Putin’s 2nd most important U.S. ally– McConnell

Great Greg Sargent piece from a couple days ago that got a lot of well-deserved attention:

One shadow narrative unfolding in the background over the past two years has been the gradual discovery of just how broad the scope of Russian sabotage of the 2016 election really was. This has made certain events during the campaign appear more serious in retrospect.

In September 2016, as The Post has reported, top Obama administration officials privately asked senior congressional leaders in both parties to go public with a united front against Russian interference. But McConnell refused, claiming (in The Post’s words) that “he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.” McConnell also questioned the intelligence demonstrating Russian sabotage.

We have since learned a great deal about the Russian interference that McConnell raised doubts about. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s indictments of Russian nationals laid out a very detailed plot to corruptly swing the election. More recently, Senate Intelligence Committee reports demonstrated the extraordinary reach of the Russian disinformation campaign, which included elaborate efforts to divide the country on racial and cultural lines.

Remember, it was widely known during the election that some sort of Russian interference efforts were taking place. Candidate Trump was downplaying the seriousness of these efforts, or dismissing them altogether.

It’s hard to know how much of a difference it would have made if congressional leaders went public with bipartisan acknowledgment and condemnation of the Russian interference effort. But it certainly could have helped educate the public and shed light on just how indefensible Trump’s downplaying of Russian sabotage really was. Of course, that might have hurt Trump’s candidacy, so for McConnell, it was apparently a nonstarter…

This raises new questions about another McConnell action: The refusal to hold votes on legislation protecting the special counsel. In fairness, Trump has still not moved successfully against Mueller. But McConnell scuttled efforts to protect Mueller even though Trump privately tried to fire him twice. There’s still time for Trump to act, and passing such protections — which the Democratic House would support — would plainly make any such action, and the damage it would cause, less likely.

Oh, should we also mention that, perhaps even more than Trump, McConnell deserves blame for the shutdown:

On the shutdown front, McConnell continues to refuse votes on bills reopening the government that have already passed the House. McConnell claims there’s no point, because Trump wouldn’t sign them. But this actively shields Trump from having to veto bills funding the government, which would make it much harder for him to keep holding out. Worse, McConnell privately told Trump in December he has no leverage and no endgame here, meaning McConnell knows full well that not forcing Trump’s hand leaves us adrift with no exit in sight…

In much discussion of all these matters, there is a terrible rhetorical habit of treating GOP conduct toward Trump as mere passive acquiescence. In fact, this is better seen as an active enabling, on one front after another. And we are likely to learn much more about just how damaging this has been soon enough.

Short version: Mitch McConnell– the second-worst person actively working to undermine American democracy.


What’s the deal with Brexit anyway?

I know you don’t come here for insights in Brexit, but I really wanted to share this Zack Beauchamp piece as it is easily the most succinct explanation of the key issues that I have read:

Theresa May was asked to turn a campaign of lies into political reality

Theresa May was not prime minister when the initial referendum on leaving the UK was held back in June 2016. Her predecessor, Conservative PM David Cameron, had supported staying in the EU. His gamble was that UK voters would vote to stay and the pressure to leave from Conservative hardliners and the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) would dissipate.

Some of those promises, like the health care spending numbers, were exposed as lies the day after the Brexit vote. But the British people had just voted to leave the EU to usher in utopia, and Theresa May was brought in to make that a reality.

To do so, she would need to thread a needle: somehow minimize the hit to the British economy by keeping as much access to EU markets as possible while simultaneously removing the UK from as many EU rules and regulations as possible to fulfill the “take back control” promise.

The problem was that there was a direct trade-off between these two goals. The EU negotiators didn’t want to allow Britain unfettered access to EU markets while it made its own rules on everything from immigration to product standards; that would be giving them a better deal than EU members. So there needed to be some kind of compromise.

The deal that Parliament voted on Tuesday was full of such compromises. It punted on a lot of central issues, including immigration, but allowed the UK to leave while keeping enough EU rules in place to avoid immediate catastrophe.

