Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Team Dwight Has No Players

I remember Josh Marshall asking last week whether health care reform was the end of Mitt Romney's hopes for the 2012 Republican nomination:
If the Republicans want to make Obama's signature piece of legislation a centerpiece of their 2012 campaign (and it's hard to imagine they won't since what else will they run on?), they can't very well run a candidate who supported and passed close to an identical bill. It's a no-brainer.
Obama has passed Romneycare (that's what Brad DeLong is calling it) and Republicans think it's all death panels. So Mitt is denying the similarities and blaming Democrats for his own unwillingness to bring Republican support for the proposal -- "what I see in Obamacare is a very different piece of legislation — and one that followed a very different track. In our case, our bill was carried out in a bipartisan basis." As Matt says, it would've been a bipartisan bill if Mitt Romney had stuck to his previous support for a similar policy, come out loudly in favor and pressured the Maine Senators and others to vote for it.

There's a decent long-term plan here too. Mitt could've been the sensible moderate Eisenhower Republican in a Tea Party / death panel era and supported the bill. Of course, he couldn't change the world enough to make that identity a winner in 2012. But who knows what the world will look like in 2016? Maybe after repeated crushing defeat, the Republican Party reshapes itself and the moderates finally win out. And maybe Obama's successor ends up being a far inferior politician, allowing Romney to win. Even if the process took until 2020 when he'll be 73, less handsome men have won Republican primaries at that age. And if the history of universal social programs in America is any guide, there would by then be a fairly robust pro-Romneycare faction of the GOP waiting for him.

Of course, Mitt isn't the guy to make a long-term plan like that, because he's always changing his views to whatever will win him the next election. The election after the next election? He doesn't think that far ahead. Or maybe he does think that far ahead, and he thinks he can just change back. For all I know, that could be the right play. He's switched his views so much in the past that he's given up on the consistency vote, if such a vote exists at all.

So that's Mitt's thing. But if he won't do it, won't somebody stake out moderate Republican territory? And I'm not just asking this out of some wish for the Republicans to return to rationality, though I do wish for that -- it makes America and the world a lot safer. It seems like there's a long-term opportunity for whoever becomes captain of Team Dwight and waits for the other players to fill in around him. I know that people have to win their primaries and stuff, but somebody out there has to be positioned to go for it. As it stands, the opportunity is greater than the number of Republicans pursuing it. Lots of things are greater than zero.

My Modeling Career Begins

The Vegetarian Society here in Singapore just put me on the cover of a pamphlet about eating less meat. As someone who eats less meat than a lot of people, it's something that I was suited to. Two people cutting their meat intake in half is just as good as one full vegetarian for all the animal welfare and environmental benefits, so even if you don't have it in you to go totally veggie, reducing your meat consumption is a good plan.

They did the photo shoot back in December. I was by myself holding a blank sign, and they photoshopped the words onto it and then photoshopped me together with all the other folks. I didn't know that's how these things were done, but now I do. They wanted to fit the demographics of Singapore and have young people, and I gave good Indian boy.

I recently asked my department head about doing PETA-style nude guy modeling. She told me that the university administration comes from a fairly conservative Chinese culture and it could get me in trouble, so for better or worse there won't be any of that for the time being.

Monday, March 29, 2010

I'm The Holy Ghost! Booooooo!

He didn't say that as far as I know, but it's the caption that leaps to mind. Any other ideas?

Unheard Of Depths!

Pfeffer via Zakaria via Ezra:
The alliance with the United States as the nation's greatest strategic asset, way above anything else. It is more crucial than the professionalism of the Israel Defense Forces, than the peace treaty with Egypt and even than the secret doomsday weapons that we may or may not have squirreled away somewhere…But [Netanyahu] has succeeded in one short year in power to plunge Israel's essential relationship with the United States to unheard of depths.
I've heard people saying stuff like this, but I don't have a great sense of what the 'unheard of depths' are. The terms of the US-Israel relationship seem to be that we give the Israelis tons of aid, they build settlements that will prevent the Palestinians from having a real government that represents them, people around the world think we're nuts, and Muslims hate us. I guess what's happening is that the degree of elite consensus behind this arrangement is declining slightly to 'unheard of depths', but it's still more than sufficient to keep things going on these terms. I haven't seen any indication that American policymakers are actually going to cut aid to Israel or do anything else about Netanyahu's rejection of peace. Until then, it looks like he's winning, insofar as someone can win by condemning his country to perpetual war.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Giving 32 Million People Health Care Is The Better Part Of Valor

Here's a nice list of the Democrats from the toughest districts who voted for health care reform.

Do I Pass the Bechdel Dating Test?

Women, Action, and the Media director Jaclyn Friedman on filtering out dating profiles:
you know the Bechdel Test for films? It states that any good film has to have two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a guy. Well, this is my test: When I look at personal ads, I look at their lists of favorite books, movies, and music, and they have to list women in all of those categories. They don’t have to have a majority of women, but they have to know that women exist in the culture and be fans of some of them. It’s a pretty low bar—or it should be. I used to look for guys who don’t list Fight Club in their favorites, but I’ve had to relax that rule, because all dudes evidently love Fight Club.

First, in re: Fight Club, what Yglesias said. Second, I always thought the test was that two women have to have a conversation about something other than either (a) a guy, or (b) child rearing.

Third, this made for an interesting moment of self-exploration and an excuse to see if my Facebook profile was up to date. I'm mostly saved by music, where I have two all-female acts (Sleater-Kinney and Go Betty Go), and two female-fronted bands (Pretty Girls Make Graves and Gossip, though Gossip's current drummer is also female). I've also got The Optimist's Daughter on the list of books, though the rest of it tilts male. The TV shows are a mixed bag. Buffy passes the test, and presumably at some point two of the female characters in The West Wing talk about something other than men or child rearing. There aren't any other women in The X-Files but it's hard to say that Scully fits a lot of prototypical female roles. But the list of movies turns out to be a total dudefest: none of the movies feature more than one or maybe one and a half significant female roles.

Couple with the recent Nancy Meyers profile in the NYT magazine and ongoing complaints about the lack of top-flight acting roles for women as it relates to Oscars, one starts to wonder if filmmaking in particular has an even harder time coming up with products that . They're obviously not the only part of our media universe that has this problem (sketch/standup comedy and video games both come to mind), but they may be the largest piece of it.

The more likely possibility of course is that I just haven't looked hard enough for female-led movies. So, use the comments to tell me what I should watch.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sherrod Brown Has The Right Idea

Put Sherrod Brown on your list of "Democrats you want to see rising in power":

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), 57, who also won his seat in 2006, has his sights set on forcing Democrats to have elections for committee chairmanships. (In the House, each party caucus holds direct elections for chairmen and ranking minority members.) This is a particular sore point to the newcomers, who viewed Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's support of GOP presidential nominee John McCain as the sort of treachery that should have resulted in the Connecticut independent surrendering his chairman's gavel.

