Sunday, October 31, 2010

Say it ain't so, O...

From today's Times:
"It is absolutely critical that you go out and vote," Mr. Obama said here in Philadelphia. "This election is not just going to set the stage for the next two years. It's going to set the stage for the next 10, the next 20."

God in heaven, I hope that's not true.

Obama, blame not your Lute

When Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars was released, Mike Allen wrote that despite its portrayal of deep divisions within the administration's foreign policy team, the portrayal was a "net positive" for Obama. I disagree.

On one level, Obama's extended agon with the military leaders -- Petraeus, McChrystal, Mullen, and to an extent, Gates - is impressive. Relentlessly, he questioned assumptions and insisted on being presented with real alternatives to McChrystal's proposed troop surge and counterinsurgency. When the military leaders proved unwilling or unable to flesh out any real alternative, Obama built his own, changing the shape of the proposed surge in essential ways -- speeding entry and exit of the additional troops, eschewing full-blown counterinsurgency, seeking a handfhold for a "handoff" of responsibility to the Karzai regime, defining the mission down from defeating to "degrading" the Taliban and preventing their full takeover of the country. The "terms sheet" in which he laid out detailed conditions represented a concentration of presidential input that Petraeus, for one, saw as unprecedented: "There's not a president in history that's dictated five single-spaced pages in his life" (327).  And Obama insisted that the entire team sign on, as it were-- to the "hard cap" on troop totals, the withdrawal date, the limited mission, etc. -- before he went public with it.

And yet. While Woodward takes no explicit point of view in the book, I suspect it would be hard to find a reader who doesn't come away feeling that the preponderance of evidence and strong argument is with those members of the team who ring variations on Richard Holbrooke's stark verdict: "It can't work" (p. 333). (In fact, Woodward's narrative shaping is arguably concentrated in his portrayal of Holbrooke: odd man out, lacking the president's confidence, but right in almost every utterance, including an uncanny forecast of the Pakistan floods of July 2010.)

I cataloged in a prior post the strong evidence aired throughout the deliberations (in Woodward's account) that standing up a stable government in Afghanistan was mission impossible -- that the Karzai government was hopelessly corrupt, that hand-off of responsibility to Afghan forces was impossible, that the Pakistanis were supported and sheltering the Taliban, who had safe passage from their safe havens in North Waziristan. In the book's final chapters, two assessments are I think close to definitive (aside from Holbrooke's brief one).

Friday, October 29, 2010

Roubini wishes Obama had done it all

Nouriel Roubini may have a keen macroeconomic insight into what the world economy needs and what the U.S. economy needs. But he has little appreciation for the realities of U.S. politics. Or rather, he suppresses his awareness of those realities while assessing the performance of President Obama.

In his contribution to the Financial Times' series of such assessments (Obama at Bay), Roubini credits Obama with preventing another Depression, via the stimulus and the bailouts, and with understanding the need for more stimulus now and a timed plan for deficit reduction later. He also gives him points for forming the deficit commission. He blames the President, though, for what has not happened and what will not happen:
In an ideal world Mr Obama would also have been able to move towards reforming and reducing entitlement spending, with commitments to measures that could be phased in over the next few years, therefore avoiding short-term fiscal pain. He would also have committed to increase, gradually over the next few years, less distortionary taxes such as a VAT and a carbon tax. This would have reduced the fiscal deficit, and created a climate in which no investor would worry about additional stimulus.

Sadly, this has not happened. In fact the opposite will now take place. The term stimulus is already a dirty word, even within the Obama administration. After the Republicans make significant electoral gains further stimulus is even less likely. Medium-term consolidation, meanwhile, will be all but impossible as the 2012 presidential election begins to loom large.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hendrick Hertzberg's hierarchy of rights, cont.

