Monday, August 31, 2009

1.Bailout 2.... 3.Profit!

I'm serious, though, it actually might have worked!
Nearly a year after the federal rescue of the nation’s biggest banks, taxpayers have begun seeing profits from the hundreds of billions of dollars in aid that many critics thought might never be seen again.

The profits, collected from eight of the biggest banks that have fully repaid their obligations to the government, come to about $4 billion, or the equivalent of about 15 percent annually, according to calculations compiled for The New York Times.
Now, that doesn't include all the banks -- it's unclear how much the other two banks which performed worse will drag us down. And I think that we should've been able to get a better deal that would lead to bigger profits. But overall, I'm proud to have supported a bailout as a good investment back in the dark days of 2008. And once you factor in the effects of a unbailedout collapsed economy on tax revenue, you can see why this was a reasonable way to use the money just from a fiscal perspective. Certainly not the ideal move, but one you vote for if it's yes or no.

PETA, Lady Godiva, And Feminism

As many of the bloggers I read are supporters of feminism and animal welfare, I've seen lots of criticism of PETA for its ads involving nude or barely-clad women (most recently, Jeff Fecke). I'm more a fan of straightforward animal-welfare organizations like the Humane Society than PETA, mostly because I'm not willing to bet that PETA's tactics are an effective use of money. But criticism of PETA's nude ads on feminist grounds strikes me as deeply misguided.

What's wonderful about these ads is that they present the nude woman as being more virtuous than her clothed audience, and make her naked body symbolic of her virtue. She's on the right side of the issue, acting as a moral examplar through her nudity, and guiding us to become more virtuous people. (Typical example, and another.) I think the reason PETA does this is to make vegetarianism and animal welfare in general look less like hair-shirted ascetic doctrines, and more glamorous and fun. Now, you could criticize this by saying that the whole spectacle is so ridiculous the moral point is totally lost. I don't think this is right, but at least it's the right question to ask -- a question of whether PETA's tactics are effective, or cost-effective. Criticizing this as some kind of objectification of women is totally wrong. That she's posing nude for animal welfare doesn't make her an object, it makes her a better human being than you.

That's why I like these ads so much. It's really rare in our culture that I see female nudity presented as a positive expression of moral virtue. It's much more often presented in ways that encourage sexualized shaming of the naked woman. I think Amanda Marcotte is right about the misogyny of lots of pornography -- female nudity and sexual desire in porn are regularly presented as justifying name-calling and generally punishment-oriented male sexual behavior.

PETA's nude women remind us that it doesn't have to be that way. It's not something entirely foreign to our culture. The legend of Lady Godiva is the classic example. Much like PETA's actresses, Lady Godiva disrobed for a political publicity stunt where her goal had no connection to the tactic of being nude in public. (According to legend, she wanted her husband, Leofric of Mercia, to reduce taxes on the townsfolk.) The natural reaction to Lady Godiva isn't to mock her nudity, or to regard her as a helpless passive object of male desire. It's to regard the beauty of her naked body as a metaphor for the justice of her cause, and the unconventional nature of her act as essential to its heroism.

My sister, who spent the past summer interning as a reporter in DC, covered a PETA event near the Capitol and posted about it on her blog. (This is one of those occasions where blogging is a whole lot better than traditional reporting. I feel that I have a much better sense of the general feel of the event from reading her post than I would from reading a newspaper article.) It seems to have gone the way you'd hope it would -- "beaming guys in suits" were all excited about getting their pictures taken with women who were wearing clothes apparently made from lettuce. The way my sister writes it, the ability of the women to smoothly manage the unusual social situation generated by their nudity strikes me as really impressive. I guess that's a major professional skill of theirs.

I'm not saying that I'd give money to PETA to run more events like this -- after all, I'm pretty tight with money, and there's plenty of good folks out there to give it too. (Plus, I think the 'sea kittens' bit was silly.) But do I think they're spending money on something that sets back feminist goals? Not at all.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Everything Is Wrong With Pakistan

Everything in the world that can be wrong with a country seems to be wrong with Pakistan. Of all the things we might want to use our severely limited political influence to fix, it's hard to know what to choose. Pakistan has political instability, violent religious fundamentalism, horrible misogyny, crushing poverty, nuclear proliferation, a threat of nuclear war with India, and to top it all off, Osama Bin Laden probably lives there.

If this story is right, you can add "deadly reality TV" to the list. A dude was swimming across a river with a 15-pound backpack on for a Pakistani reality TV show, and he drowned. This probably goes eighth on the list of things to fix behind all that other stuff.

The Earth Is Happy About Japanese Elections

In further Japanblogging, the long-reigning LDP's loss appears to be good news on climate change, as the victorious Democratic Party has pushed for more aggressive curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. (I'd link to Brad Plumer's post on the matter, but the redesign of TNR's excellent enviro-blog, The Vine, has messed up a bunch of past links even while making the blog very pretty.) Maybe the new winners will also be able to do something about those poor dolphins.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Annual Dolphin Slaughter In Taiji, Japan

If this isn't the most horrible thing you see today, you have my sympathies:

This is the annual dolphin hunt in Taji, Japan. The fishermen use a big net to trap the dolphins and spear a few of them to reduce the likelihood that others will escape (dolphins don't abandon wounded family members). Then they hoist the dolphins out of the water with cranes, drag them along the road to the slaughterhouse with trucks, and hack their throats open with machetes to kill them. The video shows schoolchildren walking past dolphins who are pouring out blood onto the concrete.

