Shia LaBeouf started getting arrested for slapping Alan Cumming's ass and fighting with homeless men. He doesn't appear in Transformers 4. He's not even mentioned in Transformers 4. Even Optimus Prime, who ended each of the previous movies pledging to protect Sam Witwicky forever, knows better than to utter his name.

Mark Wahlberg, the new human star of the movie, was asked in an interview what happened to Witwicky. His answer was almost sinister. "I don't think you really needed to [know what happened to him]. They just pick up with this new family. The guy goes out and finds this truck, and there you are. You're right back in it."

As the box office receipts show, he was right: when robots become the stars, the people who work with them become replaceable.

A different way of putting this is that as capital rises in importance, labor loses its bargaining power. You can see that happening in the economy in recent decades. Corporate profits have skyrocketed as advances in technology have allowed corporations to make more things and sell them to more people. At the same time, the share of the profits going to labor — to workers — has fallen, as this graph from the Atlantic's Derek Thompson shows:

Labor_versus_corporate_profits

That green line is what happened to Sam Witwicky. Michael Bay needs the computers necessary to make Optimus Prime. But those computers have made the individual actors a whole lot less necessary.

3. American companies will suck up to China

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I’m kind of a big deal I’m in China. (PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

One reason that Transformers 4 is 166 minutes long is that it's really two movies: the first is Transformers 4, a film meant to dominate the American box office. The second is Transformers 4, a film meant to dominate the Chinese box office.

The last act of Transformers 4 takes place in Hong Kong and includes, for American audiences, some odd moments. There's a scene, for instance, where Stanley Tucci, playing a defense contractor with a recently rediscovered conscience, is being hunted through the streets of Hong Kong by Deceptacons and CIA assassins. He ends up having a momentary nervous breakdown in an elevator and spilling the whole story to a confused looking Chinese passenger who clearly can't understand him. Then, of course, the assassins arrive — and Tucci's co-passenger, who seemed like an extra, leaps out and kicks their asses.

The movie doesn't make a very big deal of this basically insane moment, and since this is a film about robots from space who can transform into trucks and helicopters but whose true forms all seem to track crude ethnic stereotypes, there's no reason for the audience to think about it for very — HOLY SHIT DID YOU SEE THAT THING EXPLODE? But the moment means more to Chinese audiences: the elevator rider is Zou Shiming, China's first Olympic gold medalist boxer, and he beats the hell out of a black-ops CIA operative. Go, China!


A bit later, the camera pans across Hong Kong to show the devastation caused by the supervillain's extremely large magnet (don't ask). It lingers on a convertible where a handsome Chinese passenger is strumming a guitar and singing softly. Once again, an odd scene to American audiences is a shout-out to Chinese audiences: that's Han Geng, a Chinese pop star/actor.

But the key to the Chinese box office isn't just the Chinese moviegoer. It's also the Chinese government. And so in a movie where the American government is represented by a sniveling White House chief of staff and a rogue CIA, China's leaders receive considerably more gentle treatment. When the fight moves east, the country's fictional defense minister grimly vows to scramble China's fighter jets to protect Hong Kong at all costs. His gaze is level, and his tone is determined: the moment isn't played for laughs.

The specificity of the promise — to protect "Hong Kong," as opposed to, say, all of China, or the world — sounds a bit odd. But that's because Bay went the extra mile on this one. He didn't just make the Chinese government look generically good; he made clear that Hong Kong, a British protectorate until 1997, was better off being part of China because it was under Beijing's protection. Take note, kids: that's how you suck up to China.

In recent decades, American companies have gone to China to find cheap labor. But that labor exists in Thailand and Malaysia and India as well. The Chinese government needed America's companies at least as much as America's companies needed China's workers. But that's changing. American companies increasingly want to sell to China's billion-plus potential consumers — and the only way to sell to them is to keep the Chinese government happy.

This manifests in different industries in different ways. You see it when Bloomberg News quashes stories that could compromise its ability to sell financial terminals in China. You see it when manufacturers open R&D centers in China because that's what the Chinese government demands.

Companies do all this because the rewards, increasingly, are huge. Transformers 4 set new records at the Chinese box office. Its opening weekend pulled in $97 million —  almost equal to its US haul. The movie is so dominant that the Chinese government, despite Bay's efforts to butter it up, became concerned that it was displacing too many Chinese-made films. "About 50 days ago, Chinese movies accounted for 63 percent of the overall box office in China [in 2014]," said Zhang Hongsen, head of the Film Bureau at the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. "But after tonight, that will fall under 50 percent."

But ticket sales trump cultural pride. The LA Times reports that Chinese theaters are routinely reserving 60 or 70 percent of their screens for Bay's opus.

Which is, in a way, Transformers 4's ultimate lesson. Early in the film, Bay introduces the aging owner of an old theater. "Movies nowadays, that's the trouble," he says. "Junk, sequels and remakes, a bunch of crap." Mark Wahlberg ends up buying a truck from him and his grandson (who Wahlberg keeps calling "Snakeballs," for some reason) for $150. The truck that out to be Optimus Prime. One man's trash is another man's awesome robot that will set new box office records in China.

The economy doesn't care what the tastemakers think things are worth. It doesn't even care what the Chinese government thinks things are worth, at least assuming they don't block the product entirely. The market is the test that matters. And Bay has mastered it. There's a lot more to Transformers 4 than meets the eye.

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There's an argument making the rounds that the Hobby Lobby decision proves the necessity of single payer. "The only way to resolve this mess is to take employers and their 'sincere beliefs' completely out of the picture," writes Michael Hiltzik in the LA Times. "Remove employers and the insurance industry exits with them. What's left is single-payer healthcare, which is the right way to deliver services that are matters of life and death."


For all the virtues of single-payer health care — and there are many — the Hobby Lobby decision underscores one of single-payer's real problems.

At the core of the case is the fact that Obamacare had to decide which health-care services absolutely needed to be covered and which services didn't. One of the services Obamacare deemed essential was contraception. That's what led to the Hobby Lobby case: prior to Obamacare, there was no federal law forcing employers who offered insurance to cover contraceptive care, and so no need for employers to seek exemptions to that law.

