November 2008

2008 11 26
Cool it?


Josh Marshall tells those of us wringing our hands over some of his (potential) appointees to cool it. Appointees implement policies; they don’t set them.

Maybe Josh can forgive us for taking Obama at his word:

One of the great economic minds of our times, Larry [Summers] has the global reputation for being able to get to the heart of the most complex and novel policy challenges. With respect to both, our current financial crisis and other pressing economic issues of our time, his thinking, writing, and speaking have set the terms of the debate. I am glad he will be by my side, playing the critical role of coordinating my administration’s economic policy in the White House and I will rely heavily on his advice as to navigate the unchartered waters of this crisis.

Obama tells us that Larry Summers, who argued that regulating financial derivatives markets would “cast[ ] a shadow of regulatory uncertainty over an otherwise thriving market,” will be a guiding force. Why shouldn’t we believe that?


Howls of outrage (9)

2008 11 25
Friedman


I let my subscription to the New Yorker lapse a little while back, but my friend and occasional commenter here, Alif Sikkiin, lent me a recent edition with a profile of Thomas Friedman by Ian Parker. Alif and I had pretty much the same reaction to the piece: that Parker cuts him down a bit, but ends up according Friedman far more respect than he deserves.

I just wanted to make a quick note on this bit of the piece (on p. 62):

Friedman understood the political and cultural context of Iraq well, but the prospect of war required him to make a choice—yes or no—and this did not come naturally. He knew that the judgment, once made, would become separated from its analytical roots. (In the event, that process was assisted by a clumsy comment Friedman made to Charlie Rose in May, 2003: he said, approvingly, that the American presence in Iraq was akin to saying “Suck on this” to Islamic terrorists.)

Apart from this talk of “analytical roots,” which gives the wholly misleading impression that Friedman has ideas, this seems to me an implausible reading of Friedman’s comments on Charlie Rose’s show. Go watch the video. Friedman is speaking passionately, but he’s also being very deliberate, and you can see that he’s choosing his words carefully. It would be bad enough if he had expressed the view that Parker attributes to him, since that view approves of actions that hurt innocents in order to annoy and depress adversaries (much in the way that terrorists do). But I don’t think that’s what Friedman is actually saying. Rather, the target of the “Suck on this” seems to be the broader Middle East, and an entire culture he finds fault with. It wasn’t terrorists that Friedman wanted the Iraq war to send a message to, it was everybody in the region.

Whatever. The final word on Friedman is always going to be Matt Taibbi’s review of “The Earth is Flat,” which has to be one of the best reviews ever written.*

* This review—same publication, different author—is another old favourite.


Howls of outrage (3)

2008 11 20
The Health Care Industry’s Insufficient Offer


Posted by in: Odds and ends

Ezra Klein is right, the news this morning out of the insurance industry’s bunker is a big deal. They have offered a deal. They will agree to offer insurance to everyone, in exchange for a mandate forcing all to obtain coverage. Ezra explains the logic of current arrangements:

The individual health insurance market, fundamentally, is incoherent: Insurers try to deny coverage to those who want it and to sell to those who don’t. That’s because the most profitable customer for an insurer is one that never gets sick, and the least profitable is one who falls very ill. But that’s not how you want your health insurance market to work. We want sick people to get care. That’s the point.

But perhaps they see the writing on the wall, and know that at some point, they will face legislation enjoining them to adopt “guarantee issue.” Hell, even the vast majority of Republicans voted for a recent bill prohibiting insurance companies from “discriminating” against customers whose genetic tests indicate future health problems. But in order to cover the costs of insuring those who have been traditionally denied coverage precisely because covering them would be expensive, the insurers say they’ll need healthy people to buy insurance. That way when the risky get sick, the premiums of the healthy can be used to pay for their treatment. As Donald G. Hamm Jr., president of Assurant Health, puts it,

In the individual market, people can choose whether or not to apply for coverage,” Mr. Hamm said in an interview. “If they know they can obtain coverage at any time, many will wait until they get sick to apply for it. That increases the price for everyone.

But Ezra is on to Mr. Hamm:

The question is not whether they’ll offer to sell coverage at all, but at what price? Selling insurance products that no one can afford may mean you’re not technically denying people access to insurance, but it doesn’t guarantee accessibility, which is a necessary precondition for a universal system. For that, you need “community rating,” which would force insurers to offer coverage at the same price to everyone, spreading risk equally and ensuring that coverage is no less affordable for the sick than the well.

