2011 - %3, November

Charts of the Day: Kaiser's Fascinating Obamacare Data

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 4:31 PM PST

The Kaiser Family Foundation does regular polling about the public's view of healthcare reform, and the results are always interesting. This month's results, however, are even more interesting than usual. I might write a longer post about some of this later, but for now I just want to briefly highlight a few of the questions that most caught my interest. The full poll results are here. My top five most interesting results are below.

Overall favorability toward Obamacare has gone down only slightly since last year. But look at the partisan breakdown: Republicans and Independents have stayed rock steady the entire time. The decline has been almost entirely due to waning favorability among Democrats.

Among those who don't like Obamacare, nearly half admit that their dislike has nothing much to do with the law itself. They're just mad at Obama and/or Washington DC.

Only 37% of the public feels favorably toward Obamacare, but 50% want to keep or expand it. It turns out that many of the unfavorable/don't know opinions aren't from people who dislike healthcare reform, they're from people who don't think Obamacare went far enough.

Virtually every specific aspect of Obamacare is viewed favorably by over half the public. The only exception is the individual mandate. Even Republicans, it turns out, like most of the specific provisions of the law.

A fifth of the public says Obamacare has affected them negatively. But nearly all of this is because people have been convinced that Obamacare has caused their premiums to go up and their benefits to go down. Needless to say, this is nothing more than a fantasy fueled by Fox News.

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Gitmo Law Could Someday Apply to American Citizens

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 3:30 PM PST

Defenders of the detention provisions in the defense funding bill currently under debate in Congress are arguing that they do not authorize the indefinite military detention of American citizens. They're saying the Supreme Court already did that. 

"There is no bar to this nation's holding one of its own citizens as an enemy combatant," Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said during his floor speech defending the detention provisions Tuesday. "That's not me, that's not Sen. Graham, that's not Sen. McCain. That's the Supreme Court of the United States recently."

Levin was referring to 2004's Hamdi v. Rumsfeld case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Yaser Esam Hamdi, a US national captured during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, could be held in military detention but not without habeas review.

That case, however, involved an actual battlefield in an actual war. The current version of the defense funding bill—formally known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA—goes further. It says the military can detain anyone deemed to be "a part of" or deemed to have "substantially supported" Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or "associated forces." Terror suspects would not have to be on an actual battlefield or fighting in an actual war, as Hamdi was, to be detained by the military. And although Americans, unlike foreigners, are not required to be held in military detention if apprehended on American soil, the NDAA affirms that they can be, based on the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) against Al Qaeda. (Levin said in his floor speech that despite its threat to veto the bill, the administration had approved that language.)

Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution scholar who thinks the government should have the option to put Americans in domestic military detention under some circumstances, described Hamdi's capture as "a very traditional battlefield-type capture where they guy happens to be US citizen. It's very different from yanking someone out of the criminal-justice system or picking someone up at O'Hare airport."

Crucially, the Hamdi case didn't actually settle the issue of whether or not a US citizen apprehended domestically by law enforcement could be put into military detention. It's happened before: Twice, individuals captured in the United States were detained by the military. In both cases, one involving a citizen and the other a legal resident, the detainees were ultimately shunted into the criminal system for fear that the Supreme Court would find military detention unconstitutional. Perhaps more significantly, both examples, Jose Padilla and Ali Saleh al-Marri, occurred years ago, and until Obama took office there was no effort by Congress to force the executive branch to use the military to detain people suspected of terrorism. 

The shift toward using military detention authority means that Americans could someday be subject to the standards of proof crafted by Guantanamo Bay legal cases, standards that over the years have shifted substantially in the government's favor. Early on, detainees were winning many of their cases because the evidence the government was using to hold them was often based on intelligence reports judges found unreliable. So the courts simply shifted the standards so that judges would have to assume the government's evidence was true. 

GOP Senators Want to Fast-Track Keystone XL

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 2:50 PM PST

A few short weeks after the Obama administration decided to put off a final decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a batch of Republican senators introduced legislation today that would force the president to approve the pipeline within 60 days.

The North American Energy Security Act, put forward by Senator Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), would also put the kibosh on further study of the pipeline's environmental impact. Demand by environmental activists for a more thorough consideration of environmental impacts was one contributing factor to the pipeline's delay.

At the heart of the legislation is the oft-repeated claim that the pipeline would create 20,000 jobs, mostly in construction.

"We have a dramatic opportunity to create American jobs NOW!" Lugar said in an emphatic statement.

