2011 - %3, April

Is Obama a Republican?

| Wed Apr. 27, 2011 12:58 AM EDT

Ezra Klein argues today that Barack Obama is, historically speaking, a moderate Republican. On three big issues, he says, Obama has championed approaches that Republicans themselves supported only a couple of decades ago:

Take health-care reform. The individual mandate was developed by a group of conservative economists in the early ’90s. Mark Pauly, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, was one of them. “We were concerned about the specter of single-payer insurance,” he told me recently.

....The story on cap and trade — which conservatives now like to call “cap and tax” — is much the same. Back then, the concern was sulfur dioxide, the culprit behind acid rain. President George H.W. Bush wanted a solution that relied on the market rather than on government regulation. So in the Clean Air Act of 1990, he proposed a plan that would cap sulfur-dioxide emissions but let the market decide how to allocate the permits. That was “more compatible with economic growth than using only the command and control approaches of the past,” he said.

....As for the 1990 budget deal, Bush initially resisted tax increases, but eventually realized they were necessary to get the job done....That deal, incidentally, was roughly half tax increases and half spending cuts. Obama’s budget has far fewer tax increases.

This is a fairly common argument on the left, but I really think it's mistaken. What conservatives want hasn't changed all that much. They want government out of the healthcare business; they want minimal environmental regulation; and they want to keep taxes low. What has changed has been purely tactical. In the early 90s it seemed likely that Democrats could push through single-payer healthcare and a command-and-control solution to acid rain. Republicans felt like they had to have competing solutions, so they offered something a step to the right. Likewise, the 1990 tax bill was merely a compromise that Bush felt pushed into, not conservative dogma of the era. Far from it, in fact: conservatives were opposed to the deal from the start, and Bush himself repudiated it shortly after it was signed into law.

The individual mandate and cap-and-trade may have originally been "Republican" ideas in some technical sense, but they were adopted under duress. They never truly represented things that Republicans supported. The same was true of the Bush tax hike, which even at the time conservatives viewed as the work of an apostate. So it's only natural that they haven't supported any of these things under the Obama adminstration. They never really did, after all, and this time around they felt that flat-out opposition was politically feasible. So that's what we got.

That said, it's true that the GOP has moved considerably to the right over the past couple of decades. Today's crowd wouldn't vote for these things even as a disagreeable but unavoidable compromise. As Joe Klein says:

The Republican party has [...] gone off the deep end on taxes. It has denied the long-term economic and societal benefits of universal health insurance. It has gone into climate change denial...it is hard for any card-carrying Republican to say: I believe that Darwinian evolution is God’s plan.

....A hundred years from now, historians will be having a field day: How did the Republicans go so far astray? Why did it work, from time to time, electorally? Why weren’t the Democrats more effective in stopping them? Why didn’t the society’s major conservative economic stakeholders (outside the uber-reactionary Oil Patch) renounce the sideshow and demand a more reasonable brand of conservatism?

Two words immediately come to mind: Fox News. And two more words: Rush Limbaugh. And two more words: Newt Gingrich. And two more: Frank Luntz.

This is unquestionably true, and it's obviously worth trying to figure out why this rightward shift happened and how it's retained so much public support. But I still don't think it's fair to say that government-mandated health insurance, cap-and-trade, or tax hikes were truly Republican policies 20 years ago. They were merely things they felt compelled to offer as compromises to stave off even worse liberal ideas — the same way that I compromised by supporting Obama's healthcare plan last year. If I get the chance, I'll support full-fledged single-payer healthcare 20 years from now, and it won't be because I've gotten more politically radical. It'll be because I think it's politically feasible.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Skin in the Game, Continued

| Tue Apr. 26, 2011 7:05 PM EDT

The "skin in the game" theory of healthcare says that if people have to pay for medical services out of their own pocket, they'll be more careful about what they do and don't need, and this will drive down healthcare costs. A Rand study several decades ago suggested there was something to this, but there hasn't been much rigorous research beyond that. It's just too expensive to do it properly.

