Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Weird Place We're In

Jon Cohn is optimistic about health care reform. Kevin Drum is pessimistic. But they don't seem to disagree on the nature of the situation very much. And I understand -- it's hard to figure out what's going on here.

It's really weird. We're on the two-yard-line, as Cohn says. (Robert Gibbs says it's the five-yard-line.) The procedural obstacles ahead of us are small compared to what we've surmounted so far. But our people in the House, Senate, and White House are some mix of demoralized and disorganized. So things could just sit here and die, even after all the actors have put forward a huge effort and paid massive costs. I really don't know if there's any parallel to our situation in the history of legislation.

I'm really not sure what's going on here, but I'm enough of a believer in human non-insanity to think that we're going to get a bill. I don't know how it happens. I wish House Democrats would realize, as Jonathan Bernstein has been saying, that they're in position to get popular support for a reconciliation bill that eliminates the Cornhusker Kickback and whatever else, and cram it down the Senate's throat. (This could be awesome -- if your reconciliation bill eliminates the Cornhusker Kickback and the Republicans filibuster with Ben Nelson on their side, they look positively terrible.) I wish progressive Senators would help them work out a package that stood a good shot of getting through the Senate -- it would make it much easier for the House to get its head together. And above all, I wish Obama would show up and exercise some leadership here. At this point, if the health care bill fails, it's on him as much as anybody else.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


Ezra is nervous with Rahm Emanuel slowing down health care reform, and I am too. The fact that our ability to use reconciliation expires relatively soon, with the passage of the next budget, is something I wasn't aware of before. Also the issue about how key personnel will be out campaigning later in the year. (On the upside, I'm somewhat encouraged by the fact that Obama spent a fair bit of time talking health care with GOP congressmen. Not because it'll win them over or anything, but because it suggests that he's not running away from it.)

I'm quite attracted to Jonathan Bernstein's view of the whole situation: the House should just step up and pass the Senate bill as well as a reconciliation vehicle, before the Senate acts or gives them any guarantees. Since the reconciliation vehicle is full of goodies, there will be considerable appeal to getting it through the Senate as well. Bernstein argues convincingly that the situation with respect to the reconciliation bill is quite different from climate change legislation and a bunch of other tough votes Democrats have had to make, as the reconciliation vehicle will be sweet rather than bitter. I really hope they can work out their Senate abuse trauma issues in time to see reason and do this, though, and I can't be very optimistic on that front.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Shorter Obama @ House GOP Conference

Bobblespeak could have a field day with this stuff, but pretty much every question followed the same form. So as I did with House, M.D., let me try and reproduce the archetypal exchange between Barack Obama and House Republicans.

GOP Representative #1: We have ideas such as X, Y, and Z on issue 1. They will work! But it doesn't look like you've them, maybe it because Nancy Pelosi is a meanie and doesn't show them to you.

Obama: Well, I've seen them, and we incorporated X into bills we passed. But you still voted against those bills.

GOP Representative #2: With respect to issue #1, what about Y, Z, and W? They will work!

Obama: We looked at Y and Z, but you can't just say they'll work. I have to be able to go to outside to an independent expert who can tell me that they'll work. The debate has to be grounded in reality at some level. As for W, we just have a fundamental disagreement, and so far a bill that's not 100% of what the House GOP wants seems to be getting all no votes.

GOP Representative #3: What about Y and Z? They will work!

Obama: ...

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Drum FC

Original Caption: "President Barack Obama shakes hands with Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at the conclusion of his State of the Union address, Jan. 27, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)"
In honor of the President's admonition to House & Senate Democrats not to run for the hills, here's blindz0r with an FC of the Iron Maiden's "Run To The Hills"—the cover version from the original Rock Band. Apologies for the Cookie Monster metal at the beginning.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Era of Bipartisan PAYGO Is Over

The Senate amendment to enact statutory pay-as-you-go passed 60-40. By agreement among members of the World's Laziest Deliberative Body, this amendment required 60 votes to pass. Zero Republicans voted for it. This meas deficit peacocks like Judd Gregg, John McCain, George Voinovich, and moderates such as Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe couldn't bring themselves to support it. Had Scott Brown been sworn in, unless he had a sudden bout of conscience, the amendment would not have passed.

The commitment to PAYGO was probably the singular most important instrument in driving down the deficit during the 1990s. It forces Congress to make actual decisions about budgeting, not fantasy Republican decisions as we saw during the Bush years. But since it might be a back-door way of making it slightly more likely that taxes might be increased a smidge, or since it might be some sort of legislative victory for Democrats, every single Republican remained opposed to it.

I hope that the Peterson Foundation and other balanced-budget types keep this in mind the next time they think there's a bipartisan commitment to get the deficit under control.

I Just Remembered Ta-Nehisi Coates Is Awesome

There's a lot of good stuff here. This is the end:
Chris Matthews didn't forget Barack Obama was black. Chris Matthews forgot that Chris Matthews was white.

I'm put back in the mind of the The Wire, when Slim Charles tells Avon that it really doesn't matter that our wars are based on a lie. Once we're fighting, we fight on that lie until the end. I would submit that a significant number of white people in this country, can not stop fighting on the lie. They can't cop to the fact that they really have no standing to speak on Obama's relationship to blackness, because they know so little about black people. It's always hard to say, "I don't know." But no one else can say it for you.

This is why Obama will never be postracial--he can't make white people face the lie of their ignorance, anymore than Jimmy Baldwin could make black people face the lie of our homophobia. It's white people's responsibility to make themselves postracial, not the president's. Whatever my disagreements with him, the fact is that he is brilliant. That he is black and brilliant is pleasant but unsurprising to me. I've known very brilliant, very black people all my life. At some point that number of white people who still can't get their heads around our humanity will have to accept the truth: the president is black, even if you don't quite know what that means.

My One-Sentence View Of SOTU

It was a nice speech, but what's he going to do about it?


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Raising Political Capital

Instant polling after the State of the Union address looks good. And I guess that's the real point of the whole thing. Raise political capital, then go out and spend it. I don't know of any issue that has ever looked as promising from a return-on-political-equity standpoint as health care reform does now -- with major obstacles surmounted but people confused, a little bit of confident pushing could go a long way. Hopefully tonight's events will lead to Senate Democrats being more confident on the issue as well.

Fed Chair Held For Ransom

I'm wondering what happens if Ben Bernanke's confirmation gets held up for a long time. Is this going to affect the way he goes about setting interest rates?

"Republicans aren't the Enemy. They're the Opposition. The Senate's The Enemy"

Call or fax these assclowns tell them to get off their duff. They work for you, after all.

You Have The Power -- Senate Remix

Time to do this again.