A single-payer system heightens the stakes on this kind of decision. The assumption behind some of the Hobby Lobby-based arguments for single payer is that a single-payer system would cover contraception and that would mean everyone's insurance covers contraception. But a Republican-led government could decide that taxpayer dollars shouldn't be going to cover contraception at all, and then a single-payer system means no one's insurance covers contraception.

An example comes from one of America's current single-payer systems: Medicaid. While Medicaid does cover contraception, Congress decreed years ago that it can't, under any circumstances, pay for abortions. So while people buying private insurance can choose a plan that covers abortion if they want (and, in fact, about two-thirds of private health-insurance plans cover abortions), people in the Medicaid system have no option to choose a plan that covers abortion.

Or look at the states. As Sarah Kliff reports, "states passed a record 205 abortion restrictions between 2011 and 2013, more than the entire 30 years prior." Imagine if the Congress controlling the benefits package under single payer looked more like one of those legislatures.

So the question with single payer isn't just whether you like the model. It's whether you trust the US government to implement the model. This was driven home to me during a conversation with Uwe Reinhardt, a Princeton health-care economist who supports single payer. "I have not advocated the single payer model here," he said, "because our government is too corrupt."

The point here isn't that single payer is a bad way to structure your health-care system. As other countries show, single-payer systems can work beautifully. But a single-payer system can only be as good as the government that runs it. So how good do you think the US government is?

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The fate of the Export-Import Bank is one of the smaller policy questions to dominate politics in recent years. But it's one of the most interesting political fights to emerge in a very long time.

The Ex-Im Bank, as Washington calls it, guarantees private-sector loans to foreign companies purchasing certain kinds of American goods. Its charter ends in September, meaning Congress either needs to reauthorize the Bank, or it will fold. Crucially, that means that this is a policy House Republicans can change without Democratic agreement: all they need to do to kill the Ex-Im Bank is...nothing.

The argument for the 80-year-old bank is that other countries guarantee these kinds of loans to help their exports, and if the United States doesn't do the same, then the game will be rigged against our firms — costing American jobs.

The argument against the Bank is that the US government shouldn't be picking winners and losers and then putting taxpayer money behind its bet. Sure, other countries have those banks, but that should be seen as a long-run advantage for the US: if we allocate capital better than they do, our economy will outpace theirs.

Both sides make reasonable points, and the Ex-Im Bank has split Washington in different ways over the decades. Though the Bank has always commanded majority support in Congress, it used to be opposed by some on the left. In 2008, Barack Obama called it "little more than a fund for corporate welfare." Now it's loathed by many on the right as an example of crony capitalism. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is opposing it as a way to distance himself from the accommodating conservatism of Eric Cantor. Paul Ryan opposes it, as does Rand Paul.

What conservatives can finally say

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In 2012, more than 80 percent of the Export-Import Bank’s subsidies went to support Boeing. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

As Michael Strain, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a committed opponent of the Bank, writes, "the fate of the Ex-Im Bank is not really that important at the end of the day. It's a small cost to taxpayers, and there are much bigger government boondoggles that merit more attention. But Ex-Im exists in a political context, which is that conservatives are increasingly comfortable saying the following: Taxpayer-financed corporate welfare and crony capitalism are bad."

And that's why the Ex-Im fight matters.

The battles that have obsessed Washington in recent years have been powerfully consequential. The country is different because TARP, the stimulus, Obamacare, and Dodd-Frank passed. It is different because the debt ceiling was raised in 2011, and because sequestration sliced into the budget. The Ex-Im Bank is not a fight of this magnitude: its destruction might cost a few jobs now, or maybe not, and its absence might generate a few jobs later, or maybe not. (It's worth saying that phasing out the Ex-Im Bank would do much less damage than ending it overnight, though that would require new legislation rather than simple inaction.)

But the fight over the Ex-Im Bank might prove, in the long sweep of American politics, to be something of a political turning point. It has become the top priority of a dedicated group of conservative policy entrepreneurs who want to see the Republican Party hack away at the ties between big government and big business. And the Ex-Im Bank might prove to be something their movement badly needs but hasn't scored until now: a win.

What a reform conservative wants

Liberal commentary on "reform conservatives" tends to assume that they're a) trying to move the Republican Party leftward, perhaps as an overdue correction to the rightward drift forced by the Tea Party, and b) doomed to failure because they'll be destroyed by a coalition of hardcore conservatives and business interests. Perhaps both assumptions are wrong.

Yuval Levin, one of the most influential reform conservatives, wants to dispel the idea that his movement is, in any way, a moderation. In a manifesto of sorts, he writes, "the key point to understand about what people are calling ‘reform conservatism' is that it is an effort to move the Republican party to the right."

Levin presents reform conservatism as similarly motivated, but operationally orthogonal, to the Tea Party. Like the Tea Party, he says reform conservatism is "a response to the fat and happy, big-business-oriented, go along to get along, aimless centrism of too much of the Republican party over the past decade, which has been perfectly happy to argue about the cost (if that!) of our government, rather than about its purpose and structure, provided its own friends got a piece of the action."

But the Tea Party was fundamentally about how conservatives should fight back — both against other Republicans, and against the Obama administration. Reform conservatism is about what Republicans should do with power. For that reason, it's more interested in solving problems than tea party conservatism, which is why it's often seen as more moderate: the technocratic project of reform conservatism offers more opportunities for compromise than the oppositional project of tea party conservatism.

But Levin's point is that compared to, say, the Bush administrations, reform conservatism is considerably more ambitious. Its core argument is that Republican lawmakers have been too accepting of the basic structure of the welfare state the Democratic Party has built — they battled its cost and its scope, but they have blanched from the work of tearing it down and constructing a conservative alternative in its place. Sometimes —think Medicare Part D — they even expanded its size, scope, and cost, though they justified that expansion by paying large corporations to administer it. (There is a certain tension in reform conservatism's attitude towards Medicare Part D, which is both held up as an important policy success and an ideological betrayal.)

