Edward Snowden Explains That His Goal Was To Expose Putin For Lying About Mass Surveillance, Not To Whitewash Him

Yesterday Edward Snowden called into a question and answer show held by Vladamir Putin and asked him about mass surveillance in Russia. The video is above. Putin’s response:

“Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent,” the president replied. “I used to work for an intelligence service. Let’s speak professionally.”

“Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law,” Mr. Putin said. “You have to get a court’s permission first.” He noted that terrorists use electronic communications and that Russia had to respond to that threat.

“Of course we do this,” Mr. Putin said. “But we don’t use this on such a massive scale and I hope that we won’t.”

“But what is most important,” Mr. Putin concluded, “is that the special services, thank God, are under a strict control of the government and the society, and their activities are regulated by law.”

Most likely as a reflection of views they already had about him, some people have since criticized Snowden for giving Putin the opportunity to lie in this manner, as if the only way Putin could lie on Russian television is by responding to a question from Edward Snowden. Think Progress has pointed out some of the ways in which Putin was lying:

Numerous reports lay doubt to Putin’s claims that the collection of information is much more narrowly tailored in Russia. In fall 2012, Russia put into place a system it claimed was to protect children from viewing pornography. The method it decided to enact that goal, however, was one not only puts into place a list of banned websites that could surpress political speech, but also has the ability to track the flow of information across Russian networks. “Logistically, this will require Russia’s [internet service providers] to maintain detailed records of user traffic and would allow the Russian government a potential backdoor into the private lives of Russia’s internet users,” ThinkProgress explained at the time of the network’s launch.

Last October, Reuters also reported that the Russian government was requiring internet service providers to “store all traffic temporarily and make it available to the top domestic intelligence agency.” Under the order drafted in the Communications Ministry, the FSB — the successor to the KGB — would have access for 12 hours to all stored data, “including phone numbers, IP addresses, account names, social network activity and e-mail addresses.” That order is due to take effect this July.

And just this year, Russian officials admit while defending hotels in Sochi built for the Winter Olympics that they were equipped with surveillance equipment that was closely watched. The entire proceedings in the Russian resort town were subject to a massive dragnet of surveillance as a system was put into place to monitor all communications that flowed in and out. This was done using the SORM system that Russia utilizes to listen in to phone conversations and read email threads, which according to Privacy International, “gathers information from all communication media, and offers long-term storage (three years), providing access to all user data.” SORM is deployed year-round and controlled by the FSB.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said he has been on the receiving end of the Russian surveillance program. As a government official, he was a prime target, he told NBC just prior to stepping down earlier this year, but Americans writ large are also subject to having their information spied upon, given Moscow’s espionage abilities. “As we remind all Americans that come to this country,” McFaul said, “the Russian government has tremendous capabilities, and legal by their law, of intercepting phone calls, emails, etc.”

In a post at The Guardian entitled Vladimir Putin must be called to account on surveillance just like Obama, Snowden explained that “I questioned the Russian president live on TV to get his answer on the record, not to whitewash him.”

On Thursday, I questioned Russia’s involvement in mass surveillance on live television. I asked Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, a question that cannot credibly be answered in the negative by any leader who runs a modern, intrusive surveillance program: “Does [your country] intercept, analyse or store millions of individuals’ communications?”

I went on to challenge whether, even if such a mass surveillance program were effective and technically legal, it could ever be morally justified.

The question was intended to mirror the now infamous exchange in US Senate intelligence committee hearings between senator Ron Wyden and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, about whether the NSA collected records on millions of Americans, and to invite either an important concession or a clear evasion. (See a side-by-side comparison of Wyden’s question and mine here.)

Clapper’s lie – to the Senate and to the public – was a major motivating force behind my decision to go public, and a historic example of the importance of official accountability.

In his response, Putin denied the first part of the question and dodged on the latter. There are serious inconsistencies in his denial – and we’ll get to them soon – but it was not the president’s suspiciously narrow answer that was criticised by many pundits. It was that I had chosen to ask a question at all.

I was surprised that people who witnessed me risk my life to expose the surveillance practices of my own country could not believe that I might also criticise the surveillance policies of Russia, a country to which I have sworn no allegiance, without ulterior motive. I regret that my question could be misinterpreted, and that it enabled many to ignore the substance of the question – and Putin’s evasive response – in order to speculate, wildly and incorrectly, about my motives for asking it.

The investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, perhaps the single most prominent critic of Russia’s surveillance apparatus (and someone who has repeatedly criticised me in the past year), described my question as “extremely important for Russia”. According to the Daily Beast, Soldatov said it could lift a de facto ban on public conversations about state eavesdropping.

Others have pointed out that Putin’s response appears to be the strongest denial of involvement in mass surveillance ever given by a Russian leader – a denial that is, generously speaking, likely to be revisited by journalists.

In fact, Putin’s response was remarkably similar to Barack Obama’s initial, sweeping denials of the scope of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs, before that position was later shown to be both untrue and indefensible.

So why all the criticism? I expected that some would object to my participation in an annual forum that is largely comprised of softball questions to a leader unaccustomed to being challenged. But to me, the rare opportunity to lift a taboo on discussion of state surveillance before an audience that primarily views state media outweighed that risk. Moreover, I hoped that Putin’s answer – whatever it was – would provide opportunities for serious journalists and civil society to push the discussion further.

When this event comes around next year, I hope we’ll see more questions on surveillance programs and other controversial policies. But we don’t have to wait until then. For example, journalists might ask for clarification as to how millions of individuals’ communications are not being intercepted, analysed or stored, when, at least on a technical level, the systems that are in place must do precisely that in order to function. They might ask whether the social media companies reporting that they have received bulk collection requests from the Russian government are telling the truth.

I blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance practices not because I believed that the United States was uniquely at fault, but because I believe that mass surveillance of innocents – the construction of enormous, state-run surveillance time machines that can turn back the clock on the most intimate details of our lives – is a threat to all people, everywhere, no matter who runs them.