But even this was too much for the pro-Brexit Conservatives, who believed May was selling out to the Eurocrats. Their most heated objections focused on the so-called “Irish backstop,” a complicated provision designed to keep the border between the Republic of Ireland (an EU member) and British-controlled Northern Ireland open indefinitely.

The Brexiteers believed the backstop would force the UK to adhere to a number of EU trade and migration regulations for years — and they had a point. The problem is that the backstop was nonnegotiable for Ireland and the broader EU, which refused to grant Britain the power to unilaterally screw up a very tense border arrangement in a part of the world that has been wracked by conflict as recently as 1998.

This is the specific issue, more than any other, that caused more than 100 Conservative legislators to betray their prime minister and vote with the left-wing Labour opposition to defeat May’s Brexit deal. But focusing too much on the Ireland situation would be a mistake. Remember, this deal didn’t even settle the UK’s final status on thorny issues such as migration from EU member states; it left that decision to future negotiators to decide. There were any number of different specific, technical issues on which May could not have satisfied the EU without betraying the Brexiteers, and vice versa.

The fundamental and insurmountable problem is that Brexit was premised on a fantasy — a painless withdrawal from the European Union — that no prime minister could have delivered. Theresa May is no one’s idea of a great negotiator, but her fundamental project — a negotiated settlement to the Brexit situation — was doomed for structural reasons beyond her control. [emphasis mine]

Screens (and potatoes) are ruining our mental health

There’s been a lot of interesting research on the relationship between screen time and mental health, but it is all correlational and pretty hard to tease out truly solid conclusions.  Of course, this is exactly the sort of issue where a modest, but statistically significant correlation can get overblown into explaining everything.  Now, I definitely think there’s all sorts of reasons we think hard about how and why kids and adolescents especially use screens, but there’s also no cause for a moral panic at this point.

Really good piece in Wired discussing the latest research:

PSYCHOLOGISTS CAN’T SEEM to agree on what technology is doing to our sense of well-being. Some say digital devices have become a bane of modern life; others claim they’re a balm for it. Between them lies a shadowy landscape of non-consensus: As the director the National Institutes of Health recently told Congress, research into technology’s effects on our thoughts, behaviors, and development has produced limited—and often contradictory—findings.

As if that uncertainty weren’t vexing enough, many of those findings have sprung from the same source: Giant data sets that compile survey data from thousands or even millions of participants. “The problem is, two researchers can look at the same data and come away with completely different findings and prescriptions for society,” says psychologist Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute. “Technological optimists tend to find positive correlations. If they’re pessimists, they tend to find negative ones.”…

Whether they realize it or not, a researcher who chooses to focus only on certain questions is making a decision to pursue one analytical path at the exclusion of many, many others. How many? In the case of the MCS, combining the survey’s questions on well-being with those on things like TV watching, videogame habits, and social media use produces a total of 603,979,752 analytical paths a researcher could take. Combine them with questions directed to the caregivers of study participants, and that figure balloons to 2.5 trillion.

Granted, the vast majority of those 2.5 trillion results are not all that interesting. But the sprawling nature of these data sets allows for associations to emerge that are technically statistically significant but are very, very small. In science, large sample sizes are generally considered to be a good thing. Yet when you combine the large number of analytical paths afforded by subjective survey questions with an enormous number of survey participants, it opens the door to statistical skullduggery like p-hacking—the practice of fishing for favorable results in a large set of data…

The result was a series of visualizations that map the wide gamut of potential effects researchers could detect in the three repositories, and they reveal several important things: One, that small changes in analytical approach can lead to dramatically different findings along that spectrum. Two, that the correlation between technology use and well-being is negative. And three, that this correlation is very, very small, explaining—at most—0.4 percent of the variation in adolescent well-being.

To put it in perspective, the researchers compared the link between technology use and adolescent well-being to that of other factors examined by the large-scale data sets. “Using technology is about as associated with well-being as eating potatoes,” Przybylski says. In other words: hardly at all. By the same logic, bullying had an effect size four times greater than screen use. Smoking cigarettes? 18 times. Conversely, getting enough sleep and eating breakfast were positively associated with adolescent well-being at a magnitude 44 and 30 times that of technology use, respectively.

