2011 - %3, June

Where's the Plan, Paul?

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 9:39 AM EDT

Jon Huntsman in the Wall Street Journal today:

I admire Congressman Paul Ryan's honest attempt to save Medicare. Those who disagree with his approach incur a moral responsibility to propose reforms that would ensure Medicare's ability to meet its responsibilities to retirees without imposing an unaffordable tax burden on future generations of Americans.

This is arguable, but I won't argue it. Competing plans are good. But can I point out that Paul Ryan hasn't proposed a plan to save Medicare either? He's essentially provided us with a single sentence: "Give seniors a voucher for private health insurance that grows at a much smaller rate than actual healthcare costs."

That's not a plan, it's a soundbite. Ryan has declined to provide any serious details about how his idea would work, and there's a reason for this: he knows perfectly well that details would make his voucher scheme even more unpopular than it is now. With real policy and real numbers attached, people would realize just how little premium support there is, just how far down the income scale higher costs would go, and just how miserly the subsidies would be. A fleshed-out Ryan plan would inevitably be shockingly stingy thanks to his ideologically inspired notions of cost control, and if he were forced to admit just how stingy it was, the ballgame would be over.

So maybe critics of honest plans have an obligation to offer alternatives. But Ryan has produced a plan that's neither honest nor serious. When he does, then maybe Huntsman will have a point.

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Jim DeMint: Mulling a White House Bid

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 8:45 AM EDT

[UPDATE: That was quick. Hours after the media published stories suggesting Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) might run for president, the senator's office quashed those rumors, saying that DeMint really, truly, sincerely wasn't going to run.]

Conservatives are apparently so turned off by the current crop of GOP presidential candidates that they're urging Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the right-wing king of the Senate, to launch a presidential bid, the Hill reports. Here's the kicker: DeMint says he's considering it.

Here's the Hill today:

The Tea Party favorite, who had indicated he was not going to run in 2012, would significantly shake up the race if he were to jump in.

[...]

The second-term senator would have the inside track to win South Carolina, a key early state in the nomination process. Since 1980, every Republican who has triumphed in the Palmetto State has gone on to capture the GOP presidential nomination.

Some conservative activists compare DeMint to former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and former President Reagan, predicting he could quickly unify social and fiscal conservatives.

Now, DeMint—like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and all the other GOPers who are being urged to run—insisted that right now he has no intentions of declaring his candidacy. But it's clear the growing push to draft him into the race, coming from a top GOP operative and a DeMint grassroots network, Conservatives4DeMint, has DeMint at least considering his options.

A DeMint 2012 campaign would be a huge hit with tea partiers and social conservatives—the South Carolina lawmaker's most feverish supporters. And, looking at his legislative record, it's little wonder why. A hard-line Christian conservative, he's said that schools should fire gay teachers and unmarried female teachers with live-in boyfriends. DeMint's own health care reform plan was little more than a simple federal voucher plan, in which the government would give $2,000 to individuals and $5,000 to families to buy their own health care. That's it. And DeMint's plan would be funded by returned TARP bailout money, so that, he said, the plan wouldn't add to the deficit. (Except that TARP had already been added into the deficit months before.) How exactly DeMint's plan would lower costs or improve the quality of care or even work at all, no one knows.

For what's it worth, DeMint has also compared America under President Obama to "about where Germany was before World War II" and called the stimulus package—which added (PDF) 2.7 million jobs to payrolls and boosted the national GDP by 3.4 percent—a "mugging" and a "fraud." At the least, a DeMint candidacy would liven up the GOP field, which, with long-shot Herman Cain rising in the polls, needs all the help it can get.

Pat Robertson: Muslims are the New Nazis

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 8:04 AM EDT

Televangelist Pat Robertson isn't the powerful political force he once was, but as the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, he's still an influential voice on the Christian Right. Yesterday, on his television show, The 700 Club, Robertson delivered a warning to a weary nation: Muslims are the new Nazis:

Robertson: I was thinking, you know, if you oppose Muslims, what is said? Well, you're a bigot, right? Terrible bigotry. I wonder what were people who opposed the Nazis. Were they bigots?  

Co-host: Well, in that day I think they were looked down upon and frowned upon.

Robertson: Why can't we speak out against an institution that is intent on dominating us and imposing Sharia law and making us all part of a universal caliphate? That's the goal of some of these people. Why is that bigoted? Why is it bigoted to resist Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and to say we don't want to live under Nazi Germany?

Not to nitpick here, but people who opposed the Nazis were not "looked down upon and frowned upon" as bigots. This was a few decades ago, so it's understandably a little obscure, but the United States actually went to war with Nazi Germany. There was a movie about it and everything. 