Last year, I risked family, life, and freedom to help initiate a global debate that even Obama himself conceded “will make our nation stronger”. I am no more willing to trade my principles for privilege today than I was then.

I understand the concerns of critics, but there is a more obvious explanation for my question than a secret desire to defend the kind of policies I sacrificed a comfortable life to challenge: if we are to test the truth of officials’ claims, we must first give them an opportunity to make those claims.

This comes a few days after The Guardian and the Washington Post received a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their reporting on the NSA surveillance based upon documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

Success Of Obamacare Might Translate Into Political Success

The number of people signing up for private insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act has now reached eight million. While primarily symbolic, it does represent a victory after initial projections of seven million were reduced to six million due to the problems when the exchanges opened. We know that if they failed to meet these projections, Republicans would be making a big deal of them. In addition, late enrollees included a high percentage of young people.

Good news means more positive head lines, such as National Journal writing that Obamacare is on a Winning Streak. The political climate is changing, with some Democrats now being more willing to run on its success.  I think it is essential that they do this to reduce the risk of the loss of a large number of seats this November. The evidence shows that Obamacare is a success but if Democrats don’t defend it, voters will only hear Republican attacks. Hiding from Obamacare will only make Democrats look weaker, and will not protect them from voters who vote against Democrats based upon Republican misinformation.

Ezra Klein writes that the right suffers from Obamacare Derangement Syndrome, being unable to admit that it is working:

Republicans used to talk about Bush Derangement Syndrome. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer defined it as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush.” Republicans like Krauthammer understood that BDS helped the Bush administration in two ways: it fired up their supporters and it distracted liberals from more modest, but effective, critiques.

Today, the right struggles with Obamacare Derangement Syndrome: the acute inability to see Obamacare as anything but a catastrophic failure that the American people will soon reject. For those suffering from ODS, all bad Obamacare news is good news, and all good Obamacare news is spin. In this world, delays of minor provisions in the law prove that the entire structure is collapsing, while surges of millions of people enrolling in insurance don’t prove anything at all…

But it’s coming at a moment when Obamacare’s successes are getting tougher and tougher to deny. The law signed up more than 7.5 million people in the exchanges, more than 3.5 million people in Medicaid, and it led millions more to get health care through their employers or directly through insurers. Premiums are lower than the Congressional Budget Office predicted when the law passed, and insurers are already thinking about how to compete for applicants in 2015. The White House has a much better story to tell than anyone — including me — thought possible in December.

For Republican pundits it might not matter that Obamacare is a success. Republicans show more intensity in their views, and very little concern for the truth. Campaigning against Obamacare might still motivate Republicans to get out and vote.

Andrew Sullivan might be a bit overly optimistic about the political effects of the success of Obamacare, but I hope he is right:

There’s simply no denying that the law has been rescued by an impressive post-fiasco operation that did to ACA-opponents what the Obama campaign did to the Clintons in 2008 and to Romney in 2012. Obama out-muscled the nay-sayers on the ground. I have a feeling that this has yet to fully sink in with the public, and when it does, the politics of this might change. (Since the law was pummeled at the get-go as something beyond the skills of the federal government to implement, its subsequent successful implementation would seem to me to do a lot to reverse the damage.) There are some signs that this is happening. A new Reuters/Ipsos poll finds the following:

Nearly one-third of respondents in the online survey released on Tuesday said they prefer Democrats’ plan, policy or approach to healthcare, compared to just 18 percent for Republicans. This marks both an uptick in support for Democrats and a slide for Republicans since a similar poll in February.

That’s mainly because of renewed confidence and support from previously demoralized Democrats. But it’s also a reflection, it seems to me, of the political vulnerability of Republicans who have failed to present a viable alternative to the law, and indeed seem set, in the eyes of most voters, merely to repeal ACA provisions that are individually popular. And this bad position is very likely to endure because of the intensity of the loathing for Obama/Obamacare among the Medicare recipients in the GOP base. It seems to me that right now, the GOP cannot offer an alternative that keeps the more popular parts of Obamacare without the air fast leaking out of their mid-term election balloon. And so by the fall, the political dynamics of this may shift some more in Obama’s direction. By 2016, that could be even more dramatic. One party – the GOP – will be offering unnerving change back to the status quo ante, and the other will be proposing incremental reform of the ACA. The only thing more likely to propel Hillary Clinton’s candidacy would be a Republican House and Senate next January.

It’s that long game thing again, isn’t it? Like the civil rights revolution of the Obama years, it seemed a close-to-impossible effort to start with, and then was gradually, skillfully ground out. It also seems true to me that the non-event of the ACA for many, many people will likely undermine some of the hysteria on the right. The ACA-opponents may be in danger of seeming to cry wolf over something that isn’t that big a deal. Yes, they may have premium hikes to tout as evidence of the alleged disaster. And every single piece of bad news on the healthcare front will be attributed to the ACA, fairly or not. But the public will still want to know how premiums can go down without people with pre-existing conditions being kicked out of the system, or without kids being kicked off their parents’ plan, and so on. I think, in other words, that the GOP’s position made a lot of short-term political sense in 2010 and even 2012. But it’s a much tougher sell in 2014, let alone 2016. Once again, they have substituted tactics for strategy. Every time they have done that with Obama, they have failed.

Sullivan described how he has benefited from the Affordable Care Act and concluded, “Yes, I am just one tiny, and rare example. But for me, at least, Obamacare has over-delivered and over-performed. If my experience is replicated more widely, then I suspect the polling and politics will shift yet again.”

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

Possible Class M Planet Discovered

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A  possible Class M planet, which may be suitable for humanoid life, has been discovered 500 light-years away:

It is a bit bigger and somewhat colder, but a planet circling a star 500 light-years away is otherwise the closest match of our home world discovered so far, astronomers announced on Thursday.

