2009 - %3, August

Friday Cat Vlogging - 28 August 2009

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 2:03 PM EDT

Today you get more than boring old catblogging.  You get a cat movie.  Or a short feature, anyway.

OK, fine: it's 26 seconds long.

Its star is Domino as she plonked down the stairs this morning to check out the kibble situation.  You'll notice that she has sort of a weird gait coming down the stairs, not at all like the panther-esque stride that a normal cat would display.  (Like, say, Inkblot.)  (No, really.  When he comes down the stairs you better get out of the way.)  We're not sure why this is, but she's been this way ever since we got her, and it seems to be due to some kind of abnormality in her front legs.  Nothing serious, and she gets around just fine.  She's just not very lithe about it.

Anyway, as the ending shows, this dramatic production is clearly a tragedy: there's no food in the food bowl after Domino makes the long trek downstairs.  But worry not: as soon as the cameraman was done, he filled up the bowl and Domino was there at the head of the line.  Everyone walked away happy from this movie.

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Chart of the Day

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 1:49 PM EDT

OK, it's not really a chart.  It's a table.  But it comes from CBPP and it takes a closer look at the recent headlines screaming that deficit projections have risen from $7 trillion to $9 trillion.  Long story short, it's not true.

Here's why.  The lower number is from the CBO and relies on its "baseline" budget calculation.  This is an estimate of what would happen if current law remains unchanged forever, and as such it bears little resemblance to reality.  In reality, the Bush tax cuts aren't going to disappear in 2011, Medicare reimbursements aren't going to be suddenly slashed, and the Alternative Minimum Tax won't be left alone to gobble up ever more income.  As usual, the law will be changed to take care of all these things, just like it is every year.

So if you take a look at what the deficit would be under current real-life policies, and compare it to estimates under Obama's proposed policies, what do you get?  As the table below shows, the real-life deficit isn't $7 trillion, it's more like $11 trillion.  And the Obama deficit isn't $9 trillion, it's about $10.5 trillion once adjustments are made so that it can be compared to CBO estimates on an apples-to-apples basis.  So the bottom line is simple: properly accounted for, the deficit actually goes down when you compare Obama's budget proposals to current policy, not up.

All the grisly details are here.  Warning: not for the faint of heart.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Proposes "Scopes Monkey Trial" to Debunk Climate Change

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 1:39 PM EDT

Stephen Colbert could not have done better. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the leading opponent of regulating carbon emissions, says it wants a public hearing on the scientific evidence for man-made climate change. A Chamber official told the LA Times that the hearing would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st Century."

The Chamber either forgot that the creationists won that fight--though in the long run, the famous 1925 trial over the teaching of evolution, portrayed in Inherit the Wind, humiliated them--or it's attempting the boldest metaphor in the history of climate spin: creationists = climatologists.

Setting aside the fact that the nation's largest business lobby has supported plenty of dumb ideas, let's assume that this isn't really about science. Because there's no way that a half-competent judge is going to rule that 95 percent of climatologists are wrong. Remember the Supreme Court case? The one that said the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon?

No, what this is really about is false populism. Though it's evoking Scopes, the Chamber is actually calling for a "public hearing," a gathering that would surely be more akin to the recent healthcare town halls that were stacked with anti-government nutjobs. What fearmongering and demagaugery did for health care, it could do for climate change!

Or not. My bet is that 90 percent of the Bubbas who'd show up would also be creationists, the people discredited in the first Monkey Trial. Good luck with that, fellas!

History of Modern Presidential Vacations

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 1:06 PM EDT

Like everything presidential, the first family's choice for their August vacation is highly politicized. You can typically expect to see the President being as American as humanly possible while pretending to relax. This means playing golf and watching baseball, all while chomping hot dogs and hamburgers wrapped in red white and blue packaging.

"There's been a public significance to presidential vacations going back all the way to Lincoln, who went to the Soldier's Home in Washington during the Civil War," Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz told the Washington Post. "You have to show the country that you are getting respite from the job, but also that you are still ever at the ready. It's a delicate balance."

