The Baucus Bait and Switch

Earlier today I looked at health care co-ops—which the Senate Finance Committee includes in its draft health care bill instead of a public plan—and explained why they're a poor substitute for a true public option. Independent filmmaker Lee Stranahan spotted the post and made this video zeroing in on committee chair Sen. Max Baucus's bait and switch on the public plan. Check it out here.

Friday Cat Blogging - 19 June 2009

On the left, Inkblot looks like a subject in a Rembrandt still life.  Or so he thinks.  On the right, Domino is getting a bellyful of afternoon sun.  No problems with body image for Domino!  Enjoy your weekend, everybody.

"Wife Camp" for Canadian Girls

Can your ten-year-old daughter talk to diplomats? Hold her own at a cocktail party? Put guests at ease with her easy charm and natural grace?

No?

Sounds like someone is in dire need of manners camp. Macleans ran a story yesterday about a new two-week etiquette camp for ten- to 14-year-old girls in Montreal. The program description from the camp's website:

A unique program designed to offer your child a memorable summer while they develop confidence, social charm and grace, a sense of style and refinement. Participants will learn an array of skills from social etiquette, personal presentation skills, personal grooming and care, choice and co-ordination of attire, reception planning and hosting, to singing and dancing, Students will also be introduced to selected disciplines of music and fine arts (such as painting, and piano). At the end of the event, participants will host a cocktail reception for their parents to celebrate the results of their efforts in a real-life setting.

Understandably, feminists are fuming. (A sociologist interviewed by Macleans quipped, “It might as well be called Wife Camp! Is Betty Draper happy on Mad Men? No! She’s miserable!”)

But camps like this one are nothing new. A Google search for "etiquette camp" turns up a bunch of results, my favorite of which is the Courtesy for Kids camp offered by the North Carolina-based Pinky Toes Party Palace, which includes the ominously named lesson "Eat, Drink, and Be Wary."

But what makes the Montreal one particularly troubling—to me, at least—is the arts thing. Manners, poise, personal presentation—not my idea of summer fun, but all sort of useful skills, I guess. But what, then, are we to make of the painting, piano, and singing components? A Jane-Austen-ish arts-as-party-tricks line of reasoning? Ugh.

The good news: If manners camp isn't your kid's thing, take heart. If she has a special interest, be it Scientology or Ted Nugent, rest assured there's a camp out there for her.

Yet More VAT

A couple of days ago the New York Times reported that House Democrats were considering a VAT (a tax similar to a national sales tax) as a partial funding source for national healthcare.  Today AP reports this again.  Jon Cohn is pleased.  Ezra Klein isn't.

I continue to think this isn't a serious possibility.  The VAT is just one of half a dozen potential revenue sources that Ways & Means is considering, and in the end my guess is that the others are far more likely to be approved than a VAT.  But I'm happy to see this on the table anyway.  One of these days I think we're going to need a VAT as a funding source for healthcare, but it's not going to happen until the ground has been prepared and it morphs from being viewed as an outré piece of European socialism to being just an ordinary and familiar option to argue over.  It's an Overton window kind of thing, and the sooner it gets started the better.

Bruce Bartlett has more on the VAT here and here.  I've written about it here. Properly constructed, it's transparent, reasonably progressive, able to raise significant sums, and economically efficient.  It's worth trying to give it a higher profile.

This Week in Frog: An Awesome Frogumentary

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the California Academy of Sciences weekly nightlife gathering. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that at the event was a special screening of a documentary film titled Frogs: The Thin Green Line.

Whereas I thought that human development was the only major problem causing frogs' rapid worldwide decline, the film made me aware of the many other threats facing frogs, their critical importance in the food chain, and steps that humans are taking to prevent further extinction of frog populations.

Fortunately, even if you missed the documentary on the big screen, you can watch it in its entirety online (click here!).

Sidenote: Our Mother Jones office frog, Mudraker, is doing very well. He spends his days in and around his castle and he is most active in the evenings. Also, all 7 of our fish are still alive and the community is thriving.

Slavery Apology: A Sign of Strength

The U.S. Senate voted unanimously yesterday to apologize for U.S. slavery and the Jim Crow laws that followed. Upon first reaction, this seemed to me like "too little too late." The resolution, following a similar vote in the House last year, seemed especially insignificant because it did not include reparations for slaves' descendents. But as The Root, an online magazine providing "news from a variety of black perspectives" notes, the apology is "better way, way, way late than never."

