Saturday, August 31, 2013

What's the rush?

So James Fallows asked the president. Why strike Syria  isolated from almost all sources of potential support, domestic as well as foreign? Why not make the case with more deliberation and build more support, foreign and domestic? Surprise! Obama, who boasted of doing just that in Libya, now appears to be on the same page.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious: his statement this afternoon announcing that he would seek Congressional authorization for a strike was pitched to an international audience as well. He's seeking more than Congressional support. My italics:
Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?

What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?

Friday, August 30, 2013

The WSJ spotlights an apparent anomaly in ACA subsidies

Once again, the WSJ combines factual accuracy with a negative emphasis in its reporting about the Affordable Care Act.

Today's front-pager, by Christopher Weaver and Louise Radnofsky, spotlights an anomaly: When the subsidies offered by the federal government are taken into account, older adults will pay less for insurance on the ACA exchanges than young adults of the same income if they opt for the cheapest, bronze-level plans. That raises the specter of adverse selection and is therefore worrying insurers, who have to offer insurance to older adults relatively cheaply (but not as cheaply as Weaver and Radnofsky imply). Here's the lede:

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Diplomatic fantasy hour

Cooling down from a run, I caught myself at the tail end of a little diplomatic fantasy: the Obama administration furnishes strong proof that the Assad regime carried out the chemical weapons attack -- and wins a Russian agreement to cut off the arms flow for long enough to equal the estimated damage of a contemplated U.S. missile strike. Or an Iranian agreement.

I know, I know....

UPDATE, 9/1/13:
  1. IAEA or P5? RT : Head of AEOI Salehi says next round of - P5+1 talks scheduled for 27Sept
  2. Should mesh interestingly w/ possible strike on Syria. Deal? You cut off arms to Syria for 3 months; we won't bomb.

    18m  there are an awful lot of moving parts, some potentially pushing US & Iran to an understanding, incl. on Syria CW

    ...steady stream of messages from Iran suggesting tacitly may accept US assessment re: Syria CW :
Update 9/3: Barbara Slavin reports on signs that the U.S. may be opening the door to Iranian inclusion in Syrian peace talks.

Update 9/9: Today we learn that I didn't let my imagination go far enough:
Asked at a news conference in London if there were steps the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, could take to avoid an American-led attack, Mr. Kerry said, “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.” He immediately dismissed the possibility that Mr. Assad would or could comply, saying, “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”

However, in Moscow, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who was meeting with Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said in response that Russia would join any effort to put Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons under international control and ultimately destroy them. 

Mr. Lavrov appeared at a previously unscheduled briefing only hours after Mr. Kerry made his statement in London, taking Mr. Kerry’s comments as a way to suggest a possible compromise. 

“We don’t know whether Syria will agree with this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus,” Mr. Lavrov said at the Foreign Ministry. “And we call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction.” 

Mr. Moallem said later in a statement that his government welcomed the Russian proposal, Russia’s Interfax News Agency reported, in what appeared to be the first acknowledgment by the Syrian government that it even possessed chemical weapons. The Syrian government has historically neither confirmed nor denied possessing such weapons.
This has that too-good-to-be-true feeling, like the prospect in 2009 that Iran would send its highly enriched nuclear fuel to Russia or Turkey for safekeeping. But for a diplomatic moment I'll indulge sweet hope.

In which Nicholas Kristof hurls a Hail Mary toward Assad

Unlike several New York Times columnists, Nicholas Kristof usually gets his facts straight.  And in his advocacy over decades for victims of war and rapine, he's developed a signature line of argument: Okay, it may be imprudent/ineffective for the U.S. to intervene militarily. But we can do x, y and z -- a carefully calibrated and coordinated range of diplomatic, economic and sub-military measures -- to pressure a brutal dictator or warlord to stop or reduce the killing. Such has been Kristof's m.o. in columns urging action in Darfur, South Sudan, and I think, a range of other conflict zones.