The planet, known as Kepler 186f, named after NASA’s Kepler planet-finding mission, which detected it, has a diameter of 8,700 miles, 10 percent wider than Earth, and its orbit lies within the “Goldilocks zone” of its star, Kepler 186 — not too hot, not too cold, where temperatures could allow for liquid water to flow at the surface, making it potentially hospitable for life.

“Kepler 186f is the first validated, Earth-size planet in the habitable zone of another star,” Elisa V. Quintana of the SETI Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., said at a news conference on Thursday. “It has the right size and is at the right distance to have properties similar to our home planet.”

Dr. Quintana is the lead author of a scientific paper describing the findings in this week’s issue of the journal Science. Kepler 186f is the latest planet to be sifted out of the voluminous data collected by Kepler, which kept watch over 150,000 stars, looking for slight drops in brightness when a planet passed in front.

There is no word from Star Fleet as to whether there are plans to initiate First Contact with the planet. Most likely this is because we are unable to determine whether there is life on the planet and we have not yet developed warp technology which would enable us to travel 500 light years, not to mention that Star Fleet is a fictitious organization which will not be founded until the 2130′s. While similar to earth, we also do not actually know the composition of the atmosphere and therefore cannot be certain if it really is a Class M planet.

Insurance Companies Plan To Increase Policies Offered On Exchanges Following 2014 Success, And Other Health Care News

The first year of enrollment for insurance under the exchanges is largely for first getting our feet wet, with more people projected to sign up in the future. It certainly exposed problems in the computer system and allowed for them to be fixed (although further testing before October was clearly needed). Insurance companies got to see whether this was a profitable market they would want to enter. In the past one or two insurance companies dominated in most areas on the individual market. One of the benefits of selling coverage through the exchanges was the hope that multiple companies would now begin to offer coverage.

Even conservatives who oppose the Affordable Care Act should agree with the benefits of having more companies offer insurance, including the likelihood of competition leading to lower prices. Actually exchanges, along with mandates, were originally supported by Republicans until they opposed the plan when supported by Barack Obama.

So far we are receiving good news following the initial IT problems. The Affordable Care Act now looks like a good policy which just got off to a rocky start. Enrollment is estimated at 7.5 million, exceeding predictions made even before they were adjusted downward with the early computer problems, with more healthy young people signing up at the last minute. Politico reports that insurance companies are happy with what they are seeing and want to get in:

Health insurers got their first taste of Obamacare this year. And they want seconds.

Insurers saw disaster in the fall when Obamacare’s rollout flopped and HealthCare.gov was a mess. But a strong March enrollment surge, along with indications that younger and healthier people had begun signing up, has changed their attitude. Around the country, insurers are considering expanding their stake in the Obamacare exchanges next year, bringing their business to more states and counties. Some health plans that skipped the new marketplaces altogether this year are ready to dive in next year.

At least two major national insurers intend to expand their offerings, although a handful of big players like Aetna, Humana and Cigna, are keeping their cards close for now. None of the big-name insurers have signaled plans to shrink their presence or bail altogether after the first rocky year. And a slew of smaller health plans are already making moves to join more states or get into the Obamacare business for the first time.

“[W]e see 2014 as just the beginning for exchanges,” said Tyler Mason, a spokesman for UnitedHealth Group, one of the nations’ largest insurers. “As the economics, sustainability and dynamics of exchanges continue to become clearer, we believe exchanges have the potential to be a growth market with much to offer UnitedHealthcare and other insurers and consumers.”

Nurturing this growth and health plan participation will be one of the first tasks of Sylvia Mathews Burwell, assuming she is confirmed to succeed Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services.

The article reviewed plans by many of the larger insurance companies and also noted that several smaller companies now want to start selling insurance. Being able to offer their plans on the same computer site as the larger companies will allow small companies to compete for sales more easily than in the past, further increasing choice for consumers.

It is not only insurance companies which see the Affordable Care Act as succeeding. The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll shows the number of people who prefer Democrats over Republicans on health care has increased:

Americans increasingly think Democrats have a better plan for healthcare than Republicans, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after the White House announced that more people than expected had signed up for the “Obamacare” health plan.

Nearly one-third of respondents in the online survey released on Tuesday said they prefer Democrats’ plan, policy or approach to healthcare, compared to just 18 percent for Republicans. This marks both an uptick in support for Democrats and a slide for Republicans since a similar poll in February.

Not surprisingly, Gallup has found a greater decrease in the uninsured in states which have embraced the Affordable Care Act, such as by setting up their own exchanges and taking advantage of the expanded Medicaid program.

Having Gallup survey the number of uninsured is of value as the Census Bureau is changing how it is surveying the uninsured, with Gallup providing a second set of numbers for comparison. Many Republicans see a conspiracy to make Obamacare look good. Actually this looks like a change to get more accurate results, which might actually show a greater number of uninsured. The changes also started with 2013 so we will still be able to compare the year prior to the exchanges to subsequent years. Sarah Kliff explained further at Vox.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

Coverage Of The Success of Obamacare And Debunking Republican Lies

Obamacare Winning

Reading liberal versus conservative columnists give entirely different views of the Affordable Care Act. Liberals have been writing about its success while conservatives continue to spread misinformation. Here’s a few examples of liberal views on the topic (which are the fact-based articles):

Tim Dickenson of Rolling Stone (source for the above graphic) writes that Obamacare is working. Instead of the fake conservative horror stories, he linked to stories which show how the Affordable Care Act is helping people. He described the successes, and pointed out that “Republican Party sabotage has also impeded enrollment.” Rather than back away  from calling a lie a lie as many journalists will, Dickenson directly addressed Republican lies as lies as he debunked them:

GOP LIE No. 1: THE NUMBERS DON’T MEAN ANYTHING
Over the course of the open-enrollment period, Republicans labored to argue that Obamacare did far less good than advertised because an estimated 4.7 million Americans received letters in the fall warning that their current policies could not be renewed, as they failed to comply with new coverage requirements. They point to these “cancellations” to argue that few of the folks being counted as ACA enrollees previously lacked insurance.

