Friday, July 31, 2009

Unusual Paintings Of Obama Naked With Unicorns

Wow.

Health Care Bracketology

At this point I'm having a lot of trouble understanding how the various players in the health care negotiations regard the deals they're making -- for example, the Gang of Six deal in Senate Finance, and the Waxman-Blue Dog deal in House Energy and Commerce that was subsequently renegotiated with progressives.

All these agreements are subject to multiple stages of future modification and renegotiation. People are just trying to get bills out of the last committees right now, and they'll have to be blended with bills from other committees of their chambers before they pass the House and Senate. And then there'll be amendments on the floor. And then, after things pass both chambers, there'll be conference committee the House and Senate bills are reconciled. That's when Obama plans to make his big play and push the legislation in the direction he wants. There's a huge question of whom the negotiators in conference will be. The bill that emerges from conference will end up being the final product.

So if you're a Progressive renegotiating deals with the Blue Dogs, or Mike Enzi making a deal with Max Baucus, what do you expect to come of it? Do you have any confidence that anything you've agreed to will be in the final product? Are you just hoping to push the final bill a smidgen in the direction you prefer? To politically position yourself in some way or other? To make yourself seem like more of a significant legislative player who can't be left out of future reindeer games? I'm sure it's some mix of this stuff, but I have very little sense what the proportions are.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wacky Institutional Reform Day: Super-Size The House!

Yglesias ticks off a number of procedural reforms that would make political life in America better. I would add to this the idea that we really ought to look at making the House of Representatives much larger than it currently is. Representatives in the large body of most nations' legislative body tend to represent between 75,000 and 200,000 constituents. The US, there's one Congressman for every 700,000 constituents. Getting down to the international norm would require tripling the size of the House.

It should be noted that massively increasing the size of the House would have other interesting consequences. A district with 200,000 members would have a off-year primary electorate of about 15,000 to 20,000 voters. This is a small enough number that it's plausible for a candidate to meet, in person, everyone who's going to vote for them. Medium sized cities would have so many members that campaigns would be waged strictly by direct mail, or we would move to multi-member districts. Having more members would lead to more factions, which might make cross-partisan coalitions more common. Even if we don't go all the way to a 1,300 member House, there's no reason for body to have fewer members that British Parliament, considering Great Britain has a population one-fifth the size of the States'.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

If You Build A Good Public Plan, They Will Come

Ezra:
A strong public plan on a weak exchange will fail because it won't attain sufficient market share. It's as simple as that.
Ezra's been saying this for a while, but it seems way too Big Bang Theory of Legislation. If you have a strong public plan that cuts costs, but it's on a limited exchange, the next thing that's going to happen is that there's going to be massive political pressure to expand the exchange. Demonstrate to Ford and GE that their health care costs will in fact be lower by operating a cheap public plan in front of their eyes, and they'll knock some Cigna heads in to get access to it in a subsequent session of Congress. When the rest of corporate America takes on the big insurers, the results will be awesome. If there's some reason this doesn't work, I'd be interested in hearing what it is.

Trouble

Item One, from today:
Waxman, Blue Dogs Strike A Deal: ... Roll Call reported ... "the deal would cut more than $100 billion from the Democratic health bill, increase exemptions for small businesses and prevent the public insurance option from basing reimbursements on Medicare rates".
Item Two, from Monday:
House Progressive Take Hard Line on Public Option: ... eight members of the caucus wrote to Speaker Pelosi on behalf of the entire CPC, to draw a line on any efforts to further weaken the public option ... "the public option must not be based on any trigger and must be available immediately. Further, the public plan must be on a level playing field and receive the same subsidies as private plans in the Health Exchange. And, it must be connected to the Medicare infrastructure, including the provider and payment system".
Not sure how this is going to go down.

Update: Well, this actually sounds pretty reassuring. In the short term, there's still a big difference between "use Medicare negotiated rates", or even Medicare rates plus some markup, and "let the HHS negotiate rates". But in the long run the two would converge.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Southern Eloquence

Via Glenn Thrush, retiring Senator George Voinovich names the biggest problem with his party:
“We got too many Jim DeMints (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburns (R-Ok.). It’s the southerners. They get on TV and go 'errrr, errrrr.' People hear them and say, ‘These people, they’re southerners. The party’s being taken over by southerners. What they hell they got to do with Ohio?’ ”
"errr, errrrr"? While that may be a noise devoid of linguistic content, it's more politically astute than some actual sentences DeMint has uttered lately. Anyway, it's good to see a Midwestern Republican openly attest to the cultural differences between his state and the more conservative South.

Weird Senate Finance Bills Are Okay

Rumors are that the Senate Finance Committee is leaving out the public option, but putting in cost control measures that we won't see elsewhere. It's definitely not the kind of final health care bill we want, but as a report from our most problematic committee, it doesn't look too bad to me. Obama's strategy seems to be: get a weird-looking bill out of Finance, get 60 votes on the Senate floor for something mediocre, get a strong bill out of the House, have Obama deploy all his legislative muscle and political capital in conference committee to make things look like the strong House bill, and take advantage of the restrictions on blocking a conference report to push a superior House-flavored final bill through the Senate. Sounds good.

If Obama really is positioned to strengthen legislation in conference, and if you trust him to be a positive influence on legislation, it seems that a high degree of variance in what the committees produce actually helps us. We'd rather have a really strong House bill and a really weak product coming out of Finance that takes us to a mediocre Senate bill than two bills in the middle. Variance gives Obama more varied materials from which to assemble a really good final product. For example, I've been convinced by the arguments for a high cap on the employer benefits tax deduction. Maybe that will be our concession to Finance, in exchange for which they have to go along with a strong public option and generous Medicaid expansion.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Frontrunning

To add some clarity to this New York Times story, there's some distinction between "frontrunning" and the legal-but-of-dubious-value practice described here.

"Frontrunning" is a form of insider trading. It's when a broker is trying to place an order for one of its clients that's so large that it will move the market. In this case, the broker has inside information -- the fact that someone wants to execute the order -- that it then uses to execute other trades and make a quick buck. This is, in effect, the broker stealing from the client.

What the Times article is talking about is an effort by a number of Street firms, of which Goldman-Sachs is one, who purchase the right to view what are called "flash orders"--orders that no one else wants to fulfill, but that these firms might be able to fill in a pinch. Combined with other data, the high-frequency traders are able to do things such as figure out when market-moving trades are about to occur, respond, and make a quick buck. This is, in effect, one Wall Street firm stealing from another Wall Street firm, or, in the worst case, the client(s) of another Wall Street firm.

Now, the price for viewing "flash orders" is not that high. And Wall Street is teeming with folks who would sell their mother into slavery if it helped bost next quarter's earnings. So either the NYSE is giving the flash order purchasers a sweetheart deal, akin to the one the BLM gives to miners or that the regular players in foreclosure markets get, or the information gain from flash orders isn't that high. It's hard to tell which is the case from the outside, but high-frequency trading involves a number of other components besides flash orders.

This is not to say the high-frequency traders are really doing anything meritorious; how, exactly, there's positive utility for the rest of the world in this sort of behavior is unclear to me. And since Goldman-Sachs is one of the few large firms that survived 2008 relatively intact, it's been given special status in several places, as part of the "Plunge Protection Team" and as a sort of liquidity provider of last resort. Unsurprisingly, with minimal competition and certain special advantages, it appears they may be abusing that position. This is, I think, another reason why it's best to get out of the idea that certain firms ought to have this sort of privileged status in the marketplace.

