Kevin Drum - November 2009

Abortion and the Filibuster

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 1:21 PM PST

Megan McArdle has a weird post today:

Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum are defending the elimination of the filibuster on the grounds that unpopular legislation will fail even if a majority of legislators are behind it.

I didn't say anything remotely like that.1  I don't think Matt did either, at least not in the linked post.  But it gets even weirder after that:

I find it interesting that a major word is missing from the discussion: abortion.  The most successful Democratic use of the filibuster has, of course, been against judges who might overturn Roe v. Wade.  If it weren't for the filibuster, it's pretty likely that a play to overturn Roe would even now be wending its way through the courts, to a probably-successful conclusion.  Other treasured liberal programs like affirmative action, and certain kinds of environmental regulations, would probably also be in serious danger.

During the Bush era, Democrats filibustered — what?  Ten appellate judges?  And not all of them because of their views on abortion.  In what way has this prevented a challenge to Roe v. Wade from wending its way through the courts?  There are plenty of circuits with conservative majorities on them, after all.  Next:

Why is abortion missing from this discussion, especially when it is currently more central to our main public policy debate than the filibuster?  The filibuster has allowed Democrats to impose a minority view of abortion rights on the country; saying that unpopular legislation tends to fail is true, but not complete, because that is not the most powerful effect to which Democrats have used it.

It's true that polling on abortion attitudes is highly sensitive to question wording, but one of the simplest and cleanest questions is, "Do you support or oppose Roe v. Wade?"  Nate Silver's chart on the right, which aggregates multiple polls, shows the trend on this question clearly: whatever else the American public thinks about abortion, it supports Roe v. Wade by the whopping margin of 2:1.  If Roe ever gets overturned, it certainly won't be because that's what the majority of Americans want.

1For the record, I oppose the filibuster because I think it's unconstitutional.

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No Free Lunches

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 12:27 PM PST

If President Obama decides to escalate our presence in Afghanistan, Congressman Dave Obey (D-WI) is threatening to propose that it be paid for by a "war surtax."  After all, Republicans keep telling us that the deficit is a big problem, and if that's the case then the war ought to be paid for.  Stan Collender writes today that this isn't the first time Obey has tried this tack:

In fact, I watched in awe as Obey used this same strategy about 30 years ago when I was a congressional staffer working for a member of the House Budget Committee. 

The issue at the time was a balanced budget and the Republican demand that the Democratic majority agree to policy changes that would make it happen. They said they would vote against the budget unless it was balanced.

In response, Obey proposed a balanced budget and forced his colleagues to debate and vote on it.  I don't remember all the details of what he proposed, but I'm pretty sure it included the specific program-by-program, across-the-board spending cuts needed to eliminate the deficit.

I have a vivid memory of Obey opening the debate on his balanced budget plan by saying that he was proposing it not because he wanted it to pass but rather because he didn't.  He wanted to call everyone's bluff.  And he did.  The Obey plan got only a handful of votes — including only one or two Republicans — and was overwhelmingly defeated.

Well, I'm sure glad I'm not president right now.  But of course, this is one of the whole points of having taxation with representation: it forces people to make tough choices.  You want healthcare reform?  Figure out how to pay for it and then see if people think it's worth it.  A war in Afghanistan?  Ditto.  Maybe you favor "winning" the war in Afghanistan by sending lots of additional troops over there, but do you still favor it if you know it's going to cost your family $500 per year in additional taxes?  Because that's about what the tab is.  There's no free lunch.

Reining in Wall Street

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 11:43 AM PST

I am — how to put this delicately? — skeptical of Congress's ability to stand up to the world-spanning tentacles of the finance lobby and actually enact serious banking reform.  Thanks to the lobby, the simplest, most robust ways of reforming Wall Street were never even on the table in the first place, and the reform bills now grinding their way through Congress are already complex enough that most bankers will have little trouble eventually figuring out a way to worm their way around them.