This is key to why the fight against "crony capitalism' has become so important to reform conservatives: many business interests profit from current government policies, and so a necessary predicate of reform conservatism is for conservatives to get comfortable fighting big businesses that partner with the state.

Reform conservatism's Keystone XL

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Political movements need wins to survive. (Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

"For every winner Export-Import Bank creates," writes the Washington Examiner's Tim Carney, "there's also a loser." Much of the energy against the Ex-Im Bank comes from Delta, which isn't eligible for the subsidies but competes against foreign airlines that are, and has deployed its formidable fleet of lobbyists against the Bank.

This has been taken, in some quarters, as proof of a kind of hypocrisy: the Ex-Im fight just pits one group of lobbyists against another, and so is little more than business-as-usual in Washington. But what it really shows is that plausible coalitions exists for all kinds of policy agendas, and so the assumption that reform conservatives will be destroyed by business interests may not be as ironclad as it seems: there are plenty of businesses who don't feel they're winners under the status quo, and they can afford lobbyists, too.

Ending the Ex-Im Bank might be to reform conservatism as blocking the Keystone XL pipeline has been to the climate justice movement: it's not, in and of itself, transformative policy, but it's a win — and movements are built off of wins.

Reform conservatism has its problems, and its blind spots. Climate, in fact, is one of them. What reform conservatism hasn't had is any evidence that it can push elected Republican officials to change their policies. The Ex-Im Bank is showing that the movement can exert that kind of power — which means it's time to start taking reform conservatism more seriously as a political effort, rather than just as an intellectual one.

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Fun fact: if Rand Paul wins the 2016 Republican presidential nomination and chooses Paul Ryan as his running mate, the ticket would be "Paul-Ryan 2016."  Of course, Rand Paul's advisers might pale at the prospect and, breaking with the typical conventions of campaign literature, refer to the candidates by their first names: then the ticket will be called "Rand-Paul 2016". Much better.

Sadly, it doesn't work the other way. A Paul Ryan-Rand Paul ticket just ends up as Ryan-Paul 2016, which isn't nearly as fun.

The South Dakota Republican Party is getting some attention for passing a resolution calling for President Obama's impeachment. This comes on the heels of Andrew McCarthy's new book, Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama's Impeachment, which argues that the legal case for Obama's removal from office is overwhelming. The problem, McCarthy says, is merely political will.

It makes me nostalgic.

In 2003, I was a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz when the city council became "the nation's first local government to ask Congress to look into impeaching President Bush on charges he deceived the American public about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and has used the Sept. 11 attacks as an excuse to crush civil rights." The resolution didn't much matter but it got a lot of coverage  —  perhaps more on the right than on the left. There's nothing a political party likes more than overreach on the other side.

The English language gets a bit fuzzy when it comes to American politics. The sentence "Republicans call for President Obama's impeachment" might mean that the official Republican Party is swinging towards impeachment or that a handful of people who mark Republican on their party registration form are calling for impeachment.

In this case, it's closer to the latter than the former. There's been no organized effort among congressional Republicans to impeach Obama. There's been no real support for impeachment forthcoming from congressional leadership. As Jonathan Bernstein writes, top Republicans could do more to distance themselves from the more extreme elements of the right, "but there's a huge distance between a few delegates to state party conventions and a few loudmouth talk show types yammering about it and the U.S. House of Representatives actually doing it."

There's a real problem in American politics where people of one party get overexposed to —and end up overweighting  —  marginal voices in the other party. It's a function of a more politically polarized media environment: there's more audience in highlighting the most offensive comments from the other side than there is in highlighting the most important. The result is liberals end up with an incorrectly extreme view of the Republican Party, and vice versa.

Which isn't even to say that important Republicans aren't personally sympathetic to some of the arguments for impeachment. But John Boehner was a congressman in 1998, when the GOP's impeachment overreach led to Democratic gains in a midterm Republicans should have won  —  and then to Speaker Newt Gingrich's resignation. It's not a play Boehner wants to repeat. (Slight sidenote: the impeachment of President Clinton is looked back on as a farce, and for the most part, it was. But it's easy, with more than a decade of distance, to forget how morally outrageous Clinton's actions were. Gingrich didn't have the family life to pass judgment, but fury at Clinton was bipartisan and nonpolitical in a way that has no precedent right now.)

Moreover, the clock is running out on Obama's presidency. The midterms are coming, and Republicans look to be in the command position: they don't want to do anything to interrupt their momentum. And unlike in the Clinton years, they don't control the Senate: there's no chance of impeachment going anywhere.

There's an argument, increasingly popular among liberals, that after the midterms Republicans will control the Senate and then impeachment proceeding against Obama will begin in earnest. Barring some gamechanging scandal, I doubt it. The GOP's anger at Obama won't overwhelm their desire to win the 2016 election. And a party that wants to make gains among young and minority voters isn't going to make them by spending two years trying, and failing, to impeach Obama. This is a party that is exceedingly rational about what's required to win presidential campaigns. They nominated Mitt Romney, for Pete's sake!


You can already see Boehner looking for ways to satisfy his base's belief that the Obama administration's lawlessness needs to be punished with his knowledge that actually attempting impeachment would be a disaster. This week, he announced his intention to sue Obama on the grounds that he has "not faithfully executed the laws" passed by Congress. It's a serious charge, but asked whether it could lead to impeachment proceeding, Boehner was dismissive. "This is not about impeachment, this is about his faithfully executing the laws of our country," he said.

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Americans like to think their health-care system is number one. But a recent report from the Commonwealth Fund compared it to 10 other developed nations and found it's...number 11.

America spends vastly more than any other nation but, uniquely, leaves tens of millions uninsured. Patient satisfaction is low and the rate of medical errors is high. Infant mortality is worse in the United States than in its competitors, and so is life expectancy. America's reputation for efficiency is also shattered: both American patients and American doctors report spending unusually large amounts of time on paperwork.