And while the Commander in Chief works on his swing in the Vineyard, a more overt political game unfolds each year back in Washington. This year, that has centered on the battle over health care reform and the apparent wrath of teabaggers across the country. But as President Obama's Martha's Vineyard vacation comes to a close, I took a look at what major events have occurred during August vacations in years past. One aspect jumps off the page: Presidents Clinton and Bush II were careful stay out of policy debates. Reagan and Bush I, on the other hand, regularly engaged from their vacation homes.

Quote of the Day

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 12:38 PM EDT

From Steve Benen, responding to Steven Pearlstein's column today about a possible compromise healthcare plan:

If there's "a deal to be had here," who is the deal with?

In theory, a deal should be fairly easy.  Keep the insurance reform stuff and the increased subsidies, dump the public option, add in a few other goodies here and there for both sides, and voila.  Dinner is served.

But who's going to join us at the table?  Are there any Republicans left who will vote for any healthcare plan at all, regardless of what is or isn't in it?  Who are they?  As Michael Kinsley says morosely about a healthcare deal elsewhere in the paper: "I'd like to think that if it goes down this time — when even the insurance companies are on board, promising to eliminate their odious policies about preexisting conditions — Republicans will pay for having killed it, if indeed they do kill it. But they didn't pay the last time."

Obama Talked Big on Katrina, Did Little

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 12:31 PM EDT

During the campaign Obama pledged to make the Gulf Coast recovery a paramount goal.
In February, 2008, he declared, "The broken promises did not start when a storm hit, and they did not end there … I promise you that when I’m in the White House I will commit myself every day to keeping up Washington’s end of this trust. This will be a priority of my presidency."

But a new study [PDF] by the Institute of Southern Studies reports that 50 community leaders from areas affected by the hurricane ranked Obama only slightly better than Bush in reconstruction. In a range of different categories, Obama came out with a D+ to Bush’s D.

According to the report, "A diverse group of more than 50 community leaders were asked in August 2009 to grade the Obama administration’s efforts for Gulf Coast recovery in eight key areas. The respondents came from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, and represented a wide range of constituencies, including faith, community and environmental organizations."

The demographics assembled by the Institute in themselves reflect how little has been done to restore life along the coast:

  • Estimated number of U.S. residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina: 1 million
  • Rank of Katrina’s among all diasporas in U.S. history: 1
  • Estimated number of people displaced by Katrina still living in Houston today: 100,000
  • Percent of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina addresses that are actively receiving mail today: 76.4
  • Percent receiving mail in the largely African-American and working-class Lower 9th Ward: Less than 49
  • Percent of households with children in New Orleans before Katrina: 30
  • Percent shortly after the storm: 18
  • Percent two years later: 20
  • Percent of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina population that was African-American: 67
  • Percent three years later: 61
  • Number of abandoned residential addresses in New Orleans today: 65,888
  • Proportion of all residential addresses in the city that number represents: 1/3
  • Rank of New Orleans among all U.S. cities for the rate of abandoned residences: 1
  • Number of 2010 federal census questionnaires slated to be hand-delivered to homes in south Louisiana in an effort to ensure an accurate count: 300,000
  • Average amount of federal funds states receive over a decade for each person counted in the census: $12,000

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The Rationing Canard

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 12:24 PM EDT

Ezra Klein takes a bat to Charles Krauthammer's claim that national healthcare inevitably leads to rationing:

A 2001 survey by the policy journal Health Affairs found that 38 percent of Britons and 27 percent of Canadians reported waiting four months or more for elective surgery. Among Americans, that number was only 5 percent....There is, however, a flip side to that. The very same survey also looked at cost problems among residents of different countries: 24 percent of Americans reported that they did not get medical care because of cost. Twenty-six percent said they didn't fill a prescription. And 22 percent said they didn't get a test or treatment. In Britain and Canada, only about 6 percent of respondents reported that costs had limited their access to care.

The problem, of course, is that the U.S. rations by denying healthcare to poor people, and the Krauthammers of the world don't really care much about that.  What's more, for all that we like to think of ourselves as nice people, most middle class Americans don't care much about it either.

