2012 - %3, January

The Strategic Value of Being a Punching Bag

| Sat Jun. 30, 2012 6:40 PM EDT

Over at the Washington Monthly, Ryan Cooper is annoyed at the tendency of moderate drug policy reformers to spend time attacking hardcore reformers to their left who want to see full legalization of illicit drugs. In particular, he singles out some of the academics who blog at Reality Based Community:

These guys have done a lot of great work....But they have a rather foolish tendency to attack the "legalizer" community, efforts which are not only misguided, but self-defeating....The "legalizers," which are few and powerless, aren't just a pointless waste of ink and oxygen, they're actually helping the RBC case by making them seem like the sensible moderates. Kleiman and company should welcome these folks as holding down the flank of the debate, and focus their attacks on Joe Arpiao and the DEA.

This is a common argument from folks on the extreme left:1 without them, they argue, centrists wouldn't look like centrists. It's only the existence of a loud, firebrand flank that makes moderate lefties seem sensible and attractive to the vast mass of non-radical voters. Purely as a strategic necessity, then, moderates should welcome their comrades on the left.

I don't really know if this holds water or not. But suppose it does. Doesn't it imply that centrists have to attack the far lefties? If this is all a bit of play acting, with the far lefties playing the role of scary revolutionary, part of that role is to be attacked. That's what gives centrists their centrist cred.

And yet, whenever this happens, the left flank yells about it. There's nothing wrong with that on its own, but you can't do it if you're also making a strategic argument about your value to the center. That is, you can't (a) claim that you play a strategic role as a punching bag and (b) complain when you get punched. They go together, don't they?

1I assume the same thing happens on the right. I'm using the left as an example here because I'm more familiar with it.

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Lawsuit Accuses GOP Donor Adelson of Pursuing "Prostitution Strategy" In His Hotels

| Fri Jun. 29, 2012 4:56 PM EDT
GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.

A former executive at the Las Vegas Sands Corp., whose chairman is Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, has accused the company of "controlling and directing" prostitution at its casinos in Macau, the Wall Street Journal reports. The accusations are part of a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by the former executive, Steve Jacobs. 

In a statement Thursday, Las Vegas Sands spokesman Ron Reese said the company has "consistently maintained that the allegations of misconduct and wrongdoing by Jacobs against the company and its senior management are baseless." Mr. Reese's statement added, "Mr. Adelson has always objected to and maintained a strong policy against prostitution on our properties, a fact that Mr. Jacobs knows to be true, and any accusation to the contrary represents a blatant and reprehensible personal attack on Mr. Adelson's character."

Mr. Jacobs has already accused the company of firing him for objecting to Mr. Adelson's illegal demands, which allegedly included extorting senior government officials in Macau, threatening Chinese banks and using the services of a Macau lawyer despite concerns his retention posed risks to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bans bribery by U.S. companies abroad. The company denies the allegations.

In addition to the wrongful termination lawsuit, the report notes that the Sands Corp. is already under investigation "by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and by the U.S. Department of Justice into possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act." 

According to the New York Times, Adelson, who has pledged "limitless" funds to defeat President Barack Obama in November, has already given at least $40 million to Republican super-PACs, which includes $10 million to Restore Our Future, the super-PAC backing GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Adelson's donations are motivated in part his disapproval of Obama on Israel policy and by his belief that "the two-state solution is a stepping stone for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people." (It's unclear what fate Adelson intends for the millions of Palestinians who remain under Israeli occupation, whom he considers "an invented people.")

One question is whether the allegations will taint Adelson's campaign cash. Unlikely, given his role as the GOP's ATM, although at this point they're still just allegations.

Heartland Institute and Scott Walker Join Forces

| Fri Jun. 29, 2012 3:41 PM EDT

Now that he survived his recall election, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is lending his support to an upcoming fundraiser for the Heartland Institute, a climate-denying think-tank.

On August 9, Heartland will celebrate its 28th anniversary with a $150-a-head dinner in Chicago (or you can just buy a whole table for $2,500). Heartland has grabbed plenty of headlines this year. In February, a bunch of internal Heartland documents were published detailing the group's climate miseducation plans (along with one document that the group says was a fake). In May, the group put up controversial billboards comparing people who believe in climate change to the Unabomber. (Climate change isn't the only issue Heartland brings its "free-market solutions" to address, but it's the one the group has become most infamous for.)

The billboard incident has caused several funders to drop their support for the group, to the tune of $825,000 in lost donations. Enter Walker, who they described in an email to supporters as "the nation’s most influential and successful governor." The email promises that the dinner "will be the biggest celebration of freedom in Chicago in 2012."

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 June 2012

| Fri Jun. 29, 2012 3:03 PM EDT

My sister called last night to chatter about the Obamacare decision and to demand extra super good catblogging today. The problem is that this is catblogging we're talking about, and sometimes the cats cooperate and sometimes they don't.

