2011 - %3, October

Top Tweets From Tuesday's #OccupyOakland Clash

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 6:05 PM EDT

According to Topsy, a Twitter analyzer, these tweets got top billing around the Twitterverse during and immediately after Tuesday night's violent clash at Frank Ogawa Plaza.

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Attention Paul Ryan: Class War Already Raging

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 6:00 PM EDT
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.)

After Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the second-ranking Republican in the House, failed to deliver a speech on income inequality last week at the University of Pennsylvania, Republicans needed to prove that they care about making sure America is a place where everyone has a fair shot at moving up the income scale. So on Wednesday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R—Wisc.) went to the conservative Heritage Foundation to give a speech on the subject.

Ryan could have offered some useful proposals for addressing the growing gap between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the rest of us. Instead, he spent most of his time attacking Barack Obama for sowing the seeds of "class warfare." For Ryan, the real problem isn't income inequality, it's the administration's efforts to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires, reform the health insurance industry, push for fair labor practices, enforce environmental safety standards, and encourage domestic investment in clean energy. 

The central idea of Ryan's speech was that the US is still a country characterized by "upward mobility"; a place where everyone has a fair shake at moving up the socioeconomic ladder. Unfortunately, that idea has little relationship to reality. As Mother Jones' own, now-legendary inequality charts illustrated in vivid, painful detail, upward mobility has been hard to come by in the US for four decades running. And as Brian Beutler laid out, the US trails many first-world countries in upward mobility.

Divisions in the #OccupyOakland Protest Seed Unrest

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 5:50 PM EDT

Violence came in waves. Many demonstrators peace-saluted police and called through bullhorns: "This is a peaceful protest! This is a civilian movement!" But from the moment I arrived in Oakland at 10:15 p.m., I saw a visible minority spoiling for conflict. Tinder had built across the night at the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway, a mixture of expectation and adrenaline. Protesters had balked at what they saw as disproportionate policing: They'd been teargassed once already. But how to respond was a matter of intense debate in the crowd of about 1,000.

People shouted each other down while police—as many as 100, in full riot gear, from several different counties—bristled in their formation behind a single metal barricade; news and police helicopters provided the soundtrack. Xavier Manalo, a 25-year-old tennis instructor holding the forward-most protest banner, admitted there were "rogue elements" in the group but insisted the "pressure of the peaceful will be the deterrent" to the violence.

The Latest From Ohio

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 5:19 PM EDT

Some crucial updates from my home state of Ohio, which is proving to be ground zero in the war on organized labor and the middle class:

  • First up: Those lazy, selfish public workers Gov. Kasich and state Republicans have been trying to stop from greedily taking all the money in the state coffers with their wild benefits and compensation demands? They've made $1 billion in concessions in the last three years.
     
  • On top of that, what kind of monster would want them to give up their right to collective bargaining, too? MoJo's very own Andy Kroll has a roundup of who's pumping cash into the effort to destroy Ohio unions—and how hard and dirty they intend to fight.
     
  • But, guess what, guys? It's probably a waste of money. Yesterday's polls show that 57 percent of Ohioans support the defeat of the state's anti-union bill when it comes up on the ballot next month.

 

 

Barack Obama Has Succeeded in Provoking Paul Ryan

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 4:35 PM EDT

Jon Chait has an epic takedown of Paul Ryan's much-ballyhooed speech today about class warfare (Ryan is against it) and the politics of fear and envy (he's against that too). It's worth a read.

But Ryan's weak grasp of facts aside, what I'm really curious about is why Ryan gave this speech. You see, it was a fairly nasty speech, and Ryan doesn't usually give speeches like that. After all, he has a reputation as a policy wonk — the Republican Party's star policy wonk, in fact — and partisan stemwinders do nothing but undermine that reputation. So why did he do it, instead of giving a milder, numbers-heavy address that said pretty much the same thing?

My guess: Obama has gotten to him. Back in April, Obama invited Ryan to a speech about the budget and then ambushed him. With Ryan sitting expectantly in the front row, Obama ripped into Ryan's budget plan and reduced it to shreds. Ryan was stunned. Since then, following a brief respite to fight over the debt ceiling, Obama has kept up his attacks. I think this has rattled Ryan, causing him to lose his famous cool.

That's just a guess, of course. But regardless of whether this upsets David Brooks, it suggests that Republicans are finally feeling a little heat, which is forcing them to defend the indefensible a little more loudly and a little more explicitly than they're really used to. Good.

Can Nonprofit HMOs Save Medicare?

