2011 - %3, October

Mitt Romney Hearts Illegal Immigrants

| Mon Oct. 24, 2011 12:38 PM EDT

Somebody's oppo machine was busy over the weekend. Noam Levey reports in the LA Times today that although Mitt Romney's Massachussetts healthcare reform bars illegal immigrants from receiving insurance subsidies, and bars illegal immigrants from receiving Medicaid, it doesn't explicitly bar them from the absolute bottom rung of medical care:

The Massachusetts healthcare law that then-Gov. Mitt Romney signed in 2006 includes a program known as the Health Safety Net, which allows undocumented immigrants to get needed medical care along with others who lack insurance.

Uninsured, poor immigrants can walk into a health clinic or hospital in the state and get publicly subsidized care at virtually no cost to them, regardless of their immigration status.

Somebody in a rival campaign presumably thinks this is a useful campaign issue because the slavering masses of the tea party base won't be appeased until illegal immigrants are literally writhing in the streets while doctors walk by and pointedly ignore them. Allowing them access to even last-ditch health services is unacceptable, even if the pointy-heads insist that we're saving money in the long run because it keeps them out of emergency rooms.

That's my guess, anyway. In any case, this being the super slick Romney campaign, not the shambolic chaos that passes for one in Rick Perry's camp, a super slick answer was probably prepared months ago and deposited into Romney's real-time enterprise response database, where it could be plucked out at a moment's notice. Surprisingly, though, not really:

The Romney campaign referred questions to Tim Murphy, who served as Romney's state health and human services secretary. Murphy said the governor never intended the Health Safety Net to serve undocumented immigrants.

"Our view when we signed the law was that all benefits would be for people in the commonwealth who were here legally," Murphy said, noting that the regulations implementing the program were written after Romney left office in 2007.

That's it? That's their best shot? I predict that this will persuade exactly no one. The real answer, of course, is that back in 2006 Romney still had a small core of human decency left in his soul, and naturally didn't want even illegal immigrants dying on the streets of Boston for lack of an antibiotic. But he's not allowed to admit that anymore, so instead we get some nonsense about Romney being shocked, shocked at how the regs turned out. That's life in the modern Republican Party for you.

It's funny. Every once in a while I actually feel a little sorry for Romney for being forced to compete in this environment. What's a moderate technocrat to do, after all? But then I remember how enthusiastically he used this exact same xenophobic dynamic to bash Perry repeatedly over the in-state tuition issue, and suddenly I don't feel sorry for him even a little bit anymore. Lie down with dogs and you pick up some fleas.

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Senate Dems: Mandatory Military Detention Is "Dangerous"

| Mon Oct. 24, 2011 11:28 AM EDT

A group of Senate Democrats sent a letter to majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last Friday slamming the detention provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act as "undue and dangerous":

Section 1032 would require that certain terrorism suspects be held in the custody of the Armed Forces, which could disrupt vital counterterrorism operations. For example, if these controversial provisions are enacted, the FBI might have to hand over a terrorism suspect captured in the U.S.—like Najibullah Zazi—to the military in the middle of an interrogation, even if the individual is providing usefl intelligence to the FBI about an unfolding terrorist plot. In addition, under these sections, a suspected terrorist captured abroad—such as Ahmed Warsame—may have to be kept in military custody, even if potential charges against the suspect are available only in Federal criminal courts and not military commissions. In sum, mandatory military custody is unwise and will harm our national security.

The letter was sent a day after a mostly party line vote on a Republican amendment adding even more onerous restrictions on detention to an unrelated spending bill. Months ago, Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee agreed on a "compromise" in the NDAA that would have mandated military detention for non-citizens suspected of al-Qaeda related terrorism unless the Secretary of Defense explicilty approved a transfer to federal court.

The Obama administration objected, arguing that the provision would interfere with the president's ability to deal effectively with terrorism, and Reid has been holding up the bill while another compromise is negotiated. In response, Senate Republicans along with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), voted for an amendment put forth by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) that was even more restrictive, mandating military detention of suspected non-citizen terrorists with no exceptions. Ayotte's proposal had previously been voted down in the Armed Services Committee, so the vote was basically a way for the GOP to tell Reid and the administration to go take a hike.

The sad thing is that in the name of being "tougher" on terror, most Republicans and some Democrats have agreed to detention provisions that would actually make it harder neutralize terrorists. It's pretty much the definition of culture war counterrorism.

Chart of the Day: It's a Small, Small World

| Mon Oct. 24, 2011 11:22 AM EDT

Politico reports that the Obama administration, in the person of Jan Eberly, Treasury’s new assistant secretary for economic policy, is pushing back on the Republican notion that "regulatory uncertainty" is damaging the economy. It's sort of sad that she has to waste valuable neurons on this, when she could instead be doing actual useful work, but I guess that's politics for you.

