2010 - %3, February

Paul Ryan's Budget

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 12:06 PM EST

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has received a lot of attention in recent days for his plan to slash the deficit. (If you haven't yet, read Ezra Klein's interview with Ryan.) Mostly that's because he actually has something resembling a plan. The bulk of the "savings" from the plan come from converting Medicare to a voucher program and limiting the value of the vouchers. In other words, Ryan would change Medicare from what is essentially a single-payer plan for the elderly into a coupon program, with coupons that wouldn't cover the full cost of your medical care. (Ryan would also essentially privatize Social Security, but he doesn't get much in the way of savings from that.) And it's true—if you eliminate the whole "social insurance" bit about Medicare, it gets a lot cheaper. 

Now, Kevin says the plan is all "smoke and mirrors" because Ryan doesn't say "how his spending limits will be met." But using vouchers is actually a great way to set spending limits, if that's what you want to do. The real problem with Ryan's plan is that it's the kind of plan you propose when you don't actually have to pass a plan. Ross Douthat writes that "even if there were a politically-feasible path toward the kind of overhaul Ryan has in mind, it’s not clear how many Republican politicians would want to take it." Even Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who appeared with Ryan at a press conference on Tuesday to discuss the plan, hasn't embraced its proposals. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson has it right: "It's a shocking budget, and the kind of thing that no party in power would ever have the cojones to propose." It's the "gradual extermination" of Medicare, Thompson says. 

The biggest problem with Ryan's plan is that it doesn't actually control health care costs. It simply shifts the burden of paying for them from the public sector to individuals. Instead of the government going bankrupt trying to pay for medical care, it'll be individuals. That's all well and good for the rich, who might be able to pay for their own health care. But people who would have relied on Medicare are going to be out of luck. Medical costs wil rise much faster than the value of the voucher will. Ryan's plan seems to pretend that the problem isn't medical costs—it's just that the government is trying to pay for them. James Kwak is good on this:

The implicit premise [of Ryan's plan] is that we have to screw ordinary people–or at least make them bear a high degree of risk–in order to save the government budget. But what is the government budget? It’s a pile of money that we contribute and that our representatives are supposed to spend on things we can’t buy for ourselves individually. I know that those representatives make mistakes, are borderline corrupt, etc. But Medicare is exactly the kind of program that we want government to provide–a program that shifts risk from individuals to the government, and thereby the country as a whole–and that’s why it’s so popular.

Other countries manage to keep their citizens healthy at a much lower cost than we do. They don't have to dismantle their social insurance programs to do it. Why should we?

Kevin is traveling today.

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GOPers More Open to Question Time than Obama?

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 12:03 PM EST

At the Wednesday White House press briefing, I asked deputy press secretary Bill Burton about the cross-partisan Demand Question Time campaign that has come together to urge President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders to commit to holding regular, frequent, and public Q&A sessions like the one held last Friday in Baltimore. Here's what happened:

Q. Thanks. As you might know, there's a coalition of right and left bloggers, politicos, including --

MR. BURTON:  Cable pundits?  (Laughter.)

Q. -- people who watch cable TV and people who don't, including people who used to work in the administration and people who worked on the Obama campaign, who are asking both the President and the congressional Republican leaders in the House and Senate to hold these question sessions, to commit to holding them on a regular basis.  Would the White House do that?

MR. BURTON:  Well, David Axelrod has talked about this a little, and what he had to say was that part of the reason that Friday was so successful with the GOP conference is that it was for the spontaneity that occurred there. And it's going to be hard to sort of recreate that spontaneity that happened.

Now, the President thinks that there is space for more open dialogue, more -- and he's going to look for more opportunities to do things on camera and have open discussions on important issues. But in terms of a regularly scheduled event, I don't have anything for you on that.

Now compare that to the Republican response. Politico reports:

House Republicans want a rematch.

Democrats were thrilled with President Barack Obama's performance at last week's question-and-answer session with the House GOP, but it's the Republicans — not the White House — who are embracing a call to make question time a regular part of American political life.

“I think it’d be great,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the ranking Republican on the budget committee whose exchange with the president over his budget proposal was one of the more substantive parts of Friday's Q&A in Baltimore.

As for the GOP House leaders, Politico notes:

“We had a good discussion with the president in Baltimore about his policies and what we believe are our better solutions,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner. “Frankly, the president’s acknowledgment that he has read our policy proposals should stop every Democrat — in Congress, at the political committees, and in the White House — from repeating their discredited ‘party of no ideas’ talking point. So we’ll look at this proposal."

To sum up: White House says, no. GOPers say, maybe. To be continued.

You can sign a petition calling for Question Time here. You can watch me talking about QT on C-SPAN below.

And here's Republican strategist/blogger Mindy Finn and I discussing Question Time on Hardball.

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 4, 2010

Thu Feb. 4, 2010 7:09 AM EST

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Spc. Andrew Strickler, a Wakefield, Minn., native, ground guides the Hyex operated by Spc. Chris Forrest of Downs, Ill., to fill dirt into a Hesco box that will reinforce a test fire control pit at Victory base complex, on January 25. Photo via the US Army by Staff Sgt. Kirk Liljestrum.