Commonwealth_rankings

And then, of course, there's this graph, which shows America's health-care spending doesn't seem to be buying us much health:

Life_expectance_cost

None of these measures are perfect reflections of the American health-care system's flaws. Life expectancy, for instance, depends on much more than just medical care: the US lags in part because so many Americans die in car accidents and shootings. Patient satisfaction might tell you more about bedside manner than it does about medicine. There were plenty of satisfied patients in the days of bloodletting.

Critics of these kinds of studies often argue they miss the point. America may not be where you want to pay a hospital bill or try and buy health insurance, but if you do have health insurance, it's where you want to get treated if you get very sick.

Take cancer. Studies show that survival rates for major cancers are better in America than they are in other developed nations. A 2012 study led by the University of Chicago's Tomas Philipson, for instance, concluded that cancer patients diagnosed between 1995 and 1999 lived  an average of 11.1 years after diagnosis in the United States, but only 9.3 years after diagnosis in Europe. America, in other words, is getting something for all that extra spending.

In a health-care system, not all failures carry the same weight. Spending lots of time on paperwork is annoying, but when it comes down to it, what you really want is for doctors to keep you from dying. If American doctors are better at curing cancer than their European or Japanese counterparts than the American health-care system's other flaws are barely feathers on the scale.

The only problem? It's incredibly hard to figure out whether the American health-care system actually is better at treating cancer.

The problem with survival rates

Most of the studies that highlight America's skill in treating cancer do so by measuring survival rates - — that is to say, they measure how many people survive for a certain number of years after the cancer is diagnosed. So if a certain cancer kills 50 percent of people within five years, then the five-year survival rate is 50 percent.

The problem here is simple: survival rates don't necessarily measure when people die. They also measure when they're diagnosed — and sometimes, that's all they measure.

"Let's say there's a new cancer of the thumb killing people," writes Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics and assistant dean at Indiana University's School of Medicine. "From the time the first cancer cell appears, you have nine years to live, with chemo. From the time you can feel a lump, you have four years to live, with chemo. Let's say we have no way to detect the disease until you feel a lump. The five year survival rate for this cancer is about 0, because within five years of detection, everyone dies, even on therapy."

Carroll goes on to imagine a remarkable machine: "a new scanner that can detect thumb cancer when only one cell is there." Congress immediately orders that every American be scanned for thumb cancer. "We made no improvements to the treatment," he writes. "Everyone is still dying four years after they feel the lump. But since we are making the diagnosis five years earlier, our five year survival rate is now approaching 100%!" That's how survival rates can mislead.

There is no doubt that America screens for cancer more aggressively than any other nation. And there is no doubt that America catches more cancers, and catches them earlier, than any other nation. Since everyone knows that it's easier to treat cancers when they're caught earlier, it seems like that should mean that America is better at treating cancer than any other nation.

"As a culture, we have been inundated with this message that early detection is the key," says Carroll. "We want to know now if we have it. We think if we know we'll have a much better chance of having a good outcome. And sometimes that is the case. But it's rarer than people think."

Perhaps the most famous example is mammograms. Almost everyone knows mammograms save lives. One survey found that 50-year-old women think mammograms save 80 lives for every 1,000 screenings. But mounting evidence suggests mammograms have been wildly oversold. A rigorous study of 90,000 women concluded that "annual mammography in women aged 40-59 does not reduce mortality from breast cancer beyond that of physical examination". And the screenings have costs, too: 22 percent of the invasive breast cancers caught by mammograms were "overdiagnosed," leading to expensive, scary, and potentially dangerous treatments for women who didn't need them. In response to the study, the Swiss Medical Board recommended the country phase out its breast cancer screening programs.

That isn't to say early detection never helps. It really does matter for colorectal cancer, for instance. But it doesn't help for all cancers, and too much screening leads to dangerous overtreatment. In some cases, the America's aggressive screening programs are saving lives. But in some cases, they're almost certainly hurting people.

The simple measure: how many people die from cancer?

In recent decades America has gotten much, much better at screening for cancers. But it hasn't gotten that much better at curing them. In "Preventing overdiagnosis: how to stop harming the healthy," Ray Moynihan, Jenny Doust and David Henry chart the rapidly rising diagnoses of various cancers - the blue line - against the actual death rates from those cancers. As you can see, the blue line rises like a rocket on each graph. The red lines are relatively flat. Disturbingly flat.

Survmort1-339x1024

A lot of those cancer diagnoses are picking up malignancies that will never cause symptoms, or even death. But they make survival rates look a lot better.

"The best measure for progress against cancer is mortality rates," says Ahmedin Jemal, vice president for surveillance and health services research at the American Cancer Society. "Not survival rates, because they can be inflated by early detection." The best measure, in other words, are those red lines.

The difficulty is that cancer mortality is affected by much more than just the health-care system. Prevention matters, as does environment, and lifestyle, and population. Some groups are simply more prone to cancers than others. Some national diets lead to more cancers than others. Brazil and Mexico have low cancer mortality, but no one would say that the Brazilian or Mexican health-care systems are the finest in the world.

Still, a straight look at cancer mortality shows America looks a lot like its peer nations — and certainly not like a country that often spends twice as much on health-care treatment. There is considerable variation among cancers — we look pretty good on breast cancer and colorectal cancer mortality, but pretty bad on lung cancer mortality — but, overall, this graph from Carroll doesn't show a country with extraordinarily low cancer mortality:

Cancer-all-500x252

There is good news here. Data from the OECD shows that between 1990 and 2011 all-cancer mortality has been falling a bit faster in America than in peer nations:

Change_in_mortality_rates_cancer

It's not clear, however, how much of the drop is due to the American health-care system. "The main reason for the decrease in the US is due to prevention because of tobacco control," says Jemal, though "improvements in early detection and treatment" also play a role.

That's the problem with using mortality rates: so much goes into whether a person develops and dies from cancer that it's almost impossible to untangle how much our health-care system — or any other country's — is doing to save them. You can't run an experiment where you randomly give people cancer and then randomly treat them in different countries.

