2009 - %3, November

Blame Democrats

| Sat Nov. 21, 2009 11:54 AM EST

Via Matt Yglesias, here is Gillian Tett arguing that a populist backlash against bankers could be headed our way when we have to start getting serious about cutting deficits in 2011-13:

Perhaps that will occur when income taxes are hiked above 50 per cent. Or maybe when hospital budgets are cut, or military spending slashed....“Don’t the bankers realise what could be coming?” I heard one senior western finance official tell a room full of bankers this week, as he argued — with passion and a sense of desperation — that it would be a mistake for banks to pay big bonuses.

Well, stranger things have happened, I suppose, but here's my guess about who will get the blame if we raise taxes or slash spending a couple of years from now: Democrats.  End of story.  By then, bankers will be yesterday's news, but Republicans and the media will still be eager to haul out the liberal-tax-and-spend narrative and lay into it with gusto.  The fact that the financial meltdown happened under a GOP president, the bank bailout was championed by a GOP treasury secretary, and monetary policy was controlled by a GOP Fed chairman won't matter a whit.  Democrats will be in power and Democrats will get the blame.

Does anyone seriously want to argue that this isn't how things will play out?

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As the World Burns

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 9:31 PM EST

Just the other day I was whinging about a photo on the BBC website of an ice sculpture of a penguin (it's in this slide show) surrounded by well-dressed, admiring urbanites. I thought: How cool, what better way than a melting sculpture to highlight the plight of polar animals. Then I read the caption. Something along the lines of: "An ice sculpture of a penguin as part of a campaign to encourage shopping in London’s West End." Not a trace of irony there.

Now I see on Designboom the perfect, icy riposte. The thousand (give or take) ice figures of "Melting Men" by Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo has been appearing around the world since 2005, according to GreenMuze. Azevedo originally intended the installation of disappearing men as a critique of monuments in cities: replacing stone with ice, immortality with ephemeron.

Not hard to see why the installation has been reinterpreted, hijacked really, by those concerned for our warming world.

More photos of the melting men on this Flickr thread.
 

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 November 2009

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 2:49 PM EST

We have a winner in our cat cover contest!  Though actually it was a tie.  There were two cats who received the same number of votes, but one of them turned out to be an internet cat while the other one is (I hope) a real live cat belonging to a real live MoJo reader.  It was also my favorite cat cover of the bunch.  So by the awesome tiebreaking power vested in me as final coverblogging judge, I declare the winner of our cat cover contest to be Ginger, possibly the smuggest looking cat I've ever seen.  All hail Ginger!

The dynamic duo will be back next week.  In the meantime, if you're Ginger's owner, email me to claim your prize.  Have a good weekend, all.

West Va. Chamber of Commerce Plays Dirty With Health Care Reform

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 1:46 PM EST

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce is playing dirty with health care reform. It's pressuring its homestate Democratic senators, Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, to block health care legislation unless the Obama administration ends what the Chamber calls a "war on coal."

The Obama administration and Congress have waged "a growing campaign against the mining and use of coal," said West Virginia Chamber President Steve Roberts in a press release. He cited both the administration's efforts to cut carbon emissions via climate legislation, as well as its tougher enforcement of environmental standards for mining practices. "This needs to end before irreparable damage sets in," Roberts threatened. "It seems counterintuitive to ask taxpayers in this country to pour money and take on a trillion dollars in future debt to expand health care coverage and benefits while at the same time the Obama administration and Congress are working to destroy jobs, eliminate good health care benefits and hurt people's well-being."

Coal, however, does not "improve the health and well-being" of either miners or local residents. Coal mining, combustion, and disposal can cause serious health problems, including black lung, asthma, and mercury pollution, to name a few. And the number of coal-related jobs is on the decline in West Virginia and the rest of the country, in part because coal has laid off workers after mechanizing much of its operations. There are fewer than half as many jobs in the coal sector now as there were in the early '80s, according to the Energy Information Administration. There are now more jobs in the wind industry than in mining.

A third of non-elderly West Virginians were uninsured at some point in 2007-2008—most of them for six months or more. Yet the state's Chamber wants its congressional delegation to block legislation that would provide those residents with access to health care. "Votes to advance national health care reform are at razor-thin margins in both houses of Congress," Roberts concludes. "West Virginia’s congressional delegation needs to use this time—and their clout and seniority—to get this anti-coal situation stopped."