That figure, which comes from an estimate by TransCanada (the Canadian behemoth behind the pipeline), has become a mantra for pipeline supporters, despite having been widely debunked. In fact, a September study by Cornell University's Global Labor Institute found that the pipeline could actually kill more jobs than it creates.

Nevertheless, Lugar and co-sponsors John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and David Vitter (R-La.) have framed Obama's delayed decision as an affront to job creation, a move Natural Resources Defense Council spokesman Anthony Swift dismissed as "political theater."

The bill "is being used as a messaging piece," Swift said, adding that he thought the bill very unlikely to reach the Senate floor, much less pass into law (given Obama's recent decision to delay making a final call, it would be pretty surprising if he signed legislation mandating a rushed verdict).

"His decision to do an environmental review was an imminently sensible one, and I don't think he's likely to reverse it," Swift said.

ACLU Cites Non-Islamophic Essay As Example of Islamophobia

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 2:48 PM PST
Will McCants on CNN.

The White House recently ordered a review of anti-Muslim materials being used as counterterrorism training in government agencies. The materials, which were first revealed in a series of reports by Wired's Spencer Ackerman, portrayed mainstream Muslims as being supportive of terrorists, and Islam itself as inherently violent. 

The American Civil Liberties Union has been one of the organizations challenging the presence of anti-Muslim materials in counterterrorism training, but this morning a blog post by the ACLU's Josh Bell cited as an example of Islamophobia an essay in a textbook published by the Counterterrorism Center at West Point that isn't actually Islamophobic:

The ACLU, through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, has uncovered numerous FBI counterterrorism training materials that falsely portray American Muslim and Arab communities as monolithic, violent and supporters of terrorism. A prime example is a 2008 counterterrorism textbook called Terrorism & Political Islam: Origins, Ideologies, and Methods, which was produced by the FBI and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. It contains essays with conclusions like "the Jihadis are a product of and inspired by the current of traditional Islam."

The quote cited by Bell is wrenched from its original context. The essay states that "One extreme is the notion that the movement has nothing to do with Islam; it is an aberration...clearly the Jihadis are a product of and inspired by the current of traditional Islam described above." The "above" refers to an entire article on Islamic political movements that used violence. The paragraph goes on to add that "The other extreme is to mistake this current for the entire ocean. Jihadis would have us think so, as would some Western alarmists. Such tendentious readings of Islamic history and scripture are not only lazy; they give greater legitimacy to the ideology that is fueling the Jihadi Movement." That can't possibly be read as portraying Muslims and Arabs as "monolithic, violent, and supporters of terrorism." 

"The last paragraph or two, I was trying to split the difference between the ridiculous notion that jihadism is somehow representative of mainstream Islam, but I was also pushing back against the idea that it has no connection to the scripture or the history," said Will McCants, the former State Department counterterterrorism adviser who wrote the essay in question. "The tradition I was describing was the most hardline, the most militant strain of Islam."

ACLU National Security Policy Counsel Mike German, himself a former FBI Agent, stood by the post but said that "we're looking at the way we wrote it, and if we think something needs to be massaged or added to, we're open to do with that." He added that "we were just trying to summarize a concern in materials that were otherwise professionally done that there were still elements that had problems."

German is correct there. Although the textbook's preface describes Muslim communities as America's "greatest allies" against terrorism, as Ackerman noted in a previous piece, one of the essays in the collection implies that a Muslim expressing opposition to the war in Iraq might "indicate the individual follows militant ideology." At the time the textbook was published, more than half of all Americans opposed the Iraq war. Most, presumably, were not militant Islamists. 

"There is other material in there that is questionable," McCants said. "It is very healthy for watchdog groups like the ACLU to make sure that the material being taught about the beliefs of citizens in this country is accurate and fair, but I think they undermine their credibliity to do that when they are not being accurate and fair."

Saudi Arabia Finally Gives Up

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 12:21 PM PST

Saudi Arabia has long said that it has loads of untapped reserves and would, within a few years, be on track to increase oil production from 10 million barrels per day to as much as 15 million barrels of oil per day. But Saudi production has stayed stubbornly at 10 million barrels. Last week, the CEO of Saudi Aramco said that global production from tar sands and shale oil now looked so promising that there was no need for more oil from the Kingdom:

"Rather than supply scarcity, oil supplies remain at comfortable levels, even given rising demand from fast-growing nations like China and India....All that makes spending on aggressive energy programmes unlikely," he said, adding that abundant affordable hydrocarbon supplies challenged investment in renewable technologies. As a result, Saudi Aramco had no plans to increase its oil production capacity to 15 million barrels per day, Falih said.

