Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dear Mr. President
The Washington Post tracks a letter from Monroe, MI to the White House and back.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wrapped in Plastic
This is pretty remarkable. In Washington, D.C. a new tax on plastic bags has had a much bigger impact than expected:
The District’s 5-cent bag tax, which started in January 2010, netted approximately $150,000 during its first month of enactment. According to the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, only 3 million bags were issued in the month of January compared to 2009’s 22.5 million bags per month average, and it appears that the new law DC shoppers has been successful in altering shopping bag habits faster than was expected.
22 million down to 3 million in just one month? I have been reading about the success of little "nudges" like this in a book called, well, Nudge. Obviously we'd all like to think we'd do the right thing even without the incentive of a nickel. Would it work on me? I don't know. Currently my sadly immense plastic bag consumption can be attributed to 3 things:

1) I go to the grocery store all the time - every day in some stretches (I eat less, and more responsibly, when I don't buy a weeks' worth of food at a time) - and usually when I'm on the way home from somewhere else. So, I almost never remember to put my cloth bag in the car.

2) My newspaper subscription, which generates a bag, and sometimes two, every single day. They don't even bother trying to deliver it bagless anymore, even on perfectly clear sunny days. I love getting the paper every morning. Something about it just makes me feel good. But it's a pointless habit, right? That stuff is pretty much all online. I've been meaning to scale my subscription down to weekends, when I really have the time to read it through, and would still get the coupons and Sunday puzzles I put to good use. For some reason haven't made myself follow through yet.

3) Even though I don't remember my cloth bag often enough, I occasionally remember to put my stash of plastic in the car and take it to the recycling bin. Now that plastic bags can be recycled, it makes me feel (foolishly) less wasteful for using them in the first place.

Would a .05-cent/bag tax put me over the edge and make me call the newspaper and get better about remembering my cloth bags? I dunno. Would it help you? Or do you need help?
Good News Tuesday
1. It looks like insurance companies are backing away from a loophole which might have allowed them to ignore health reform's demand for an immediate end to denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions. Of course, it will depend on taking their word for it, but they now claim they will "comply" with principles laid out in Secretary Sebelius' explanation (still to come) of the bill's meaning.

The bad news on that is - if I understand correctly - they can still charge elevated premiums for children with pre-existing conditions. Discrimination of that sort will end in 2014, but they have to offer some form of coverage to children in the meantime, according to the Secretary's reading of the bill.

2. It looks like we taxpayers will make somewhere in the neighborhood of an $8 billion gain following the temporary takeover of a significant portion of Citigroup. Stock purchased by the government at around $1.50 two years ago will be sold this week. The price currently hovers just over $4/share. More than a double is pretty good - I should have "rescued" Citi in my portfolio as well.

3. And last but not least, we are finally smashing subatomic particles. Apparently, particle physicists around the world are rejoicing. Their advanced degrees have not turned out to be worthless after all.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Health Care Reform Links
Here are video and transcript of the president's remarks at the signing ceremony this morning.
Today, I’m signing this reform bill into law on behalf of my mother, who argued with insurance companies even as she battled cancer in her final days.

I’m signing it for Ryan Smith, who’s here today. He runs a small business with five employees. He’s trying to do the right thing, paying half the cost of coverage for his workers. This bill will help him afford that coverage.

I’m signing it for 11-year-old Marcelas Owens, who’s also here. Marcelas lost his mom to an illness. And she didn’t have insurance and couldn’t afford the care that she needed. So in her memory he has told her story across America so that no other children have to go through what his family has experienced.

I’m signing it for Natoma Canfield. Natoma had to give up her health coverage after her rates were jacked up by more than 40 percent. She was terrified that an illness would mean she’d lose the house that her parents built, so she gave up her insurance. Now she’s lying in a hospital bed, as we speak, faced with just such an illness, praying that she can somehow afford to get well without insurance. Natoma’s family is here today because Natoma can’t be.
Rep. Gohmert (R-TX) is vying with Bachmann for craziest freak in the House. His new plan is to repeal the 17th Amendment to the US Constitution.

In case you missed it, here are the President's remarks Sunday evening after health care reform passed. Here is the video.

In his post-vote column, Paul Krugman rightly chides Newt Gingrich for his celebratory political predictions about health care reform. Newt's comparison of this bill to historic civil rights legislation was one of the more disgusting, telling, and honest statements anyone made in the entire debate. And, no, I don't believe Newt's attempt at a correction.

The Washington Post has a calculator up so you can see how reform impacts you personally. It's a bit overly simplistic but gets at the basics.

The House has prepared a handy timeline (pdf) of how the different elements of the bill will unfold, from now until 2018 when the excise tax is scheduled to go into effect.