As you'd probably guess, this is hardly the first time Robertson has compared a large and diverse group of people to Nazis:


We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 1, 2011

Wed Jun. 1, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Sgt. Shane Warren, escorted by Papa Dog, checks on his soldiers as members of Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul, Arghandab detachment, make their way back to Forward Operating Base Lane, May 27. Sergeant Warren is assigned to the PRT's security force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson

Return to Kurdistan - Part 1

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 12:37 AM EDT

Several years ago I published a series of blog posts from Jonathan Dworkin, a medical student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. He spent a year organizing a collaboration between Kurdish and American doctors in order to assess the long-term consequences of Baathist chemical attacks on the Kurdish civilian population of Halabja, and in 2006 he spent several months travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan and sending occasional dispatches about his travels. You can find them here (scroll to the bottom for a complete list).

Jonathan is now an infectious diseases fellow at Brown, and has spent the past few weeks in Kurdistan working to develop the public health infrastructure. He's back now, and has written a series of three posts on how things have changed since his first visit, hitting on themes of transparency in the economic system, willingness of the government to peacefully transfer power, freedom of journalists, independence of public institutions (like the university), and relations between Kurds and Arabs. Kurdistan has pretty much fallen off the radar of the U.S. media, so this is stuff you won't find anywhere else.

Part 1 is below. The next two parts will follow on Thursday and Friday.


“Basis of life is sleep, sex, nutrition. I am nutrition.” That’s what the cook said, and then he handed me a meatball. Kurdistan has changed a lot in five years, but the cook at the dar is an example of how it hasn’t changed, and hopefully never will change. After spending two days in a hotel I moved to the residence for medical house officers, which everyone here calls the dar. This is one of Kurdistan’s primary mechanisms for alleviating the economic hardship of prolonged training and the social hardship of deferred marriage. The dar is a place for young doctors to live together, study together, and tease one another. And in a characteristically class levelling way, the teaser in chief of this dar is the cook. “Doctor is survivor of electro-shock therapy,” he explained while puffing on a cigarette and indicating the young psychiatrist sitting to my right. “He is very crazy man. He will sleep next to you tonight.”

The ostensible reason I’m in this situation is to conduct public health research for Brown University. The research is part of my training as an infectious diseases doctor. During my previous visit to the Kurdish autonomous region of Northern Iraq in 2006 I saw several cases of typhoid fever, but our small team wasn’t equipped to characterize them in any systematic way. This time we are armed with data collection tools and grant funding. Burden of disease studies — a simple form of public health work — are often precursors to interventions such as vaccine programs or infrastructure investments. But all of this is largely beside the point. The real reason I’m back, doing this typhoid project in this province, as opposed to another, is because I love Kurdistan. In medicine it’s the people that draw you in, and the work is an expression of solidarity.

The dark side of this trip begins with the fact that it almost didn’t happen. In February, during the beginning of the Arab spring, protests erupted in Kurdish Sulaimania. The reasons for the opposition were varied, but at its core the protests were against the patronage system established by the ruling Kurdish parties. For two months the opposition occupied Sara Square, in the center of the city, and the protests ended when the authorities deployed Kurdish units of the Iraqi Army. Hundreds were wounded and several people died in the worst internal violence since the 1990s.

The original plan for my trip was to come with my family and live for a month in an apartment my friends had picked for me. The apartment was in a comfortable neighbourhood called German Village. After the protests erupted unidentified gunmen stormed the area and burned down an opposition television station. Nothing will ruin the reputation of a nice neighbourhood faster than a secretive militia affiliated with a political party. The German Village becoming more like Beirut, I changed my plans and arrived alone.

Now the streets are quiet. German Village is well-kept and calm, deceptively German. There is no heavy security presence in Sara Square, though party buildings are well defended. The economic and cultural life of the town appears uninterrupted, at least on the surface. In fact the city is larger and more vibrant than five years ago. Electricity is better. Water quality, though imperfect, is better. Construction projects and new businesses are everywhere. The hospital is functioning on a much higher level. Not only are routine diagnostic tests available 24 hours per day, but advanced interventions such as cardiac bypass surgery and kidney transplantation are now offered. One of the ironies of recent history here is that the government’s moment of crisis ought to be a moment of triumph. The Kurdish region never descended into violence, despite what happened in the rest of Iraq. There was a contested election, opposition parties, and a critical press. All of that success is threatened by the recent violence.

Spending a weekend with my friends before beginning data collection, it’s easy to pretend this is the Sulaimania of five years ago. You can still walk the streets safely and encounter friendly smiles as an American. You can still go to a cafe and talk politics over rice, vegetables, and grilled meat. There’s an openness one feels around Kurdish people, particularly in Sulaimania, that reminds me of why I fell in love with this town in the first place. But probe deeper and you find a poisonous pessimism that is taking root. It is that despair, and the realization that a bold attempt to build a new Kurdish civic society may end in failure, that is the real story this spring in Sulaimania.