The impression you get from talking to cancer researchers is that America's health-care system is great — so long as you can actually access it. There's no doubt that the United States has many of the world's best doctors and hospitals and can deliver some of the world's best cancer care. But it's probably better to be insured in Paris with a lump than uninsured in Baltimore with a lump.

"The potential is there in America for the best cancer care in the world," says Carroll. "But if I'm rolling the dice, do I think the average American who gets cancer is getting better care than the average French person? That's a harder question. I'm not sure we know."

The other impression you get from talking to cancer researchers is that this whole conversation is part of a broader problem: Americans overemphasize the role the health-care system plays in health and underemphasize the role of, well, everything else.

"The low hanging fruit is always in prevention," says Jemal. "Smoking, for example, still accounts for 30 percent of the cancer cases in the US."

The deficiencies of the health-care system matter but they're not the main reason Americans, or anyone else, gets sick. For the most part, health happens outside the walls of hospitals. For all the attention the medical system gets, improving it probably isn't the fastest or most direct way to improve people's health.

But improving it probably is the fastest way for America to save money. It's possible America is a little bit better at treating the average case of cancer than its peer nations and it's possible America is a little bit worse. But given how much more money we spend on medical care than any other country it shouldn't be this difficult to discover the extra health we're purchasing.


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[Democratic] policy unity has been helped by the fact that Obama has had a moderate degree of success in achieving these goals. If he had had an easy time, the party might be divided between those wanting more radical action and those not in a hurry; if he had failed utterly, the party might be divided (as it was for much of the past three decades) between a liberal faction and a Republican-lite faction. As it is, however, Obama has managed to achieve a lot of what Democrats have sought for generations, but only with great difficulty against scorched-earth opposition. This means that the conflict between "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" - exemplified these days by Elizabeth Warren - and the more pro-big-business wing is relatively muted: the liberal wing knows that Obama has gotten most of what could be gotten, and the actual policies haven't been the kind that would scare off the less liberal wing.

Krugman is responding to Matt Yglesias's argument that Hillary Clinton's broad support is the result of an unusually unified Democratic Party, not the cause of it. You should read that, too.

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My 7 reasons America will fail on climate change mostly resolve into skepticism about the American political system. Climate change attacks American politics where it's weak: in its ability to respond to slow-moving crises where the worst effects will fall on other countries and future generations, and where the consequences, once they become too great to bear, are also too far gone to reverse.

But Andrew Prokop's look at the Democrats who oppose efforts to fight climate change reminds me of another way climate change is particularly difficult for the American political system to deal with: the costs of action hit some states and some congressional districts much, much harder than others.

The American political system is built, if nothing else, to protect the interests of individual states. And some of those individual states have economies built on fossil fuel extraction. In the Senate, Montana, with its one million people, has the same clout as California, with its 38 million residents. And what is Montana's top export? Coal. They produce more of it than any other state in the US.

Kentucky was the third-largest coal producing state in 2012. And so its no surprise that the Kentucky Senate race features Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes trying to outdo each other in their criticisms of President Obama's climate initiatives. Grimes is now running radio ads that say, "I'm running for Senate to protect our coal jobs." Forget all the slick PR about "clean coal." Protecting coal jobs is flatly incompatible with protecting the planet.

West Virginia is also a coal-dependent economy. And so when then-Gov. Joe Manchin decided to run for Senate he made his position on climate change crystal clear. He printed out the text of the Waxman-Markey climate bill and shot it. Yes, with a gun.

States like Kentucky and Montana and West Virginia care much more about pulling fossil fuels out of the ground than other states care about keeping them in the ground. And the American political system, which makes action hard under any circumstances, cares much more about the strong objections of individual states than the weak preferences of the country.

As I wrote in the original piece, "if you were going to weaponize an issue to take advantage of the weak points in the American political system - to highlight all the blind spots, dysfunctions, and irrationalities - you would create climate change. And then you would stand back and watch the world burn."

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The American Prospect is laying off or losing most of its staff, pulling back its web operations and returning to its roots as a quarterly policy journal. This is deeply sad for those of us who love TAP. But respect must be paid. The American Prospect won. It's now a victim of its own success.

The Prospect didn't begin as a web magazine. It began as a policy journal co-founded by Bob Kuttner, Paul Starr, and Robert Reich. The first issue, in 1990, included articles from William Julius Wilson on race-neutral policymaking inside the Democratic coalition, Deborah Stone on the challenges predictive diagnoses posed for the health-insurance industry, and Christopher Jencks on welfare reform. It's a wonderful read, even today.

But there had been policy journals before TAP and there would be policy journals after TAP. What changed journalism  — and, honestly, my life  —  was Tapped.

Tapped was the group blog of the American Prospect. It was started by Nick Confessore (now of the New York Times) and Chris Mooney (now of Mother Jones). And it was awesome. It married the Prospect's policy writing to the early blogosphere's experiments with voice and form.

The result was something truly new: policy writing that was smart, short, accessible, and constant.

Daily journalism used to mean print newspaper journalism. But newsprint was a rough format for policy writing. The ruthless competition for space and the relentless focus on newness made it hard to give tricky issues the length or the repetition they required. It made it hard, as a reporter, to go deep enough, often enough, to really understand the issue yourself. The studiously neutral voice made it impossible for readers to pick apart competing claims. The crowded pages had little room for graphs and maps. The lack of hyperlinks meant everything needed to be explained and reexplained.

That isn't to shortchange the great policy journalism that was done in newspapers, or the many reporters and editors who labored mightily to produce it. But for these reasons and others, the deepest policy journalism was found in magazines and journals like the New Republic, the American Prospect, the Weekly Standard, the Washington Monthly, the Public Interest, the National Review, and Dissent. They could give issues the space they needed. They tended to have at least a bit more voice, which made it easier to make policy accessible to readers.

But they had one huge flaw: they were slow.

The journals were typically quarterly, with articles that needed to be finished months before they came out. The magazines were typically monthly (though some, like the New Republic, were weekly), and they also tended to close their pieces months or weeks before publication. The production cycle meant that these publications could propose big ideas, and analyze relatively static ideas, but they couldn't explain what Washington was doing in real-time.