But another way to look at this question, if a multi-million dollar study is beyond your means, is with international comparisons. Some countries require more out-of-pocket copays than others, and if the skin-in-the-game theory is right, countries with higher average copays ought to have lower overall healthcare costs. Aaron Carroll took a look at this a few days ago, but he began by comparing raw out-of-pocket costs, which isn't really fair since it doesn't account for different living standards. A thousand dollars for an American might be less burdensome than $700 to a Spaniard, after all.

So how about looking at out-of-pocket spending as a share of GDP? That's not really right either. We want to know if out-of-pocket costs are an incentive to consume medical care more carefully, and for that we need to look at actual dollars, not percentages of GDP, since it's actual dollars that motivate people.

Our best bet, then, would be to look at actual dollar out-of-pocket costs as a percent of average income. So I emailed Aaron and asked him if he'd modify his latest chart to show this. And since we're all part of the same great healthcare chartmaking conspiracy, he womped up a nice bar chart right away. Here it is for most of the world's rich countries:

There's not a lot of correlation here. Switzerland and the U.S. both have pretty high out-of pocket costs but also have high overall healthcare expenditures. Norway and Luxembourg both have low out-of-pocket costs and high overall expenditures. Others are somewhere in between.

Roughly speaking, then, it doesn't seem like having more skin in the game translates to lower healthcare expenditures. The U.S. in particular already has pretty high out-of-pocket costs, and that hasn't stopped us from having by far the highest healthcare expenditures per person in the world. There's not much evidence that increasing out-of-pocket costs even more would bring down those expenditures, and that's without even considering the possible adverse long-term effects (namely that high out-of-pocket costs might induce people to avoid preventive care that reduces healthcare expenditures in the long run).

Different countries have different cultures and different ways of allocating costs, so a simple chart like this will never be definitive. Still, the only real evidence that high copays produce lower healthcare expenditures is that one Rand study, and it's getting kind of long in the tooth. (It was also a short-term study, had fairly low maximums, and investigated the healthcare world of the 70s, which is quite different from today's.) Done properly, making people pay more for healthcare might be a good idea, but the international evidence doesn't do much to support the notion that it would have a huge impact.

Andy Kroll on MSNBC: The Right-Wing Network Behind the War on Unions

Tue Apr. 26, 2011 6:28 PM EDT

Andy Kroll appeared on MSNBC's The Ed Show to discuss his recent reporting on the network of right-wing think tanks dedicated to dismantling organized labor at the state level. 

Andy Kroll is a reporter at Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here. Email him with tips and insights at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter here. Get Andy Kroll's RSS feed.

Testing For Thee, But Not For Me

| Tue Apr. 26, 2011 4:37 PM EDT

Via Matt Yglesias, here is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's latest brainstorm:

Walker is proposing expanding the voucher program that currently is only available to low-income students in Milwaukee. He wants to expand the program to all of Milwaukee County and phase out the low-income qualifying ceiling. He also wants to do away with a requirement that voucher students take the same statewide achievement tests as students in public schools.

Why does Walker want to do away with the requirement that students in tax-supported voucher schools take the same tests as students in tax-supported public schools? That's easily explained. This is from four weeks ago:

Students in Milwaukee's school choice program performed worse than or about the same as students in Milwaukee Public Schools in math and reading on the latest statewide test, according to results released Tuesday that provided the first apples-to-apples achievement comparison between public and individual voucher schools.

MPS results overall showed 59% of students scoring proficient or better in reading, while 47.8% of students scored proficient or better in math. In the voucher program, 55.2% of students scored proficient or better in reading while 34.4% of students scored proficient or better in math.

Unfortunately for voucher fans, when kids all take the same test it's way too obvious that voucher schools don't really outperform traditional schools. Nor do they outperform schools in poor neighborhoods (that's the blue line in the chart). At best, they perform about the same, and at worst they perform more poorly. Not only does this undermine the case for vouchers, but it also undermines the case that, for example, it's the troglodyte teachers unions that are holding back Wisconsin's kids. That can hardly be tolerated, so the best bet is to simply not allow comparisons to be made in the first place.

