My interview with the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Larry Levitt on the progress of health reform

If you want to catch up on health reform–how it’s going, how the 2014 election might affect things, what Republicans might try to change in ACA, and how the Supreme Court might cause further problems–this three-part interview with the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Larry Levitt has you covered. Larry is one of the most widely-respected experts on ACA. I really enjoyed our conversation. And I really enjoyed the illustrations produced by the team. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. I hope you enjoy it.

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Sunday Pub Quiz: Cartoons

Google not and see how you can do on this 10 question quiz about famous cartoons and their characters. Please post scores and comments/corrections at the end. Answers after the jump

1. What family lives on Evergreen Terrace?

2. Who does Underdog have in his arms here?


3. What famous animated character was originally inspired by a Clark Gable scene in the movie “It Happened One Night”.

4. Who voiced Robin on Superfriends and Shaggy on the original Scooby Doo, Where are You?

5. Who got the most rocks when he went trick or treating?

6. What country has exported more TV cartoons to the U.S. than any other?

7. J. Wellington Wimpy would gladly pay you on Tuesday if you would only give him what today?

8. What super-intelligent dog had a pet boy named Sherman?

9. Who lives at Megapolis Zoo and has a sidekick named Chumley the walrus?

10. He was a dastardly secret agent from the country of Pottsylvania, he worked for Fearless Leader and his evil partner was Natasha Fatale (aka Nogoodnik). Who was he?

Continue Reading…

A human being lives there: Grubergate

Jon made some really misguided and condescending comments that fueled the #Grubergate frenzy. So I am both angry with and sad for him today. In the apocalyptic politics of Obamacare, it’s easy to forget that he’s also a good person and a distinguished scholar who is getting the full internet-frenzy gang tackle right now.

Ezra Klein captures well my own sadness:

I’ll offer a slightly smaller final thought here: Gruber increasingly looks like a casualty of Obamacare. He’s become a liability to the law’s supporters — “I don’t know who he is,” said Nancy Pelosi, who had cited Gruber’s analyses during the health-care debate — and a villain to its opponents. He has been made into the worst comments he ever uttered on tape.

That’s a shame. Gruber tried to make it a better bill than it is. He tried to make what was in it clearer and more known than it was. And then — and this is where all the tapes come from — he traveled the country trying to explain it to people. And Gruber, as is perfectly clear now, was not an experienced political operator who knew how to talk carefully in front of a camera. The lesson other academics will take from his humiliation is that they best stay out of big policy debates, and they had really better make sure they never say anything interesting on tape.

Washington has always done this to people, but it’s happening more frequently, and more viciously, in the age of Twitter and YouTube. And while it makes sense in every individual case, it is, on the whole, bad for American politics. “It’s a healthy world where academics can speak their minds at conferences and the like without their words becoming political weapons in a bigger fight,” writes Tyler Cowen.

Cowen goes on to suggest that “perhaps we should subsidize people who end up looking foolish, rather than taxing them.” We’re not going to do that, of course. But we can at least try to be a bit more generous. We can remember people are more than the most controversial thing we’ve ever heard them say.

I am reminded of Philip Roth’s comments about a much more megawatt and sordid scandal. Roth also advised President Clinton to hang a banner outside the White House: “A human being lives here.” On all sides, we easily forget our humanity and compassion these days. The ecstasy of sanctimony is an ugly thing to see.

Obama in China

The CW on Obama’s climate deal with China has it about right: it is
(a) a huge diplomatic breakthrough, removing the main roadblock to an agreement in Paris to cut carbon emissions and get the world on a path to sustainability in a liveable climate;
(b) completely inadequate, as the actual emissions targets for 2030 to which the two committed – peaking by then “or earlier” for China, a 26% reduction from 2005 for the USA – fall far short of what is required. The EU has signed up to 40% cuts, and even that is too low for safety.