There are three glaring flaws to this argument. First: Many if not most of those whose plans were canceled were automatically transferred into similar policies that complied with the new law. One of the nation’s largest for-profit insurers told House investigators that it had issued fewer than 2,000 outright cancellations.

Second: Through executive orders, Obama gave roughly half of those who received a letter – 2.35 million – the chance to stay in their existing coverage. CBO estimates suggest that just 1.5 million actually continued in their grandfathered plans, as many could find cheaper and/or better coverage on a subsidized exchange or qualify for Medicaid. It’s telling that the Michigan leukemia patient featured in Koch-funded ads intended to convey the horror of these cancellations has found a compliant poicy on the exchange that still covers her oncologist and cut her monthly premium in half.

Giving the Republican argument every benefit of the doubt, this would leave a potential pool of about 3 million people who changed, rather than gained, insurance. This leads to the third flaw in the argument: Obamacare sign-ups were always going to include millions of people who already had insurance. In its latest estimate, the CBO showed just two-thirds (4 million of 6 million) of exchange enrollments coming from people who were previously uncovered. And the limited hard data available from the states suggests the CBO is closer to the mark than the GOP: In New York, nearly 60 percent of buyers were previously uninsured. In Kentucky, it’s even higher: 75 percent.

GOP LIE No. 2: THEY HAVEN’T PAID THEIR PREMIUMS YET
GOP critics point out that the administration hasn’t tracked how many enrollees are actually paying their insurance bills. The complaint about transparency is fair, but the concern is misplaced. Figures from state exchanges and insurers themselves show that between 80 and 95 percent of enrollees are paying their bills.

GOP LIE No. 3: OBAMACARE WILL COLLAPSE UNDER ITS OWN WEIGHT
One legitimate concern as Obamacare ramped up was that it could enter a “death spiral.” This would happen if the number of older, sicker people on the exchanges far outnumbered the young and the healthy. Premiums would spike, year over year, with each increase driving more healthy folks out of the pool – making the exchange unsustainable. While reaching 7 million enrollees is a huge win politically, it doesn’t ensure Obamacare’s viability as an insurance program. “I do think there’s too much focus on the overall number,” Karen Ignagni, a top insurance-industry lobbyist, told reporters. What matters far more, she said, is the insurance pools’ “distribution of healthy to unhealthy.”

The administration wanted 18- to 34-year-olds to make up nearly 40 percent of enrollees. By March, however, only 25 percent of the mix was under 35. That sounds dire. Yet even pools with just 25 percent of younger people would not create a tailspin, forcing premiums to rise by just 2.4 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Additionally, the convoluted structure of Obamacare eliminates systemic risk. Even the 27 states that relied entirely on the federal exchange will end up with state-specific insurance pools. What this means is that if a death spiral were to develop in, say, Ohio, that failure would not pull down neighboring states. What’s more, safeguards within the ACA mean states don’t have to get the mix right in Year One. For the first three years, ACA has shock absorbers to prevent premium spikes in states with problematic pools. Over that same period, the penalties for not buying insurance step up – which should drive younger, healthier people into the market, balancing the risk profile. We lack hard data to get a clear picture of all state pools. But private insurers are sending optimistic signals to investors that all is well. Case in point: Insurance giant WellPoint just raised its earnings forecast.

GOP LIE No. 4: “OBAMACARE IS THE NUMBER-ONE JOB KILLER IN AMERICA”
That’s what Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told a Tea Party convention in Dallas last summer. Since then, the GOP has been making two ACA-connected job-loss claims, both demonstrably false. First, they twisted a February CBO report to claim that Obamacare will cause 2.5 million Americans to lose their jobs. What the CBO actually found is that Americans will be able to work a little less thanks to lower health-care costs, voluntarily scaling back work hours between 1.5 and 2 percent through 2024, or the output of 2.5 million full-time workers. The other GOP lie is that Obamacare is causing employers – who will be responsible for insuring employees who work more than 30 hours a week – to either scale back the hours of full-time employees or hire only part-time workers. This, too, is hogwash. While the share of part-time employment remains historically high, it has actually been in decline since 2010, when Obama­care became law.

I have discussed many of the above points, with links to the evidence, in previous posts on health care reform.

I was also happy to see that he concluded with the same opinion I have expressed that Democrats must take the offensive on health care:

House Republicans have learned the hard way that even nibbling around the edges of Obamacare can backfire. In February, the GOP pushed a bill to tweak the mandate that businesses offer health care to all employees working more than 30 hours. Switching to the GOP’s preferred 40-hour standard, it turns out, would add $74 billion to the deficit by 2024 and cause nearly 1 million Americans to lose coverage. That’s the kind of move that would play right into Democratic hands. Says Greenberg, “Democrats do very well when they hit back at Republicans on what people lose.”

Until recently, Greenberg had been advising Democrats to move beyond Obamacare and turn to bread-and-butter issues like jobs and the minimum wage. “The strongest attack on Republicans,” he says, “is that they’re obsessed with Obamacare instead of critical issues like dealing with the economy.” But his new poll has Greenberg rethinking that counsel. “Until now, this is an issue where the intensity has been on the other side,” he says. But defending Obamacare, he adds, has emerged as “a values argument for our base.” Greenberg now believes Democrats “ought to lean much more strongly” to campaign on the virtues of Obamacare as a means of boosting progressive turnout. “Not apologizing for Obamacare and embracing it actually wins the argument nationally,” he says. “And it produces much more engagement of Democratic voters. That’s a critical thing in off-year elections.”

Eugene Robinson also wrote about the success of Obamacare:

A new report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that, despite all the problems with the HealthCare.gov Web site launch, 12 million people who previously lacked insurance will obtain coverage this year. By 2017, the year Obama leaves office, the CBO predicts that an additional 14 million uninsured will have managed to get coverage .

Why was the Affordable Care Act so desperately needed? Because without it, 54 million Americans would currently have no health insurance. Within three years, according to the CBO, Obamacare will have slashed the problem nearly in half.