China And Taiwan

Insofar as I have a good understanding of what to hope for in the China-Taiwan relationship, it's that we want that situation to move forward peacefully, in a way that keeps Taiwan from being messed up by the Chinese government, and that ends the weirdness of two countries pretending that they're one country. Really, they seem to be in some kind of bizarre dysfunctional relationship that would make a wacky sitcom episode, if there weren't a risk that things would turn violent and possibly drag America into a conflict that would kill huge numbers of people.

So I'm guessing that the Chinese and Taiwanese governments exchanging direct communications for the first time in 60 years is a positive development. Hopefully they'll have a chat at some point in the future where they're like, "Um, so, we're two separate countries, right?"

Sunday, July 26, 2009

And Even If He Was Born Outside The US

I hate engaging this stuff. But to add to what Josh Marshall has to say, even though Barack Obama Sr. was not a US Citizen, Obama Jr.'s mother, Ann Dunham, was a US Citizen and had lived in the US long enough to transmit citizenship to her children. You can read all about it on the State Department's web site.

Consider this another reason that Democrats need to get off their duff and pass a health care plan. The further down this birther crap gets pushed the better.

Future Health Care Reforms

When considering various possibilities for this year's health care reform package, I often wonder what future legislative possibilities they might unleash if they passed. For example, say we get the public option, and things play out as expected with public plan rates being cheaper than private plan rates. But suppose access to the public plan is restricted in the beginning, as it is in the House bill, and you can't get in unless you're an individual or a small business. Or imagine a more disappointing bill that perpetually bars big businesses from getting in on the public plan.

What I'd have to imagine would happen next is that big businesses would want in on some of that cheap public plan goodness and push for new legislation opening access to the plan so they could get it. This is good! When Microsoft, Ford, and General Electric see that Blue Cross is standing between them and lower health care costs, Blue Cross is going to lose and America is going to win. If this is how things play out, we can accept some initial restrictions on access to the public plan, as long as those don't prevent it from displaying its superiority and drawing the interest of powerful players who will want it expanded.

What Is It Like To Be A Birther?

I got an email today. It began:
THIS MAIL WAS SENT TO ALL THE FOX NEWS REPORTERS. I GOT YOUR E-MAIL ADDRESS ON YOUR SITE FOR WORTHLESS SAXBY CHAMBLISS. THIS IS A SIGNIFICANT E-MAIL.
I'm glad he told me it was a significant e-mail -- I might not have gathered from the capitalization and bold text.

What followed was a bunch of stuff on how Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, and a bunch of other right-wing celebrities have questioned whether Obama was born in America, so more people on Fox should do so as well. Plus a bunch of links to Birther websites, including one about "an Army Major who filed suit regarding his deployment to Afghanistan on the grounds that Obama was not America’s legitimate Commander-In Chief."

During the last election, I thought that Birthers were just driven by desperation -- they saw that they were on track to lose the election by conventional means, so they decided that disqualifying Obama on grounds of not being born in America was their only hope. In retrospect I see that there was much more going on than that. Beliefs formed merely out of desperate electoral tactics fade, or lose some of their salience, when you've lost the election. You find something new to be crazy about. But this Birther stuff has only gotten stronger.

I was thinking about that as I read Paul Rosenberg's thing on the lady in Delaware who tried to press Rep. Mike Castle on the birth certificate stuff. From Paul's transcription of her:
Thank you. Congressman Castle. I want to know-I have a birth certificate here from the United States of America saying I am an American citizen with a seal on it, signed by doctors, with the hospital administrator's name, my parents, my date of birth, and the time, the date. I want to go back to January 20th, and I want to know, why are you people ignoring his birth certificate?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

He is not an American citizen. He is a citizen of Kenya. I am American. My father worked - fought in World War II with the greatest generation in the Pacific Theater for this country, and I don't want this flag to change. I want my country back.

It's a strange performance. The fact that she has her own birth certificate really doesn't add anything whatsoever to her case, but it's really important to her and it moved her to bring the thing along with her so she'd have it as a prop. And then there's the bit about her father. I didn't think that Paul's post needed all the technical apparatus that he brought to bear, but I thought this part was exactly right:
What rational difference does it make whether or not she has her birth certificate? Clearly, none at all... This is ritually establishing her claim to be an American-and by implication denying that President Obama is an American.
One of the happy things about America over the last several decades is that the good guys basically won the public debate about whether it was okay to be racist. Of course, this doesn't mean that people aren't racist. But it means that you can't go around and say "I think that Obama shouldn't be permitted to be President, because that would mean a black person would be ruling white people, and that's wrong!" Even if that's what you feel like saying, you can't be taken seriously if you say that, and you know it. Similarly, you can't say "His father was an immigrant! So there's no way he should be allowed to rule over native-born Americans like me!"

You can't say these things, but there's no law that can stop you from feeling them. And when people feel things and aren't allowed to say them, they still do things driven by their feelings. Like obsessing over the cross-hatching on Obama's birth certificate to prove it's a forgery. Or spamming people about how "THIS USURPER IS HIDING SOMETHING." Or waving around their birth certificate and talking about their family history to express their horror and outrage that the son of a black man from Africa sits in the White House.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Math at the White House


Good on Obama for having the MathCounts winners visit the White House. But while he's at it he should really invite the high schoolers from Lehigh Valley who have been dominating ARML recently.

Should I Support Free Silver?

Here's an anachronistic political question I've been curious about for a while: if it's 1896 in America, should I support Free Silver?

I've been inclined to say yes, because the distributive implications of Free Silver sound pretty good. Poor farmers get their debts inflated away, while incredibly rich Gilded Age industrialists see the real value of their assets fall. Plus, modern-day gold bugs are total cranks propounding a dogma that would bring great misery upon the world. But I don't know how well that applies to the "sound money" people of 1896. Surely it'd be better to have a modern central banking system, where you smooth out the business cycle by making inflationary moves in a recession and deflating the currency when the economy rises. But supposing it's 1896 and we don't have the Fed for another 17 years, do I vote for William Jennings Bryan?

The Budget Reconciliation Calendar: We're Still Early

With all the hullabaloo about the House and Senate possibly waiting until after the August recess to vote on health care reform, it's worth considering how fast we're going relative to previous expectations. Budget reconciliation instructions originally specified an October 15 date, after which health care reform could pass the Senate with only 50 votes via the budget reconciliation process. So getting a bill in September, if it happens, is still more or less on schedule.

This doesn't mean delay is a good thing -- all sorts of stuff could happen in August to throw things off track. But it's part of why we shouldn't be freaking out.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Who Will Challenge Chuck Grassley?

Back when Janet Napolitano and Kathleen Sebelius joined the Obama Cabinet, there was a lot of unhappiness about how it would deprive us of two excellent Senate challengers in 2010. The unhappy people were, certainly, right to be displeased. I don't remember anybody saying the same thing about Tom Vilsack, but I'm starting to wonder if we should've felt the same way about his appointment to Agriculture too. I have no idea if he could've been talked into running, but he's a two-term ex-governor in a state where we lack any major Senate challenger for Chuck Grassley. 538 tells us that the seat is the 20th most likely to change hands.

