Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

What Reinhart and Rogoff should do now

Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff wrote an angry open letter about how Krugman has been uncivil to them.  Krugman’s reply strikes me as being convincing even devastating.

Update: My full fisking here.

I want to focus on one sentence in the R&R letter

 

politicians may float a citation to an academic paper if it suits their purposes.  But there are limits to how much policy traction they can get with this device when the paper’s authors are out offering very different policy conclusions. “ 


The claim that there are such limits is not supported with any historical evidence.  I think it is plainly false, unless the limits are say thta the  politicians can’t travel faster than light by distorting academic work.

 

The example of R&R and the alleged 90% critical level of debt to GDP is proof that their claim is false.  Politicians have gotten huge policy traction citing them and Herndon had a significant impact on the policy debate.

update: The huge traction is documented here

Also note the case of Kenneth Arrow whose first welfare theorem and impossibility theorem have been used for decades to argue that markets are superior to political processes and who is a democratic socialist.  His view on that rather important issue has had no impact on the debate, while misuse of his mathematical results has had a huge impact. Phillips made no claim that the scatter he plotted was a structural relationship.  He expressed horror over how it was used.

 

R&R’s claim about history is plainly utterly false and they should know it.

 

But there is something they can, and really should, do.  If politicians are misusing their work, they can denounce those politicians by name.  Consider

 

The 90% debt-to-GPD ratio was sighted by many as proof of the necessity of austerity in fiscal matters. Paul Ryan’s 2012 “Path to Prosperity” budget plan cited the paper and specifically cited the 90% figure. European Union Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn cited the study when urging EU member nations to cut their budgets, saying, “Serious empirical research shows that public debt above 90% of GDP acts as a permanent drag on growth.”

Reinhart and Rogoff could and should have said “Paul Ryan, you know nothing of our work” (obligatory Annie Hall reference).  They did not.  They still can.  I think they should.  His claims have no basis in the evidence and all reality based people should say so.

 

 

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What Obligations Do Mainstream Media Editors (e.g., The Washington Post’s) Have to Bar Their Regular Political Columnists (e.g., Michael Gerson) From Stating Bald Misrepresentations of Fact?

Compare:

When people realize that their most personal, sensitive, intimate, private health-care information is in the hands of the IRS that’s been willing to use people’s tax information against political opponents of this administration, then people have pause and they pull back in horror.

— Michele Bachmann, on ABC News/Yahoo, May 20 (H/T Glenn Kessler, in a spot-on takedown today)

And:

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The Internal Blue Cross/Blue Shield Revenue Service. Awesome!

“Since the I.R.S. also is the chief enforcer of Obamacare requirements, [Michele Bachmann] asked whether the I.R.S.’s admission means it ‘will deny or delay access to health care’ for conservatives. At this point, she said, that ‘is a reasonable question to ask.’ ”

– Bob Unruh, Why Obama Released Embarrassing IRS Bombshell, WND Exclusive, May 13

Yes, that’s right.  You read the title of this post correctly.  Obamacare turns out to be a single-payer healthcare insurance program, after all!

Or so says Michele Bachmann, anyway.  And she certainly would know.

This is great news, in my opinion.  But, I mean, who knew?  I’d thought until now that the only role that the IRS plays in Obamacare was to collect the penalty, via the tax apparatus, from individuals who aren’t insured through their (or a family member’s) employer and who choose to pay the penalty rather than buy insurance in the private market.  In other words, that the IRS role concerns only people who don’t have healthcare insurance, not people who do.

But apparently I was wrong.  I haven’t actually read the statute, which is infamously long, and somewhere in it, it requires all healthcare insurance premiums to be paid to the IRS.  The  name of which, once the full law kicks in next year, will be the Internal Blue Cross/Blue Shield Revenue Service.

Yes, the agency will still collect ordinary income taxes as it does now.  But it also become our healthcare insurer. Unless you are a conservative, in which case it will still require you or your employer to pay your insurance premiums to that agency. Or maybe just through that agency; I’m not sure which.  As I said, I haven’t read the statute, so I don’t know whether this will be like the Medicare system, or instead the agency will forward the premiums to your chosen private insurer, at least unless you’re a conservation, in which case the agency might use your premiums to pay for daycare for the young children of liberals.