We should do better, and perhaps someday we will. Most industrialized countries have some kind of single-payer system offering truly universal coverage. But if you have to work within the framework of the existing U.S. health-care system — which involves private health insurance companies and fee-for-service care — the Affordable Care Act reforms are a tremendous advance.

Many Republican critics of Obamacare know, but refuse to acknowledge, that the reforms are here to stay. Does the GOP propose to let insurance companies deny coverage because of preexisting conditions, as they could before the ACA? Does the party want to reimpose lifetime caps on the amount an insurer will pay? Tell young adults they can no longer be covered under their parents’ policies?

He concluded by also recommending that Democratic candidates take advantage of the success of Obamacare:

To do well in the fall, Democrats have to infuse their most loyal voters with similar enthusiasm. The success of Obamacare will help. Already, polls are showing upticks in support for embattled Democratic incumbent senators in Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska. Democrats control their own destiny in November: If they can get their voters to the polls, they’ll win.

In the long run, no matter what happens in the election, I’m more convinced than ever that the Affordable Care Act will be seen as landmark legislation. With minimal immediate impact, the ACA does two tremendously important things.

First, it shifts the incentive structure in the health-care industry in ways that promise to hold down rising costs. And second, it establishes the principle that health care should be considered a right, not a privilege.

Of course it’s not perfect. It’s a thing of beauty anyway. We have liftoff. It’s working.

Paul Krugman described Obamacare as the unknown ideal:

The current state of public opinion on health reform is really peculiar. If you’ve been following the issue at all closely, you know that the Affordable Care Act is one of the great comeback stories of public policy: after a terrible start, it has dramatically exceeded expectations. But hardly anyone seems to know that.

He blamed Fox and Rush Limbaugh for all the misinformation they have spread, the Obama administration for doing a “lackluster job so far in getting the word out,” and “a persistent anti-ACA tilt in news coverage.” He pointed out how factual stories on the success of Obamacare are often buried in the back pages of newspapers.

New CBO Report Projects The Affordable Care Act Will Cover More People And Cost Less Than Previously Projected

CBO Affordable Care Act Revised Cost

A new report from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects that the Affordable Care Act  increase the number of people covered, help reduce the deficit, and will cost $104 billion less than previous forecasts::

Relative to their previous projections made in February 2014, CBO and JCT now estimate that the ACA’s coverage provisions will result in lower net costs to the federal government: The agencies currently project a net cost of $36 billion for 2014, $5 billion less than the previous projection for the year; and $1,383 billion for the 2015–2024 period, $104 billion less than the previous projections

Here is the update regarding projections of number of nonelderly people covered (with the elderly already having coverage under Medicare):

CBO and JCT estimate that the insurance coverage provisions of the ACA will increase the proportion of the nonelderly population with insurance from roughly 80 percent in the absence of the ACA to about 84 percent in 2014 and to about 89 percent in 2016 and beyond (see Table 2). CBO and JCT project that 12 million more nonelderly people will have health insurance in 2014 than would have had it in the absence of the ACA. They also project that 19 million more people will be insured in 2015, 25 million more will be insured in 2016, and 26 million more will be insured each year from 2017through 2024 than would have been the case without the ACA.

Projections for the cost of the Affordable Care Act have been reduced due to a combination of factors including less money being spent on subsidies than projected. The report also found that premiums are lower than expected and the CBO does not project a significant increase in premiums in 2015. They project that premiums will increase by about $100 for silver plans in 2015 and subsequently project annual increases of 6 percent per year. There have often been double digit increases in premiums in the individual market in the past.

One reason for premiums being lower than previously projected by the CBO is that more people are purchasing plans with greater restrictions than the CBO had previously predicted. For the benefit of the vast majority of the country who, despite all the attention the topic has received only represent a small percentage of the entire country, here is a brief explanation of the choices available. Plans offered differ based upon how high the deductible and co-pays are, with those having lower out of pocket expenses having higher premiums. Some insurance companies also offer different plans in each category which differ based upon how restrictive they are. For example, I had the choice of a few Blue Cross plans. The most expensive (which I purchased) offers access to all physicians who accept Blue Cross and is the traditional non-HMO insurance plan. There were also less expensive plans offered which correspond with the HMO products they have available. They cost less but also restrict which doctors can be seen, and typically pay out less. The least expensive option was a new plan which, while sold under the Blue Cross name, is actually run by a local hospital network and (with some exceptions) restricts coverage to doctors and hospitals in their network.

In the past, employers have had comparable choices to offer to their employees. There has been a push back as many people have been unhappy with the restrictions from HMO’s . While some employers have continued to offer more restrictive HMO plans, many others have changed to more expensive but less restrictive plans.

The CBO originally projected that insurance purchased through the exchange would mirror the employer plans. I do not find it all surprising that instead there were greater sales of the more restrictive plans. Those new to insurance coverage would not have had bad experiences with restrictive HMO’s. Many people who were denied insurance in the past were happy to have any coverage. As they were paying out of their own pocket, even if receiving subsidies, it is also to be expected that consumers would purchase the less expensive HMO plans unless they have experienced reasons to purchase the more expensive and less restrictive plans.

Some see this as evidence that the Affordable Care Act has been more successful then it actually has been in cutting expenses. It is likely that over time there will be more people who will choose a plan without the HMO restrictions. The CBO does predict that “the differences between employment based plans and exchange plans will narrow as exchange enrollment increases. That pattern will put upward pressure on exchange premiums over the next couple of years, although CBO and JCT anticipate that the plans’ characteristics will stabilize after 2016.” Again, their projections are for a 6 percent annual increase, which still remains less than has often been seen in the past. This includes increases due to expected consumer demands for less restrictive policies but the CBO is not able to code potential decreases in costs from future improvements in cost control, leaving hope that the increases might be less than this.