Grassley may be the single biggest Republican obstacle to health care progress in all of Congress, simply because of his close relationship with Senate Finance chairman Max Baucus, which translates into an ability to freeze Baucus into inactivity. Look at the Grassley twitter feed:
PTL BluDogs Keep barkin Pelosie bill is Govt takeovr of healthCare Breaks Obama promise"keep what u hv" Puts Wash Burocrats in chrg MUSTSTOP
With no serious general-election challenger, all Grassley has to worry about is a primary challenge if he doesn't stick tightly enough to right-wing MUSTSTOP dogma. There's nobody to call him out on being an obstacle to reform, or pressure him to do anything constructive.

I'm taken aback that we can't find anybody else to jump into the race in Iowa. I mean, the state is full of good Democrats -- we've got a 32-18 majority in the state Senate, an attorney general coming off his 4th consecutive term, and a Lieutenant Governor. Sure, Grassley is a powerful incumbent, but a lot of GOP incumbents have gone down over the last couple cycles. Obama has always been popular in the state. You'd think people would be jumping in.

The Password Is 'Swordfish'

I just got back from lunch with... Brad DeLong! Many matters of significance were discussed, including Possible Girls.

Friday Obama Caption Contest

Oliver Willis is right, this photo is just begging for a caption:

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Moral Theory For Alex Tabarrok

Alex Tabarrok thinks he has Matt Yglesias in some kind of contradiction. In one place, Yglesias is saying that a commitment to utilitarianism isn't the main reason to support redistributive taxation. In another place, he suggests that the welfare-enhancing nature of redistributive taxation gives us reason to support it. There's no contradiction between these two claims.

Probably the best thing to do here is to say something about the structure of common-sense moral theory, which is far richer than utilitarianism. People generally think that increasing the general welfare is a good thing, as utilitarians do. But they think lots of other things are good too. For example, not violating people's rights is a good thing, even if doing so would be neutral with respect to aggregate welfare. And maybe the goodness of having an egalitarian society, or maintaining a democratic political system, are considered good independent of their contributions to welfare. And maybe a bunch of things, like keeping promises, are right independent of any goods that might result. But the fact remains that increasing the aggregate happiness is one among many goods.

Lots of philosophers have theories according to which the general welfare is one among many good things. Rawls, for example, isn't a utilitarian, but he'll support an increase in the general happiness, assuming that it doesn't hurt the people at the bottom. Basically everyone (except a few Kantians and some a priori libertarians) thinks that increasing the general happiness is good. So, as Matt says, "there's little grounds for the belief that a commitment to utilitarianism is the main justification for redistributive taxation." At the same time, a lot of people will agree that greater welfare gives you a reason to redistribute. You get strong arguments for welfare-enhancing measures like redistributive taxation in most of the non-utilitarian theories you look at.

(There's also a couple other things to say about how Yglesias only said that redistribution was welfare-enhancing, not that that made it good. But I think the thing about how lots of non-utilitarians still like enhancing welfare is probably the least nitpicky point.)

The City Manager And The Porn Star

Scott Janke, the city manager of Fort Myers Beach in southwest Florida, appears to have been fired by a 5-0 vote of the city council shortly after the city found out that his wife was a porn star. If the restaurant-owner-on-the-street quotes at the end of the article are any guide, people in the community seem to think that firing him was a bad decision. This may be one of those things where the city council's ideas of how to look respectable were actually way behind their constituents'.

I hope that my children will grow up in an America where you can marry a porn star and become President. Or be a porn star who goes into politics, which has actually worked out in one medium-sized European country. Not that I think porn stars would necessarily be the best people to design public policy, but I can't see that they'd be worse than, say, insurance executives.

When The Media Covers Sausage-Making

One of the reasons that I'm fairly cheery about the chances of getting health care reform passed is that I've been reading Ezra and geeking out over the Congressional politics. And while there are sticking points there -- namely the Senate Finance Committee and the filibuster -- we seem to have a good strategy for getting things through Congress. I loved the heck out of Ezra's Pelosi interview yesterday, where she seems almost cocky about passing it. Ezra is confident that this is going to work out. In general, the whole strategy of getting not-so-great legislation through the bottlenecks and then bulking it up in conference committee sounds brilliant.

Amanda's right about the tone of the media coverage, however. Every time I read some big general article on the state of play with health care, it feels like there's so much more trouble than there really is. The closer you get to the specifics, the better things look. But it's really striking how much the media is trying to turn a bunch of generally positive specifics into a negative general picture about the prospects for reform.

Which is all to say that it feels kind of like a year ago. The McCain campaign focused on winning news cycles to the exclusion of coherent long-term strategy, while the Obama campaign focused on long-term strategy to the exclusion of winning news cycles. Obama ended up doing well, even if the bigger story was the self-destruction of McCain through a splashy but ill-considered VP choice. But if you were following the traditional media, you were gritting your teeth to the point of dental erosion.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Health Care Reform Is Epic, Man

Just on the level that people enjoy TV action drama series and sports seasons, I'm really fascinated with the way that health care reform is playing out. There are all these people with a variety of personalities and positions and powers, and they're interacting in a gigantic drama that determines the destiny of a nation. And it's my nation, and I've occasionally done bit-player things to try to affect the outcome. For real!

Every day you see something new and nifty to advance the plot. Today we see that legislative superhero Henry Waxman attracted the Blue Dogs to the House plan by offering to do a thing Peter Orszag likes where an independent body sets Medicare payment rates [corrected]. This is the kind of thing that Waxman and his allies in the leadership are going to deny, but I'd have to guess that he left Orszag's thing out of the initial bill just so he could trade it off to Blue Dogs for their support. Happy story, and I hope there's more of that ahead.

Feel free to post spoilers in the comments.

Oddsmakers

Chances that someone in the press will ask Barack Obama about:
  1. Henry Louis Gates' arrest.
  2. Carolyn Maloney quoting someone who used the N-Word.
  3. The Surgeon General's weight.
  4. The last time he had a cigarette.
Discuss.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

No Bad Schools In Raleigh

I saw Gerald Grant's "Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh" advertised on the American Prospect's webpage, and felt proud. As I've mentioned before, that's the school system that produced me. If this reviewer comment is accurate, I agree with the author: "The difference is that in Raleigh, in 1976, the Wake County Public School system was created to zone the suburbs and inner city together to ensure a continued healthy mix of social classes."

Put That In Your Flex-Fuel Engine And Burn It!

Steven Chu, the second-highest ranking nerd in the Obama administration*, now has his own Facebook page. Already he's posted such useful things as this two minute clip on a UIUC demonstration project to grow plants that produce fifteen times the amount of ethanol that an equivalent plot of corn would produce:



Obviously, the insanityof American's corn policy, which has already served its primary purpose of ensuring the reelection of Richard Nixon (who gave us the first big boost in corn subsidies) and George W. Bush (who gave us the second boost), is well understood, but it's worth pointing out that effective alternatives to corn ethanol already exist.

* I'm counting Peter Orszag as a nerd, but not Obama himself. Anyone that good at basketball can't be a nerd, even if he wears black sweatpants and white tennis shoes.

Obama Beats The F-22!

Congratulations, O-Team! People say this could be the beginning of serious cuts in defense spending, which is some of the porkiest spending there is.

Deep Thought

Barack Obama is so unpopular, he's more popular than George W. Bush ever was during his second term.

Proud To Be A Democrat

Michael Steele, the Chairman of the RNC, does not know what an individual mandate is.