Books: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 7:00 AM EST

When Henrietta Lacks—a poor, African American tobacco farmer from Virginia—checked into Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer in 1951, she had no idea that tissue removed from her body without her consent would become one of the most important resources in medical history. She died soon afterward, but her cells, dubbed HeLa, astonished scientists with their still-mysterious "immortality"—they were the first ones to survive indefinitely in the lab, and reproduced at an unprecedented rate. HeLa provided the raw material necessary to develop the polio vaccine and many other medical breakthroughs. In this gripping, vibrant book, Rebecca Skloot looks beyond the scientific marvels to explore the ethical issues behind a discovery that may have saved your life.

Skloot pinpoints HeLa as the origin of many ethical debates that still define modern science, tissue research, and the ownership of the body. Since learning about HeLa in 1973, Lacks' husband and children have felt betrayed by what they see as a medical establishment that secretly experimented on and exploited black patients. Some of Lacks' relatives wonder why they shouldn't get a cut from what is still one of the world's most popular—and profitable—cell lines: All the HeLa cells ever made would weigh 22 tons; a single vial can sell for nearly $10,000.

Skloot spends nearly 10 years earning the trust of Lacks' daughter Deborah, who's also obsessed with learning more about her mother. She still runs up against the Lackses' understandable suspicion, such as when Deborah slams her up against a wall and asks if she's really working for Johns Hopkins—but Skloot persists, intent on paying homage to the flesh-and-blood woman behind HeLa.

Need to Read: February 4, 2010

Thu Feb. 4, 2010 7:00 AM EST

 The must-read stories from around the web and in today's papers:

Hip-hop Starlet's Dirty Money Ties

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 6:17 AM EST

The explosive new report by the Senate investigations subcommittee out today, which I covered here, is filled with lurid, juicy details about four previously unreported money-laundering cases in the US and the Americans who aided that laundering. For instance, Teodoro Obiang, son of Equatorial Guinea's despotic president, used US attorneys and realtors to help him create shell corporations for his money—and in return, he feted them with VIP access to exclusive parties and other perks; in one email, an attorney who helped Obiang funnel money into the US, and who later got into a Playboy Mansion Halloween party thanks to Obiang, writes, "I met many beautiful women, and I have the photos, e-mail addresses and phone numbers to prove it."

Another eye-catching detail that appears is the appearance of Obiang's then-girlfriend, hip-hop starlet Eve Jeffers. (The two are no longer together.) Now, the relationship between Eve and Obaing had been reported long before the subcommittee's report came out Eve Teodoro Obiang. However, today's report does shed light on an unreported twist in their relationship: Eve was actually named president and CFO of one of Obiang's shell corporations, named Sweet Pink Inc., according to George Nagler, the attorney who created the corporation for Obiang. Eve was also a signatory for an account at Union Bank of California for the Sweet Pink corporation, the report found. 

This was a shady arrangement to say the least. Indeed, soon after the Union Bank account was created that listed Eve as a signatory, two wire transfers of about $30,000 from one of Obiang's companies in Equatorial Guinea were deposited in the account. That raised red flags for Union Bank, which had listed Equatorial Guinea as a "high-risk jurisdiction," and the bank quickly examined the accounts and later closed them, less than a month after they were opened.

The report doesn't mention Eve outside the Obiang incident, but it goes to show that the ways in which foreign figures will launder money in the US are many, utilizing anyone from well-connected lobbyists and attorneys to even well-known music stars.

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Moms Get Plastic, Kids Get Asthma?

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 9:18 PM EST

More bad news on the health effects of bisphenol A (BPA), that organic compound used as a building block in many plastics—including in plastic water bottles, food packaging, sunglasses, and CDs.

New experiments on mice at the University of Texas Galveston find evidence that a mother's exposure to BPA may also increase the odds that her children will develop asthma.

Mice were given BPA in drinking water starting a week before pregnancy at levels calculated to produce a concentration the same as in a human mother. The dosing continued through pregnancy and lactation. Indicators of asthma showed up strongly in the BPA-exposed group, much more so than in the pups of the nonexposed mice.

We know that prior studies have linked BPA exposure to reproductive disorders, obesity, and abnormal brain developmen, as well as breast and prostate cancers. In January the Food and Drug Administration announced its concern about "the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and young children."

Lead author of the paper in Environmental Health Perspectives, Terumi Midoro-Horiuti, tells U Texas:

"We also need to look at doing more epidemiological studies directly in humans, which is possible because BPA is so prevalent in the environment—all of us are already loaded with it to a varying extent. For example, it should be possible to determine if children who have more BPA exposure are more likely to develop asthma."
 

Secession Gaining Traction in GOP?