Anyway, her case is here. And part of her case is that the American economy isn't actually suffering from any more uncertainty than the rest of the world, which suggests that American regulations can't really be having much of an impact. The chart below shows two measures of stock market volatility, one for the U.S. and one for Europe, and as you can see, they've moved pretty much in lockstep during the Obama era.

Which, to make a separate point, is an impressive demonstration of the fact that we live in a global economy, not just an American one. When stuff happens, it affects us all. Keep that in mind when American bankers and Treasury officials keep telling us that "we aren't very exposed" to a possible eurozone disaster. My guess is that we're pretty exposed after all, which is a good reason for all of us to hope that Europe gets its act together soon.

Lobbying Blitz Barrages Budget-Cutting Super Committee

| Mon Oct. 24, 2011 10:19 AM EDT
Supercommittee co-chair Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.).

A Thanksgiving deadline to deliver a plan to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget looms larger every day for Congress' 12-person "super committee," split evenly between Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. Failure to reach consensus will trigger across the board cuts to the Defense Department, Medicare, and plenty more federal agencies and programs. But as the super committee heads into its final month of negotiations, often conducted in secret, they've felt the full force of Washington's special interest machine.

According to Politico, the super committee has been lobbied by almost 200 special interest groups and companies seeking to influence the panel's budget-slashing prescriptions. Those interests include everyone from American Indian tribes and the airline industry to powerful health insurance companies such as WellPoint.

This lobbying onslaught is, in part, an attempt to pierce the layer of secrecy surrounding the super committee, which often meets behind closed doors and has kept the public mostly in the dark about any potential agreements or breakthroughs. Here's Politico:

"During my 42 years in Washington, this is the most closed-mouth committee that I have seen," said Gerald Cassidy, veteran K-Streeter of Cassidy & Associates.

Members of the supercommittee and their staffers have largely kept a lock on what is being discussed. Even in private meetings with other lawmakers, their lips are sealed. Mark Prater, the panel’s staff director, and his deputy had dinner with bipartisan Senate chiefs of staff at Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill last week, and divulged little.

The little that’s known is not promising for a major deal. Both sides, according to aides familiar with the discussions, still cannot come to agreement on basic principles to guide discussions.

For good government and transparency advocates, the activities of the super committee and its members have been a worry since the committee emerged out of the debt ceiling deal forged between the White House and Congressional leaders this summer. In mid-September, 14 different groups—such as the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, Public Citizen, and the Sunlight Foundation—urged the members of the supercommittee to disclose all meetings with and donations from lobbyists during their time on the supercommittee. Failing to do so "will reinforce the public's mistrust of the deficit reduction process and risk delegitimizing the Committee's work," the groups wrote to members of the committee. Several members of Congress also introduced legislation to force super committee members to disclose donations they receive while on the committee, but those efforts failed to gain any traction.

At least one lawmaker agreed with the advocates and concerned lawmakers. Last month, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said he would not raise any money during his time on the super committee, canceling all fundraisers between September and Nov. 23.

What Will Michele Bachmann Do Next?

| Mon Oct. 24, 2011 9:52 AM EDT
High five! Michele Bachmann celebrates in happier times.

At this point, a combeback seems pretty nigh impossible for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). On Friday, the GOP presidential candidate was informed during a radio interview that her entire New Hampshire campaign staff had quit. That came at the end of a week in which her former campaign manager, Ed Rollins, told National Review Online he wished he'd Googled her before he took the job, and the latest polls in Iowa put her at 4 percent—33 points behind front-runner Herman Cain, who had not visited the state in two months before this weekend.

You can blame Rick Perry for taking away Bachmann's momentum after the Ames Straw Poll, and Cain for ensuring she never got it back. But most of the blame must lie with Bachmann herself, who has run a bizarre celebrity-style campaign and done little to convince conservatives she's best prepared for the most powerful job in the world. Her first book comes out in November, so she'll likely stick it out until then at least, but given her weak finances, Bachmann's a good candidate for an early exit from the presidential race. For the Minnesota congresswoman, it's time to start thinking about what comes next.

The Great and Mysterious NGDP Targeting Debate

| Mon Oct. 24, 2011 8:22 AM EDT

How should the Fed manage monetary policy? The hot topic these days is NGDP level targeting, an old idea that's become newly popular as the economy continues to splutter and current Fed policy seems less and less effective. So let's take a look at NGDP targeting and try to answer two questions:

  • Question #1: Why target NGDP levels? Why not something else?
  • Question #2: How do we target NGDP? Can the Fed really control it?

