Kevin Drum - August 2009

Chart of the Day

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 11:49 AM PDT

OK, it's not really a chart.  It's a table.  But it comes from CBPP and it takes a closer look at the recent headlines screaming that deficit projections have risen from $7 trillion to $9 trillion.  Long story short, it's not true.

Here's why.  The lower number is from the CBO and relies on its "baseline" budget calculation.  This is an estimate of what would happen if current law remains unchanged forever, and as such it bears little resemblance to reality.  In reality, the Bush tax cuts aren't going to disappear in 2011, Medicare reimbursements aren't going to be suddenly slashed, and the Alternative Minimum Tax won't be left alone to gobble up ever more income.  As usual, the law will be changed to take care of all these things, just like it is every year.

So if you take a look at what the deficit would be under current real-life policies, and compare it to estimates under Obama's proposed policies, what do you get?  As the table below shows, the real-life deficit isn't $7 trillion, it's more like $11 trillion.  And the Obama deficit isn't $9 trillion, it's about $10.5 trillion once adjustments are made so that it can be compared to CBO estimates on an apples-to-apples basis.  So the bottom line is simple: properly accounted for, the deficit actually goes down when you compare Obama's budget proposals to current policy, not up.

All the grisly details are here.  Warning: not for the faint of heart.

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Quote of the Day

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 10:38 AM PDT

From Steve Benen, responding to Steven Pearlstein's column today about a possible compromise healthcare plan:

If there's "a deal to be had here," who is the deal with?

In theory, a deal should be fairly easy.  Keep the insurance reform stuff and the increased subsidies, dump the public option, add in a few other goodies here and there for both sides, and voila.  Dinner is served.

But who's going to join us at the table?  Are there any Republicans left who will vote for any healthcare plan at all, regardless of what is or isn't in it?  Who are they?  As Michael Kinsley says morosely about a healthcare deal elsewhere in the paper: "I'd like to think that if it goes down this time — when even the insurance companies are on board, promising to eliminate their odious policies about preexisting conditions — Republicans will pay for having killed it, if indeed they do kill it. But they didn't pay the last time."

The Rationing Canard

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 10:24 AM PDT

Ezra Klein takes a bat to Charles Krauthammer's claim that national healthcare inevitably leads to rationing:

A 2001 survey by the policy journal Health Affairs found that 38 percent of Britons and 27 percent of Canadians reported waiting four months or more for elective surgery. Among Americans, that number was only 5 percent....There is, however, a flip side to that. The very same survey also looked at cost problems among residents of different countries: 24 percent of Americans reported that they did not get medical care because of cost. Twenty-six percent said they didn't fill a prescription. And 22 percent said they didn't get a test or treatment. In Britain and Canada, only about 6 percent of respondents reported that costs had limited their access to care.

The problem, of course, is that the U.S. rations by denying healthcare to poor people, and the Krauthammers of the world don't really care much about that.  What's more, for all that we like to think of ourselves as nice people, most middle class Americans don't care much about it either.

In any case, Krauthammer also violates two of my standard rules for figuring out when someone is completely full of it when they talk about healthcare.  #1: the old hip replacement canard.  Run for the hills when you hear it.  Krauthammer, as Ezra points out, is implicitly talking about elective surgeries like hip replacements, but there's a reason these procedures are called "elective": it's because these are the procedures that can be most effectively triaged.  We do the same thing in emergency rooms all the time, and we do it every time you have to wait a few weeks for a doctor's appointment because you're not keeling over on the street.  Every system triages something, and in some countries that something is hip replacements that can be easily monitored and scheduled.  In others — like ours — it's things like basic dental care.

#2: Krauthammer is careful to name check only Britain and Canada, which have more problems than most other national healthcare systems — and are conveniently English-speaking, which makes it easy to lazily Google complaints about care.  But he couldn't make his rationing statement at all if he'd chosen France and Germany (or Sweden or Japan) instead.  The plain fact is that universal care doesn't inevitably mean longer waits for care than in the U.S.  As any honest observer knows, plenty of actual, existing countries have proven just that.  We should emulate them.

Af/Pak Dominos

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 9:44 AM PDT

According to Mike Crowley, Bruce Riedel said this at a Brookings event earlier this week:

The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic World. This would be a victory on par with the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. And, those moderates in the Islamic World who would say, no, we have to be moderate, we have to engage, would find themselves facing a real example. No, we just need to kill them, and we will drive them out. So I think the stakes are enormous.

Riedel was chair of a White House team that reviewed U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier this year, so his opinion isn't one you can easily dismiss.

