Share

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Obama's back (again...)

Obama was fired up and ready to go in Detroit today, sticking it to Mitt Romney on his home ground. Ezra Klein reminds us that while Obama may have been something of a wet blanket as president (I think the moisture was the economy), he is one hell of a campaigner.

To those who agonized through Obama's Jackie Robinson summer in 2011 and thrilled to his renewed combativeness this fall, I would remind that we've been here before -- and not only when it all worked out in 2008.  "I think it's safe to say that President Obama has given up on bipartisanship, at least for the foreseeable future," wrote Jonathan Cohn -- on September 8, 2010. The occasion was an economic speech to the City Club of Cleveland. As Cohn noted with satisfaction, Obama wasn't mincing words As he did a year later, he called out Republicans for opposing forms of stimulus they'd supported in the past:

Monday, February 27, 2012

Calling Larry David

Our blind, arthritic dog has congestive heart failure, which has been nicely stabilized by a cocktail of six drugs. One of them is Viagra (which is quite expensive). This strikes me as great sticom material. Can you imagine George Costanza in sniffing distance of such a prescription?  Either he'd be downing the dog's meds, or he'd be scheming to get a prescription on his or his friends' healthcare plans (with Kramer starting a little pet supply business), or various women would draw the wrong or impression,  or the dog would get very friendly with Elaine...

From another corner: would someone tell Rick Santorum that my dog is on Viagra?  Also, I'm planning to marry him. (I'm already married, but you know us eastern secular liberals.)

Meanwhile, I'm glad that our dog has stopped coughing and can move around as much as his near-immobile back legs will allow.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Yes, Citizens United did unlatch the Super PAC floodgates

Wendy Kaminer is the latest in a chorus of commentators complaining that the media in general, and The New York Times in particular, is misleading the public by asserting repeatedly that the Superme Court's Citizens United  decision has enabled the new Super Pacs:
Like Fox News, The New York Times has a First Amendment right to spread misinformation about important public issues, and it is exercising that right in its campaign against the Citizens United ruling. In news stories, as well as columns, it has repeatedly mischaracterized Citizens United, explicitly or implicitly blaming it for allowing unlimited "super PAC" contributions from mega-rich individuals. In fact, Citizens United enabled corporations and unions to use general treasury funds for independent political expenditures; it did not expand or address the longstanding, individual rights of the rich to support independent groups. 
Kaminer, like Steven Brill and Dan Abrams before her, is making a mountain out of a molehill -- or worse, promoting a misapprehension more consequential than that of which she accuses the Times.  As she herself acknowledges, while Citizens United did not directly address the rights of individuals to make unlimited contributions to organizations advocating directly for a candidate, it shaped the subsequent decision that did create the Super Pacs:  SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, decided by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in March 2010.

Kaminer's account of the relationship between the two cases is misleading. She implies that the Citizens United decision had merely a clarifying rather than a controlling role in Speech Now:

Saturday, February 25, 2012

On "moral responsibility" to Israel

Mulling over a jaw-dropping assertion by Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit that the United States has a "moral responsibility" to guarantee Israel that Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon, Jeffrey Goldberg drops an aside that I find revealing:
(And a small digression: Isn't it Europe, and Germany in particular, that should be considered to have greater moral responsibility here? Israel exists mainly because of European moral failure).

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Sonnet to Mitt

In a Dish series on sexual sorting, the mystery by which most of us find someone to love and be loved by, one readers strays into Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" sonnets - - those confessing an unsavory passion in startling counterpoint to the idealized love showered on the young man to whom most of the sonnets are addressed.

Whipsawed by the Dish's zigzags from politics to culture to nature, I read Sonnet 138 as an address from Republican primary voters to Mitt Romney:
When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor'd youth,
Unlearned in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress'd.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love's best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
   Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
   And in our faults by lies we flatter'd be.
Romney's is the post-truth campaign  (as the sonnets are in large part a post-truth profession of love). If we elect Romney, I'll take it as solid evidence that our "days are past the best" while he promises us another American century.