49-40, Americans like the health care reform bill.

Monday, March 22, 2010

For Teddy

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Big Day
Of course, I thought we already had our big historic health care reform day when the Senate passed their bill on Christmas Eve. So, things happen, you never know. But it looks like we will get a vote today to determine once and for all the fate of health care reform. Keep your eye on C-Span if you don't want to just wake up to the news tomorrow. There will be a handful of votes. The House has to vote on the Senate bill and also on the fixes that will go to the Senate for a reconciliation vote. The final up or down tally won't come until probably 9 or 10 tonight, Eastern time. But we will know where this is going when they vote on the rule for debate, which should happen around 6.

I've tried pretty hard to understand as much as I can about the content of the bill, to help especially with convincing friends. It's tough though - complex language, conflicting reports. Some elements I'm still really unclear about. But a few sobering truths about what we've got are worth remembering, regardless of the details: 1) This reform will change reality for a minority of Americans. If you get insurance through your employer, you probably won't notice much. 2) The bulk of the substance won't go into effect for what's going to seem like a really long time. The exchanges won't be up and running until 2014. 3) One of the most powerful things this bill does will thankfully go unnoticed, helping us avert serious catastrophe, by trying to begin tackling the insane elevation in health care costs which would drive ever more Americans into bankruptcy and threaten the fiscal solvency of the government itself, if left unchecked and on its current path. Once your premium goes up 10%, it may be tough to be thankful that it didn't rise 25% instead, but this legislation may have helped save you that crisis.

Some things will happen fairly quickly after the President signs the bill. One of my favorites says that insurers will be required to allow children to stay on their parents' policies until age 26. That will go into effect 6 months after the legislation is enacted. Also, while pre-existing condition discrimination will not be ended until 2014, it will be immediately ended for coverage of children, and some provision - this is one thing I'm not clear on - will allow anyone denied coverage or kicked off for pre-existing condition in the interim to be able to buy into a pool of coverage. [UDPATE: Here's a list of things that will go into effect immediately. I had read somewhere that the age 26 provision comes 6 months later, but either way, pretty quickly.]

But at the end of the day, the details don't help in debates until we agree on an important starting point: health insurance is not just any "product." And health care is not just one more consumption category. It's an extension of nothing less than our own mortality, a human necessity almost as surely as food and water, if much less predictable in need. And as far as the fair chance to have equal opportunity in life, health care can be every bit as essential as education. Listening to Republicans and especially tea-party protesters, it sounds like they view health insurance as just another perk of life. You would think subsidies were going to help people buy a sports car or a cellphone; or that treatment for injury or illness was about the equivalent of getting your car fixed.

My view is much different. Because health care is different, it's wrong to think of it as a luxury for just some, or a mere contingency everyone should be able to address with just a little planning, saving and personal responsibility. If only it were that inexpensive to face a serious health crisis, or insurance companies were that dependable when one comes along!

In fact, of all the things government should help ensure all Americans can access equally and fairly, health care should be right near the top, alongside education as a guarantee, and something we shouldn't hesitate to fund as well as is required to get it right. This bill doesn't go that far. But if we are going to leave private insurers in place as the only avenue most Americans have to health care, we need mechanisms in place to fix the injustices in the system. And there are plenty. This reform package goes a long way toward - eventually - doing just that.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

March Madness
Have the early games been good? Of the first 4 games, 2 went to OT and the other 2 were decided by a single point.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

More Complicated by the Minute [UPDATED]
The good news on health care reform: Kucinich is now a yes. He made a pretty strong statement explaining his change of heart - powerful stuff that could turn him into something of a hero on the Democratic side. Maybe he's the smartest member of Congress, after all. Meetings with the President had an impact:
"I left [our previous meeting] with a real sense of compassion for our president and what he's going through," Kucinich said. "We have to be compassionate towards those who are called upon to make decisions for this nation. It's not an easy burden that he has taken up."

"One of the things that has bothered me," Kucinich added, "has been the attempt to delegitimatize his presidency. That hurts the nation when that happens. He was elected...this is a defining moment for whether or not we'll have any opportunity to move off square one on the issue of health care.... I think it's important that--we have to be very careful that the potential of President Obama's presidency not be destroyed by this debate."
The bad news: to pass under reconciliation rules, apparently the fixes to the Senate bill have to offer some kind of budgetary improvement. In other words, it's not enough that the legislation *impact* the budget, it has to reduce the deficit. So doesn't the health care reform package reduce the projected deficit? Yes! And by quite a bit. But these fixes to the Senate bill are a different story and have to reduce the deficit not as projected from where we stand today, but relative to the adjoining legislation. Under reconciliation rules of the current Senate, these sidecar provisions have to make the Senate bill *even better* for the deficit. That's a challenge, because most of the substantive fixes sought by the House will increase costs: better subsidies, delaying implementation of excise tax, etc.