But Tapped could. And it did. I was a freshman in college when I stumbled across it. I don't remember how I got there. But I was addicted almost instantly. It was like nothing I had ever read before. It was fun, and it was urgent, and it made me feel like I actually understood what was going on. It took issues seriously without taking itself seriously. And it was rare. Most editors still pronounced the word "blog" as if they were swallowing something sour. There were individuals doing this kind of work (notably Kevin Drum, who is still killing it at Mother Jones), but alongside the National Review, the American Prospect was years ahead of its competitors in building a vibrant, popular institutional blog.

Over the years that followed, Tapped would be home to many of the policy blogosphere's innovators  —  in part because the Prospect used its fellows program to begin hiring young bloggers and training them as journalists.

Vox's Matt Yglesias was there, as was Yahoo News' Garance Franke-Ruta. Slate's Jamelle Bouie put in his years, and so did MSNBC's Adam Serwer. The Huffington Post's Kate Sheppard, education reporter Dana Goldstein, UN Dispatch's Mark Goldberg , Talking Point Memo's Kay Steiger, Ann Friedman —  all Tapped alumni. And it's a mark of the Prospect's internal culture that many of the pre-Tapped employees, like the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn, New York's Jonathan Chait, and Talking Point Memo's Josh Marshall later became pillars of the policy blogosphere.

I was hired as a writing fellow at the American Prospect in 2005. I remember the first meeting I ever had with my then-editor, Mike Tomasky.

"Go find out what's hot in poverty," he said. That's how TAP was. It was a place where no one thought you were joking when you non-ironically applied the descriptor "hot" to poverty policy. And so I went out and found out what was hot in poverty policy. I called experts and I pored over white papers and I talked to social workers. Before coming to TAP I did some policy commentary. But the Prospect taught me, as it taught many others, to do actual policy reporting. Tomasky said "pick up the damn phone" so often that it got its own acronym: PUTDP. That's part of what made Tapped special: it was one of the first places to really merge the style of writing being developed on the web with the more traditional tools of journalism.

The combination of TAP's culture and Tapped's medium created a place where young journalists could go and experiment with policy journalism on the web. And some of those experiments worked. It turned out health-care policy could really appeal to readers. It turned out the internet loved charts. It turned out that policy writing could be short, or even just a link. It turned out that a conversational tone didn't destroy the writer's authority. It turned out that blogs benefitted at least as much from diligent reporting as magazine articles. Those experiments now inform journalism in places ranging from the Washington Post and the New York Times to Buzzfeed and Business Insider. Tapped's style of policy journalism is everywhere now.

As for Vox, well, two of the three founders are Tapped alumnus. Without Tapped, there would certainly be no Vox.

The Prospect was held back by some of the problems that have traditionally bedeviled small, nonprofit publishers. It could groom young writers, but it could never pay enough to keep them. It had the money to put out the magazine but rarely enough to invest in it. It was quick to adopt the web but slow to update its publishing software. It was an early innovator but it wasn't as adaptable as digitally native organizations like the Huffington Post and TPM. Ultimately, many of the bets the American Prospect made paid off for other institutions. Tapped won, but TAP didn't reap the rewards. The Prospect shut Tapped down in 2011.

Even so, the American Prospect's future might be brighter than some of the commentary suggests. Tapped was, in its time, exactly what was needed. But there's plenty of fast-breaking policy news and commentary today. Perhaps even a bit too much of it. There aren't enough truly great homes for the big ideas and deep analysis TAP originally provided. There aren't enough places that are developing the policies that will dominate the news cycle five years from now. The Prospect might yet win again.

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Josh Barro, responding in part to my interview with Kevin Roose, says that Wall Street can be a great place for young graduates to go out and learn useful skills. "The key is to be the right banker at the right bank":

At Wells Fargo, being a junior banker didn't mean a terrible work-life balance. I typically worked about 50 hours a week. For my work, I was paid at an annual rate of $85,000 in my first year and $125,000 in my third, including bonus. That's not as much as the Goldman Sachs analysts I knew were making, but it's about as much per hour, and in any case it's a lot of money for a 23-year-old.

Most important, my work at Wells Fargo was both analytically challenging and socially useful. There are lots of bankers doing work that is detached from the nonfinancial economy or harmful to it. I wasn't one of them. Real estate project finance is essential for creating the built environment where we live and work, and we got to see tangible results as the buildings we financed were built.

I don't have a problem with any of that. But the larger question raised by Roose's book is how so many young people are graduating from Ivy League schools without feeling like they've learned useful work skills. That's the anxiety — and perhaps the reality — that Wall Street is taking advantage of, and it speaks to a deeper problem that the banking sector didn't cause and shouldn't be in charge of fixing.

Also relevant to this conversation: Harvard's poll of graduating seniors still shows many fewer going to Wall Street than in 2007.

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Doctors know antibiotics aren't the right treatment for bronchitis. And they know overuse of antibiotics is leading to the rise of dangerous "superbugs." But they prescribe them anyway because patients feel better walking out of the doctor's office with antibiotics.

To this day, 71 percent of bronchitis cases are treated with antibiotics. When we have to explain to our children how we ended up in the post-antibiotic future, "it seemed easier than telling patients antibiotics aren't how you treat bronchitis" is going to seem like a wan excuse.

This also speaks to a deep problem in health care: patients have no idea how to judge quality care. If you survey someone with bronchitis walking out of their doctor's office with antibiotics they're probably going to tell you their doctor did a great job. If you survey someone whose doctor refused to prescribe antibiotics they might say the doctor did a terrible job. The truth, of course, would be exactly the reverse, but quality care and care that makes patients happy are different — and occasionally opposite — things.

For more on the danger of antibiotic overuse, watch Vox's interview with Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He begins talking about superbugs around the 7:00 mark:


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The chart, if anything, underestimates America's military advantage against its nearest competitors. Military spending is cumulative. While China now accounts for nearly 11 percent of all military expenditures that's a recent development. The US, meanwhile, has been spending much more than anyone else for decades now. Some of that spending has gone towards bombs that have already been dropped and tanks that no longer work. But much of it went to nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers that are still deployed today.