For better or worse, though, this week we have action shots. On the left, Domino is looking rather alarmed, and the reason is that she had just crashed her way through the flowers behind her. When I snapped the shutter she was still shaking the cobwebs out of her face. On the right, Inkblot is taking a sunset hunting stroll through our neighbor's yard. In a second or two he'll realize that the brown object he's staring at isn't a mouse, it's a leaf. But life is full of disappointments like that. Both of them are still wondering if the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare's Freedom From Vet Visits clause yesterday, and I don't have the heart to tell them that it never made it through the conference report in the first place. They'll find out soon enough.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of our Shiny New Highway Bill

| Fri Jun. 29, 2012 1:58 PM EDT

Brad Plumer runs down the new highway bill for us today, providing both the good news and the bad. The good news is, basically, that we even have a highway bill. The bad news is that the bill's funding is dumb and mass transit got screwed. Plus this:

5) Two obscure — but important! — reforms got left out of the final bill. The original Senate transportation bill did two things that may seem minor but were actually quite significant, says Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation. For one, the bill shifted more money to fixing existing roads rather than building new ones. (Analysts have long argued that it’s more cost-effective to repair the roads we already have, but state and local politicians prefer new projects that come with shiny ribbon-cuttings.) That earlier version also would’ve established a new coordinated policy that linked up freight and ports. But these provisions have been cut from the final bill.

Hooray for Washington! Lots of money for stuff we don't really need, not so much for stuff we do. But at least it's bipartisan. That's what matters, right?

Yes, if Republicans Win in November, Obamacare is Toast

| Fri Jun. 29, 2012 12:18 PM EDT

If Republicans win in November, can they repeal Obamacare? In theory, this is a fairly technical discussion. Republicans can repeal all the parts of the law that are budget related using reconciliation, a procedure that requires only 50 votes in the Senate. But the non-budget parts, like the rule that insurance companies have to cover people with pre-existing conditions, can only be repealed via regular order, which Democrats can filibuster. That takes 60 votes to overcome, and Republicans won't have 60 votes.

But this whole conversation has always struck me as faintly ridiculous. First, if you repeal all the budget-related aspects of Obamacare, you've essentially gutted the law. Who cares if it takes a few more years to do the mopping up via amendments to must-pass bills? Second, I'm not sure 60 votes is actually out of reach for the regulatory parts of the law anyway. If the law is already in tatters because the funding is gone, there might very well be a dozen Democrats willing to join Republicans in getting rid of the rest of it and starting over.

And third — well, look. Can we stop pretending to be children here? As Matt Yglesias points out, the last time Republicans had a problem with reconciliation, they just fired the Senate parliamentarian and hired a new one willing to make the rulings they needed. They can do the same thing this time, or they can skip the drama and just ask Vice President Rubio to overrule the parliamentarian. All they need is a determination that the entire law is so tightly intertwined that, taken as a whole, it's a budgetary matter. Will they do that? Of course they will:

That is how you get things done in Washington when you want to get things done. And my view is that Republicans, at this point, really do want to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They don't like that it raises taxes, they don't like that it spends money on the poor, they don't like that it rolls back Medicare privatization, and they don't like that it pushes health insurance companies in the direction of becoming regulated utilities. If they genuinely lack the votes for repeal they won't repeal it, but they're not going to let interpretive disputes over what is and isn't a budgetary measure hold them up.

One way or another, if Romney wins and Republicans gain control of the Senate, Obamacare is toast. Anyone who thinks otherwise just hasn't been paying attention to politics for the past couple of decades. Can we please stop acting like earnest ninnies about this stuff?

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In the 21st Century, We Will All Be Fired on Twitter

| Fri Jun. 29, 2012 11:46 AM EDT

Yesterday, while the rest of us were busy obsessing over the Supreme Court, the board of LA's Museum of Contemporary Art fired chief curator Paul Schimmel. Lots of people were upset about this, but I wasn't one of them since I'm not an art guy and I don't know anything about Schimmel. Still, I was sort of interested in this little nugget from the LA Times writeup:

There also was dismay at the way the museum handled the high-level termination. It was first reported on a New York gallery blog, then picked up and disseminated widely on Twitter. Hours later, MOCA issued a terse announcement: "Paul Schimmel is stepping down as MOCA's chief curator. It's amicable and there will be a release tomorrow."

Question: is it even possible to fire a public figure any longer without having it first leaked on blogs and Twitter? It barely seems like it. I have a feeling that if you fire someone these days, you should be prepared to announce it pretty much instantly. If you don't, it will inevitably end up on the internet somewhere and you'll get dinged for "handling it badly." Might as well just announce it on your own Twitter feed instead.

Germany Caves In (A Little Bit)

| Fri Jun. 29, 2012 10:32 AM EDT

It looks like Germany has blinked. Or, more accurately, the leaders of Italy and Spain shoved hot bamboo spikes under Angela Merkel's eyelids until she cried Onkel!

Amid bad-tempered talks that continued through the night, Italy and Spain stunned the Germans by blocking progress on an overall deal at a two-day EU summit in Brussels until they obtained guarantees that the eurozone would act to cut the soaring costs of their borrowing.