It's not like Japan is some kind of terribly poor country where starving people are reduced to chopping up highly intelligent sea creatures and eating them to ward off starvation. There's no excuse for a First World country to be doing something that's not too far from cannibalism. SaveJapanDolphins is trying to end this horror, and I wish them the best of luck.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

GOP Health Care Flowchart

Commenters and emailers have been asking for Republican health care flowchart that mocks their total lack of ideas when it comes to expanding the availability of quality health services while reining in costs. After giving the idea some thought, I've concluded I'm unable to do any better than the Republicans themselves:

Okay, then.

Reasons for Pessimism

Brad DeLong really hits the nail on the head:
The problem is that Gingrich's "let's block everything Clinton tries to do even when it's good for the country, proclaim that he is a failure, and win the next election" move won the 1994 election. And now they are trying to repeat it. Only a throughgoing shellacking at the 2010 and 2012 elections--a Goldwater-magnitude shellacking--has, I think, a chance of restoring even a modicum of sanity to the Republican Party.
As I've hinted at before, as long as 60 votes is the norm in the Senate, the only way to have sane politics in America over the long run is to have a saner Republican party. And at the moment, the leaders of the Republican believe that they can repeat 1994. Now, there are certain structural reasons why that will prove difficult—the 1990 redistricting gave Gingrich a big assist, and Ross Perot's candidacy had dislodged a large number of voters—but I fear that anything other than total defeat will fail to convince GOP elites that they simply don't have their pulse on the mood of the country.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Life After Kennedy

Chris Bowers has a few pieces of good news. With Chris Dodd going over to chair Banking and Tom Harkin holding onto his Agriculture gavel, the next available person in line to run the HELP Committee would be Barbara Mikulski. My understanding is that Mikulski is a solid liberal who will manage things in an effective fashion, so that sounds nice. (I don't know exactly how this picture was taken, but on a Mikulski+furries note, this one with a turtle is pretty good too.)

Chris links to TomP, who says that plans for appointing a successor are moving forward. A bill to give the governor temporary appointing power will be considered on Sept. 17, and a special election for a more permanent replacement will be held in January. Some people want Michael Dukakis as the temporary Senator, which I think would be sweet.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Farewell, Senator Kennedy

I was hoping that the climax of the health care reform effort would involve an ill Ted Kennedy staggering onto the Senate floor, casting the deciding vote to break a filibuster.

Now he's dead, and I'm not sure where this leaves the living. When will he be replaced? What will the Massachusetts legislature do? Will there be a gubernatorial appointment, and if so, who'll be picked? If he's replaced by special election, who will win the Democratic primary to fill his seat?

The best person for the job is probably Barney Frank, but he's got plenty of useful stuff to do in his current job, and I doubt he would even want to leave his House seniority and the chair of the Financial Services Committee for a Senate gig.

Update: An emailer notes that "one of the things one wants is for Ted Kennedy to be replaced by someone who's not only liberal and effective, but also very young, so that he can grow up to be a powerful committee chair and all-around respected figure. Someone like Jarrett Barrios. The problem is that it's hard to point that out as an asset in a primary campaign when there are lots of experienced, well-qualifed Bay State politicians who've been waiting decades for a senate seat to open up."

Chris Hayes on Health Care

Here's Chris Hayes's response that got the whole flowchart thing started.

The point of the whole exercise is to demonstrate that (a) the public option only affects a sliver of the American public, and (b) the basics of health care reform just aren't that complicated. You can resolve the question of what's going to happen to your health care by figuring out (1) if you're currently on a government program [primarily Medicare & Medicaid, but also the VHA, Tricare, etc.], (2) if you have employer-provided insurance, and (3) how much money you make.

Also I recommend this clip on the mountain metaphor.

Map of Seattle Wedding Venues

I'm not going to let all of this work go to waste. Someone ought to be able to find this useful. This is a work in progress, and it's skewed towards my personal priorities, but this Seattle Wedding Venues map is fairly comprehensive.

View Seattle Area Wedding Ceremony/Reception Sites in a larger map

Google Maps is the best! True that, double true!

In other news, I suppose that this serves as my announcement to the blogosphere that I'm engaged. She's an amazing person who thankfully has better things to do with her time than blog and make charts. Over the next few months I'll try to keep the "ZOMG I'm Engaged!!" or "wedding planning is a giant pain/the bridal-industrial complex sux" posting to a minmum.

The Trouble With Max Baucus

Publius has a post about Max Baucus publicly embracing the public option. As Matt points out, this isn't news -- Baucus' early document supporting the public option as part of a good progressive health care package was one of the reasons people were optimistic about health care reform earlier this year. The trouble with Baucus isn't in his stated policy stances, which are no less than we'd hope from a Montana Democrat on health care.

The real problem is in his procedural fumbling. (That's why I made fun of Baucus by creating a superhero webcomic calling him "Captain Ineffective.") The whole Gang of Six thing is a terrible procedure for producing any sort of bill, let alone good health care reform of the sort that Baucus says he wants. You're not going to get Mike Enzi and Chuck Grassley to support any sort of reasonable bill. And even if Enzi and Grassley were the reasonable moderate Republicans of David Broder's imagination, it's hard to see why they would compromise to create a Senate Finance bill that would be compromised with a more liberal HELP Committee bill that would be compromised with a still more liberal House bill. What of their compromise could they expect to remain?

