Michael Hiltzik

Michael HiltzikI am going to be out of town for the next two days, so I’m not sure how much writing I will be doing here. I’m sure there will be some stuff. There will be the birthday posts, of course. And I’m sure there will be other things I find that I absolutely must share with you. As always, I’ll try to write a bunch of stuff tonight. I actually do have a number of odd things on my mind like professional basketball in the 1960s and The Three Investigators books and something new I learned about Frank Conniff. Plus there will doubtless be any number of political issues that really bug me. So stay tuned. Just keep your expectations low.

It seems I am suffering from another pundit crush. I know, I know! It always turns out badly. They often turn out to be hopelessly naive or worse: clueless. But while searching for articles about the big Republican hearing thud, I discovered Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times. He writes a blog called The Economy Hub. And the last couple of days have been really good.

By “really good” I mean that he agrees with me. Well, more than that. But we are amazingly in sync in terms of what we’ve written about. For example, his take on Donald Sterling is the same as my take. (Read his take, he knows the historical context far better than I.) His take on Art Laffer’s advice to red states is the same as my take. And his take on the 60 Minutes BP whitewash is exactly the same as my take.

I also got the following 7 Habits of High Successful People from his Twitter feed:

  1. Skiing
  2. Yachting
  3. Snorkeling
  4. Golf
  5. Polo
  6. Dinner parties
  7. Shopping

I’ve added him to my daily reading folder. And I will shortly add him to the side bar here. Check him out!

The Conservative Culture of Ignorance

We Heart ObamacareYou may have heard about the House hearing on Obamacare yesterday. The Republicans brought in six health insurance executives to grill them on the number of people actually paying for insurance on the exchanges. You see, it was supposed to be a bloody good time for them. This followed from a survey that they made of the insurance companies on 15 April that asked how many people had thus far paid for their health insurance. Of course, at that time, a lot of people hadn’t even been billed, so there was no reason that they would have paid their premiums yet. Nonetheless, it allowed the Republicans to crow about how Obamacare wasn’t working because only 67% had paid for it.

Even at the time, just a week ago, there was widespread coverage of the failings of this study, like Dylan Scott’s Talking Points Memo article, EXCLUSIVE: Here’s the House GOP’s “Incredibly Rigged” Obamacare Survey. So there was no reason for the Republicans to walk into the hearing yesterday thinking they were going to stick it to Obamacare once again. At minimum, they should have known that the 67% number was going to be a lower bound on what the executives would report.

When asked, the insurance companies reported that they are seeing a payment rate in the 80% range, and not all the premiums are due. So what we are looking at is what has been reported for a couple of weeks: between 80% and 90% of the signups are paying. According to Sam Baker at National Journal, “Wellpoint, the largest insurer in the Obamacare exchanges, said the payment rate is closer to 90 percent among people who reached their first payment deadline.” Los Angeles Limes‘ Michael Hiltzik has more details on where the insurers are.

According to Elise Viebeck at The Hill, many of the Republican members of the subcommittee made an early exit, I assume because it wasn’t going well. Now this, in itself, is not surprising. These hearings are usually about grandstanding. But this is something else. This is a situation where Republicans are believing their own nonsense.

Think about it. All of these Representatives have staffs. They have people who do nothing but process information and provide it for the Republicans to allow them to do their grandstanding. I understand that the Representatives don’t scour the internet trying to find out what the other side is saying. But their people should be. And that’s especially true when their newest non-Benghazi talking point is based upon a clearly deceptive survey. So they should have known.

The question is why they didn’t. These are not stupid people. Yes, as Jonathan Bernstein pointed out, they live inside the “closed conservative information feedback loop.” But I think it is a cultural issue. It all started in the late 1970s. As I’ve written in the past, supply side economics was not a completely crazy idea at that time. But it was fairly far out and most objective analysis countered it. From there, step by step, they’ve moved inward.

For years, I’ve argued that the problem with Fox News is not that it is biased and just plain bad. The problem is their conceit that they are the only truly neutral news source. The biggest difference between a Fox News viewer and, say, a reader of this site is that readers of this site know that I am not neutral or otherwise unbiased. And the irony of the situation is that I take great care to get my facts right. Errors are not something I ignore around here. That’s not true of Fox News and most right wing information sources; their normal reaction to errors is to ignore them and move on. And that just leaves the impression in viewers that what was reported before was correct.

This is important because of its cultural ramifications. Even though I work very hard to get things right, no one would just assume if they saw it on this little website (or on Talking Points Memo or on MSNBC) it must be right. But apparently, not only do Republican politicians but their entire staffs consume nothing but conservative media. And they think that it is the neutral press.

And here’s the thing: it will only get worse. It has managed to get this bad because despite getting more and more out of touch with reality, Republicans have done quite well at the ballot box. If the Democrats manage to hold the Senate this year, win a landslide in 2016, and lose little in 2018, then the Republican Party might start to change. But even given that unlikely scenario it is not certain they will change. They may react the same way they did to 2008, “We lost because we weren’t conservative [ie, crazy] enough!” Unfortunately, it doesn’t just hurt them. We will all go together when we go.

Helping Heroin Addicts

American Heroin - George Henry BorawskiSusan Svrluga wrote a very interesting article over at the Washington Post, 5 Ways to Help Heroin Addicts. When I saw the headline, I felt like Vladimir at the end of Waiting for Godot, “Off we go again.” In general, the media establishment is a big part of the drug problem in this country. Reporters are generally clueless and they spread misinformation in a sensationalistic way. And when they talk about “recovery,” they are usually even worse—promoting 12-step programs and other quack therapies that do more harm than good.

