Plenty of good stuff written on the Betsy Devos hearings.  Jennifer Rubin:

DeVos has strong backing among Republicans, but the rocky outing damaged her reputation and her ability to make a case (hers and the incoming administration’s) for school choice and expanded charter schools. Moreover, the DeVos and Tillerson hearings should give Republicans pause about the competency of the administration. They will be the ones to cast votes for candidates who did not appear prepared; they’ll be the ones to get flak if DeVos doesn’t perform well. They may tire at some point of bailing out the White House if the new administration cannot do the bare minimum to help its own nominees. Finally, the shoddy preparation provided to those new to government service may discourage others from accepting spots. Who wants to accept a bid to go into government if your new boss sets you up to fail?

Poll after poll shows the public disapproves of the Trump transition and his nominees. Hearings like the one last night do not exactly inspire confidence. Like it or not, when Trump’s nominees do poorly, his standing with the public (rightfully) suffers.

The argument for hiring businesspeople and others outside government rests on the proposition that smart, competent people in one field can do well in another and bring new ideas and energy to government. The Trump team undercuts that argument when its ill-prepared nominees don’t sound informed or competent. Maybe both Trump and his nominees need to be put through their paces by people who respect the complexity of policy issues and the importance of the departments and agencies that they will be leading.

But I really love Charles Pierce’s typology of Trump nominees:

As nearly as I can tell, the nominees for the president-elect’s Cabinet fall into several different categories. There are the people you’d pretty much expect from any Republican administration. (James Mattis, Stephen Flynn, Ryan Zinke). There are the people who understand the mission of their departments and have spent their lives undermining it. (Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Rick Perry at Energy, Andrew Puzder at Labor). And there are the people who are fundamentally clueless about the general nature of public service. (Rex Tillerson at State.) On Tuesday night, DeVos demonstrated that she is that rarest of Trump administration fauna: Someone who fits capably into all three categories.


Unsurprising, but disturbing, chart of the day

From Pew:

And please, please, don’t try to argue that CNN– a network which paid money to Corey Lewandowski, among others– is in any way the liberal equivalent of Fox.  When it comes to the Republican electorate, it’s clearly a Fox News world.

The liberal hoax in animated gif form

This is what repeal looks like

CBO report out today.  Drum’s summary of the key points is good and succinct:

Senate Democrats asked for an estimate of what would happen if Obamacare were repealed. Here’s the CBO’s answer:

  • 18 million people would lose insurance. By 2026, that would increase to 32 million.
  • Premiums in the individual market would skyrocket, increasing 20-25 percent in the first year and about 50 percent by 2026.
  • Insurers would exit the individual market en masse. About half the nation’s population would live in areas with no individual insurers at all, rising to three-quarters by 2026.

That is inconvenient, isn’t it? This is what happens if you eliminate Obamacare but keep in place the ban on pre-existing conditions—which Republicans all say they support and which they can’t repeal anyway. Premiums would skyrocket, 32 million people would lose coverage, and insurers would abandon about three-quarters of the country.

This is what Republicans need to address with their “replace” plan. But they can’t do it and they know it.

How long before the Republicans just try to banish the CBO and replace it with the CRU (Congressional Unicorns and Rainbows) which would make their plans work out okay?

Democrats need to hammer and hammer and hammer on these facts above.  And hammer some more.

Practice, practice, practice

So, I started writing this post while my son was practicing piano.  I’ve been trying to take it up a bit again myself.  I played from the ages of 8-18 and got pretty good.  The Rachmaninoff C# Minor Prelude is probably about as good as I got.  Now I’ve been working on Chopin’s C minor Prelude (“that super sad song you are always playing” as my wife calls it) as well as Pachebel Canon in D.  I gave Claire de Lune a shot, but it’s just too hard.  Clearly need to work up to that.

Back in the day, of course, we didn’t have any of the modern studies of learning to guide practice.  Now we do.  I’ve been trying to apply these to help my son with his practice and now mine, too.  If it’s good for learning political science (as I’ve been encouraging my students for years), surely, principles of interleaved practice, self-testing, etc.,  are good for learning piano music.

Anyway, did some google searching to see what I could find about the science of learning and piano practice and came across some interesting sites about learning music and the brain.