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 8:30 PM EST

In a hypothetical general election matchup in the Texas gubernatorial race, Republican activist Debra Medina leads Houston mayor Bill White, the presumptive Democratic nominee, by three points, 41-38, according to a Rasumussen survey released yesterday. This wouldn't mean all that much, considering that Medina currently trails Gov. Rick Perry by 28 points with just one month to go until the primaryexcept for one thing: Medina has touted, as a central issue of her campaign, the supremacy of state sovereignty under the 10th amendment. Last summer, Medina headlined a pro-secession rally at the Texas capitol, where she told the assembled crowd: "We are aware that stepping off into secession may, in fact, be a bloody war. We are aware. We understand that the tree of freedom is occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots." (Medina was forced to watch a clip of those comments at the final gubernatorial debate, which was awkward.)

According to a Daily Kos/ Research 2000 poll released earlier this week, though, Medina's views, while in the minority, resonate with a sizable chunk of the Republican electorate. Twenty-three percent of self-identified Republicans answered in the affirmative to the question "Do You Believe Your State Should Secede From the United States?" Another 19 percent weren't sure. (Also of note: 8 percent of respondents would be in favor of allowing openly gay teachers to teach in public schools. So at least they're tolerant.) In the GOP's defense, the poll questions read like an attempt to bait respondents into taking incendiary views; and "self-identified Republicans" is a more narrowly defined group than actual "Republican voters." But those numbers are pretty grim any way you spin them.

 

Even the mild-mannered dairy farmers of Vermont seem to have gotten into the secession actionas a recent Time article noted, the Vermont secession movement is supporting nine candidates for statewide office this November.

A Super Bowl of One's Own

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 7:34 PM EST

Planned Parenthood released its counter-ad to Focus on the Family's Tebow spot today. It features two hunky ex-athletes, one famous, one less so, but never mind, the point is clear: men who play sports can give sincere advice that allows you to make your own decisions. Bravo to dueling discourse. Seeing Al Joyner say he wants his daughter to "live in a world where everyone's decisions are respected" is heartening. The problem I have is, who is going to watch this? By this afternoon the YouTube clip had all of 1,127 views. By Sunday, when the Super Bowl rolls around maybe it will have 10,000, maybe? In contrast, 100 million people will watch the Super Bowl. The winner here is clear. Now, I'm not saying that CBS should ban the Tebow ad (though they did reject an ad for including the line "Go to Hell" yesterday, and earlier this week said no to a gay dating ad). I agree with Jessica Grouse over at Double X who points that calling for a ban smacks of the kind of censorship progressives don't appreciate on the other foot.

But creating grassroots spots to counter the message the Tebows will send out on Sunday won't make things all better; the danger of Focus on the Family in this case is their money. This is big-fry stuff. Smaller fry, but quite effective, are strategies like FOF's Option Ultrasound program, where they're installing ultrasound machines in up to 650 crisis pregnancy centers the country over. Their research has found that viewing the embryo on a sonogram upped the likelihood that "abortion-minded women" would opt out of an abortion by 60% (over counseling alone). And maybe that decision'll be great for them, but maybe the ultrasound created undue pressure on women already saddled with a difficult decision. The ultrasound strategy is flyers handed out outside of high schools to the power of 10. The Super Bowl ad takes such imagery to a whole new level. Women and girls, and boys and men, will see a very heartfelt show of support for LIFE and feel like there's really no other option, not if you're a loving person. So while YouTube ads that articulate a woman's right to choose are hopeful, what we really need is for someone to spring for a $30 million-worth of TV time to fight them at their own game.

As Kate Michelman and Frances Kissling argued in the Post this weekend, the right has been good at big-return strategies like this for a long time. Michelman and Kissling dream up a spot that would get women thinking about both sides rather than just the one. But we won't see that, or any other pro-choice voice, come Sunday. Is the basic difference here that the right puts money into the abortion fight and the left doesn't? Right about now it sure seems like it.

Books: The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 6:06 PM EST

Jason Vuic, a professor of modern European history, could easily have written a straightforward takedown of the most maligned automobile since the Ford Pinto. Instead, he uses the Yugo as a vehicle for an insightful and witty look at car culture, a half-century of Balkan history, and the last decade of the Cold War.

Though it sold in the United States for only six years, the Yugo captured Americans' collective imagination—and not in a good way. Its countless defects ranged from the comic (driver's seats that dropped unexpectedly from their hinges) to the deadly (one was blown off a Michigan bridge). Happily, Vuic has an encyclopedic knowledge of Yugo jokes (Q: What's included in every Yugo owner's manual? A: A bus schedule).

Humor aside, Vuic argues that anxiety about communism and its consumer products helped ensure the Yugo's commercial failure. It was only the third car made behind the Iron Curtain to be imported into the States; remember the Czech Skoda or the Russian Moskvich? But what ultimately sank it was its marketers' miscalculation of how much Americans would give up for a bargain. The Me Decade demanded flash, and the Yugo was a "humble, almost fundamentalist product" with no frills to spare. Though it only captured less than half a percent of the American market, Yugo remains a household name—a Slavic synonym for "flop."