UPDATE, 2/24: In today's column, Paul Krugman hath writ this sonnet in prose:

In Mesa, Santorum completes his demolition of Romney's false Romneycare/Obamacare contrast

One GOP debate story has unfolded in installments. Over the course of several debates this year, Santorum has serially picked apart Romney's faux contrast between Romneycare and Obamacare. He hammered home one more key point last night, in Mesa AZ.

In the fall debates, Romney's rivals couldn't or wouldn't do this. Pawlenty famously chickened out. Perry tried, but he was apparently too ignorant of the core elements of each plan to drive home the fundamental similarities.   Santorum perhaps didn't have enough air time when there were eight on the stage and he was out on the wings

But since his strong showing in Iowa it's been different. On January 19 in South Carolina, he started in on Romney's insistence that while he created a free private insurance exchange in MA, the ACA imposes government-run healthcare -- never mind that the subsidized exchanges created by the ACA are essentially identical to the Massachusetts system. Santorum insisted on the equation:
92% of people in Massachusetts had health insurance, and Romneycare just expanded that to be full subsidized by the state of Massachusetts. Romneycare did not create a marketplace. It is a very prescriptive program. He is arguing for and defending a plan that is top down. It is prescriptive in government and was the basis of Obamacare.
 On January 26 in Florida, Santorum zeroed in on the individual mandate:

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The race for fearmonger in chief

What soul-weariness it is to try to begin to fathom the evil spoken by the thugs and frauds seeking the Republican nomination in tonight's CNN debate in Mesa, AZ.  Gingrich, Santorum, Romney.  When the discussion turns to foreign policy, there is nothing these three won't say to inspire the fear and hatred they think will push themselves past their rivals for the nomination and ultimately tear down Obama. Nothing. Romney says that Obama caved to the Russians -- in negotiating a treaty that six former secretaries of state and George H.W. Bush supported as a fit renewal of the START treaty.  Santorum asserts that Obama could have made the Green Revolution in Iran a success, when the merest hint of concrete U.S. support for any group in Iran is toxic. Gingrich tells the audience "you live in a world of total warfare" at a time when a lower proportion of humans is dying by violence than ever before in human history.  Santorum builds Iran into a global threat of supersoviet proportions. Gingrich justifies a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran -- with unstinting U.S. support -- purely on the basis of what Israelis might "think" Iran will do if it ever gets a nuclear weapon.

Gingrich, finally, always one to take the crown in demagoguery, delivers the coda: under Obama, "as long as you're an enemy of America you're safe." And Romney, outdone as usual in potency of demagogic phrasing but never behindhand in his will to smear and lie, immediately agrees.

Gingrich, Santorum, Romney. They are in different degrees and proportions liars, frauds and fearmongers (with an admixture, in Santorum's case, of sincere fanatic Islamophobia). One of them could be president. One of our two national political parties is degenerate. We are in peril.

Another unheeded warning from Cassandra Krugman

Those who find Paul Krugman unduly strident, or unduly...self confident must confront an inconvenient truth: the man has been right about the big stuff.

He was right about the Euro [update added 4/5/13 - more at bottom]. He was right about the Bush tax cuts. He was right about the Iraq war [update added 3/13/13]. He was right about the housing bubble. He was right about the size of the stimulus.  And, I just accidentally reminded myself, he was right about Obama's dreams of postpartisanship.