So, everybody is waiting on CBO to score these fixes so Pelosi can get to the business of scheduling a vote so this can all come down this weekend. But they may be scrambling to still find ways to get the right budget number. That's why we still don't have an exact bill to know precisely what everyone's voting on. The basic structure is there, of course; but these details are important toward the process Republicans have forced us to take.

Stay tuned.

[UPDATE: CBO score is out, and it sounds good. With proposed changes, the bill reduces the deficit by $130 billion over the first 10 years and $1.3 trillion over the next 10. You can read the actual report here; Ezra Klein's giddy look at the big picture of the bill now here.]

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Deem and Pass, Already
Want a primer on "deem and pass", the Republicans' newest lightning rod? Byron Tau explains here, though he spends too much space complaining about how everyone is misunderstanding; Ezra Klein follows up with some more here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Fascinating Analysis
Nate analyzes explanations of those for and against health care reform.
Magic Monday
Via Ezra Klein, the placebo effect.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reid to Senate Republicans: Eat It
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wrote a letter to Mitch McConnell explaining his intention to move forward with a reconciliation process.
60 Senators voted to pass historic reform that will make health insurance more affordable, make health insurance companies more accountable and reduce our deficit by roughly a trillion dollars. The House passed a similar bill. However, many Republicans now are demanding that we simply ignore the progress we’ve made, the extensive debate and negotiations we’ve held, the amendments we’ve added (including more than 100 from Republicans) and the votes of a supermajority in favor of a bill whose contents the American people unambiguously support. We will not. We will finish the job. We will do so by revising individual elements of the bills both Houses of Congress passed last year, and we plan to use the regular budget reconciliation process that the Republican caucus has used many times.

...There is nothing unusual or extraordinary about the use of reconciliation. As one of the most senior Senators in your caucus, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, said in explaining the use of this very same option, “Is there something wrong with majority rules? I don’t think so.” Similarly, as non-partisan congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein said in this Sunday’s New York Times, our proposal is “compatible with the law, Senate rules and the framers’ intent.”
Keep in mind that reconciliation will not exclude Republicans from the legislative process. You will continue to have an opportunity to offer amendments and change the shape of the legislation. In addition, at the end of the process, the bill can pass only if it wins a democratic, up-or-down majority vote. If Republicans want to vote against a bill that reduces health care costs, fills the prescription drug “donut hole” for seniors and reduces the deficit, you will have every right to do so.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Spring Break
Blog has been behind, but ready to catch up now. Flurry of posts below. Try to keep up.
I don't understand much in this NYTimes article about new efforts to trace the genetic source of many diseases now that we have the entire human genome mapped. I should have taken Biology in school, even though I still wonder if that would have helped - I'm pretty science-challenged.
Geneticists said the new research showed it was now possible to sequence the entire genome of a patient at reasonable cost and with sufficient accuracy to be of practical use to medical researchers. One subject’s genome cost just $50,000 to decode.

“We are finally about to turn the corner, and I suspect that in the next few years human genetics will finally begin to systematically deliver clinically meaningful findings,” said David B. Goldstein, a Duke University geneticist who has criticized the current approach to identifying genetic causes of common diseases.
What don't I understand? For one thing why does it take so long and cost so much? I guess I thought of genome-mapping as kinda like a super-comprehensive DNA test. Just need a bigger computer and there you go: Bob's your uncle. But clearly I'm way wrong. We've only managed to map 12 people ever? No wonder it hasn't yielded more information.

But add to that a couple of apparently flawed assumptions about how mutation works in common multi-gene diseases like cancer, and it sounds more and more like genetic scientists have been headed the wrong way - a slow, expensive way to boot. Hopefully those things are changing.
Education Standards (Cont'd)
In the post below, I pointed to news of proposed national standards in K-12 education. You can read a draft of the proposals here. They are organized in a progressive format with 10 core college-ready goals to be achieved by graduation. Each grade has a step along the way toward those goals. For example, here are the reading standards for kindergarten.
1. With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about details and events in a text.