Update: Coverage Of The Success of Obamacare And Debunking Republican Lies

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

SciFi Weekend: Hannibal; Captain America and Agents of SHIELD; The Americans; Orphan Black; Continuum; Captain Janeway and Geocentrism; The Expanse

Hannibal Chilton

 Yakimono provided an excellent start for the second half of this season of Hannibal. The episode answered the question of how they continue for several more episodes between the release of Will Graham from prison and the ultimate revelation that Hannibal Lecter is the Chesapeake Ripper. Chilton had an agenda, but his plans did not work out: “Yes, I have an agenda. Living.” We knew after Hannibal winked at Chilton last week that he was doomed, but had no idea how complex his (apparent) death would be, along with the role of Miriam Lass. We found out why Hannibal kept Miriam alive, brainwashing her so that she would identify Chilton as the one who kidnapped her instead of Hannibal, and then shooting Chilton. This should serve to take suspicion away from Hannibal for several episodes.

It did take some foolish decisions by Jack Crawford for this all to play out as it did. Is it really plausible that Chilton had the strength to pull off all these murders, or that after covering his tracks so well would suddenly leave evidence out in plain site? Jack should have believed Will. Things were obviously not as they seemed. It didn’t make sense for Jack to go after Chilton alone if he believed he had really killed the FBI agents left in his home, but at least this didn’t affect the outcome. It was especially foolish for Jack to ignore all the warnings about Hannibal and take Miriam to Hannibal for hypnosis to “recover” her memory. Perhaps Jack will put this all together by the end of the season, or maybe Will will provide additional evidence against Hannibal.

Will remains the only one alive who has any idea what is going on, and decided that he preferred to get all the answers as opposed to killing Hannibal when he had the chance this week. Ultimately he returned to therapy under Hannibal, knowing that Hannibal would be unable to resist this request, and it might provide more information.

Abel Gideon is now dead and it appears that Chilton is also dead, but this is not certain. His death, along with the death of Beverly Katz, represent differences from Red Dragon. After Beverly was last seen cornered by Hannibal, Bryan Fuller did verify that she was dead in interviews, but he is being more vague about Chilton:

AVC: Chilton, correct me if I’m wrong, is the first character from the literature that you’ve killed who’s still alive in later books. Do you feel that shakes things up, or do you worry about not having that character to play later?

BF: [Frank] Serpico survived a bullet to the face.

Fuller explained Will’s motivations:

AVC: This episode ends with Will resuming therapy, and getting out of the hospital. Why did you need to pull him out of the hospital, and what is his thinking behind going back to the devil’s lair?

BF: The idea—and it’ll become much clearer in episode eight where you understand exactly what Will is up to—but it felt like we had completed the arc of the institution. We had Will very actively investigating Hannibal in his own way by not only going interior to his mind, but also using those around him who can be his own avatars out in the world to dig up clues. It felt like because we had completed the arc of the Chesapeake Ripper in some sense, that it was good to exonerate Will, and since he was never convicted of anything, it’s easier to get them out, once proof has been discovered that they’re guilty or innocent. So we wanted Will back out in the world, because we needed to continue to shift the dynamic of what’s happening between Will and Hannibal, and as we end this episode, seven, with “Let’s resume therapy,” we were launching a whole new psychological arc where it is Will and Hannibal. Will now, of clear mind, is beginning his own seduction of Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal has been working very hard to seduce Will, and now, it’s up to Will to seduce Hannibal and perhaps lull him into a false sense of security, so he can ultimately be exposed.

AVC: Why do you think Will doesn’t kill Hannibal when he has the chance?

BF: Because I think he honestly wants to know why. I think there has to be—and I talked with Hugh Dancy about this quite a bit—there has to be an element of honest reality to Will’s fascination with Hannibal Lecter. This man built him up and destroyed him in the first season, and then continued to manipulate him through the first half of the second season. When someone is so invasive to your psyche and has had such an impact, if you ended them, it’s like, Hannibal successfully bonded with Will and had Will bond to him, and it was probably more painful to kill Hannibal, because Will knows that he is started on this journey into a very dark place, and Hannibal Lecter may be the only one who can help him understand it.

He also explained how Hannibal accomplished some of his murders, along with the limitations imposed by a television budget:

AVC: How much do you sit around and figure out how he does all this stuff?

BF: Well, we had a lot of stuff that we cut out that we simply couldn’t afford to produce. The show has a very tight budget, and it’s very streamlined in its storytelling. We had scenes where Hannibal goes down into his basement kill room, where we saw Beverly Katz go, and he goes through a door, and he goes into a steam tunnel, and you see him following that steam tunnel, and he goes down for like miles and miles and miles. So we essentially established a way for Hannibal to get in and out of his house without anybody seeing him and use underground steam tunnels throughout Baltimore to get around the city. We simply couldn’t produce it and couldn’t find the time. In our minds, he goes down in the basement and goes out a secret door into the steam tunnels, and that’s how he got to Chilton’s house, and that’s how he got back into his house without anybody noticing, but we couldn’t produce it, so we lifted that element and have the rationale in our brains, if anybody asks the question—but we just weren’t able to show you.

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Agents of SHIELD is finally becoming the show we wanted it to be. It is never going to be a spy show of the quality of The Americans, and remains behind Arrow in ability to turn a comic book world into successful television, but it has now become important to watch for those interested in the Marvel cinematic universe. Turn, Turn, Turn does a far better job of tying into Captain America: The Winter Soldier than previous episodes did with the attempts to tie into Thor: The Dark World. If you have not seen the episode, this contains major spoilers for both SHIELD and Captain America. If you have not seen either yet, I advise watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier before watching any further episodes of Agents of SHIELD, but if for some reason this is not possible it will still be possible to enjoy the episodes of SHIELD.

It is now apparent that Agents of SHIELD had been limited by the need to wait until the latest Captain America movie came out. The story line about the Clairvoyant was a distraction, with information really coming out due to the infiltration of SHIELD by HYDRA and not due to clairvoyance. It came as no surprise that Agent May was not the spy despite the suggestion of this last week and that instead she was reporting directly to Director Fury. The development of Coulson’s entire team makes more sense after learning it was based upon having the ability to repair, or if necessary kill, Coulson should there be problems after bringing him back to life with the alien blood.