But Noam Scheiber reports today that maybe the lobby is about to lose a battle.  Barney Frank's draft legislation to force all derivatives to be traded on a public exchange originally included an exemption for "end users" — that is, ordinary corporations that simply want to hedge the price of oil or pork bellies or whatnot:

But independent experts who studied the measure came to a different conclusion: that it could exempt between 60 and 80 percent of the standardized market because of its vague wording, including many firms who were speculating rather than simply hedging risk....Which, as it happens, was precisely the idea. Though the end users arguably had a legitimate gripe, the banks had long viewed them as a means to deflect additional regulation. “The original plan on derivatives was basically pushed by the industry,” says one bank lobbyist. “What they wanted was, ‘Hey, let’s get the dopey end users to go out and be the face of reform. We don’t have the credibility.'” This lobbyist says the banks helped organize a group called the Coalition for Derivatives End Users, which weighed in with Congress in favor of a robust end-user exemption.

....But a funny thing happened on the way to securing the loophole: A confederation of consumer and investor groups, labor unions, environmental activists and a progressive organization called Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) started raising hackles of their own. In several meetings with Frank, these groups stressed that the exemption was too porous, and that it wasn’t just an obscure, technical issue of interest only to banks, regulators, and lobbyists.

....By early this month, the pressure from [CFTC chairman Chairman Gary Gensler] and the progressive groups had the desired effect. Though Frank believed their concerns were somewhat overblown, he pronounced himself open to tightening the language to make sure the bill didn’t give speculators a pass. “Barney likes to say redundancy is your friend,” says one financial services committee staffer. “If people have concerns, we’ll tighten up the language...hedging done by corporations is what we’re looking to protect.”

To be honest, this seems like only the tiniest ray of sunshine to me.  The derivatives legislation is important, but it's never really struck me as the core of financial reform, and the end-user loophole was so obvious that it's frankly hard to believe it was there in the first place.  Getting rid of it just means that the financial lobby failed in a longshot effort, not that it failed on any point of truly central concern.

Anyway, we still haven't seen the revised wording from Frank's committee, we still haven't voted on the bill, we still haven't seen the Senate version of the bill, and we still haven't seen the conference report.  There's plenty of time for even this minor victory to get sanded down to nothing.  I remain pessimistic on the ability of Congress to rein in the financial community in any serious way.  They just don't have the power.

Are You Pro-Choice?

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 10:44 AM PST

Perhaps, like me, you've heard that sometimes too much choice is bad.  Consumers get paralyzed by the array of products on offer and just can't make up their minds, so they simply choose to buy nothing.  This effect has been demonstrated in experiments several times, but  via Tyler Cowen, Tim Harford writes that these experiments may not have been as robust as we thought:

Benjamin Scheibehenne, a psychologist at the University of Basel, was thinking along these lines when he decided (with Peter Todd and, later, Rainer Greifeneder) to design a range of experiments to figure out when choice demotivates, and when it does not.

But a curious thing happened almost immediately. They began by trying to replicate some classic experiments — such as the jam study, and a similar one with luxury chocolates. They couldn’t find any sign of the “choice is bad” effect. Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.

After designing 10 different experiments in which participants were asked to make a choice, and finding very little evidence that variety caused any problems, Scheibehenne and his colleagues tried to assemble all the studies, published and unpublished, of the effect.

The average of all these studies suggests that offering lots of extra choices seems to make no important difference either way. There seem to be circumstances where choice is counterproductive but, despite looking hard for them, we don’t yet know much about what they are. Overall, says Scheibehenne: “If you did one of these studies tomorrow, the most probable result would be no effect.” Perhaps choice is not as paradoxical as some psychologists have come to believe. One way or another, we seem to be able to cope with it.

