2011 - %3, August

¿Sí Se Puede? Illinois Dream Act Passes

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 5:17 PM EDT

When Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Illinois Dream Act into law today, the Prairie State became the second state in a week to try to bring some financial relief to undocumented college students. Like California Assembly Bill 130, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last Monday, the Illinois Dream Act deals with scholarship money. Under the new law, named after the all-but-dead federal DREAM Act, the state will put together a committee to establish private grants for immigrant students who attended at least three years of high school in Illinois and also received their diplomas.

At the signing, which took place at Benito Juarez High School in Chicago's largely Latino Pilsen neighborhood, Quinn stuck to the basics of the debate, framing the bill as a question of access. "All children have the right to a first-class education," he said. "The Illinois Dream Act creates more opportunities for the children of immigrants to achieve a fulfilling career, brighter future, and better life through higher education." 

Even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—who once called immigration "the third rail of American politics" and was considered an obstacle to immigration reform during his tenure as White House chief of staff—got behind the legislation. "Immigrants are a driving force in our city's cultural and economic life, and opening the way for all Chicago students to earn an excellent higher education will make our city even stronger," he said in a press release. "I am proud that families and students across Illinois will now have a better shot at the American dream—which starts with a great education."

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The Bars Go Up, Spending Goes Down

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 4:27 PM EDT

This chart has been making the rounds today. It's from Cato's Chris Edwards, who's pretty unhappy about the proposed spending cap in the debt ceiling deal:

Wait a minute, those bars are rising! Spending isn’t being cut at all. The “cuts” in the deal are only cuts from the CBO “baseline,” which is a Washington construct of ever-rising spending....No program or agency terminations are identified in the deal. None of the vast armada of federal subsidies are targeted for elimination. Old folks will continue to gorge themselves on inflated benefits paid for by young families and future generations.

Well, yeah, I guess that's right. The plan doesn't eliminate either the Education Department or Social Security. Still, just do a bit of arithmetic on those spending levels: they amount to an increase of 1.9% per year. That's almost certainly well below the future rate of inflation and population growth. If we actually stick to these caps, they represent a steady and consistent decrease in real per-capita spending, and that's the only fair way to look at it.

Per my last post, I suppose I should be gleefully reprinting this chart and agreeing with Edwards that the tea party got rolled on this deal. But I guess I don't have it in me. Looked at honestly, this represents a decrease in spending. It just does.

(But will these caps actually hold together in future years? Who knows. That's a fairer criticism, though I don't really know what more you could do to enforce them than the deal already does.)

Using the Debt Deal to Split the GOP

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 3:46 PM EDT

Republicans have done a great job over the past two years of tearing the Democratic Party apart. Their posture of relentless obstruction has pushed President Obama to compromise even more than he wanted to,1 and the logic of politics says that any bill that passes, regardless of how it turns out, should be embraced as a legislative triumph. The resulting combination of compromise and the glorification of compromise has seriously alienated the progressive wing of the party2 and provoked open warfare within the liberal base. Good job, Republicans!

So what would be the best strategic response of liberals to the debt ceiling deal? It's really pretty obvious: we should be singing its praises; we should be gleefully pointing out that its spending cuts are heavily backloaded and might never happen — and that lots of them are sort of imaginary anyway; we should be dancing in the streets over the heavy focus on defense cuts; and we should be crowing about how this deal makes expiration of the Bush tax cuts all but inevitable. In short, we should be applauding the way the tea party got rolled yet again by its own leaders.

Is this stuff all true? Not really. Or not entirely, anyway, though all of these items have a germ of truth to them. But focusing on these points would help to incite open warfare in the Republican Party, which is pretty close to it already. This would be great for liberals and well deserved by conservatives.

But we won't do it. Hell, I haven't done it. It might be a terrific strategy, but we're not really constitutionally cut out to do this kind of thing. That's kinda too bad. It would fun once in a while to give conservatives a dose of their own medicine.

1I'll get questions about this, so let's get concrete about it. If Obama had had more votes available to him, I believe he would have supported a stronger healthcare bill that included a public option; he would have supported a second stimulus; and he would have supported passage of a cap-and-trade bill. He wouldn't have supported a stronger financial regulation bill and he wouldn't have changed his national security/civil liberties posture (though I do think he would have shut down Guantanamo if he could have). If this is how things had gone down, he'd still have critics on the left, but in general liberals would be far, far more united behind him.

2And, yes, Obama has made it even worse by his obvious eagerness to disown his own base. But I think the nearly unanimous Republican obstruction to his agenda has been a much bigger factor.

Free Birth Control! Hells. Yeah.

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 2:50 PM EDT

This is a momentous day. Today the Department of Health and Human Services announced that they will be following the Institute of Medicine's recommendations and require new health insurance plans to cover services like breastfeeding support, HIV counseling, and FDA-approved contraception for no cost to the consumer. That's right. Instead of paying $50 a month for birth control, or even more for sterilization, women could instead pay nothing out-of-pocket.