Should you believe this? No, you shouldn't. Chris Nelder has a nice piece today at SmartPlanet called "Why energy journalism is so bad," and at the end he provides six pieces of advice for reading press reports about oil and energy more broadly. Here's one of them:

2. Discount the sources. If the cited authority represents the oil and gas industry, you should view their forecasts as propaganda, not truth. Particularly when the authority is from an OPEC producer. OPEC (like the IEA) is a fundamentally political organization, and everything they say in public has a political calculus behind it. For example, I read the unconventional oil optimism expressed by the Saudi official cited at the top of this piece as their way of jawboning down peak oil fears, and throwing analysts off the scent of a trail which leads to serious questions about whether Aramco can increase spare production capacity, and whether the world’s most productive oil field, Ghawar, has indeed gone into decline.

Saudi Arabia has been making excuses for years for their inability to produce more than 10 million barrels of oil per day. This is the latest, and seemingly, the most definitive. They're publicly stating — for the first time, I think — that they aren't going to keep up the pretense anymore. Their exploration and drilling program is over, and 10 million barrels is as good as it's ever going to get.

The rest of Nelder's piece is worth reading if you want to understand a bit more about how energy journalism is put together. There really is reason to think that shale oil and fracking (as well as tar sands) will boost production of fossil fuels over the next decade or two. But you should be very, very skeptical of the happy talk about massive new finds and how this means energy independence at last. This stuff is promising, but every field isn't going to pan out at the most optimistic end of the forecasts, just like conventional oil fields don't all pan out at the most optimistic end of the forecasts. Caveat emptor.

There's Arsenic in Your Kids' Apple Juice

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 12:08 PM PST

"I'd hate to take a bite out of you," Burt Lancaster hisses at Tony Curtis in the classic '50s film Sweet Smell of Success. "You're a cookie full of arsenic." The line resonates to this day, because it's jarring to picture something as comforting and innocuous as a cookie being laced with a notorious poison.

And that's precisely what Consumer Reports forces us to do with its just-released story on apple and grape juice—you know, the stuff millions of people feed to their kids every day, sometimes several times a day, in those little boxes. And as with the confection in Lancaster's insult, the poison in question is arsenic.

The FDA currently does not regulate arsenic levels in fruit juices, CR reports. But for bottled and tap water, the agency enforces a standard of no more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic.

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National Review Backs the Payroll Tax Cut

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 12:00 PM PST
"In all likelihood we will agree to continue the current payroll tax relief for another year," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.

Late on Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal's Naftali Bendavid reported that Republicans will back a Democratic plan to extend the payroll tax cut that President Barack Obama signed into law as part of last year's tax compromise. (Republicans, as you'll recall, got the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich and a more generous deal on the estate tax; Democrats got the payroll tax cut, unemployment insurance, a college-tuition tax credit, and expanded business tax credits, among other things.) Prominent Republicans had voiced strong opposition to the measure, reserving special spite for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's plan to pay for the tax break by hiking taxes on millionaires.

In response, the editors of the conservative National Review outed themselves as payroll tax cut fan boys. It's not particularly interesting that the National Review's editorial board wants to keep taxes low. What is interesting is how the magazine's editors craft their argument: by debunking several of the GOP's most prominent objections to the cut, including the notion that temporary tax cuts have little economic impact and that a reduction in revenue from payroll taxes, which fund Social Security, will further erode the program's finances.

But the editors save their special sauce for Republicans' third objection—that the payroll-tax cut doesn't create jobs:

Here again holdout Republicans have a double standard, demanding that this tax cut pass a rigorous empirical test that they never apply to other tax cuts. It stands to reason that the tax cut makes hiring more attractive to employers—only marginally more attractive, to be sure, but it is on the margin that we seek beneficial effects from improvements to tax policy. And there may be ways to make the tax cut more effective, such as applying it to the employer’s share of the payroll tax rather than the employee’s.

Of course, the editors of the National Review wouldn't be the editors of the National Review if they didn't come around to defending the job creators that really count: the rich. They wind down their op-ed with an entreaty to Republicans to maintain their vigilant stand against any tax cut that's paid for by a permanent tax increase on the super rich.

But National Review's critique of the GOP's intransigence on the Democrats' payroll tax cut extension—which will add another $250 billion to the deficit unless offset by cuts or tax increases—is incomplete. The editors slam the GOP for rejecting the extension, then fail to offer up any viable pay-fors. Republicans know how desperate President Obama is to juice the economy, and that his options for doing so are few. Extending the payroll tax cut was one of the few courses of action he felt the GOP would support.