On Jan. 28, 2008, with the country in full flush of Obama fever, Krugman posted a warning that Obama ignored for the first 32-odd months of his presidency:
It’s starting to feel a bit like 1992 again. A Bush is in the White House, the economy is a mess, and there’s a candidate who, in the view of a number of observers, is running on a message of hope, of moving past partisan differences, that resembles Bill Clinton’s campaign 16 years ago....to the extent that Barack Obama 2008 does sound like Bill Clinton 1992, here’s my question: Has everyone forgotten what happened after the 1992 election?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Romney's abortion conversion fooled no one in 2005

Challenged on his former support for abortion rights in a recent GOP debate,  Mitt Romney trotted out the tale of his alleged pro-life epiphany.  In November 2004, he met with a Harvard stem cell researcher, who explained to him that his work depended on cloning human embryos. The tale is recounted in Michael Hanish and Scott Helman's The Real Romney:
In Romney’s retelling, Melton coolly explained how his work relied on cloning human embryos. “He said, ‘Look, you don’t have to think about this stem cell research as a moral issue, because we kill the embryos after fourteen days,’ ” Romney would later say. Melton afterward vigorously denied Romney’s characterization of the meeting, saying, “We didn’t discuss killing or anything related to it.” Melton said, “I explained my work to him, told him about my deeply held respect for life, and explained that my work focuses on improving the lives of those suffering from debilitating diseases.” 
But for Romney, it was a seminal day, triggering what he describes as an awakening on “life” issues after he had spent his entire political career espousing very different views. In the official account of Romney’s rebirth as a social conservative, the meeting with Melton would become the Genesis story. On February 10, 2005, three months after his meeting, Romney came out strongly against the cloning technique, saying in a New York Times interview that the method breached an “ethical boundary.” He vowed to press for legislation to criminalize the work. Romney’s opposition stunned scientists, lawmakers, and observers because of his past statements endorsing, at least in general terms, embryonic stem cell research. Six months earlier, his wife, Ann, had publicly expressed hope that stem cells would hold a cure for her multiple sclerosis (locations 4471--4482).
Romney took his transformation to the next level in July 2005, when he vetoed a bill making the morning-after pill available over the counter and mandating that hospitals make it available to rape victims.  This from a governor who had pressed his pro-choice credentials in the 2002 campaign, as well as in his 1994 run for the Senate.  In an op-ed published in the Boston Globe on July 26, 2005, Romney claimed he vetoed the bill because the pill would not simply prevent conception "would also terminate a living embryo after conception" (recalling his objection to creating embryos for stem cell research).  He claimed then, as he has recently in debates, that 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Romney's lullaby can't soothe Detroit

Mitt Romney can't go home again.

Compelled in Detroit to simultaneously defend his call for a "managed bankruptcy" of GM and Chrysler in November '08, lambaste the Obama administration for essentially following his prescription six months later, and deny that he favored a federal "bailout", the contorted candidate has squeezed out a quintessence of his characteristic casuistry. Generally, this boils down to
  • what I did/said before was fundamentally in line with what I'm saying/recommending now, and
  • what my opponent did/said is fundamentally opposed to what  to what I'm saying/recommending now,
when in fact the opposite is closer to the truth.

I like to compare Romney's offerings to the electorate with the paradoxical gifts bestowed by the lover in an old folk song:
I gave my love a cherry that had no stone,
I gave my love a chicken that had no bone,
I gave my love a story that had no end,
I gave my love a baby with no cryin'.
 In this case, as Benji Sarlin at TPM explains, the baby with no cryin' is a bailout with no fundin':

Saturday, February 18, 2012

In which I am blinded by my own propensities

I have taken heart more than once from Rick Perry's ignominious plunge in the polls and exit from the presidential race, concluding that even GOP voters don't like a thug -- or a policy illiterate.

This may be wishful thinking.  Rich Yeselson, recounting Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson's analysis of the Tea Party, notes their finding that immigration is the No. 1 hot-button issue for Tea Partyers, and reminds us:

Friday, February 17, 2012

Has the administration caved on contraception?

Last Friday I wondered how the administration's contraception compromise, which mandates that health insurance companies, rather than the employers who hire them, pay for contraception, would apply to self-insured health plans, where there is no outside insurer, only a third-party administrator (TPA) and sometimes a stop-loss insurer to cover highly expensive treatment. 