Put another way: Technology’s impact on well-being might be statistically significant, but its practical significance—according to existing data sets—appears negligible. [emphasis mine]

I love this take.  Way back when I first learned the magical arts of social science statistics we talked a lot about statistical significance versus substantive significance.  The reality is that it is far too easy to get hung up on statistical significance even when the practical effect of a result would be pretty modest.

I suspect that we’ll come to find that too much screen time– of particular sorts– really is notably worse for you than eating potatoes.  But for now, we just don’t really know.

Why American health care is so expensive

Because we price it so high.  Sure, that’s kind of a tautology, but, basically we charge way more for the same amount of medical goods and services as pretty much any other country.  And, since a lot of people are getting rich off that, it won’t be easy at all to change.  This great piece from Austin Frakt and Aaron E. Carroll is just over a year old, but, somehow, I only came across it last week.  Obviously, still as relevant as ever:

The United States spends almost twice as much on health care, as a percentage of its economy, as other advanced industrialized countries — totaling $3.3 trillion, or 17.9 percent of gross domestic product in 2016.

But a few decades ago American health care spending was much closer to that of peer nations.

What happened?

A large part of the answer can be found in the title of a 2003 paper in Health Affairs by the Princeton University health economist Uwe Reinhardt: “It’s the prices, stupid.

The study, also written by Gerard Anderson, Peter Hussey and Varduhi Petrosyan, found that people in the United States typically use about the same amount of health care as people in other wealthy countries do, but pay a lot more for it.

Ashish Jha, a physician with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, studies how health systems from various countries compare in terms of prices and health care use. “What was true in 2003 remains so today,” he said. “The U.S. just isn’t that different from other developed countries in how much health care we use. It is very different in how much we pay for it.”… [emphases mine]

There are ways to combat high health care prices. One is an all-payer system, like that seen in Maryland. This regulates prices so that all insurers and public programs pay the same amount. A single-payer system could also regulate prices. If attempted nationally, or even in a state, either of these would be met with resistance from all those who directly benefit from high prices, including physicians, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies — and pretty much every other provider of health care in the United States.

Higher prices aren’t all bad for consumers. They probably lead to some increased innovation, which confers benefits to patients globally.

Short version: everybody who provides health care in any way is pretty much richer than they should be and everybody who consumes is poorer than they should be, compared to the whole rest of the world.  That needs to change.  And, yeah, some people will be upset.

Autocrats love national emergencies

Great NYT Op-Ed from the authors of How Democracies Die.  One way?  Wannabe autocrats gin up phony “national emergencies.”  Hmmm, almost seems as if that is somehow relevant to Trump:

Although President Trump operates in a different political environment, his behavior, particularly since the November midterm elections, betrays similar autocratic instincts. The president manifestly lacks the patience or negotiating skills needed to deal with divided government. His response to Democratic control of the House of Representatives has been a refusal to compromise and, more dangerously, a refusal to lose. Unlike Presidents Clinton and Bush, who conceded defeat when it became clear that their initiatives lacked legislative support, Mr. Trump has refused to accept the failure of his border wall project. Unable to obtain the necessary votes in Congress, the president recklessly forced a government shutdown. When that didn’t get him his wall, he moved to circumvent Congress altogether by inventing — if not yet declaring — a national emergency. In his Oval Office speech on Tuesday, he used the word “crisis” six times in eight minutes. That is how autocrats respond to legislative opposition. [emphases mine] Following in the tradition of Vargas and Marcos, Mr. Trump fabricated a security threat to make the case for bypassing Congress.

The president’s border wall stunt may well fail. Mr. Trump is politically weak. Outside of his core group of supporters, few Americans believe that the southern border poses a national security threat, and there is a chance — though it is far from certain — that any effort by Mr. Trump to circumvent Congress would be blocked by the courts. On Friday, Mr. Trump seemed to acknowledge the weakness of his position when he announced that “what we’re not looking to do right now is national emergency,” although he continued to hold the threat over Congress.