Interesting!  Perhaps the paradox of choice used to be true in simpler times, but the internet and the rest of modern life have taught us to revel in choice, rather than being intimidated by it.  In a related vein, maybe it's a generational thing.  Maybe choice dazzles me more than it does a 20-something who grew up with 87 cell phone plans, 300 cable channels, and 1,000 Facebook friends.

Personally, I find a wide array of choice intimidating mainly if I'm trying to buy something brand new that I don't know anything about.  If there are 20 different kinds of cough syrup on the shelf, and I've never bought cough syrup before, I might just give up on the whole thing and keep on coughing.  I suppose that's pretty obvious, but it might explain the differences in some of the experiments.  If you showed me a huge variety of wines, I might throw up my hands in despair rather than trying to puzzle out which one to buy.  Show me an equally huge variety of candy bars and I'd pretty quickly narrow it down to half a dozen that I liked and then choose one.  That's because I consume a lot more candy bars than I do wine.

It's worth noting that whether or not social scientists are certain that the paradox of choice really exists, good sales people are certain that it does.  Watch a good sales person at work, and you'll notice that one of the first things they do is try to narrow your choices for you if you seem even the least bit confused.  When they ask what features are most important to you, they're trying to narrow your choices.  When they ask what things you don't like, they're trying to narrow your choices.  When they ask about your price range, they're trying to narrow your choices.  Because they know in their hearts that if they can just get you down to two or three alternatives, there's a pretty good chance you'll get seriously invested in the decision process and then eventually choose one of them.

So how about you?  When do you get intimidated by choice?

The New Obstruction

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 9:36 AM PST

Matt Yglesias writes about the routine use of the filibuster and other delaying tactics in Congress:

It’s worth emphasizing how one-sided efficacious minority party obstruction has been. The Bush administration wasn’t able to get its agenda through congress unscathed, but fundamentally they did achieved their main goals in terms of tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, substantially altering Medicare in 2003, and of course securing support for the invasion of Iraq and 2002.

In fact, it's worth emphasizing this even more.   Republicans gained significant levels of Democratic support for No Child Left Behind, the 2001 tax cut, the post-9/11 war resolution, Sarbanes-Oxley, McCain-Feingold, the Iraq war resolution, the 2003 tax cut, the Medicare prescription drug bill, and the bankruptcy bill.  That's a lot of bipartisan support

But what about Social Security, you ask.  That was certainly a full court press by the D team.  And yes it was.  But by the time the summer of 2005 was over, it didn't have much Republican support either.

In any case, the point isn't that full-blown unanimous obstruction is something new under the sun.  There will always be issues here and there that are so central to a party's governing ideology that there's really no room for compromise.  The point is that Dems, for better or worse, never tried to make every single bill a destruction test of the opposing party's governance.  Republicans are doing exactly that, and that is something new under the sun.  Unfortunately, as Matt says, it may be a shrewd calculation on their part: if you make the government look incapable of accomplishing anything at any time, and if the media generally treats this as politics as usual, it's the party in power that suffers the most regardless of who's been throwing the pies around.  So why not throw pies at every opportunity?

A Tribal Strategy for Afghanistan

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 7:04 PM PST

A couple of weeks ago Fred Kaplan speculated that President Obama might be planning to pursue a tribe-centered counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan rather than one centered on the central government in Kabul.  Today, after reading Dexter Filkins' piece in the New York Times that describes an effort already underway to co-opt local militias, Kaplan doubles down:

The interest, even excitement, in this development stems from two sources. First, it is reminiscent of the Anbar Awakening in 2006-07, when Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq formed alliances with U.S. forces — whom the Sunnis had been shooting just months earlier — to beat back the bigger threat of al-Qaida.

Second, it has drawn high-level attention to a 45-page paper by Army Maj. Jim Gant, the former team leader of a special-ops detachment stationed in Konar province. The paper, called "One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan," recounts his experiences with organizing "tribal engagement teams" to help local fighters beat back the Taliban — and it spells out a plan to replicate these teams across the country.