His advocacy today for a strike on Syria seems uncharacteristically sloppy, a mesh of unargued or thinly argued assumptions: When slaughter in civil war escalates, it's the U.S.'s responsibility to step in. Arming Syrian rebels earlier might have built a more viable or cohesive or moderate opposition and reduced the slaughter.  A punitive strike now may not only deter further chemical weapons deployment but also cause moderate rebels to spring out of Syrian soil like Spartoi.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Obama's national narrative is a bit less triumphal these days

It's hard to wax lyrical about Obama waxing lyrical when he seems on the point of launching an attack on another country with no clear end and to advance no clear U.S. interest. 

But I did think that his speech at the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was a good one, better than the Twitter chatter on my feed would lead you to believe. It was familiar: the always perfecting/never perfected frame, offsetting progress made with challenges yet unmet -- but this time with an edge, an emphasis on the lack of economic progress, for the middle class generally and African Americans specifically, over the last fifty years.

I was moved by his account of the ordinary people who drove major social change, though I've heard it before. And I found his account of the political forces militating against opportunity and shared prosperity satisfyingly meaty:

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Great news! The debt ceiling deadline's been moved up

I have on a couple of recent occasions expressed anxiety (1, 2) that Democrats would be walking into a trap if they let Republicans pass a two-month continuing resolution that would effectively conflate the battle over a 2014 budget with the imperative to raise the debt ceiling.  The working assumption behind the two-month CR, as I've understood it, is that the government could get by without a debt ceiling hike until the end of November.

I was therefore glad to read this morning that the Treasury, whether by design or necessity, is quick-pitching the envisioned end-of-November double showdown.  The debt ceiling must be dealt with earlier, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew declared in a letter to congressional leaders:

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Democrats should shut down the government

Not really. But they should let Republicans shut down the government rather than agreeing to a two-month continuing resolution that will bring on debt ceiling apocalypse.

When word was that Boehner would postpone a budget showdown until the debt ceiling is reached in November and try to force a defunding of Obamacare then, I suspected that he and his party would shift gears and seek to extract more attainable budget concessions. That has now happened, as Chait summarizes:
The Republican leadership is perfectly aware that a debt default could have explosive implications and that the Obama administration is not willing to negotiate over it. It’s already formulating a line of retreat to back out of this threat. As Politico reports, they want to tie together negotiations over the debt ceiling with negotiations over budget sequestration. Then they can extract concessions from Obama on the budget and sell them to their base as a ransom for lifting the debt ceiling, rather than admit they just gave in on the debt ceiling.
"Gave in" is a relative term. Extracting further budget cuts beyond sequestration would be a major GOP victory by my lights, if not by the GOP base's. And they may get it. As Chait warns here and has warned before, a debt default (stemming from failure to raise the debt ceiling) is a " vastly more dangerous threat" than a government shutdown. Yet Chait, like Greg Sargent and Brian Beutler, seems to have more faith than I do about what Obama will not yield to if faced with a debt default:

Saturday, August 24, 2013

My day in court, cont.

I was on a jury in a criminal trial  this past week. We heard testimony on Tuesday and Wednesday and deliberated Thursday and Friday.  We ended up a hung jury, stuck at 10-2.  I felt that the process worked as it should and everyone comported themselves well -- but at the end, tempers frayed, several people in the majority expressed shame about not being able to come to a verdict, and I seemed to be the only one who felt good about the process and glad to have been there.

In a post I wrote last week during jury selection, I called jury duty the civilized face of a brutal criminal justice system. Ditto the court proceeding as a whole. Leave aside biased law enforcement, Draconian sentencing guidelines and brutal prison conditions -- not to mention environments of concentrated poverty and lack of opportunity -- and justice may happen in the court room, viewed alone. (Except for several strains of cancer the patient is healthy.) Propriety was observed by all parties, defense counsel was competent, the judge kept good control of the proceedings, the jury clearly understood its charge and duties, no one seemed in the grip of any bias or animus, and deliberation for the most part stayed on point and orderly.

Essex County in New Jersey spans Newark, a very poor city; Millburn, a true outpost of Richistan, USA; some very poor inner ring suburbs, and suburbs with varying mixes of rich, poor and middle.  The voir dire reflected that mix, minus the extremes. Perhaps it was a cross section of the American middle class as it's devolved.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Friday, August 16, 2013

Paul Krugman's moment of truthiness

I suffered cognitive dissonance this morning when I read this from Krugman:
We also all know that the reality [of how democracy in America functions] falls far short of the ideal. Voters are often misinformed, and politicians aren’t reliably truthful. Still, we like to imagine that voters generally get it right in the end, and that politicians are eventually held accountable for what they do. 