The House claims they would be willing to pass the Senate bill if the Senate agrees to make some fixes via reconciliation. So, once again, it's up to the World's Laziest Deliberative Body, where a single Senator can announce his objections to a nomination based on ancillary policy issues, and everyone just sort of lets it happen. The Internet has a list of Senate phone numbers, and for a little jujitsu, Conservative USA has a list of fax numbers. Be polite, incorporate any way in which HCR would affect you or your family directly, but don't be afraid to say that this is important to you. And there's no organized effort here ... we're all just concerned citizens who have been reading about the health care bill in the news and on blogs and such.

These people aren't going to do anything unless we make them do it. Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Small Boring Freeze

I'm inclined to agree with Jonathan Bernstein's view on the spending freeze: "small-bore gimmick that's unlikely to make much of a difference either way." And so you won't catch me thinking too much about it. Though I wish Obama had included the defense stuff within the scope of the freeze, so we'd have an excuse for pointing out how wasteful that spending can be, and building defense pork awareness. Oh well.

I agree with his larger point about how you can't expect presidents to convince people by winning arguments. For the most part, mainstream American political culture isn't a place where presidents make rational arguments and they convince people. (One can do that within smaller communities of like-minded interested people, like we do on this blog, but not much more is possible.) Really the way you convince Americans that something is good is by doing it and having them become comfortable with it.

Dean Pees From New England To Baltimore

Longtime readers may be aware that I'm a big fan of name fusion as a solution for naming children of enlightened couples. I was thinking of this as I read the news that Dean Pees has been named linebacker coach of the Baltimore Ravens. How can you let your daughter go around being named "Laura Pees"?

Hyphenation doesn't help that much here, though a name like Pees-Smith or whatever is a little better than Smith-Pees. Name fusion makes available even better options like Peeth. Though really, just giving your kids the wife's name would be a good thing to do if you're not feeling very creative.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Sidecar Is Delicious

I haven't actually had one, though I know it's made from cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice, which sounds good, and Matt Yglesias enjoyed them in his youth. And of course the metaphor is supposed to be for an actual vehicle that one rides beside a motorcycle, and not for a drink. But the cocktail is actually a pretty good metaphor for the thing the House wants the Senate to pass. Because it's tasty!

Possible sidecar ingredients include (1) eliminating Ben Nelson's hated Cornhusker Kickback or, better, giving it to everybody, (2) passing a very popular millionaire's tax to fund stuff, (3) eliminating the donut hole in prescription drug coverage, (4) a national exchange, and maybe even (5) the public option, which will do a lot to make the progressive base turn out for you while not making any voters especially unhappy.

Good on House Democrats, including Anthony Weiner, for moving towards getting on board with this strategy. The Senate is the side that really needs to step up now. We don't need Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, or Blanche Lincoln for this 50-vote strategy, so their grumbling is no problem. But assuming that the Senate can get over its post-Scott Brown hangover, anybody else ought to find this quite appealing. As always, anybody with a Democratic Senator can help! Your Senator's phone number is here.

Update: I agree that reconciling it in sometime in the future is more likely, but good on Pingree and Polis for their publicoptioneering.

Winning At Calvinball

So,  we're all ready to confirm Dawn Johnsen, right?

"We Cowered In The Corner, and Said 'Please. Don't. Hurt. Me.'"

Wisdom from the late Ron Silver, or at least a character he played:

The Normalization of the Sixty-Vote Senate

WSJ: "Senate Vote on Debt Commission Is Likely to Come Up Short". In which the author notes: "But Gregg suggested the outcome could come up short of the 60 votes needed to pass." [emphasis mine]

The fact that DC reporters have internalized the sixty-vote Senate is a sign that things have gotten truly bad. The Debt Commission is a bad idea, but it's not a terribly controversial idea, since the odds are it will be completely ineffective. As has been noted, the structure of the debt commission makes it extremely unlikely that it will come up with a set of recommendations that both (a) actually do anything about the fiscal situation, and (b) stand any chance of passing. Despite this, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is opposed to the commission, on the grounds that it has a teensy tiny chance to raise taxes. But there's no indication from Politico that McConnell's going to join with a collection of liberal Democrats to filibuster the rather pointless commission. They could simply let it through with the knowledge that it's highly unlikely to do anything.

At the very least, when reporters say that a bill needs 60 votes to pass the Senate, they ought to say who it is who is threatening to mount filibuster. And then they ought to note that the U.S. Senate is the only legislative body in the industrialized world where routine legislation is subject to a supermajority requirement. But while treaties need 67 votes to pass, nothing needs 60 votes to pass; that requirement is a choice made by current members of the Senate.

Monday, January 25, 2010

So Much For Project Grown-up

One of the things I admired about the Obama campaign was that it held out the promise that Americans were capable of having adult conversations about what our government does, and about how our political culture ought to behave. In essence, Obama offered voters a chance to "hate the game" of Washington politics and promised to change the game to something more ... pleasant. But the more I think about this spending freeze proposal, especially in the context of Obama's responses during the Presidential debates, it seems to be that Team Obama has given up on that project. It's hard to see how we do a lot of weatherization or modernizing our electrical grid without plussing up government spending. So the health care bill, if it passes, will be the first and last major expansion of progressive policy, unless some sort of "cap-and-dividend" approach is taken on climate change.

Now, maybe I'm wrong about this, or maybe this is all kabuki and Obama doesn't expect Congress to abide by the spending freeze, or maybe this will occupy all of 30 seconds of SOTU while he spends ten minutes on weatherization. But at the moment Obama seems to have decided to cede the ideological ground gained during the late Bush years back to conservatives even if conservative governance has been discredited as an ideology that sounds good on paper but which runs square into reality in practice.

Polling Literalism 101

The right way to interpret a poll showing 74% of the public thinks the stimulus money has been wasted is pretty obvious: 74% of the public is disappointed that unemployment is at a higher level than it was when Obama took office. Obama was enacted in the middle of an economic collapse. He promised to enact certain policies. He enacted some of those policies. Everyone seemed to think that those policies would help us get us out of the collapse. But things are worse now than when he started. Therefore, it's hard to see that the policies worked. If unemployment were 6.5% today I doubt does anyone think polls would show that Tom Coburn is a genius for exposing stimulus waste?

Negotiating With a Fence Post

Whenever I hear Republican pols or Village commentators suggesting that Democrats ought to "start over from scratch" on Health Care, my immediate reaction is "with what?" Yesterday, defeated Republican Presidential candidate John McCain gave us an answer:

Mr. McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said on the CBS news program "Face the Nation" that President Obama should sit down with Republican leaders and begin adopting some of their ideas for improving the nation's health care system such as overhauling medical malpractice lawsuits, allowing residents of one state to buy health insurance from a company in another state, and granting tax credits for people who purchase health insurance on their own.

In essence, McCain is proposing that we solve the health care problem using boilerplate Republican non-solutions. As Neil pointed out, the CBO estimated that the House Republican "plan" would result in no reduction in the percentage of Americans with health insurance. Now, if McCain is prepared to vote for a health care bill that consists of the current Senate bill plus some sort of tort reform, that would be something at least worth thinking about. But I don't think that's what he's saying; after all, when Obama asked House Republicans how many of them would be willing to vote for an otherwise left-leaning HCR bill that tacked on aggressive tort reform, he was met with bone-chilling silence.

