2009 - %3, August

Fixing the World

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 12:29 PM EDT

Bloomberg reports on the upcoming central banker pow-wow:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and fellow central bankers gathering in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, are showing scant signs of reprising the coordinated stance they took fighting the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression as they deal with its aftermath.

....Bernanke, 55, and other policy makers, who meet on Aug. 20-22, are already staking out differing positions as they gain traction in their battle against a crisis that has cost financial companies worldwide about $1.6 trillion in writedowns and losses.....“What you would hope to happen is much better coordination internationally,” [Mohamed] El-Erian said. “What’s likely to happen, however, is that national interests are going to dominate.”

Well, so much for Ben Bernanke being greeted as a conquering hero.  Either that or else conquering hero-hood just isn't what it used to be.

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Credible Threats

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 12:11 PM EDT

Via ActBlue, Blue America has raised nearly $200,000 for members of Congress who have pledged to vote against any bill that doesn't contain a public option.  Pretty impressive.  If push comes to shove, and the choice is no bill vs. a bill without a public option, I sort of hope these guys all break their word and vote for it anyway.  (Or at least enough of them, anyway.)  But my preferences aside, this is a pretty good way of solving a big problem for the public option supporters: how do you make a threat to vote No credible when everyone knows liberals are champing at the bit to pass healthcare reform?  Well, this is one way.  It's a lot harder to make a U-turn and vote Yes after taking a very public stand against it and then accepting a bunch of activist money based on giving your word to stand firm.1

1Which isn't to say they won't do it anyway.  These are politicians, after all, and thus capable of just about anything.  But it's definitely harder.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein says my email explanation of the point I was making was much clearer than my actual post.  So here it is:

The Blue America money helps make the promise to vote against any bill without a public option more credible.  Right now, no one believes it.  Everybody thinks that, in the end, liberals will cave and vote for it regardless.  But with this money in place, which is going to people on condition that they vote against any bill without a public option, it makes it genuinely hard for them to turn around and vote Yes after all.  It helps turn a meaningless threat into a credible one.

CORRECTION: This money was raised by Blue America.  ActBlue is just the conduit.  The text has been corrected to reflect this.

MoJo's Anti-USNWR College Guide

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 12:00 PM EDT

Today, U.S. News and World Report released its 2010 college rankings. A few things have changed since last year: Harvard now shares first place with Princeton on the magazine's national universities list. And while on last year's liberal arts list Williams and Amherst tied for first place, now Williams is number one and Amherst is number two. Overall, though, the same old usual-suspect schools represented in the top tens.

Another thing that hasn't changed much: relatively low participation in the repuation survey. Inside Higher Ed reports:

U.S. News said that 48 percent of all institutions responded to the reputation survey that can be filled out by presidents, provosts, admissions deans or others and that counts for the largest portion of formula used in the rankings. That's up two percentage points from last year. Among liberal arts institutions, this year's 46 percent participation was also up two points. In both cases, these upticks still don't make up for a lot of lost ground -- just a few years ago the national participation rate was 67 percent.

That drop in participation from a few years back reflects some growing uneasiness with the survey, which accounts for 25 percent of a school's overall score, and as I said yesterday, is not exactly scientific. Which brings me to my next point: The completely unscientific, very first MoJo Mini College Guide. The ten schools on our list are a diverse bunch—public and private; collleges and universities; religious and secular; urban and rural. They may not juke their stats to improve their USNWR rankings, but here's what they do have: good values and good value. See which schools made our cut—and nominate your alma mater for next year's edition—here.

Also part of the MoJo Mini College Guide: The first annual Hellraiser Awards honor the year’s best feats of student activism. These cool jobs don't require a piece of sheepskin—but do pay the bills. And speaking of cold hard cash, turns out there’s a scholarship out there for every kind of student, from hard-core Trekkies to duct tape artists.
 

Ensign: IOKIYAR

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 11:55 AM EDT

Senator John Ensign says his sleazy recent affair wasn't nearly as bad as Bill Clinton's blow jobs in the Oval Office:

"I haven't done anything legally wrong," the Nevada Republican told the Associated Press in an interview. "President Clinton stood right before the American people and he lied to the American people," Ensign said. "You remember that famous day he lied to the American people, plus the fact I thought he committed perjury. That's why I voted for the articles of impeachment."