Or maybe I’m misunderstanding completely, because of wishful thinking on my part.  Maybe instead, the statute requires the private insurance companies to get the agency’s approval before agreeing to pay a policyholder’s medical bills.

Yeah, that must be it.  The statute requires the private insurance companies to get the agency’s approval before agreeing to pay a policyholder’s medical bills. It’s odd, though, that three years after the statute’s enactment, this has never been mentioned before. By anyone.  Which makes that report about the Bachmann interview truly an exclusive.

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Why, Yes! Of Course! The Voters Will Vote to End Social Security, Medicare, Dodd-Frank and the EPA Because the IRS Improperly Hassled Political “Social Welfare” Organizations and the DOJ Issued Sweeping Subpoenas of AP Phone Lines!

Well, that didn’t take long, did it?

It began yesterday morning, with a Politico article by Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, and an accompanying video by Allen, suggesting improper actions of the IRS resulting from its inability to adequately handle the tsunami of exempt-organizations applications, coupled with the DOJ’s overly aggressive use of its subpoena powers in trying to ferret out the source of a national-security leak to an AP reporter, might cause voters to conclude that what is needed is more Republicans in high office.

Apparently that would be because voters can’t distinguish between economic libertarianism and civil rights libertarianism of the First Amendment and Due Process variety.  And this must be so, because within just 24 hours after the Politico folks asserted it, there’s been another tsunami, this one in the form of a slew of mainstream pundits repeating the claim.  John Dickerson of Slate.  Reid Wilson of the National Journal.  To name two.*

Dickerson argues that the Obama administration “is doing a far better job making the case for conservatism than Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, or John Boehner ever did.” He says this is because “[s]howing is always better than telling, and when the government overreaches in so many ways it gives support to the conservative argument about the inherently rapacious nature of government.”

Yup.  I don’t know about you all, but the fact that the IRS mishandled some exempt-organizations applications in the wake of Citizens United, and that the Justice Department has been crazily overzealous in its handling of national security leakers, partly in order to hush the criticism from, um, conservatives that there has been insufficient investigation into the leaks, sure as heck makes me think Paul Krugman is spouting dangerous nonsense by arguing so forcefully for more fiscal stimulus, as opposed to ever more fiscal austerity. It’s not surprising that Boston Federal Reserve chief executive Eric Rosengren is pleading for a turn away from further budget cuts; he does, after all, work for the federal government in an unelected position, and so of course he wants the federal government to be ever more inherently rapacious.

No matter that the most inherently rapacious unelected federal officials sit on the federal bench, and in the name of conservatism pathologically gut Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  And I won’t even mention the habeas corpus provision of the Constitution’s Article I, Section 9, Clause 2.  “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” Or unless when the conservative Supreme Court majority privileges state courts’ rights over the Supremacy clause.  As it does regularly.

What we need to secure our individual civil rights is more Samuel Alitos and Antonin Scalias on the Supreme court and on the lower federal courts, in order to ensure the continuation and expansion of the inherently rapacious federal and state criminal and civil justice system against non-corporate persons. The voters surely will look at the dual scandals of this week and draw that conclusion. In addition to the obvious conclusion that financial-services regulation by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other Dodd-Frank provisions should be gutted along with the social safety net, taxes should be lowered for the likes of the Romneys, and that we need to kill the EPA.

To hell with climate change!  Pun intended.  And let hungry children and seniors eat cake and pay for their own healthcare!  After all, the IRS mishandled the post-Citizens United influx of exempt-organizations applications. So what we need is more Citizens United.  The court opinion; not actual citizens united.

Greg Sargent says of Wilson’s article in the National Journal that he “makes the case that 2014 will look more like 2006” than 1998, when the public was so disgusted with Republican scandal-mongering and the Clinton impeachment thing that Democrats routed Republicans in that year’s midterm election even though it was the sixth year of the Clinton presidency, thus countering historical trends.  Wilson argues the case, but unsuccessfully.  “The beginning of Bush’s second term bears the most resemblance to the current predicament in which Obama finds himself,” Wilson says.  “ The war in Iraq had grown unpopular during 2005, and the government’s bungling of the recovery from Hurricane Katrina gave voters the sense that Washington was inept.”