The sad thing is that it doesn't have to be this way. There are serious right-leaning attempts to grapple with America's health care problem. Back in May of last year, Ezra Klein sketched out the Coburn-Ryan-Nunes plan, which is what a real Republican health care bill might look like. It's wouldn't be my first choice, and I don't think I'd vote for it as written, but it's a reasonable starting point for negotiations. But it went exactly no where. As an institution, the Republican party is showing zero interest in actually solving the problem or negotiating modest concessions to a majority-written bill. And that's the root cause of the lack of bipartisanship. Perhaps you could blame Obama for not doing more to integrate Coburn-Ryan-Nunes into the discussion. But GOP leadership deserves at least an equal share of that blame.

Dear Yvette Clark And Anthony Weiner: Pass A Bill Or We All Go To Hell Together

I'm inclined to interpret political actors' motivations in such a way that they aren't going to throw away something good they've been working on for years in a fit of anger at other people. But it could happen, and we have to worry about that possibility. To wit: commenter ikl's firsthand account of Anthony Weiner and Yvette Clarke's town hall meeting.
I went to a town hall today and I have to say that I am not optimistic. It mostly confirmed my worst fears about the House Democrats.

Setting: Upscale neighborhood in Brooklyn. About 150 people attended.

Who: Congresswoman Clarke and Congressman Weiner

What happened: Weiner gave a brief presentation about the virtues of single payer, the evils of the Senate bill, the disfunctionality of the Senate and how Obama messed up by not taking the this to the people. Then Clarke spoke. She said that she agreed with everything that Weiner said and then told people that they needed to be more active to compete with the tea party crowd. Both of them indicate that they would vote against the Senate bill as is because "it is bad for New York". The main problem mentioned was that the bill would allegedly stick New York state with huge liability for new Medicaid costs.

Weiner talked eloquently about single payer, Medicare buy-in and the evils of the insurance companies. He has no plan to get any of this passed the Senate. He also reinforced lots of Republican talking points about the Senate bill. He seems to be operating under the belief that somehow if the Senate bill is not enacted, we will get a do over on health care.

Clarke spent most of their time passing blaming almost anyone else she could think of for the current mess (the Senate for passing a bad bill, the base for not showing up and letting the tea party crowd steal the show, the media for not reporting well, the Republicans for being mean, etc. etc.) Clarke and Weiner betrayed no sense whatsoever that they are now responsible if health care reform dies. Almost every word was about how other people have messed things up.

When the moderator (a local assemblyman, I think) asked for a show of hands, a slight majority was against passing the Senate bill as is. However, in the question period, the pro-Senate bill people were much more vocal. At least four people asked the Representatives to pass the Senate bill with increasing levels of urgency and anger "President Obama could have a bill on his desk on Wednesday morning". The pro-Senate bill group also cheered much more loudly.

Here were my main takeways:
1. House Dems (or at least Clarke and Weiner) don't seem to understand that not doing anything is not an option. Neither of them said anything remotely close to "we will pass health care reform this year".

2. Weiner and Clarke were both really upset that the Medicaid provisions would supposedly destroy the New York state budget. Although Weiner ranted about how the Senate bill was a give away to insurance companies, the Medicaid issues seems like it might be the only one that isn't negotiable.

3. On the other hand, nobody said anything about the excise tax as far as I can remember.

4. These people (perhaps because they are from safe districts) seem have no idea what an electoral disaster it will be if the Dems don't pass any serious health care reform.

5. House Dems are so mad at the Senate that it is clouding their political judgment.

6. Weiner was surprised that someone mentioned budget reconciliation. He suggested that he might be OK with this but sounded a bit skeptical because (a) he thought that some Democratic Senators wouldn't go for it and (b) House centrists don't want to take another politically costly vote on a reconciliation bill that might or might not survive the Senate.

7. Neither Clarke nor Weiner in the course of more than an hour suggested a single realistic plan for health care reform. Any practical ideas ("just pass the Senate bill" or "use budget reconciliation to fix the Senate bill" came from the audience). There is no plan as far as I can tell. Frankly, it didn't even sound like Weiner or Clarke are even trying.

8. It is really, really important that all of the Democrats in the House hear from their constituents that they are to blame if nothing happens. Because right now, I don't think that these people get it. If you want comprehensive health care reform, call your Rep now!
6 is the most hopeful thing here, as it suggests that Weiner isn't opposed to walking the path of reason and accepting Senate Bill + reconciliation vehicle, if led to it by the House leadership. But all in all, this is pretty dismal.

Here it's important to keep in mind the most important reason why we need to pass some comprehensive bill or other. Trying to pass comprehensive health care legislation and failing results in your party being too terrified to approach the issue again for 15 years, and then crawling back with a proposal half as strong as what they had the last time. That's where we are now, relative to 1994. If you pass a flawed proposal, by contrast, you can spend the next couple decades slowly improving it until it's awesome. Social Security, as originally passed, was deeply unfair to women and blacks. But we fixed those problems, and now we have a program that benefits them tremendously.

It's horrible foolishness to think that we'll get a better bill sometime soon if we lose this one. In a spin war over why the bill died, the progressive message "It was too conservative" just isn't going to beat the combined centrist and conservative message "It was too liberal", because centrists and conservatives together have way more media resources than progressives. Most people (including Democratic moderates whose votes you need) are going to think the bill failed because it was too liberal, and reject ambitious progressive proposals on health care and possibly other issues. And then you wait at least a decade for Democrats to work up the courage to try again.

So the thing you have to do is pass the bill. Mainstream conservatives have to be really careful about attacking existent universal social programs (Republicans can't explicitly hate on Social Security and Medicare -- they have to be sneaky and pretend they're saving the programs) and centrists worship things that are victorious. This moves the landscape of public debate left, and enables you to pass further good stuff in the future. If you don't like the bill that much at present, think about the good stuff you can do with these spoils of victory.

It's that, or crawling around for 15 years with nothing while pundits laugh and Republicans laugh hardest about the stupidity of being an ambitious progressive health reformer. I think Grijalva and Weiner will eventually get on board with the Senate bill plus a reconciliation vehicle and save us from that circle of hell. But if they don't, they deserve to be in the one below it, where they and Ralph Nader are chewed for eternity for bringing horrible disaster on all of us in a fit of shortsighted anger.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sane Gatekeepers, Probably Sane Progressives, And People I Don't Get

If there's one way in which the prognosis for health care reform has improved since Scott Brown's victory, it's the fact Kent Conrad immediately accepted the possibility of using budget reconciliation to get changes through the Senate. Max Baucus is also expressing a firm commitment to passing the bill, and since he's the other Senate reconciliation gatekeeper, that gate is open. So before I move on: Thanks, guys. The rest of this post will be an attempt to figure out what the heck everybody else is doing.