Those savings could really add up: a rough estimate by GOOD showed that even with insurance, a woman can spend around $40 per gestational diabetes screening, $20 per HPV test, $50 per HIV screening, $670 for breast-feeding supplies, $40 for each pelvic exam, $15-$50 per month of birth control, and $200 for domestic violence screening and counseling. Considering many of these expenses must be repeated, especially birth control, it can add up to a sizable amount. All these services would be provided with no co-pay under the new guidelines.

The new law has a few limitations. Women may have to pay more for brand-name birth control if a generic exists. Only new plans must include these services, and they don't have to start until on or after August 1, 2012. In addition, a possible amendment would exempt churches and religious institutions from covering the preventative services under insurance provided to their employees.

Although most of the services that must be covered seem pretty non-controversial, there is the inevitable hand-wringing by conservatives. The part that has them most in arms seems to be that the new guidelines would mandate insurance companies provide emergency contraception like Plan B for no cost. This article from LifeSiteNews, for example, says that "insurance plans will be required to cover contraceptives, which include abortion drugs such as Plan B and Ella, as well as elective sterilizations."* The director of Human Life International is quoted as saying the ruling equates pregnancy with a disease and "that children are an enemy of the health and well-being of women." Elsewhere, a Family Research Council director has told the media that "The new rule will force many Americans to violate their consciences or refrain from participating in health care insurance, further burdening an already costly system."

Although some conservative organizations are displeased with the rulings, studies show that providing birth control for free can reduce abortions and unplanned pregnancies. Currently, around half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned, and 40% of those unplanned pregnancies end in abortion. Unplanned pregnancies cost the US around $10 to $12 billion a year. Although some are concerned insurance companies will pass on the cost of the services to subscribers, even though some plans already cover things like STD testing and annual pelvic exams, in the long run the preventative services covered are expected to reduce health care costs by preventing unplanned pregnancies and diagnosing cancers earlier.

 

*As it's been said many times before, Plan B does not cause abortions. It prevents conception but does not terminate existing pregnancies. The FDA classifies Plan B as a contraceptive. RU-486 will not be covered under the new guidelines.

Poop in Your Water

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 1:45 PM EDT

In disgusting scientific findings news, recent studies in California and Wisconsin reveal that cracked city sewage pipes are leaking fecal matter. Teams of researchers at UC-Santa Barbara and the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee analyzed storm-drain water, which is supposed to come mainly from rain and lawns—sewage pipes are supposed to keep the yucky stuff out. But as lead researcher Sandra McLellan of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee told Science News, the team discovered that sewage bacteria was "nearly ubiquitous in the urban environment."

This is bad news for sensitive coastal ecosystems where storm drains often empty. But it's also possible that leaky sewer pipes could contaminate your drinking water, says one researcher:

Many drinking water mains, which are susceptible to corrosion and small breaks, have also been laid near sewer pipes. When water is squirting out under pressure from holes in those mains, germs can’t enter. But mains occasionally experience pressure drops, Edwards notes, which can momentarily cause germy material from the environment to get sucked in. Later, he notes, that filth will surge on toward home faucets.

Ewwww.

Patenting the Internet

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 1:29 PM EDT

A few minutes ago I promised myself that I'd link to the very next blog post in my RSS feed that had nothing to do with the debt ceiling. The winner is Will Wilkinson, who highly recommends a recent Planet Money program, "When Patents Attack," about how our patent system is strangling innovation in the tech sector:

Planet Money's programme explains everything better than I can, but the thrust of it is that it is next to impossible to offer a new technology or software-driven service without getting sued for patent infringement. For example, Spotify, an innovative, highly-praised music streaming and subscription service, became available in America just a couple weeks ago. It took until last week for [it to get sued for patent infringement by a company called PacketVideo].

....This is apparently a patent on streaming music over the internet. Naturally, you are familiar with PacketVideo's popular music streaming service. Oh, you're not? I guess that's because they don't offer one. So, Spotify is trying to make money offering a service that will make consumer's happy. (I'm using it right now. I think it's terrific.) PacketVideo is trying to make money doing what? Shaking down Spotify?

Actually, PacketVideo makes Twonky, so they really do have a product of their own. They also make money by licensing their technology to big industry players like Verizon and Nokia.

But how about their patent claim? Is it really a patent on the mere idea of streaming music over the internet? It's easy to say that when you're working up a righteous head of steam on a blog post, but I figured there had to be more to it. So I looked at the patent. And — well, take a look for yourself. Here's their "invention":

That really does seem to be about it. There are no specific algorithms involved and no specific implementations proposed. Basically, it appears to be a claim that covers any system in which music is compressed and encrypted by a server, shipped out over a network, and then decrypted and decompressed at a client. The patent claims seem to include pretty much any kind of server, any kind of storage device, any kind of compression, an extremely broad set of communications protocols, and pretty much any kind of remote device. If you're streaming music this way — and honestly, there's really no other way to do it — then PacketVideo says you're infringing their patent.