Like Matt Singer, I'm hopeful that we'll eventually get a bill through. But I disagree with him when he says that Baucus' bottlenecking is a potential problem that only becomes an actual problem if the Senate leadership can't find 60 votes for closure. For one thing, it's fine to pass a crappy bill through the Senate if we can reconcile it with a superior House bill, and push things generally in the House direction. Let's get our crappy public-option-less bill or whatever through the Senate already, and fix it in conference committee! Give Nancy Pelosi and the Incredible Wax-Man a chance to do their heroic work. Since conference reports aren't amendable, you can't threaten a filibuster for concessions that make you look like a big power player. You can only do a straight-up filibuster to block the bill that will basically earn you undying hatred from the rest of your party. That's a bit more than people usually want to take on.

The other thing is that some Senators might be willing to vote for a bill today, but not in a month or two or whenever Baucus finally has let a bill through Finance. Maybe it's the troughing economy eating at Obama's poll numbers, or a natural disaster, or some other bizarre event. But giving the Congressional leadership more options as to whether the bill goes up now or later is much better than confining them to later. Maybe, for whatever reason, the votes will have vanished when the bill finally arrives.

Monday, August 24, 2009

War Is Expensive

This is a big part of what's making me think we should end military operations in Afghanistan:
As I used to write about in a previous blogging project, fighting wars is really expensive. As Matt pointed out some time ago, we're paying more than five times Afghanistan's GDP to fight a war in the country. There's got to be some more efficient way to achieve the limited percentage of our goals that a military operation is capable of achieving. With foreign aid, we might be able to do it while killing fewer people, and getting fewer of our people killed.

This isn't to say that everything goes perfectly with foreign aid. I'm sure that in a country like Afghanistan, a large percentage of the aid will be lost to corruption of some kind or another. But even considering that, I'd bet that you could do plenty of good by some combination of building infrastructure and handing out food and giving big bribes to the people who give out medium-sized bribes so the small bribes go in the right direction. More good, I'd think, than if you spent the same amount of money on fighting war the expensive way America has to.

(The 2006 aid data is the most recent I could find in the Census Bureau's 2009 Statistical Abstract. Afghan GDP data here, and Afghan war cost data here.)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

More On Grassley's Fantasy Bipartisanship

MyDD writer Transplanted Texas observes that the following bills were unable to earn the support of 75% of the Senate
  • The 19th amendment, enfranchising women.
  • The 21st amendment, repealing prohibition.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • The Iraq War
  • The financial sector bailout of 2008
Under Chuck Grassley's standards the only bills that are truly bipartisan were Social Security, Medicare, and welfare reform. The Senior Senator from Iowa wishes to consign America to an awfully sparse and ineffective federal government.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Bipartisanship Redux

Again, it's simply not meaningful to compare the preset circumstances to those faced by Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt when it comes to bipartisanship. To repeat myself, "providing health care for uninsured children by taxing tobacco, which is the political equivalent of a baby flying a fighter jet while holding puppy wrapped inside an American flag, only got nine Republican votes." Meanwhile the Great Society programs arose at the height of partisan de-polarization, and Roosevelt faced a less oppositional GOP that had been shellacked in the previous two election cycles. Here's a graph from Keith Poole's Polarization talk:

Barack Obama faces partisan polarization not seen since Woodrow Wilson was President. We really need to look at the records of late 19th century Presidents--McKinley, Benjamin Harrison, Chester Aruther, and so on--to see how often they managed to forge bipartisan consensus. Considering that was the era of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" politicking, my guess is that consensus wasn't very common.

Chuck Grassley's Fantasy Standards of Bipartisanship

Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has repeated his insistence that his definition of "bipartisanship" involves passing a bill with 75 or 80 votes in the Senate. It's important to point out that this is demonstrably impossible to achieve.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Obama can convince all Democrats to support whatever dreck Grassley's dreaming of. Here's the list of the fifteen least conservative Republicans, according to DW-NOMINATE, that you would need in order to get to 75:
Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Richard Lugar, George Voinovich, Kit Bond, Thad Cochran, Lamar Alexander, Judd Gregg, Mel Martinez, Bob Corker, Orrin Hatch, Bob Bennett, Lowell Wicker, Richard Shelby.
I don't know about you, but I have a hard time imagining what sort of health care bill can earn the support of those folks and not lose the votes of Russ Feingold, Sherrod Brown, Tom Harkin, and so on. Nor do I see how dropping a few votes from the left will pick up the votes of the next few Senators: Kay Bailey Hutchison, Mike Crapo, Mitch McConnell, &c.

The other way to think about Grassley's fantasy land is that health care for uninsured children, which is the political equivalent of a baby holding puppy wrapped inside an American flag, only got nine Republican votes. It's more or less impossible to believe that a more comprehensive restructuring of health care is going to get more votes than that.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Conference Committee Carnage!

Via Matt, we hear happy reports that the Obama Administration is finally going to forget about GOP support for passing health care reform. You'd think that they would've made this decision when no Republicans voted for their stimulus package, if not sometime in 2003. I know that moaning about your defeated primary candidate is the third-worst kind of political commentary behind making up false death panel rumors and poxy Higher Broderism, but I'm pretty sure that my guy wouldn't have spent so long in bipartisan mode. Of course, Congress is still a hard place to pass things, and John Edwards' wayward spermatozoa would've wrecked his political capital long ago, but there wouldn't have been any of this waiting on Republicans for months while the economy nibbles your poll numbers down.