Seen in light of what Conrad and Baucus are up to, House progressives' refusal to just pass the Senate bill without changes makes more sense. The path to getting more of what they want just opened up, and they're not going to be pushed into a suboptimal option when a better one is available. Best of all, it's a path that requires only 50 votes, so a lot more conceivably could be achieved there than could previously have been done through conference committee or ping-pong. This all depends on getting 50 Senators together, but given that we actually managed to get 60 to do something at one point, even Scott Brown shouldn't make it non-doable. And anyway I think we would've had to get 60 to pass a conference report or ping some pong. I don't know if they have to play up the crazy behavior quite so much -- Grijalva's process suggestions have been bizarre, and I don't know how to estimate the probability that they'll do things that result in doom. But reflecting on the reconciliation situation convinces me that they haven't totally lost their minds, and may in fact be doing the right thing.

I'm starting to think that a lot of the chaos we've seen out of the Senate is basically the opposite move. They've passed a bill that they're happy with, and they want the House to just pass it and move on without any reconciliation business. So they're being all, "Oh healthfreakout! We have to do jobs kthxbai" when really they could focus on health care just fine if they had to. I've talked about calling your Congressman before, but maybe I should've been telling you to contact your Senator, since they're more likely to be blocking the path to more progressive legislation here. So! Contact info is here on the top right part of the page. You could tell them to finish the job on health care, and maybe about how you'd love them to move towards your favorite thing -- public option? bigger subsidies? going national with Nelson's Nebraska Special? -- in budget reconciliation. You're a smart reader of this blog, so you can probably think of stuff you want to say.

There's some players I still can't understand. Having Chris Dodd say that we should just take a month off didn't help. I mean, I think you might actually be able to do that, but only with a stable framework for how to do it when you get back. Then it's just like a recess, and we've had those. But Dodd's plan-free suggestion, coming from an ostensibly liberal chair of one of the key health care committees, was really odd. Dude, you're not even running for re-election! What are you freaking out about? And then there's Barney Frank, but at least he walked his crazy comments back and is now on the side of reason. I guess I can understand what people like Evan Bayh are doing, at least in the sense that it's consistent with their usual garbage. Anyway.

But the player who really baffles me is Barack Obama. I understand that he's been letting Congress take the lead, and that usually makes sense. When Congress has a process for moving forward and things are basically in order, you should let them drive. But that's not the current situation! Congress is in chaos and there's a risk that competing factions will ultimatum themselves into an impasse and/or self-fulfilling obituaries will start being written. This is when the leader of the free world has to do some leading. He doesn't even have to do anything that would count as "focusing on health care reform" here, like talking about it a lot in the State of the Union. Just having him clearly ratify some process for getting a bill through and not make gruesome buzzsaw metaphors would sort out the confusion.

One last thing: a lot of this has focused on taking people who look like they've lost their minds and making them out to be just using hardball public negotiating tactics. I think this is the right way to understand them, because I think hardball public negotiation is much more common among professional politicians than the sheer level of insanity they've been fronting. So how should we feel about this? Well, we don't have to like them any better for it. But I think it's a better state of affairs, just because it's less likely to mean that health care reform is dead. Still, this really needs to end soon and we need to converge on the Senate Bill + reconciliation vehicle plan. And that's where we need the one really powerful Democrat who isn't in the House or the Senate to step up and tell us how it's going to be. Barack Obama, where the hell are you?

Update: Pelosi and Reid are, of course, charter members of Team Sane.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Way Forward

It is clear to all what has to be done. Paul Krugman. Andy Stern. John Dingell. 47 health policy experts. Even FireDogLake, though they say it backwards, in the tongue of madness.

First, House and Senate negotiators have to agree on a package of changes to the original bill, to be passed with 50 votes through budget reconciliation. Then in some order, the Senate will pass the reconciliation vehicle and the House will pass both bills. Finally, there is a happy signing ceremony in the Rose Garden.

The agreements here don't have to be hammered out instantly. Even before Paul Brown won his Senate race, it was going to be a while before negotiators finished their work. What needs to happen really soon, especially in the wake of the utter insanity of this week, is that people need to stand up and announce that this will be the framework. This will take a little bit of leadership from people other than Nancy Pelosi, who is doing the right things. Not necessarily some kind of home run speech by Obama on Tuesday, but an agreement from White House and Senate actors that this is to be the process going forward. If that happens, we're basically back to where we were before Massachusetts, with the extra problem of people being more freaked out and the added benefit of only needing 50 votes in the Senate for our last run through that chamber.

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original caption:

Feb. 1, 2009
“During a Super Bowl watching party in the White House theatre, the President and First Lady join their guests in watching one of the TV commercials in 3D.”

Here's "Neil Young" covering some American Idol contestant's hit "Pants on the Ground":

Something is Better Than Nothing, but Not Much Better

As the public option was deteriorating, lefties like Tom Harkin and Sherrod Brown would point to "guaranteed issue"—a ban on the practice of denying insurance based on pre-existing conditions—as a major accomplishment that would provide real help to real people. But this compromise floated in the NYT doesn't do any of that. Guaranteed issues, some form of individual mandate, and the subsidies all hang together. You've got to bite the bullet and do it all at once.

Besides, does anyone think that Republicans will even vote for the compromise bill? Anyone? Bueller?

You Have The Power

This guy had the right idea:

Making Democracy work involves ... hard work, not just from its legislators, but from its citizens. But at the moment, every elected official in DC—The White House, the House, the Senate—is sitting around wondering what to do next, concocting fantasy plans that will do less, or perhaps hoping that they will "get away" with not doing anything at all. We'd like to think that after electing these assclowns, they'd all know what the right thing to do is, and just do it. But it doesn't seem to be that way. Sometimes you have to tell them, and tell them again.

I've actually never called or faxed my Congressman, since Jim McDermott's about as far to the left as you can get (too far for my tastes once in a while) so there's no much point. But today, I faxed him and both my Senators, telling them that I've got family members that this would directly impact, and that things are too close to the end now to give up and "move on" to jobs or what have you. Tim F. at Balloon Juice is running a sort of online whip operation; go join it.

This Whole Situation Is Making My Head Spin

But the one thing I do know is: Krugman is right. Well said, Mr. Nobel Prize winner.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Calming Thought About Time

Ezra Klein and Josh Marshall have been expressing my feelings of horror for quite a few days now. But let me look at things from the other side.

The original plan was to pass health care reform in conference committee. Then people downgraded it to the ping-pong thing where the House and Senate meet in the middle, or somewhat on the Senate side of the middle. In any event, this would've taken some time. Maybe another month or so. But then an unexpected event in MA dashed those plans and people were left very confused about what to do next.