In a prior post, I raised some questions about Hendrick Hertzberg's assertion that he values "political liberty and political rights" more than "economic liberty and economic rights." Hertzberg has done me the honor of a response:
One more point. Andrew Sprung also says that because, in his view, “no real freedom of thought is possible without basic property rights,” he doesn’t see much meaning in my saying that I value liberty of thought, belief, and speech more highly than I value property rights (or, for that matter, the right to vote). Again, he may be correct that, as a matter of historical evolution, “basic property rights” are previous to freedom of thought, etc. But does that make them more valuable?
That closing question clarifies for me what has disturbed me about Hertzberg's hierarchy of values as asserted throughout this discussion thread, particularly in his response to a Daily Dish reader who rather dogmatically asserted the historical priority of property rights over 'the right to vote.' It's this: what is more valuable really can't be divorced from what depends on what, or from the historical evolution of our various freedoms. Freedom of thought, conscience and speech don't exist in a vacuum. They are, I think, unimaginable without property rights. The historical evolution* of the rights we treasure matters too, insofar as it provides clues to their interdependence. 

Unless, that is, by "property rights" you mean mainly the "right" not to be taxed heavily.  I suspect that this is where Hertzberg is really coming from, since he began the thread in dialogue with a Texas conservative who opposed his own credo to Hertzberg's, asserting,  "We want government to encourage equal opportunity, but we don’t want it to enforce equality by redistributing wealth."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Richard Holbrooke, prophet of doom

A remarkable (and no doubt widely remarked?) moment, in hindsight, from Woodward's Obama's Wars:

In one discussion about the tensions between Pakistan and India, Holbrooke introduced a new angle. "There's a global warming dimension of this struggle, Mr. President," he said.
     His words baffled many in the room.
     There are tens of thousands of Indian and Pakistani troops encamped on the glaciers in the Himalayas that feed the rivers into Pakistan and India, he said. "Their encampments are melting the glaciers very quickly." There's a chance that river valleys in Pakistan and perhaps even India could be flooded.
     After the meeting, there were several versions of one question: Was Holbrooke kidding?
     He was not. Holbrooke subsequently detailed his concerns in a written report. The diplomat--sensing that he was on the outs with Obama--was trying as hard as he could to say something distinctive that would impress the president (210-211).

The story segues into further evidence of Holbrooke's failure to connect with Obama. Is the irony intentional? Woodward's preface to Obama's Wars is dated July 25, 2010. The catastrophic floods struck Pakistan on July 22, 2010.

With Kafka in Obama's War Council

Once more, indulging in the vice of commenting on a book while still reading it...

Woodward's Obama's Wars is structured as a kind of coming-of-age novel:  can Obama assert his authority over the military? Can he avoid simply acquiescing to their favored course of action in Afghanistan -- a fully resourced counterinsurgency? I've just passed what seems to be the climax of this plot: when Obama protests that the four-option menu they've drawn up at his insistence is really only one option: two choices are utterly unrealistic, and one of the remaining ones is a minor variant of the military's favorite plan, differing in little semantics -- tinkering with the mix and timing of a 40,000 troop surge.  And the denouement is already clear: Obama narrows the mission, speeds up the timetable, adds the controversial draw-down date, and reduces the American troop commitment.

And yet to me, the closely narrated grueling deliberations that are the guts of this hero's journey have a Kafkaesque feel.  That's because the commitment to a counterinsurgency mission -- however stripped down -- remains intact, despite clear and often repeated articulation -- by Biden, Eikenberry, Holbrooke, Peter Lavoy of the DNI, and General James Cartwright, of the following facts and uncontradicted hypotheses:

1) The Taliban itself is not a danger to the U.S.  
Biden:..asked, "Is there any evidence the Afghan Taliban advocates attacks outside of Afghanistan and on the U.S., or if it took over more of Afghanistan it would have more of an outward focus?"
     No evidence, Lavoy said (187).
2) The Karzai government is not a viable partner.
Are we aligned with the Kabul government? [Eikenberry] asked. We assume yes. "I would challenge that assumption," he said. They were severely hindered by Karzai's weakness as president, the absence of a strong central government.
     "Right now, we're dealing with an extraordinarily corrupt government" (218).

Biden broke in for a question. "If the government's a criminal syndicate a year from now, how will troops make a difference?
     No one recorded an answer in their notes (221).
Gates...[said] that he had little confidence in a civilian surge or in serious governance reforms by Karzai (258).
3) The Taliban feeds on our presence.

The two weakest links were corruption and the Afghan police. "Our presence is the corrupting force," Holbrooke announced. All the contractors for development pay the Taliban for protection and use of the roads, so American and coalition dollars help finance the Taliban. And with more development, higher traffic on roads, and more troops, the Taliban would make more money (226).