Obama has neatly snookered the GOP. They have been using the “what about China?” talking-point as an excuse for inaction. A dangerous one, as it concedes the principle that action is needed. Now they will have to switch to “China isn’t doing enough”. Which implies that there is some Chinese policy which would trigger US action, and we are in negotiation mode on overflight rights for the black helicopters. The target looks achievable on current policy, defined to include the coal regulations, so the cost argument doesn’t hold up either. It remains true that the next legislative heave will have to await 2016, and depends on a very unlikely Democratic sweep or (dream on) Damascene conversion by the GOP.

The Chinese side is more interesting. Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Onibaba


When movie aficionados think of Japan, their minds typically turn to Akira Kurosawa. That’s understandable, as one could make a plausible case for him being the best director in the history of cinema. But Kurosawa is far from the only brilliant filmmaker to hail from the Land of the Rising Sun. Another is writer-director Kaneto Shindô, the creative force behind this week’s film recommendation: Onibaba.

Shot in lustrous black and white under demanding conditions in 1964, Onibaba is a primal, sensual and eerie story of human beings struggling to survive. Emphasizing the mythological nature of the tale and its universal themes, the two central characters do not even have names. The older woman and her young daughter-in-law eke out a living in a swamp by murdering unfortunate soldiers who are lost or are fleeing the battles that rage across 14th century Japan. Strong, complex women characters were one of Shindô hallmarks, and he chose brilliant actors here to essay the roles: Nobuko Otowa (his real-life wife) and Jitsuko Yoshimura.

Into this small, brutal world eventually comes a disruptive force, an ex-soldier played by Kei Satô who informs the women that the link between them is gone: the older woman’s son is dead and the younger woman is therefore now a widow. The ex-soldier moves into the swamp, while keeping a lustful eye on the young woman, whose own uncontrollable sexual yearnings are memorably dramatized by her racing through the tall, undulating susuki grass (truly, the grass forest is the film’s fourth character). The older woman is consumed both by her own sexual frustration and her fear that the young woman will leave her, ending the bloody partnership that allows her to survive. So she concocts an unusual scheme to disrupt the relationship, which backfires as the movie takes a supernatural turn that will resonate with those viewers who are familiar with Buddhist folklore.

skullsThis is a raw film about how human beings’ animal nature emerges under harsh conditions. On display are unbridled lust, jealousy, greed and violence. Even the way the characters eat suggests animality. Hikaru Hayashi’s one-in-a-million score, a mix of Taiko, jazz and ghostly notes from wind instruments, is the perfect marriage of music with celluloid. Kudos are also in order for cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda for achieving technical brilliance on a hot, rainy and swampy set (It was so brutal that Shindô allegedly refused to pay the rebellious crew unless they finished the shoot). Like Saed Nikzat, Kuroda has the confidence to hold a still long shot and let the audience experience the environment and characters rather than forcibly directing our attention by moving from one quick cut to another. This is especially effective in his hypnotic, sensual images of the ever-swaying susuki grass forest.

Although the film is perhaps 10 minutes too long, Onibaba is completely original and fascinating. It’s also rather unsettling in the best artistic sense of that word. To fully enjoy this classic of Japanese cinema, try to get your hands on the gorgeous Criterion Collection re-issue.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of our prior recommendations.

Breaking: 480,000 Americans still die from cigarettes every year

At the Atlantic Monthly, Kenneth Warner and I have a 7,000 word piece called the Nicotine Fix. Ken is one of the nation’s leading tobacco control experts and a former dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. It was great to be his wingman on this. We discuss the remarkable, yet incomplete progress America has made in reducing tobacco-related deaths. In the fifty years since the 1964 Surgeon General’s report, efforts to reduce smoking have prevented an estimated eight million deaths. Each of these eight million people received an additional twenty years of human life.