Yes, it gave voters the sense that the Bush administration was inept.  The concern was that FEMA did not do enough for Katrina victims, precisely because conservatism is against having the government provide assistance to people in need.  The Bush administration got us into a war in Iraq under false pretenses, precisely because that was what conservatives wanted, and then bungled the war itself.

And curiously absent from Wilson’s analysis is that Bush spent the first year of his second term campaigning to privatize Social Security.  Does Wilson think that the public changed its mind about the wisdom of privatizing Social Security, or, for that matter, privatizing or ending the social safety net–or FEMA!–by November 2006?   Does Dickerson?  Really?  What about Allen?  (Okay, maybe Allen does.)

A surprisingly common characteristic of current political punditry is the presumption that what matters to voters is policy semantics rather than actual policy.  And the more generic, sweeping, and ill-defined, the better.  Actual policy and specifics of ideology don’t matter.  What matters is such generic phrases as “big government,” “small government,” and “conservative,” however unrelated to one big/small-government issue another big/small-government issue is.

Another problem with mainstream pundits is their mindless custom of incessant analogy based upon some tenuous or tangential common fact between the earlier and the current or future situation.  I realize that it is their job to say something about big political stories, and that, at least for most of them, they don’t have the option of adhering to the wise adage of not saying anything at all if you don’t have anything worth saying.  But this nonsense becomes viral.  Really quickly.  As though it’s actual wisdom rather than the simplistic, formulaic vapidity that it is.

The danger right now is that Democratic politicians will cower in the face of it.  Politically sensitive IRS error and DOJ subpoena overreach = we should lower taxes on the wealthy and gut the social safety net and environmental and financial regulatory authority; that’s an odd mathematical equation.  Except maybe in Washington, a town not known for Einstein protégés.

Wilson, in his National Journal article, acknowledges that “[t]he mishandling of Hurricane Katrina and the various troubles Obama is answering for now are completely different types of scandals.”  He just doesn’t think the voting public will recognize the difference.  He thinks that the “message” the IRS and DOJ matters “send to voters about the aptitude of governing is remarkably similar” to the Bush administration’s mishandling of Katrina and Iraq.  “Once voters lost confidence in Bush’s ability to manage government, the Republican brand began to suffer…If voters begin to believe that Obama is similarly ill-equipped to govern, it will be the Democrats in Congress who bear the brunt of the political punishment.”

Unless, of course, the voters conclude that what happened to those applicant nonprofit organizations in the hands of the IRS–that they were temporarily denied tax-exempt status and asked to identify their donors, and that the DOJ issued sweeping subpoenas for the AP’s phone records in a national-security-leak investigation–really does not actually mean that we should privatize Social Security and Medicare. That is, that they conclude that those former things don’t just naturally lead to the latter ones, even though these political analysts think they do.  That they conclude that linking the two is bizarre and outright crazy.  Which is a real possibility, since it is.

—-

*CORRECTION: This post initially and incorrectly included Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post among the political analysts who are making this argument.  Actually, Tumulty’s piece says that others–specifically, Republicans–are pushing this claim.  Also, this post has been edited slightly for clarity after its initial posting. 5/16 at 9:20 p.m.

 

 

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Reader (and Statistician) Jan Galkowski’s Quick Primer on CO2 and Climate Change

This weekend’s open thread here on AB produced an awesome post by reader, statistician and obvious genius Jan Galkowski on the significance of last week’s report on the level of CO2 now in the atmosphere.  Here’s part of the thread, including Mr. Galkowski’s post:

Rjs / May 11, 2013 4:54 am

in case you missed it, yesterday we breached 400 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide…

all you need to know in just one chart

Sammy / May 11, 2013 3:54 pm

rjs,

Don’t fall for the scare tactics. The y axis scale on your graph is “parts per million.” So we’ve gone from 300 max parts per million, to 400 parts per million. Or .0003 to .0004 percentage CO2. This is statistically insignificant. Plus, as Jack pointed out, there “little correlation with global temperature.”