That's a topic that Democrats -- and not just wonks wonking away in the wonkosphere, but random folks at Daily Kos and both presidential candidates at the Texas debate -- were arguing about ad infinitum during the primaries. My dad, who knows little of policy and seemed to have never heard of public campaign financing when I mentioned it, was getting all heated yesterday about how there had to be a public option for health care reform. The depth of knowledge that we've cultivated about the details of health care policy, and the cultural penetration it's achieved, make me proud to live in the segment of our political culture that is the Democratic Party.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Five Committees, Two Houses, One Bill

All that old-fashioned "How A Bill Becomes A Law" stuff from elementary school had taught me that a bill had to make it through committee in both houses of Congress to become a law. What I didn't know until this year is that health care reform will have to make it through five committees -- three in the House and two in the Senate. It's quite the obstacle course, but I'm impressed at how well we're doing so far. The three House committees have agreed on legislation, as has the HELP committee. We're still waiting on Finance.

A lot of my favorite bloggers complain about the undemocratic nature of the US Senate. It radically underrepresents people from populated states, and allows a minority of 40 Senators to obstruct legislation. These complaints are entirely justified, and the Senate is in fact looking like the tightest bottleneck in passing legislation. But it's hard to see how we can take down an institution that can only be eliminated by a Constitutional amendment that it would have to pass with a 2/3 supermajority of its own members. Reforms in committee structure will at least have support from Speaker and Majority leader types, however much committee chairs will oppose them. As a way to unclog our ridiculously bottlenecky political system, I'd suggest that as a way to start.

SUPERTRANSITORIENTEDDEVELOPMENT

Goldy and the Rainier Valley Post have news that rather than shutter the doors to one of its stores and put a deed restriction on the sale to keep the new owners from building a competitor, Safeway will instead spend $3 million to renovate a grocery store near one of the new Link Light Rail Stations. Living in a walkable neighborhood begins by having a full service grocery store within walking distance, so this is welcome news for South Seattle residents (I'm not one, but provided housing prices aren't ridiculous, living on the train line some day might be a nice idea).

My Sotomayor Fantasy

Just like everybody else who's gone up for confirmation in the post-Bork era, Sonia Sotomayor was evasive in answering specific questions about her views on cases. I understand that this is now the standard way to do things, and its commonness makes it even safer.

It would've been really nice to see her take the questions head-on, though. Not just for the sake of showing up Jeff Sessions, or to educate her fans about the best ways to defend liberal jurisprudence. Making it expected for nominees to explicitly defend their views would be good for the country, and probably good for Democrats. On Roe, the case people care most about, we have a 30-point polling advantage, and that advantage means more if people have to talk cases. When future Republican nominees are evasive, it would be nice to deprive them of the excuse that nobody goes into specifics before the Judiciary Committee.

Sotomayor would be running a risk of losing votes by doing this, but we have a substantial Senate majority, and many Republican officeholders are fearful of facing Hispanic voters after voting against her. The risk is negligible, and the rewards look nice.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chickens: The Front Line Of The Animal Welfare Movement

I support these people who are keeping chickens in their backyards, and I think they're creating wonderful PR for the animal welfare movement. Chickens are cute and likeable creatures that children get along well with. If people start regarding chickens as companion animals, they'll be more inclined to reduce the suffering experienced by chickens on factory farms. As far as farm animals go, it's the chickens that I'm the most concerned about -- the suffering:meat ratio there is pretty terrible. (Veal calves have it really bad too.)

Also, I sympathize with the chicken owners' struggle against the stodgy homeowners' association types who want to prevent their neighbors from doing anything interesting.

(Picture from Cute Overload, of course.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Donate To HCAN, Get A Shirt

After consulting with knowledgeable sources, I just threw a nice chunk of cash at HCAN, the big group pushing for health care reform. If you use the link on the upper right of the page and give them money, you can get a shirt.

Why Do Other Senators Let Them Get Away With This?

I can see why everybody wants to position themselves as the decisive swing vote on major legislation -- in this case, the six Senators pushing for a delay on health care reform. It's the ticket to being a major power broker and having other people offer you lots of goodies for your vote, as well as getting big centrist cred from influential media outlets. What I can't understand is why their colleagues let them get away with it. If Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson get into the finite stock of goodies available for being the decisive swing votes, that means that Blanche Lincoln and Claire McCaskill don't get as much. But if the McCaskills and Lincolns of the world have ever retaliated against the Nelsons of the world for stealing their ration of Centrist Cookies, I've never seen it.

Friday Kitsch Cover

Social Distortion covers Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire:



Leave your nominations for the next Kitsch cover in the comments.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Just So We're Clear

Nothing Wrong with MSNBC airing three minutes worth of snickering about "teabagging":

but Marcy Wheeler can't say "blowjob" without forcing an immediate on-air apology.

The Education Of David Obey

Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey (D-WI) comes from the day when reproductive rights were a controversial issue but not a partisan issue -- Republicans supporting reproductive rights were fairly easy to find, and Democratic opponents were just as common. Obey fell into the latter category. He stuck to his views even as the parties changed around him, scoring a 30% NARAL rating in 2003. (His name is pronounced like Obi-Wan Kenobi).

This is why it's really sweet to see him reversing his previous support of abstinence-based sex education and steering an elimination of abstinence-only funds through the Appropriations Committee. In an additional victory for rational public policy, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs was lifted.

Bonus fun Obey fact: He grew up a Republican, but became a Democrat during his high school years when he saw McCarthyites falsely accuse one of his teachers of being a Communist.

Against "Huddled"

Can we excise this word from political reporting? Max Baucus and five Senate Finance Committee did not stand hunched over a fire to keep warm, nor was Baucus relaying a play called in from the sidelines.

While we're at it, getting rid of "tapped" would be nice too, but I'll take what I can get.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How Irrationality Works (With Calorie Labeling Tie-In!)

It's kind of rare that my philosophy research is immediately relevant to a hot policy issue, but that seems to have happened! And it's important that I say a little more about that, just so that people don't come here via Ezra Klein's link and then say, "wait, this guy just blogs about pervy uses for purity rings."

One of the papers I've been presenting on my trip around the world is about what goes on when people act irrationally. The kind of irrationality I focus on is the kind where we have vivid images of things connected to the satisfaction of one desire in our environment, but not the other. These vivid images make one of our passions more violent, as Hume would say, causing it to overpower the other passion in determing our behavior. This is the kind of irrationality involved when I stay up too late watching dumb YouTubes and am less productive the next day. Or when somebody eats food that they know is unhealthy because it's right there and it looks so delicious.

If I could have some sort of engrossing vision of the rewards of the next day's productive work, or if the eater could have a vision of the consequences of healthy eating, the other passions would become more violent and we'd act differently. But often there isn't anything to make people vividly imagine the objects of their other passions, and they chase the thing that's most vivid in their mind at the moment.

There still can be a sense in which they want the other thing more, however. And this is the sense in which we talk about people's desires while they're asleep (as Matt noted). You can say that the sleeping person "wants to lose weight, find a better job, and pay down his student loans" even though he obviously isn't about to act on any of those. He's sleeping. But he still has the mental dispositions that make these claims true. I think it's this dispositional sense of desire that's important in saying what it's rational for people to do. It's rational to do whatever looks like it'll maximize dispositional desire satisfaction. And if the desires for getting work done and being healthy are stronger dispositionally than the desires for YouTube videos and unhealthy food, we can still say it's rational to go to bed on time instead of watching the videos, or eat healthy.