To see how important this is, here's Ezra Klein last August when Chuck Grassley was using his personal connections with Max Baucus to hold up the attempt to get health care reform out of the Senate Finance Committee:

This is the final year that Grassley is eligible to serve as ranking member — the most powerful minority member, and, if Republicans retake the Senate, the chairman — of the Senate Finance Committee. His hope is to move over as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, or failing that, the Budget Committee. But for that, he needs the support of his fellow Republicans. And if he undercuts them on health-care reform, they will yank that support. It's much the same play they ran against Arlen Specter a couple of years back, threatening to deny him his chairmanship of — again — the Judiciary Committee. It worked then, and there's no reason to think it won't work now.

It's possible that the Republican Party has too much party discipline for its own good. Two of their people have shifted to our side over the last decade. There have been zero going the other way, and we have much greater problems with Nelson and Lieberman types extracting ludicrous concessions. They stuck to George W. Bush's policies as their Senate majority was whittled from 55 to 41 over the course of the 2006 and 2008 elections.

There's no similar case with the Democratic Party. We haven't had to deal with people escaping the party, and our major problems during the health care struggle had to do with centrists like Nelson and Lieberman who asked for ridiculous things that weakened the legislation. Reining these guys in is the important thing to do, and new rules about committee chairmanships are as likely a proposal as any to have the right effect.

Friday, March 26, 2010

This Pope Is A Bad Guy

Sexual abuse scandals are causing a lot of people to lose confidence in the Pope. There are striking results from yesterday's poll of Germans, which found that "even among Catholics, only a minority trusted the church or the Pope. Only 39 per cent had confidence in the Pope, down from 62 per cent at the end of January, and 34 per cent trusted the church, down from 56 per cent." If it's true that they did nothing about the priest who molested 200 deaf children (was he trying to set a record or something?) the loss of confidence is warranted.

I think the best reasons for opposing the church hierarchy have to do with their policies on contraception, which cause massive suffering in poor parts of the world. The Pope goes to Africa and says things like "It is of great concern that the fabric of African life, its very source of hope and stability, is threatened by divorce, abortion, prostitution, human trafficking and a contraception mentality." From the point of view of human welfare, of these things are not like the others. Condoms prevent people from dying of AIDS or having children they can't support -- both of which are huge problems in that part of the world. Somebody who uses his position of authority to liken the "contraception mentality" to human trafficking should be despised by anyone who cares about people.

As I've said before, I admire American Catholics for thinking for themselves about what's right and wrong, and rejecting many of the views of the church hierarchy. If there was some way to replace the pedophile-protecting, contraception-opposing old men of the church hierarchy with randomly selected Catholic men and women off the streets of Boston and El Paso, it would become a far more admirable institution.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Future of the Senate

Lloyd Bentsen and his brand of center-out coalition building are not walking through that door.
Atrios makes a very insightful point about Senate procedure carrying with it an assumption that no one will ever actually use procedure to the fullest. The latest GOP attempts to grind Senate business to a halt—ending Committee hearings that last longer than 2 hours, putting dozens of nonsense amendments up for a vote during reconciliation—combined with the Bunning/Shelby escalations suggest that the norms of the Senate have broken down. The rules of the Senate are such that everyone has the right to be a dick by, say, threatening to filibuster every bill or every nomination, but for decades there was an understanding that being a dick wasn't something that happened on a regular basis. Mark Schmitt made this point much more eloquently five years ago, so you should just go read his essay on the subject.

If you think about it, with the exception of a brief moment in the mid-90s after Clinton broke the all-opposition-all-the-time stance of the GOP, through maybe NCLB, the Senate has been in some form of partisan operation for the last 20 years. Based on the seniority table, this means that for over two-thirds of the Senate, a partisan Senate is the rule and not the exception. In addition, a fair number of Senators started their careers in the House. Under these circumstances, either the members need to adapt to the rules, or the rules need to adapt to the members. The current situation where the rules assume Senators will be restrained in their exercise of power, but the culture of the World's Most Dysfunctional Deliberative body does little to encourage restraint, is simply unsustainable.

This Is A Real Thing In The Real World

The Dalai Lama. On Twitter. And Facebook.

That is all.

Thanks, Ezra

Now that health care reform is law, I want to thank Ezra Klein for explaining everything to me and others like me for the last three-plus years. Thanks to him (and similar folks like Jon Cohn) I had a great view of what was going on policywise and politically on this complicated and important issue.

This has got to be a wonderful week for the progressive health care explainers of the world, and I hope they're enjoying it as much as they deserve to.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Eleven Percent Is Plenty

CBS News polling in the days just before passage of health care legislation reveals that Nancy Pelosi has an 11% favorability rating and a 37% unfavorability rating. Harry Reid is at 8% and 23%. And that's just fine.

Ordinary folks don't have strong feelings about Pelosi or Reid -- a majority of the people surveyed didn't offer an opinion, and I wouldn't be surprised if a large number of them didn't even know who Pelosi and Reid were. If you know who they are and have strong feelings, your vote is probably overdetermined anyway. I spread the Gospel of Pelositheism not for tuned-out swing voters, but for you the knowledgeable progressive blog-reader.

Everybody knows who Barack Obama is. And he's managed to maintain a net positive approval rating even at the bottom of a deep recession. This fall I expect Republicans to spend a fair amount of money on attempts to get swing voters thinking of their representative in relation to Pelosi and Reid instead of Obama. It'll fail.

Well, That Was Fast

My iPod ran out of batteries at the gym last night. This put me in the unfortunate situation of having to listen to cable news. Anderson Cooper's primetime show had four guests:
  • Paul Begala, former advisor to Bill Clinton
  • Ed Rollins, GOP campaign operative
  • Joe Johns, CNN correspondent
  • Dana Bash, CNN correspondent
Johns and Bash dutifully reported that Democratic nervous nellies wondered if the passage of health care reform would be Bad for Democrats. Rollins thought that somehow a deficit-reducing bill would have resonance with young voters for spending them into debt. In other words, he just made shit up.

During the commercial break there was an ad for the upcoming Larry King Live featuring Michael Moore to talk shit about the health care bill. Lord knows I'm with Atrios that this thing is imperfect, but there aren't that many people like me. HCAN and the House Democrats and various other left-leaning institutions really need to get their act together and sell this thing. The President can't do it all by himself.

Cornhusker Blowback

Ben Nelson is going to join the Republican Party in voting against the health care reconciliation package. After all the hard stuff we've done, we've got our enemies lined up supporting the Cornhusker Kickback as we vote to remove it. This is going to be fun!

It's going to be the second time in a week that Democrats are on what Republicans have presented as the right side of a procedural issue. I'd really like to know the inside story behind the decision not to use deem-and-pass to get the health care bill through. Republicans spent several days working themselves into fury about it and calling it "Demon Pass." And then the Democratic leadership quietly decided that they weren't going to do it. If you think Republicans get advantages from the right-wing noise machine, it's nice to just waste 3 days of its output. One wonders if this was the plan all along.