Yes, there's a pretty serious failure of leadership here in the lack of a contingency plan. But that's not the point. The point is that hashing this stuff out would've taken maybe another month, under ordinary conditions. And things aren't going to go faster than that now in the wake of a big shock. Coalitions need to reorient themselves and new compromises need to be made. Nobody's sure how to do that, but the underlying problem is thoroughly solvable, and it's generally in the players' interests to solve it. Really, things only have to assemble themselves in 'solution' form for a brief moment over the next couple months for Obama to have a bill on his desk.

Now if things never assemble themselves in that form, it's a disaster. And the current responses we've heard from people in the House and Senate aren't encouraging. But now, after the disruption of the original plan, is really not the moment in which you'd expect everything to come together. It would've been plenty of time before a bill hit Obama's desk, and we still have plenty of time for it to do so.

[Update]: ikl's comments got me thinking a bit more, and one of the big problems with not having any sort of plan in the immediate present is that you end up with 'Health Care Reform Is Dead' prophecies and explanations which could be self-fulfilling. Of course, 'Health care reform is in trouble' isn't a problem -- we've had that a thousand times over the past year, and we always came back. So it's important to have some semblance of a plan at every moment just so things stay at the level of grim prognoses, but not obituaries.

Really I don't think we need much at this moment. "Let's introduce banking reform right now, and then we'll get back to it in mid-February" is an acceptable answer. But there needs to be some skeleton of a plan, so that it can't be written off as dead.

Where Do We Go Now, Sweet Child O' Mine?

Continuing with the thought process that people like Ezra Klein and Ned Resnikoff are going through, if we end up at the midterms with no progress on health care (and I'll even give partial credit for Medicare & Medicaid expansion, the prospects of which strike me as very dubious), at that point it's abundantly clear that it's impossible to govern the United States at the federal level. All that can happen is some tax cuts and various regulatory rule changes, most of which will be co-opted by interest groups.

The most depressing thing about the current moment is that no one seems to care. The Senate isn't trying to buck up the House. The White House seems okay with doing nothing and instead moving on to financial reform. Meanwhile, as long as health care isn't "done" after all of this effort, Villagers will write godawful process stories. The amazing thing is that I think enough Members have internalized 1994 to mean that failure is the worst option, and yet they seem physically incapable of bringing themselves to do anything about it. The odds that there will be a Senate majority like this one in the next twenty years are staggeringly low, and the opportunities about to disappear without anyone taking advantage of the situation. If that happens, it's hard to see how the current cultural climate will lead to any progress on the country's major problems.

Still, there are other ways to push the culture in the right direction, so that one day the people running the federal government can feel confident in their ability to push a progressive agenda. We could just focus our attention at the state level, getting more states and more voters comfortable with the idea of truly universal health care, or that the government has to play a role in pushing clean energy. We could ally with the populist right to push a collection of procedural reforms: more accountability for the Fed, more Congressional leverage against warmaking policy, less of the Senate generally. We could become Republicans and attempt to intervene in GOP primaries so that there is more bipartisan consensus. But at present, if, as Resnikoff says, neither major political party in the United States is semi-functional at the national level, then federal legislative action isn't something we can look for.

I don't think it's over yet ... I have a post on this tomorrow ... but it doesn't look good.

Free Speech For Corporations?

Look, I'm a philosopher, not a lawyer. But as a philosopher, I don't understand how corporations are supposed to have free speech rights. Rights like that are for things with minds, like individual humans. Maybe space aliens, if they exist, or dolphins if they're smart enough. But not golf balls or buildings or corporations. Corporations don't really have minds like humans do, and when you talk about them having desires or opinions you're just employing a useful metaphor. Real free speech rights are for things with real opinions.

The whole thing about corporations being persons is just a legal fiction invented for our convenience, and we can stop taking it seriously when it stops being convenient. I mean, you don't give 18-year-old corporations a right to vote, do you? Uh, I hope I'm not giving John Roberts ideas...

What House Progressives Are Doing

My hypothesis: Progressives in the House know that they finally have serious leverage over whether health care reform succeeds or fails, since the vulnerable centrists recognize that they need a passed bill to not get devastated at the polls in November. And they're working their leverage for all it's worth -- refusing to pass the Senate bill, though of course they can get on board and let it through whenever they're offered back enough of the goodies (bigger subsidies? public option? please let it not be killing the excise tax!) that centrists have been taking away from them for the past several months. That's why things are stalled right now, just one step away from victory. Centrists have been playing this game for months, and now it's progressives' turn. Give them what they want, and they'll let it through and we can all celebrate.

Health Care: We Are Going To Win

Maybe it's the result of a happy early childhood, lucky brain chemistry, or seeing Nancy Pelosi win every consequential fight she's picked since late 2004, but I'm always one to tell people that things are a lot less dire than they look. So: things are a lot less dire than they look.

Currently, House progressives are saying no to passing the Senate bill. But how many thousand times in the past year have we seen some group of Democrats announce implacable opposition, and eventually be bought off by concessions from the leadership? Usually these concessions involve a pound of flesh being cut out of House progressives, to the point that repeated compromises have left them with no internal organs. Now they're in position to make demands, and I don't blame them for confidently playing the ultimatum game to get back what they lost. Promise to give their liver and spleen back in budget reconciliation, or maybe both kidneys, and they'll announce support for the legislation. We've already got Barney Frank walking back freakout comments and Kent Conrad saying that budget reconciliation is available to make compromises work out. This can happen, and is moving towards happening.

People sign on, and then you've got momentum. News at 8: Health care reform back from the dead as Congresscritters declare support! All we need is for things to look happy enough for 218 votes to align in the House for one instant, and in that instant Pelosi is going to pound the bill through. Michael Jordan dunks on people, Cookie Monster eats cookies, and Nancy Pelosi makes stuff pass the House. That's what they do.

Things that the victorious endgame does not involve: (1) Compromise agreements from a Republican Party that has never shown an inclination to compromise and is emboldened in its obstructionism by Scott Brown's victory. (2) Brand-new legislative strategies that require lots of heavy lifting from disorganized panicked Democrats in an election year. (3) Breaking a GOP filibuster. (4) The bill dying and progressives defeating the combined centrist and conservative media in the spin war over why it died, leading to Medicare for All Humans and Ponies.

Really, this is all a lot simpler than it looks. You can help it happen by calling your Congresscritter and making sure (s)he's on board. Zip+4 in the top left gets you the digits. Go make history.

Update: So, this is not good. I really can't believe I'm reading this. [But now it's late in Singapore and I'm drunk, so I should get to bed if I can. Hoping this is all choreographed somehow, or I'm just misreading it. Back in Singamorning.]

Update2: Okay, maybe this is the right way to read what Pelosi is saying. If so, great! Now I need to eat something filling and go to bed. Utterly befuddled self-foolmaking drunkblogging will resume sometime, but not now.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Line I Wish I Had Thought Up

No one has any use for politicians that drop their shipments at the first sign of a Republican victory.

Pivot To Jobs? Sack Bernanke!