(A bit about the philosophical motivation for this paper. Christine Korsgaard has objected that if you hold desire-satisfaction views about both motivation and rationality, there will be no room for irrationality. Whatever people actually do will be rational, because both motivation and rationality are both determined by our desire strengths in the same way. My solution is that our theory of rationality should use the dispositional sense of desire, while our motivational theory should use the immediate motivation produced by desire when we're determining what people actually do. I think this fits with our best psychological theories, and also gives us the most intuitive theory of rationality. It responds to Korsgaard's objection by making the right amount of space for people to be irrational.)

So that's the paper. (There's also a part at the beginning where I talk about people who want to do impossible bad things like murdering the dead, but let's set that aside.) But now for the tie-in to the issue of requiring restaurants to say how many calories each dish has. This is the context in which the issue came up in Matt and Ezra's posts. In his new awesome Washington Post column, Ezra mentions research saying that "we wildly underestimate the calorie content of meals we order in restaurants. Worse, as meals get larger, we underestimate the calorie content by even more." One of the benefits of menu labeling -- which has been mandated for chain restaurants in NYC -- is that it'll replace our false judgments with true judgments on this issue and guide us to smarter choices.

I'd suggest another benefit, which I'm sure is smaller but perhaps still considerable. Not only will seeing that little number correct your false beliefs, but if you already have a dispositional desire to be healthy, it'll give you a little image to jog your desire into action. Certainly it won't be as vivid an image as a sudden vivid hallucination in which you see your morbidly obese future self, or somebody having a stroke at age 55. But especially if your desire for good health isn't usually at the forefront of your mind, it'll cue you to mind your health, at a time when you might've had nothing else to cue this desire before. That might very well lead to more rational eating.

Purity Ring Applications

Apparently there's a new purity ring application for the iPhone. I don't know exactly how it works, but it will fail to accomplish the most obvious purpose of the purity ring. That is, being used as a cock ring. The most likely wearer is probably the person responsible for reducing its former owner's interest in purity.

This only works if its former owner has very large fingers, or if its current owner has very slender genitalia, so I can see why this hasn't occurred to more people. But in general I'm quite disappointed with the reception that the purity ring has received. Why isn't there any purity ring fetish jewelry? Or purity ring porn? Sure, I'd be a little suspicious of a fellow who was wearing a bunch of purity rings on a necklace, as sexism makes room for men to boast of their past sexual experiences in a way that's unkind to their partners. But if I saw a young lady with a big jingly purity ring necklace -- and given that it's usually women who have purity rings on their fingers, I'm imagining her with short hair and not too much makeup -- it'd be a good ten minutes before I stopped smiling.

All in all, purity rings are set up to be wonderful fetish objects. The failure of everyone else on the internet to appreciate this betrays a striking poverty of sexual imagination.

Moar Tax Brackets! Woo!

While I probably would have preferred to finance the upcoming health care bill through either reducing deductions for high-income earners, or capping the deduction for employee-sponsored health insurance at some fixed number, socking it to the super rich isn't a bad idea. In particular, it appears that the House plan creates three new tax brackets above the current $250,000 threshold leaves plenty of room to tweak top marginal rates down the road.

One of the great magic tricks of the right-wing anti-tax crusade of the previous generation has been to convince the country that a key element to a simple tax code is having very few tax brackets. In reality, the real reason Americans spend so much time filling out IRS forms is the complications added due to deductions for college tution, being a parent, having out-of-pocket medical expenses, and so forth, as well as other idiosyncracies such as treating capital gains income different from wages. Historically, the tax code has been one of the primary methods of curbing income inequality; when the income tax was first created, the top marginal rate applied to exactly one person: J.D. Rockefeller. There's every reason to return to such tax treatment for extremely high incomes; the upper-upper-middle class of New York and California ought not to have political solidarity with the 400 or 1,000 richest taxpayers in the country.

Democrats For Life Boots Tim Ryan For Supporting Contraception

Within the spectrum of pro-life groups, I used to think reasonably well of Democrats for Life. The big political figure associated with the group was Congressman Tim Ryan, who was much more about reducing the number of abortions by making sure everyone had contraception than about banning abortion. But now Democrats for Life appears to have booted Ryan out for exactly that reason:

“We’re working in Congress with groups that agree with preventative options while [the DFLA] is getting left behind,” Ryan said. “I can’t figure out for the life of me how to stop pregnancies without contraception. Don’t be mad at me for wanting to solve the problem.”

Ryan said he tried to convince officials with Democrats For Life of America, which he referred to today as a “fringe group,” that the use of contraception is needed as part of any plan to reduce unintended pregnancies but that failed.

“They asked me to leave; I got booted,” said Ryan, who was on the group’s national advisory board for about four years.

Via Jill at Feministe. This drops the number of anti-abortion pro-contraception groups I'm aware of to zero.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

House Democrats Have A Health Care Plan!

In recent good news, major House Democrats have unified behind a health care bill! Ezra likes it. Kevin Drum lifted a nifty graphic about how the plan impacts you! which I will post here:

This is a good time to call or write your representative. Sure, the big action is in getting a bill through the Senate. But as Ezra writes, "if the House of Representatives manages to pass this plan with a substantial majority of enthusiastic Democrats -- that significantly strengthens the House's hand in its eventual negotiations with the more fractious Senate." Furthermore, the more it looks like health care reform is cruising forward, the more Senators will feel that they should get on board and take credit rather than getting in the way.

Deep Thought

Go National League!

Why I'll Trust The Government With My Medical Information

Conor Friedersdorf asked:
It shouldn’t be too difficult to imagine another Dick Cheney or Richard Nixon in the White House. Are we really comfortable assuming that the state will never use its role in health care to pressure political opponents, or collect frightening kinds of data, or politicize medical decisions more than is now the case? Isn’t there any size and scope of government that progressives deem to be too big on prudential grounds? Why doesn’t this put us there?
Kevin Drum said:
Points for originality here: I don’t think I’ve ever heard this objection before. And around here we like new and different. Still, while I bow to no man in my contempt for either the Trickster or the Dickster, even I can’t really see either one of them scheming to deny Ralph Nader a liver transplant or something. But then again, maybe my imagination isn’t active enough.
The good Mr. Friedersdorf wants to continue the discussion, and several of his commenters have pointed out that the government has plenty of power to do all sorts of bad things to you (they control the IRS, after all) that don't usually happen, at least in terms of targeted attacks against political opponents. But it might be illuminating to go into some of the positive reasons why stuff like this is rare to nonexistent in most parts of the federal bureaucracy.

I'm assuming that the mechanism for bad people denying somebody a kidney, or say, revealing that a political rival has herpes, involves administration operatives calling up some midlevel civil service bureaucrat who has access to the info and getting him to make the right sort of mischief. In theory, you could do this just as easily in the private sector -- you'd just have to have the right sort of connections to the right insurance company bureaucrat. So I guess Friedsdorf's worry would be that our neo-Nixon would have greater clout over the Medicare guy than the guy at Aetna.

But whether we're talking about public or private insurance, there's a really strong reason not to play tricks like this. If the public finds out, they'll be really mad. Prying out political opponents' medical info and revealing it, or worse yet messing with their medical care, isn't the kind of thing that the voting public will stand for. And there's plenty of risk that your bureaucrat friend will expose you, either in a conscientious way before you do your shenanigans or afterwards if there's a big investigation and people are coming after him. The risks are too big to make the scheme worthwhile. It's one of the reasons that I shy away from conspiracy theories in general -- large conspiracies to do something important and dastardly are really hard to keep secret.