This graph backs up Jack’s point over a longer time frame; and also shows that we are historically at a low in atmospheric CO2:

Sammy / May 11, 2013 3:54 pm

rjs,

Don’t fall for the scare tactics. The y axis scale on your graph is “parts per million.” So we’ve gone from 300 max parts per million, to 400 parts per million. Or .0003 to .0004 percentage CO2. This is statistically insignificant. Plus, as Jack pointed out, there “little correlation with global temperature.”

This graph backs up Jack’s point over a longer time frame; and also shows that we are historically at a low in atmospheric CO2:

http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=CO2+over+time&FORM=HDRSC2&&id=F13D874C4502CF62C6C7A3A8DB2764DBC4C2E038&selectedIndex=1#view=detail&id=F13D874C4502CF62C6C7A3A8DB2764DBC4C2E038&selectedIndex=0

Jan Galkowski / May 12, 2013 2:52 pm

@Sammy,

Surely you’ll agree the argument that materials in systems are safe as long as their concentrations are small is erroneous. There are many examples where tiny amounts will derail proper operation.

But, to your specific point, the fact that CO2 concentration is, as Richard Alley calls it, The Biggest Control Knob of Earth’s climate is due to a simple confluence of [t]hree physical facts.

First, blackbody radiation from a body at Earth’s temperature happens to have the bulk of its outgoing radiation in the region of the infrared spectrum between 400 per cm and 1000 per cm.

<!–more–>

Second, CO2 happens to have a broad absorption between 550 per cm and 750 per cm.

Third, CO2 happens to resonate strongly at 667 per cm and, when it goes to ground state, reemits photons with frequencies very close to that. CO2′s cross-section for 667 per cm photons is very high. Thus, a stray photon at 667 per cm will in all likelihood be reabsorbed by another CO2 molecule.

This means about 2/3 of the radiation in the 550-750 per cm band gets captured by CO2, and the stronger the concentration, the more thorought the lasing effect of emission and reabsorption.

The net of this is that about 1.8 Watts per square meter are re-radiated from CO2 in the lowest 100 meters of atmosphere all around the planet. 1.8 Watts per square meter times the area of the Earth is about 690 Terawatts. That energy has to go somewhere, and does, boosting convection in atmosphere and oceans, as well as being conveyed in the water evaporation and condensation cycle, which essentially serves as a heat pump. Some goes into deep ocean, raising its temperature and weakening its ability to absorb CO2.

The greater differences in energy density, as always, demand equalization, so the poles warm more, percentagewise, than the tropics and intermediate lattitudes. This 690 Terawatts increases to 2000 Terawatts at 700 ppm CO2.

There is no trending or paleoclimate evidence needed to establish this. This is simple physics. It would be truly remarkable if 690 Terawatts of additional forcing had no effects upon Earth weather.

They who might be interested in more details regarding this should monitor my blog,

http://hypergeometric.wordpress.com

where a 4-part lecture describing these mechanisms and the reason we know atmospheric CO2 increases are due to people’s actions, namely fossil fuels, will be described in detail, probably some time this summer.

Thanks.

Those among us who can do such things as add and subtract will have an easier time understanding the specifics of Mr. Galkowski’s post than those among us (okay, the one among us) who cannot.  But even those of us in the latter category can understand the gist of this.  And its importance.  (Trust me on that.)

 

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Medicare Claim Costs Growth Under 1% in 2013??? Why?