Jonathan Bernstein wrote about how the Republicans spent a very large amount of their time engaging in procedural objections to the legislation rather than substantive ones. Now one of those objections is going to be turned back against them, and one of them is going to be an objection to something Democrats actually ended up not doing.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Pelositheism, Redemption, And John Edwards

My friends may be aware that recent miracles have convinced me of the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being. Accordingly, I have changed my Facebook religion status to "Pelositheism." And now it's time to talk about how a sinner can be redeemed.

Namely, John Edwards. Running for the Democratic nomination against excellent candidates like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama while having an enormous skeleton in his closet was a really bad thing to do. I have no idea how to evaluate this counterfactual, but it's possible that with Edwards as our candidate we would've lost the 2008 election, leading to President McCain and a political landscape so much worse than the one we now inhabit that it takes some thinking to imagine.

What ended up happening was quite different. As Matt Yglesias outlines, John Edwards dramatically raised the price for progressive support on a variety of issues including health care reform. Candidates had to come out with similarly progressive plans or lose liberal interest groups to him. Hillary Clinton more or less copied his health care plan and vociferously defended the individual mandate against Barack Obama. While Clinton lost the primary, she won the argument. After Obama's victory, the Edwards plan, mandate and all, became the basic plan for reform.

Given the way that his scandal erased him personally from politics, Edwards' significance in the history of America was to rise or fall with health care reform and a few other good lefty positions he advanced like aggressive action on climate change. All this, of course, would've come to nothing if comprehensive health care reform (to say nothing of climate change legislation) really had died in the wake of Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts.

But you know as I do the story of the resurrection! In the end times, the House laid down with the Senate, while Diana DeGette and Bart Stupak huddled together. All this was by the grace of our Speaker's divine wisdom and inexorable will. It's because of her that health care reform will pass upon our nation.

There is no other reason that Edwards' entire political legacy hasn't fallen into the flames, than that Nancy Pelosi held him up. That she chose as she did doesn't make him any better or worse as a person. But anyone who tried to make a difference for health care reform will appreciate what the salvation of his contribution means. And that's why John Edwards is, as it could've been writ, a sinner in the hands of a merciful Goddess.

Newt Gingrich Can't Use Punctuation

It's not that I was expecting anything particularly edifying from his commentary on the passage of health care reform, but seriously, what the hell? You used to be Speaker of the House! And now you're writing four straight sentences without a punctuation mark.

Al Franken on Why Google Should Put FTTH in Duluth

It is utterly and completely awesome that this man is a United States Senator:

Because Duluth isn't particularly close to a major metropolitan area, it may be a problematic candidate for early adoption of FTTH. And since Seattle is applying I have a dog in this fight. Still, for the sheer awesomeness of proving Al Franken right, I'd love to see it happen.

The End of Rockefeller Republicanism

When Barack Obama has the nice Rose Garden ceremony and gives the pens away to John Dingell, Harry Truman's children, and so forth, a bill that is quite similar in character to the 1993 Chafee-Durenberger-Danforth alternative to Clintoncare will have become law solely on the strength of Democratic votes. In fact, former Senator Durenberger (R-MN) has said that the Senate bill ought to pass. But even the most moderate of Republican Senators, Olympia Snowe (R-ME) voted against the bill in the Senate. Likewise a number of modestly pro-labor House Republicans such as Frank Lobiondo, Jim Gerlach, Peter King, etc., could not be convinced to vote for this bill despite the fact it was a top labor priority.

All of which is another way of saying that the Era of Rockefeller Republicanism is officially over. There are zero federally elected Republicans who accept the progressive goals of the welfare state while attempting to produce a more pro-business implementation of those goals. Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey would be Democrats today.

Realism, Not Buyers' Remorse

While I still support the health care reform bill that passed the House last night, we should be aware that not all of the benefits to America that we progressives hoped for will actually pan out.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bonus Obama Caption Contest

"What's that? You need a face-saving compromise now that you've realized the rest of your block of votes is more interested in health care reform than sticking it to poor women? Sure, I can help you with that."

Waterloo Sunset

I'm sure that what remains of this happy day will see some interesting commentary elsewhere. I'll post what I see here. (Nick, feel free to use this post too!)

David Frum: "today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right: ours."

I'm real proud of this pro-Pelosi post I did for Kevin Drum two years ago. It ended: "when 2009 comes around and it's time to pass health care reform and whatever other domestic policy initiatives we want, we can be confident that the House side of the game will be in good hands."

Corroboration for the Politico story below, from the NYT. '“We’re in the majority,” Ms. Pelosi told the president. “We’ll never have a better majority in your presidency in numbers than we’ve got right now. We can make this work.'

Stupak Press Conference: Queen Takes Bishop, Checkmate

I just finished watching the Stupak press conference. If I get the terms of the agreement right, we really didn't give up anything significant. Obama basically has to come out and reaffirm the fact that we aren't funding abortion with the bill. This doesn't do anything close to what Stupak's amendment back in November did. I'd guess that the bloc was drifting towards voting yes on the bill, and Stupak didn't want to be abandoned and look stupid, so he did this thing. And now we have the votes we need to pass the bill.

My two thoughts on the Stupak peoples' speeches were (1) these people aren't great public speakers, and (2) I'm happy to see them describe how the bill connects their pro-life views about abortion with their pro-life views about people outside the womb.

Just heard this from Stupak on the Bishops' desire for statutory language in the bill blocking abortion funds: "I know it's Lent and all this, but if they could come up with a way to get me 60 votes in the Senate, that would be nice..."

Nancy Saved Us All

Helluva Politico story about how she was the only person who kept her head after Massachusetts. Rahm Emanuel I expected, but Pelosi even smacks down Henry Waxman in pursuit of a better outcome. People who think that progressives just got pushed around during the health care debate better take note.

No tattoos, Neil... no tattoos. Your future wife won't want another woman's name on you.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bernstein On Norms Of Democratic Representation

Jonathan Bernstein teaches political science at UT-San Antonio, and I've been mulling over his views about political representation lately. Bernstein writes that politicians in a democracy
have masters -- they serve their constituents. They are in office, as Hanna Pitkin says, to re-present those constituents: to make them present, even though they are not present. In doing so, they are guided by the contract they have with their constituents, which is composed of the promises the politician made while campaigning for office. Some of those are about public policy: I will oppose abortion. I will support a public option. Some are partisan: I will be a Democrat. Or, I will be a Democrat, but I'll side with the district if there's a conflict...