Actually, even community rating is insufficient. Community rated plans are designed to lower the insurance costs faced by high risk individuals by requiring that any particular health plan’s premium be priced to reflect the population’s average anticipated individual health care costs. While such regulations are well-meaning— high risk individuals will not be charged more than low risk individuals for the same level of coverageadverse selection can remain a problem. Unless there are also government restrictions on the levels of coverage in the available plans, especially on whether there is a robust minimum that every plan must provide, low-risk individuals may choose bare bones plans that would benefit medium- and high-risk persons little. When this happens, plans providing a robust level of health care will attract only those individuals with higher risks, and this will drive up premiums and drive away healthier buyers interested in cheaper plans. So even if everyone is charged the same price for a community rated plan, the plans providing robust coverage will be avoided by the healthy, thus making them more expensive for those who will actually want them. This leads to premiums that still significantly reflect health status even when community rating regulations are in effect. Here’s one recent NBER working paper on the issue.

So what we need is a mandate, community rating, and legislation establishing a robust minimum that each health care plan must satisfy. Only then will low-risk individuals actually subsidize the care that high-risk individuals need.

Unfortunately, the problem is not solved even then, since general health costs are growing unsustainably. But that is a problem we can discuss another day.


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2008 11 19
The Collaring


Posted by in: Odds and ends

A friend is getting married next year in New Zealand. While she already has a celebrant in mind, she thought she’d check out the country’s list of official celebrants, in part to see if anyone she knows is one. She then noticed that only one of them seemed to have a website, so she thought she’d take a look. And there, amidst a sea of quite normal sample vows that Geoffrey Vine has used in the past, is this:

THE COLLARING

Celebrant: This is a special day with a twofold purpose. In addition to exchanging vows and rings, AAA is going to place his collar on XXX as a symbol of their bond as Master and submissive.

CCC presents the studded leather collar to celebrant

Celebrant: A collar is not a thing to be taken lightly.  It is an outward symbol of a way of life, the ownership and guidance of one person by another.  In this, the Master undertakes to protect, guide and nurture the submissive, who in turn pledges herself to Him with all her being.  This is a bond of love, trust and honour.  As submission is the greatest gift, Dominance is the greatest responsibility, for without one, the other cannot be.

XXX kneels

Celebrant: XXX, do you of your own free will take AAA’s collar? Will you fulfill His needs, serve His pleasures and meet His wishes, acceding in all things to Him?

XXX responds

Celebrant: AAA, do you accept XXX as your submissive? Will you treasure her gift, tempering power with duty, keeping her wellbeing first in your heart?

AAA responds

Celebrant hands the collar to AAA

AAA places the collar on XXX. AAA then helps XXX stand and they kiss.

XXX will then pour mead into the chalice.

Celebrant: Let this cup of mead be a symbol of the cup of life. As you share this one cup, may life be that much sweeter because you share it; may the past you have put behind you seem less bitter because of it.

XXX kneels and offers the cup to AAA, who drinks and then offers the cup to XXX, who drinks. XXX hands the cup back to celebrant and AAA helps XXX to her feet.

Celebrant: AAA and XXX, you have made the important step of making public, in front of these people, your full commitment to one another for the rest of your days.

Above you are the stars, below you are the stones. As time passes, remember only this: like a star should your love be constant. Like a stone should your love be firm. Be close, yet not too close. Possess one another, yet be understanding. Have patience each with the other, for storms will come but they will go just as quickly. Be free in giving affection and warmth. Make love often, and be sensuous to one another. Have no fear, and let not the ways or words of the unenlightened give you unease.

Go from this place in joy and in peace and may the spirit of all life travel with you throughout your days together.

CLOSING MUSIC (Nothing Else Matters – Metallica)


Howls of outrage (3)

2008 11 12
Harbinger?


Posted by in: Odds and ends

I realize that tea leaf-reading ill befits a serious blog like this one, but I couldn’t resist. You see, for an Obama Presidency that may–may–mark the decisive turn away from the philosophy of the Reagan revolution that many say began with this, this item is a welcome harbinger:

An air traffic controllers group says it has become the first union to represent workers at the Guantánamo Bay Navy base in Cuba. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization says it will represent eight employees who direct flights at the Caribbean outpost. Ron Taylor, president of the group, said the vote was its first organizing campaign victory outside the United States. The Guantánamo workers are employed by Midwest Air Traffic Control Service of Overland Park, Kan.

