2009 - %3, December

Top 5 Christmas Conspiracies of 2009

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 12:16 PM PST

The War on Christmas died a quiet death in 2009, according to Slate's Chris Beam. He's right, to a point: The righteous anger at retail outlets that used the phrase "happy holidays" is, (mostly) a thing of the past. But in its wake a new kind of conflict has arisen, that, in its idiosyncrasies and insanity, bears witness to where the nation’s political pulse has been and is going. The War on Christmas hasn't ended. It's just been teabagged.

 

Let's roll the tape:

 

The Holy Census: This winter, civil rights groups sought to raise awareness (and allay concerns) about the 2010 Census by highlighting the role of government record-keeping in the birth of Christ (Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for a Roman census). What could go wrong? I'll let the Free Republic respond:  "How come whenever a group of God hating, sacrilegious, communist, dictatorial, bureaucratic, evil, unscrupulous, conniving atheists invoke the name of Jesus I find myself questioning their motives?"

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Tweet!

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 11:59 AM PST

The latest tweet from @motherjones:

BREAKING: @kdrum embraces Twitter. Follow him immediately. http://bit.ly/59QyTP

Now that's breaking news!  Where's Drudge's red siren when you need it?

But it's true.  I'm giving Twitter a second try.  So far today I've insulted Richard Cohen and dissed partial RSS feeds.  On Saturday I insulted Pat Toomey and the Club for Growth and on Sunday I insulted some people from North Carolina.  Not bad, eh?  I'll never be another Ashton Kutcher, but I imagine I'll end up tweeting a dozen times a day or so.  If you're interested, I'm at http://twitter.com/kdrum.

The Goldman Backlash Backlash

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 11:57 AM PST

Flickr/wallyg (Creative Commons/).Flickr/wallyg (Creative Commons).Has the backlash to the Goldman Sachs backlash officially begun? Jessica Pressler over at New York's excellent Daily Intel says "it's become so fashionable to hate Goldman Sachs that it's actually unfashionable." Singled out for criticism is this Bloomberg piece on the firm. The article centers on the claim that Goldman benefited from 9/11 because "Building a new headquarters cater-cornered to where the World Trade Center once stood qualified the firm to sell $1 billion of tax-free Liberty Bonds and get about $49 million of job-grant funds, tax exemptions and energy discounts." Pressler calls BS: 

First of all, why not just headline the story "Goldman Sachs Benefited From 9/11," Bloomberg, because that is clearly the audience you're trying to reach? We guess you can't, since that would be grotesquely untrue. Second, what exactly are you telling us here? That Goldman Sachs took advantage of tax breaks to get a discount on a new headquarters? That they ran a cost-benefit analysis and came away thinking, hey, that's a pretty good deal for us? YOU DON'T SAY.

Of course they did! That's what they do. Also breaking: They sometimes package bunches of crap and make it look attractive so that they can sell it for more money. You know who else does that? The makers of CEREAL. The guy who runs American Apparel. Oh, and pretty much everyone else because that is what business is. In this case, Goldman Sachs's new tower helped keep a lot of jobs in lower Manhattan, despite the ice-skating snafu, so we can't say we're all that bothered. Honestly, news cycle, bring us some real evidence that Goldman had something to do with the intelligence saying there were WMDs in Iraq, or get the hell out of our office.

The reason that most consumer goods companies are very careful about product safety isn't just that it's good business. It's also that there's usually a regulator—the Consumer Product Safety Commission or what-have-you—that's in charge of bringing the hammer down on them if they sell us unsafe products. (Even the notoriously lax FDA is better than nothing.) Financial products don't have that kind of dedicated safety agency, which is why Elizabeth Warren suggested a Financial Product Safety Commission. It's also why that new agency is part of the proposed regulatory reforms the House passed earlier this year.

This all goes back to an idea that I'm going to keep harping on. It's ridiculous to expect all individuals—or companies—to act responsibly in the absence of laws and regulations restricting their behavior and imposing penalties for noncompliance. While everyone's outrage is focused on Goldman Sachs, the other banks will have more freedom to do fishy stuff and improve their competitive position. That's why liberals believe that if you're going to fix big problems like the ones that led to the financial crisis, you have to make those difficult changes to laws and incentives—not just rail against a single corporation.

Want more on all this? Check out the January/February issue of Mother Jones.

The Public Option

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 11:34 AM PST

Earlier this year I sat next to Jane Hamsher on a plane for an hour or so and we chatted about healthcare. No surprise what the main topic was: she was making the case for an uncompromising stand in favor of a public option, and I was arguing that insurance reform and subsidy levels were more central.  Also unsurprisingly, neither one of us changed our mind.

The demise of the public option, combined with the individual mandate, is at the core of the liberal dislike of the current Senate bill.  Jane summarizes the problem here in her list of ten reasons to oppose the bill:

1) Forces you to pay up to 8% of your income to private insurance corporations — whether you want to or not....3) Many will be forced to buy poor-quality insurance they can’t afford to use, with $11,900 in annual out-of-pocket expenses over and above their annual premiums.