The biggest surprise was to find that Agent Ward was working with Agent Garrett (Bill Paxton) and HYDRA. Considering what a boring character he has been so far, this can be a welcome change in the show. Of course it is possible that the shooting of Hand and others was all staged with a gun shooting blanks and fake blood so that Garrett would trust Ward, allowing Ward to infiltrate HYDRA. Otherwise it seemed strange for Hand to tell Ward to kill Garrett when he was already in custody, and we already have two major characters who have come back from death or apparent certain death. This preview from next week’s episode portrays Ward as the villain, but again we don’t know if this is real or if he is faking to infiltrate HYDRA.

As we have a long time to wait for further movies, Agents of SHIELD can now provide a look into the Marvel universe. Will SHIELD rebuild as a major organization or will they just be fighting to survive and later get revenge against HYDRA? Presumably the show will set up the plans for what is desired for SHIELD in The Avengers: Age of Ultron and the next Captain America movie.

Captain America ended with Maria Hill applying for a job at Stark Industries and Cobie Smulders will be reprising this role on an upcoming episode. Samuel L. Jackson will also be appearing in the season finale. With Maria Hill working for Tony Stark and Nick Fury in hiding after faking his death, these episodes may or may not pertain directly to SHIELD, but should give some clue as to where they are going.

Besides the obvious tie-in to Agents of SHIELD, James Gunn, writer and director of Guardians of the Galaxy, has confirmed to Entertainment Weekly that Guardians of the Galaxy will tie into The Avengers 3.

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The Americans tied into the early development of the Internet on Arpanet. Elizabeth and Phillip concentrated on placing a rather large bug on Arpnet for the Russians. The subplot with children concentrated on Henry instead of Paige. I hope that Elizabeth and Phillip are proud of how he is developing an interest in spying on neighbors.

The storyline with Nina, Stan and Oleg overshadowed the usual main storyline with Elizabeth and Philip this week. The entire storyline with Oleg has turned out different from how it first appeared. Instead of working on his own, it turned out that his actions were planned with the KGB, and the initial fears that he presented to threat to Nina were probably a false alarm.

Nina had no difficulty fooling the polygraph thanks to coaching from Oleg. The Americans effectively leaves open questions in episodes and then often answers them with revelations of further information in subsequent episodes. The final scene with Oleg and Nina in bed together raises questions as to whether this was a new development, perhaps due to Nina’s gratitude for Oleg’s help, or if this had been occurring off screen for a longer period. In retrospect, Oleg’s coaching of Nina, including about squeezing her anus and imagining him in the room, might suggest a closer relationship between the two at the time.

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I have concentrated on coverage of Hannibal and The Americans since each started its second season this winter as these are two of the best shows on television. A third show of this caliber, Orphan Black, returns for its second season on April 19. Entertainment Weekly spoke with Orphan Black co-creator John Fawcett about some of the new characters for the second season, and the fate of one of the characters from the first season:

EW: Obviously one of the big cliffhangers from season 1 was Cosima’s illness. What can you say about that?
FAWCETT: Cosima’s illness is a major, major storyline in season 2. It’s something that is life or death for Cosima and then for everyone else. When someone is sick, it really kind of brings people together. I think that’s what we see from this. Now, Delphine and Cosima are in love, but Delphine’s kind of trapped in the middle. She does some bad things. But she does good things. She’s in love, but she’s still doing bad things. And trying to discover if there is a cure for Cosima is a big plot issue with season 2. And it’s something that carries through from episode to episode — this journey to try to find some sort of way to cure her.

There are also other excellent shows which I don’t discuss as often here. I am reluctant to speculate on Game of Thrones as those who have read the novels have such a tremendous advantage. It is also so much work trying to keep up with the names of all the characters. This chart might help. Person of Interest does not have as large a cast, but it is another genre show which is adding an increasing number of characters while gradually revealing more details about their back stories.  This character relationship chart might help keep track of all of them.

Continuum is another excellent science fiction show, but it is harder to review here since I’m watching it a few weeks ahead of most in the United States by downloading from Showcase. Minute Man, the second episode which aired in the United States this week, showed how Kiera became a CPS agent. While I will avoid being specific to avoid spoilers, future episodes to air provide more information about Kiera’s background and beliefs, some of which might be seen as positive and some negative considering her support for the future system.

Janeway

Kate Mulgrew, Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager (as well as Red on Orange is the New Black), did voice over work for a “documentary” which claims that the earth is the center of the universe. Lawrence Krauss had already been tricked into participating. Kate Mulgrew explained on her Facebook page:

I understand there has been some controversy about my participation in a documentary called THE PRINCIPLE. Let me assure everyone that I completely agree with the eminent physicist Lawrence Krauss, who was himself misrepresented in the film, and who has written a succinct rebuttal in SLATE. I am not a geocentrist, nor am I in any way a proponent of geocentrism. More importantly, I do not subscribe to anything Robert Sungenis has written regarding science and history and, had I known of his involvement, would most certainly have avoided this documentary. I was a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that. I apologize for any confusion that my voice on this trailer may have caused. Kate Mulgrew

Mulgrew’s work on a project claiming that the earth is the center of the universe led to inevitable jokes as to this explaining why Voyager was lost for seven seasons, but the real joke is the perversion of science coming from the right wing, adding geocentrism to creationism.

Filming for The Fall season 2 finally began this month. Colin Morgan, who previously starred in Merlin, joins the cast. This is a high quality mini-series well worth watching.

Syfy has had a hard time coming up with a major science fiction show since Battlestar Galactica ended. Defiance looked more interesting in its first season finale, but still is limited in scope. They are now looking into doing a series based upon The Expanse novels which does sound really promising.