So the Senate apparently wants to 'pivot to jobs' in the wake of the debacle in MA. If they actually want to do something that'll work, there's an available solution: deny Ben Bernanke confirmation, and replace him with somebody who'll implement the Gagnon plan of massive quantitative easing. Maybe Joe Gagnon. Financial markets might freak out, but what matters isn't the S&P this week. It's all about unemployment numbers in late October.

Brown For President?

I wouldn't be surprised to see Scott Brown run for President in 2012. He's going to have plenty of instant celebrity within a GOP that doesn't have many good candidates, Obama's quick path will make it look plausible to people, and most of all, he'd have serious trouble holding onto a Massachusetts Senate seat in an ordinary general election.

The Parable Of The Sausage

People don't like to watch sausage being made. It's really gross and messy. But when you're done with it, there's lots of delicious sausage! And people like eating sausage.

The worst part of the sausage-making process has to be the part when you're almost done. You're all messy, people are hungry, and they're annoyed because you aren't making their favorite kind. It's annoying when people negatively evaluate your sausage at this point and try to take ingredients away from you.

But at this point, there are two ways to go. You can finish the sausage. Then some people will like it and some people won't, but even the people in the middle will give you credit for having made sausage. Or you can get disheartened and stop, with everything a bloody mess and no sausage to eat, and throw everything away. If you do this, nobody will ever let you make sausage again.

Swallow It, or, How Mike Gravel Saved HCR

A giant hat tip to Joel Connelly for remembering this occurrence. Joel is proof that Institutional Memory matters.

A compromise squeezes through the Senate. It's less liberal than the House version. After an election shifts the ground on Capitol Hill, the lame-duck House decides to pass the Senate compromise.

2010? Nope, 1980. Here's Wikipedia on the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act:

The legislation was initially introduced into Congress in 1974 in several different bills .. .The election in 1976 of Jimmy Carter buoyed hopes that Alaskan conservation would finally get a fair hearing. However, several members of Congress, particularly Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, remained strongly opposed to the absorption of such a large amount of land by the NPS...
In early November 1980, Jimmy Carter lost re-election to Ronald Reagan, and the Republican Party won a majority of seats in the Senate. Conservationists recognized that if they did not accept the compromise then on the table, they would be forced to begin again in the next Congress with decidedly less support. The bill was passed in late November, and signed into law in December.

It's not going to be pretty. But it's time for the House to get the deed done. And Mike Gravel's opposition to ANILCA in the 1980s will have provided Democrats the opening to make it happen.

What a strange world we live in.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Nancy Pelosi Will Save Us All

Scott Brown has just defeated Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts Senate race by what looks like a 51.8-47.2 margin. (That's only 0.6 points away from Nick's estimate of a 4 point Brown win.) A week ago I was worried that an outcome like this would be the end of health care reform. It isn't.

Passing a bill is still totally within the power of House Democrats. They just need to pass the Senate bill, and then make whatever further changes they want through the budget reconciliation process, which requires only 50 votes in the Senate. Most of the changes they want, like the increases in subsidies for poor people to get coverage, are things that can be achieved through reconciliation. There's no need for them to be affected by a Senate defeat in the one state that is the least positively affected by health care reform. Massachusetts passed its own universal health care bill several years ago, and Scott Brown actually announced himself in this election as a supporter of the Massachusetts health care reform, despite opposing the legislation currently before Congress. So taking this as some kind of referendum on health care is really silly.

Nancy Pelosi blocked Social Security privatization in early 2005, just after Bush got re-elected and our friends were talking about moving to Canada. If anybody can get people to vote the right way when things look dark, it's her. And what's she saying tonight? "We're right on course, and we will have a health care reform bill." She's passed a health care bill once, and once the freakout associated with this news cycle ends, she'll be able to do it again.

You can help. If you haven't done it yet, it's time to call your Congresscritters and tell them that yes, you still want health care reform to go through. Everything is in their hands now. Calls to vulnerable Democrats in conservative districts are the most valuable, of course, but making your feelings known to Democrats in more liberal districts is great too, as it may embolden them to be more vocal in support of the legislation during crazy times. Just put your Zip+4 into the box at the upper left of the House of Representatives site, and you'll be directed to your Congressman's page where you can get the phone number.

Calling For Coakley

Here's a thing set up by the Obama people that gives you five Massachusetts Democrats to call to make sure they voted.

Norm Coleman In Massachusetts?

Rumors are that the White House is gearing up to encourage the House to pass the Senate bill fast, in the event that Scott Brown wins the Massachusetts Senate race and we don't have 60 Democrats in the Senate anymore to modify the House bill in the direction of the Senate bill.

One possible scenario is that the election ends up really close and the outcome is tied up in litigation for a while. It's a reverse of the Norm Coleman scenario that was going for much of 2009, where the national GOP kept their lawsuits running so Al Franken wouldn't go to the Senate and vote on things like the stimulus bill until July. I don't know how MA election law works, but I imagine that this could keep Paul Kirk in the Senate long enough to do health care at an appropriate pace, and if things are super tight, perhaps get to climate change. Of course, with this sort of thing it's hard to be clear about how much time we have.

I reserve the right to complain about this more in a subsequent post, but the political importance of this race is part of the reason why Max Baucus deserves our scorn for his role as Captain Ineffective, delaying the bill several months so that weird circumstances like these could result in trouble.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tuesday MA-SEN Election Thread

It just turned midnight on the East Coast.

If you live, really, anywhere in New England, or even some parts of Upstate New York, go make some incremental improvement in Martha Coakley's situation. For further analysis of what's going on, just read Chris Bowers: Part I, Part II. It's really not that complicated, people; Obama was elected during an economic collapse with a promise to enact some policies; those policies were, more or less, enacted; but the macroeconomic situation isn't very good for most people.

My usual method in the endgame is to simply count the number of polls where each candidate is winning. Coakley hasn't led in a single poll since 1/14. Yes, some of those polls are dubious; but not all of them. The tricky thing is that prior to 1/14, Coakley led in 6 of 9 polls, sometimes by large margins. I'm sure there have been other elections that feature such substantial late poll movement, but I can't recall them off the top of my head, so I have no sense of what election to use as a comparison. I'll just say Brown by 4, but really anyone who claims to have a clue what's going to happen is selling something.

Massachusetts: Stuff Worth Doing

I really don't know how to evaluate the MA Senate race. If you're interested in predictions, you can go check 538. Some recent polls have Martha Coakley ahead, some have Scott Brown ahead.

Right now I'm emailing and facebook-walling to make sure all my MA Democratic friends know that the special election is January 19 and there's serious risk of a Republican winning Ted Kennedy's seat. Special elections generally involve very low turnout, which (1) makes the results unpredictable, (2) means that one vote has an unusually large impact on the outcome, and (3) means that the number of eventual nonvoters who could've been talked into voting is much larger. Under these conditions, an individual's vote and get-out-the-vote activism will have an unusually large effect.