The tough negotiations were deadlocked for hours, prompting the departure from the summit after midnight of the 10 non-euro countries, including Britain, leaving the eurozone leaders to fight it out. After 14 hours of wrangling, they emerged with a three-point statement rewriting the rules for the eurozone's new bailout regime in a way likely to soften the draconian terms that have accompanied the rescue programmes for Greece, Portugal, and Ireland over the past two years.

This isn't quite the same thing as support for eurobonds, which would allow countries to fund their deficits with bonds backed by the entire eurozone (i.e., Germany) but it's a step in that direction. In the deal announced a couple of weeks ago, money was loaned to Spain, which it used to bail out its banks. But Spain was still on the hook for the money. Now money will be going straight to Spanish (and Italian, Irish, Greek. and Portuguese) banks, with the loans coming from the entire eurozone. The Irish are elated:

Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, said the deal reached in the early hours at the EU summit represented “a major change” in European policy and was a course of action Dublin had been advocating for a long time. “This is a massive breakthrough for Ireland and it changes the game in terms of our bank debt,” he told Irish radio. “This deal will allow the country to recover much faster,” he said.

Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime minister, hailed the move as a seismic shift in EU policy. “What was deemed to be unachievable has now become a reality and that principle has been established and decided and agreed upon by the council, by the heads of government,” Mr Kenny told reporters in Brussels.

Merkel, of course, still has domestic politics to worry about, so she put a brave face on things: "The details about liability" — i.e., who's really responsible for these loans if they go bad — "still have to be negotiated individually," she said, "and I can predict now that they will be quite difficult negotiations because we are in a new area, and for that reason it won't just take only 10 days." No doubt. But for now, the PIIGS have won a victory.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 29, 2012

Fri Jun. 29, 2012 10:21 AM EDT

Marines with 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, conduct live-fire training during Artillery Relocation Training Program 12-1 at Yausubetsu Maneuver Area in Hokkaido, Japan. The regiment is part of 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Donald Peterson.

What the Obamacare Decision Means for the Future

| Fri Jun. 29, 2012 9:30 AM EDT

I've been pondering the future impact of yesterday's Obamacare ruling, and I continue to think that the Commerce Clause ruling probably isn't a big deal. After all, the activity/inactivity distinction, which John Roberts bought into, hasn't come up in the past 200 years and probably won't come up in the next 200 either. And if it does, Congress now has due warning that it needs to use language that doesn't directly compel anyone to engage in commercial activity. As long as the court doesn't extend the ruling to apply to measures that indirectly compel commercial activity, there's just not much impact here.

(In fact, it could even be a win for liberals. Mandatory Social Security private accounts, for example, are almost certainly now unconstitutional, which just makes it easier for liberals to explain why we can't have them. More generally, this ruling means that Congress is now on much safer ground when it simply raises taxes to fund programs directly run by the government, rather than outsourcing them to the private market. That's friendlier to liberal ideology than to conservative ideology.)

The Medicaid ruling is a different story. That one is a little trickier. The court ruled that it's acceptable for Congress to create a new program and then tell states that they won't receive funding for the program unless they agree to all its rules. In a case like that, states have a genuine choice. However, it's not acceptable to create a new program and then tell states they'll lose existing funding unless they also accept the new program along with all its rules. That's too coercive. In practice, no state could ever refuse.

So what does this mean? The basic idea is that states need to have a genuine say in whether they want to participate in federal programs. Congress can nudge them to participate, but they can't create conditions so onerous that, in practice, states have no alternative but to go along. But how far does this reach? Can Congress create new rules for existing programs and impose them on the states after the states have accepted funding for a program? Or is this now unacceptable because, in practice, states can't pull out of programs that are up and running and therefore have no leverage to refuse the new rules? Would this apply to any new rule? Or only to rules that are especially onerous?

That's unclear. But at the least, the court has, for the first time, defined a genuine outer boundary for federal coerciveness. As it stands, this outer boundary probably doesn't act as a very big restraint on congressional power. However, the court didn't define an inner boundary, and future rulings could easily move the bar so that it applies very generally to new congressional rulemaking of all kinds.

Brad DeLong suggests that there's a way around this:

At a formal level, this notion that the federal government cannot alter the terms of The Deal — that it must make a new deal, with consideration, offer, and acceptance — is hard to understand. The federal government could certainly repeal Medicaid entirely. It certainly could start up a new program equal to Medicaid + ACA Expansions and offer states that deal. It sounds as though if the ACA had been structured in this way:

  • Title 15: Title XIX of the Social Security Act, as amended, is repealed.
  • Title 16: New Medicaid = ACA Expansions + the old Title XIX of the SSA are hereby enacted

that that would, formally, pass Roberts's scrutiny.

I guess I find this unlikely. The sophistry is too obvious. At this point the Medicaid ruling is just a tiny acorn, barely worth worrying about. But given the proper care and treatment by a conservative court, it could grow into a mighty oak. This is very definitely something to watch out for.