Fact Checking Valuable, But Not Always Right

Pinoccio

The Moderate Voice has a post yesterday on the increase in fact-checking in journalism. Fact-checking is preferable to the standard media practice of quoting both sides as if they are equally valid, generally with an implied assumption that the truth is somewhere in the middle. This leads to erroneous reporting when one side is intentionally using misinformation and lying far more than the other. However labeling something fact checking doesn’t necessarily mean it is immune from journalistic problems. Paul Krugman pointed out one problem:

“The people at PolitiFact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there’s a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other,” Krugman wrote in 2011.

“So they’ve bent over backwards to appear ‘balanced’ — and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant.”

As Krugman pointed out, there are fact checkers which label an equal number of statements from Democrats and Republicans as being wrong in order to give the appearance of being impartial. That typically means that outrageous lies from Republicans are called lies but to provide a sense of balance,  statements from Democrats which are generally true but in which there is an exception are also called lies.

The entire idea of calling something true or a lie is often a poor way to handle complex issues which are stated by politicians in brief statements. Sometimes politicians are trying to be truthful, but boiling down a complex issue into a brief statement, or commercial, will result in exceptions where the statement is false. Often it is preferable to look at what is true in what is being said and where it isn’t entirely true and explain the issue rather than just calling it truth or a lie.

While Republicans have been hit far more with big lies on health care, Democrats have been harmed by the problems in how some fact checkers declare something either true or a lie (being a lie if not 100% true in every case). There have been two big examples of this. The first is Democrats saying that the Medicare proposals in the Ryan budget would destroy Medicare. Technically this is untrue as Ryan would replace Medicare with something named Medicare. On the other hand, it is true because the Republican proposals would change Medicare into something fundamentally different with far less protection for seniors. Rather than just calling it a lie, fact checkers would have done more good by explaining why Democrats consider these changes to be destroying Medicare.

The other is the greatly exaggerated “lie of the year” when Obama said people could keep their own doctor under the Affordable Care Act. This was an absurd statement on one level because every year insurance companies and doctors make decisions which can affect this which the government has no  power over. On the other hand, Obama was right in the context where he was speaking, even if worded poorly. Republicans were lying when they claimed that Obamacare would make people join some sort of government run program which would tell them which doctors they can see. The Affordable Care Act actually makes it more likely that people could have insurance which would allow them to keep their doctor than had been the case in the past and does nothing to force people to lose their doctor. People have a better chance of keeping their doctor when protected from losing their insurance. Frequently people are forced to change doctors because of employers changing insurance plans. Employees have a better chance of keeping their own doctor when provided more choice in plans, as under the Affordable Care Act.  Where Obama got it wrong was that the same forces already present which lead to people having to change doctors, while diminished, would still exist. It would be far better to explain this complex issue, where Obama was mostly right, than to just declare it a lie because it is not true one hundred percent of the time.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

Obama Warns Of Threats To Right To Vote

Protect Vote

If one followed politics superficially from the mainstream media, they might come to the incorrect view that we have a two party system in which the two parties differ on some issues but are essentially mirror images of each other. Looking more closely, it becomes apparent that instead we have a centrist party which has been struggling to continue our system of self-government and an extreme right wing party which seeks the destroy the vision of America held by our founding fathers. Among those who have bucked the usual media narrative and have reported on this are Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. This pair of centrists who have pointed this out in an essay, Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem, and in their book  It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, which clearly laid out the extremism of the current Republican Party. They have explained that the mainstream media missed the big story of the 2012 campaign–the dishonesty and extremism of the Republican Party.

Republicans benefit by rigging the system in their favor as much as possible. Some of this is built in to the structure of our government, such as giving small Republican states the same number of Senators as larger, Democratic states. Gerrymandering, as well as the tendency of Democrats to concentrate more in urban areas, give Republican an advantage in the House, even in elections such as in 2012 when more people voted for Democratic representatives than Republicans. Republicans take advantage of control over large segments of the mainstream media, including Fox which operates essentially as a house propaganda organ, and then “play the refs” by complaining of fictitious liberal media bias. If this isn’t enough, they try to rig election laws to make it harder for Democrats to vote.

While Republicans use their influence over the mainstream media to promote misinformation to further their cause, Democrats have done a poor job of promoting a message or even of exposing what their opponents are doing. I was therefore happy to see that Barack Obama has spoken out against Republican restriction of voting rights.

“The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” Mr. Obama said in a hotel ballroom filled with cheering supporters, most of them African-American. “Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote.”

Speaking a day after a conference in Texas commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, Mr. Obama linked the issue to the movement that helped pave the way for him to become the nation’s first black president.

“America did not stand up and did not march and did not sacrifice to gain the right to vote for themselves and for others only to see it denied to their kids and their grandchildren,” he said.

Republicans in some swing states have advanced new laws that go beyond the voter identification requirements of recent years. Among other things, state lawmakers are pushing measures to limit the time polls are open and to cut back early voting, particularly weekend balloting that makes it easier for lower-income voters to participate. Other measures would eliminate same-day registration, make it more difficult to cast provisional ballots or curb the mailing of absentee ballots.

Over the last 15 months, at least nine states have enacted voting changes making it harder to cast ballots. A federal judge last month upheld laws in Arizona and Kansas requiring proof of citizenship, like a birth certificate or a passport, leading other states to explore following suit.

I hope we see more of this. Warnings about the Republican threat to freedom and democracy should not be limited to a single date commemorating a past event. This should be an important part of the political debate between the parties every day. Hopefully people will then realize that they should be wary of a political party which finds that its success depends upon keeping people from voting.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

Quote of the Day: Bill Maher on The Ryan Budget And Obamacare

“Game of Thrones returns this weekend on HBO. I’m sure you know it as a magical fantasy where you’re never quite sure who’s going to live or die. Or maybe I’m thinking of Paul Ryan’s budget.” –Bill Maher

Bonus Quote:

“Obamacare hit its numbers. Despite all the initial problems, Healthcare.gov surpassed the enrollment goal, over 7 million. Now the Republicans are saying that they’re going to repeal the Internet.” –Bill Maher