Now HHS Secretary Sebelius says that self-insured plans will be "exempted." What exactly does that mean? Here's the Washington Times*:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mitt Romney, community organizer

Among the various predicaments that Mitt Romney finds himself in just now, perhaps the most politically toxic is the widespread perception that he is an out of touch tycoon who spent his entire life in Richistan and knows nothing about the lives of ordinary people. It's not true.

One irony compounds another. Seeking the nomination of a party that puts a premium on praying loudly in the public square, Romney is the only candidate with pastoral experience -- very substantive experience engaging with the spiritual and material lives of others, in his role as the Mormon equivalent first of a parish priest and then a bishop of the greater Boston area.  Yet this is the one aspect of his biography that Romney will not pawn or parlay for political gain. He has done all he can to pander to every Tea Party predilection except this one -- the thirst for intense commitments of faith.

Mormons do not have a paid clergy; church members rotate in positions of leadership.  Romney was first a "ward" leader in his home community of Belmont, MA and then a "stake" leader in the Boston area -- the Mormon equivalent of a bishop. The Real Romney, a biography by Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, recounts several incidents that illustrate the extent to which these were hands-on leadership positions, particularly as executed by Romney.  Below, a sampling. The first three involve apparently wealthy or comfortable neighbors in Belmont. The last takes him into the immigrant communities of Boston.
Everyone who has known Romney in the church community seems to have a story...about him and his family pitching in to help in ways big and small. They took chicken and asparagus soup to sick parishioners. They invited unsettled Mormon transplants to their home for lasagna. Helen Claire Sievers and her husband once loaned a friend from church a six-figure sum and weren't getting paid back, putting a serious financial strain on the family. Suddenly they couldn't pay their daughter's Harvard College tuition. Romney, who was stake president at the time, not only worked closely with Sievers's family and the loan recipient to try to resolve the problem, he offered to give Sievers and her husband money and tried to help her find a job. "He spent an infinite amount of time with us, all the time we needed," Sievers said. "It was way above and beyond what he had to do."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Updated: Will self-funded plans have to offer contraception?

I'm reposting this 2/10 post, shortened somewhat, to highlight a couple of updates tacked on this week:
----
I have a really basic question about the just-announced compromise regarding insurance coverage for contraception. Under the compromise,
  • Religious organizations will not be required to subsidize the cost of contraception.
  • Contraception coverage will be offered to women by their employers’ insurance companies directly [and free of charge], with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception.
Question: more than half of Americans who get their health coverage from their employers are in self-funded plans -- that is, plans in which the employer sets aside funds to cover the cost of health care, usually hiring a third party administrator (TPA) to handle the claims process, as well as a stop-loss insurer to cover costs above a certain level.  So: who will "provide contraception coverage" in self-funded plans?   If it's the self-funded entity, then the employer is paying for it. Would the TPA somehow absorb the cost -- or a stop-loss insurer under some special rider? If so, surely either would find a way to pass the cost back?


UPDATE 2/14: At Business Insurance, Jerry Geisel relays this clarification-to-come notice:
In regulations issued Friday [Feb. 10], the administration said it will develop a comparable rule that would apply to employers affiliated with religious organizations that self-fund their health care plans.

“The departments intend to develop policies to achieve the same goals for self-insured group health plans sponsored by nonexempted, nonprofit religious organizations with religious objections to contraceptive coverage” according to regulations released by the Internal Revenue Service and the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.

For now, “I see a gaping hole” on the self-insurance issue, said Andy Anderson, a partner with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius L.L.P. in Chicago.
UPDATE 2/15:  NPR's Jim Zarroli cites an industry expert who assumes that for self-funded plans, "the insurance company" footing the bill would be the third party administrator (TPA):

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Obama: It ain't worth a fig if it ain't got my sig

Steve Benen and/or Greg Sargent (I must confess, these two are so in sync their posts meld in my memory) have been fond of fretting that voters tend to hold the President chiefly responsible for the economy -- so when Congress stalls, the President gets the blame; when Republicans block Obama's agenda, he's seen as ineffectual. This lament was more intense before Obama got into the swing of regularly calling Congressional Republicans out for inaction, and before the economic news improved early this year, but it continues at intervals.