Christine Carter applies the “Make it Stick” principles to piano practice:

In the field of sport psychology, the continuous repetition discussed above is called blocked practice. In a blocked practice schedule, all repetitions of one activity are completed before moving on to a second activity. For example, a baseball player who must hit fifteen fastballs, fifteen curve balls, and fifteen change-up pitches in practice would complete all of the fastballs before moving on to the curve balls and so on. This most resembles the way the majority of musicians practice, especially when it comes to challenging passages. We work on one excerpt for a given amount of time and then move on to the next excerpt until all tasks for the day are complete. A blocked approach seems logical.  Muscle memory requires repetition and why wouldn’t we do all of the repetitions in a row? After all, if we are working on a difficult passage, it feels a lot more comfortable 10 minutes into practice than at the beginning. It is precisely this feeling of comfort and improvement that reinforces our reliance on blocked practice. The problem with this kind of practicing, however, is that the positive results we feel in the practice room today do not lead to the best long-term learning tomorrow. Practicing in a way that optimizes performance in the practice room does not optimize learning…

In a random practice schedule, the performer must keep restarting different tasks. Because beginnings are always the hardest part, it will not feel as comfortable as practicing the same thing over and over again. But this challenge lies at the heart of why random practice schedules are more effective. When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning. In the blocked schedule above, the baseball players must only construct the action plan for each type of pitch once, at the beginning of each block. In the random schedule, they must construct and later reconstruct an action plan fifteen times for each pitch. Although a blocked schedule may produce superior performance during practice, study after study has shown that a random practice schedule consistently produces superior retention following practice a day or more later (i.e., the amount actually learned). This phenomenon is called the contextual interference effect. [italics in original; bold mine]

Meanwhile, I also came across the benefits of learning music for your brain.  I had Evan read this one and will remind him when he’s being difficult about practicing:

A growing number of studies show that music lessons in childhood can do something perhaps more valuable for the brain than childhood gains: provide benefits for the long run, as we age, in the form of an added defense against memory loss, cognitive decline, and diminished ability to distinguish consonants and spoken words.

Not only that, you may well get those benefits even if you haven’t tickled the ivories, strummed the guitar, or unpacked your instrument from its case in years. And dividends could even be in store if you decide to pick up an instrument for the very first time in mid­life or beyond.

The reason is that musical training can have a “profound” and lasting impact on the brain, creating additional neural connections in childhood that can last a lifetime and thus help compensate for cognitive declines later in life, says neuropsychologist Brenda Hanna­-Pladdy of Emory University in Atlanta. Those many hours spent learning and practicing specific types of motor control and coordination (each finger on each hand doing something different, and for wind and brass instruments, also using your mouth and breathing), along with the music­-reading and listening skills that go into playing an instrument in youth, are all factors contributing to the brain boost that shows up later in life.

Oh, and enough on the ridiculous idea that anybody, with enough practice, can be a virtuoso.  So obviously not true.  Certain naturally talented people with enough practice can be truly great.  Love this headline, “What Do Great Musicians Have in Common? DNA.”  Scientific American:

But it gets more complicated. The new findings suggest that it’s the way our genes and environment interact that is most crucial to musical accomplishment. Not only do genetically-influenced qualities contribute to whether people are likely to practice, Hambrick’s data show that the genetic influence on musical success was far larger in those who practiced more. It was previously thought that people might start out with a genetic leg up for a particular activity, but that skill derived through practice could eventually surpass any genetic predilections. “Our results suggest that it’s the other way around,” explains Hambrick, “that genes become more, not less important in differentiating people as they practice…genetic potentials for skilled performance are most fully expressed and fostered by practice.”
In other words, people have various genetically determined basic abilities, or talents, that render them better or worse at certain skills, but that can be nurtured through environmental influences. Hence Hambrick is far from down on dedication: “If you want to be a better musician, practice! If you want to be a better golfer, practice!” …

It’s potentially unsettling that our abilities are so influenced by a genetic crapshoot. Some people people will always be maddeningly proficient at shredding through guitar solos, or blowing tubas, or winning amateur competitions at the Apollo Theater. But Hambrick sees his findings as constructive. If practicing our way to being just pretty good at something isn’t enough, we can better seek our strengths. More importantly we can avoid setting up unrealistic expectations for children: “I think it’s important to let kids try a lot of different things…and find out what they’re good at, which is probably also what they’ll enjoy. But the idea that anyone can become an expert at most anything isn’t scientifically defensible, and pretending otherwise is harmful to society and individuals.” [emphases mine]


Anyway, practice smartly (i.e., not blocked practice) to get better.  And you will get better.  But if you want to be a genius at something, that’s going to be pretty much up to your genes.