On an unrelated note, this chart is a good example of the great middle school collapse that bedevils education reform. As you can see, test scores are mostly stable all the way through elementary school and, in some case, through eighth grade. Then they crash. By tenth grade, whatever gains they've made in previous grades are largely gone, and that's especially true in the urban Milwaukee district. Until we figure out what's going on here, ed reform is going to continue to founder. It's nice to have lots of high-performing sixth-graders, but the only thing that really matters is how these kids turn out in the end. So far, the answer is: not so hot.

Louisiana's "Feticide" Bill

| Tue Apr. 26, 2011 3:39 PM EDT

I have a new story up today on a bill in Louisiana that would ban all abortions in the state and allow for abortion providers and women who obtain abortions to be charged with "feticide," a felony carrying a prison term of up to 15 years. John LaBruzzo (R), the Louisiana state representative behind the bill, claims that the inclusion of the line stipulating that women could be prosecuted for obtaining abortions was an accidental "mis-draft."

The current text of the bill is pretty explicit, though: "Feticide is the killing of an unborn child by the act, procurement, or culpable omission of a person, including the mother of the unborn child." In LaBruzzo's proposal, the word "including" replaces the words "other than," which appear in curent Louisiana law—a small change that completely alters the meaning of the provision.

It's pretty hard to believe this language was changed accidentially. I believe the real reason LaBruzzo now plans to remove it was not that it was a "mis-draft," but simply that, as LaBruzzo told the local news, including such a provision "would make [the law] too difficult to pass." He acknowledges the fact that most people—no matter how anti-abortion they are—don't actually think that a woman should be put in jail for up to 15 years, with hard labor, for obtaining an abortion.

Even if LaBruzzo removes the language on charging women with "feticide," the legislation should still raise questions about how exactly anti-abortion lawmakers think the state should deal with women who violated the law. Someone should ask him, then, what he does think the punishment should be. I tried to, but he didn't respond to my inquiries.

Writing about Louisiana's proposed law reminded me of a video of abortion protestors in Libertyville, Illinois. In it, a cameraman from At Center Network asks the protestors the seemingly simple question: If you think abortion should be illegal, how should violators be punished? It quickly becomes clear that many of the demonstrators haven't really thought that question through to its logical conclusion.

The Future of Abortion?

| Tue Apr. 26, 2011 1:36 PM EDT

Anti-abortion groups have been busily working to push the envelope of anti-abortion law for decades, and lately they've decided to stop pushing and just shred the envelope to pieces instead. For example, Kate Sheppard reports that a Louisiana lawmaker flat out wants to make abortion illegal in his state:

State Rep. John LaBruzzo, a Republican from Metairie, has introduced a bill that would ban all abortions in his state—with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother—and charge women who seek abortions and the doctors who perform those abortions with "feticide."

Louisiana state law calls for jail sentences of up 15 years, with hard labor, for the unlawful killing an unborn child. LaBruzzo told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the inclusion of the line subjecting women to "feticide" prosecution for seeking abortions was a "mis-draft," and including it "would make [the bill] too difficult to pass." He promised the provision will be removed from the bill before it goes to a committee vote.

There is, of course, no logical reason why women who get abortions shouldn't be prosecuted for feticide if abortion really is murder. And they probably will be, too, if Roe v. Wade ever gets overturned, as LaBruzzo and his allies hope. After all, LaBruzzo has merely said a little more bluntly what lots of other anti-abortion have previously said more circumspectly: the only reason to exempt women from prosecution is that it would be hard to pass a bill that didn't. It's not that they don't think these women are murderers who ought to be in prison. They do. They just don't quite have the votes to make that stick yet.