I imagine that Massachusetts folks reading this blog are politically active enough that nothing is going to keep them away from the polls -- many of you are probably making sure that your people turn out to vote on the 19th. But out-of-state folks can have a big impact as well, just by making their less active MA lefty friends aware of what's happening and its significance. There are major negative consequences for health care reform, climate change, financial regulation, and basically everything we might want to do in the next year if Martha Coakley loses. With the advantages of incumbency and weak economic conditions, we can't be certain of winning in November and averting 6 years of Scott Brown causing trouble from a seat that should be a reliable Democratic vote. Don't let this happen.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What Do We Want? Slightly Stronger Regulation of Insurance Exchanges! When Do We Want It? At Some Negotiable Point In The Future!

@ezraklein: 'RT @annaedney "Obama trying to woo liberals by giving biologic drugmakers 10 years of exclusive marketing rights rather than 12"'

This is why people organized around the public option but "ignored" the rest of the bill. Because nobody's going to write a song about the rest of the bill, and its various new regulations and/or deregulations of pieces of the health care system. Taken together, they amount to a great deal of movement in the right direction. But there's no one thing that anyone could latch onto. Even "expanding the subsidies" is an amorphous concept. How do you pick the point at which you say the "more subsidy" team has won? You can't. At least with the public option, there's a clear sense of victory or defeat.

Modern World I'm Not Pleased To Meet You, You Just Bring Me Down

I thought this was a good but scary general point by Paul Krugman (Tyler Cowen liked it too):
This is actually a very broad problem with all accounts of the crisis that try to exonerate the private sector and place the blame on the government and/or the Fed: none of the proposed evil deeds of policy makers were remotely large enough to cause problems of this magnitude unless markets vastly overreacted. That is, you have to start by assuming wildly dysfunctional financial markets before you can blame the government for the crisis; and if markets are that dysfunctional, who needs the government to create a mess?
Financial markets being wildly dysfunctional is a really big problem. The way contemporary society is organized depends for its success on the financial sector allocating resources in a reasonable way. Either you've got to make financial markets act more rationally, or you've got to decrease their role in the economy. I don't have much of a clue about how you'd go about doing either.

(Admittedly, the criticism of the modern financial system in this video is quite different from mine, but it's pretty and I really like the vocals in the last 40 seconds or so.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Kirsten Gillibrand for NY-SEN

To pile on to what Neil Sinhababu and  Nate Silver have to say on the subject, it's worth pointing out that Gillibrand's voting record in the Senate puts her firmly in the leftmost third of Democratic Senators. This was all fairly predictable at the time of her appointment. While a member of the House of Representatives, Gillibrand tilted slightly to the left of her right-leaning Upstate constituency. Given a more solid Democratic base, she proved to be a more-or-less mainstream liberal. DW-NOMINATE places here on the left-right spectrum as the 10th-most liberal Senator, tied with Frank Lautenburg (D-NJ) and sandwiched between Roland Burris and Patty Murray. This is more-or-less what you'd want out of a New York Senator. Indeed, her record is slightly more liberal than Hillary Clinton's, so the decision to make Clinton the Secretary of State has actually shifted the Senate a bit to the left.

It's entirely unclear to me what sort of political coalition Harold Ford hopes to build against her. I guess you figure that she'll win Upstate and liberal women, and Ford would counter by trying to rack up big margins among African-Americans and ... outer-borough and exurban "conservative" WMDs (White Male Democrats)? Puerto Ricans and Dominicans? Jews? Union rank-and-file? How is this supposed to work?

Meanwhile, though there are many reasons Ford is ill-suited to represent New York, "being a Southerner" isn't really one of them. "Being a transparent panderer, particularly for positions well to the right of the median New Yorker", certainly; but there's no need to hold the man's accent against him.

Have You Driven A Ford Into A Wall Lately?

There's definitely room for conservatives like Harold Ford within the Democratic party. I'm going to disagree with him on a bunch of stuff, and in the Senate he'd probably do irritating antics when we're trying to pass major legislation. But he'd be more useful than a Republican in the Senate, and winning elections in places like Tennessee is really hard, so you've got to give him plenty of leeway. Ford lost to Bob Corker only 51-48 in 2006. Maybe another opportunity will come up involving a scandal-weakened opponent or something, and we'll be happy to have him run again in that state.

Except now, as Glenn Thrush notes, he's destroying his conservative positioning and Tennessee cred to make a bizarre primary challenge to Kristen Gillibrand in New York. It seems like he's trying to attack her from the left, which is so out of kilter with his past record of anti-choice and antigay votes (30% NARAL rating, vote for constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage) that it isn't credible. He'll lose, which doesn't make me that unhappy. I'm more worried that he'll be less effective for winning elections in places like Tennessee.

Fear Of Rectums?

I'm not really sure how it would manifest itself, but these guys claim to have the solution. Of course, it's suspiciously similar to their solution to many other phobias.

Women's Suffrage 95 Years Ago

95 years ago today, women's suffrage failed to pass the House on a vote of 174 in favor and 204 against. It would be five more years before the 19th Amendment would get the 2/3 majority it needed to become law. Comments from the triumphant opposition:

Mrs. Arthur M. Dodge, President of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, said after the vote was taken tonight:

"The deliberations of the House of Representatives today were, of course, of the greatest importance because the final vote was such as to persuade the country forever that the National Congress will not undertake to dictate to the various States what they shall do in the regulation of their franchise.

"In my opinion today's work in the House demonstrated that from now on the wave of hysteria in which the suffragists have indulged or of which they have been the victims will be on the wane."

As long as there's prejudice, states' rights will be with us.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The American Public: Not Idiots

Polling like this, which shows that the number of people who have confidence "in the Obama administration to protect U.S. citizens from future acts of terrorism" is roughly where it was prior to the UndieBomber, always warms my heart. I also expect that when all is said and done people will have similar uninteresting opinions about Harry Reid. That may not mean he's going to win reelection, since the economy in Nevada is in the shitter right now, but it's always nice to know that the Villagers can in fact underestimate the intelligence of the American people.

Get Our Money Back!

While we're looking for good populist ways to go after the banks before the 2010 election, can we bring back the idea of a financial transactions tax? It's particularly suited to a political moment where the nation is hurting economically and banks are making big profits. The rhetoric is really simple -- the banks blew up the economy, we saved them, now they're making huge profits, and we're gonna get our money back. (We did make some money off TARP repayments from healthy firms, but from what I've heard we'll still have a big loss on AIG.) Swing voters aren't feeling much solidarity with the financial sector right now, and all the Republican moaning about tax increases will fall on deaf ears or worse since it's tax increases on Wall Street.

It's solid on policy grounds as well, discouraging speculation, having good distributive impact, and raising much-needed revenue. If there's some kind of worry about timing and it'd be best to do this after the economy recovers (I don't see that this is the case, given profits in the financial sector) we can delay it a little.