Now, there are parts of the federal bureaucracy that I'd worry about a lot more than Medicare or the IRS, in terms of their potential for these sorts of abuses. I'm thinking about the CIA. Since lots of stuff is kept secret there, it's probably much easier to get people to do shady stuff with the confidence that you won't be found out. I guess one way of putting the point is that if you're cool with having a CIA, you really shouldn't be sweating health care reform for presidential-corruption-related reasons.

Why Conservative Senators Don't Want To Talk About Cases

Asks Matt:
I still in an honest-to-God, no-joking way don’t understand why conservatives who want to vote “no” don’t just say something normal like “I thought Justice Souter voted the wrong way on a number of important cases, I think Judge Sotomayor is likely to vote in a similar way to Souter; I would prefer a judge who votes like Justice Roberts or Justice Scalia; therefore, I’ll vote no.” That’s not insane, it’s not offensive, it’s not foolish, it’s not bizarre—it’s something you’d have to respect.
One part of the answer is in this Nate Silver chart:Most conservative Senators, and especially those who harbor secret or not-so-secret hopes of someday being president, don't want to go around saying "I want to see Roe v. Wade overturned." Given that public sentiment in favor of Roe is roughly double the opposition to the decision, this would stick them with a highly unpopular position and damage their chances in a presidential general election, or at least make it tough to win over moderate voters back home.

This is why there's a rather elaborate system of code words involving "activist judges" and "originalism" and "legislating from the bench". As far as I can tell, a real originalist would be a strikingly activist judge, but never mind -- these words are mainly meant to be used as code for a set of preferred case outcomes, not to clearly articulate any sort of sophisticated judicial theory. The words sound pretty enough if you don't know the code, so conservatives are quite happy to say them to everyone.

Since Sonia Sotomayor doesn't have a very long record of abortion-related pronouncements, and since the dittohead bloc wants to see her attacked as insufficiently supportive of white people's interests, the strategy takes on its current flavor. But in the end, the barriers to just saying "I'd like someone who votes differently on a bunch of important cases" are the same. Roe is a hugely popular and significant decision. If you come out and say that you're voting against liberal nominees because of the cases, people are going to ask you if you're just voting to overturn Roe. And you don't want to answer that question.

Monday, July 13, 2009

I Wish I Was Smart So I Could Get Chicks

Michael O'Hare wonders why museums haven't gotten more attention as either (a) first date locales or (b) places for smart young people to meet other smart young people. There are a number of logistical reasons for this: museums are frequently located in business districts that shut down at 6pm or places that don't have any adjacent restaurants or coffee shops. They tend not to do a very good job of advertising events to encourage regular patrons; most museums still operate under the assumption that almost all of their visitors will show up exactly once. And there's a certain appeal to feeling like you're part of a crowd, which museums can't offer unless they're holding a book signing or other event. I believe the New York Public Library has had some success in becoming a hip venue by hosting talks and wine & chees nights and the like. I feel like I've heard of similar programs at LACMA as well, but it's unclear whether strategies that work in the country's two largest metropolitan areas are portable to the smaller cities.

O'Hare separately laments the rental of museum facilities for large private events (primarily weddings and conferences). It's better to think of rental offerings as a "public option" of sorts. The rates for museum rentals, as well as for other public venues such as city parks, are usually modest compared to private alternatives—hotels, conference centers, and idyllic properties held by the bridal-industrial complex. Without public properties as an anchor, the obscene mark-up at private venues would be even worse. In addition, getting more people into museums as opposed to hotel ballrooms might open some eyes to the value of public spaces. Obviously if every summer weekend is rented out, that's a problem, but even fairly regular rentals won't lead to the end of the world.

(photo of the Bilbao Guggenheim by Flickr user betta design)

Obama Will Veto The F-22

Obama has threatened to veto the 2010 defense authorization bill if it contains money to buy extra F-22 fighter jets. That's a pretty awesome line in the sand, and it's being drawn against an incredibly expensive plane that was designed to one-up a Soviet plane that never existed and never will exist. Big thanks to Robert Gates and the financial wizard shop at OMB for pushing Obama to take this position.

I liked the line that Jon Soltz of VoteVets fame uncorked when debating Rep. Phil Gingrey about the plane: "It’s about how we spend our money. The Congressman cares about the Lockheed Martin stock price, and I care about the men and women who fight on the ground. And this weapon system does nothing for us."

If you want that last point in sophisticated think-tank speak, you can take it from these guys.

Too Good To Pass Up

As the political blogosphere has become somewhat more professionalized, there's actually less snark than there used to be, when you probably could have met the world's clean energy demand by harnessing the biting wit found on the internet. So to bring some of that old-timey feel back, let's turn the microphone over to Newt Gingrich:

Al Jazeera's Avi Lewis told Gingrich, "In the past, you've called for the bombing of Iran's oil refineries." Gingrich clarified, "I called for sabotage, not bombing.... Fundamental difference."

Tell me, Newt, is this "fundamental difference" anything like the distinction between "committing adultery" and "having oral sex with a woman who is not one's wife"?

Update: In unrelated snark, Josh Orton brings his A game.

Safety And Zero-Sum Games

A researcher who works on heat-related illnesses is trying to get high school football coaches to reduce their number of two-a-day preseason football practices. College football adopted this proposal in 2003, but high schools haven't yet. If it's a bad idea to make 20-year-olds do extremely strenuous physical activity twice a day in the sweltering summer heat with lots of padding, it's probably an even worse idea for 15-year-olds.

Even if it turns out that we get lower-quality football out of the reduction in practice time (something that the researcher disputes) it's important to remember that competitive sports aren't too far from being a zero-sum game. If, say, scientists were hampered by restrictions on how much they could study, we'd have lower-quality medicines and plastics and computer chips, and life for everyone wouldn't be as good. But if you hamper both teams in a football game equally, nothing especially valuable is lost. The quality of the play on the field will be a little worse, but spectators won't lose much enjoyment, and may even gain enjoyment when poorly trained athletes do wacky things.

This is something I think about even more when in the cases of college or especially professional sports, where spectator enjoyment is a much bigger desideratum than it is in the high school case. Is my enjoyment dramatically enhanced by an increase in the quality of play? I've found the running game in college football more exciting than the running game in pro football, just because the lower quality of defense allows for more missed tackles and thus more exciting-looking runs. When we're weighing safety against quality of output in competitive sports, it makes sense to emphasize safety even more than it does in the more usual positive-sum activities.

The Assimilation of the Sotomayor Family

At this point, I don't have any great deal of useful Sotomayor commentary to offer, other than to link to Glenn Thrush's post mentioning that she has nephews named Connor and Corey, and a niece named Kiley. These are, to my knowledge, not traditional Hispanic names.

They are, however, vaguely Irish, or at least yuppified Irish, which is how immigrants display successful assimilation in this country. If you're going for the traditional Western names -- John, Richard, Jane, Mary -- you might be trying too hard, or maybe you just aren't familiar with enough Western names. Choosing a valorized Western non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicity shows that you've made it. (Of course, in my case it's the sort of assimilative device that retains still home-country flavor -- Neil is short for Neiladri, which means 'blue mountain.')

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Awesome Post Titles

I don't really have anything to say about this, but Pam Spaulding has an old post titled "Faggoty-Ass Faggot's field trip to the Creation Museum." Unfortunately, Faggoty-Ass Faggot's blog no longer exists, so I couldn't see how his trip went.