There you have it.  Ensign may have carried on with with a friend's wife for months, leaving their family in shambles, and he may have then bribed them to stay quiet in small chunks deliberately designed to evade IRS rules, but by God he didn't lie to the American people.  So that's OK.

Blackwater's Black Op

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 11:53 AM EDT

Is that what those silencers were for? The big news today is that the CIA outsourced a program to assassinate Al Qaeda operatives—the program Leon Panetta was in such a hurry to brief the congressional intel committees on—to Blackwater. The program was never fully operational, but when it was brought to the attention of Panetta in June, CIA officials were proposing to take this operation to the next level and begin training assassination teams, the Washington Post reported in July. Panetta promptly shut the program down. According the New York Times' Mark Mazzetti, who broke the story of Blackwater's involvement, the private security company's role in the program "was a major reason" that Panetta "became alarmed" and proceeded directly to the Hill to come clean.

At this point, Blackwater's precise role in the abandoned assassination program is a bit hazy—and it's likely to remain that way since the operation never actually got off the ground. Mazzetti reports that the company "helped the spy agency with planning, training and surveillance" and says "it is unclear whether the C.I.A. had planned to use the contractors to actually capture or kill Qaeda operatives." The Post, which advanced the story a bit further today, reports that Blackwater was in fact "given operational responsibility for targeting terrorist commanders and was awarded millions of dollars for training and weaponry."

The enormous oversight and accountability implications of outsourcing this type of covert op to the private sector are evident, so why would CIA officials even entertain this notion in the first place? The answer is buried in the Post story: apparently it had everything to do with Blackwater's revolving door relationship with the CIA (among other government agencies).

The program was initially managed by the CIA's counterterrorism center, but its functions were partly transferred to Blackwater when key officials from the center retired from the CIA and went to work for the private contractor.

Healthcare Maneuvering

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 11:25 AM EDT

The latest trial balloon from the Democratic leadership is that they might split healthcare reform into two bills.  The first would have all the controversial provisions and would go through the reconciliation process, where it needs only 50 votes.  The second would go through the normal process and therefore need 60 votes, but since it includes the stuff that's widely popular it would pass anyway.  But Ezra Klein is puzzled: if you piss off Republicans by using reconciliation for Bill #1, what are the odds you can then sweet talk them into supporting Bill #2?

The one potential answer is that reconciliation isn't about bypassing the GOP at all. It's about bypassing a handful of centrist Democrats. Angry Republicans won't support a consensus-oriented second bill after being cut out of the important work of the first. But Democrats like Kent Conrad might, as reconciliation won't specifically have hurt them, even as its real point was to take the process out of their hands and put it back in the hand of the Democratic Senate Leadership.

It's hard to say if this chatter is really serious, but if it is the point is probably to protect centrist Democrats.  They can vote against Bill #1 and for Bill #2, and then go home and tell their constituents that they voted against a gummint takeover of healthcare (public option, strong subsidies) but in favor of sticking it to the evil insurance industry.

At least, that's the usual thinking behind this kind of thing.  Harry Reid probably isn't under the delusion that he can get more then one or two Republican votes no matter what, but he does care about protecting the flanks of his own caucus.  This is one way to do it.

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What Health Reform Could Look Like

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 11:00 AM EDT

As I have written previously, the most likely upshot of the health care debate is for Congress to adopt some version of health care "exchanges" based on the FEHBP, the Federal Employees Health Benefits program. Some people are calling the FEHBP a "public option," but that's not what it is. In fact, it doesn't even contain a public option. The whole reason it might be acceptable to conservatives is that it keeps the private insurance system intact. As described by Physicians for a National Health Program, FEHBP "is actually a mix of private health insurance plans that carry the same problems of private plans generally: administrative waste, restrictions on health care providers, inequities and inadequate cost controls."