How Trump can have what he wants on health care

Donald Trump has said that with his health care plan, nobody will lose coverage, there will be better coverage, and it will cost less money.  Sounds impossible– yes?  Actually, only politically impossible.  Policy-wise, the entire rest of the developed world does this.  We are unique in paying so much for so little quality care.  The problem is that the rest of the world does this through more, not less, government involvement and regulation.  And we know how that goes over with Republicans.

Yglesias suggests that Democrats should offer a clear alternative plan.

Fortunately, a sound middle ground is available.

  • The version of the public option included in the House Progressive Caucus budget would reduce federal health spending by $218 billion over 10 years, by taking advantage of Medicare’s greater bargaining power.
  • Clinton’s campaign outlined three proposals to reduce premiums and out-of-pocket costs that the RAND Corporation assessed would reduce the ranks of the uninsured by a further 10 million while “decreasing average spending by up to 33 percent for those with moderately low incomes.”
  • Clinton’s benefit enhancements would cost $90 million, a small fraction of the $218 billion the public option would save.
  • The additional $120 billion or so could simply be allocated to the Medicare Trust Fund, contributing to further extending its life.
  • Last, while there is considerable debate as to the practical impact of Trump’s proposal to eliminate the “lines between the states” and establish a unified federal market in health insurance plans, it seems like an idea worth trying. In the context of a Republican repeal-and-replace plan, eliminating the “lines” would be a de facto total deregulation of the insurance industry. But relying on the Affordable Care Act regulatory minimums while allowing insurers to operate in as many (or few) states as they like seems desirable.

You could, of course, also throw some other favorite progressive ideas into the mix, like a Medicare buy-in for people over the age of 55 (though a good public option should make this unnecessary), steps to speed the approval of generic drugs, or the use of more aggressive pharmaceutical price negotiating techniques by Medicare.

Call it whatever you like

These and other ideas are longstanding wish-list items that have been floating around in various corners of the Democratic Party. You could, in theory, bundle them up with something technocratically sound but unpopular like a stronger individual mandate, or you could throw in something business-friendly like relaxing the employer mandate. Replacing the “Cadillac Tax” on expensive health insurance premiums (a policy labor unions hate) with a 28 percent cap on the deductibility of health insurance would probably also make sense here.

But the great thing about all these ideas is that they’re consistent with both longstanding Democratic ideas and popular things Donald Trump said on the campaign trail.

Democrats can characterize them as Affordable Care Act “fixes” or “tweaks” or “improvements” if they want to. Or they can call it an “alternative” or “replacement” to the ACA if that sounds better. Heck, they can even call it “Trumpcare.”

The important thing is that devising a plan would make two points. On the one hand, it would show that Democrats are not indifferent to the fact that the ACA has not been roses and unicorns for everyone. On the other hand, it would show that Obama’s challenge to the GOP to show him something demonstrably better for patients is honestly not that hard a standard to meet. [emphasis mine]

Yep.  It’s not hard at all policy-wise to accomplish what Trump wants.  The problem is a political one– Republicans are ideologically (one could say, theologically) opposed to greater government involvement (e.g., public option), despite the fact that this would help lead to health care for more people at a lower price.

Seriously, it’s really not that hard to dramatically Obamacare and save money doing it.  When it comes to the health care, it is simply the theology of the Republican party that prevents us from having nice things.

Photo of the day

Oh my, I love this #bestcarcass hashtag.  Nice NYT story on the phenomenon and this photo is amazing:

A frozen fox that was recovered from the Danube River in Germany in December.CreditJohannes Stehle/DPA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

And here’s an even better version:

Jäger Franz Stehle hat den Fridinger Fuchs als Eisblock aus der zugefrorenen Donau gesägt.

Jäger Franz Stehle hat den Fridinger Fuchs als Eisblock aus der zugefrorenen Donau gesägt.

Klaus Leuser
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