Also, persuant to my last post, Robert Kuttner does his best to talk me down.

But I may be—call me crazy, call me an optimist, we have reality on our side. Events are going to drive this, and he’s either going to rise to the occasion or he’s going to fail. And I think he’s a very smart, very decent guy who doesn’t want to fail. And unlike certain recent presidents, he’s also very intelligent. And I don’t think this is going to be a man who’s going to be steered by his staff. At all the key meetings, the meetings were run by Obama himself. And it’s going to be—I don’t think the die is yet cast. I think this is still a very fluid moment. I’m unnerved by the people he’s appointing. There are deep structural forces that we’ve talked about that put so much power in the hands of Wall Street, that push him in that direction. But this is one of those moments when things could change, if we get counterweights on the part of organizing at the grassroots.


Howls of outrage (8)

2008 11 08
Seating arrangements


Posted by in: Books, U.S. politics

Matthew Yglesias scoffed recently about Obama’s press staff’s decision to release a seating chart for Obama’s Economic Transition Advisory Board. James Wimberley points out in response that seating arrangements can actually be highly significant.

If I can just take this up a notch in geekyness, I’ve had a healthy respect for the complexities of seating arrangements ever since I was present to hear George Steiner’s lecture series, Two Suppers (reprinted in his book No Passion Spent). The two suppers in question are the last supper as described in the Gospels and the dinner party depicted in Plato’s Symposium. Where each person sits and why is an important but easy to miss issue in the literary depictions of both suppers, and my recollection is that Steiner has an interesting and challenging discussion of the topic.

Steiner can be a bit annoying, but if you’re interested in the issue of seating arrangements, those lectures are one place to start.


Howls of outrage (4)

2008 11 07
Foxy Lady


Posted by in: Odds and ends

NYT:

A jogger was attacked by a rabid fox, ran a mile with the animal’s jaws clamped on her arm and then drove herself to a hospital, the authorities said. The Yavapai County sheriff’s office said the woman told deputies that she was on a trail near Prescott on Monday when the fox attacked and bit her foot. The woman said that she grabbed the fox by the neck when it went for her leg but that it bit her arm. The woman wanted the animal tested for rabies so she ran a mile to her car with the fox still biting her arm, then pried the animal off and tossed it in her trunk and drove to the Prescott hospital. The sheriff’s office said the fox later bit an animal-control officer. He and the woman are both receiving rabies vaccinations.

I just love that the writer describes her as “tossing” the fox in the trunk, as if it were a picnic blanket.


Howls of outrage (2)

2008 11 06
Early choices


I have been dismayed for a while now that Robert Rubin seems to be Obama’s top economics advisor. I am somewhat calmed by the fact that Jared Berstein also advises Obama, but I have no idea how much of his ear Bernstein has.  Moreover, this talk about Larry Summers getting the nod for Treasury secretary suggests that Obama is inclined to go with the Rubin camp over the Berstein camp. Of course, we can always hope that Obama is in fact going to deviate from the 1990s Rubin/Summers line, and that Rubin and Summers will now simply be his tools to get it done. But the time for Obama-inspired hope is over. We don’t need hope anymore, we need action.

I have similar reservations about Rahm Emanuel. I’ll admit that I have no idea what, if any, influence Emanuel’s ideas will have on Obama, but I think we can assume he’ll have some (maybe a lot). And this worries me. I’m worried that Emanuel’s apparent close connections with the wealthy and well-connected, as well as his penchant for conservative, pro-/ not-too-anti-war candidates in 2006, will infect what many of us hoped would be a strong will toward getting out of Iraq and moving the country in a more progressive direction. True, Emanuel “helped guide the Democrats to wins in 2006,” as Matt Yglesias reminds us. But at what cost? Many said at the time that the 2006 mid-terms were given to the feckless Dems by virtue of the populace’s hatred of Bush’s endless war policy. Yet this account of Emanuel’s role in the 2006 mid-terms describes him doing his level best to ensure that the Dems who won were of the pro-war, Blue Dog persuasion.

Look, I’m prepared to get the shaft from Obama. I really am. But for a guy who won the primary in part because of his opposition to the Iraq war, and who won the general election in part because of a financial crisis, it is really unbelievable that two architects of conditions that created the crisis are his lead advisor and potential Treasury Secretary, and that his first choice for chief of staff is a guy who ensured that Obama’s (hypothetical) progessive, anti-war agenda will be harder to get through the Dem controlled House than it had to be.