In fact, the FEHBP was proposed back in the 1980s as an alternative to Teddy Kennedy’s universal health insurance campaign. That proposal, as Stephanie Mencimer wrote here last week, came from none other than the Heritage Foundation. So its credentials are spotless, or ought to be spotless in the eyes of mainstream and rightwing Republicans. Not even Dick Armey’s gang of patriots, agitating at town hall meetings, could call Heritage a socialist institution.

The FEHBP does require private insurance plans to meet certain standards, which could represent some small improvement over the present system, provided it survives as part of the final health reform plan. But the best plans offered under FEHBP aren't cheap, requiring steep contributions from the employee--so it also preserves the present system of unequal care depending on income.

You can get a glimpse of the best-case scenario that might result from a reform based on the FEHBP, in this exchange between Washington Post business writer Steven Pearlstein and a government employee living in Maryland who belongs to the Federal Health Plan:

Federal employee: I have a choice among many possible insurance plans. I have chosen one of the more expensive ones (I pay a little over 30% of the premiums) and have been very pleased thus far with the range of doctors that I can access and especially the speed with which my claims are processed. I recently called to ask if a procedure had been pre-approved and was informed within just a few seconds that my plan did not require pre-approval for that procedure. It is clear that the computers at the other end are online and the people answering questions are well-trained. Last year a scheduler at a testing center nearly cried with relief when she heard what my insurance plan was.

I presume that I get this excellent service in part because if I had a bad experience, I could switch to another provider during the open plan period. Unlike a person working for a private employer with a choice of perhaps two or three plans both from the same provider, who would have to appeal to the deaf ears of the employer's HR department, my choice is meaningful. I might have to wait out 13 months in a plan I didn't like, but that is it. No worries about pre-existing conditions, or qualifying for coverage or anything.

So, could this model actually work for the uninsured pool of people? Could the government demand that the insurance companies offer the same plans available to federal employees to the pool of uninsured or not let them participate in the program? Could it just be negotiated that way since the potential pool is so large and the premiums will be subsidized for some? Could non-profit cooperatives have the clout to get this?

Or do I only get service this good because the Senators and the Representatives are in the same plan that I am (or at least their staff are) and the insurance companies treat us better so they don't make the powerful people who share our plans angry?

Steven Pearlstein: The Federal Health Plan provides the model for the so-called exchanges that are at the center of the Democrats' health reform proposal. Everyone who buys insurance through the exchange would basically have the kind of choices you do, and be able to move around from plan to plan in a way creates an ongoing competition among the plans, not only on the issue of price but quality of service and depth of network, etc. That is the kind of competition that will improve the whole system and, to a degree, help to bring down cost growth.

Eco-News Roundup: Thursday August 20

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 7:17 AM EDT

Pay to Play: For the cost of medical fraud, we could pay for healthcare reform.

Dean 3G: Guess who's got his own healthcare reform Rx? Howard Dean.

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Eat 'Em: New findings show antioxidants can fuel breast cancer. [National Geographic]

Next!: The public option may be breathing its last.

Small Screen: The McSteamy's sex tape, hydrated by Fiji Water.

Wolf Woes: State of Idaho will allow a cull of 25% of its wolf population. [MongaBay]

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 20, 2009

Thu Aug. 20, 2009 7:05 AM EDT

Afghan National Police officers, Afghan National Army soldiers and U.S. Army 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment Soldiers patrol on foot July 27 to speak with village leaders in Deh Chopan district, Zabul province. (Photo courtesy army.mil.)

Need to Read, August 20, 2009

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 4:00 AM EDT

Things you may have missed from around the web yesterday:

The most outrageous lies told about foreign health care.

McCain's voting record: not so maverick-y anymore.

Max Baucus does not like those people with "YouTubes" at health care town halls.

Did Mozart die of strep throat?

Novak, Corn, and Plamegate.

Are seniors really defecting from AARP to a conservative alternative?

Charlie Crist is a rare example of a green GOP governor—but for how long

Religious conservatives experience a conversion to Harry Potter fandom.

David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is on twitter, and so are my colleagues Daniel Schulman, Nick Baumann, and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. You can follow me here. (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)