But that's all beside the point. Good on Barack for finally getting here. Because the moment when I most want to see brutal partisan depravity is still ahead of us. I speak of conference committee, where the House and Senate bills will be reconciled. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter describes how things went back in 2003 when the Republicans were pushing Medicare Part D through Congress:
Next, the conference process, whereby the House and Senate versions of legislation are reconciled, was fundamentally corrupted and kept almost entirely secret by senior Republicans. Democrats on the conference committee were excluded from deliberations, to the point of being physically barred from the conference room on one occasion. The pharmaceutical industry, however, was invited in.
Can we physically bar Republicans from the conference room and invite Jacob Hacker in? (Maybe he could carry Jane Hamsher around and wave her at people who don't like the public option.) If Olympia Snowe votes for the bill, she can come too. But when people are dead set against your legislation and trying to destroy it for political advantage, there's no reason to let them have any say in how it's modified. If not by physically barring them from the room, Republicans who voted against the bill should have zero impact on the legislation and their comments should be curtly ignored, while the Democrats who voted for health care reform turn it into the kind of bill that fits the values of their party.

Look, conference committee is kind of a monstrosity. Feel free to add the prospect of its elimination to the list of reasons why we want to abolish the Senate and go unicameral. But while America has a ridiculously bottlenecky political system where nobody can ever pass anything because there are so many more veto points than in other major democracies, we're going to have to use all the weird side processes legally possible to get solutions to major national problems through Congress. If Republican-style conference committee brutality gets normalized, that may not be such a bad thing for a system like ours.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Responsive To Her Constituents

Excuse me while I toot my own horn.

DW-NOMINATE now ranks Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in a 3-way tie for the 12th most liberal Senator, alongside fellow Northeastern Senators Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). This despite the fact she had a fairly conservative record as a Congresswoman from Upstate. But while her record there was conservative, she was actually more liberal than her district would suggest. Rather than being some sort of tempermental conservative, this shows us that Gillibrand is no dummy, and clearly willing to morph her voting habits to suit her new constituents. Hooray for representative Democracy!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Public Option Lives On

Robert Gibbs is coming out to say that Barack Obama remains a public option lovin' man. Nancy Pelosi, of course, is a public option lovin' woman, and the four bills that have gotten through committee are all public option lovin' bills. I think things are looking a lot better for every good man and woman's favorite health care provision than the last couple days of media coverage would have people think.

Like Ezra, I really didn't see strong evidence that the administration was changing its position in any way -- they'll push for it, I'm sure, though it's always been clear that they'll accept less if they can't get more. This may leave them in a weaker bargaining position in some respects, but it's still not a bad situation, because it's not clear that Republicans will be in any position to force them to take less. It mostly depends on who's in the conference committee negotiations, and how much hardball we play. I'm hoping for some Medicare Part D style brutality, except with the Republicans on the whacked end of the stick.

You can count me among the public option lovers. Certainly, as Ezra says and Nick's wonderful charts show, the current legislation isn't going to extend the public option to that many more people. It's an open question what rates it'll be able to bargain at, and access to the exchanges will be limited. But these are the sorts of things that I'd expect Democrats to fix in the future legislative utopia where historic health care reforms have already passed in a glorious victory, taking fear out of the moderates and emboldening the progressives. Being able to bargain prices down seems like the thing to get before exchange expansion. If you can demonstrate that the public option gives people a good deal, more people will want it, and corporations and individuals alike will clamor for exchange expansions so they can get into some of that cheap, delicious, single-payer-flavored government health care.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Flowchart

There's a Better Flowchart! This page continues to be the #1 hit on our site for "Health Care Flow Chart". But there is now an Improved Health Care Flowchart with better numbers, and an explanation of what the public option actually does.

During the FDR 2.0 panel, an audience member asked Chris Hayes to give the condensed version of what the health care bills current under debate would actually do. He started his description by saying something like 'are you guys all familiar with flowcharts? ... right, we're all geeks here'. His description ended up being pretty useful. So for visual learners, I thought I'd make one:

Update: A previous version of this image incorrectly undercounted the number of Americans insured through Medicare or Medicaid. Donkeylicious regrets the error.

Update the 2nd: Continuing with regrettable errors, the final decision diamond was backwards, and suggested that rich people would get the subsidies. Obviously that's wrong. The current image is corrected.

Update the 3rd: Readers have made several suggestions. First, I replaced the FPL discussion, which is somewhat confusing, with actual dollar amounts. Second, I neglected to include the expansion of Medicaid to cover everyone earning less than 133% of the FPL. Third, I made the whole thing "granny-sized". There's a tension between producing something that can fit in a blog post, and something that's easy on the eyes of a sixty-five year old reader. So here's the latest rev. Click on the link for the full-sized image.

She Should Run

This post is brought to you by the number 24. As in 24%, which is the percentage of state legislators who are women. (Outdated but prettier PDF)

I have many points to make about Netroots Nation, but there's a reason I'm starting with this one. With the exception of Native Americans, LGBT officeholders, and avowed atheists, this is probably the most flagrant example of an underrepresented demographic among our elected officeholders. And the situation is much, much worse at the federal level, where women account for only about 13% of Congress.

It's almost certainly the case that the electorate does not discriminate against women in their voting habits quite so flagrantly. Sure, it happens, but most of the discrimination occurs before women even get on the ballot. Inequality in household work means women, as a whole, have less time for their professional careers. The available evidence suggests that women with school-age children still face significant workplace discrimination. But among the problems easiest to correct, it's still the case that women are less likely to be recruited to run for office. Why exactly this is case is unclear, but the simple solution is to make a point of asking more women. This ain't rocket science.