The US is also geographically more secure than any other country on this list. It borders Canada and Mexico, and is flanked by oceans on both the east and the west. China, by contrast, borders 14 other nations: North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Russia is in a similarly packed region. But the US still spends vastly more on defense despite the paucity of nearby threats.

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Paul Krugman doesn't think so:

In the United States, income inequality has soared since 1980 by any measure you use. Unless the affluent starting saving less than the working class, this rise in income disparity must have led to a rise in wealth disparity over time.

There's also the fact that other analyses using different data sources have shown much what Piketty shows.

York is giving me credit I don't deserve. As the link in the original text suggests, the estimate isn't mine. It's a pretty straightforward calculation by the proprietor of Squarely Rooted. The basic insight is that "the market value of an enslaved person was an implicit statement about the expected income that slaveholders receive from the forced labor of their prisoners."

Slavespikettyzucman

Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman,"Capital is Back".

We have reasonably reliable data on the market value of America's slaves in the pre-Civil War period. From there what you need to do is estimate the annual income from the forced labor (in this case, he uses four percent — a conservative number based on Piketty's work). And then you get into the difficult work of choosing a discount rate:

Firstly, you have to select a discount rate in order to compute the present value of the total of that income on the eve of the Civil War in 1860; then you have to select a discount rate to compound that through 2014.

Well, that's where things get interesting.

For now, let's pick 1% for both of those discount rates (which I am doing for a reason, as you will see). That makes the value in 1860 of all the income stolen by the Slave Power since the Declaration of Independence said liberty was inalienable roughly $378 billion*. That $378 billion, compounded at 1% annually for 154 years, is worth just about $1.75 trillion.

But those discount rates are both low - really, really low, in fact. Lower than the rate of economic growth, the rate of return on capital, and lower than the discount rate used by the government. When you increase those discount rates, though, you start to get some very, very, very large numbers. If you increase just the pre-1860 discount rate to 4%, for example, the 1860 figure leaps to over a trillion dollars, which even at a discount rate of 1% thereafter still comes to well over four-and-a-half trillion dollars today. Even vaster is the increase that comes from increasing the post-1860 rate, even if you leave the pre-1860 rate at 1%. At 2%, today's bill comes due at just under $8 trillion; at 3%, $35 trillion; at the government's rate of 7%, it comes to over $12.5 quadrillion. That's over six times the entire income of the planet since 1950, a number that even if we concluded it was just - and given the incalculable and incomparable horror of slavery as practiced in the antebellum United States, it's difficult to say any amount of material reparation is adequately just - is in practice impossible to pay.

As I wrote, the theft stretches to quadrillions using the government's standard discount rate. But perhaps you think a different discount rate is more appropriate. That's an argument worth having. And this kind of calculation is, of course, crude. What was taken from slaves wasn't left in a high-yield savings account for all these years. The Civil War, for one, destroyed plenty of wealth.

The intent here isn't to find a point estimate for reparations. There are some thefts that, under any standard accounting, took more than can ever be repaid. But this calculation — reductive as it is — helps give us a way to think about the enormity of the crime. (I'm sure readers more familiar with this topic than me will also be able to point the way towards other calculations that also help shed light on this question.)

This is Squarely Rooted's show so I'll let him end the piece:

Compound interest is a powerful force. Mathematically, obviously; but also morally. These large numbers my spreadsheet is producing are not neutral exercises - they are telling us something not only about the magnitude of the grave injustice of slavery but also the injustice of failing, year after year, to begin to pay down our massive debt to those whose exploitation and suffering was our economic backbone. And that only refers to our material debt; our moral debt, although never fully repayable, grows in the absence of substantive recognition (or the presence of regressive anti-recognition).

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In a mighty odd column, David Brooks pens a paean to technocratic autocracies like Singapore and suggests that the US needs to "make democracy dynamic again" if it's going to keep up. How will it make democracy dynamic again? Glad you asked:

The quickest way around all this is to use elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms.

The process of change would be unapologetically elitist. Gather small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms - on immigration, entitlement reform, a social mobility agenda, etc. - and then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through.

Of course, there already was a Simpson-Bowles-type commission that overwhelmingly rallied establishment opinion to its side. It was called the Simpson-Bowles commission. And it failed. So did its descendants like the Senate's Gang of Six and the Supercommittee.

Whatever you think of the Simpson-Bowles plan the outcome proved that these kinds of elite committees aren't able to browbeat their plans through Congress. The outcome of Simpson-Bowles is a big part of the reason some in Washington have begun envying the decisiveness of East Asian autocracies, not a model for how the US can mimic their decisiveness.

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And she is awesome. She also happens to report on economic policy at New York Times. You can (and should!) read her great articles. But she's not in management or involved in any of the Abramson contretemps, and if she has any super juicy scoops or inside information about what's going on there, she hasn't told me.

One of the best parts of New York Times' innovation report (summary here, full document here) is page 16's insanely clear explanation of "disruption":

What_is_disruption

Over the past couple of years, a disruptive product has become a buzzword meaning, roughly, "a new thing that a lot of people buy." But that's not what's useful about the idea of disruption at all. The original theory comes from Clayton Christensen's study of things like the hard drive and steel industries where he realized that disruptive products tend to combine new technologies, cheaper production, and — crucially — worse products.

That last bit is the key: it's the poor quality and low profit margins of the new product that prevent the incumbent business from recognizing the threat. But as the competitors experiment with the new production technologies they become better able to produce high-quality, high-profit products than the incumbents, and they eventually move up the value chain and disrupt the incumbent's core business.

There are lots of threats that aren't disruptive. USA Today, for instance, has a huge web site and is doing some really interesting things online, but they're just a direct competitor to the NYT. They're doing more or less what the Times does and trying to do it better.

Conversely, Buzzfeed is a disruptive threat to the New York Times. They began leveraging technology to churn out aggregated videos and light listicles that are targeted at generating social shares. Their content was — and is — much worse than what the New York Times offers. But they're getting better fast. Now they're using their technology advantage to also do foreign reporting and feature journalism in ways that are much better suited to the social web and much cheaper to produce.