But is even this modified, more realistic vision of democracy in action still relevant? Or has our political system been so degraded by misinformation and disinformation that it can no longer function? 
He goes on to fulminate about Exhibit A: Americans do not know that the deficit has been dropping throughout the Obama years, as they did not know that the deficit was falling through Clinton's first term.

Why am I disconcerted by Krugman's consternation? Of course I share his frustration at the "outright falsehoods" that Republican leaders routinely mouth about the deficit. I agree, as he laments in this column, that our political discourse is shot through with truthiness.

But unlike Krugman (apparently), I recall what Krugman wrote..yesterday. Reacting to a recent morsel of egregious economic misinformation in a Robert Samuelson column, he opined:

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Listen to Boehner, Dems. When he announces a negotiating strategy, he executes

Republicans' latest reported strategy in the looming budget wars is to pass continuing resolutions that will fund the government at sequestration levels through November, when the next debt ceiling deadline looms -- then once again hold the country's faith and credit hostage to extremist demands like defunding Obamacare. Democrats should not take this strategy lightly. Methinks the account below, via The Week, gets the dynamics of this year's prior battles exactly backwards:
The Republican leadership has been increasingly under pressure to appease the right wing of the party. Publicly insisting that ObamaCare funding will be fought further down the road would soothe the demand for that fight in the first place, while kicking the can down the road, perhaps indefinitely.

As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent points out, this is exactly what happened with the last debt ceiling fight. In January, Boehner said the upcoming sequester debate, not debt ceiling fight, gave the GOP its best position to push for major budget cuts. Yet the sequester came and went without the GOP winning those deep concessions.
Come again? The sequester is "major budget cuts." As of now, those cuts are locked in for ten years, a seemingly immovable deadweight on Obama's long-term domestic agenda. Republicans may be ambivalent about their effects, actual and political, and ultimately unable to sustain their will to enact the cuts.  But they did not cave -- they decided to embrace the cuts, and they followed through, and the overall ten-year deficit reduction scorecard remains stuck at a 4-to-1 spending-cuts-to-tax-increases ratio.  In March it was Obama and the Democrats who caved, balking at forcing a government shutdown to shut off sequestration.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

My day in court

I was on jury duty today. They treat jurors right in Newark. The free coffee is good, the wireless is good, the chairs don't kill you. There's even a small landscaped area outside the front doors, where I spent a pleasant hour during lunch, bending my laptop into the shade. The orientation video was effective (and followed by a short video pitch for volunteers to serve as Court Appointed Special Advocates for foster children that made me cry a little). The master of ceremonies for jurors was jovial and funny ("the intercoms reach everywhere, including the bathroom. So -- Jurors! If you're in the bathroom, and you hear your name called, cut it short"). The judge during voir dire was respectful, friendly, almost courtly to the jurors. All this was as it should be.

And yet, after reading a rash of articles recently about the depravities of criminal justice in the U.S. -- the mass incarceration, the inane mandatory minimum sentencing, the grotesque overuse of solitary confinement, the ubiquity of rape, the law-shaping clout of the private prison industry, the mass deportations, the faux forensic "science" deployed by prosecutors -- I couldn't help but reflect that I was being shown the civil public face of brutal penal system.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Boehner's not retreating, he's doubling down