In any case, Krauthammer also violates two of my standard rules for figuring out when someone is completely full of it when they talk about healthcare.  #1: the old hip replacement canard.  Run for the hills when you hear it.  Krauthammer, as Ezra points out, is implicitly talking about elective surgeries like hip replacements, but there's a reason these procedures are called "elective": it's because these are the procedures that can be most effectively triaged.  We do the same thing in emergency rooms all the time, and we do it every time you have to wait a few weeks for a doctor's appointment because you're not keeling over on the street.  Every system triages something, and in some countries that something is hip replacements that can be easily monitored and scheduled.  In others — like ours — it's things like basic dental care.

#2: Krauthammer is careful to name check only Britain and Canada, which have more problems than most other national healthcare systems — and are conveniently English-speaking, which makes it easy to lazily Google complaints about care.  But he couldn't make his rationing statement at all if he'd chosen France and Germany (or Sweden or Japan) instead.  The plain fact is that universal care doesn't inevitably mean longer waits for care than in the U.S.  As any honest observer knows, plenty of actual, existing countries have proven just that.  We should emulate them.

Af/Pak Dominos

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 11:44 AM EDT

According to Mike Crowley, Bruce Riedel said this at a Brookings event earlier this week:

The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic World. This would be a victory on par with the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. And, those moderates in the Islamic World who would say, no, we have to be moderate, we have to engage, would find themselves facing a real example. No, we just need to kill them, and we will drive them out. So I think the stakes are enormous.

Riedel was chair of a White House team that reviewed U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier this year, so his opinion isn't one you can easily dismiss.

But how reasonable is it?  It's probably true that Pakistani moderates are skeptical about our willingness to stick things out for the long haul, so they often hedge their bets by trying to stay on our good side while they strike deals with the Taliban on the side.  After all, Americans are a wee bit unpopular in Pakistan these days, so why not?  What's more, it's a pretty safe game since these same moderates know perfectly well that we don't have enough leverage to ever really call them out on this tap dancing.

At the same time, neither Pakistani moderates nor, more importantly, the Pakistani army, would ever put up with any serious effort by the Taliban to mount a coup.  The army plays a sometimes dangerous game, trying to use these terrorist groups as useful foot soldiers in its forever war with India, but other than that they've never had any real use for them.  The more important question, then, is what would happen if Islamist elements in the Pakistani army gained more control than they have now and started cooperating with Islamist groups more seriously?  If the U.S. withdrew from the region and radicals claimed victory, would all this stop being a game and start becoming all too real?

Nothing is impossible, but at its core this is just a sophisticated version of the same domino theory that dominated U.S. thinking in Southeast Asia in the 50s and 60s.  That led us into a disastrous war then, and it could do the same now if the Obama administration starts getting too wrapped up in febrile thinking like this.  After all, if you assume enough dominos, you can come to just about any conclusion you want.  I sure hope they're not taking this more seriously than it deserves.

More in the same vein from Michael Cohen here.

Headline of the Day

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 10:52 AM EDT

From the Los Angeles Times this morning:

L.A. Targets Illegal Cheese

It's all about unpasteurized Mexican cheese, of course, which is "spirited into the country in suitcases and is then sold door to door to residents or restaurants and at open air markets out of coolers."  The foodies love it:

Many people know its provenance is illegal but think it tastes better. Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Weekly food critic, said he prefers it.  "I will admit that there are some groceries . . . where you do kind of buy cheese under the table, and it tastes better," Gold said. "If you're the sort of person who believes milk has a soul to it, which I guess I am, then pasteurizing is taking something away." As for the potential danger posed by unpasteurized cheese, Gold added: "Life is filled with risks."

I guess the LAT's own food critic wasn't willing to own up to buying illegal cheese under the table.  Coward.

No Health Care For Registered Republicans?

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 10:32 AM EDT

The GOP seems to have no end of nutty criticism of the Democrats’ health care plans. First they had the entirely fictional “death panels.” Now, they're claiming that a reformed health care system might discriminate against Republicans. Last week, the ever-entertaining Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, mailed out a push-poll disguised as a health care "survey." Among the questions on the survey was this one:

"It has been suggested that the government could use voter registration to determine a person's political affiliation, prompting fears that GOP voters might be discriminated against for medical treatment in a Democrat-imposed health care rationing system. Does this possibility concern you?"

While it's hard to imagine that Steele will get much traction with this sort of thing, in this climate, it seems Republicans are banking on the public’s willingness to believe just about any conspiracy theory they put out there to kill off health care reform. Again.