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hertzberg's left, Sullivan's right: busy getting dizzy

A blog-a-log started by Hendrik Hertzberg and picked up by Andrew Sullivan and his readers about the priority of values held by liberals and conservatives is going off into the ozone, I fear.

In response to a Daily Dish reader (DDR) who asserts that property rights are more fundamental than the right to vote, Hertzberg argues:
But voting, like property rights, is mainly instrumental. Voting is generally a good thing not because elected governments always make wiser policy decisions than absolute monarchs, but because experience shows that countries that elect their governments are more apt to have freedom of thought, conscience, and speech than countries that don’t. I’d rather live under a hereditary monarch who tolerates those freedoms than an elected president who doesn’t.
I'm not sure that the various goods under discussion can be placed hierarchically.  With that caveat, I"m not sure that preservation of "thought, conscience and speech" is the primary good of democracy. In my view, democracy is essential because it holds governments accountable, and gives the people the power to throw the bums out, and so allows for course corrections when government policy is leading to disaster or when it allows those in power to steal all the wealth.  An elected president who curtails freedoms, but nonetheless allows for an unrigged election -- if such a thing has ever existed -- would be preferable in my view to an enlightened despot who hands absolute power to an inheritor of unknown disposition.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

It's not about him

George Packer's blog posts are relatively rare, and I always look forward to them.  He usually brings new information and a deeply informed perspective both to international affairs and to domestic politics. But I think he's simply off his rocker about Obama in his latest:
His campaign was based on the man more than any set of ideas or clear vision of the future. Everyone knew what Reaganism stood for. No one knows what Obamaism means, which has allowed his enemies to fill in the blank.
That is complete malarky.  No one ever campaigned on a set of policy proposals more coherently situated in a conceptual framework than Obama did. He laid that framework out in speech after speech after speech, not to say in The Audacity of Hope. When I get my hands on the book this evening, I will fill in an early manifesto here.

"Obamaism" is liberalism on a diet, with programs subject to outcomes assessment, undertaken with awareness that overtaxation kills the golden goose, and biased toward creating the right incentives, as in the Race to the Top education program. It's mainstream  liberalism chastised by Reaganism: government as part of the solution but aware of its limitations and the law of unintended consequences. It is a liberalism that, thus chastened, bids to move a commitment to shared prosperity back to center of American politics:
But through hard times and good, great challenge and great change, the promise of Janesville has been the promise of America - that our prosperity can and must be the tide that lifts every boat; that we rise or fall as one nation; that our economy is strongest when our middle-class grows and opportunity is spread as widely as possible. And when it's not - when opportunity is uneven or unequal - it is our responsibility to restore balance, and fairness, and keep that promise alive for the next generation. That is the responsibility we face right now, and that is the responsibility I intend to meet as President of the United States (Janesville, WI, Feb. 13, 2008). 
Obamaism focuses on long-range foundations of economic growth: improved education, renewable energy sources, a repaired safety net, control of healthcare costs, a rollback of the growing income inequality of the past 30 years. (Perhaps it's that long view that hurting him now. People know what he stands for; not enough yet trust that what he and the Democrats deliver will help them.) Here, for example, is Obama laying out his economic program in February 2009 (after outlining what went wrong in the runup to financial crisis):
We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity – a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.
It's a foundation built upon five pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century: new rules for Wall Street that will reward drive and innovation; new investments in education that will make our workforce more skilled and competitive; new investments in renewable energy and technology that will create new jobs and industries; new investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses; and new savings in our federal budget that will bring down the debt for future generations. That is the new foundation we must build. That must be our future – and my Administration's policies are designed to achieve that future.

While "New Foundation" has been largely written off as anodyne politispeak, the chosen metaphor is in sync with Obama's propensity toward thinking long-term and thinking big: changing the trajectory, moving the battleship by degrees. In the campaign, Obama stressed the results he would pursue.  As President, starting from the deep hole of a hellacious recession and pleading for patience, he has often stressed process:

Tax cuts in the stimulus were not just a sop to Republicans

I just stumbled on an Obama campaign speech that sheds some light on his claim in the Peter Baker interview that he made more than a third of the Recovery Act tax cuts on the merits, not as a sop to Republicans.