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As educated and affluent people turn away from smoking, it’s easy to forget some basic realities. 480,000 Americans still die of smoking-related causes every year. That’s an amazing figure. Our piece discusses the disgraceful history but more promising history of tobacco harm reduction efforts. Both of my in-laws died harrowing deaths from lung cancer, way before their time. I wish they had access to e-cigs or other products they might have substituted for combustable tobacco.

Incidentally, Ken and I are very grateful to Jennie Rothenberg Gritz and others at the Atlantic. They produced our piece beautifully. We have old tobacco ads and videos, and graphs like the one above, drawn from Surgeon General reports. We hope you enjoy reading it.

Receiving the Freedom of the City of London

For someone who loves and spends as much time in London as I do, the nicest possible thing happened yesterday when I was granted Freedom of the City. It’s an ancient custom, going back centuries, and was originally intended to allow people to do business in the city. Rather than putting up a video of my own clumsy reading of the brief oath I took, I think I will leave it to someone with more dramatic gifts who also recently received the Freedom:

I am now entitled to drive sheep across London Bridge and carry a naked broadsword within the square mile. If capital punishment is restored in the UK and I am naughty enough to deserve it, I may only be hanged with a silk rope. And if I am found to be drunk and riotous, the police will return me to my rooms rather than tossing me into the clink.

Obviously, these are not privileges I am likely to exercise, but that isn’t the point. To me this is a true kindness by the The City of London and its Common Council and I am very grateful for their welcoming this American as one of their own. The event was made only sweeter when I learnt that my public lecture on drug policy afterwards was scheduled to be held at the hall of the Fishmonger’s Livery Company, to which a direct ancestor of mine had belonged 400 years ago!

p.s. Upon being granted the Freedom, Stephen Fry made an intriguing television program about the City and its secrets that you can watch here.

November 11

It’s still Armistice Day in Britain; officially, Victoire 1918 in France, though it’s not a day of joy.

The Menin Gate at Ypres, a British Empire Commonwealth war memorial whose walls are densely packed with 54,000 names of dead soldiers whose bodies were not recovered identifiably from the Flanders mud. Many more lie in orderly war cemeteries nearby. There are plenty of flowers stuck to the walls at Menin; Ypres is far more accessible to British visitors than the other mega-monument lost in the Somme beetfields at Thiépval. A busy road with bus routes passes through the Menin Gate, so the memorial is pleasantly integrated in the life of the town.

EUROPE FOR THE CWGC BY BRIAN HARRIS © 2006Credit New Zealand War Graves Project

The memorial includes a miniature, four-foot bronze version of itself, explained in Braille. (I didn’t check if it includes a tiny self-referential model of the emodel.) Did it take the Great War for the disabled to start being treated as citizens?

At Menin, a bugler plays the Last Post (Taps) every evening at dusk. Here is his Aussie counterpart in Anzac hat at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Changing views on Halbig/King: the case of PPS 165 at Duke

Much has been written about the Halbig/King litigation that the Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear. The case centers on the question of whether federal subsidies can flow to persons who purchased coverage in states with federally facilitated exchanges (I’m not going to try for comprehensive link round up). I have nothing to add on the merits of the case. I write to report drastic changes in what Duke undergraduates (mix of frosh, soph and pre-med kids) taking my class at Duke University (PPS 165, Introduction to the U.S. Health Care System) have thought about it over the past 3 Fall terms (2012, 2013, 2014).

I assigned the identical memo prompt all 3 semesters. The goal was to get them to look at the text of the law and the IRS regs and decide what they thought; it is an assignment in making a decision and writing persuasively. I provided little to no discussion of the issues prior to their writing. The breakdown of student views across the 3 semesters were as follows (No means a conclusion that tax credits cannot legally flow to persons buying in a federally facilitated exchange; yes means they are allowable):

  • Fall 2012: 5 no, 37 yes
  • Fall 2013: 14 no, 21 yes
  • Fall 2014: 18 no, 12 yes (these were due today; there were several students who have yet to turn in their memo) Continue Reading…