Today, Obama exploited the flip side of that equation.  If he gets the blame when Congress fails to act, he gets the credit when he successfully pressures Congress to act.  Never mind if that is collective Democratic pressure on Republicans to stop blocking a popular measure: let's roll with the impression that the big guy is in charge:

Monday, February 13, 2012

Obama pops a morning-after pill

Most progressives feel pretty good for the moment about where the president ended up in the contraception coverage controversy: upholding free access to contraception, providing an avenue for religious opt-out, leaving the GOP to feverishly conceive new contra-contraception positions.  The question is, how did Obama get there?  Brilliant plan? Lucky stumble?  Even as James Fallows' copious mid-course report card on the Obama presidency hit the internets, we had a tantalizing new chess master or pawn? conundrum

Andrew Sullivan, natch, seemed to come down heavy on the chess master side. But how heavy? In a generally judicious and well-documented Newsweek piece, this ambiguously-phrased claim stuck out:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Chait on the chess master, and one missing piece

On the "Fallows question" of whether Obama, in his 3-year combat with Republicans, has been more chess master or pawn, Jonathan Chait lays down an opening premise:
There’s a pattern in the way President Obama reacts to his opponents. He always begins with the outstretched hand, taking their goals (and complaints) at face value. But if they prove unwilling to meet halfway, he assails them for their intransigence and draws sharp lines.
That, however, is merely a statement of Obama's default strategy.  On the question of whether it worked (or is working) in the battle over deficit reduction, taxes, stimulus, and long-term spending priorities, Chait, like Fallows, takes a split decision. He thinks Obama was insane to pursue a "grand bargain" with Boehner, arguing that it should have been plain that there was no way that Congressional Republicans would move off their tax absolutism.  At the same time, he thinks that Obama has advanced his political ends in the broader battle:

Saturday, February 11, 2012

"The End of Wall Street as They Knew It": lament or celebration?

A lot of people quote Shakespeare characters as if "Shakespeare" is speaking ("the first thing we do, let's killl all the lawyers"). The white-rage set is doing the same to Gabriel Sherman for giving voice to bankers' laments in his opus in New York, The End of Wall Street as They Knew It

Sherman argues that Dodd-Frank is beginning to crimp -- and will increasingly crimp -- the engines of turbo-charged Wall Street profits:

Friday, February 10, 2012

Will self-funded plans have to offer contraception?

I have a really basic question about the just-announced compromise regarding insurance coverage for contraception -- so basic that this post should have a shelf life of about ten minutes. But I really wonder.  Under the compromise,
  • The new regulation will require insurance companies to cover contraception if the non-exempted religious organization chooses not to. Under the policy:
  • Religious organizations will not have to provide contraceptive coverage or refer their employees to organizations that provide contraception.
  • Religious organizations will not be required to subsidize the cost of contraception.
  • Contraception coverage will be offered to women by their employers’ insurance companies directly, with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception.
  • Insurance companies will be required to provide contraception coverage to these women free of charge.
Question: more than half of Americans who get their health coverage from their employers are in self-funded plans -- that is, plans in which the employer sets aside funds to cover the cost of health care, usually hiring a third party administrator to handle the claims process, as well as a stop-loss insurer to cover costs above a certain level.  So: who will "provide contraception coverage" in self-funded plans?   If it's the self-funded entity, then the employer is paying for it. Would the TPA somehow absorb the cost -- or a stop-loss insurer under some special rider? If so, surely either would find a way to pass the cost back?

Will someone please render this post unnecessary?

UPDATE 2/14: At Business Insurance, Jerry Geisel relays this clarification-to-come notice:
In regulations issued Friday [Feb. 10], the administration said it will develop a comparable rule that would apply to employers affiliated with religious organizations that self-fund their health care plans.