Good representation, following Richard Fenno, is about having a strong representational relationship. And (and here I'm on my own, I think) it is not for me, or Andrew, or Burke, or Pitkin to say what sorts of representation are best. That's a matter for each individual elected official and his or her constituents to work out for themselves. Moreover, I argue that the ability to do this, to make promises, interpret them, govern with those promises and future explanations in mind, to explain what one has done, and then campaign again, is the real skill of politicians. Of course that takes judgment, and it certainly takes practical wisdom. A particular kind of judgment, however -- political judgment that helps a pol know how public policy decisions are related to what they've promised....
These promises can be of various kinds. The voters could regard their representatives as moral authorities and make them promise simply to vote their conscience. They could demand particular votes on particular issues. Or they could demand other wacky things:
My favorite examples of promises are gender and ethnic promises, generally made by "firsts" to hold some particular office. Sometimes, it seems as if that's the only promise such a candidate makes -- to "be" Jewish, or Polish, or African American, or female, or gay. Breaking that promise could be a matter of wearing the wrong clothes or eating the wrong foods, much more so than any particular "wrong" vote one could cast. Often, by the next generation, those descriptive traits -- while still just as much there as before -- are no longer the subject of promises. There are other kinds of promises, too...how bound is Scott Brown to that pickup truck?
I see what Bernstein is getting at, but I don't know if 'promise' is the right word for this kind of thing. It captures the element of commitment but makes the arrangement a bit too explicit. So what was it Larry Craig had with conservative voters of Idaho about acting straight that was violated when he sought gay sex in the airport? An understanding? A tacit agreement? I guess I'll go with 'agreement', with the 'possibly tacit' being tacit in what follows.

The big question that interests me is how we're supposed to understand these agreements in the context of normative theory more broadly. It's a question that comes up in Bernstein's discussions with commenters:
ASP also asks whether, by my standards, it would be impossible to call someone a bad representative if she chooses a bad policy that is in accord to the promises she's made to constituents (I hope that's a fair summary). Good question. I guess my first instinct would be to weasel around it...there's always, presumably, an unspoken promise not to start a war on false premises, or to butcher the execution of a war, and perhaps that overrides the more explicit pledges to invade Iraq. But my less weaselly position is, I do think that one can be a good representative while also doing evil things. It may be unethical -- it was unethical -- to be a pro-segregation politician. But while it was unethical to do it in the first place, they might still have been "good" representatives, in the sense that they built & maintained strong rep. relationships with their constituents
I like Bernstein's non-weaselly position, and I have a little to say about how that position should be understood.

Backing up a little bit, there are lots of different kinds of norms and values, of which moral norms and values are only one kind. Also, there are norms of etiquette, hygiene, driving, and logic. Bernstein is right to distinguish the norms of representation he's talking about from moral norms, just as norms of etiquette are so distinguished. I'm sure Bernstein's view isn't the only view of representation out there, and he's in debate with other people just as we can debate questions of what's moral or what constitutes proper etiquette.

Sometimes the moral thing to do will coincide with the thing someone ought to do as a democratic representative. This happens fairly often, and it's part of why democracy is a better system of government than lots of others. But it's not always the case, and that's part of why democracy isn't perfect.

According commonsense views about moral norms, the fact that you agreed to do something gives you a defeasible moral obligation to do it. The obligation can be defeated if you agreed to do something terrible, or more commonly, if it conflicts with something of much greater significance. But usually, agreeing to do something gives you a moral obligation to do it. So on these views combined with Bernstein's view of representation, "You're not representing the citizens!" plus the assumption that the defeaters don't obtain gives you a genuine piece of moral criticism. If the defeaters obtain, you've done the right thing but failed to represent the citizens, which is the flip side of Bernstein's position on segregation.

Of course, there are other views of morality. I'm a hedonic utilitarian, and I don't think that there are fundamental moral norms beyond those grounded in the goodness of pleasure and the badness of displeasure. So apart from their consequences for pleasure and displeasure, agreements don't matter. "You're not representing the citizens!" isn't itself moral criticism, though it's often said in cases where people are doing net pleasure-reducing and thus morally bad things.

On either of these views, morality doesn't necessarily direct you to represent the citizens. Why will politicians take representation seriously, then? Of course, they don't want to lose their jobs. But that need not be the only reason. "You're not representing the citizens!" is something that I'm guessing politicians don't like to hear, for its own sake. They've been raised in a culture with a representative democracy. This shapes what they want. Even more, our culture looks very negatively on violating one's agreements with others, which is what failures of representation consist in according to Bernstein. Whether because of moral beliefs about agreements or just for its own sake, we care about sticking to what we agreed to do.

This last thing, I think, is what accounts for the force of Bernstein's position. For whatever reason, we care about not violating agreements. When Bernstein puts representation in terms of agreements, it gives representation greater weight than we might've taken it to have.

Friday, March 19, 2010

In Which Someone Other Than Neil Sinhababu Praises Nancy Pelosi

TPM reports that Allen Boyd has flipped to a yes vote. For those of you keeping score, Boyd was the most conservative House Democrat from 2005-2006. He supported Bush's Social Security privatization plan. His district includes much of the "Redneck Riviera" that was one of the few non-Appalachian regions of the country that shifted significantly to McCain in 2008. If he can vote for this bill, any moderate not named Walt Minnick can vote for this bill. Either he's knows he's going to lose and figures he should be on the right side of history, or—horror of horrors—he thinks that voting for a bill that delivers benefit to his constituents might increase his chances in a close campaign.

Once again, I have to believe that the Leadership can afford to lose one vote from the left, considering that the minimum winning coalition involves having thirty-five Democrats vote against this thing.

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama listens to an advisor in the Oval Office, Feb. 24, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)"

I know Alex Chilton died this week, but the only FBFC's of "Alex Chilton" have been taken down by copyright claims. So, here's the other pop culture reference of the moment: Pomplamoose Music covering Lady Gaga's "Telephone":

In Defense of No Votes from the Left

I know this makes me an FDL-style dead-ender, but I for one was sad to see Special K flip-flop, and I'm happy that someone like Stephen Lynch is going to vote no. This bill is in fact the most leftward shift of domestic policy in my life time, but it ain't perfect. House liberals have been forced to swallow an awful lot of garbage just to pass something. Someone ought to say something about this on the House floor. Meanwhile, thirty-five conservative or moderate Democrats are going to end up voting against this thing. Some of them are retiring (Marion Berry). Some of them are not particularly vulnerable (Colin Peterson). Some of them are probably going to lose no matter what happens (Bobby Bright). The leadership should Lynch off the hook and get one more moderate to flip his vote (and they're practically all white dudes).

Likewise unions need to decide whether they are better off expending resources in Democratic primaries against people like Mike McMahon in outer-borough NYC, or instead focus on the handful of GOP-held labor-heavy seats that might be competitive in a general election. Jim Gerlach's seat, for instance. Or Frank Lobiondo's. Yes, health care is a big priority but these House Democrats are still your 90% allies.