Here's what he told Baker (filtering out an explanation of the structure of the cuts):
The way we structured the Recovery Act was based on conversations with a wide range of economists and a recognition that there wasn’t going to be a single silver bullet to restart the economy; that we were going to have to have a mix of strategies.  So, for example, because each strategy had its strengths and its weaknesses, tax cuts had the advantage of speed. You can get tax cuts out pretty quickly; people have money in their pockets; hopefully they’re spending it....

So what we did was we put together the best possible package, given that we had to do it very quickly, and we presented it to Congress as a package without much thought to the politics of it. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Obama's baby: the Independent Payment Advisory Board for Medicare

In two recent posts, here and here, I noted that Obama's long-range budget thinking tends more toward tax hikes than radical budget cuts -- or more accurately, more toward tax hikes than short-term cuts.

The key to Obama's thinking on the structural deficit, again, is bending the health care cost curve. Two stories in today's Times point toward how that may be done over time -- and why Obama fought so hard to retain a strong Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) for Medicare in the PPACA, along with a host of pilot programs to test new payment systems.

First, David Leonhardt spotlights a not-so-modest proposal:
In the new issue of the journal Health Affairs, two doctors [Dr. Bach and Dr. Pearson], both former Medicare officials, have laid out a plan to do so. It would give expensive new treatments three years to prove that they worked better than cheaper treatments, or their reimbursement rates would be cut to that of the cheaper treatments.

To illustrate the need and possible workings of such a plan, Leonhardt returns to a topic he covered in depth during the health care debate (cited by Bach and Pearson): treatment for prostate cancer. Briefly, three forms of radiation are now available, costing, respectively, $10,000, $42,000, and $50,000 on average (naturally, the oldest is the cheapest; the newest, the most expensive, requiring massive new equipment investments from practitioners). There is no evidence that any of these treatments is more effective than the others. Medicare pays for all three without distinction. Providers' profit margins, needless to say, are much higher on the more expensive treatment.  Under the Bach-Pearson proposal, if the newer treatments were not proved more effective within the three years, Medicare would only reimburse $10,000 for each treatment.

Such proposals might ultimately prove to be within the power of IPAB to implement, though there are severe constraints. James C. Capretta of the Ethics and Public Policy Center explains how IPAB works:
To hit its budgetary targets, the IPAB is strictly limited in what it can recommend and implement.  It can’t change cost-sharing for covered Medicare services.  Indeed, it can’t change the nature of the Medicare entitlement at all, or any aspect of the beneficiary’s relationship to the program.  The only thing it can do is cut Medicare payment rates for those providing services to the beneficiaries. 

This wasn’t an accident.  It reflects the cost-control vision of those who wrote the bill. They believe the way to cut health care costs is with stronger federal payment controls.  They envision the IPAB coming up with new payment models which will push hospitals and physicians to emulate today’s most efficient delivery models.   Call it “government-driven managed care.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Obama girds for 1993...

Responding to my close reading of Obama's outline of the nation's fiscal challenges in the Peter Baker interview, a reader protests that based on my quote selection, "it seems as if obama will cut nothing. which means a MASSIVE tax increase on everyone. which will kill him politically, deservedly."

Well, if "massive" means the fiscal equivalent of rolling tax rates back to those of the Clinton era, which would take care of most of our budget woes, the reader is probably right. Here's how I read Obama's read:

The single most important "cut" is to get control of medical inflation. Obama devoted the first two years of his presidency to doing that and went to the mat for significant cost controls in the PPA (cf. Larry Summers). Next up on that front: a strong public option.  Government control of healthcare prices is the only way to keep a lid on them. Every other wealthy country gives the government that power. You'll never get that from the Republicans.

Next is defense spending. Gates is doing all that is humanly possible in the US today to keep a lid on growth,  more than anyone else could do. Obama has gotten creative trying to wind down our wars. We don't know whether he'll succeed, but but there will be no serious force reduction -- personnel counts for the bulk of military spending -- until our commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq are greatly reduced. Long-term, the U.S. needs to gradually divest its hegemon role.