But how reasonable is it?  It's probably true that Pakistani moderates are skeptical about our willingness to stick things out for the long haul, so they often hedge their bets by trying to stay on our good side while they strike deals with the Taliban on the side.  After all, Americans are a wee bit unpopular in Pakistan these days, so why not?  What's more, it's a pretty safe game since these same moderates know perfectly well that we don't have enough leverage to ever really call them out on this tap dancing.

At the same time, neither Pakistani moderates nor, more importantly, the Pakistani army, would ever put up with any serious effort by the Taliban to mount a coup.  The army plays a sometimes dangerous game, trying to use these terrorist groups as useful foot soldiers in its forever war with India, but other than that they've never had any real use for them.  The more important question, then, is what would happen if Islamist elements in the Pakistani army gained more control than they have now and started cooperating with Islamist groups more seriously?  If the U.S. withdrew from the region and radicals claimed victory, would all this stop being a game and start becoming all too real?

Nothing is impossible, but at its core this is just a sophisticated version of the same domino theory that dominated U.S. thinking in Southeast Asia in the 50s and 60s.  That led us into a disastrous war then, and it could do the same now if the Obama administration starts getting too wrapped up in febrile thinking like this.  After all, if you assume enough dominos, you can come to just about any conclusion you want.  I sure hope they're not taking this more seriously than it deserves.

More in the same vein from Michael Cohen here.

Headline of the Day

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 8:52 AM PDT

From the Los Angeles Times this morning:

L.A. Targets Illegal Cheese

It's all about unpasteurized Mexican cheese, of course, which is "spirited into the country in suitcases and is then sold door to door to residents or restaurants and at open air markets out of coolers."  The foodies love it:

Many people know its provenance is illegal but think it tastes better. Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Weekly food critic, said he prefers it.  "I will admit that there are some groceries . . . where you do kind of buy cheese under the table, and it tastes better," Gold said. "If you're the sort of person who believes milk has a soul to it, which I guess I am, then pasteurizing is taking something away." As for the potential danger posed by unpasteurized cheese, Gold added: "Life is filled with risks."

I guess the LAT's own food critic wasn't willing to own up to buying illegal cheese under the table.  Coward.

Secrecy and Executive Power

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 11:08 PM PDT

Today we get some bad news on the executive power front:

The Obama administration will largely preserve Bush-era procedures allowing the government to search — without suspicion of wrongdoing — the contents of a traveler's laptop computer, cellphone or other electronic device, although officials said new policies would expand oversight of such inspections.

...."It's a disappointing ratification of the suspicionless search policy put in place by the Bush administration," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It provides a lot of procedural safeguards, but it doesn't deal with the fundamental problem, which is that under the policy, government officials are free to search people's laptops and cellphones for any reason whatsoever."

And also a bit of good news, from a ruling in a lawsuit brought against the CIA by a DEA agent, Richard Horn, and his lawyer, Brian Leighton:

In a highly unusual legal step, a federal judge has ordered the government to grant an attorney a security clearance so he can represent a disgruntled former narcotics officer in a lawsuit against a former CIA officer...."The deference generally granted the executive branch in matters of classification and national security must yield when the executive attempts to exert control over the courtroom," U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth wrote in an order issued late Wednesday.

...."It is fabulous for many reasons, not the least of which is the judge doesn't believe anything the government is saying," Leighton said Thursday of the new ruling.

....In his July ruling, Lamberth denounced certain CIA and Justice Department officials for having "handcuffed the court" with delay tactics and inaccurate statements. His latest ruling similarly chastises Justice Department attorneys for "continued obstinance" and "diminished credibility."

The Horn/Leighton lawsuit has been going on since 1994.

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Yet More Sports Blogging

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 7:12 PM PDT

As long as I'm writing about British sporting clubs today, how about some cricket blogging?  A few weeks ago I was emailing with Alex Massie about something or other, and along the way suggested that he should write more about cricket.  "I'm pretty much agog," I wrote "at the idea that you have a sport that frequently ends in a draw even though it takes five days to play."

That's not the only reason I find myself intermittently bewitched by cricket, of course.  All sports have their own weird jargon, but cricket writing is so deliciously, Britishly impenetrable that it's mesmerizing, sort of like those contests to write parody pomo paragraphs.  Like this: "Ian Bell, back at No3 and under the microscope, survived a torrid start to make 72 good runs, worth more than they appear, before dragging his first ball after the tea interval on to his off-stump, while Andrew Strauss batted superbly, hitting 11 fours in his 55, on the way protecting Bell from a Mitchell Johnson bombardment while he settled in."

And the rules!  Every year or two, when some big test series comes along, I read up on the rules again and then immediately forget them.  It's sort of like quantum mechanics: no matter how often I read about it, my brain refuses to accept that anything so eccentric can possibly be true, and promptly expels it.