The Prudent Shacker-Upper

Broadsheet's Tracy Clark-Flory cites a study:
most cohabitating couples aren't living together as a way to "test the relationship before marriage." Nearly half of the 1, 294 respondents ages 18 to 34 said they were living together because they wanted to spend more time together, two-thirds said "it just sort of happened" and most see cohabitation as another phase of dating.
I can't find the actual text of the study itself, but none of the news reports involve questions about how people might be living together to save money by having one place instead of two. I can't claim firsthand experience with this sort of thing, because I haven't actually done it before, but I imagine that a thrifty person like me who doesn't need a lot of personal space would be aware of the economic advantages of such an arrangement. This would be especially true in economic times like the present ones, and in large cities where housing is expensive.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Absolut Radioactivity

Brad Plumer describes an interesting plan for accelerating the decontamination of the part of southeastern Belarus around Chernobyl: Plant a whole bunch of sugar beets, have them soak up radioactivity from the soil, use the beets to make ethanol, and dispose of the discarded radioactive beet matter safely. Assuming that distillation works like it's supposed to, the radioactive materials won't end up in the ethanol. And since plants apparently soak radioactivity out of the soil, "clean-up could take just decades instead of centuries." There are some drawbacks, like finding somewhere to dispose of the radioactive beet crud, but an Irish company is proposing to actually do this.

If this stuff is really safe, they should set their sights higher than biofuels. Selling liquor from radioactive sugar beets to edgy consumers would really be the way to go. Put a big radioactivity symbol on the bottle, tell your story, and crazy dudes in their early 20s will drink it up and boast about it to their buddies. I was thinking at first that it'd have to be a kind of rum, since that's what sugar-derived liquors usually are, but apparently there are sugar beet vodkas out there, and vodka would definitely fit US consumers' expectations of the region.

Gates University

Kevin Carey has an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education encouraging Bill Gates to start his own university. I have perfectly good guild-interested reasons for supporting this venture -- while I'm quite happily employed at the moment, lots of my grad school buddies aren't, and more jobs would be quite welcome.

There are less corrupt reasons for liking the idea as well. A lot of Kevin's suggestions wouldn't be good ways to organize universities in general. But if we're talking about setting up just one unusual university, I'm much more sympathetic. This part, for example:
Nor would you sequester faculty members into departments organized around academic disciplines. The world can get by without one more English department or college of business. Gates's programs would cross traditional disciplines, organized around goals for what students need to learn. Faculty time, pay, and status would center on the primary teaching mission.
There's a good reason for having a bunch of departments organized around academic disciplines. If you're hiring a philosophy professor, you need a bunch of philosophy professors to look at the CVs and read the writing samples and do the job interviews and pick the top candidates. And if you're going to hand out degrees in biology, you need some biologists to design the requirements for getting a degree. There's enough work of this kind that clustering teams of specialists together and giving each cluster its own collection of secretaries starts to make sense. That's basically what a department is.

But maybe there's some other way to do these things. Maybe you go out to groups of people working in the various professions and have them design the curricula for a degree program in their thing. And maybe you hire by piggybacking off of the laborious work done by other hiring committees and buy a list of other good universities' second choices. There are a lot of changes I wouldn't want made at my university, but which would be a lot less disruptive if tried by a new place that was structured around them. Maybe some of them would work out really well.

In general, most universities have enough in common that I'm pretty sure we're missing some opportunities to do things in a different and useful way.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Interest Groups Don't Care For Centrists Who Vote For Cloture

There are two basic reasons why a Red State Democratic Senator might feel the need to maintain a moderate or conservative public profile (it's always possible that this sort of Senator often is less liberal, but lets at least assume they would like to be more liberal than they think they can get away with and still win reelection). The first is that such a Senator needs to win the votes of a more conservative electorate. The second is that such a senator has a much smaller in-state donor class of ideological liberals. To mitigate the first requires that you be a "different kind of Democrat"; pro-life, pro-gun, pro-military-industrial-complex, whatever. To mitigate the second, though, requires that you kowtow to whatever interest group is willing to fill your campaign coffers. And interest groups know what's up; they're not going to be fooled by a vote against final passage if it comes right after a vote for cloture.

When you see Ben Nelson or Evan Bayh or Mary Landrieu standing up for the poor, downtrodden, put-upon health insurance industry, and wonder why Harry Reid doesn't just tell them to vote for cloture but against passage to let them show off their "independence", ask yourself whether the Centrists are trying to appear Centrist in the eyes of their constituents or the eyes of their donors.

Public Health Announcement

If this piece from Matt Cooper is any indication, do yourself a favor and make sure not to watch cable news during next week's Sotomayor hearings. In fact, you might want to yank any mainstream news outlets out of your RSS reader for the next few days. I'm not necessarily able to articulate what the "proper" role of the press ought to be during nomination hearings, but I'm pretty sure breathless panting of "ZOMG Republicans to call appellant in reverse discrimination hearing! In a case where Sotomayor was WRONG[1]!" isn't it.

[1] Again, speaking very slowly, existing precedent made it pretty clear that Sotomayor ruled the way she should have, and it's hard to call a 5-4 decision fundamentally wrong in any real sense.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

SUPERSOLARPANEL

Coming soon to Cle Elum, Washington.

My impression is that Eastern Washington has large deposits of whatever natural resources are needed to make solar panels, and, of course, lots of sun (once you get past the Cascades, the climate of the rest of the state is much closer to that of Southern Idaho than Vancouver). Combined with the states very green-tinged political culture, you have lots of incentive to get this sort of project up and running.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Senator Fifty Versus Senator Sixty

It would seem that the 50th Democratic vote in the Senate -- and I don't know who exactly that is, probably some Southerner -- would have much to gain by the de-emphasis of the filibuster. If legislation needed only 50 votes to pass the Senate, people designing stimulus bills and health care plans and energy legislation would take that into account. They wouldn't have to sell their bill to Ben Nelson, and they'd write more ambitious things. Figuring out some way to tailor bills to Senator Fifty, or else buy Senator Fifty's vote with a variety of shiny trinkets, would be the goal. You can see how Senator Fifty might be quite pleased with this dynamic.

But I haven't seen any evidence that potential Senator Fifties are acting on these incentives. You don't see, say, Bob Casey or Mark Pryor or Mary Landrieu or Kay Hagan dissing on the filibuster and calling out Ben Nelson for obstructionism. And I don't really know why. Obviously, there are going to be a number of people jockeying to be Senator Fifty, but in a session where people are trying to move lots of historic legislation, the stock of rewards is probably large enough that everybody in the 45-55 range has a reasonable shot at some share of the goodies. So why is everybody letting Ben Nelson have all the fun?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Should I Give Henry Waxman Money?

With my much-loved Nancy Pelosi's Speakership secure, I don't care that much about converting another Republican seat into a Blue Dog seat. And while there are some vulnerable Democrats I'm interested in defending -- Tom Perriello's international human rights heroism makes me interested in helping him -- there really aren't many people on there who I see as having a big progressive impact.

So I'm starting to think that it might be time to throw some money at the awesomest legislator in the House, Henry Waxman, in hopes of giving him a big pile of cash that he can use for various wonderful Waxpurposes. Like: gaining influence for his Waxprojects by donating his stash to other Congresscritters. I've read so many awesome articles about Henry Waxman that I can't remember which one I heard this from, but apparently one of the secrets to his success was making contributions from his personal stash to other Congressional Democrats. This was effective in causing them to cast excellent Waxvotes.