My theory about drug addition is very simple. People generally get clean after a period of time. The reason is fairly simple: being a drug addict sucks. So if society thinks that drug addition is something that it wants to reduce, it should do as much as it can to help drug addicts who want to get off drugs to do that. All the work of throwing people in jail does almost nothing other than making drug addiction even more sucky—and that’s hardly necessary. So there are two critical things that we can do to help drug addicts: keep them alive until they decide to stop using and provide easy access to effective treatment.

And that brings me to Svrluga’s article because it really surprised it. Mostly, it was right in line with my thinking. She suggests making the opioid antagonist naloxone more widely available. The fact that it isn’t proves my point that most of the society just wants heroin users to die. Naloxone is nothing short of a miracle drug: it stops overdoses almost instantaneously. She also suggests “good Samaritan” laws where drug users don’t get arrested because they try to get help for another user.

After years during which I had a libertarian approach to drugs, I’ve come to a very practical place. I think methadone treatment is probably the greatest tool we have for fighting against the harm caused by opioid addiction. Just in the simplest way, it allows an addict to stabilize his life and think clearly about the future. And a future on maintenance is a whole lot better than many alternatives. One of Svrluga’s ways to help is to make methadone and buprenorphine more available. Hear, hear!

I would go further. We should make methadone maintenance free to all addicts who want it. To put every addict in the United States on maintenance would cost less than $3 billion per year. That might sound like a lot, but it is only 0.02% of the size of our economy, and I’m sure it would be more than offset by increases in productivity and decreases in crime. Of course, not every junkie in America wants to get clean at any given time. Many people qualify for treatment through Medicaid, but it depends upon the person and most of all on the state. The point is to make it easy for addicts to get help when they decide to. As it is now, there can be weeks to wait to even start a program. And if the addict has to come up with hundreds of dollars, the chances that he will still have the resolve to start the program are greatly reduced.

The rest of Svrluga’s ideas are not as good: more long-term treatment and more “talk” about addiction. Long-term residential treatment is generally a bad idea because it just reinforces the idea that the patient is an addict, forces them to spend all their time around other addicts, and delays the time until a new life can start. But there is a bit of truth in what she said. She quoted a doctor saying, “It’s not simply the medicine, but a package of services that need to be provided for most patients.” That I agree with. General counseling can be helpful. But most of all, many addicts need job training. They need some way to make it in the world if they don’t already have one.

One of the big problems we have in our society is the way we treat people who are struggling. We plop people from jails onto the streets and then wonder why there is a high recidivism rate. The same is true of drug addicts. Of course, those two groups have a very big overlap. And in addition to everything else, being labeled a felon (and people are so labeled for crimes as simple as having a joint on them), effectively eliminates any chance the drug addict has of changing his life.

This is not the first good article I’ve seen on this subject. Over the last five years, there has been a lot more reasonable discussion of drugs in this country—although it is still a great minority. And even Svrluga is not above the typical sensational story, Fairfax Mother of Young Heroin Addict: “There Were Clues. But We Had No Clue.” It’s part of a genre: Oh my God, nice white suburbanites are turning into heroin addicts! But the trend is good. And the 12-step juggernaut seems to be weakening as people begin to see that prayer is not the best approach to drug addiction. Of course, we have so far to go. But Susan Svrluga’s article is a good sign.

Peter Benchley Loved Sharks

Peter BenchleyOn this day in 1940, the novelist Peter Benchley was born. He has much to teach young writers. This is because he is such a mediocre writer and yet hugely successful. I’m no expert, of course. I’ve only read two of his novels, but I think that’s enough.

The first novel of his I read was one of his later ones, Rummies. It tells the story of Scott Preston, an upper-middle class drunk who works in the publishing industry (of course). There is an intervention by his family and boss who send him off to a remote drug clinic. Once there, lots of 12-step powerlessness garbage is dispensed. Then, as Preston is joining in and “beginning his recovery” the book turns into a thriller where he uncovers clinic malfeasance. If it weren’t for the cliched premise, the stereotyped characters, and the predictable plot, it would be a perfectly reasonable but undistinguished novel.

The second novel I read was Jaws. You know how novels are always better than the movies that are made from them? That’s not true. But to a large extent, the movie is better than the book because after millions of books sold, everyone knew what people cared about in the book: the shark. So that’s forgivable. But Jaws is a surprisingly boring novel. It doesn’t end so much as stop. The shark finally just dies of its wounds.

It is filled with weak subplots that seem like something you would see in a television drama from that time. The mayor owes money to the mob. Mrs Brody is unhappy because she married well beneath her social class, so she has a creepy affair with Hooper. Mr Brody and Hooper fight through half the novel about the former’s suspicion that the latter “knew” his wife. Quint is just the vilest of characters. No one is likable.

What is amazing is just how successful the book was. I’m not a fan of Stephen King, but the man can write; he’s an incredible talent. Benchley just meanders through his books with no style, peppering them with stock characters doing obvious things. But I will give him this: he makes me feel much better about my own writing. But that is more than made up for by the fact that he shows that there is little correlation between quality and success.

One good thing about Benchley is that after the success of Jaws, he began feeling very bad about the negative PR his book had been for sharks. He spent most of the last part of his life campaigning for and writing about sharks. This is very cool for two reasons. First, it shows the man had a heart. Second, sharks are super cool! And as Benchley himself noted, “[T]he shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.” Indeed.

Happy birthday Peter Benchley!

See also: My Odd Love of Great White Sharks. I have Benchley to thank for that.