Social security is a relative bite on the ass. It's not in terrible shape. A sane result from the deficit commission would be to tweak it a bit, raising the FICA cap, maybe trimming the COLA formula (though big reductions there would drastically reduce its ability to provide a comfortable retirement to most Americans). Kevin Drum outlines the options nicely:

Monday, October 18, 2010

Program note

If you're visiting via James Fallows' "via," tributes to Gideon Rachman's low-key contrarianism are here,  here and here.  Plus one dissent -- though I'd have to say in retrospect that Rachman was more than half right on this front. 

Casus belli? Whatever....

Swampland links to a recently-declassified set of talking points drafted for Donald Rumsfeld in preparation for a November 27, 2001 meeting with Tommy Franks -- to plan the invasion of Iraq, less than three months after 9/11.  "Focus on WMD" it begins helpfully, before moving into a skeletal battle plan. Then comes the interesting part:
How start?
  • Saddam moves against Kurds in north?
  • U.S. discovers Saddam connection to Sept. 11 attack or to anthrax attacks?
  • Dispute over WMD inspections?
    • Start thinking now about inspection demands.
The ensuing inspection demands were largely met, and no WMD were found. I wonder how the memos read at that point.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A wish fulfilled for Erica Jong

In Fear of Flying (1973), Erica Jong's all-but-autobiographical narrator recounts the rage she felt encountering the smooth surface of postwar German life in Heidelberg, 1966:

What infuriated me most, I think, was the way the Germans had changed their protective coloration, the way they talked peace and humanitarianism, the way they all claimed to have fought on the Russian Front. It was their hypocrisy I abhorred. At least if they’d come out openly and said: We loved Hitler, one might have weighed their humanity with their honesty and perhaps forgiven them.

She recounts her search for the shallow-buried Nazi past, culminating in a sleuthing foray at the local library:

I went to the Heidelberg main library and began looking through guidebooks. Most of them were routine, with glossy photos of the Schloss and old engravings of the pasty-faced Electors of the Palatinate. Finally I came across a library-bound one, English and German on facing pages, with cheap, yellowing paper, black and white photographs and old Gothic type. The publication date was 1937, and every ten pages or so a paragraph or a photo or a small block of type was covered over with a square of oak-tag. These little squares were firmly glued down so that you couldn’t lift the corners, but the minute I saw them I knew I wouldn’t rest until I had unglued them all and discovered what was underneath.

I checked out the book (along with four others so the librarian wouldn’t be suspicious) and raced home where I carefully steamed the offending pages over a tea-kettle spout.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The clock ticks for liberalization in China

I have argued before -- or rather, deployed more knowledgeable people's observations about China to suggest -- that China is the world's main test case of the Fukuyaman proposition that sheer economic competition pushes all human societies toward democracy as well as capitalism.  It is curiously common for China watchers -- e.g.,  David Pilling and Gideon Rachman, both of the FT -- first to suggest that China's rapid development under an authoritarian regime seems to disprove the notion that prosperity breeds democracy -- and then to tack about and note China's internal pressures in that direction.

So it is with Jonathan Fenby, writing in the FT, who first tells us:

The forecasts in the west in the 1990s that economic liberalisation in emerging countries was bound to bring political liberalisation have been disproved in China, though not across the Taiwan Strait. The mainland’s middle class has been co-opted into the system rather than playing the role of the bourgeoisie in 19th-century Europe, and probably has little desire to see hundreds of millions of poorer urban and rural residents getting the vote to press their own interests.
Then brings the counterpoint:

Still, setting aside moral and ethical arguments for democracy, there is a practical issue at stake and it has been brought to the fore by no lesser a figure than Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister. In remarks at the end of August in the southern city of Shenzhen, the symbolic home of the Dengist revolution, Mr Wen said China needed to protect the democratic and legal rights of the people; mobilise citizens to manage state, economic, social and cultural affairs in accordance with the law; resolve the problems of a centralised power that lacks checks and balances; tackle corruption; and open channels for public monitoring and criticism of government.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Obama girds for 1994 II

Arguably the most revealing passage in Peter Baker's long interview with Obama is the very last sentence:

Well, I’m actually looking at “The Clinton Tapes,” which is Taylor Branch’s chronicle of certain conversations he had with Clinton. It is fascinating.