March Madness For Megan McArdle

Megan McArdle on the Congressional Budget Office score for health care reform:
Thanks to reconciliation instructions, they needed to improve the budget impact by at least $1 billion in the sidecar. They improved it by exactly $1 billion. Which goes back to what I've now said several times: the CBO process has now been so thoroughly gamed that it's useless.
She and I seem to disagree about the purpose of the CBO. On my view, it's there to help us assess the fiscal consequences of various policies. Assuming that the CBO's estimates are accurate, it's a wonderful thing that our leaders can figure out what the CBO is going to say. Then decisions will be guided by accurate information.

Megan, on the other hand, thinks that the CBO process is 'useless' since it can be 'thoroughly gamed'. Perhaps she thinks that its purpose is to inject an exciting element of unpredictability into social policy. (Or perhaps to block Democrats from using government to solve major social problems. But I'd rather think of her as a thrill-seeking daredevil, so I'll stick with the former interpretation.) She doesn't have any specific criticisms of the CBO's methods, so her point isn't that they're inaccurate. It's just that they're predictable.

I recommend that Megan look away from health care reform and focus more on college basketball. Yesterday's action was full of exciting and unexpected events. Hardly anyone expected 14th-seeded Ohio to beat 3rd-seeded Georgetown or lowly Murray State to eliminate Vanderbilt. Watching Armon Bassett lead Ohio to victory with 32 points on just 17 shots would've given her a more thrilling experience of the unpredictable than anything Doug Elmendorf was likely to do.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hooray Markey And Gordon!

Apparently Nancy Pelosi has been brandishing Barack Obama in the Capitol and pointing him at uncommitted Democrats.

The long-rumored Bart Gordon and now Betsy Markey have shifted from No in November to Yes now. Gordon is retiring, while Markey is running again. And I need to go to sleep now and stop being hypnotized by this thing.

Oh, one more thing: The National Review has a nice list of swing Congresspeople and their phone numbers for you to call if you want to make a difference! Well, they didn't put it up for you. But you should use it anyway. If only National Review readers make phone calls, bad things will happen. And this is your last chance to determine whether the health care system gets fixed or not, so make sure you use it!

Love Your Leadership

Glenn Greenwald says health care reform proves that progressives can't maintain threats that they'll vote no unless legislation fits their preferences. I think that's basically right, and there are structural reasons why that's the way things are going to be. Progressives would much rather have a half-strength bill or even a quarter-strength bill than no bill. Centrists know that, and know that their votes are essential to the effort. So they're confident that the progressives will cave to some pretty hefty demands. And they're right! You didn't really need to run the experiment to prove this.

Given this dynamic, how is it that we're on the brink of passing a comprehensive bill that covers 32 million people, shuts down lots of insurance abuses, saves $130 billion in the first decade, and then saves a gargantuan $1.2 trillion in the next? Why didn't centrists manage to slice all that into oblivion along with the public option?

One thing is that a lot of reasonable centrist demands are in fact incorporated into the legislation. All that deficit cutting is good stuff, and I'd guess that some of the more conscientious centrists were genuinely brought on board by it. Not all conservative Democrats are named 'Bart Stupak.'

The second thing is that the Democratic leadership right now is awesome. Particularly in the House, where Nancy Pelosi is in charge, and the three relevant committees were run by solid liberals. And whatever negative things one might say about Harry Reid, he had to hold onto 60 votes, and if he lost the public option doing it, what can we expect when Lieberman and Nelson are the swing votes?

Simply announcing the intention to do fundamental health care reform was a big move in this process. You do that, and then if you can only pass something small, everyone will know it was defeat. Centrists don't want 'Democrats try to pass big health care reform, fail, settle for aspirin subsidies' to be the result. That reflects badly on the party and puts them in electoral danger. So they can slice off a public option here, do weird things with abortion funding there... but they have to be nervous about wrecking the basic structure of the legislation. Whoever made the call to go for comprehensive reform -- and "Barack Obama" is the first name that should be mentioned here, yeah? -- did really well for us.

Health Care Emotional Transition Warning

You know how it happens at the end of contested primaries, when most of the people who were fighting bitterly for the losing candidate have a rapid emotional transition and become fervent supporters of the winner? I've seen it twice now on the big stage, for both Obama and Kerry, and it's an astonishing psychological phenomenon.

We're seeing the beginning of that now. If all goes smoothly, in a week we'll love this health care reform bill so much that ill-considered tattoo decisions may result. Remember, kids, these things are permanent. Take care of yourselves.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

All Chalk

The President has once again graced us with a terminally boring bracket, with two #1s and two #s making the Final Four. Let me also say that ESPN's contract with the Big East has lead to tremendous overexposure for those teams, so I expect a weak performance from that conference. Other than the Washington Huskies and Georgia Tech yellow jackets I tend to stay away from college basketball so I'm not one to give useful advice.

Deem-And-Pass And The Shadow Of Kerry

I agree that the whole deem-and-pass maneuver for getting health care reform through the House is silly. Of course, the costs of doing it are pretty small -- at this point, people disposed to hate on Democrats for process reasons will be hating anyway. And those people were likely to be voting against us from the start.

The benefits, I think, are that House Democrats don't get attacked for voting for the Cornhusker Kickback and other annoying Senate bill stuff, and instead get attacked for using deem-and-pass. This is slightly better, since the Cornhusker Kickback might annoy an actual swing voter while nobody really cares about deem-and-pass. Of course, if attacked for voting for the Cornhusker Kickback, they would've been able to say "I voted to pass health care reform, but then I voted to strip bad stuff like that out!" And really that should convince people, and probably it will, but in the shadow of John Kerry's infamous "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it" somebody or other is really nervous about trying to say anything like that.

Anyway, that's my guess about what's going through the head of the marginal House Dem who is more willing to vote for the bill if the leadership does the deem-and-pass thing. This is all of minute significance, but I guess while people are talking about it I might as well too.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Simple Answers to Simple Questions

Norm Ornstein on Republican whinging based on Democrats use of hardball parliamentary tactics:
But even so—is there no shame anymore?

This has been another edition of simple answers to simple questions.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tax Reform: Right on Schedule

It's not a Presidential priority, but the country is in fact perfectly due for an overhaul of the tax code. Over time, the tax code ends up developing enough different loopholes or alternate rates or whathaveyou that after a generation or so it collapses under its own weight, at which point the obvious solution to broaden the tax base while lowering the rates. The last time we did this was 24 years ago, in 1986 under Ronald Reagan, in the famous Showdown at Gucci Gulch. Before that, the prior overhaul was the now famous-to-Republicans Kennedy tax "cut" which eliminated the by then fictional 91% bracket, but which increased revenue thanks to broadening the tax base, roughly ... 24 years prior to the 1986 Tax Reform Act. So it's about time to start thinking along these lines. Personally I think current high levels of income inequality argue for a 45% tax bracket at $1M or so in annual income, but the rest of the concept behind Wyden-Gregg is sound. Of course, Republicans are happy to negotiate a compromise and then not vote for the damn thing anyway, so who knows where this will go, but it's something that we're going to have to consider sooner rather than later.