At least, that's how it reads to me. Neither the news stories nor the legal filing go into much detail about the precise nature of the infringement PacketVideo is claiming, and they don't appear to have sued all the other streaming music vendors in the world, so it's possible their claim is more specific. But my amateur reading suggests they really are claiming patent rights to the whole idea of streaming music from a server. And the fact that they waited to file suit until Spotify had entered the U.S. market suggests that their claim isn't valid anywhere else. Only in the U.S. do we allow a patent claim this broad.

Once again, I invite experts to weigh in. Maybe I'm misreading this. But the patent claim is short and not too hard to understand, and it sure looks preposterous to me. Anyone out there care to defend this?

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Why Aren't There More Muslim Terrorists?

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 1:14 PM EDT

Immediately after last month's terror attacks in Norway, Islamic extremism shot to the top of almost every list of suspected culprits. Among the soothsayers of creeping Shariah, there was never any doubt who was responsible. Others' more rational, if hasty, assessments of Norway's threat matrix pointed to the same (wrong) conclusion. For all their differences, both lines of reasoning shared a common assumption: that the sheer volume of Muslim terrorists out there made their involvement likely. Or as Stephen Colbert skewered the media's rush to judgment: "If you're pulling a news report completely out of your ass, it is safer to go with Muslim. That's not prejudice. That's probability."

Charles Kurzman begs to differ. In his new book, The Missing Martyrs, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill sociology professor rejects that Muslims are especially prone to violent extremism. "If there are more than a billion Muslims in the world, many of whom supposedly hate the West and desire martyrdom," he asks, "why don't we see terrorist attacks everywhere, every day?"

In theory, we should. After all, there's any number of ways a terrorist committed to murdering civilians could attack (and our gun lobby certainly isn't making weapons harder to get a hold of). But we don't. No Islamist terrorist attack besides 9/11 has killed more than 400 people; only a dozen have killed more than 200.

It's Public Opinion, Stupid

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 11:53 AM EDT

Jared Bernstein praises the president with faint damns:

If your conclusion is that Democrats got rolled because the President is a lousy negotiator, I disagree. Not on his negotiating skills…as someone said in comments, I wouldn’t want him in the auto showroom with me when I’m bargaining for a better price. I disagree that better negotiating skills would have made a big difference. The problem goes much deeper.

....If too many Americans don’t believe in or understand what government does to help them, to offset recessions, to protect their security in retirement and in hard times, to maintain the infrastructure, to provide educational opportunities and health care decent enough to offset the disadvantages so many are born with…if those functions are unknown, underfunded, and/or carried out poorly, why should they care about how much this deal or the next one cuts?

Those of us who do care about the above will not defeat those who strive to get rid of it all by becoming better tacticians. We will only find success when a majority of Americans agrees with us that government is something worth fighting for.

I think this is roughly correct. Public opinion is everything. Ronald Reagan was successful because public opinion supported him: he wanted to cut taxes and raise defense spending and so did big chunks of the public. He was leading in a direction that they already wanted to go.

But no matter how many times we try to kid ourselves with one poll result or another, liberals just don't have that advantage. The public is mostly in favor of raising taxes on the rich — though I suspect its support is pretty soft — but on the bigger issues they mostly aren't on our side. They think deficits are bad, they don't trust Keynesian economics, they don't want a higher IRS bill (who does, after all?), and they believe the federal government is spending too much on stuff they don't really understand. Conservatives have just flat out won this debate in recent decades, and until that changes we're not going to be able to make much progress.

This is why I blame the broad liberal community for our failures, not just President Obama. My biggest beef with Obama is the same one I had three years ago, namely that he's never really even tried to move public opinion in a specifically progressive direction. But that hardly even matters unless all the rest of us have laid the groundwork. And we haven't. Wonks, hacks, activists, all of us. We just haven't persuaded the public to support our vision of government. Until we do, the tea party tendency will always be more powerful than we are.

Did the Debt Deal Help Obama?

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 10:45 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias points to a poll suggesting that President Obama won the debt ceiling debate in the public's eye, but isn't sure it matters:

As longtime readers know, I’m pretty much an economic determinist about election outcomes, and think public perception of Barack Obama’s negotiating strategy during the summer of 2011 are largely irrelevant to his political future. But it’s important to emphasize that approximately zero percent of elected officials and approximately zero percent of professional political operatives agree with this. In practice, politicians and their staff act as if every public relations battle has dramatic electoral consequences. Under the circumstances, I think President Obama is largely driven by a desire to be perceived by the public as the more reasonable party and that he is succeeding in that effort.