I guess what I’m sayin’–a la Rachel Maddow’s favorite teevee segment–is: Please!, talk me down!


Howls of outrage (13)

2008 11 06
Burke on conservatives


Timothy Burke writes:

It’s schadenfreudey fun to read the ongoing psychotic meltdowns at various far-right sites like the Corner, I agree. But there’s little need to take the really bad-faith conservatives seriously now. For the last eight years, we’ve had to take them somewhat seriously because they had access to political power. You had to listen to the hack complaints about academia from endlessly manipulative writers because it was perfectly plausible that whatever axe they were grinding was going to end up as a priority agenda item coming out of Margaret Spelling’s office or get incorporated into legislation by right-wing state legislators. You had to listen to and reply to even the most laughably incoherent, goalpost-moving, anti-reality-based neoconservative writer talking about Iraq or terrorism because there was an even-money chance that you were hearing actual sentiments going back and forth between Dick Cheney’s office and the Pentagon. You had to answer back to Jonah Goldberg not just because making that answer was arguably our responsibility as academics, but also because left alone, some of the aggressively bad-faith caricatures he and others served up had a reasonable chance to gain even further strength through incorporation into federal policy.

There are plenty of thoughtful, good-faith conservatives who need to be taken seriously. And the actual conservatism of many communities and constituencies (in Appalachia and elsewhere) remains, as always, a social fact that it would be perilous to ignore or dismiss.

There are plenty of criticisms of academia which retain their importance and gravity, or which will continue to inform policy-makers in an Obama Administration. Don’t expect pressure for accountability and assessment to go away, for example. It doesn’t matter that Chuck Grassley is a Republican: a lot of the muck he’s raking up deserves to be raked.

But I think we can all make things just ever so slightly better, make the air less poisonous, by pushing to the margins of our consciousness the crazy, bad, gutter-dwelling, two-faced, tendentious high-school debator kinds of voices out there in the public sphere, including and especially in blogs. Let them stew in their own juices, without the dignity of a reply, now that their pipelines to people with real political power have been significantly cut.

Making fun of or arguing with crazy ideologues is sort of the intellectual equivalent of junk food: bad for you and addictive at the same time. But as Burke points out it was at the same time often necessary during the Bush years because so many of the crazy ideas floating around the right were popular with extremely powerful leaders and opinion makers. Part of the excitement I wrote about the other day with politics now comes from the hope of moving to a more intelligent and substantive political discourse. And of course I agree with Burke that we would do well to include disagreements with good-faith conservatives as part of that conversation.

But the more I think about it, the more I think sensible, decent people are going to have to brace themselves for a serious storm of resentment-driven insanity, especially on cable television, but also in the print media. Ignoring this is simply not going to be an option. Even though the crazy talk will not be, for the moment, coming from the mouths of the powerful or their proxies, it will be aimed squarely at destroying anything constructive that the Democrats attempt to accomplish. Its electoral setbacks mean that for the next two years at least, the right’s principal focus is going to have to be on shaping, as much as possible, the media’s presentation of the Obama administration.

This is important: Right now, aiming at the media and shaping public discourse as much as possible is all they’ve got. And we already know the basic strategy. You work hard to create an alternative reality on the fringes. You then present a slightly more moderate version of this, call it “moderate,” and then howl that it doesn’t get equal play in the media. When it does get play, you win. When it doesn’t, you strengthen your narrative of resentment. The degree of success in this venture is going to make an enormous difference to how much Obama is able to accomplish.

I do believe that the recent election opened an incredibly exciting space for substantive debate about political issues, but I also think that the most prominent part of American political discourse is about to get much, much uglier and stupider than it has been in my lifetime. I don’t have the time, the temperament, or the inclination for this kind of garbage clean up, but I’m very glad that other folks do.


Howls of outrage (3)

2008 11 05
The tear count


Posted by in: Odds and ends

Sadly, there’s no way of settling this question, but I’m willing to bet that yesterday’s election resulted in more gallons of tears-wept-in-joy than any other in American history.