But there's not much question that this is where they'd like to go. And if Anthony Kennedy ever decides that maybe Roe is bad law after all, at least a few states will end up doing what LaBruzzo wishes he could do right now.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Was That a Gay Soldier in That Beer Commercial? (Video)

| Tue Apr. 26, 2011 1:05 PM EDT

Today, the military. Tomorrow, the gameday beer commercials. Michael Jensen of the gay blog After Elton drew our attention to this new Budweiser ad, which hits all the usual signposts—America-lovin', soldier-celebratin', barn parties, checked tablecloths, frosty brews—but adds an ambiguous chemistry between the homeward-bound overseas vet and his guy friend. Says Jensen:

So the first person our soldier calls is this other guy. Let's call him PB for Potential Boyfriend. Clearly the soldier isn't married or in a serious relationship with the girl we later see him hugging. Otherwise he surely would've called her first. So the possibilities are that either that PB is a best friend or ... a boyfriend. Hmm, would a soldier coming home really call his best friend before his parents?

If PB is his brother, the brother clearly doesn't live at home as we see the soldier also call his parents, while PB is driving away from his house to start getting the party ready. And PB sure seems to be much of the focus of the commercial as he prepares for the party. And then who is the first person to greet and hug our soldier? It's PB of course. And it's a fairly intense hug.

So is the commercially intentionally gay or not? Well, only Budweiser knows for sure, but if you substituted a woman for PB, it would read pretty much exactly like a heterosexual relationship. And while it's possible that an ad could inadvertently ready gay, Budweiser has a pretty slick advertising arm so that at least seems somewhat unlikely.

A spirited comment debate thus ensued on After Elton, as well as Bilerico. What do you think? Check out the video below and give us your opinion. I tend to agree with Jensen: Budweiser doesn't launch an ad without a lot of corporate handwringing, so the ambiguities—and their multiple readings—are likely intentional. But there's a more important point here.

As we've reported before, aside from a couple of outspoken right-wing haters, the country's shown a fairly rapid move to (finally) extend equal rights to gays and lesbians. Even the hidebound armed services have gotten into the spirit, putting the final nails in Don't Ask, Don't Tell's coffin. But, frankly, when we can posit even the ambiguous possibility of a gay-soldier relationship as a selling-point for domestic beer in the corporate-sponsored interlude between possessions in a Bears-Packers game, we've turned a corner culturally (and economically).

Having said that, though, I'm not sure it's going to help Budweiser sales with the gays. You'd like to think most people, regardless of their orientation, would opt for a beer that doesn't taste like chilled Clydesdale sweat.

The Roots of White Rage

| Tue Apr. 26, 2011 12:22 PM EDT

Is tea party hostility toward Barack Obama racially motivated? Some of it probably is, but this is a famously difficult and fraught question to answer. So let's ask instead: regardless of how much racial animus the conservative base harbored toward Obama in the first place, are leading conservatives eager to fan those racial flames for whatever benefit they can get from them? As Paul Waldman points out today, that question is a lot easier to answer. First, here's Rush Limbaugh on Obama:

What is obvious to me is that this guy harbors a deep resentment about all this rather than an appreciation, and this chip on his shoulder, which got a lot more on it than just this story, there's a racial component as you know, and other elements. Now he sees a need to get even with this country, or this country needs to be gotten even with itself.

This is a common trope on the right: Obama is angry at white people, anti-colonialism is at the core of that anger, and for that reason he hates America too. Here's Paul:

When Limbaugh says Obama's resentment is about race "as you know," his audience certainly does know, because they've heard it hundreds of times. I think most liberals are unaware that this message gets pounded home to white conservatives day after day, and has been since 2008. This is how something like health care reform can be fit so seamlessly into the culture war: it's big government, and that can only mean taking money from hardworking white people and giving it to undeserving, shiftless black people. That's why Limbaugh so often refers to health care reform as "reparations" — Obama, angry black man that he is, enacted it to stick it to white people in vengeance for slavery and discrimination.

Liberals look at Obama and see someone who is overly conciliatory, forever reaching out to opponents who despise him and giving up more than he should. But we shouldn't forget that a substantial portion of the population is constantly steeped in this racial poison. Nothing the president or anyone else says or does will change that.

This is why last summer's Fox-fest of xenophobia — Shirley Sherrod, the Ground Zero mosque, the New Black Panthers, anchor babies, liberation theology, etc. etc. — was so effective. It's also why all the birther nonsense is so powerful. Without the constant drumbeat of racially charged crap from the likes of Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Dinesh D'Souza, it might just be a fringe curiosity. But with it, it gets a patina of intellectual support that turns it into a dangerous and mainstream belief.