The Women's Campaign Forum, headed by former Congressional candidate Samantha Bennett, is dedicated to getting more women into the political process. You can help by recommending that the WCF ask someone to run. They may say no, but that's okay. To take a piece of advice from dating, if the WCF asks 100 people to run for office, and 99 of them say no, do you know what they've got? A candidate.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Feeling Better About The World

I'm going to save posts on the content of Netroots Nation for later, since more people will read them on a weekday, and, importantly, more bloggers will read (and link to) them after Netroots Nation is over—can you tell I went to a panel with suggestions on effective blog writing?—but some assorted thoughts on the mood here.

I came to Netroots Nation feeling a fair bit of the burn out, seriously considering getting out of The Game. Not just blogging, but everything (I run the local Drinking Liberally chapter and end up doing a bit of local activism). Day One wasn't helping. And while this year has been a much more subdued conference than last year, for a wide variety of reasons, I'm leaving with a little more desire to get something done. Partly this is because the panels I was at this year were less about changing the world and more about modest ways to integrate your blog into the wider blogosphere, the wider blogosphere into the wider progressive moment, and so forth.

One of the upshots of the weekend, though, is that niche blogging is in (see Laura at 11D on this and other subject). So if I can find the discipline, my portion of the blog will become less general purpose and more statistical and analytical.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Save The Bats!

Brad Plumer lets us know about White Nose Syndrome, which has killed something like a million bats in North America. Bats are being found dead with white fungus on their noses. One of the awesome things about bats is that they can eat thousands of mosquitos a night. On a good night, a bat can eat its weight in pesky flying insects. They also pollinate crops.

That picture (from Talke Photography on Flickr) is a bunch of bats flying out from under a large bridge in Austin, where they sleep during the daytime. I saw it once, and it was pretty amazing -- the bats kept on flying out like that for about half an hour. I was impressed by the sheer number of bats that the bridge could shelter.

Will The Senate Let Us Have a New Deal 2.0? Ever?

As I was listening to Chris Hayes talk about the need to force the hand of our elected leaders to get them back in the business of blasting a tunnel through the mountain, rather than building longer paths around it, I found myself somewhat skeptical. Here's why:

If the 2010 midterms go extremely well, Democrats might end up with as many Senate seats as they had at the peak of the Great Society. And that will likely be the high water mark for Democrats for quite some time. Yes, some of those Dixiecrats were incredibly conservative, but that was also an age during which liberal Republicans existed. Therefore I'm fairly certain that LBJ actually had better conditions for passing his agenda than Obama does today.

The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that America's politics will only shift to the left once Republicans shift to the left. The best way to do that, in the short term, is to keep defeating elected Republicans. But at some point, someone will have to get in the business of creating a DLC for the right: an apparatus geared towards electing a significant chunk of truly moderate Republicans and dragging the party kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Deep Thought

I'm glad McCain-Palin lost the election so she could dictate health care policy from Alaska.

FDR 2.0

This panel's got it going on. Chris Hayes a started off with a great analogy to road building and mountains. You can go around the mountain, or build switchbacks up the mountain. Or you can use dynamite to go through the mountain, which ends up producing a much more efficient route from point A to point B. Today, we solve legislative problems by "going around": letting private benefit managers administrate Medicare Part D, subsidizing banks and so forth. We have lost the institutional knowledge to dynamite our way through the mountain. It'd be nice to get it back, but it's going to take a long time to get there.

Hayes in explaining the state of the health care bill: "The entirety of the health care bill is designed to avoid affecting people who already have health insurance. On day one, you have Blue Cross Blue Shield through your employer, on day two ... the death panel is knocking at your door. In their government-issue reapers suits." The whole spiel involved lots of frenetic arm motions, highly amusing stuff.

A great question comes on economic alternatives to the current strategy which looks too much like we're trying to relive the 1990s. Rockeymoore talks up investment in public infrastructure and human capital, which, given the tremendous inequity in educational outcomes, is probably a good buy. Chris Hayes talks up inflation, which is almost certainly true; price stability uber alles doesn't seem to be serving us very well.

This has been a really good panel with pretty useful questions.

Information Overload

#nn09 is now clocking 200 tweets per minute. The search stream is essentialy unreadable.

The Future!

There are two similar-sounding panels that are talking about local elections, and one of them has "Obama" in the name and Robert Greenwald on the panel, so I guess they are getting all the juice. I, of course, am at the other one.

We're Doing It Live! F*** It!

I'm at the Af-Pak panel. 9am on a Thursday morning, when the opening plenary is at 8pm, seems to draw only the truly dedicated. We've got five minutes to start, so I expect Spencer Ackerman to stroll in in about eight minutes. Maybe that's a little harsh. But we'll see what they have to say.

Again, if you're truly sadistic, follow me on Twitter.

Update: Patrick Barry of Democracy Arsenal has some good live coverage.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

To Send a Numeric Page [and Boost Your Cell Phone Provider's Bottom Line], Press 5

A brief public service announcement unrelated to politics: instructions on how to disable the additional voicemail announcement for Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon customers.

I think it is sufficiently outside the scope of things in which my employer may get involved that I can say it would be a good idea of the FCC at least examined the possibility of regulating automted voicemail messages. Failing that, um ... well then I start coming up with suggestions that aren't quite as safe.