All nine of S&P Healthcare Economic Indices showed slower annual growth rates for February 2013 compared to January 2013. As measured by the S&P Healthcare Economic Commercial Index, healthcare costs covered by commercial insurance plans rose by 4.62% in February, down from +5.41% reported for January. Annual growth rates in Medicare claim costs increased by 0.78%, according to the S&P Healthcare Economic Medicare Index, down from +1.40% recorded last month.” Annual Growth Rates Decelerate in February 2013;  https://www.spice-indices.com/idpfiles/spice-assets/resources/public/documents/11477_sphealthcare-press-release.pdf?force_download=true

heathcare

When economists such as Tyler Cowen and Congressional leaders such as Ryan and McConnell are calling for cuts in Medicare, and Medicaid;  one has to wonder what the basis is for doing so. Medicare and its associated programs have dropped below 1% cost claims growth in 2013. According to Glen LaFollette and Louise Sheiner, healthcare in the US is sustainable at 1% growth and will not crowd out the other necessities. “An Examination of Health-Spending Growth in the United States: Past Trends and Future Prospects”  http://www.bancaditalia.it/studiricerche/convegni/atti/fiscal_sustainability/session_3/Follette%20Sheiner.pdf

 

What gives?

For partisan and give-Barrack Obama-no-quarter-reasoning, politicians claim the PPACA will have no or little impact on healthcare costs. Hoping for pie-in-the sky universal health care today, some rather reasonable writers and blogs have also joined the bandwagon of claims against the PPACA (or Barrack Obama) and are advocating the same lack of impact. Train-wreck Baucus successfully scuttled single payer healthcare insurance (with the help of Lieberman) and kept prominent advocates away from the bargaining table having  protestors arrested. Baucus now advocates backing away from the PPACA. Then what has made government healthcare programs decrease in cost? Maybe the last couple of years of decreasing cost growth are the result of the healthcare industry and the healthcare insurance companies taking heed to the needs of the population and developing a heart??? Naaaawwwwwww, I don’t think so. It is still the same industry; but as a result of the PPACA, the industry is rapidly preparing for the implementation of the PPACA.  Some answers PPACA:

hard times or recession, accounted for only about 1/3 (37 percent) of slower growth in the nation’s health care bill.  My guess is that most of the effect was felt in the private sector.

“During 2009–11 per capita national health spending grew about 3 percent annually, compared to an average of 5.9 percent annually during the previous ten years. job loss and benefit changes that shifted more costs to insured people. We found that these enrollees’ out-of-pocket costs increased as the benefit design of their employer-provided coverage became less generous in this period. We conclude that such benefit design changes accounted for about one-fifth of the observed decrease in the rate of growth. However, we also observed a slowdown in spending growth even when we held benefit generosity constant, which suggests that other factors, such as a reduction in the rate of introduction of new technology, were also at work.” The Independent Payment Advisory Board and Medicare Spending: New Research Suggests a Change in Our Medical Culture; Maggie Mahar, Healthbeat Blog, http://www.healthbeatblog.com/2013/05/the-independent-payment-advisory-board-and-medicare-spending-new-research-suggests-a-change-in-our-medical-culture/

and the chief Actuary for Medicare?

“Paul Spitalnic, sees the recent past as prologue – at least to the near future. On April 30, he sent a letter to Marilyn Tavenner, acting Medicare administrator, saying that based on the most recent numbers, the projected 5-year average growth in Medicare per capita spending ia 1.15% , and the 5-year average growth target is 3.03 percent.” As a result, he advised Tavenner that we won’t need the IPAB until 2016—at the earliest.”  The Independent Payment Advisory Board and Medicare Spending: New Research Suggests a Change in Our Medical Culture

If Spitalnic’s and the S&P Healthcare Indice projections prove true over the next few years; Medicare will not be growing faster than GDP and healthcare costs would not be adding to the deficit or crowding out spending on education, infrastructure or the environment as predicted. There is no evidence the trend will not continue and Medicare cost growth is at the lowest level since its beginnings.

Health Beat Blog: “Michael Chernew, a Harvard health policy professor and co-author of the paper, told Modern Healthcare that slower growth was due to more than the weak economy or increases in out-of-pocket spending as employers shifted costs to employees. Instead, the results appear to point to a shift in culture and physicians who have who have grown more focused on greater efficiency in the last five years.” Economy Less of a Factor for Healthcare Spending, New Studies Say“; Melanie Evans; Modern Healthcare;  May 6, 2013

Or perhaps it is what many have said with the advent of the PPACA, a change has and is being brought about in how we are being treated. The overall cost model is moving from a services for fees treatment scenario to a better outcomes and efficiencies for fees scenario.