Howls of outrage (3)

2008 11 05
The infrastructure


Posted by in: Odds and ends

Yglesias, on the willingness of the media to call the McCain campaign on some of its nastier and stupider tricks:

It’s the infrastructure, stupid. Organizations like Think Progress, TPM Media, The Huffington Post, Media Matters, and Progressive Accountability have ensured that there are dozens of people working, every day, to shoot down bogus storylines and to highlight especially egregious behavior. And those institutions are connected to a vast web of individual or small-group blogs that together form a sea in which long-existing progressive publications like The American Prospect, Mother Jones, The Nation, and The Washington Monthly all swim, all reaching much broader audiences than they could in their strictly print days. New, more progressive columnists with ties to those institutions like Harold Meyerson and Paul Krugman have joined The Washington Post and New York Times op-ed pages. Television programs open to progressive ideas hosted by Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow have appeared on cable.

To make a long story short, the Obama-McCain matchup is taking place in a very different media context from the Kerry-Bush matchup in 2004. And Kerry-Bush happened in a very different context than Gore-Bush in 2000. And I think it’s no coincidence that as progressive infrastructure gets bigger and stronger, it gets harder and harder for conservative media strategies to work. The press’s all-out war against Gore galvanized people and have created institutions designed to fight back against that kind of garbage.

Yes.

If you’re American and you’re looking for somewhere to park a little bit of extra cash, you might consider donating to one of the organizations Yglesias mentions. They’re going to be absolutely essential going forward, as the right-wing slime machine kicks into high gear. Everything feels wonderful today, but I suspect it won’t be long before the Clinton/Gore years look sane and balanced in comparison.


Howls of outrage (2)

2008 11 05
Coverage of Election Day 2008


The Newseum has a fun feature called Today’s Front Pages, the front pages of newspapers from around the US and the world. As of my posting this at 3 AM Eastern time Nov 5, it hasn’t yet ticked over to showing the Nov 5 papers, but maybe it will have by the time you read this. Here’s the link if you’re reading this after Nov 5 2008.

Right now the NYT home page has a tall all-caps OBAMA as its lone topline, then a smaller subhead below. I like this presentation best of the newspaper pages I’ve seen so far.

Another site that should have good stuff tomorrow: The Big Picture, the Boston Globe’s blog of giant-size photos.


Howls of outrage (3)

2008 11 03
Predictions


My fellow prisoners, the end is near. Here are a few predictions.

Let’s start easy: Obama wins the presidency.

Of the close states, Obama wins Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, Florida (by a whisker), but not North Carolina or Indiana.

Democrats get 57 seats in the Senate (not counting Lieberman, of course).

Obama doesn’t get assassinated any time in the next four years. (Attempts and woundings don’t count.)

McCain doesn’t run again. His health declines precipitously sometime within the next four years, provoking a collective shudder in the US (and the rest of the world), and setting forward a few years the age considered acceptable for a presidential candidate.

Sarah Palin does not become the Republican nominee for President in 2012. Neither does Guilliani.

North Korea attempts to back out of its non-proliferation agreement with the US within a few months. Result: Big fuss. Widely considered Obama’s first big test.

Some time in the next four years, North Korea suddenly collapses. Handling the fallout becomes a much more significant foreign policy priority for the Obama presidency than almost anyone expected.

US troop presence in Iraq is reduced quickly, but there are still at least 5,000 US troops in Iraq in 2012.

The Republican party bounces back surprisingly quickly.

The Obama Presidency becomes the best thing that has ever happened to Fox News. Fox News plays its role as Unofficial Opposition with great gusto and makes a ton of money doing so.

Here’s an easy one: The Bush team behaves in a deeply unprofessional way during the transition. The media’s response is disappointingly tepid.

Politics becomes interesting again. For eight long years, the country has been run by hateful, blinkered people. During this time, and especially over the last four years, politics has only been interesting because it involves issues vital to our lives and often to the fate of humanity. What’s been largely missing is a sense that an intelligent contribution to political discourse could ever have a meaningful impact on the people who actually make decisions. For all the disagreements among Obama supporters, I think that there’s going to be a real, and extremely refreshing sense, that political debate is an area in which intelligent, well-argued, evidence-backed contributions might conceivably sway reasonable people in positions in power. A lot of very smart people all over the country are going to find that wildly exhilarating. There’s an incredible amount of pent up energy, enthusiasm and ideas out there. May it make a difference.

It’s been a long, annoying ride, my friends, and right now we all just want it to be over. Looking back, I think this little clip sums up the entire campaign. It’s the contrast between someone who is, for all his imperfections, an adult talking to other adults in an adult fashion, and a glib, uninformed college kid struggling very unsuccessfully to fake her teaching assistant into thinking that she’s done the readings.

Good luck, Mr. Obama. You’re going to need it.


Howls of outrage (26)