Robert Costa has a funny little narrative today in which John Boehner and Eric Cantor, moderate old hands who know how Washington works, talk the GOP's young Turks off the ledge of a government shutdown when this year's funding runs out at the end of September.  We don't have the votes, we'll be blamed, etc. etc.  But then there's this kicker, which gave me hot flashbacks:
Members were also buzzing about the leadership’s emerging strategy for the autumn talks. Sources tell me the House GOP will probably avoid using a shutdown as leverage and instead use the debt limit and sequester fights as areas for potential legislative trades. Negotiations over increasing the debt limit have frequently been used to wring concessions out of the administration, so there may be movement in that direction: Delay Obamacare in exchange for an increased debt limit. As members huddled and talked through scenarios, leadership aides reminded them that since the House GOP retreat in Williamsburg, Va., earlier this year, the plan has been to end the year with a debt-limit chess game, and not a messy continuing-resolution impasse (my emphasis).
What this flashed me back to was not debt ceiling summer 2011, but early this year, when Boehner made rather a big show of not forcing a debt ceiling showdown, instead suggesting that his caucus would take its stand at the end of March, when the sequester kicked in. Progressive observers reacted with some incredulity that Boehner would let the sequestration cuts, which include massive defense cuts, happen. At the time, McConnell and Boehner's victory at the fiscal cliff  (Obama forced to settle for just half of his reduced December revenue demand, sequester set to spring in two months) was being viewed as a defeat. But it was Obama and the Democrats who folded when it came time to fund the government for the remainder of this fiscal year, quietly acceding to full uncut sequestration.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Detroit's destruction began in its heyday

Thomas J. Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1997) is a great book -- and in some ways a simple one.  It provides extensive, fine-grained documentation of two or three (depending on how you count) relentless forces that destroyed Detroit.

The first was the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs that was in full flow by the early fifties, and could only have been stemmed by national industrial policies unthinkable in the United States: a rollback of Taft-Hartley's enablement of state right-to-work laws; a German-style role for labor in corporate management; legal restrictions on companies' right to lay off workers or move manufacturing operations as they saw fit.

The second was the vicious, rooted, legally codified and government-sanctioned racism that kept African Americans at the bottom of the labor totem pole, consigning them to the hardiest, dirtiest, poorest-paying and least secure factory jobs and excluding them skilled crafts, retail service and a host of other occupations.

Obama's drinking gourd ain't no Holy Grail

(reposted from 8/10/13)
Was I too dark a prophet when I said
To those who went upon the Holy Quest,
That most of them would follow wandering fires,
Lost in the quagmire? -- lost to me and gone,
And left me gazing at a barren board.
-- King Arthur to his knights, in Tennyson's Idylls of the King, The Holy Grail
Now, I think the really interesting question is why it is that my friends in the other party have made the idea of preventing these people from getting health care their holy grail, their number-one priority. The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don't have health care and, presumably, repealing all those benefits I just mentioned -- kids staying on their parents' plan; seniors getting discounts on their prescription drugs; I guess a return to lifetime limits on insurance; people with preexisting conditions continuing to be blocked from being able to get health insurance.

-- President Obama, press conference, 8/9/13

Obama has more than once tagged his Republican opposition with a fundamentalist mindset on economic issues. In his mind, they do indeed follow wandering fires -- mirages of a "holy quest." He has used the metaphor before to denote their worship of false economic gods.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Snowden, patriot; Obama, in denial

This is just to say, for the record, that I think Obama was shamefully disingenuous or self-deluded in declaring in his press conference yesterday that Edward Snowden is not a patriot and suggesting that he himself would have triggered the kind of inquiry into current surveillance practices that Snowden has unleashed if not pushed by Snowden's disclosures.

This, in particular, is a logical elision:
So the fact is, is that Mr. Snowden has been charged with three felonies. If, in fact, he believes that what he did was right, then, like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Obama's drinking gourd ain't no holy grail

Was I too dark a prophet when I said
To those who went upon the Holy Quest,
That most of them would follow wandering fires,
Lost in the quagmire? -- lost to me and gone,
And left me gazing at a barren board

-- King Arthur to his knights, in Tennyson's Idylls of the King, The Holy Grail
Now, I think the really interesting question is why it is that my friends in the other party have made the idea of preventing these people from getting health care their holy grail, their number-one priority. The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don't have health care and, presumably, repealing all those benefits I just mentioned -- kids staying on their parents' plan; seniors getting discounts on their prescription drugs; I guess a return to lifetime limits on insurance; people with preexisting conditions continuing to be blocked from being able to get health insurance.

-- President Obama, press conference, 8/9/13

Obama has more than once tagged his Republican opposition with a fundamentalist mindset on economic issues. In his mind, they do indeed follow wandering fires -- mirages of a "holy quest." He has used the metaphor before to denote their worship of false economic gods.