2. Retell familiar stories.

3. Identify characters, settings, and key events in a story.

4. Ask questions about unknown words in a text.

5. Recognize common types of texts (e.g., storybooks, poems).

6. Name the author and illustrator of a text and define the role of each.

7. Relate pictures and illustrations to the overall story in which they appear.

8. (Not applicable to literature)

9. Compare and contrast the adventures of characters in familiar stories.

10. Read emergent-reader literature texts with purpose and understanding.
(Notice that #8, which corresponds to the college-ready goal of "Delineate and evaluate the reasoning and rhetoric within a text, including assessing whether the evidence provided is relevant and sufficient to support the text’s claims." does not have a kindergarten equivalent.)
National Education Standards
A proposal from a panel of educators and experts is set to become (near) national standards for K-12. Their goals were to make standards higher, clearer, more organized, and more concise.
“Many states have too many expectations in their academic standards that force teachers to cover too much in a superficial way,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “We said, ‘Let’s keep these very understandable and at a number that is manageable. Let’s not put on teachers more requirements than they can deliver.’ ”

Another improvement over current state benchmarks, people involved in the initiative said, is that the proposed standards are what educators call vertically aligned, meaning that material students are to learn in early years builds a foundation for what is to come in the next grade.

“Students are asked to do progressively more challenging things, and although that may sound obvious, it’s a real breakthrough,” said Michael Cohen, an Education Department official in the Clinton administration who is president of Achieve.
Nothing about this video makes me think Rep. Patrick Kennedy's retirement from the House is any kind of permanent retreat from elected office. Looks more like he's poised to move back to Massachusetts and run for his dad's old Senate seat.

But also, as to his point. Yes, the press sucks.
Baby Einstein
We've been over this before here, but worth pointing out a new study showing that young children regularly shown Baby Einstein DVDs - those designed to teach common words - did no better at recognizing those words than children who had not been watching the video. In fact, those that started watching them at an earlier age did slightly worse.
Petulance and Self-Importance
Glenn Greenwald delivers the correct response to Chief Justice Roberts' silly critique of President Obama and the State of the Union.

The petulance and sense of self-importance on display here is quite something to behold...
Supreme Court Justices, in particular, have awesome, unrestrained power. They are guaranteed life tenure, have no authorities who can sanction them except under the most extreme circumstances, and, with the mere sweep of a pen, can radically alter the lives of huge numbers of people or even transform our political system (as five of them, including Roberts, just did, to some degree, in Citizens United). The very idea that it's terribly wrong, uncouth, and "very troubling" for the President to criticize one of their most significant judicial decisions in a speech while in their majestic presence -- not threaten them, or have them arrested, or incite violence against them, but disagree with their conclusions and call for Congressional remedies (as Art. II, Sec. 3 of the Constitution requires) -- approaches pathological levels of vanity and entitlement.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Just About Done with Howard Dean
When it comes to health care reform strategy. Pass the bill already. Not sure what he thinks he's helping.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Obama: Get it Done
If you have a regular job, so didn't get to hear the President lay it all on the line on health reform, read his remarks here. He was as forceful and fiery and on point as he has been since the debate started a year or so ago.
Now, both during and after last week's summit, Republicans in Congress insisted that the only acceptable course on health care reform is to start over. But given these honest and substantial differences between the parties about the need to regulate the insurance industry and the need to help millions of middle-class families get insurance, I don't see how another year of negotiations would help.

Moreover, the insurance companies aren't starting over. They're continuing to raise premiums and deny coverage as we speak. For us to start over now could simply lead to delay that could last for another decade, or even more. The American people, and the U.S. economy, just can't wait that long. So, no matter which approach you favor, I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote on health care reform. (Applause.)

We have debated this issue thoroughly, not just for the past year but for decades. Reform has already passed the House with a majority. It has already passed the Senate with a supermajority of 60 votes. And now it deserves the same kind of up or down vote that was cast on welfare reform, that was cast on the Children's Health Insurance Program, that was used for COBRA health coverage for the unemployed, and, by the way, for both Bush tax cuts --- all of which had to pass Congress with nothing more than a simple majority.

I, therefore, ask leaders in both houses of Congress to finish their work and schedule a vote in the next few weeks. From now until then, I will do everything in my power to make the case for reform.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Republican 2010 Strategy: Cartoon of the Day

Monday, March 01, 2010

Blame it on the Brain
A great NPR story today tries to explain why teenagers can be so messed up. They aren't just selfish and completely lacking in judgment for no reason. Their brains is muddy.
[Neuroscientist Francis] Jensen says scientists used to think human brain development was pretty complete by age 10. Or as she puts it, that "a teenage brain is just an adult brain with fewer miles on it."

But it's not. To begin with, she says, a crucial part of the brain — the frontal lobes — are not fully connected. Really.

"It's the part of the brain that says: 'Is this a good idea? What is the consequence of this action?' " Jensen says. "It's not that they don't have a frontal lobe. And they can use it. But they're going to access it more slowly."

That's because the nerve cells that connect teenagers' frontal lobes with the rest of their brains are sluggish. Teenagers don't have as much of the fatty coating called myelin, or "white matter," that adults have in this area.
I've heard versions of this info before, but this piece really puts it all together and is fairly entertaining. Give it a listen/read.