Everybody involved in this pretends to be outraged if you point out what they're doing. But anyone with a pulse can see what's going on. And guess what? Summer is coming! There's no midterm election in the offing, so maybe Fox News will decide to cool it on the xenophobia front this year. But then again, maybe not. Nobody on the right really called them out on this last year, and there doesn't seem to be any real limit to their shamelessness. So maybe they'll try it again. It seems to be pretty good for ratings, after all.

And Now, the Case Against a Carbon Tax

| Tue Apr. 26, 2011 11:28 AM EDT

Speaking of carbon taxes, the best argument against them probably has nothing to do with either global warming or tax policy. The best argument is: why bother? The simple form of this argument is that world production of oil is near its peak and can increase only slowly in future years. However, demand is going to stay high, especially in developing countries, and this is going to cause the price of oil to skyrocket. Or, more likely, to yo-yo up and down as oil-induced recessions give way to economic growth, which in turn raise oil prices and cause another recession, rinse and repeat. If that by itself isn't enough to spur lots of research into alternative energy sources, then a carbon tax isn't likely to make much of a difference.

For a more sophisticated and analytical form of this argument, Stuart Staniford has you covered today. His conclusion after crunching some numbers:

I think the IMF's growth projections [4% global growth per year -ed.] are seriously improbable. What is going to happen instead is that people will keep trying to grow without getting much more oil efficient, that won't work, oil prices will go through the roof, another global recession, or at least a major slowdown, will ensue, and then people will begin in earnest the work of starting to transition away from oil dependence.

I can't tell you the timing precisely. It could easily be this year, it could be next. It's even possible that some other global crisis will intervene first (like the credit crash of 2008 did). But I will say categorically that there's no way we are going to get through 2016, as the IMF projects, with business-as-usual economic growth.

This seems roughly correct to me. I think a carbon tax is a good idea anyway, since it provides revenue, helps spur research in rich countries, and might even smooth out the economic bumps a little bit. Still, if you buy this view of global petro-economics, it probably makes about the best case possible for not bothering.

UPDATE: Ryan Avent points out via Twitter that oil isn't the only source of carbon emissions, and fossil fuels like coal and natural gas are less susceptible to the boom-and-bust cycle that's likely to dominate oil in the future. So even if a carbon tax didn't have much influence on global oil consumption, it might have an effect on coal and natural gas consumption.

That's all true, and it's one reason I support a carbon tax even if we really are near peak production of oil. Bottom line: I don't think the boom-bust argument is a good case against a carbon tax, just the best case you can make.

Sen. Jim DeMint's Push to Unseat Sherrod Brown

| Tue Apr. 26, 2011 11:26 AM EDT

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC)—who raised millions for right-wing candidates in 2010—has found his latest target: fellow Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who's up for re-election in 2012. In a fundraising solicitation, DeMint slammed Brown for being "the Most Liberal Senator" in Congress and vowed to help defeat him in 2012. DeMint detailed Brown's sins in an email sent through right-wing website Townhall.com:

He recently made national headlines when he compared those of us who oppose unchecked union power to Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin…


There is no bigger supporter in the U.S. Senate of big-government spending, bailouts, and debt than Sherrod Brown. 

Thankfully he's up for re-election next year and freedom-loving Americans across the nation have a chance to end his assault on our liberties. 

Brown, a first-term Senator, certainly isn’t taking his re-election for granted: in the first three months of 2011, he raised $1.3 million and made appearances last week with Vice President Joe Biden back in Ohio. Polling has shown him leading potential Republican opponents by only a small margin.

No one's entered the race officially as of yet, but at least one prominent possible challenger has emerged in recent days: Ken Blackwell, Ohio's former secretary of state and a 2006 candidate for governor—a staunch conservative who's on the board of the National Rifle Association. Ohio voters ushered in conservative Republicans like Gov. John Kasich just last year, and the GOP seems to be betting the same will hold true in 2012.