Given how badly Obama wants the extension, Republicans also know that all they have to do is wait him out and continue to refuse, politely, to raise other taxes to pay for the extension. Let's face it: we've seen this movie before. Republicans will extract another round of painful concessions on social spending from Democrats in order to pay for the payroll tax cut. In other words, the National Review is doing its part to move Republicans closer to a compromise that'll never happen on the Democrats' terms.

Mitt Romney: Don't Listen to Me, Just Read My Book

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 11:19 AM PST

Perched awkwardly on chairs in the back of a Miami warehouse, Fox News' Bret Baier and Mitt Romney met on Tuesday for a lengthy televised interview. It was a rare moment of exposure for a candidate happy to keep the media at arm's length, but Baier didn't go easy on the GOP presidential front-runner. He wasted no time highlighting the former Massachusetts governor's wishy-washy record on an array of issues and asking Romney whether he believes voters can trust him given his flip-flopping.

Romney's reply, boiled to its essence: Forget what I've said; just read my book. He was referring to No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, published in 2010, in which he outlined his vision for restoring the US' stature as world superpower.

During the Fox interview, Romney deflected questions about his flip-flopping three times by pointing to No Apologies—which, as it turns out, had integrity issues of its own. (More on that later.)

Here are some excerpts from the Fox interview (emphasis mine):

Bret Baier: What is your reaction to [the New Hampshire Union Leader's] endorsement [of Newt Gingrich], and specifically that charge that you lack conviction?

Mitt Romney: And with regards to my own views, I'm happy to have people take a look at my book. I wrote that a couple of years ago, laid out my views for the country, and I believe my views are essential to get this country going again.

BB: Like the Union Leader, your critics charge that you make decisions based on political expediency, and not core conviction. You have been on both sides of some issues, and there's videotape of you going back years speaking about different issues—climate change, abortion, immigration, gay rights. How can voters trust what they hear from you today is what you will believe if you win the White House?

MR: Well, Bret, your list is just not accurate. One, we're going to have to be better informed about my views on issues. My view is, you can look at what I've written in my book, you can look at a person who has devoted his life to his family, to his faith, to his country, and I'm running for president because of the things I believe I think I can do to help this country.

BB: But I'm sure you've seen these ads using videotape of you in previous years speaking on various issues. And it seems like it's in direct contrast to positions you take now.

MR: Well, I'm glad the Democratic ads are breaking through and you guys at Fox are seeing them—

BB: Jon Huntsman has a couple ads that do the exact same thing.

MR: There's no question the people are going to take snippets and take things out of context and try and show that there are differences where in some cases there are not. But one place where I changed my mind: with regard to the government's role in relating to abortion. I am pro life. I did not take that position years ago. And that's the same change that occurred with Ronald Reagan, with George W. Bush, with some of the leaders of the pro life movement.

[Later, Baier asks Romney about the mandate signed into law by Romney that everyone in Massachusetts buy health insurance, and whether Romney believes Massachusetts' model would work on a national level.]

BB: But, governor, you did say on camera and in other places that at times you thought it would be a model for the nation.

MR: You're wrong, Bret.

BB: No, no, I mean there's tape out there—

MR: No. The tape out there—continue to read the tape. The tape goes on to say, for each state to be able to look at it. I was asked time and again, in the last debates...look back at the 2008 campaign. On the stage, I was asked at the debate, 'Is your Massachusetts plan something you would have the nation do as a federal plan?' Each time said, 'No, the answer is no."

When you write a book, you have the ability to put down your entire view. And I put in that book as clearly as I possibly could that the plan we did in Massachusetts had many features that I thought should be adopted by the other states. I thought there were very good ideas in there. There could be a model for the entire states.

Here's the full interview:

Baier's right: Romney's shifting positions on major issues are well-documented. He's flip-flopped on humans' role in causing climate change, foreclosure relief, privatizing social security, a flat tax, whether President Obama made the recession worse, gay rights, and on flip-flopping itself, among others.

And in No Apologies, between the hardcover and paperback editions, Romney edited a passage on the universal health-care plan he signed into law in Massachusetts. As PolitiFact noted, after trumpeting the success of Massachusetts' health-insurance reform, Romney wrote in the No Apologies hardcover edition, "We can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country, and it can be done without letting government take over health care." But in the paperback, that line was changed to read, "And it was done without government taking over health care." Romney didn't write that Massachusetts' plan should be national policy, but as PolitiFact concluded, "a line that advocated the Massachusetts model as a strong option for other states was replaced by a shorter, more generic sentence."