Track Down Your Blogger at Netroots Nation

If you're at Netroots Nation, and you feel like trying to track down you intrepid blogger, you're most likely to find me at one of these places. Also, if anyone knows a place in Pittsburgh where I can rent professional camera gear (I could use a high speed telephoto -- f/2.8 or higher).

  • 9am Howard Dean holds the floor.
  • 1:30pm probably local blogging, but maybe the panel on Global Poverty.
  • 3pm Kleiman, Grim, and others on the future of drug policy. But -- oh no! -- it's up against the future of constitutional law.I'll probably go with the drug policy one, since it's (a) closer to a point where it affects real people, and (b) my girlfriend fiancee follows constitutional law pretty closely, so that's more likely to be material I've already seen before.
  • 4:30pm toss-up between two similar looking "how to elect candidates who don't suck". Not terribly interested, but I can't seem to find much else either.
Anything I'm missing?

Rumors of My Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

I've been on vacation, which I ought to have announced before I left, and I'm now on my way to Pittsburgh for the big confab this weekend. I'll try to live-blog a couple of panels, and if you are really sadistic you can follow me on Twitter, which is just about my least favorite form of communication, but such is life.

Introducing: Captain Ineffective

A few days ago, I came up with a plan for helping health care reform get through the Senate Finance Committee. It involved superheroes! Now I give you my latest internet project: Captain Ineffective.

The general idea is to make the nonfunctional Gang of Six process by which Max Baucus is trying to move a bill out of the Senate Finance Committee more of a joke. Hopefully by the end of the August recess, the rest of the Democrats in the Senate will have an appropriately mocking attitude towards the whole enterprise and be ready to make Baucus work with Schumer and Rockefeller to get a bill through.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Wyden Would Get Doled

Is Republican co-sponsorship of the Wyden-Bennett health care bill just a fig leaf to cover up the fact that they aren't turned on by health care reform? I'm much closer to Jamelle's position (mere fig leaf) than I am to Mark's (it's genuine).

What impresses me most here is the crazy history of the 1994 health care reform effort, where "By the process' close, Sen. Bob Dole had voted against two separate bills that contained his name in the title." Plenty of the discussion in the comments concerns what our default assumption on whether people are acting in good faith should be. My suggestion is that we just assume that people are going to do what they did before, barring new incentives for contrary behavior or other evidence to the contrary. Since Republicans acted in bad faith last time around and were handsomely rewarded for it at the polls, best assumption is that they're going to do it again.

Bob Dole isn't in the Minority Leader's office, but there are reasons to expect exactly the same destructive behavior. All the major changes over the past 15 years have been in the direction of greater, not lesser partisanship. The Club For Growth has been serving up big helpings of primary defeat to Congressmen like Wayne Gilchrest and Joe Schwarz who make even minor compromises with Democrats, and even at the Senate level I'd expect a pretty furious primary challenge to anyone outside Maine who voted the wrong way. Jamelle brings up all the crazy stuff we're hearing out of major right-wing figures like Limbaugh and Palin. You can bet that it resonates louder in the ears of people who have to win Republican primaries than anyone else.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Cost Of War

The thing that's turning me against continued military deployment in Afghanistan is the cost. Here we are spending more than five times the country's GDP each year on the operation. As Matt says, it's time to look at how much we could get for $6.5 billion in bribes rather than $65 billion. I really don't want to be restarting War or Car for Afghanistan anytime soon, but I can see things going in a way where that could end up being a live option.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

I Hate Slash And Burn Agriculture

I'm back in Singapore, and when I woke up this morning, everything smelled bad. That's because poor Indonesians are burning up their rainforest for more farmland. The south wind blows the smoke into Singapore. I don't really know what can be done about this -- you hope there'd be some way for a rich country like Singapore to make it worth the Indonesians' while to not burn up their rainforest. And there are some cross-border efforts to deal with this, but the acrid smell this morning was proof that things aren't working out that well. (I'd guess that dysfunctional Indonesian political institutions are part of the problem, but I don't know the situation too well.)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Biden/Palin Health Care Debate!

I liked Jonathan Bernstein's suggestion of having Joe Biden debate Sarah Palin on health care, sort of like the Al Gore / Ross Perot debate of the NAFTA days. Occasionally the Obama administration has been successful in elevating their least popular critics, like Rush Limbaugh, and this would be a nice example of that. It'd also give us a nice platform for clearing up lots of misconceptions about what the bill does, because you know Sarah is going to bring a bunch of those to the table.

The worst thing about this is probably that you elevate Sarah Palin within the GOP, especially if health care reform fails, which is a problem for any plans to shape the GOP into something more reasonable. But I think we're far enough away from a reasonable Republican party that there's really no point in worrying about it. Maybe after they lose another presidential election or two we'll have something to work with.

A Farce In Three Acts

Apart from the fact that it's unkind to the Wench at the beginning, who in real life was admirably circumspect, this Shakespearean retelling of the Gates/Crowley incident is hilarious. Wait till you meet the Fool.

It Is A Tale Told By An Idiot, Full Of Sound And Fury, Signifying Nothing

Sure, it's Sarah Palin, but Publius and I are both kind of taken aback at the sheer insanity of the lies she's telling about the Obama health care plan: "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care."

I hope Democratic Congresscritters can keep in mind the sheer level of misinformation that's in the heads of the disruptive mobs that show up at their town halls. When some of your constituents furiously oppose legislation mainly on the basis of total confusion about what's in it, you have no obligation to represent their preferences in your vote. This kind of situation would probably resolve itself at an ordinary town hall -- the Congressman would have a chance to explain that the bill doesn't do what the angry people say it does. But if some of the videos I've seen of recent town halls are any indication, there's not even an opportunity to get that point across amidst all the shouting.