First, though, a technical definition. NGDP is nominal GDP. That is, it's the total output of goods and services without any correction for inflation. So if the Fed's target is, say, 5% growth per year, that could come from any combination of real GDP growth plus inflation. From a monetary perspective, you don't care. If real GDP doesn't grow at all, you want 5% inflation. If real GDP is on fire and growing 5%, you want no inflation. One way or another, though, you want spending — the number of dollars spent on goods and services — to grow on a stable, predictable path. With that, onward.

Warning! The following is both long and tentative, because I don't really know what I'm talking about. So I'm putting the rest below the fold. If you click "More," do it with the understanding that (a) some of it might be wrong and/or misguided due to a lack of understanding on my part of key concepts, and (b) you're just following along for the ride as I try to puzzle through some stuff in public. OK?

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Abigail Washburn Brings Bluegrass to the Silk Road

| Mon Oct. 24, 2011 6:02 AM EDT

"The first day I stepped forth in this fair country," Abigail Washburn's breathy voice wafted down over the grass, "border man took my paper, told me I would be free." A slight figure dressed in black gossamer, Washburn looked rather elegant when I caught her live at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. The crowd below lay drowsy and peaceful in the mid-morning sunshine, ready to be transported to wherever the singer wanted to take them.

And transport them she did. While the clawhammer banjo queen can fit right in at a hoedown like Hardly Strictly, she's become just as comfortable entertaining crowds on the other side of the globe. A Mandarin speaker and self-declared Sinophile, she's made a career out of bringing bluegrass to the far corners of China—and by the same token making Chinese folk music accessible to American bluegrass fans. Themes of migration and boundary-crossing pop up in her songs, as with the abovementioned tune, "Dreams of Nectar."

Review: "Soul Feeling," by Frankie Pighee & the Soulettes

| Mon Oct. 24, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

DISC 1 , TRACK 3

"Soul Feeling"

Frankie Pighee & The Soulettes, from the compilation Boddie Recording Company: Cleveland, Ohio (The Numero Group)

Liner notes: Supported by a funk groove of organ and tambourine, Frankie Pighee, a 400-pound woman with a voice deeper than many men's, salutes R&B greats Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave on this 1967 single from the obscure Soul Kitchen label.

Behind the music: From the late '50s to the late '80s, the low-fi studio of the tiny Boddie Recording Company was responsible for nearly 300 albums and singles, most of which sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Heavy on soul with a side order of gospel, this fascinating archaeological study collects 58 tracks on three CDs.

Check it out if you like: Alvin Cash, The Velvelettes, Bessie Banks, and other underappreciated '60s R&B figures.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 24, 2011

| Mon Oct. 24, 2011 5:57 AM EDT

US Army personnel help provide security Oct. 17, 2011 while Afghan and coalition security force leaders speak with village elders from the Sahak Triangle area of Zormat district. Photo by Sgt. Joseph Watson.

Advice of the Day: Don't Trust Blowhards

| Sun Oct. 23, 2011 5:55 PM EDT

From Daniel Kahneman, in an op-ed written on my birthday:

You should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about.

Good advice. Also, as I'm sure Kahneman himself would acknowlege, advice that's unlikely to have any impact at all on the real world.

The whole piece is good, but I have to confess that I was stumped by the following story. It's about a test of leadership ability that he and other psychologists supervised back when he was in the Israeli army:

One test, called the leaderless group challenge, was conducted on an obstacle field. Eight candidates, strangers to one another, with all insignia of rank removed and only numbered tags to identify them, were instructed to lift a long log from the ground and haul it to a wall about six feet high. There, they were told that the entire group had to get to the other side of the wall without the log touching either the ground or the wall, and without anyone touching the wall. If any of these things happened, they were to acknowledge it and start again.

A common solution was for several men to reach the other side by crawling along the log as the other men held it up at an angle, like a giant fishing rod. Then one man would climb onto another’s shoulder and tip the log to the far side. The last two men would then have to jump up at the log, now suspended from the other side by those who had made it over, shinny their way along its length and then leap down safely once they crossed the wall. Failure was common at this point, which required starting over.

I would like someone to make a cartoon animation of this. My spatial skills suck, and I simply can't visualize this. Or, more accurately, I should say that the visualization I have in mind seems impossible. If I'm understanding it correctly, failure wouldn't be "common" at the end point, it would be universal.

Then again, maybe these groups typically had a few really strong people in them. But if it were me, I'd recommend taking off someone's helmet, putting it on the ground and jamming the pole into it. See? The log isn't touching the ground. And I'd take off someone's shirt and drape it over the top of the wall and then lean the log against it. See? The log isn't touching the wall. And then we'd all climb over.

And I'd get chewed out for being a smart ass. But at least we'd be safely on the other side of the wall.