“The cost saving measures within the PPACA appear to be keeping medical expenses flat during the implementation of efficiencies. For example, in 2012, the average price paid for medical care, doctor visits, operations, glasses, etc. rose at about the same rate as other prices in the economy or less than 2%. Healthcare share of the economy in 2011 shrank from 17.12% to 17.04% due to other aspects of the economy growing faster. BEA Analysis; USA Today; Health Care Spending is Transferred Out of ICU

“‘Until now, the government has paid on volume. Now, it’s trying to pay more on quality,’ says Person, a doctor of internal medicine, as well as CEO of Essentia, which has 18 hospitals and 68 clinics.” For example: “Essentia now provides 300 of the sickest congestive heart failure patients with electronic home scales that relay information, such as weight and symptoms, to a nurse several times a week. The steady monitoring of small things has cut 30-day admissions to less than one-tenth of the national average and saved millions of dollars.”  Health Care Spending is Transferred Out of ICU; USA Today; March 4, 2013;  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2013/03/04/health-care-spending-growth-slows/1963165/

This is precisely what was provided to me by the Great Lakes Home care nurses. Each morning I would weigh in and take my blood pressure three weeks after my open-heart surgery. The nurse would come once per week to my home to which I was confined and check on me. These type of visits by nurses also gave me an early exit from the hospital initially even though the visits were 2-3 times per week and at a far lower cost than keeping me confined to the hospital (I was bouncing off the walls and wanted out).

“One big change is the government’s revived push toward managed care. The government wants to pay a lump sum for a patient or diagnosis, demand higher standards and expect the medical provider to get the job done for that cost. Rather than cutting reimbursement rates, the government is raising the bar for what it expects for every dollar it spends.” Health Care Spending is Transferred Out of ICU

says Person, the hospital chief: It is now the law, and it has teeth. We’re getting paid less,” he says. “We have to be more productive and efficient.” Health Care Spending is Transferred Out of ICU. USA Today; March 4, 2013

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In the Short Run, We Are All Dead. At Least According to That New Oregon Medicaid Study.

Well, we AB types–readers and writers, alike–are familiar with John Maynard Keynes’s famous line that “In the long run, we are all dead.”  By which he either meant that economists, if they are to be useful, must try to predict and recommend short-term government policies that avoid or help end current, severe economic downturns, rather than just predicting long-term economic results, or instead he meant that since he was gay and had no children, he didn’t care about the long-term economy and wanted economic policy to concern itself only with the here-and-now and never with the long run.

It’s a fielder’s choice, if you ask me.  Which is why you shouldn’t ask me.  And you shouldn’t ask Niall Ferguson either.

Conveniently, in the very same week in which high-profile economists are debating what Keynes meant, we learned that a study of the effects of access to healthcare insurance (in that case, through Medicaid) shows that access to healthcare does not reduce cholesterol levels, blood pressure, or blood-sugar levels, over a two-year period among people who have elevated levels of one of another of these ailments and who were not previously receiving medical treatment for them because they had no insurance. At least it did not in Oregon, where the study took place, for the sampling involved.

The study is being widely interpreted as showing that healthcare insurance does not improve actual health, and has lead some people to suggest that this means that we should not have healthcare insurance at all, whether publicly or privately financed.

But that’s ridiculous. Or at least it’s insufficient as a response.  What the study obviously shows is not simply that we shouldn’t have healthcare insurance but that we shouldn’t have healthcare. We should not have medical care.  At all.  No doctors, no hospitals, no prescription drugs, no medical devices.  None of it.  We’re spending huge amounts of money on healthcare, and now we know that it doesn’t improve health!

In the long run, we are all dead.  And if you have no access to healthcare and have, say, a heart attack, a stroke, cancer, a diabetic coma, or a serious physical injury, you may well die without medical attention even if you would have lived if you’d had medical attention. In the long run, we are all dead, and in the short run those who have a life-threatening illness or injury and no access to medical care may be too, even if access to medical treatment might have lengthened that run quite a bit.*

So we need to end the medical-industrial complex, because, after all, how much difference is there, really, between the long run and the short run?  Lipitor, insulin, and blood pressure medications are okay, I guess, if you have nothing better to spend your money on.