The Fall of Greg Craig

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 1:42 PM EST

Time has an interesting tick-tock this week about Greg Craig, the White House lawyer tasked with dismantling Bush-era interrogation and detention policies.  At first, Obama was on board with Craig's plans.  Then, reality set in.  Here he is deciding whether to release a set of "torture memos" last spring:

Obama arrived at [Rahm] Emanuel's office a few minutes later, took off his windbreaker and sat down at a table lined with about a dozen national-security and political advisers. He asked each to state a position and then convened an impromptu debate, selecting Craig and McDonough to argue opposing sides. Craig deployed one of Obama's own moral arguments: that releasing the memos "was consistent with taking a high road" and was "sensitive to our values and our traditions as well as the rule of law." Obama paused, then decided in favor of Craig, dictating a detailed statement explaining his position that would be released the next day.

But for Craig, it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Four days later, former Vice President Dick Cheney attacked Obama on Fox News Channel for dismantling the policies he and Bush had put in place to keep the country safe. More significant was the reaction within Obama's camp. Democratic pollsters charted a disturbing trend: a drop in Obama's support among independents, driven in part by national-security issues. Emanuel quietly delegated his aides to get more deeply involved in the process. Damaged by the episode, Craig was about to suffer his first big setback.

Obama repeatedly promised during the presidential campaign to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, but Guantánamo proved much easier to say than to do....But inside the White House, the mood had changed amid the furor over the release of the torture memos in April. McDonough and other NSC advisers assembled in the Oval Office to discuss it. Obama raised questions about security — were the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security on board? Separately, his legislative-affairs staff warned of stiff congressional resistance — and Republicans responded on cue. Word of the plan leaked on April 24, and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell launched three weeks of near daily attacks on the idea of letting the Uighurs loose in the U.S. Dick Durbin, Obama's mentor and the Democrats' No. 2 in the Senate, called the White House asking for ammunition to fight back against McConnell and the Republicans. "What's our plan?" Durbin asked.

....Obama needed to regain control quickly, and he started by jettisoning liberal positions he had been prepared to accept — and had even okayed — just weeks earlier. First to go was the release of the pictures of detainee abuse. Days later, Obama sided against Craig again, ending the suspension of Bush's extrajudicial military commissions. The following week, Obama pre-empted an ongoing debate among his national-security team and embraced one of the most controversial of Bush's positions: the holding of detainees without charges or trial, something he had promised during the campaign to reject.

The whole piece is worth a read.

More Obama Narratives

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 1:17 PM EST

A couple of days ago I griped about the media's insistence on imposing its preferred one-size-fits-all narrative on Obama's trip to China.  The narrative I had in mind was the one about China's huge dollar holdings driving major changes in policy when the evidence for that was pretty thin, but over at CJR Greg Marx picks up on another one:

As media narratives go, this whole “Barack Obama is a popular individual and a gifted speaker with a compelling personal story, but doesn’t automatically get everything he wants!” thing is getting awfully old, awfully fast.

The theme popped up months ago, when the press began to notice that though America had elected a “change” president, the world was—surprise!—not changing overnight. It cropped up again around the time of the off-year elections, when the media noticed that Obama’s personal appeal is not a magical amulet that can be transferred to unpopular Democrats. And it has framed much of the coverage of Obama’s recently completed trip to Asia.

[Several examples follow.]

If it were clear that Obama is pursuing a “biography-as-diplomacy” approach, this question might be pressing. And, if he were pursuing a strategy that rested primarily on his public appeal or his silver tongue, the observations from the NYT and LAT would be more significant, too. But, since evidence that he’s doing so is slight, this sort of frame comes off as more trite than trenchant.

Narratives will always be with us, but it would be nice if they could at least be tenuously based on reality.  The narrative about China's increasing leverage due to its dollar holdings has at least a little bit of that going for it, even if it gets overplayed, but the "silver tongued orator" narrative has really been plucked out of nowhere.  Yes, Obama is a good speaker, but there's zero evidence that his administration or his governing style is based on this in any significant way.  Just the opposite, in fact.  So knock it off, folks.

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Eco-News Roundup: Friday November 20

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 1:04 PM EST

Cost Effect: The healthcare bill may be expensive, but it may rein in long-term costs.

Going Swiss: The Swiss model of healthcare might be one for the US to follow.

Man-Made: There'll be a ripple effect as the US Army Corps is found liable for broken New Orleans levees. [Los Angeles Times]

Out Sick: US Chamber of Commerce wants to stop federally paid H1N1 sick days.

Big Talk: US and China talk climate, with some actual progress.

Hot Rocks: Kidney stones and malaria are just a few of global warming's risks. [Bloomberg]

Climate Sell-Out: Oliver North is using the "cap and trade boondoggle" as a fundraiser.

Not a KO: Sen. Boxer throws a party for climate legislation that's not done yet.