So there's that.  But back to the five-day draws.  I wrote that email to Alex after England had, via some pact with the devil or something, managed to force a draw in the first test of the Ashes last month even though Australia was clearly the better team by several light years.  But Alex says it's the draw that makes the game what it is:

This is [] an aspect of cricket that mystifies many people, by no means all of them American. But of the three most common results — a win, a loss and a draw — it is not an overstatement to say that the draw is the most important. Because it is the draw, or more accurately the possibility of the draw, that gives the game its texture and much of its near-endless variety.

Then he starts quoting Clausewitz.  Someday, I suppose, I need to actually go watch some cricket in person with a knowledgable fan.  Only then, like Schrödinger's cat, will I truly understand what it's all about.

Cash 4 Clunkers Wrapup

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 3:09 PM PDT

Joe Romm says that although the Cash for Clunkers program was never meant to be a cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions, in the end it turned out to be very effective indeed:

In the real world, the public has mostly turned in gas-guzzlers in exchange for fuel-efficient cars — which perhaps should not have been a total surprise since oil prices are rising, gas guzzlers remain a tough resell in the used car market, and most fuel-efficient cars are much cheaper than SUVs.  So as a stimulus that saves oil while cutting CO2 for free — it has turned out to be a slam dunk, far better than I had expected.

....Let’s assume the new cars are driven nearly 20% more over the next 5 years [compared to the old cars they replace], and that the average price of gasoline over the next five years is $3.50.  Then we’re “only” saving 140 million gallons a year or roughly $500 million a year.  The $3 billion program “pays for itself” in oil savings in 6 years.  And most of that oil savings is money that would have left the country, so it is a (small) secondary stimulus.

Using a rough estimate of 25 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gas (full lifecycle emissions), then we’re saving over 1.5 million metric tons of CO2 per year — and all of the ancillary urban air pollutants from those clunkers — for free.

I wouldn't make a habit out of supporting targeted industry programs like C4C, but it was wildly popular, provided a modest but noticeable amount of economic stimulus, and helps reduce U.S. oil consumption.  Not bad for $3 billion.

Breakfast of Champions

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 2:35 PM PDT

England will be sending four clubs to compete in the European Champions League tournament, which begins group play next month.  Matchups were announced today, and apparently the topic on everybody's mind is whether they have to play anyone more than 90 minutes away:

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez: "The important thing as always is that the travelling isn't too bad. We don't have too far to go for any of the games."

Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon: "There isn't a lot of travel, though, so we have to be reasonably pleased with the draw."

Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis: "It is good to have relatively short travel times, that's something that Arsene (Wenger) thinks about a lot."

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson: "These are difficult ties, especially the trips to Russia and Turkey."

Seriously?  Anything more than a 2-hour plane ride is supposed to be a major drain on these guys?  Are they flying RyanAir or something?

Obama and the Kennedys

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 12:48 PM PDT

Conservative historian Michael Knox Beran writes about Barack Obama and the Kennedy family:

President Obama may in time find it to his — and to his country’s — benefit to fix his gaze not on Ted, but on Jack. For in addition to his more superficial graces, President Kennedy possessed a degree of wisdom, which might be defined as grace of judgment. John Kennedy’s sentiments were liberal, but he knew that a wise president must have the country in his bones, must feel, as by instinct, the temper of the people, and must know what they will bear and what they will not. He was annoyed by those who, like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., urged him to be another FDR. Schlesinger, he said, wanted him to act as if it were 1932. But three decades had passed since 1932; the mood of the people, President Kennedy knew, had changed.

President Obama, if he reverences the memory of Ted Kennedy, would do well to eschew his politics. In joining the battle for health-care reform, Obama has entered on what promises to be the climacteric of his presidency. At so critical a juncture he needs to emulate, not the intoxicated extravagances of the late senator, but the sober moderation of his older brother, who knew that the world has indeed changed since 1932.

Actually, that's what I'm afraid of.  Like Obama, JFK had a charming manner, good judgment, a cool temperament, and liberal instincts.  What's more, as the Cuban Missile Crisis showed, he wasn't afraid to stand up to his advisors.  Obama has all these qualities too, which is why he so often seems like JFK's political heir.

But JFK was also famously cautious, dangerously mainstream on military and national security issues, better able to deliver inspiring speeches than to genuinely move public opinion, and had little sense of how to bend Congress to his will.  In the end, he left behind few accomplishments — a fate Obama risks sharing if JFK becomes too much a role model and too little a warning beacon.  Sober moderation may have its virtues, but worshipping at its altar isn't the stuff of great presidencies.