Transparency of Closed Door Negotiations

So there’s been some debate about whether or not C-SPAN should be permitted to cover any informal negotiations that work to merge the House and Senate health care bills. It sounds obvious that we should strive for maximal transparency, but I agree with this:

Consider the Senate floor debate.[…]Senators from both party played to the cameras. Grandstanding, launching unnecessary rhetorical attacks, but barely tweaking the bill on the Senate floor. The real substantive change, if you’ll recall, came in the form of Reid’s amendment (and when he merged the two Senate bills). At times, the rhetoric on the floor sounded like cable news chatter. The real discussions and compromises — Sens. Lieberman’s and Nelsons objections, for instance — were reserved for private discussions; incidentally, the two Senators didn’t appear on the Senate floor until the 60-vote deal was struck.

One way or the other, there are going to be backroom negotiations. As Ezra Klein argues, televising these will ensure that participants eschew candor for fear of reprisal from opportunistic political opponents and result in negotiations between staffers (who are unelected). What’s more, there will unquestionably be leaks during closed door negotiations and the final bill will be released to the public before a vote, so it’s not even clear how much this increases transparency. What it will do will further delay reform and boost ratings for cable news networks who make hay out of day to day legislative grandstanding.

Finally, the argument that C-SPAN is merely attempting to hold President Obama to his campaign promise of increased transparency is clever, but doesn’t really apply. President Obama didn’t campaign to be princeps, this is an issue of the legislative branch.

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Metro Suicides and the Press

Here’s the latest from WMATA on the most recent “Metro Suicide.”

A 50-year-old woman from Kensington, MD, who was struck by a Red Line train at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metrorail station at 11:36 p.m., on Monday, Jan. 4, died this morning (Tuesday, Jan. 5) as a result of her injuries.

The Metro Transit Police continue to investigate, but preliminary information shows that the woman intentionally placed herself in the path of the train.

She was hit by a six-car train traveling toward Shady Grove.

Beyond the disruption these cause to thousands of people, consider the emotional trauma experienced by train operators who find themselves unwitting suicide accomplices. Imagine opening a door to discover it had been tied to the trigger of a gun and simply by going about your daily business, you had played a direct role in ending the life of another human being. It’s a horrible thing to force to upon someone else.

I don’t mean to diminish the pain experienced by someone who sees fit to take their own life or the anguish that their loved ones and friends must experience in the wake of a such an event, but we ought to do whatever we can to prevent these types of things. It’s really quite difficult to prevent suicides structurally, but the WMATA, DCPD, and local press really ought to read these recommendations from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention as there is a demonstrated effect of “suicide contagion.”

…between 1984 and 1987, journalists in Vienna covered the deaths of individuals who jumped in front of trains in the subway system. The coverage was extensive and dramatic. In 1987, a campaign alerted reporters to the possible negative effects of such reporting, and suggested alternate strategies for coverage. In the first six months after the campaign began, subway suicides and non-fatal attempts dropped by more than eighty percent. The total number of suicides in Vienna declined as well.

Belichick and Average Situations

A wide range of commentators have weighed to argue that yes, Bill Belichick made the right call to go for it on 4th and 2 from their own 28 yard line. Many of them use fancy numbers like this post from Advanced NFL Stats:

With 2:00 left and the Colts with only one timeout, a successful conversion wins the game for all practical purposes. A 4th and 2 conversion would be successful 60% of the time. Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53% of the time from that field position. The total WP for the 4th down conversion attempt would therefore be:

(0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP

A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their own 34. Teams historically get the TD 30% of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP.

But here’s the problem with football stats — and apologies to people who listen to me bloviate every Sunday about this — but first, they’re based on relatively small sample sizes. An NFL season is 16 games, and in such a small collection of data points, almost anything can happen that would be less likely to occur in a set of 82 games with tons of possessions like the NBA or a 162 game baseball season. So there’s that.