If you're wondering why I'm being so Waxlaudatory here (I promise that's the last one), let these Henry Waxman Facts be your appetizer:

In the midst of the Reagan era's cutbacks, Waxman expanded the number of working poor eligible for Medicaid a stunning 24 times.

For virtually the entire 1980s, Waxman blocked Dingell and the Reagan administration from weakening auto emission standards. At one point, he blocked a key vote on a bill to debilitate the Clean Air Act by introducing 600 amendments, which he had wheeled into the room in shopping carts.

He publicized an obscure EPA report that established secondhand smoke as a carcinogen, uncovered the onetime Philip Morris lab director who had determined that nicotine was addictive, and publicly grilled tobacco company CEOs about their failure to share that fact with the public.

And then, for your main course, you can read Charlie Homans' piece in the Washington Monthly on how Waxman always wins. I guess I should keep our Klein/Yglesias streak unbroken by linking to today's Ezra Klein interview for dessert.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Thus Spoke Ezrathustra

Says the Ezra Klein of today:
we need to distinguish between different types of public plan. There's the public plan which is actually a version of Medicare-for-All. Everyone can buy in, the plan can partner with Medicare to become the largest bargainer in the system, and the expectation is that it will eventually take over the insurance market. I could understand making that the definition of health-care reform, as it is a fundamental transformation of the health-care system. But if you don't think we can pass Medicare-for-All, there's not much reason to think we can pass that.
Sure, I can see how the insurance interests will hate all over the robust public plan which we could call Medicare-for-everyone-who-wants, knowing that it's a one-way trip to Medicare-for-all. And that's going to be a big obstacle.

But if Ezra has taught me anything, it's that we don't want to change everybody's health care all at once through legislation. Here's what he wrote in January 2008, and I doubt I'm the only person who took it to heart:
The line the Clinton campaign did use, "health security that can never be taken away," foundered because, before the plan offered that security, the health security that Americans currently trusted would be taken away.

"They couldn't defend it in simple terms," says Hacker, "because it actually meant a complex set of changes for most Americans." There was no concrete reference point, because the legislation was building something that didn't yet exist. The administration's argument, in essence, was "trust us." But when it comes to health care, it's one thing to make the system better. It's a whole other to remake it entirely. You can ask Americans to walk forward, slowly, knowing they can scramble back to the ledge if need be. You cannot ask them to jump.

That's why all us lefty kids had been loving the John Edwards plan subsequently picked up by Hillary Clinton and Max Baucus. Even if the insurance companies fought us just as hard as they would if we were trying to replace all the private health care with the model of efficiency that is Medicare, we had a one-line knockdown answer to the baseless fears that national health care in America would look like some bureaucratic nightmare from Stalinist Canada: "If you like your current health insurance, you can keep it."

That was the plan -- offer Medicare-for-everyone-who-wants, watch everybody make the choice to switch on their own, and perhaps go the last mile to true Medicare-for-all once a supermajority of Americans had come under the program and you wouldn't be messing with so many people's stuff. It was a good plan, just because it's politically easier to pass a robust public option and use individual choices as the vehicle for change than to mess with everybody's insurance by running straight to Medicare-for-all.

Certainly, I appreciate Ezra's attempts to enlighten us about parts of health care reform that get less attention. And the things he talks about look really important! Maybe he's trying to lower the emphasis on the public plan relative to robust subsidies and Medicaid expansion and health insurance exchanges and other stuff. And that might be a good idea. But I find myself a lot more convinced by his positive arguments for the importance of other stuff than his newfound negative arguments against the importance of the public plan.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Sarah Palin Show

Posting has been slow lately, as I've been in a house party full of wonderful geeky friends with whom I've been playing Magic and participating in a live-action roleplaying game based on these books. But this blog owes its readers a Sarah Palin post! So post I will. First, Hilzoy:
I do not believe for a moment that this is about taking time off to prepare for 2012. Nothing I know about Sarah Palin leads me to believe that she would give up power voluntarily, let alone for something that is such a long shot, and in such a transparently self-destructive way.
Personally, I'm closer to the Jesse Taylor position, or lack of a position: "I really have no idea what she thought she was doing, or what she was saying."

There's a point at which somebody acts so weird that you lose the ability to make ordinary assumptions about what they think or want, and every remaining option seems to posit something implausible. Has Sarah Palin tired of politics? Does she think resigning will help her position herself for the presidency in 2012? Does she think resigning will help her promote conservatism from outside the system? Has she formed a desire to go mer-Galt? I really don't know what to say here.

Lots of people speculate that another scandal is in the works. And hey, it could be -- we had a new Palin scandal every other day in September, and I was left with the impression that her closet had more skeletons than the human population of Alaska. But it's rare that Governors face scandals so tremendous that they resign in advance. So I have no idea if it would be something huge, or something that she mistakenly thinks it's huge, or nothing at all.

Also, Emily Thorson's charts are really good. If you look at when the McCain-Palin ticket loses support in 2008, it's at the same time that Palin's approval ratings fall through the floor, even more so than when people get freaked out by the bad economy.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Reading Between The Lines

My read of Ezra's interview with a Wal-Mart spokesman (and I swear we read bloggers other than Ezra and Matt Yglesias) is that Wal-Mart signed on to an employer mandate hoping that by being on the inside of the tent pissing out, they can the level of coverage and/or at least force tighter cost controls onto the medical-industrial complex. I suspect that that's a deal I would be hunting for if I were Democrats; passage will require substantial business support, unless we adopt the Bernie Sanders method of returning to up-or-down votes for most legislation. Much better to get Wal-Mart to sign on to 85% of what we're looking for, then convince them to go lobby a few Republicans, than to strike a deal with Joe Lieberman's gang of wankers that gives us only 60% of what we're looking for.

Can We Eliminate The Agricultural Committees Without Assuming A Can Opener?

I'm getting more and more convinced by the Ezra Klein view that it would be good to eliminate the agricultural committees, which have become dens of regulatory capture for the subsidy-hungry forces of Big Corn.

But I'm wondering how one would go about doing this. For one thing, I don't know much about the procedural mechanics of eliminating a committee or demoting it to subcommittee status. But whatever those mechanics are, won't the Senators on those committees fight like crazy to protect their power? I'd imagine that they and agricultural interests would be fighting with all their might and main to prevent this from happening, while the rest of Congress would feel blase enough about Agricultural Committee elimination to be bought off. That's how regulatory capture works.

Of course, I'd like to believe otherwise. So how do we do this?

[Those who haven't heard the can opener joke should click here. I'm wondering which of the academic jokes I know are in-jokes and which are widely known.]

The Oil Ran On Time For Mooseolini

Todd Purdum's Vanity Fair article on Sarah Palin should've been edited down to a lower words-to-new-info ratio. There's not a whole lot that's new there if you've been following this stuff. As you might expect, McCain people are dissing on her off the record but unwilling to say anything publicly, for fear of being attacked by the pro-Palin echo chamber that they and their right-wing media allies created.

Palin has provided plenty of fodder for cultural and political analysis, but the strictly economic reason why someone like her could somehow get picked as VP in summer 2008 is captured by this line:
Rising oil prices provided an added lift. Palin was able to increase the annual distribution from the state’s Permanent Fund to about $3,000 per resident, almost double the amount received the previous year. She could be a fiscal conservative and a big spender all at the same time.
It's not hard to maintain high approval ratings in your state and generally be regarded as successful when the earth and the global economy are combining to pour forth vast rivers of money. Especially when the circumstances that make you look so good -- $100/barrel oil -- are dragging down all of your competition.