Rx in CT: Pfizer throws its weight around its Connecticut home, and in Congress.

Passionate Minorities

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 12:46 PM EST

Ezra Klein on the new recommendations suggesting women should start getting mammograms at age 50, not age 40:

You could hardly imagine a better example of why cost control is so hard: This was a recommendation from an institution with no actual power that was based entirely on accepted medical evidence. Cost was not a component in the analysis. This is simply the data on whether mammograms make sense for most women between 40 and 50, not whether they're "worth" doing as opposed to other expenditures.

And the political outcry has been deafening.

Beyond the purely scientific aspect of the debate, one of the notable things about the reaction to the new mammography guidelines is the way it highlights how passionate minorities drive so many public debates.  The USPSTF recommendation is based on large-scale costs vs. large-scale benefits, but the conversation that followed has been based mostly on personal stories.  And you'll never hear any personal stories about the costs.  Only the benefits.  Virtually all of the personal testimony over the past few days has been from women who either contracted breast cancer in their 40s and were saved by a mammogram, or who have unusual conditions that require unusual monitoring.  Obviously, if you fall into one of these categories you're going to feel very, very strongly about the benefits of early mammography.

And the millions of women who (if the USPSTF is to be believed) got mammograms in their 40s and suffered ill effects of one kind of another?  For the most part those effects were relatively minor, so nobody feels motivated to write op-eds about them.  But they're surprisingly widespread: the report suggests that the cumulative risk of a false positive result is over 50% for women who get annual mammograms between 40-49.  That's a lot of false positives, a lot of extra biopsies, and a lot of unnecessary panic.

It's a close call, and annual testing may still be worth it.  (The USPSTF continues to recommend it for women with a family history, genetic prediliction, or environmental risks.)  That's a largely personal choice.  But as with most political arguments, the public debate on this is being driven mostly not by dispassionate science, but by a passionate minority.  That's democracy for you.

UPDATE: Via comments, it turns out that women who get false positives are occasionally motivated to write op-eds about the experience after all.  Here's one from Andrea Stone.

World Class Hypocrisy

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 11:50 AM EST

Bruce Bartlett nominates Arizona Rep. Trent Franks as Congress's biggest hypocrite.  He makes a pretty decent case.

What Will Harry Reid Do?

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 10:49 AM EST

President Barack Obama talks alone with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Oval Office. (White House photo.)President Barack Obama talks alone with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Oval Office. (White House photo.)Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won praise on the left for including a public option in the health care bill that he's bringing to the floor of the Senate. But Reid's coming up on a big decision: while he may be able to wrangle the 60 votes to start debate on the bill tomorrow, there's evidence to suggest he many not be able to hold the Democratic caucus together to get the 60 votes necessary to end debate on a bill that includes a public option and move to a final vote. That's because conservative Democrats like Nebraska's Ben Nelson and Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln see a lot of potential value in bucking their party. So the left is bracing for Reid to betray them by removing the public option from the bill in order to earn the vote of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Current DC conventional wisdom says that if Snowe votes for cloture on the bill, allowing it to come to a final vote, conservative Dems will almost certainly join her. Here's FDL's Jon Walker arguing that Reid can't be trusted:

Many of Snowe’s top demands managed to make their way into the bill.

Harry Reid decided to take the terrible "free rider" provision championed by Snowe from the Senate Finance committee bill instead of the employer mandate from the [Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee] bill. Reid went with a very much weaker individual mandate more in keeping with the wishes of Snowe. He also kept the terrible “nationwide plans” from the [Senate Finance Committee] bill. Snowe strongly backs the nationwide plans and claimed it was one of the reason she voted for the bill in committee....

...If progressives find out that Reid’s support of the public option was purely for show, while at the same time he secretly worked with Snowe to kill it with a trigger, that would not go over well with the base. Reid does have the power to get a public option passed, there is no good excuse for failure.

The left isn't taking Reid's support as a given. On Saturday, as the Senate moves towards an initial vote on Reid's health care bill, the Progressive Choice Campaign Committee (PCCC) will be canvassing Reid's home state of Nevada with robocalls praising his efforts. The call will reach at least 10,000 households every day for the next two weeks "so long as Reid stays strong" on the public option. The message: "If Reid Fights, We'll Get His Back." The implication, of course, is that if Reid doesn't keep fighting for the public option, the left won't back him in his tough reelection battle next year.

If Reid can figure out how to secure the votes he needs for cloture without enraging the left, he'll look like a political genius. But if he fails to get the votes, he'll look like a fool. And if he gets the votes but loses the left by gutting the public option, he may find himself out of a job next November. It's a tough spot to be in.