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 3:21 PM EDT

Several years ago, when I was working at the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris recommended that I read a piece about Social Security private accounts written by Phil Longman. I read it, and my reaction was meh. That turned out to be a mistake. I'm still not really in favor of private accounts (pay-as-you-go funding works fine), and the transition costs would need to be honestly funded if you adopted them, but once I gave Longman's plan the thought it deserved, I realized that it was probably about the best private account plan out there. Details here, if you're interested.

All of which is just a long way of explaining that I'm now a lot more careful about dismissing anything Longman says. And yet....I guess I'm going to do it again. In the current issue of the Monthly, he takes on Medicare, which he says is a genuinely big problem that neither party is really addressing properly:

Here’s a better idea—one that offers a relatively painless and proven fix that will also vastly improve the quality of U.S. health care. Approximately a third of all Medicare spending goes for unnecessary surgeries, redundant testing, and other forms of overtreatment, according to well-accepted estimates. The largest single reason for this extraordinary volume of wasteful and often dangerous overtreatment is Medicare’s use of the “fee-for-service” method of compensating health care providers that dominates U.S. medicine, under which doctors and hospitals are rewarded according to how many procedures and tests they perform. To fix this, the federal government should do the following: announce a day certain and near when Medicare will be out of the business of subsidizing profitdriven, fee-for-service medicine.

Going forward, Medicare should instead contract exclusively with health care providers like the Mayo Clinic, Kaiser Permanente, the Cleveland Clinic, Intermountain Health Care, the Geisinger Health System, or even the Veterans Health Administration. All these are nonprofit, mission-driven, managed care organizations widely heralded by health care experts....Because doctors working at these institutions are not compensated on a fee-for-service basis, they are neither rewarded for performing unnecessary tests and surgeries nor penalized financially for keeping their patients well. And unlike for-profit HMOs, these institutions are not pressured by shareholders to maximize earnings through withholding appropriate care.

So here's my question: are these nonprofit HMOs really that great at controlling costs? Over the past 30 years, if their costs have been going up by even a little less than average — say, two percentage points less a year — their premiums would cost half the average of your standard fee-for-service plan.

So has that happened? I'm not sure where to get reliable data on this, but I doubt it. If nonprofit HMOs were really accomplishing a minor miracle like a 6% annual cost increase instead of an 8% increase, every corporation in America would be contracting with them for business by now. But that doesn't seem to be the case. As a single data point, here's an OPM summary of premiums for various healthcare plans for federal employees. Kaiser is the only one of Longman's nonprofits on the list, and their average price for an individual premium is $235. The average price for an individual premium from all the national fee-for-service plans is $230.

A single data point doesn't mean much. For one thing, the Kaiser plans were both for California, which is a high-cost state. And government regulations probably compress the price list. Still, they certainly don't seem to be charging dramatically less than the big national guys.

Maybe I'm missing something here. I'm a fan of the Kaiser/Mayo/Cleveland Clinic model, and I'd like to believe that it could be scaled up nationally and serve as the basis for lower-cost Medicare coverage. But except for the VA, which is something of a special case, Longman doesn't provide any numbers to suggest that nonprofit HMOs have found a consistent formula for keeping costs down while still providing high-quality medical care. More data, please.

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Rick Perry on Birtherism: Just Kidding!

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 2:04 PM EDT

Rick Perry's brief moment as a birther has ended. The Texas governor and GOP presidential candidate has officially backtracked from earlier controversial comments suggesting that he thought it was possible that President Obama might not have been born in Hawaii. At a fundraiser in Florida Wednesday morning, Perry claimed that when he said that stuff about Obama, he was "only kidding around." Perry's quick end to his flirtation with "birtherism," the movement of kooky activists who've spent the past three years challenging Obama's citizenship, came just in time, it seems, to put some distance between Perry and guys like Darren Huff.

Huff is a Georgia birther and Oathkeepers member who was arrested last year for trying to carry out a "citizens arrest" of some court officials in Monroe County, Tennessee. Their offense? Refusing to indict Obama for not being a citizen. On Tuesday, Huff was convicted of a federal firearms offense in connection with the episode and is awaiting sentencing.

The case got its start when, last year, birthers issued a nationwide call to support Tennessee birther Walter Fitzpatrick III, who had appeared before a Monroe County grand jury in December 2009 and asked them to indict "Barry Sotero," as the birthers call Obama. After failing to win the indictment, he began waging a small war on courthouse officials, as well as the grand jury foreman, whom Fitzpatrick tried to arrest. Court officials pressed charges against Fitzpatrick for the harassment and he was eventually charged with assault and resisting arrest. In April 2010, Fitzpatrick had an arraignment hearing, and his supporters called for birthers everywhere to storm the courthouse to conduct more citizens' arrests. Huff showed up to support the cause, but he was intercepted by the FBI, which apparently had been keeping tabs on him. In his possession were a loaded Colt .45 in a hip holster, and an assault rifle with more than 200 rounds of ammo in his truck. Not only did Huff get arrested, but Fitzpatrick lost his trial and last month ended up being sentenced to six months in jail for his crimes.