“The departments intend to develop policies to achieve the same goals for self-insured group health plans sponsored by nonexempted, nonprofit religious organizations with religious objections to contraceptive coverage” according to regulations released by the Internal Revenue Service and the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.

For now, “I see a gaping hole” on the self-insurance issue, said Andy Anderson, a partner with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius L.L.P. in Chicago.
 UPDATE 2/15:  NPR's Jim Zarroli cites an industry expert who assumes that for self-funded plans, "the insurance company" footing the bill would be the TPA:

One industry official who didn't want to be named said it's clear contraceptive services save money over time or are at least cost neutral. But he's worried about the White House compromise, anyway. He says insurance companies will be forced to put out a lot of money up front without getting reimbursed and that sets a dangerous precedent.

Insurance industry consultant Robert Laszewski says the problem is complicated by the fact that most employers and virtually all big companies self-insure. They pay their employees health care costs out of pocket every year. The insurance company is paid just to administer the plan. And it typically passes on its costs to the employers. Only in this case, it won't be able to do that.

"The problem is the insurance plan is going to have to front about $360 per person who uses the birth control pill," he says. "And the insurance company that does that will not be able to recoup any savings."

This creates an almost unprecedented problem, according to Laszewski. Federal and state governments frequently order private companies to do things like put airbags in cars, he says. But those companies can charge more to make up the cost.

"I have never seen an example of the federal government telling a company they have to provide a service and they are not allowed to charge for it," he says.

Insurance companies that administer these plans will have no choice but to try to find a way to pass on the immediate costs to their other customers, he says, even if no one wants to admit that's happening. White House officials insist they can prevent that.

They also say the fact that the compromise has been embraced by some former critics, such as Catholic Charities and the Catholic Health Association, suggests it can succeed in the long run even if some details still have to be worked out.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Judging Obama by his own standards

Many of us who are emotionally invested in the Obama presidency have read epic defenses of his record (Chait, Ezra Klein, Sullivan) and scathing or wistful indictments.  James Fallows has distilled the strongest arguments on each side (in large part through the mouths of past and present Democratic elected officials and aides) and laid them in the scales. His question: is Obama "chess master or pawn"? Is he executing a long-term strategy to restore a progressive approach to the nation's problems or has he let himself get rolled by Republican obstructionism?

On the one side, there are the mammoth but still fragile and equivocal legislative accomplishments, the prevention of economic collapse, and a restoration of American soft power abroad that Fallows presents unequivocally as masterful. On the other, other, the usual suspects: a too-small stimulus, a coddling of the banks, passivity in the face of unprecedented filibustering and holds on nominees, a ceding of the message wars to Republicans demonizing his initiatives .

Fallows' finger on his near-evenly weighted scales is hope for the future. Some months ago, when Democrats were writhing as Obama hurtled toward the tax-free deficit reduction deal agreed to under the gun of federal default, Fallows wrote to me, "We will hope that the qualities we admire in Obama outweigh the ones that make us nervous." He finds evidence in the GOP's short-term December payroll tax cut cave that that is happening. Obama has learned in the past half-year how to be president:
My impression from recent evidence is that he has found his footing, and has come to understand how to use the constrained but still real powers of a president facing congressional opposition—just in time. 
Fallows' final point is undeniable: Obama's legacy depends on re-election; Republicans will wipe most of his accomplishments away if they win in November. Taking that as a given, though, I'd like to add one voice to the judgmental chorus: Obama's, in late 2008 and early 2009.  It is instructive at this midstream moment to judge Obama by standards he set for himself at the outset.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Romney's lullaby, reprised

From the department of I-thought-this-was-kind-of-clever-and-no-one-laughed, please indulge a repost:

Mitt Romney is doubtless capable of forming a coherent argument in response to any question that requires knowledge, analysis and judgment.  His problem just now is that his current positions are predetermined by his need to pander to the GOP base -- which in itself would leave him with the relatively simple sophist's task of making the weaker argument seem stronger -- and then further contorted by his need to justify past actions and positions, which were less distorted by a less extremist constituency.