It turns out the United States government has a history of apologizing to ethnic minorities for their systematic opression. Below are some of the top examples:

  • In 1988, President Reagan signed an Act apologizing to Japanese Americans interned in work camps during World War II. The Act promised $20,000 to each of the 60,000 detainees still living.
  • In 1997, President Clinton apologized to the African American community for the Tuskegee Experiment, which put African Americans at risk of often dangerous treatments for syphilis. "We cannot be one America when a whole segment of our nation has no trust in America," he said.
  • In 1998, Clinton traveled to Uganda and acknowledged the evils of slavery, but stopped short of offering a formal apology.
  • In 2005, the House voted to apologize to America's native population "for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect" inflicted against them by the United States.
  • Speaking at the Summit of the Americas in April 2009, President Obama acknowledged that the United States has a troubling past relationship with The Americas." The United States will be willing to acknowledge past errors where those errors have been made," he said.

Considering some of our worst actions, apologies seem futile, but their symbolic function is actually quite important to the affected communities. Still, Obama's foes in the GOP have been quick to criticize him as an apologist. Instead of acting as the party of "no apologies," though, the GOP should let President Obama actively try to restore the United States' image in the world by apologizing for its most flagrant past mistakes.

Obama's Temperament

Jacob Heilbrunn praises Obama's reaction to the Iranian election crisis:

Clearly Obama was caught flatfooted by the protests. But he does seem to be carefully ratcheting up his criticisms of the mullahs. In a Tuesday interview with CNBC, Obama said that when, "you've got 100,000 people who are out on the streets peacefully protesting, and they're having to be scattered through violence and gunshots, what that tells me is the Iranian people are not convinced of the legitimacy of the election. And my hope is that the regime respond not with violence, but with a recognition that the universal principles of peaceful expression and democracy are ones that should be affirmed."

....The truth is that the impressive thing has been how well Obama has handled the crisis....Obama's basic approach has been to follow the foreign policy equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath: "First, do no harm." Imagine the obloquy that would greet Obama if he were to champion the demonstrators and help to create a bloodbath, as Radio Free Europe did during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, when it encouraged Hungarians to revolt by assuring them that they had backing of the West, which they didn't. So far, Obama has shrewdly hewed to a middle course that allows him some flexibility in dealing with Iran.

This, of course, is Obama's basic modus operandi for everything.  He doesn't feel like he has to react immediately to every provocation.  When he does, his responses are usually measured and sober.  He looks for middle ground.  He's willing to wait for the right time to push the boundaries a little further in the direction of his choosing.

This is sometimes intensely frustrating.  The gay community, for example, is up in arms over his lack of action on issues like DOMA and DADT.  But there shouldn't be any surprise about that.  It was obvious throughout the entire campaign season that this is how he works.  He'll let the military stew over DADT for a while until they basically ask him to change it, rather than the other way around.  It might take longer, but he figures — probably correctly — that the end result will be better for everyone.  Ditto for DOMA, which doesn't yet have the votes in Congress for repeal.

And ditto for lots of other stuff.  He's shown a disturbing willingness to compromise on financial regulation and healthcare.  He hasn't engaged much with the Waxman-Markey climate bill as it slowly gets watered down into nothing.  He's a cautious guy who doesn't take a lot of chances unless he feels some real pressure to do so.  Paradoxically, this is exactly what I expected from him but I find myself disappointed anyway.  A little bit more fire in the belly would be welcome.

But he is who he is, and the same instincts that disappoint us on some issues serve him well on others. So far, anyway. The next few months — possibly the next few days in Iran — will tell us just how much real hope and change Obama's temperament produces when the rubber finally hits the road.

Regulating Risk

I'm not really sure if the federal government needs a "systemic risk regulator."  I just don't have a strong opinion about whether this is the right way to think about managing credit bubbles.  But a couple of days ago I said that if we do have such a thing, it shouldn't be the Fed.  Instead, "you want to give the authority to an agency that's institutionally dedicated to reducing risk and considers it a primary task.  That ain't the Fed.  It's just going to get buried in the bureaucracy and forgotten there."  Tyler Cowen responds:

Assuming we are going to do it, I think it has to be the Fed, whether we like it or not.  It's the Fed who is the fireman with the awesome power to print money, move markets, lend to the banking system on a large scale, and now even conduct fiscal policy, all without Congressional approval.  Our textbooks speak of the Fed as a lender of last resort but very often it is the lender of first resort too.