But even if you don’t, why throw your money away on stuff like that, when those things don’t even improve your health?  And, as for the government and Medicaid, and Obamacare, and Medicare, and all that: Well, what’s that line about, families are tightening their belts, so the government should, too?

At least now we’ve finally found the way to stop healthcare inflation.  End healthcare itself.

*Paragraph rephrased and clarified after initial posting, to avoid possible misinterpretation.

___

UPDATE:  This post, though obviously satire targeted at the rightwing’s conclusions about the study, also is intended to raise what seems to me a critical medical question that, to my knowledge, no one else has asked: Does the study indicate that the treatments for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and early-stage diabetes are ineffectual?

It may be that the diet recommendations given to these new Medicaid patients–less salt, low sugar, lower-cholesterol diets, respectively–weren’t adhered to by most of the patients.  Or it might mean that, once diagnosed with one or another of these illnesses, those in the study who did not get Medicaid nonetheless changed their diet somewhat in light of the diagnosis.  Or it might mean that the medications that were prescribed for the Medicaid recipients who did obtain medical treatment are less effective than thought–which strikes me as something that should have been the headline takeaway, but obviously was not.

If there’s some other possible meaning to the study’s results, what is it?  Seriously.  If these treatments are medically ineffective, isn’t that something that the public should be told?  And if the treatments are effective in the general population, then why would these very same treatments–specifically, the medications–not work with the Medicaid recipients in the study? And, why aren’t these the questions that the pundits are asking?

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Is Margaret Thatcher Responsible for Silicon Valley, As David Brooks Claimed Recently?

[T]he myth of the welfare state fostering a lazy citizenry just doesn’t hold water. A group of small nations (combined population: about 25 million) that came up with Linux, Skype, Ikea, H&M, and Lego — to say nothing of well-written television shows and mystery novels, innovative designers and brilliant architects from Alvar Aalto to Bjarke Ingels — can’t be that lazy.

– George Blecher, participant in today’s New York Times’ Room for Debate discussion about Denmark’s welfare state, apparently the most generous in the Western world.

The New York Times has been running a sequence of pieces in the last month about Denmark’s uniquely generous public-welfare laws, a categorization that includes tax laws and spending programs that apply to all that country’s citizens, not just certain economic classes of citizens.  I hadn’t read the articles until today, when the Times made them (and their subject) the topic of its Room for Debate discussion.

Which reminded me that last month, in a column paying his respects to Margaret Thatcher after she died, David Brooks attributed the existence of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and all those other successful Silicon Valley companies started since the Thatcher/Reagan revolution began, to … Margaret Thatcher.  To whom he expressed gratitude for saving the Western democracies from adopting Swedish-style welfare-state policies, and–he said, in his trademark unexplained ergo-conclusory-declaration fashion–therefore preventing the end of technological innovation of the Silicon Valley variety.

Yes, Brooks really made that claim, if I understood him correctly.  And I think I did.

My immediate reaction upon reading that column was: Well, maybe some other prominent journalist will pick up that gauntlet and go right to the horses’ mouths, and ask some of these tech innovators whether a few of those Swedish-style benefits would in fact have caused them to forego inventing what they invented, and starting their startups or continuing to innovate and invent through their ongoing companies.

Steve Jobs is gone, so he can’t be asked whether he would have ditched the idea for the iPhone a decade ago, had this country had universal single-payer healthcare insurance, access to quality preschools, and guaranteed decent pensions.  But still alive and active are Andy Grove, Bill Gates, Marc Andreessen, Jerry Yang, David Filo, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Sean Parker, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Systrom, Mike Krieger, and almost all of the inventors of all those apps available to anyone with a computer or a smartphone.