I've read a lot of descriptions of how disruption works. But the New York Times' three-part infographic here is easily the clearest explanation I've come across.

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The very existence of a policy issue tells you that it is difficult to solve, either politically or technically.

The subject is the difficulty of coming up with new antibiotics. More here.

It was because Jonah Peretti wouldn't sell to Disney — or, perhaps to anyone.

Business Insider reports:

Last June, talks between Disney and BuzzFeed began. A source says they were "substantive" and Disney threw out a high price for the media startup. But talks came to a halt in October, and they didn't dissolve over money. Instead, Peretti decided he didn't want to sell Buzzfeed.

"Jonah wants to run this company for the next 40 years," Lerer says, although he declined to comment on Disney specifically. "I imagine I can't find a price Jonah would sell at."

Steinberg, who had been committed to Buzzfeed for the past four years, felt differently. He wasn't sure he wanted to commit his life to someone else's company.

If I was a Buzzfeed employee — at least one without massive stock options — I'd be very happy about this report.

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At Quartz, Zach Seward pulls out a fascinating tidbit from the New York Times' internal review of its digital direction: home page traffic has fallen by half over the last two years. This is true even though the NYT's home page has been beautifully redesigned, and the NYT's overall traffic is up:

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(Apologies for the hard-to-read chart: in an unintentionally hilarious angle to all this, the NYT's report on the need to be digital-first appears to be a print-first document that Buzzfeed subsequently scanned, uploaded to the web, and is getting traffic from.)

The trend isn't quite as bad as the chart suggests: The Y axis goes 160 to 80, which means traffic to the home page has fallen by roughly half rather than, as the chart suggests, nearly 100 percent. Still, the Times doesn't mince words:

Traffic to the home page has been declining, month after month, for years. Traffic to section fronts is negligible. Traffic on our mobile apps, which are mostly downstream replicas of our home page and section fronts, has declined, as well.

Ouch. "Home pages, section fronts, and apps are pull media — that is, they rely on readers actively requesting them," comments Seward. "But the new news habit is no habit at all."

This is the conventional wisdom across the industry now: the new home page is Facebook and Twitter. The old home page — which is the actual home page — is dying a slow, painful death.

I'm skeptical. The thing about "push media" is someone needs to do the pushing. Someone has to post an article to Twitter or Facebook. That can be the media brand. It can even be the journalists. But when articles work it's really coming from the readers. Social media is wonderfully, frustratingly organic. Oftentimes the biggest hits are the ones you never even thought to share.

So the next question is where do those readers — the ones seeding your content, and finding your gems — come from? That turns out to be a very, very hard question to answer. It's tough to track the chains of social shares. But my experience — and that may not be worth much — is that many of them are coming to your home page. Some of the most committed users are still clicking through the RSS feed (which is one reason Vox maintains a full-text RSS feed). These groups are smaller as a percentage of the whole than they used to be. But they're the people who care enough to read everything and share lots of it.

Which is all to say that the homepage may not be dying so much as it's changing. The home page used to be the way most of your readers found your content. It's becoming the way your power users find the content to share with your casual users. As we begin to understand that behavior better it'll likely change the way we build and curate home pages quite a bit.

Medium is an interesting experiment here: They demanded my Twitter information before I could log in, and now the homepage I see there is full of things my friends have liked, or in some cases written — and that means I'm a lot likelier to share it.

Then there's the question of where the homepage is. Quartz's designs makes every page — including a typical article page — function like a mini home page. Readers can come in any door they want but they still find themselves ushered into the living room.

We're at the beginning of those experiments. Media brands are just figuring out how to use Facebook and Twitter. Their home pages are still way too popular to absorb massive changes without reader backlash. But as social-media proficiency builds and the value of the home page declines there will be a lot of experimentation. The home page, after all, is one of the last spaces that publishers actually control, and that committed readers reliably frequent. It'd be crazy to let it die.

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The graduation speech format is so insanely successful at pulling wonderful, even life changing, thoughts out of fascinating people. But it's also a really inefficient vehicle. Graduation speeches only happen once a year. They only happen at a small number of institutions. And the speakers are chosen in a pretty ad hoc way.

The upside, of course, is that graduation speeches feel important enough to the speakers that they really work hard on them. And there's an implicit cultural agreement around graduation speeches that says we won't judge people pompous for standing at a podium and telling us how to live. If that tacit agreement wasn't there the graduation speech format would be too dangerous for anyone to try.

Still, there must be some format or space that could create a more routine outlet for beautiful thoughts from interesting people about how to live better.

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It's worth being skeptical about the details dribbling out of the break between the New York Times and Jill Abramson right now.

A good rule of thumb for this kind of thing is that if the principals aren't talking, then the stories are probably wrong — or at least incomplete — in very important ways. It's almost impossible for a reporter, no matter how good, to deliver a clear description of a negotiation where the people doing the negotiating aren't cooperating. Instead you get a lot of second-hand (or worse) information, some of it from sources who don't know nearly as much as they think they do, some of it dressed-up to sound more authoritative by reporters or pundits who want to seem like they're more in the loop than they are.

"As part of a settlement agreement between her and the paper, neither side would go into detail about her firing," reports the New York Times. Perhaps that's not true. With anonymous sources you never really know who's talking and who isn't. But at this juncture it's probably mostly true. The Sulzbergers are likely trying to ride this out. It sounds like Abramson is legally barred from discussing the break. Friends and allies might step into the breach, but so too will hanger-ons, troublemakers, and earnest observers who think they know a lot more than they do. Moreover, this seems to have been an incredibly well-kept secret in the Times newsroom. The universe of people who know the real story is, for now, quite small — and they're only in the know because one side or the other is sure they won't talk.

Which isn't to say the reporting coming out now is wrong. It's just not quite right, either. There's some truth in it, a lot of truth missing, a few lies mixed in for good measure, and it'll be a long time till we can tell which is which.

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