Wooing GOP primary voters, he must wax as paradoxical as the most ardent lover. Reading the transcript of his recent discussion with the editorial board of the Washington Examiner, I was reminded of a folk song that poses a string of riddles:

I gave my love a cherry that had no stone,
I gave my love a chicken that had no bone,
I gave my love a story that had no end,
I gave my love a baby with no cryin'.

How can there be a cherry that has no stone?
How can there be a systemic financial rescue that has no bailouts of individual institutions?

If the contagion of sovereign debt default reaches our shores by virtue of banks here, holding, let’s say, Italian debt, I would not bail out those banks. I would let them go through the restructuring process that has long existed in this country, and hopefully let them recover. The only time I see us having to act to – I can’t use the word bailout, that’s an awful word – to support, preserve, that’s the word I’m looking for; I don’t look to preserve individual institutions. But if I thought that all the institutions were going to go under, that there would be a cascade of all the financial system in this country collapsing, then that would be a candidate for action to prevent our currency and our financial system from disappearing.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Niall Ferguson, enthusiast for the Iraq war, wants another preemptive strike

Niall Ferguson is out with a 6-point brief in favor of bombing Iran's nuclear installations that James Fallows calls "the stupidest arguments for going to war with Iran." Ferguson's piece really is a paper-thin (and pathologically callous) dismissal of everything that could go wrong for the west and the world after such an attack -- flicking off the warnings of such patsies as former Mossad chief Meir Dagan with flip ripostes such as: 
The eruption of the entire Muslim world. All the crocodiles of Africa could not equal the fake tears that will be shed by the Sunni powers of the region if Iran’s nuclear ambitions are checked.
For Dagan, the "eruption" of Hamas and Hezbollah with Iran-supplied rockets is itself enough to outweigh the risk of trying other means of deterrence.  And perhaps Ferguson's noticed that  "Sunni powers" are not exactly a slam-dunk these days for containing the eruptions of their people.

For those who feel themselves swept along by such confident-sounding bluster, it's worth revisiting Ferguson's advice to Americans, freighted with his admittedly encyclopediac knowledge of European history, as the Bush administration geared up to attack Iraq in December 2002.  Purporting to adapt Clauswitz's diplomacy-by-other-means approach to war to the contemporary "war on terror", Ferguson exhorted the U.S. to follow a jolly good precedent and use war liberally:

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The U.S. held hostage

In this hopeful season, as it begins to look as if U.S. unemployment figures may break for Obama in the Reagan pattern, I can't help but lament that Obama's fate lays in the palm of Netanyahu's hand. U.S. leverage to prevent Israel from bombing Iran is undercut by our disloyal opposition loudly proclaiming that Israel must receive unconditional U.S. support for any action it chooses, including setting the Middle East on fire and throwing the world economy into recession -- and screaming "appeasement" at any administration attempt to exert any kind of pressure on Israel.

I would like to think that Obama has some sub rosa resources for transmitting a 'cross me and you die' message to Netanyahu -- a brutal paranoiac driven by his 100 year-old father's lifelong obsession with antisemitism.  But without any preparation for the American people -- i.e., some suggestion that U.S. interests do not always dictate unconditional support for any and all actions of the Israeli government -- I can't see where any deterrent power over Israel would come from.

Friday, February 03, 2012

The Silver bullet for election prediction may need lengthening

Nate Silver argues that job growth during a presidential election year is the best single indicator of whether a president will be reelected.  After a series of calculations, he pegs Obama's"magic number" for job growth in 2012 at 150,000 jobs gained per month.