Neither is there any hope for a Democrat to get the mob's votes by voting the way they want. These are the most extreme people in the Republican Party, and there's no way to be a Democrat and get their votes. They're the people who work to boot moderate Republicans out of the party in primaries. So apart from the sheer physical intimidation that these mobs present, there's really no reason for anyone in Congress to be affected by them. I'm concerned that the sheer intimidation may have some effect, though.

And really, that's one of the reasons why it's now more important than ever that we win this thing. Physical intimidation can't be allowed to determine the course of public policy. For the health of our democracy, these tactics have to fail.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hooray For Cash For Clunkers

There's a bunch of commentary on the program out there, and Brad Plumer's post gives a pretty good roundup. If this statistic from ClimateProgress is right, it's good enough for me to consider the program a success: the better gas mileage of the new vehicles will save 72 million gallons of gas per year. At $3 per gallon, which I imagine is a pretty low estimate for gas prices in the coming half-decade, the program pays for its $1 billion cost in 5 years. On top of that, you get some stimulus benefits, and the environmental benefits of using less gas.

Plus, people get nice new cars. Not that I'm a big car guy -- I've never owned one, and hope to avoid the need for car ownership as long as possible -- but apparently people enjoy having new ones and we utilitarians are happy to see people get what they want.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

From Public Option To Single Payer: In Which I Reveal Our Secrets To Republicans

I see that my Republican friends Tigerhawk and Pejman Yousefzadeh have both linked or posted a video in which Barack Obama talks about his plans for gradually moving us towards single payer health insurance. It's been kind of a hit in the GOP blogosophere -- Michelle Malkin had it up a couple days ago.

Because I'm not Michelle Obama, I don't know how much the president sees the legislation currently forming in Congress as a way of getting us to single-payer health care. But the message of the video is certainly right in that a lot of Democrats hope that it'll move us in that direction. And I'd like to fill in my Republican friends on exactly how we get from the public option to single payer, because I think they'll like it.

One big problem facing Democratic health reformers is that for all the problems with the current system is that it's really easy to scare people about what could happen to them under any other system. Even though people in other countries with government-run plans are very happy with them -- lots of countries have voted themselves from a private system to a government-run system, while no democracy has ever gone the other way -- Americans don't have firsthand experience with the wonders of, say, French health care. Medicare, which is basically single-payer insurance for old people, only kicks in at age 65, so most people don't have firsthand experience with how good it is.

This is why in the post-1994 era, Democrats have opted for proposals that allow them to say "If you like your insurance as it is, you can keep it." The plans currently making their way through Congress allow them to say this. The "public option" of a government health care plan that looks a lot like Medicare is just an option. If you don't like it, turn it down and stick with your current plan.

So how do we get from the public option to single-payer? Here's the nifty part: we do it using consumer choices in a free market. We Democrats are confident in the ability of the government to provide a health insurance product that will beat the private market on price and quality. Old people love their Medicare, and it's held down costs better than private insurers. So we're pretty sure that if we give American consumers the choice between private insurance and a public option that's basically Medicare, they'll choose Medicare of their own free will. On price and quality, it's a better deal.

If enough people do that over a fifteen-year period or so, we could end up with a situation where the vast majority of Americans have individually decided that government health insurance is what they want. And then when we propose offering everybody free coverage funded out of tax revenue, kind of like how everybody in a city has free fire department coverage funded out of tax revenue, it'll get majority support. It eliminates a lot of bureaucracy and hassle if people don't have to individually contract for fire protection. Similarly, the administrative efficiencies that come out of giving every American a single basic health care plan funded out of tax revenue will make expanding it to everyone a good fiscal move. We'll have gotten over the big political barrier to setting up French-style health care today -- the fact that people don't know how good it is. They'll know how good it is, because they chose it in a free market and are enjoying its benefits.

Here's what I hope Republicans will like about this: The crucial step in the grand liberal plan to set up single-payer insurance happens in a free market. We give consumers a choice between a government-run plan and a private plan. If the private plan offers a better deal, people will choose it, we won't get a critical mass of Americans on a government plan, and we'll never get to single-payer. But if the public Medicare-like plan offers a better deal, people will choose it and the move towards single-payer will begin. We're confident that the economics of health care works out so that the government can offer individuals a better deal than corporations can. You may think otherwise. We propose that the matter be decided according to your market-based ideology: by letting individual consumers decide.

(One thing that's kind of annoying us right now is that the public plan has to compete with a hand tied behind its back. According to the House bill, it won't even be available to large employers via the health insurance exchanges for at least two years, maybe more. We're hoping for a plan that allows for a level playing field, and whether we get it will be the outcome of Congressional negotiations.)

As far as the eventual health care utopia goes, we don't want to ban private insurance -- in my years as a lefty blogger, I haven't come across a single American explicitly advocating for something like the old Canadian system where you aren't allowed to contract with someone else for private insurance. If you want some additional insurance on top of your government-guaranteed Medicare, feel free to call up the AFLAC people or whoever and they'll sell it to you. But since the government has out-competed them across most of the market, private insurance companies will be a lot smaller than they are today. (A lot of people who use the words "single payer" really mean "Medicare for All" even though it's likely that you'd get some additional private add-on insurance vendors on top of the government plan.)