Those "certain conversations" occurred throughout Clinton's presidency -- they represent Clinton's attempt to get a real-time record while memory was fresh.  (Clinton kept the tapes, but after each session, Branch recorded what he could recall while driving home).   When Branch published The Clinton Tapes in 2009, striking parallels in the Republican response to a moderate Democratic president were already coming into focus.  Awareness of the parallels doubtless shaped Branch's presentation somewhat. But the raw material is Clinton's contemporaneous recollection.

The fulcrum of Clinton's story is the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. By that point, Clinton was as proud of his legislative record as Obama is now. Here he is on Nov. 10, 1994:
What a great start for a presidency-with five million new jobs, peace initiatives around the world, headed into a third year of unprecedented deficit reduction--until the crash in Tuesday's election.

It was in the middle term -- after Clinton successfully staved off the Gingrich Congress's atempt to radically cut Medicaid and Medicare and once perception of rip-roaring economic recovery caught up with reality -- that those accomplishments bore fruit for Clinton.  And Obama plainly has that political rhythm in mind:
On whether the experiences of past presidents offer him any lessons.
Look, history never precisely repeats itself. But there is a pattern in American presidencies — at least modern presidencies. You come in with excitement and fanfare. The other party initially, having been beaten, says it wants to cooperate with you. You start implementing your program as you promised during the campaign.

The other party pushes back very hard. It causes a lot of consternation and drama in Washington.
People who are already cynical and skeptical about Washington generally look at it and say, This is the same old mess as we’ve seen before. The president’s poll numbers drop. And you have to then sort of wrestle back the confidence of the people as the programs that you’ve put in place start bearing fruit and people can suddenly start seeing, Hey, you know what, this health care bill means my kid isn’t losing her health insurance once she leaves college even though she doesn’t have a job yet. Or you know what, the credit-card company can’t jack up my interest rate suddenly, and this is actually saving me some money. Or I’m a small business, and lo and behold, I don’t have to pay capital gains on my start-up, and I can plow that money back into my business.

And what you hope is that over time, despite all the rhetoric, people start seeing concrete benefits from what you’re doing and what was a valley goes back into a peak.

Now what you also hope is that sort of the ups and downs, the highs and lows start evening out a little bit so that people don’t have unrealistic expectations about how quickly we can move on big issues in a democracy but people don’t also plunge into despair when it takes more than six months to transform the world.
Strange indeed is the psychodrama with Bill Clinton in which Obama finds himself enmeshed. Recall that during the 2008 campaign, Obama gave Bill Clinton "tremendous credit" for balancing the budget, while velvet glove-punching him (and by extension Hillary) for not being able to put through a legislative agenda:

(Re)hire this man....

My gut reaction to Obama's long interview with the Times' Peter Baker was to thank God he's President. I'd elect him to four terms if I could.

This kind of reflexive fan club admiration requires some internal pushback -- I need to remind myself that, while I know there's counter-arguments on each front, I suspect at least half-time that Obama & Co. started too low in their stimulus proposal,  never got on the right side of righteous rage against Wall Street, sought Republican support on healthcare for too long,  went deeper into quagmire in Afghanistan to very likely no good purpose, got rolled by Netanyahu on settlements, and did a poor job defending both the PPA and the stimulus.

But there is a perpetual split screen: the art of the politically possible vs. the optimal policy result. And the first measure is the only one that matters. By that standard, I think Obama's self-assessment substantially holds water (notwithstanding rather large caveats on the last item):

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Portfolios of the Not-So-Poor

One of the more illuminating findings recounted in Portfolios of the Poor: How the World's Poor Live on $@ a Day is the fact that in many countries, poor people pay as much for the privilege of saving their money in a (relatively) safe manner as they do to service loans -- that is, the negative interest rate on savings can exceed the interest rate paid on loans.

Contemplating a large payment on my 1.4% cash-back Mastercard, it occurred to me that I'm in the same boat.   The card is offered in conjunction with an online savings account that is now yielding 1.1%. Wouldn't it be a creative bit of arbitrage to contrive was to borrow large sums of money monthly, paying each bill in full (as I always do) as it comes due? 

The extraordinarily low interest rates currently propping up the banks are a kind of tax on savers. Our incentives right now are to borrow as much as we can -- if we can put the money to productive purpose -- and find a lender.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Supreme Court opens markets

E.J. Dionne, lamenting the escalated corruption of our politics triggered by the Citizens United decision, begins by implicitly questioning why Wall Street and so many business interests are gunning for Obama:

The 2010 election is turning into a class war. The wealthy and the powerful started it.