This is hard to argue with.  It's one thing to say that big profits for pharmaceutical companies are valuable because they fund future research, but insurance companies? I think Tyler Cowen is the only person I've seen even trying to make a case that private insurance adds anything much to the healthcare pie, and even he didn't make much of a sustained effort.  Insurers are basically just middlemen, and they add virtually nothing to either the quality or availability of healthcare.

But I still think this needs to be unpacked a little.  First: there's nothing wrong per se with taxpayer money going to private companies.  It happens all the time.  And what's the difference between (a) paying money in taxes that then gets paid out to private companies and (b) being required to pay money directly to the same private companies?  Nothing, really.

So the big question isn't whether the individual mandate is inherently offensive, it's whether a public option improves it much.  And this is where I have a hard time accepting the argument that we should go ballistic over its demise.  Here's the CBO on the various factors that would affect the cost of premiums if a public option were part of the healthcare bill:

Those factors would reduce the premiums of private plans in the exchanges to a small degree, but the effect on the average premium in the exchanges would be offset by the higher premium of the public plan itself. On balance, therefore, the provisions regarding a public plan would not have a substantial effect on the average premiums paid in the exchanges.

Roughly speaking, CBO says that less healthy people would probably choose the public option.  This decreases costs in the private sector but increases them in the public. Net overall effect: nada.  It just moves people around a bit.

Now, my own guess is that if the public option were more robust, and grew over time, it would have a larger effect thanks to administrative efficiencies.  But reality being what it is, I doubt that those efficiencies would amount to much more than 5%.  That's about $500 for a $10,000 policy.

That's not nothing, but it's not much, either.  And it's dwarfed by things like the size of the subsidies and future efforts to rein in healthcare costs.  I'd cheer getting rid of insurance companies, but the cost savings from doing so would be a one-time thing that would get eaten up within a couple of years or so.  It's bending the growth curve of healthcare that's more important, and insurance has very little to do with that. It mostly depends on reforming the provider side and the delivery systems, which can happen within either a public or a private system.

So I guess we come back to where we started: I'd love to have a public option in the Senate bill, but the ground-level benefits seem pretty modest. I just can't see deep-sixing the whole package over it.  Better to pass it now and work on tightening the insurance reforms and expanding the subsidies in the future.  And maybe adding a public option someday too.

Satan Stole Right-Wing Pastor's Money

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 11:05 AM PST

Rod Parsley, a fundamentalist pastor who John McCain praised as a "spiritual guide" during the 2008 presidential campaign, is in big trouble—demonic trouble. Parsley has claimed that Islam is "the greatest religious enemy of our civilization and the world," and argued that the historic mission of America is to see "this false religion destroyed." (You can watch a video highlighting those comments here. After weeks of controversy, McCain finally repudiated Parsley in May 2008.) But it's not Islam that's causing Parsley problems these days. It's Satan himself. The Columbus Dispatch reports that Parsley is saying his ministry is under a "demonically inspired financial attack." Here's the clip from his television program, "Breakthrough":

 

The proximate cause of Parsley's trouble, it seems, is a $3 million deficit for the fourth quarter and a $3.1 million legal settlement over a 2006 incident in which a two-year-old child in a Parsley-affiliated daycare center was spanked so hard that his "buttocks and legs were covered with welts and abrasions":

The boy, then 2, said he was spanked with a "knife" by a substitute teacher. His parents, Michael and Lacey Faieta, believe it was a ruler.... The Faietas said Parsley refused to meet personally with them and that the church did not apologize or take accountability for the beating.... Mr. Faieta said he and his wife were "disgusted" and "saddened" by Parsley's words.

The devil works in mysterious ways.

(h/t Right Wing Watch)

Chart of the Day: The $14 Trillion Bailout

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 10:11 AM PST

This comes from Nomi Prins, and it's part of the package of bailout stories in the new issue of the magazine (available at newsstands now!).  Click to see the whole chart, which adds up programs from both the Treasury and the Fed.  The eventual cost to taxpayers of these programs will be less than $14 trillion, of course, but make no mistake: the value to the banking industry was the whole enchilada.  And despite the much ballyhooed repayment of a fraction of the TARP funds, they're still using most of it.

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Kamikaze Democrats?

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 9:58 AM PST

I see a meme developing among conservative-ish opponents of healthcare reform:

Megan McArdle: "Democrats are on a political suicide mission; I'm not a particularly accurate prognosticator, but I think this makes it very likely that in 2010 they will lost several seats in the Senate — enough to make it damn hard to pass any more of their signature legislation — and will lose the house outright."

Sean Trende: "I don't think they're close to finding their Grail.  I think the better analogy is probably that they're close to their Moby Dick. And we all know what happens to Captain Ahab once he finally harpoons his white whale."