But outside of these sort of larger epistemic questions though, there’s the problem of using this data in real world situations. Simply put, not all 4th and 2 opportunities are created equally. No matter what the statistical averages suggest, there’s no such thing as an “average” situation in sports in the way there is in blackjack or craps. There are 4th and 2 situations when you’re up big, when you’re down big, when you’re playing a bad team, when you’re playing a good team, when your offense is tired, and many, many, many others, all of which are markedly different playing experiences and will lead to markedly different outcomes.

This lack of a truly “average” situation is only complicated by the limits of  inference attributable to historical performances in sports. For example, there’s no theoretically sound reason that it would be impossible for a football team to convert on literally every single fourth down opportunity they faced, or, alternatively to fail on every single opportunity. Unlikely? Of course. But the point remains that there’s no immutable law of probability binding these outcomes. As such, how much faith can you really place in a 9 percent increase in Win Probability — especially when you only have 16 games to play?

AP Bravely Defends Insurers From Gross Calumny

Ron Fournier, Washington, DC Associated Press Bureau Chief who has been accused of inappropriate partisanship tweets this Calvin Woodward “Fact Check,” commenting “Think of insurance companies as rapacious profiteers? Think again.” Thank goodness someone finally decided to debunk this most pernicious and perfidious myth:

WASHINGTON – In the health care debate, Democrats and their allies have gone after insurance companies as rapacious profiteers making “immoral” and “obscene” returns while “the bodies pile up.”

But in pillorying insurers over profits, the critics are on shaky ground. Ledgers tell a different reality.

Health insurance profit margins typically run about 6 percent, give or take a point or two. That’s anemic compared with other forms of insurance and a broad array of industries, even some beleaguered ones.

It might be true that of health care industries, insurers make the least money, and it might be true that relative to other types of insurance, health insurance isn’t wildly profitable. But the point isn’t the level of profits, the point is that in order to make a profit, private health insurers deny care out of hand, exploit preexisting conditions, and through a particularly unseemly practice called “rescission,” pour over medical histories to find previously unreported — and frequently totally unrelated — conditions to invalidate insurance contracts when patients need them most. Studies have found some 12.3 million Americans were discriminated against for pre-existing conditions in the past 3 years, and roughly 20,000 Americans had policies canceled through rescission over the past 5 years (foisting on individuals a total of $300,000,000 in medical bills they expected insurance to cover).

So, is it true that margins on private health insurance aren’t astronomical? Sure. But reformers’ contention has always been that the margins that do exist owe substantially to denying medical services and care to people who actually need it. As the “Fact Check” itself notes, the words used by Democrats are “obscene” and “immoral,” which believe it or not, don’t actually connote a level at which profiting from denying medical care is just, virtuous, or good. Perhaps someone would like to venture an acceptable profit level for contributing to the bankruptcies of 930,000 Americans per year, or worse, the 45,000 Americans who die each year because they lack health insurance?

Taking Reality’s Temperature

When one is a regular consumer of cable news and mainstream media, it’s easy to be misled by deferential policies towards “even handedness” that cast political controversies into dead even heats. Almost any cable news program will offer two talking heads from opposing ideological stripes to duke it out and virtually all newspapers and wire services tend to follow the “on the one hand, on the other hand,” style of reporting. The result is a hyper competitive news cycle that revolves around unadjudicated bombast and unresolved “debate.” That’s why it’s sometimes useful to just tune it out and check out some polling (via Washington Post/ABC).

Overall, 57 percent approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president and 40 percent disapprove…. Despite those mixed reviews on domestic priorities, Obama continues to hold a big political advantage over Republicans.

Poll respondents are evenly divided when asked whether they have confidence in Obama to make the right decisions for the country’s future, but just 19 percent express confidence in the Republicans in Congress to do so. Even among Republicans, only 40 percent express confidence in the GOP congressional leadership to make good choices.