This is a strange development. President Obama, after all, has been working overtime to save capitalism. Wall Street is doing just fine and the rich are getting richer again. The financial reform bill passed by Congress was moderate, not radical.

Nonetheless, corporations and affluent individuals are pouring tens of millions of dollars into attack ads aimed almost exclusively at Democrats.
Dionne doesn't bother to ask why -- he focuses on the how, i.e. the new freedom to anonymously donate unlimited amounts of cash to groups deploying political ads. But as to why, as noted here once before, Bill Clinton explained succinctly to Taylor Branch in 1995:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Birth by headlamp in Hinche, Haiti

We're back from a week in Hinche, Haiti, a mid-sized city about 80 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince. I was a trailing spouse, along for the ride while my wife Cindy took a turn with a midwifery training program run by Midwives for Haiti at the local hospital. We stayed at Maison Fortune, an orphanage and school for about 210 children, most of whom still have parents who can't take care of them, and about a quarter of whom are Port-au-Prince refugees from the earthquake.  My impression is that the school is a relative paradise for the children, in that they eat well, go to school full-time (a remarkable number of Haitians seem to be still slogging away at a high school degree in their mid-to-late twenties), and have plenty of play time, mostly basketball and soccer, under light supervision (in fact, from my vantage point all but invisible supervision). The children get along well, and the older take care of the younger to a degree.

No one needs me to describe the superficial signs of the terrible poverty of Haiti -- the unpaved, rocky, deeply rutted and mounded roads lined with one-room shacks and tiny, windowless storefronts, the children and old people patting their bellies at the sight of a foreigner, the malnourished babies lying in bare cribs at the Azil, an outpost of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. Nor to fill in the country's sad statistical profile: 30% of students reaching the sixth grade, less than 40% of the population with access to basic health care, 60% malnourished, about half of deaths from curable, manageable and preventable diseases.  Worth recording, though, are Cindy's experiences in the hospital with women in labor. 

Cindy participated in a program training some dozen Haitian midwives at a time, each of whom is a high school graduate who has already passed a course of training equivalent to that of a nurse's aide.  The current student cohort graduates the yearlong program in November, so they have particpated in quite a few births by this point. An edited interview follows.

What was the most striking thing about your work with the Hinche students?

How much they are able to do with limited resources they have. These are women who have not gone to nursing school as we know it, women with limited education and dealing with some very complex situations.

What was most disturbing?

Women aren't getting the care that we would consider standard here in US and because of that they're definitely suffering. 

What for example is lacking?

The women receive limited prenatal care, and they often don't to the hospital, whether because they have transportation problems or because they think [wrongly] that they will have to pay. The women are malnourished, often anemic, and prone to preeclampsia, a dangerous condition involving elevated blood pressure that can lead to seizures and is a leading cause of death in childbirth.

In the hospital, the women have limited access to basic medications  such as antibiotics -- if the pharmacy says they don't have it, the family has to go and buy it, and many have no money.  There is no pain medication. No oxygen -- if  you need to resuscitate, all you have is an ambu bag.

What's an ambu bag?

A mask that goes over nose and mouth, connected to a ball-like primer that you squeeze to produce an air flow. In the U.S., it  would  be hooked up to an oxygen source. 

Friday, October 01, 2010

Off to Haiti

for a week with my (mid)wife, back on Oct. 9. Thanks, house- and dogsitters, but there's no blogsitter! (Though feel free, Ben!)  This may be the longest blog break ever -- though maybe not, as the Blackberry should work. We'll see...

And half the parents are above average

The Times;' Landon Thomas has a story today about welfare benefits in the UK that are not means-tested -- for example, every household with children under 20 gets a child support allowance, regardless of income. One sentence knocked me off-topic into Deep Math:
Research shows that, although payments are promoted as a direct and simple means to allay child poverty by putting money into the hands of needy mothers, nearly half of the payments go to families with above-average incomes.

I suppose a disproportionate percentage of high income families may not have children at home, and that wealthier families may have fewer children on average, so that statement is not as tautological as it may appear.  But still.