....There are signs that Obama has been mulling over something like Gant's strategy. At one of the seven meetings Obama has held with his national security advisers (the ninth, and perhaps final, session takes place tonight), he asked for a breakdown of which Afghan provinces could provide their own defense, which need our help, and to what degree.

....Obama is likely to announce his decision — on a strategy and on how many, if any, more troops it will require — soon after Thanksgiving. A key question to ask, in examining this mix, is how prominently it features the tribes.

I first heard about Gant's paper via email from Wagster, who wrote about it in a post earlier this month:

Gant goes on to describe how he developed close relations with the village chieftain, whom he affectionately called "Sitting Bull." He was audacious enough to arm and supply the village's fighters, probably breaking many rules but winning their trust and allegiance and gaining access to valuable intelligence. It is this approach — a tribal engagement strategy — that he advocates for the country as a whole. He calls the fighters Arbakai, a tribal militia that would protect their neighbors from Taliban intimidation. These could be the Afghani equivalent of the “Sons of Iraq,” grass-roots warriors defending their own tribal interests, with the U.S. as their ally — not imposing a central government on them, but giving them what they want: security, their tribal traditions, and the right to be let alone.

I will go farther than Gant does. Instead of envisioning an end state where Kabul dominates all of Afghanistan, we should be striving for Kabul + Largely Autonomous Tribe Lands. The Karzai government would control the heavily populated areas in the east of the country, and as best they could the border areas with Pakistan. They would have nominal sovereignty over their country, as previous Afghani governments have. The Pashtuns would be empowered to defend themselves from the Taliban, but they would largely be free of Kabul too. Provincial government structures would have to be developed in order to resolve inter-tribal conflicts and law-and-order issues, but largely, governance would come from nearby.

Kaplan says flatly that if Obama's eventual strategy doesn't look a lot like Gant's, "it is almost certain to fail."  And even if it does, it might still fail.  But at this point, the tribes are pretty much our only hope.

I am, as I've said before, skeptical about deepening our engagement in Afghanistan at all.  But the absolute minimum requirement is a strategy that's notably different from the one we've been following for the past seven years, a strategy that's done little except pour ever more troops into the country while simultaneously losing ever more control.  This might be the one. We'll probably know in another week or so.

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On to Copenhagen

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 12:59 PM PST

The latest news from the White House:

The US will announce a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions before next month's UN climate summit, according to a White House official.

The target is expected to be in line with figures contained in legislation before the Senate — a reduction of about 17-20% from 2005 levels by 2020.

This is no big surprise: 17% is the figure in Waxman-Markey and it's close to the figure in the various Senate bills.  Overall, it's a pretty modest target, but Obama could hardly pledge anything more under the circumstances.  At least it's something.

(I think this is going to be my motto for the next four years: "At least it's something."  Kinda sad, isn't it?  But at the moment we're still pretty plainly not willing to face up to reality on a whole bunch of different fronts.  So we do what we can.)

Quote of the Day

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 11:03 AM PST

From Ezra Klein, on the likely course of healthcare reform:

I once heard an activist say that leadership is the process of managing your constituency's disappointment. If that's accurate, then the next few months are going to offer ample opportunities for leadership.

Yep.  The opt-out public option is almost certainly toast, and we'll end up instead with something closer to Olympia Snowe's trigger idea — assuming we even end up with that much.  And there's no telling what other amendments are going to get tacked on and then make it through the final conference report.  Whatever happens, though, it's not going to be pretty.  Watching sausage getting manufactured never is.

Mass Production Heart Surgery

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 10:40 AM PST

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal had an interesting piece about Devi Shetty, an Indian heart surgeon who is revolutionizing the practice of heart surgery:

Dr. Shetty, who entered the limelight in the early 1990s as Mother Teresa's cardiac surgeon, offers cutting-edge medical care in India at a fraction of what it costs elsewhere in the world. His flagship heart hospital charges $2,000, on average, for open-heart surgery, compared with hospitals in the U.S. that are paid between $20,000 and $100,000, depending on the complexity of the surgery.