This is good policy and good general interest politics, but of course tax-assistance software firms vigorously lobby against making it easier to compute your tax liability, so until the issue has some public salience it will be tough to defeat organized resistance.

Rep. Blue Dog, With The Candlestick, In Arkansas

The most straightforward answer to TPM's question -- Who Killed The Public Option? -- seems to be "the marginal post-Stupak-defection Democratic centrist in the House".

Why is the leadership not pushing for it, when they could pass it a few months ago? Because they lost the most hard-core members of the Stupak bloc, and they have to make up for it with nervous Blue Dogs who don't want to do anything that might sound remotely progressive.

I guess it's conceivable that the perfect effort could get the votes together for it. But in keeping with the Jonathan Bernstein analysis, it would make it harder for us to find enough cooperators to get out of our current prisoner's dilemma, increasing the risk of total failure. I think the risk/reward looks a lot better on the current strategy, especially when you think about the possibility of adding on the public option in years to come.


The latest xkcd, and especially the mouseover text, reminds me of my longtime curiosity about the phenomenon of slash fiction. It's male/male erotica, usually taking the form of short stories about characters from sci-fi or fantasy written by heterosexual women. The term 'slash' comes from the punctuation used when categorizing the stories by the protagonists' names -- Kirk/Spock, Angel/Xander, Remus/Sirius, or whatever. I guess you could see the popularity of Brokeback Mountain as springing from the same forces that make slash popular.

What I find interesting about slash is that it's a sort of sexual expression that wasn't promoted by the usual social forces shaping people's sexual desires. Nobody was out there trying to get women interested in gay sex between Kirk and Spock, in the same way that a variety of social forces were telling them to be chaste until they married some tall guy with a steady job, and then bear his two sons and a daughter. And it wasn't that they were just writing fanfic about themselves and Kirk or Spock, which would be a rather straightforward expression of the innate desires you'd expect. The way we usually understand the biological and social forces involved push against this happening, and yet it happens!

Girls are interesting and I want to know more about them.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Platonic Idea of a Neil Sinhababu Post

It's Sunday in Singapore, which means it's officially his birthday. This illustration wittily displays how I imagine he spends his days. Based on the content of his blog posts, it would appear that between his ears most of his thoughs relate to, in no particular order, Nancy Pelosi; philosophy; and ways to tangentially incorporate sex into blog posts about public policy and electoral politics.

One paragraph is too small for an ideal Neil post, so I'll just add that it's nice to blog alongside Neil. Hopefully in the future I'll do a better job of increasing our content throughput when he's unavailable.

The Alpha And The Omega

Via Karen Tumulty, I just loved this quote. You'll have to click something to see who said it.
I have supported — when I say support, signs in the street, advocacy in legislatures — I have supported single payer for longer than many of you have been — since you've been born, than you've lived on the face of the earth.
Odds of a bill passing are up to 66% on Intrade. Today at the Democrats Abroad annual meeting here in Singapore, I offered to have a party when the bill is signed. People want to go to one, so the big question is whether my apartment will be large enough.

Friday, March 12, 2010

You Have The Power

An interesting admission in an otherwise unrelated post:
We have a policy here not to write about political web videos, because they are meaningless. They don't actually do anything--unless, that is, if political blogs write about themWe have a policy here not to write about political web videos, because they are meaningless. They don't actually do anything--unless, that is, if political blogs write about them.
Of course, drawing the line there is arbitrary. Why stop at web videos? Why are right-wing politicians appearances in front of right-wing audiences or on talk radio treated as "news"? Why is Drudge given the agenda setting power that he appears to have? The decisions to elevate certain voices are the result choices made by people, and they can be unmade, "competitive pressure" be damned.

I'm not necessarily saying that reporters should ignore appearances in front of favorable audiences--sometimes you get a more candid conversation that way--and of course web videos are an attempt by partisan or activist outlets to garner free media with basically no effort. But there's no reason that they should be treated uniquely by the press.

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama dance together during the Governors Ball in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)"

Today's cover is CONFIDE covering The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights". Turn the volume down a little:

Janet Yellen And The Ornithology Of Macroeconomics

How did this become the ornithology of macroeconomics?
President Barack Obama intends to nominate Janet Yellen, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, to take over as vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, a person familiar with the selection said Friday.

Yellen is considered a dove on monetary policy, meaning she is more concerned about high unemployment than rising inflation. As vice chair she would be the second highest ranking Fed official.

The dove/hawk metaphors are odd in the first place. Why are we taking bird metaphors for war and peace and extending them to consequences of monetary policy? This just leads to silliness. Is Al Gore a CO2 hawk? Is James Inhofe a pollution dove? How about Mario and Luigi -- Koopa Troopa hawks?

And then there's the question of why we tie the bird metaphors to inflation rather than unemployment. Why isn't Yellen called an unemployment hawk? When I read these terms, I get the feeling that somebody won a terminological battle a long time ago, and the other side had no idea that the battle was going on.

But anyway, thanks for finally getting around to this, Barack. (Paul Krugman is happy with our new avian friend. I don't understand the issues well enough to know what to make of Brad DeLong's semi-positive response.) Now go appoint two more birds who will fly around and eat all the unemployment rats, or whatever.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Articles Of Confederation

The Revolutionary War, and the events leading up to it, are the kind of things that stick in your mind. There's dudes dressed as Indians throwing tea into the ocean and "no taxation without representation!" and Washington crossing the Delaware and a ragtag band of ewoks defeating the Empire.

And then there's the utterly forgettable period during which we had the Articles of Confederation. Until I went on wikipedia and looked it up, all I knew about this period was that in some vague way things weren't centralized enough and didn't work. (Which is embarrasing, because actual historians sometimes read this blog.) And as far as I can see, things were pretty awful. Without the power to tax, we couldn't raise an army or give veterans their pensions. Since we didn't have a proper navy, Barbary pirates would enslave our sailors. The money of an insolvent federal government became worthless. Since we hadn't assembled into any sort of functional economic bloc, Europeans would abuse us in trade wars.

Of course, this is mostly the boring kind of awful. You can easily make movies about American patriots triumphing over the British in the Revolutionary war, but the move away from the Articles and towards the central government that made America a functional and eventually awesome nation isn't summer blockbuster material.

This is an unfortunate thing. More attention to this time period would make the valuable point that having a strong central government is a very helpful thing in the modern world. Without taking lots of power away from states and establishing a working federal government, we'd be in chaos with a failed currency, no army, a terrible economy, and enslaved sailors. The way we got out of those problems deserves to be a bigger part of our national myth than it is.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Real World: More Mundane that Academia

A commenter relays these comments from a teacher in relation to my last post:
The writer would never, ever, say that about the other professions, such as playing soccer and being a lawyer, to which she compares teaching.