But no matter the outcome, these developments should set off alarm bells. Our president is behaving like an autocrat. His willingness to fabricate a national crisis and subvert constitutional checks and balances to avoid legislative defeat places him closer to Ferdinand Marcos than to Ronald Reagan…

Mr. Trump lacks the self-restraint of Lincoln, F.D.R., or even George W. Bush. Indeed, he seems incapable of exercising executive power responsibly. Mr. Trump’s first encounter with divided government has produced what is proving to be the longest government shutdown ever. And any reckless use of emergency powers would set a dangerous precedent for overriding the legislative branch. Unlike other national emergency declarations, this one would openly defy the will of Congress.

This raises a terrifying question: How would a president who is willing to fabricate a national emergency over a simple legislative impasse behave during a real security crisis?

Sadly, of course, we know the answer to this.  Even worse, we know how his Republican enablers would respond.

Putin’s President

Ardent never-Trumper and national security expert Tom Nichols weighs in upon the latest revelations:

Let us sit back, just for a moment, and absorb the reality of the revelations of the past few days.

For apparently the first time in history, the president of the United States himself was the subject of a counterintelligence investigation. This means that his ties to a hostile power were significant enough to overcome the high bar the FBI would have to clear to investigate any American for possibly being influenced or compromised by another country — much less its own chief executive. [emphases mine]

We have also learned that the president has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal his discussions with an enemy foreign leader not only from intelligence and foreign policy figures in his own administration, but even from the senior officials of his own Oval Office. It should go without saying that he has tried, in this area as in so many others, to wall himself off from congressional oversight…

While Trump is not an “agent” of the Russian Federation (too many people use this kind of language without knowing what it means to counterintelligence officials), it seems at this point beyond argument that the president personally fears Russian President Vladimir Putin for reasons that can only suggest the existence of compromising information.

Despite the lurid fantasies of the president’s opponents, however, this information is most likely regarding the possible entanglement of Trump’s finances in New York with the Russian mob, Russian intelligence and the Russian government — which are, functionally, the same group — over the past decades…

First, the existence of the counterintelligence investigation is not a scandal. Indeed, it would be scandal if we had found out today that the FBI had not launched an investigation.

Trump’s behavior regarding Russia has always presented a serious security concern. But when Trump fires the director of the FBI, and then brags about it to actual Russians, only the most stupid or craven law enforcement agency would decline to investigate what to any counterintelligence officer would be the brightest of dozens of flashing red lights…

Second, the president’s attempts to hide the content of his conversations with Putin are not only abnormal but also deeply suspect. The intelligence community, members of Congress and the public should always be anxious whenever any American official talks to a top Russian leader and then tries to seize the notes. This kind of behavior violates practices of sensible diplomacy and intelligence analysis, and no one acts this way for innocent reasons…

Finally, it is exhausting but nonetheless necessary to point out again the titanic hypocrisy of the Republican Party and of Trump’s apologists in the conservative media. If President Barack Obama had shredded his notes of a meeting with the Iranian president, or if Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager were sitting in jail for lying about meeting a Chinese business associate — and alleged intelligence officer — to share polling data, that alone would have been enough for the GOP to impeach everyone from the president to the White House chef.

Safe to say we are in a slow-moving Constitutional crisis and far and away the scariest part of it is not Trump’s actions, but that the Republican Party still so decidedly enables him.

Quick hits (part II)

1) I knew pretty much nothing about Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard (now running for president).  Thanks to this New Yorker article, now I do.  Okay, I did know from a few FB posts that she had a rather checkered history on LGBT issues.  Looks like she’s been taking the orthodox Democratic position for a while now, though.  At what point are people not allowed to change?

2a) Nice piece on marginal tax rates thanks to AOC.

2b) It also links to this in Politico:

The Congressional Research Service published a paper in 2012 that found no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth. Congressional Republicans protested the findings, and the service briefly withdrew the paper.

Republicans argued that the CRS paper had methodological errors, namely that it didn’t account for the long-term benefits of tax rate cuts. The paper looked only at effects on growth within the first year of the cuts.