I think this is one of those areas where you need to take political scienc-ey claims about elections with a grain of salt. Everyone agrees that the state of the economy has a big effect on presidential elections, but there are (at least) two big caveats. First, most models suggest that the economy accounts for perhaps two-thirds of the outcome. Obviously that's a lot, but most elections are fairly close and the remaining third can pretty easily be decisive.1 Second, these models implicitly assume that both sides are spending lots of money and maneuvering for advantage and doing all the other things that presidential campaigns do. The net effect is small, but only because both sides are doing it. If you take a fatalistic approach and skip all this stuff, you'll get eaten alive.

So this kind of maneuvering is probably more important than simple economic models suggest. Certainly Obama believes that. Every time I write about this stuff, Greg Sargent emails to remind me that we don't really have to guess why Obama has acted the way he has. We already know. Here's an Anne Kornblut piece from May in which Obama's advisers say that, yes, the economy has to improve, but:

The advisers are deeply concerned about winning back political independents, who supported Obama two years ago by an eight-point margin but backed Republicans for the House this year by 19 points. To do so, they think he must forge partnerships with Republicans on key issues and make noticeable progress on his oft-repeated campaign pledge to change the ways of Washington.

Right or wrong, that's what they believe. Like all Democratic presidents, who can depend on only a small progressive base, Obama believes he'll win only if he attracts lots of support from independents. And the only way to do that is with deals like the one he just cut. It's the kind of deal that appeals to independents and makes John Boehner and the Republican Party look extreme.

And it might work. Unfortunately, there's one problem with it: Obama won't be running against John Boehner. He won't really be running against the Republican Party either. He'll be running against a particular person. So the question is, has Obama won a PR victory against Mitt Romney? Or Rick Perry? That's a lot harder to figure out.

1That said, if the economy is bad enough then nothing else will matter — and right now it's looking pretty bad. If we continue slumping our way into 2012, Obama is going to have a very tough time being reelected unless Republicans go completely crazy and nominate someone like Michele Bachmann.

Evangelicals and Abortion Foes Dive Into Wisconsin Recalls

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 9:33 AM EDT

It's not only right-wing political groups, like the cash-flush, Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity that are deploying resources to help Republican state senators in Wisconsin prevail in their upcoming recall elections. The evangelical right is lending its muscle to the GOP to protect the six Republican lawmakers against their Democratic challengers.

As Washington Post's Greg Sargent reports, various pro-life and anti-gay rights groups are throwing cash and manpower at the Wisconsin recalls to prevent Democrats from seizing control of the state senate. (Democrats must net three seats this summer to gain the majority.) These aren't middling organizations, either: Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC), a national evangelical group, is deploying volunteers to the Badger State to support the besieged Republican senators. From a July 20 FFC blog post:

The Wisconsin Faith & Freedom Coalition will work to get out the vote the old fashion way, by talking with Wisconsin voters through burning up the shoe leather in door-to-door canvassing across key neighborhoods in senate districts from Milwaukee to Madison. Then, before Election Day on August 9th, we will initiate a full-scale get-out-the-vote phone bank operation to make sure every last pro-freedom and pro-family voter goes to vote on behalf of our values.

Wisconsin Faith & Freedom Chairman, Tony Nasvik, has worked to organize this effort and has said, “General Patton’s rapid advance across the deserts of North Africa or the open fields of Eastern France were not possible without reinforcements. The recall spectacle in Wisconsin is nearing its conclusion in this all-out battle for the State Senate. This recall has been a pitched fight between the public (and in some cases private) unions from all over the country, while most of the ground campaign on the conservative side has been locally supported."

Here's more on the right-wing mobilization from Sargent:

Susan Armacost, the legislative director for Wisconsin Right to Life, tells me that the group is involved in the recall wars because Planned Parenthood is active, too—and said that keeping the state senate in GOP hands would be better for the anti-abortion cause.

That’s because anti-abortion forces in Wisconsin are pushing the state to opt out of Federally funded abortions as part of the exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act. The group is also pushing a state-level measure that would more strictly regulate abortion.

National groups are involved, too. Here is a flyer—sent over by the labor-backed We Are Wisconsin—that’s being distributed by Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, urging a vote against Fred Clark, the Dem recall challenger to vulnerable GOP state senator Luther Olsen:

The remaining recall elections in Wisconsin—targeting six GOP incumbents on August 9 and two Democratic incumbents a week later—are quickly shaping up to be a national political battle. Barring a recall of Republican Governor Scott Walker, they're the final chapter in this year's tempestuous battle over union rights in Wisconsin. Walker's budget bill may have prevailed, but Democrats could have the last word if they reclaim the senate and throw a wrench into Walker's future legislative plans.