Well, I don't know about this writer specifically, but the between academia and the real world is well known. Actual professional lawyers frequently complain that law school spends too much time preparing students to be appellate court clerks and not enough time on nuts and bolts things like contract drafting and review, even though far more law students will go on to draft and review contracts rather than become Circuit Court clerks. The disconnect between computer science departments and actual tech firms is also substantial, though the variance between schools is large and in almost any school a motivated student can find time for real-world programming instead of mucking around in Lisp or Haskell. Still, there's no course in "defensive programming" in any department that I know of, so it's something that people pick up almost entirely after graduation, or if they're lucky, by osmosis from students who have internships or who read articles on the subject. Doctor's famously resisted Atul Gawande's error-reduction checklist on the grounds that they were already competent enough to avoid most of these mistakes.

Now, neither lawyering or software engineering nor medicine nor teaching can be reduced to a series of rote techniques. They're not sufficient to making a good professional. And they may not even be necessary. But on average they're almost certainly an improvement. Great teachers who haven't specifically learned these techniques are likely to follow them. Great programmers are likely to engage in some defensive practices whether they were taught them or not. But we really have to get away from the idea that just because you have a professional degree means that you've figured out how to be good at your profession. People who have gone to school for a long time like to think that they have some special wisdom they've earned over the years, and that minor tweaks can't possibly make a big difference. But in fact that opposite appears to be true; minor tweaks can turn good surgeons into fantastic surgeons, or good programmers into great ones.

In addition, the specific case of teachers brings up the problem that the US needs a fucking lot of teachers. There are more teachers in the U.S. than there are military personnel, and the education requirements are such that the applicant pool is even smaller. To think that we're going to be able to make a significant improvement in teacher quality without resorting to some mechanical changes that can be taught with relative ease to low-performing teachers is the height of folly. And the same goes for other professions as well.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Teachers

With the latest NYT Magazine piece on training better teachers putting the subject front and center, it's worth adding this month-old Atlantic article to your reading list. Over the past decade, Teach For America has overhauled their application process in the hopes of getting a higher number of teachers who are effective in the classroom. It turns out that the best way to do this is to (a) hire candidates who have demonstrated  some organizatoinal managment and/or who have overcome adversity, and (b) pick candidates who's performance during a practice teaching session demonstrate instincts that are similar to the advice given in Lemov's Taxonomy. Here's the money quote:

Strong teachers insist that effective teaching is neither mysterious nor magical. It is neither a function of dynamic personality nor dramatic performance," Farr writes in Teaching as Leadership, a book coming out in February from Farr and his colleagues. The model the book lays out, Farr is careful to say, is not the only path to success. But he is convinced it can improve teaching--and already has. In b2007, 24 percent of Teach for America teachers moved their students one and a half or more years ahead, according to the organization's internal reports. In 2009, that number was up to 44 percent.

As best I can tell, this is a real golf shot in the field of education. There's a huge difference between a school where a quarter of the teachers are great and a school where almost half the teachers are great. Now, Teach For America is obviously in the fortunate situation of having a large applicant pool of high caliber students for a small number of slots, but even an urban school district could use this knowledge to try to shift teachers who met TFA's criteria to high-need schools.

Improving teacher quality will probably involve a two-track approach. If the average teacher salary were around $75,000 instead of $50,000 that would make a big difference in the set of people that apply for teaching jobs. But even then, the country simply needs so many teachers that we will have to identify classroom techniques and lesson plans that help turn low-performing teachers into mediocre teachers, mediocre teachers into good teachers, and good teachers into great teachers. There's no reason that we can't do both of these things at the same time.

Dentures Beat Reconciliation

While there are plenty of horrendous things that the pre-2005 Democratic leadership can be criticized for, I don't blame them too much for not raising a fuss over the Republican use of budget reconciliation to pass tax cuts back in 2003. (Of course, we ought to blame them for not attacking tax cuts for the rich head-on.)

It's not only because of the conservative noise machine that "Even if congressional Democrats had tried to make an issue out of reconciliation in 2003, they probably wouldn't have gotten much traction." It's because process complaints about things like the use of budget reconciliation are wussy in the court of public opinion. Now, there are some genuinely freaky details in this case, like the fact that the Republicans fired the previous Senate Parliamentarian because he didn't rule like they wanted. Overall, however, it's hard for me to see how process complaints against a passed bill get much headway against substantive praise for the benefits of the legislation.

I'm happy enough to see Media Matters step up and point out the unequal coverage -- that's what they do. But if you're a Congressional candidate in a debate and your opponent starts complaining about budget reconciliation, don't bother rebutting him in detail. You want to get to the point about how the insurance companies can't deny you coverage for pre-existing conditions. Or tell your district's version of Louise Slaughter's story about the old woman who had to scavenge her dead sister's ill-fitting dentures because she couldn't afford her own. Reconciliation complaints are forgotten. Denture stories are remembered.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Optimist Is In The House

I think this analysis from Nate Silver about the probability that the health care bill will pass (he's at about even-money) is too pessimistic on at least two counts.

First, the picture looks a lot better if you make the likely assumption that Pelosi had a fair number of extra votes lined up, but that she didn't need to call on because she already had enough for passage, and the members in question felt that if they weren't needed they'd rather not stick their necks out. The vote total for the bill fits this interpretation pretty well. She needed 218, but if she got exactly 218 everybody would've been 'the deciding vote to pass health care reform' and some people from marginal districts probably didn't want that. Add one more to avoid that problem and then the Republican Anh Cao, who she might not have felt she could count on, and you've got the 220 she had. This suggests the possibility that there were a few members who said, "Okay, Nancy, I'll be there if you need me, but I'd rather not be seen doing this in case the Senate can't pass the bill and it ends up being a Thing That Failed."

Second, Nate's point that "nobody who voted against the bill before has yet affirmed that they'll switch to vote for it" is less significant than he thinks. Once you declare yourself in favor, you lose your leverage in future negotiations. This is especially important in light of his concern about how none of the Blue Dogs are being drawn in by the more conservative Senate bill. Why would they come out early in support of the legislation and give up leverage?

Sidenote: it's one of the bizarre features of the Senate negotiations that the people who exercised maximum leverage basically used it in ways that ruined their public image -- Ben Nelson's Cornhusker Kickback was roundly derided, and Joe Lieberman dropped dramatically in the polls after killing the public option. Hopefully no Blue Dog will come out and demand, I don't know, a big naked statue of themselves in exchange for voting yes.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Watch Him "Focus On Jobs"

I rather enjoyed "A History of Obama Feigning Interest In Mundane Things."

If the public option were more mundane, this sentence would be a better joke.

Raul Grijalva, Progressive Stuntman?