Only 20 percent of adults identify themselves as Republicans, little changed in recent months, but still the lowest single number in Post-ABC polls since 1983.

Of course, watching cable news or reading mainstream press, you’d really have no idea this was the case. For example, in the same Kaplan Test Prep owned Washington Post, we learn that despite “clear majorities back[ing],” the public option and the individual mandate, these policies are somehow “controversial,”  because a highly unpopular group of legislators that the press must nevertheless indulge dislikes the idea.

While of course it’s disappointing that the press plays such an instrumental role in misleading the public, it’s also frustrating how this type of coverage provides political cover for politicians who want to avoid making difficult decisions. Whether Max Baucus doesn’t support the public option because he’s in the back pocket of the entire health care industry or because he has some airy commitment to “bipartisanship,” we’ll never know for sure.

Chamberlain Round Up

As expected, a number of conservatives have reacted to Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize by highlighting the incontrovertible fact that Barack Obama — far from a missionary of peace — is actually a weak willed appeaser like Neville Chamberlain, and as Michael Ledeen earlier suggested, is making the world a more dangerous place.

Most of the comparisons I’ve seen so far today come from lightly trafficked right wing blogs (nothing wrong with lightly trafficked, by the way), but now I see that Michael Savage has thrown his hat in to the ring. Anyway, other instances of Chamberlain comparison I’ve seen so far can be found here, here, here, here, and of course on countless comment sections on news sites.

UPDATE: Dr. Laura hits it.

Horse Race Journalism Is Not Our Fault

There’s been a little buzz lately over the Washington Post‘s ombudsman piece the other day criticizing the Post for too much “horse race” coverage of the health care debate. Putative causes have cited political obsession among reporters and editors, profit maximizing behavior, and competitive necessity, but Kevin Drum offers this explanation.

This is only going to get worse.  I don’t think mainstream news outlets have ever been all that good at explaining policy, but they’ve probably gotten worse over the years as attention spans have shortened and the media environment has gotten ever louder and more ubiquitous.  You really can’t explain healthcare reform in two minutes, but fewer and fewer people are willing to sit around for much longer than that.

The fault, in other words, lies not in the media, but in ourselvesThe mainstream media may have written ten times as much about the townhalls as they did about the actual substance of the healthcare proposals on the table, but the blogosphere only did a little better. Even here in wonkland, the outrage of the day is a much more tempting blog topic than reimbursement rates for Medicare.

I’m not so sure about this. First, with respect to the town halls specifically, coverage in the mainstream media and cable news was somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, the fact that lunatics and their cynical agitators knew that nutty behavior would drive coverage spawned more and more nutty behavior, and more and more coverage of nutty behavior. If the media decided that accurate reporting of events meant not giving disproportionate attention to a minority of people, it’s unlikely things would have played the way they did. But this is all secondary.

My memory could be flawed, but I’m pretty sure most of people I read on the blogosphere spent their energy debunking some of the absurd claims made in the town halls or talking about animating factors, not bloviating about political strategy. Even if the general topic was the same, the conversation was totally different. Whereas people with blogs would address statements made in town halls and expose them as ludicrous fantasies, the mainstream media would report the events and discuss the ramifications for certain political actors. The former is helpful from a standpoint of informing the public, the latter is not. I’ve said it a million times, but the point of politics is governing, not winning debates, but the mainstream media seems to disagree with me. And certainly, not all discourse in the blogosphere was informative, but it was certainly better than coverage in the mainstream media.

Anyway, it’s hard to see how this improves. As Kevin noted earlier in his post, horse race coverage partially stems from the need to report news, and twists and turns in legislative sausage making happen far more frequently than policy proposals. However, that doesn’t mean coverage of politics has to be removed from the policies being discussed to the absurd extent they often are. For example, if reporters feel compelled to report that a gun-toting loon opposes a “government take-over” of the health care system, the reporter could at least mention that no such thing is under consideration, the unctuous blabbering of GOP operatives notwithstanding.