Even Romney's book, his fallback when his integrity comes under attack, has shifted over time. So much for that defense.

Riding Disaster to Victory

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 10:46 AM PST

From Corey O'Brien, a Democratic commissioner in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, expressing frustration with President Obama:

Enough with the soft approach. He's got to say, "I'm in charge, and I'm going to get it done with or without Congress." People are furious. Everybody here is petrified they are going to lose their jobs tomorrow, and I mean everybody.

Republicans have to be chortling at this. It's exactly the response they've been hoping for as we head into election season. Greg Sargent spells it out:

Mr. O’Brien appears to be suggesting that this is a widespread sentiment among Pennsylvanians, and it’s worth entertaining the possiblity that this is right. In a climate of extreme fear and anger over the economy, people may not care why Obama can’t get his policies through....If the guy in charge can’t deliver it, the risk is that people may conclude he’s well intentioned, but too weak or ineffective to get it done. How Obama handles this problem is going to be a key dynamic to watch, particularly today in this key bellwether region.

When it comes to domestic policy, there's virtually nothing the president can do without congressional approval. The American public, however, rather famously seems not to understand this, and Republicans know it perfectly well. With no real knowledge of how public policy works, and without a press willing to make it clear, congressional obstruction is essentially invisible and cost-free. So Republicans have spent the past two years doing everything in their power to make sure the economy doesn't recover, and now they're planning to ride that bad economy to victory in November.

Pretty great strategy, isn't it?

Does Europe No Longer Have a Single Currency?

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 10:21 AM PST

I don't always understand everything Karl Smith says, but I've learned to dismiss him at my peril. Here he is yesterday:

The ECB is no longer controlling the marginal cost of funding and that indeed the cost of such funding is rising much higher than the official 1.25% rate, at least up to 2.25% and perhaps as high as 6–7%. This incredibly contractionary monetary “policy” began sometime earlier this year and is continuing to accelerate. I put policy in scare quotes because there is no policy as such there is simply contraction.

....I don’t have it all sorted out but its not clear that there is a fully functioning money market in Europe right now. Well informed opinion suggests that there is literally a shortage of know-how on the ground....It's really maddening and quite disconcerting.

And this morning, responding to an Alphaville post by Izabella about a new liquidity program from the Italian Treasury:

The marginal cost of funds — the key instrument in monetary policy — is diverging between countries and local central banks and governments are having to step in to attempt to solve the mess. Izabella is cautious in her wording and that is a good thing. However, because I was cautious last time this happened — and roundly ignored — I will be loud this time.

The Eurozone is now a single currency area in name only. Worse, the national central banks do not have the power to control monetary policy. Which means by American or British standards there is no monetary policy in Europe right now. There is regimented chaos.

And a few hours later on an ECB program to partially backstop sovereign debt in the eurozone:

Obviously I have long advocated this as the only way to stem the crisis. At this point, however, I am not sure it will work. The ECB may have a larger problem if the marginal cost of cash is diverging across countries.

....A credible cap can keep the Eurozone from flying apart, but if short yields maintain their spread that is evidence of different effective monetary policy in different countries and possibly cripplingly tight monetary policy in the periphery. I say that with the full recognition that it is not even clear what it means to say that there is different monetary policy under the same currency. What I mean is that there are differing marginal costs of funding. Some questions:

  1. Does this extend up into the commercial paper markets?
  2. How many firms have access to credit from outside their country?
  3. How many households have access to credit from outside their country?

Of these questions I would usually consider (1) the most important but the prevalence of small and medium sized business in the periphery may mean that (2) is the most important.

I won't pretend to fully understand this, and it may be less important than Karl thinks. Roughly speaking, though, he's saying that the repo market is now controlling the cost of funds in Europe, not the ECB, and that cost is higher in the periphery than in the core. It's an inversion of what happened from 2001-07, when the ECB did control monetary policy, and that single monetary policy for the entire continent was a little too tight for Germany but far too loose for the periphery. Now, though, it's just the opposite and effective monetary policy is far too tight for the periphery.

The former led to the disaster we see today. The latter is going to make that disaster far worse. The "slow run" on the European periphery appears to be finally turning into a garden variety run, and the next stop is full-scale panic.

Either that or Karl is wrong.