Harry Reid Said "Negro Dialect", Trent Lott Defended Segregation

With Republicans trying to draw parallels between Harry Reid and Trent Lott (who had to give up the same job for his racist comments) it's good to go back and look at what Lott actually said: "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either." As Wikipedia reminds us, "Thurmond had based his presidential campaign largely on an explicit racial segregation platform."

I can accept having repentant and reformed ex-segregationists in our politics. That's the way it usually goes once an evil system falls and the good guys win -- you allow people who were on the wrong side (and didn't commit any real atrocities) to continue within the new system. That's how things were done in post-Apartheid South Africa and post-Communist Eastern Europe. But the price of admission is that they condemn the evil old system, wholeheartedly accept the new order, and accept that what they did was wrong. What we can't have is having unrepentant segregationists proudly defending the bad old days and acting as if they were on the right side. If the most powerful Senator is doing that, you haven't moved past the bad old days.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Massachusetts People? Help Martha Coakley.

Public Policy Polling has Republican Scott Brown leading Democrat Martha Coakley 48-47 in Massachusetts. It's a special election to be held on January 19, so turnout is going to be much lower than usual. For the Republicans to win a Senate seat in Massachusetts would be a total catastrophe. Y'all in the Bay State need to be hauling cousins and colleagues to the polls. You can explain to them that since it's a special election and voter turnout will be low, their vote counts way more than usual.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Dolphins Are Smart!

Being a longtime cetacean fan, I'm excited to see these scientists (and a philosopher) saying dolphins are smart enough to have some of the rights we accord to persons. All popular science article warnings apply, but there's a pretty good roundup of their cognitive abilities at the linked article.

Assuming that humans don't screw things up by killing ourselves or the dolphins, I think there'll be a time when humans can engage in much fuller communication with dolphins than currently possible. We'll probably need some really crazy neurotechnology to make this work out, but I think humans will eventually put that together given enough time. When it happens, it'll be one of the coolest things our species has ever done.

A Counterexample To Rational Choice Theories Of Human Behavior

I enjoyed the way Eric Kleefeld wrote up the polling data about how Joe Lieberman has "antagonized every group imaginable by both weakening progressive efforts and then voting for the actual bill."

Kleefeld continues: "Lieberman's overall approval rating is only 25%, with 67% disapproval. Democrats disapprove of him by 14%-81%, Republicans by 39%-48%, and independents by 32%-61%. Only 19% approve of his actions on the health care bill, with Democrats at 8%-80%, Republicans at 26%-55%, and independents at 30%-59%. Among those who support the bill, 84% disapprove of his handling of the issue, and in addition 52% of the people who don't support the bill also disapprove of Lieberman's actions."

I think you have to set aside the gravity of the health care situation in America a little bit to get a clear picture of how bizarre Lieberman's behavior has been. Otherwise you just see him as a really bad guy, which he is, but you get so infuriated that it's hard to fully appreciate the extent to which his actions don't seem to make any internal sense, even for a bad guy. The best I can think of is that he lost his ability to consider any political strategies beyond "annoy both parties and elite centrists in the media will love you, leading to all sorts of goodies."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Proof Rock Band Doesn't Suck

I was about to write a more well-reasoned post about this entry into the "you kids get off my lawn" genre (via Spencer), but I think there's a better way to illustrate the point. You know who dislikes Guitar Hero and Rock Band with a white-hot burning passion?

These guys:

Therefore, Guitar Hero and Rock Band must be good. Q.E.D.

The Real Case For Werewolf Doctors

I greatly enjoyed Ezra's appearance on the Colbert Report, but I think he has the wrong idea about how werewolf doctors lower medical costs. It's not about mauling patients! They'll spend most of the month doing good medical work like everyone else, but on a few special nights they'll eat colleagues who drive up national health care costs by doing worthless tests and prescribing unnecessary medications promoted by Big Pharma. Werewolf doctors are the way a fee-for-service system gets the incentives right.

Against Permanent Senators

As hilarious as this post was, the idea that every Senator ought to be carried out of their seat in a pine box is a little crazy. While there are specific Senators—Ted Kennedy comes to mind—that have made the country better by staying in the world's most dysfunctional body for decade after decade, the general culture wherein elected officials hold office for as long as physically possible isn't particularly good for America. The near-doubling of tenure on the Supreme Court has been well noted, but the trend is the same in both the House and the Senate. Advances in medicine, relatively easier travel, and increased reliance on staff all make it easier for members to function well past their prime. Politics already tends to trail public opinion, and the increase in Congressional longevity is leaving our elected bodies whiter, older, more male, and more conservative than they would otherwise be.

Byron Dorgan's 67 years old. In a number of professions, he would be retiring late. But in the sick world of Washington, he's supposed to hold his seat until the day he dies. I may not like John Hoeven's politics, but surely reducing the average age of the Senate by 0.15 years is a step i nthe right direction.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Yemen: A Real Place Tyler Cowen Went To

I was looking over Tyler Cowen's post about his trip to Yemen back in 1996, and it brought home to me how much foreign policy debates about other countries ignore the fact that real people with real lives live there. When people talking about foreign policy discuss countries like Yemen in the light of how to stop the pants bomber, everything gets flattened out into abstractions that keep you from fully appreciating the humanity of the resident population. If you're going to make your foreign policy decisions in a non-evil way, it's important to keep their humanity in mind.

Apparently the capital of Yemen is a very old-fashioned place with ancient architecture, spicy food, people getting high on qat, water conservation problems, dudes carrying those wide curvy daggers in their belts, and ladies who are staring up foreign men from behind their veils. Overall it sounds pretty weird, as Cowen says, but even the residents of a weird place seem more human when you describe their everyday lives than they do in foreign policy abstraction talk.

2010 Midterms in Two Words

Jonathan Zasloff has a brief todo list to get unenthused Democrats jazzed up to vote in November. I actually think the midterms can be made even simpler. Health care will be out of the way by the end of the month; climate change and immigration aren't going to happen in an election year, so it's really going to come down to two things.

Banks. And Jobs.

While the absolute level of unemployment does have an impact on elections, the 1934 midterms show that change in unemployment is the more important number. If things are at least headed in the right direction, Dems will get some credit. Past that, it's time to get financial reform done raise holy hell about financial reform. Keep it off the calendar until all the budget bills pass, and then dare Republicans to tie up the Senate to stop it. Do they really want to go into the election as the defenders of Wall Street, the Credit Card industry, payday lenders, and sketchy mortgage originators? I doubt it will do them any good, and it will give Democratic candidates in swing districts something to run on that should be quite popular. At the moment, it looks like losses are coming, but there's a big difference between losing 10 House seats and losing 35.

Update: right, failing to pass financial reform because you can't get past those bastards, given a session where there were in fact some accomplishments elswehere is, arguably, a better situation electorally than passing a watered-down bill. So, allow me to revise and extend.