Folks like Fitzpatrick and Huff have been on the Secret Service's radar for quite a while, as I reported last year. And they are just one example of why the GOP establishment desperately doesn't want to the party associated with the birthers, as evidenced this week when everyone from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to Karl Rove to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour clamored to decry Perry's birther comments. Apparently, even Republican nuttiness has its limits.

 

Then They Came for Your Birth Control

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 1:07 PM EDT

The "personhood" amendment on the Mississippi ballot on November 8 doesn't just ban all abortions—an issue that my colleague Tim Murphy has covered quite well. It would also likely outlaw several types of birth control and possibly make all forms of hormonal contraception illegal in the state.

Mississippi anti-abortion activists want to define personhood as starting when a sperm fertilizes an egg. In that case, it would likely make intrauterine devices (IUDs), which can prevent pregnancy by blocking the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus, illegal. (IUDs can also prevent sperm from fertilizing the egg in the first place, and IUDs with hormones also operate much like regular old birth control pills, but that doesn't seem to matter to anti-abortion activists.)

The measure would also almost certainly make Plan B, also known as emergency contraception or the "morning after" pill, illegal. This high dose of hormones is used to prevent a woman from ovulating, but anti-abortion groups also insist that it can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting (despite the fact that scientists say there's no evidence that's the case). Needless to say, anti-abortion groups don't like Plan B very much, either.

But the law could also introduce the possibility of banning any form of hormonal birth control. Generally, "the pill" (as well as the shot, the patch, and the ring) work by stopping ovulation. But some anti-abortion groups argue that there can be failures on that front, and the doses of hormone could possibly also work by stopping implantation should an egg and sperm still manage to meet up.

Tribalism and Taxes

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 12:52 PM EDT

Andrew Samwick:

I couldn't agree more with Pete on the discussions of tax policy that are now occurring as part of the Republican primary campaigns. The Republican primary campaign almost always gets sidetracked by some inane proposal for tax reform. This year it is the 9-9-9. And now we have another version of the flat tax, as if the crushing irrelevance of Steve Forbes to the primaries in 1996 and 2000 were not an indication of how unproductive the discussion will ultimately be. What are the prospects that a Republican President would actually be able to implement such a change if elected? They are equal to the chance that Republicans will both retain control of the House and secure a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in 2012. In other words, absolutely zero.

True. But you have to look at this through a different lens. In the modern Republican Party, tax policy isn't really about tax policy anymore. It's mostly just meant to be evocative, a demonstration that you're really, truly part of the family. So the crazier it is, the better. Nobody—least of all Republican voters—seriously expects any of these proposals to become law.

What's really mind-blowing, though, is the precise nature of the tax policies that rich Republicans have so thoroughly succeeded in adding to the canon. Middle-class conservatives have become completely convinced that "good" tax policies include a flat tax, lower capital gains rates, and repeal of the estate tax, all of which are designed to benefit the rich almost exclusively. It would be as if Democrats had somehow convinced Wall Street that the key to prosperity was higher taxes on yachts, private jets, and Hamptons getaways.

Chart of the Day: College Grads Falling Behind

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 11:56 AM EDT

Brad Plumer sends us to Michael Mandel, who reports:

Even as President Obama proposes some steps for student debt relief, real wages for college graduates continue to plunge. In the third quarter of 2011, full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree and no advanced degree earned 3.5% less, in real terms, than a year earlier. Male college graduates saw their real wages fall by 5.3% over the past year, while female college graduates had a 1.4% decline.

The charts below, also from Mandel, show the trend over the past decade. The net value of health insurance for these grads has increased about $2,000 in real terms since 1999, so even when you take that into account they're still seeing a steady drop in earnings.

College grads, of course, are still doing better than everyone else, both in terms of salary and levels of employment. Still, one of the big memes of the past decade has been about the growing complexity of modern jobs and the urgent need for more educated workers. More recently, this has sometimes turned into a story about structural unemployment: the Great Recession is all about the fact that we have too many of one kind of worker (mostly semi-skilled high school grads) and too few of another (knowledge-savvy, symbol-manipulating college grads). So we need to upgrade our educational system to provide us with more of the latter. But if there were really an urgent need for a more educated workforce, surely the salaries of college grads would be going up? Instead, they're going down. What exactly does this tell us about the demand for highly educated workers?