I'm thinking that these two criticisms of Raul Grijalva, if right, synthesize pretty well into a defense of what he's doing. First, Matt Yglesias:
He deems it a “slap in the face” that certain things, especially HSA expansions, were added in exchange for zero GOP votes while progressives are getting nothing from the White House on a public option. And it’s true, Grijalva and other public option advocates have been slapped in the face. That said, the bill at hand is a boon to low-income Americans who desperately need help affording health insurance for their families. If you vote “no” and kill the bill, Barack Obama’s family will still be fine. Its families in Grijalva’s district who’ll pay the price.
Second, Jonathan Bernstein just before he went off to blog for Andrew Sullivan:
I'm definitely getting the feeling that Grijalva isn't going to be up on whatever Arizona's version of Mt. Rushmore is. The guy has one move, right? Step One: Raul Grijalva threatens that he'll vote against health care reform because the bill isn't far enough to the left. Step Two: No one pays any attention. Step Three: Raul Grijalva supports the bill. Step Four: The bill moves a little bit further away from Grijalva's preferences. Step Five: Repeat.
Matt's definitely right about bill > no bill. And while I've been very worried about this at various points in the past, I'm coming around to the view that Jonathan is right about Grijalva always seeing reason and eventually getting aboard.

So assuming Jonathan is right, what's gained by Grijalva's empty threats? Well, his only real power is his ability to shape whether legislation is seen as being liberal by complaining about it or not. If the chairman of the Progressive Caucus calls it a slap in the face, that weighs against it being treated as liberal, and people in the traditional media treating it that way helps it pass. It's kind of odd that somebody's best way of helping a bill is by being a political stuntman doing scenes where authors of legislation slap him around, throw him off bridges, and otherwise abuse him in picturesque ways. America, this is your politics.

Addendum: If I were a blogger of great significance (?!) and I posted this, would I be messing up Grijalva's game by calling attention to it? I don't think so. For the media to understand what he's doing, they'd have to come to terms with their own role in the process of determining whether something is treated as liberal, and how screwed up it is. And they're not going to do that.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Hooray For Budget Reconciliation And "Budget Reconciliation"!

A while ago, Ezra had a post encouraging people to find a better name for budget reconciliation. I know where he's coming from, but as I watch Republicans complain about it, I'm really starting to warm to the boringness of the name. When you incorporate the words "budget reconciliation" into some political attack you're making, its emotional appeal drops by about 70%. And if you're using the word "reconciliation" alone, well, that's a six-syllable word for what two people do when they want to start being nice to each other. Convincing a non-tuned-in swing voter that he should dislike Democrats or universal health care because of reconciliation is going to be a comically difficult task.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Where Jim Bunning Comes From

Jim Bunning has finally ended the ridiculous stalling tactics that were holding up people's unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies. It's kind of ridiculous that anything like this could actually begin in the first place. In any normal workplace or organization, if you're thinking about doing something this bonkers, your co-workers are going to step up and say, "No, dude, don't do that." And you won't.

But if you were a Senate Republican, and you knew that Jim Bunning was going to do something like this, would you have any incentive to pre-emptively stop him? I really don't see how. Nobody is going to hold it against James Inhofe or Jon Kyl that Bunning did his crazy thing. Bunning is retiring, so it's not like you need him to win re-election so you can be in the majority again. And worst of all, ordinary people in your state who are affected may not have any idea that Jim Bunning is the asshole responsible for all this shit. Ordinary people don't know who all the Senators are or what they're doing. When they go into the voting booth, the effect of Bunning's stunt may just be to make them think, "Well, the first two years of Obama have been awful" and vote against the president's party.

Of course, you can't let Bunning keep doing this forever, or it becomes a really big spectacle that hurts you. And there are opportunities for Olympia Snowe or whoever to score moderate points by publicly dissing Bunning (which is no reason for them to privately stop him beforehand). But I really don't see that Republicans lost anything by letting him get started.

More nakedly partisan use of the presidential megaphone, with forceful attacks on the Republican Party when they allow this kind of garbage, would probably be better for Democrats. It'd hurt Obama himself, too, and Obama's desire to keep his hands clean, stay above the fray, and refrain from blaming even the blameworthy may be part of why he's got a positive net approval rating even with the economy in bad shape. But two-party electoral competition is a zero-sum game, and we might be doing better in a bunch of House and Senate races if people understood that the Republicans in Congress are ridiculously horrible people who obstruct your unemployment benefits and then complain about how they've worked so hard at doing so that they didn't get to watch a basketball game.

And if you haven't been following this closely -- yes, I'm serious. Bunning said: "I have missed the Kentucky-South Carolina game that had started at 9 o'clock, and it's the only redeeming chance we had to beat South Carolina since they're the only team that has beaten Kentucky this year."

The Straight Line Projection Is For Suckers

This is a pipe, but it's also a straight line.
The WSJ points to the latest Quinnipiac poll, which puts Arlen Specter modestly ahead of Pat Toomey in the general election. Across the pond, Labour appears to be close enough to the Conservatives that they might squeak out a plurality and form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, despite earlier predictions of a Tory landslide.

All of which is a fancy way of saying that there's never, ever, any reason to assume that the today's polling will persist until election day, and that forecasting outcomes years on months in advance based on current poll numbers is a sucker's bet. It's entirely plausible that the public may sober up a bit and reject GOP rule as we get closer to election day. It's also plausible that the unemployment rate might drop to 9% and give some people confidence that things are getting better. It's also plausible that some terrible scandal will engulf Democrats. Many things are plausible. That's what makes the future so exciting--we don't know what's going to happen in it! The best way forward is for Democrats to put their heads down and get to work, so that economic circumstances are on the up-and-up and they can put themselves in a situation where they can hold more seats.

Monday, March 1, 2010

There Can Be Only One?

With the release of Warren Buffett's latest letter to shareholders (PDF), the Oracle of Omaha is in the news. Which brings up what strikes me as a huge oddities in American business: why is there only one Warren Buffet? There is no rocket science involved in Buffet's investment strategy, and in the aggregate his portfolio does significantly better than the S&P. Doesn't this point to a gigantic market inefficiency? Shouldn't other investors be able to engage in strategies similar to those adopted by Warren Buffett and reap long term returns while being significantly shielded from risk?


There's a certain amount of freakout occurring over this quote from Kent Conrad (D-ND):
"Reconciliation cannot be used to pass comprehensive health care reform," said Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "The major package would not be done through reconciliation"

But as Congress Matters helpfully points out, that's just fine; it has never been the official plan A to pass health reform through reconciliation. Indeed, even in the current situation, reconciliation would only be used to pass modifications to the bill. The bill has already passed the Senate and is waiting to be passed by the House under regular order in traditional Schoolhouse Rock fashion; one chamber passes a bill, and then the other chamber decides it's good enough that they'll pass it too.

To review, reconciliation has been used to pass the Bush tax cuts; the 1993 Deficit Reduction Act; a number of other bills such as the original CHIP, COBRA insurance continuation, and two budgets under President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich; and welfare reform. All of these bills represent substantially more significant bills than the sidecar modifications to health reform. Meanwhile, thanks to de facto gerrymandering in the Senate, the 55 or so Senators who vote for the reconciliation sidecar will end up representing about 63% of the population. There's no cause to freak out about some sort of abuse of power here. None.