POLITICO looked at each time the country changed the top income tax rate and the following five years of GDP per capita growth rate. The results are similar to the CRS findings: changing the top income tax rate does not have a predictable effect on economic growth.  [emphases in original]

3) Really interesting 538 piece on the problems of single-stream recycling.  It gets so many more people recycling.  But, the recycling is so much more contaminated.  Pretty nasty catch 22.

4) Love this Atlantic article on what $5 billion on border security other than a wall could actually buy.  Great example of the wall as horribly inefficient policy and also of opportunity costs.

5) “Ag gag” laws are just the worst.  Fortunately, some courts are now agreeing.  Vox explains:

Ultimately, though, ag-gag laws aren’t the real problem — they’re a symptom of it. The problem is that what goes on on our farms is so horrifying, and so unconscionable to the typical American consumer, that agribusinesses have turned to trying to hide it.

“The situation agribusiness faced was this,” Balk told me. “They tried for many years” to defend the treatment of animals in industrial farming — blaming systemic abuses on individual bad workers, claiming that their practices were good for animals. “They lost every time. They lost ballot measures, they lost their customers — fast-food chains and major grocery stores.”

That’s why there was a sudden surge of interest in banning undercover investigations of factory farms. Ag-gag laws, in other words, came about because agribusiness concluded the horrors of our food system couldn’t stand up to the light of day.

People want affordable meat. They don’t want animals treated cruelly. Right now, the industry is trying to provide the meat and hide the cruelty. But we can do better. It’s fair to expect a food system that doesn’t have to hide its conduct from its customers — and fair to be very concerned that our current food system considered ag-gag laws a better solution. [emphasis mine]

6) With technology making it so much easier to work from home, we are seeing the death of the sick day.

7) Interesting Op-Ed from a leading pro-life Democrat on the rhetoric of abortion.  I’ll definitely give her this point:

The New York Times editorial board, for instance, recently used the phrase “clusters of cells that have not yet developed into viable human beings,” in a discussion of rights being extended to a fetus in the womb, or what I call a prenatal child.

Language like this ignores the fact that each of us once existed as “clusters of cells that have not yet developed into viable human beings.” It seeks to hide the fact that by the time most surgical abortions take place, a prenatal child has electrical activity in the brain and a beating heart.

Other words and phrases used in the discussion about abortion seek to obscure this reality as well: “tissue,” “part of the mother,” “parasite,” “potential life.” Even the term “fetus” is dehumanizing.

Outside of an abortion context, an obstetrician-gynecologist doesn’t generally speak to a mother about her fetus. She talks to her about her baby. Family and friends organize baby showers, not fetus showers. A mother-to-be has a baby bump, not a fetus bump. She is “with child,” not “with fetus.” It is not unusual for major news outlets, such as the BBC, to use the phrase “unborn babies” when they report on new prenatal surgical techniques.

I’ll always remember the words from my ardently pro-choice Ethics professor friend… if you think abortion is an easy call, you’re not thinking hard enough.  Trying to reduce a human embryo, rhetorically to “clusters of cells that have not yet developed into viable human beings” is a way to try to win an argument without facing up to the moral complexity.

8) Drum is right… never believe corporations:

My take on all this is to repeat something I’ve said before: Never believe corporations. Period.¹ Don’t believe them when they say the “jury is still out” about the danger of the chemicals they produce. Don’t believe them when they say environmental regulations will put them out of business. Don’t believe them when they claim that they’ll hire more people and boost their fixed investment if Congress will pass tax cuts. And don’t believe them when they say they just can’t find people to take their jobs. Most of them just need to stop goosing their hiring requirements and increase their pay rate a bit. Problem solved.

¹I should add that you shouldn’t automatically believe the opposite of what corporations say, either. Simply treat their pronouncements as null data, sort of like the pleas of a coke addict who you know will say anything to get a few bucks from you. Just ignore the chatter and make up your mind based on all the other evidence available.

8) I never heard about this police shooting from over a year ago until today.  It is so horribly appalling and there has been absolutely nothing to hold anybody to account.  Talk about a “police state.”  Ugh.

9) Loved so many of Andrew Yang’s ideas for thinking about the economy.

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