Brooks could have asked a few of them before he made his claim, except that he, well, doesn’t do fact vetting before he makes representations of fact. He just uses his perch as a tenured New York Times columnist to make ever-more-outlandish declarations of what he represents as fact. And receives a huge salary, as per his unquestioningly-renewed contracts.  At a time when his own paper, and most others that continue to practice this pundit-star brand of commentary journalism, are dramatically reducing or outright decimating their actual newsroom staffs, because of severely declining revenues.

I keep wondering whether these folks actually bring in substantial revenues, or whether instead they simply continue indefinitely because, y’know, that’s they way it’s always been.  If the latter, it shouldn’t matter any more than that having good-sized staffs of actual professional reporters and editors was the way it had always been, too, at most mainstream newspapers–until it no longer was.  So, why does it, if it does?

Brooks’ Thatcher-Saved-Us-From-the Fate-of-Sweden column was titled “The Vigorous Virtues.” A headline writer, not Brooks himself, titled the column.  The headline writer, a journalist who had enough vigor to read the column and enough virtue to sum up its claim accurately–and who as of a month ago remained employed at the Times albeit at a salary surely a small fraction of Brooks’s–might also have some refreshing takes on government fiscal policies. Thoughts that aren’t mindless statements of ideology transparently masquerading as fact.  But no matter.  He or she, after all, is not a star.

Much better to have Brooks, who is one, reiterate generically yet again that central and northern Europe are innovation wastelands than to require tangible fact as foundation for declarations inferentially based upon supposed fact. There is a difference between opinion and fact (actual fact and false fact, both), although you can routinely switch out opinion for false fact if you’re a big-name pundit under recurring contract with a big-name media organization.

Poetic license is fine when limited to art, but when published in the New York Times as fact–and these statements, by their nature, are, notwithstanding that they’re made in op-ed pieces–they should come with an explicit disclaimer.  They really should.

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UPDATE: Reader Jack posted a comment saying:

Why do intelligent people waste their time and attention discussing anything about David Brooks. Look in the dictionary under either toady or sycophant and you will likely find a picture of Mr. Brooks. As to why he is paid by the NY Times, or any other media company, to regurgitate his gruel? I can only suggest that is easily controlled by those who sign the checks and will produce what he is directed to do so.

I wasn’t sure he was referring to me, since he did specifically reference intelligent people, but I responded nonetheless, explaining:

My intended point wasn’t just about Brooks, or even just about the NYT, Jack. It was about these venerable media companies.  Their finances are really stretched, and they keep sacrificing actual news gathering by relentlessly cutting reportorial and editorial staff.  Yet they keep these big-name pundits under contract, paying them outsized compensation, without giving any apparent thought to whether these people, as individuals, often say anything enlightening or informative.  Mostly, their columns read like Facebook pages.

This isn’t to say that any of these people never has anything insightful or genuinely informative to say.  Thomas Friedman, for example, after years of writing columns that were so clearly just “phoned in” thoughtlessly, became a joke; people started doing hilarious parodies of his columns.  But he’s an actual expert on something important–the Middle East–and his columns on that subject are worth reading because they do provide information and some semblance of insight on that topic, irrespective of whether the actual opinion he advances in one or another column, based on that specialized knowledge, is convincing.

And I do NOT mean to suggest that it is a matter of the age or generation of the columnist.  By far the most important pundit right now is Paul Krugman, because of WHAT he writes, based on his extensive specialized knowledge coupled with his his political leanings. Former Slate writer Tim Noah, who wrote a well-received book called “The Great Divergence,” on the reasons for the rapidly escalating inequality in this country, and to a much lesser extent in Western Europe, detailing his own extensive research for the book, is in his mid-50s.  He was fired recently from the New Republic.  He’s a thoughtful analyst of important socioeconomic issues, and I’d love to see him write periodically for the Times.  He’s unemployed now probably because of his age, yet Brooks and Ron Fournier, both of them baby boomers, have regular gigs and get actual attention–lots of it, apparently–for the truly mindless things they keep saying and saying and saying.

There just doesn’t seem to be any filter through which the people who run these media entities sift what–actually, who–they publish in their oped pages.  It appears to be on autopilot.

I do think the issue of whose political and economic commentary gets fairly widespread attention is important.

 

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