Friday, August 09, 2013

For state GOP officials, a manual for undermining Obamacare

In 2011, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) produced a report cataloging risks of adverse selection in the ACA state insurance exchanges and provisions in the ACA designed to avoid or mitigate those risks. (Adverse selection occurs in plans that chiefly attract less health and more expensive customers, e.g. when younger, healthier customers have other options more attractive to them, including remaining uninsured.)

One key ACA measure to mitigate adverse selection is as follows. Those who offer insurance on the exchanges must treat all their customers in that state as one risk pool and must offer silver and gold plans -- the middle options in a spectrum that runs from bronze to platinum. If "young invincibles" choose bronze plans, their choices won't affect pricing in more expensive plans, which may be more attractive to older and sicker customers.

A continued risk is posed, however, by the ongoing existence of an individual market outside the exchanges, where insurers may still sell cheap high-deductible plans that appeal to healthy young people, albeit subject to many if not all of the same rules governing plans offered in the exchanges. In yesterday's New York Times, Eduardo Porter outlined that risk:

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Are "burn your Obamacare card" proponents incurring potential liability?

Progressives have been first dumbfounded, and then enraged, by the right-wing campaign to convince the uninsured not to purchase health insurance on the exchanges established by the Affordable Care Act.. The young, healthy uninsured whom the exchanges need to sign up in order to thrive are being urged to "burn your Obamacare draft card," as the Koch-funded Freedomworks puts it.  Here's Kevin Drum's reaction:
Nice. I wonder if FreedomWorks plans to help out the first person who takes them up on this and then contracts leukemia? I'm guessing probably not.

What's next? A campaign to get people to skip wearing seat belts? To skip using baby seats in cars? To skip vaccinations for their kids? It's times like this that words fail those of us with a few remaining vestiges of human decency.
There may be legal ramifications to Drum's question.  Might those who gratuitously offer a kind of malign financial advice to the general public -- in particular, to a disproportionately young and poor segment of the public -- incur liability?

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Read that NYT exposé of price gouging in joint replacements? Here's an antidote

For those angered by the recent New York Times exposé of price-gouging in joint replacement devices and operations in the U.S. (total hip replacement tabs topping out at $112k, vs. $13k in Belgium), a CalPERS health insurance initiative offers a partial antidote. Melanie Evans explains in Modern Healthcare:
Joint replacement prices at the most costly California hospitals plunged by one-third after the state required its workers and retirees to pay out of pocket all costs above a “reference price” of $30,000 for orthopedic surgery, a new study said.

The average cost of joint replacement among high-priced hospitals dropped to $28,465 after the California Public Employees' Retirement System made the change in 2011, wrote University of California researchers James Robinson and Timothy Brown in the journal Health Affairs. That's down from $43,308 the prior year.
Using patient incentives to control costs is usually branded as "conservative" in the U.S. And indeed, "consumer-driven healthcare" is just a misleading euphemism unless crucial elements -- price transparency and genuine choice -- are part of the mix. In this case, they are:

Monday, August 05, 2013

Reminder: chained-CPI means new revenue

Chuck Todd, attempting to flesh out  some talk show chatter from Eric Cantor about budget compromise (GOP-style, i..e., with no new revenue), floats a GOP trial balloon:
Left unsaid by Cantor is what entitlement reform has to look like. There’s been some chatter in GOP circles that it’s about simply taking the president’s offer on chained CPI.  The argument by some Republicans on this strategy is that Republicans would be able to claim victory on stopping the sequester and getting an opening to begin entitlement reform without capitulating to the president’s demand that chained CPI (which would change Social Security benefits among other things) come with some new tax increases. But would the president be open to this? Chained CPI in exchange for turning off sequester? Seems reasonable now… but who knows.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The happiest wrong I could ever be

I am on vacation from from vacation so to speak, in the Catskills in the rain, inspired by the legislative news and willing to brave this horrific Samsung phone keyboard to get a brief thought down [couldn't do it - finishing the half-baked thought at home, 8/4]. What if the narrative I've invested myself in all year is wrong? That is, that Obama blew his point of maximum leverage at the fiscal cliff and locked us into the sequester, gravely hindering his long-term agenda? Could it be that Republicans will this year choke over sequestration and wriggle out by one means or another?