Minor personal note: As a former John Edwards volunteer, I really like telling people about this, because this whole idea came out of his campaign. The idea that the public option could slide us into single-payer through individual consumer choices actuallyshowed up on his campaign document laying out the proposal. I spent a lot of the last primary campaign winning Democrats to the Edwards side by telling them about this strategy. Of course, the whole Edwards thing didn't go very well in the end, but the health care plan was so good that it survived into the present. Now I get to tell Republicans about it! Still fun.

PS -- Here's one simple chart showing the superiority of government-run health care systems over the current US system. Everybody else spends a lower percentage of GDP on health care than we do by running a government insurance program. Most of them get universal coverage, while we don't even manage to cover our entire population for that exorbitant cost. Figures like this are part of why Democrats are confident that a government-run insurance option will outperform private insurers and eventually move us to single payer.

Creationist Theme Park Seized

Kent Hovind, who operates a Creationist theme park in Florida, has been jailed for tax evasion. This means that the government will seize "Dinosaur Adventure Land" and sell it to defray his tax liability. We'll see if it'll be bought by a Creationist who wants to keep it in its current form. I'd rather see it turn into a mall or some condos or something. Until a buyer emerges, I wonder if the government will be operating a Creationist theme park. That doesn't sound too great.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Mike Enzi: Blocking Health Care Reform From The Inside

Glenn Thrush tells us that Republican Mike Enzi of Senate Finance is refusing to accept a September 15 deadline for getting health care reform out of committee.

At this point you have to give him credit for a clever approach to blocking the bill. If he had just come out with forceful opposition from the beginning, nobody would've included him in negotiations. Instead, he's part of the bipartisan "Gang of Six" on Finance that's writing (or actually, not writing) legislation while Jay Rockefeller and Chuck Schumer sit on the sidelines. Max Baucus was initially thinking that his committee would produce legislation first. Now as we go into the August recess, every other committee has reported a bill while Grassley and Enzi stall Finance. As Jonathan Cohn reports, the Senate GOP doesn't want a bill at all and will be very upset if these guys do anything but get in the way. Publius' satire is right on.

When the rest of the Senate Democrats finally pressure Baucus to end the bipartisan clown show and get a bill through committee, Grassley and Enzi will be well-positioned to raise a big stink about how nasty and partisan Democrats are. It's a trick they couldn't have tried if they just came out with their opposition to health care reform from the beginning.

Mongolians Say Amazing Things

This article on the way Mongolians regard Genghis Khan has some pretty awesome quotes:
“Foreigners have no idea who Chinggis Khaan really was,” said Khaliun Ganbold, 21, a tour guide who was biding her time near the gift shop. “All they know is the bit of information they read on Wikipedia.”

“Mongolian tradition respects our grand ancestors’ names,” she said. “To really honor him, it’s much better to use his name on only premium merchandise.”

“He was a cruel man but he led our country to greatness,” said Toguldur Munkochir, 25, a bank teller unwinding at the Chinggis Khaan bar later that night. “If you look at Lincoln, Hitler and Julius Caesar, it’s kind of the same thing.”

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Line Of The Day

Jesse Taylor: "I think the main reason NASCAR isn’t that popular among black people is that we’re not used to seeing anyone drive that long without being stopped and asked what we’re doing in the area."

Practical Rationality And Stuff

A while ago I discussed a paper of mine that concerned issues of practical rationality, and which was relevant to the debate about calorie labels on restaurant menus. I'm going to be sending that paper off to a journal in a week or so. If any of my philosophically minded readers are interested in reading it and corresponding with me, I've got the introduction and a link for full download up on my philosophy blog.

This won't be nearly as fun as Possible Girls, and I had to write it in a much drier style. The middle section is kind of technical. Still, there is some amusing stuff at the beginning about whether impossible actions like murdering the dead can still be wrong (I say yes).

Saturday, August 1, 2009

It's Not About Us

I was reading about tribal politics in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the border cuts right through the middle of the region populated by the Pashtun ethnic group. It's one of those sad situations where Europeans long ago drew up the borders in a way that would make life difficult for anyone trying to establish a government that wouldn't be riven by ethnic strife (see: Africa).

The article underscored the way that the dominant political dynamics in lots of places don't connect very tightly to American interests, and how difficult it often is for us to see this. The Taliban - Northern Alliance conflict, to most Americans, is between ultra-conservative Muslims who support al-Qaeda and moderates who don't. But to a lot of people there, it's a conflict between the Uzbeks and Tajiks in the north and Pashtuns in the south. A lot of Pashtuns who are going to step on the battlefield for the Taliban side may not particularly like Taliban social policy, but they don't want to end up being second-class citizens in an Uzbek- and Tajik-ruled country.

There's a natural tendency for American news outlets to present things in terms of American interests, but this often leaves us unable to understand what foreign political actors are doing. I remember reading stuff from the Duelfer Report where they said that the biggest reason Saddam was being shady about weapons inspections was that he eventually wanted to rebuild his WMD capacity to deter Iran. He thought those weapons had served him very well in the Iran-Iraq War, and he was hoping that sometime in the future, he'd be able to get them back just in case a similar war broke out again. (I even remember reading something according to which his resistance to inspections was part of a bluff against Iran -- whatever trouble it brought him from the international community, he thought it was worthwhile if it might make Iran think he had some Sarin in his pocket.) Meanwhile, the American media was helping Bush terrify us into thinking that Saddam wanted nothing more than to kill Americans with his poison gases.


I'm pretty sure that most Donkeylicious readers are xkcd readers, so there's no need to link this. But just in case...