Now, this might be right.  It's possible that we just don't have any choice.  But at the risk of a bit of incoherence, let me offer an alternative.

It's true that the Fed is the agency with the brute force to make things happen in an emergency.  But I'm not sure that's the relevant thing to think about.  What we want is some kind of body that works to prevent emergencies.  That requires credibility and influence, but it doesn't necessarily require a trillion dollar balance sheet.

I guess the model I have in mind here is the Congressional Budget Office.  The CBO is unknown to most people, but despite its small size and low public profile it has a remarkable amount of power.  This power comes from two sources.  First, it has institutional credibility.  I honestly don't know how it's managed to keep this credibility in the face of what must be enormous partisan pressure, but it has.  It's widely considered an honest broker and its budget estimates are taken seriously by everyone.

Second, although the CBO itself doesn't have a huge staff or control of a huge budget, Congress has agreed to abide by its cost estimates for legislative programs.  This means that CBO analysts have considerable indirect control over a lot of money.  And in Washington, money equals power.

So my question is: could we create an agency like the CBO, but charged with monitoring systemic risk in the financial system?  It would have to be nonpartisan and independent.  It would need to have risk management baked into its DNA as its primary mission, rather than being #7 on a list of ten goals — with everyone knowing that only the top three get any real attention anyway.  Its director would need the kind of credibility that makes people listen when he warns that other agencies are allowing too much giddiness on Wall Street.  And, finally, it would need the right mix of authority, either direct or indirect, that's enough to force people to take it seriously when its mere credibility isn't quite enough.

But here's the incoherent part: I'm not quite sure how you'd construct such an agency or what authority might be sufficient for it to do its job without getting it hopelessly at odds with other regulatory agencies.  One way or another, though, I feel that giving this mission to the Fed is simply a waste of time.  Right now, virtually every impulse — both at the Fed and in the private sector — works in the direction of either ignoring credit bubbles or actively cheering them on.  If we're going to put a brake on this, we need to think about institutional priorities and balances of power, and figure out what it would take to get systemic risk established as a bureaucratic turf with a built-in constituency dedicated to protecting it over the long term.

Smart people, help me out.  What should this look like?  Or is it foolish to think this is even possible?

Twenty Bucks on Healthcare

It's been a rough week for healthcare reform, but Ezra Klein points to a recent Wall Street Journal poll that has a smidgen of good news:

Luckily, there are some elements of health reform that meet with overwhelming public approval. Among them is the public plan. According to the poll, 76 percent of Americans believe it's either "extremely important" or "quite important" to "give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance."

Hmmm.  A crisp new twenty dollar bill says this poll result is meaningless.  My guess is that (a) the vast majority of these respondents have no real idea what this even means and (b) would change their mind in an eyeblink if they saw even a single 30-second attack ad on the subject.

On the other hand, maybe I'm just cranky this morning.  In fact, I am cranky this morning.  But twenty bucks still says I'm right about this.

Khamenei's Sermon

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave his long awaited sermon today, and it wasn't pretty:

Addressing huge crowds at Tehran University, the ayatollah voiced support for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying the president's views on foreign affairs and social issues were close to his.

....Responding to allegations of electoral fraud, the ayatollah insisted the Islamic Republic would not cheat. "There is 11 million votes difference," the ayatollah said. "How can one rig 11 million votes?"

....He said the election was a "political earthquake" for Iran's enemies — singling out Britain as "the most evil of them" — whom he accused of trying to foment unrest in the country.

"Some of our enemies in different parts of the world intended to depict this absolute victory, this definitive victory, as a doubtful victory," the Supreme Leader said.

Until now, there was some thought that Khamenei might back down and look for a compromise solution of some kind.  Doesn't look that way now.  On the bright side, though, Obama's careful reaction seems to have shifted the mantle of Great Satan to a different country for at least a few days.

Steve Aquino has more here.