I have neurotically tracked Obama's trajectory -- approval ratings and national unemployment numbers -- against Reagan's for 2-3 years, and my intuition is in sync with Silver's conclusions (and partly shaped by his prior analyses, no doubt). Far be it from me with my sixth grade math skills to quarrel with the intricacies of his model. But there's one basic assumption that I would quibble with: that the relevant periods are necessarily defined by the calendar year.

Silver argues that the actual year of election matters a lot, and the three years prior, not so much. When conditions are bad early in a president's term, he may even get extra credit for a late-term surge. More specifically, Silver finds
that job growth during the third year of a president’s term has a positive effect on his re-election odds, while the coefficients attached to the first two years are negative.

But none of these results are statistically significant or particularly close to it; only job growth during the fourth year of a president’s term has a clear effect.
True, perhaps, as far as it goes. But why break the term into years? Why assume that voters' relevant perceptions track the movement of the earth around the sun?

As Silver indicated, the ur-case for unemployment figures tracking closely with election results is lucky Ronald Reagan, who in Silver's model benefited from the 2012 equivalent of 487,000 jobs created in 1984.  Yet my own personal break point for comparing Obama's home-stretch performance to Reagan's has been July in the year prior to election -- because July 1983 is the month in which measured employment surged most dramatically for Reagan, from 10.1% to 9.4%. While that particular break point may be arbitrary, the broader point is that the unemployment rate shrank most dramatically for Reagan in the second half of 1983, from 10.1% in June to 8.0% in January 1984. It fell further, to 7.4% in October 1984.  But morning in America shone brightest at dawn, in late 1983.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Falstaff for president

Not really much of a point here -- just a rhythmic rhyme triggered by "listening" to Mitt Romney on the printed page. Here he is explaining why he's not concerned about the poor:
We have a very ample safety net, and we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. But we have food stamps. We have Medicaid. We have housing vouchers. We have programs to help the poor.
And here is that old fraud Falstaff, puffed up by momentary good fortune and the victorious young Prince Harry's favor, invoking the 'safety net' circa 1400 (or circa 1600, in Shakespeare's England):
What! a young knave, and begging! Is there not wars? is there not employment? doth not the king lack subjects? do not the rebels need soldiers?  (Henry IV part 2, I.ii.)

Given Romney's mindless foreign policy posturing, his actual provision for the poor may have something in common with Falstaff's, as well as his unconcern.

It's interesting too that Romney thinks that the 90-95% of Americans he credits with being middle class have no concern with food stamps (45.8 million recipients, approximately 15% of the population) or Medicaid (48.6 million people, 15.9%, including one third of all U.S. children -- and 60% of nursing home residents).  No indication of any awareness of the connection between education and poverty, or housing segregation and poverty, or even, cf. Santorum, cultural habits and poverty.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Windows of the faraway soul

Taking a busman's holiday from politics, reacting to a rapturous description of FDR Labor Secretary Frances Perkins' eyes, Kevin Drum turns his lonely eyes to us:
I'm pretty much oblivious to people's eyes. I could sit across from you for an hour in deep conversation and come away not even knowing the color of your eyes, let alone whether they scintillate or cloud over from time to time. So I am, sort of literally, a blind man when it comes to stuff like this. So I turn to you, my faithful readers. Are descriptions like this for real? It's part of the whole "eyes are the window to the soul" schtick, which has always seemed more poetic than verifiably factual to me, but what do I know?
I won't say that this query triggered a new thought, but it brought to the surface one of those vague perceptions that can resurface repetitively on cue for years and decades. It comes sometimes as I pass my own eyes over the many solitary self-contained bipeds one passes every minute walking down a block in Manhattan.  It's the opposite of sensing 'windows on the soul' -- rather a sense of how remote each consciousness is -- each of us a broadly similar organic machine, carrying millions-of-years-old DNA, aware of only the tiniest fraction of its own mental activity, having no idea how it got here, shaped by a mind-bogglingly complex matrix of biological and social destiny, and peering out of those elliptical windows with a consciousness as disconnected from mine as a cheetah's.