....Then there are the Cayman Islands, where he plans to build and run a 2,000-bed general hospital an hour's plane ride from Miami. Procedures, both elective and necessary, will be priced at least 50% lower than what they cost in the U.S., says Dr. Shetty, who hopes to draw Americans who are uninsured or need surgery their plans don't cover.

A few notes: Shetty runs a for-profit business, not a charity.  He makes money at these prices.  And although a big part of his lower prices has to do with the generally low cost of living in India, his mass-production techniques have reduced prices more than 50% even compared to other Indian hospitals.

But although this may be cheap medicine, there's nothing cheap about his results: outcomes at his hospitals are at least as good as they are at the best American clinics, and probably even better.  It's the kind of thing someone ought to be trying here.  The whole story is worth a read.

Weatherizing Your House

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 10:17 AM PST

"Using energy more efficiently in buildings may be the fastest, cheapest way to substantially reduce carbon emissions in the short-term," says David Roberts, and I think my only quibble there would be with the word may.  But how do we get people to do it?  Most people don't bother with this stuff even if it already makes economic sense, so putting a price on carbon and raising the price of energy will probably have only a minor impact on getting people off their butts to weatherize their houses and buildings:

Evidence indicates that the elasticity of energy demand is weirdly low.  The price signals that already exist aren’t getting a rational response. People can already save lots of money by investing in efficiency, but they aren’t doing it. They absorb a lot of price pain before they adjust their behavior....Which raises the question: why should price-based policies be our exclusive focus? Why not instead, or in tandem, try to increase elasticity of demand? If the federal government wants to get good job and economic results from its stimulus investments—and it surely does—it should not only spend the money, it should start attending seriously to the project of meliorating the market and behavioral failures in efficiency markets.

How do we remove the barriers? It turns out we know a decent amount about them but comparatively little about how to overcome them.....We’ve had three decades of cheap energy, so there’s been little reason to focus on accelerating efficiency; our know-how froze in the 1970s.

What’s clear is that getting the most out of efficiency will not only mean federal policy but state and local policy,  public-private partnerships, new financing models, new models of information sharing, and much more creative thinking. Because we know so little, there’s a lot we can learn quickly with an all-hands-on-deck effort.

Part of the problem here is simple: inertia.  Or call it laziness if you like.  It's like the difference between opt-in and opt-out: people are far more likely to accept the status quo, whatever it is, than they are to actively seek change.  Look at me: I accidentally ordered a bunch of extra channels from my cable company a couple of months ago, but I still haven't gotten around to cancelling them.  Maybe I never will.  Inertia is powerful.

But we also know that financing is a big part of the problem too.  Most of us don't have $10,000 to get our homes up to snuff, and if we finance the improvements via a loan, the payments need to be low enough that we see a net savings each month.  That might require government help.  Most of us also aren't willing to bother with this stuff if we think we might be selling our house in the next few years.  Creative financing that stays with the house, not the homeowner, can help here too.

But pure marketing is also part of the answer.  Many of us, I suspect, don't really believe all the claims about energy audits.  Even I don't.  Several years we bought a new refrigerator, and the energy savings on the model were plastered all over it.  What's more, the Energy Star program has gotten lots of publicity over the past decade.  And yet, I was still sort of surprised when we got the next month's electricity bill and it was about $20 lower than before.  In my heart, I guess I hadn't ever really believed that all the hype was true.  But the fact is that it really has paid for itself over the past five years.

So yes, this is low-hanging fruit from an economic point of view.  But to get the most out of it, we need a lot more work on quantifying the benefits, on marketing, on behavioral prods, and on financial programs.  Plus we need whatever stuff David is promising to share in a followup post tomorrow.  It'll probably be worth reading.