Ross Douthat: "Public opinion has turned dramatically against the bill, and every swing-state Democrat who votes for it is courting political suicide."

Sounds grim! And Trende in particular marshals plenty of wonky, district level evidence to support this view. But I'm going to repeat what I said over the weekend: the Feiler Faster thesis is largely true, and healthcare will be mostly forgotten within a few months.  This bill affects a relatively small number of people; the people who are affected are almost all benefitting from it; and nothing much is going to happen until 2014 anyway.  The tea partiers will stay mad, but they weren't going to vote for Democrats in 2010 regardless.  Moderates and independents, I think, will end up voting on other issues.

Which isn't to say that Dems are going to do well in 2010.  The economy still sucks, after all, and there's additional difficult legislation coming down the pike.  What's more, although I doubt that healthcare reform is a suicide run, it's also true that it doesn't really offer enough short-term benefits to give people much reason to vote for Democrats.

Still, I think the effect will be moderate at most.  The big wild card, though, will be the Jane Hamsher wing of the liberal movement.  If, even after healthcare passes, they decide to keep campaigning against it, that could do some real damage. We'll have to wait and see about that, though.

Quote of the Day: Kamikaze Republicans

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 9:31 AM PST

From John McCain, on the Senate healthcare bill:

We will fight until the last vote. We must do everything.

Well, OK.  I guess symbolically they feel like they need to do this.  Frankly, though, now that the first procedural vote has been taken and it's obvious that Democrats really do have 60 votes to pass the thing, you'd think Republicans might decide that sitting around the Senate until 2 am every day through Christmas Eve isn't such a great way to make a pointless point after all.  Don't they have families they'd rather be with? Why torture themselves?

Tea Party Geezers Revolt Against AARP

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 7:04 AM PST

Today is the day that aging Tea Partiers across the country are supposed to burn their AARP cards to protest the group’s support for health care reform. At least, that's what one right-wing blogger is encouraging them to do. Last week, self-described "Tea Party Patriot" Sam Mela announced the "1st Tea Party Winter Fest for Health Care Freedom & AARP Card Burning":

The Tea Party Movement is initiating a nation-wide AARP Card Burning, on the first day of winter, December 21, 2009. This is in response to AARP’s duplicitous stance in support of Congress’ attempted thievery of ample health care away from the American people. This response is being called for due to the fact that Congress has turned a deaf ear to the will of the American people, one of the most vulnerable groups of our society, our American Seniors….

Don’t forget your lighters, AARP cards and any other AARP printed material/mailings; home made cards a/or signs…you could even dress up like Santa, or his elves, Scrooge, Tiny Tim, whatever your favorite Christmas character…don’t forget your cameras & video recorders! If YOU don’t send this message NOW, the die will be cast!

It seems unlikely that more than a few stragglers will turn out in Santa suits today to torch their membership cards (and a good thing, too, since as one of my the readers of my Unsilent Generation blog pointed out, the cards are plastic, so they won't burn so much as "melt and make a big stink"). When a West Virginia Tea Party organizer called for a day of AARP card burnings earlier this month, the only reports were of a half-dozen protesters huddled around a fire in Charleston. But this hasn’t stopped Republican politicians from picking up the battle cry. John McCain recently urged AARP members to trash their cards both in Arizona speeches and on the Senate floor. (To his credit, McCain told them to cut the cards in half and send them back to AARP, rather than burn them.) 

None of this represents much of a threat to AARP. Although the group has lost tens of thousands of members over the health care reform issue, that’s a tiny fraction of its 45 million total. President Obama and Democratic senators have been making much of AARP’s support for the reform legislation, leading Sam Mela, in a post yesterday, to lament the fact that "in terms of Public Relations and Public Perception, the AARP has been able to steamroll over the Tea Party movement, without encountering even token resistance, although it would have been a simple matter for the Tea Partiers to neutralize them at any time."

Dodd Challenger Alpert on Immoral Pols, Term Limits, & Linda McMahon

| Mon Dec. 21, 2009 6:00 AM PST

Merrick Alpert, the only Democratic primary challenger to Connecticut's embattled Senator Chris Dodd, sounds like a career politician. He is comfortable spinning a yarn about the hands of working class people, the importance of small business, and his staunchly moral lifestyle. 

But Alpert, who has been critized as unqualified and too conservative, embraces his outsider status and says he's the only Democrat who can win Dodd's seat in November. Although he trails the five-term Senator by more than 30 points according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, Alpert notes that he currently has only one or two percent name recognition in Connecticut, compared to Dodd, who "has been around for longer than the Israelites wandered in the desert."  

This could be Alpert's moment to surge against Dodd, who was recently deemed "unelectable" by the respected elections predictor the Cook Political Report. Read his conversation with Mother Jones (below the jump) for more on Alpert's policy stances, Chris Dodd's failures, and the state's Republican primary throw down.