Here's a fascinating little chart. The question is, "Out of every dollar the federal government collects in taxes, how many cents do you think are wasted?" The average answer, in the latest Washington Post poll, is 53 cents. A few comments:

  • Clearly, Republicans are winning the PR battle on this score. The idea that 53 cents of every dollar is wasted is obviously ridiculous even for the most ardent tea partier, but I don't suppose this ought to be taken especially seriously as an actual response. Rather, it's sort of crude proxy measure of dissatisfaction with gummint spending. And it's been going up steadily for 25 years.
  • If the average was 53 cents, that means lots of people must have said 60 or 70 or 80 cents. Even more fascinating! I'd love to see the distribution on this answer.
  • Although there's a secular rise over time, specific dips and spikes seem unrelated to the party in power or to economic conditions. Maybe this is just statistical noise, though the drop from 1998 to 2000 was pretty substantial.
  • At this rate, by the year 2135 the average voter will think the entire federal budget is pure waste.

I wonder how people in other countries would respond to a question like this? And what does it all mean? Ponder away in comments.

Last week the LA Times reported that Anthem Blue Cross planned to raise premium rates by 39% for some of its customers.  HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius demanded to know why. Today they answered:

Financial woes have pushed healthier people to drop coverage or buy cheaper plans, the company argued to Sebelius.

...."While this dynamic always exists, in a challenging economy it becomes more prevalent as individuals who are paying for coverage without a government or employer subsidy must choose to continue coverage or use the money for other necessities," wrote Brian A. Sassi, president and CEO of the consumer business unit at Wellpoint, Anthem's parent company.

....WellPoint said the increases relate only to the individual insurance market, less than 10 percent of its California members, and that a minority of its 800,000 individual policy holders will see 39 percent increases. The company said an independent actuarial firm concluded its rates were "sound and necessary."

That's pretty much the answer everyone expected. Normal medical inflation was up less than 10% last year, so that doesn't come close to justifying a 39% rate hike. The only thing that does is getting stuck with a smaller, sicker pool of customers as healthy people decide to pay their mortgages instead of continuing to shell out for health insurance they're willing to risk living without.

This is, of course, the primary argument for single-payer healthcare, in which everyone is covered and everyone shares costs equally. Failing that, it's also the argument for an individual mandate. Basically, any system that doesn't rely on pools of customers (the entire country, an entire age cohort, an entire union, an entire company, etc.) runs the risk that healthy people will opt out, driving prices up for everyone else in an endless spiral. They'll eventually opt back in, of course, but only when they get sick — and this is, needless to say, not a sustainable business model.

However, as President Obama said on Tuesday, it's "a preview of coming attractions" if we don't get our healthcare act together. That's why the Senate and the House need to get serious about figuring out a compromise and passing healthcare reform. It's not going to get any easier by waiting.

I'm going to take my life in my hands and defend David Broder today.  After watching Sarah Palin's speech in Nashville and her Sunday talk show appearance with Chris Wallace, he writes:

The snows that obliterated Washington in the past week interfered with many scheduled meetings, but they did not prevent the delivery of one important political message: Take Sarah Palin seriously.

....Her invocation of "conservative principles and common-sense solutions" was perfectly conventional. What stood out in the eyes of TV-watching pols of both parties was the skill with which she drew a self-portrait that fit not just the wishes of the immediate audience but the mood of a significant slice of the broader electorate.

....Palin did not wear well in the last campaign, especially in the suburbs where populism has a limited appeal. But when Wallace asked her about resigning the governorship with 17 months left in her term and whether she let her opponents drive her from office, she said, "Hell, no."

Those who want to stop her will need more ammunition than deriding her habit of writing on her hand. The lady is good.

I can't see into Broder's heart. Maybe he actually likes Palin. But his column never really says that. What he says is that (a) she has a natural talent for appealing to a certain kind of disaffected voter, and (b) there are a lot of disaffected voters out there right now. "The lady is good" sounds to me more like a warning than a personal opinion.

Now, it so happens that I disagree about how seriously to take Palin. There was a short window of time when I figured that she might bone up a bit on substantive issues and then meld her instinctive populism with just enough additional gravitas to make her a serious threat. But as near as I can tell, she has no intention of doing that. She's sticking with pure right-wing populism, and that just doesn't appeal to enough people to get her to the White House. If by some miracle she wins the Republican nomination in 2012, she'll be the 21st century version of Barry Goldwater, not the 21st century version of Ronald Reagan.

Still, maybe Goldwater would have succeeded if he'd been more telegenic and had run during a time of 10% unemployment. You never know. And I know plenty of fellow liberals who think I should take Palin more seriously too. It's hardly an outrageous opinion.

Iraq Election Update

Last month about 500 allegedly Baathist Sunnis were banned from running in Iraq's upcoming parliamentary elections. Sunnis were pissed. But then, a week ago, an appeals court overturned the ban. The elections were saved! But no: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, after some pro forma attacks on American interference, at first tried to convene an emergency session of parliament to overrule the court but then switched gears:

Calls for the emergency session were later dropped after a highly unusual meeting convened by Maliki with other key leaders and the head of the Higher Judicial Council, Medhat al-Mahmoud. Following the meeting, the appellate panel was directed to immediately recommence its review of all case files with decisions having to be announced prior to the start of the official electoral campaign period on February 12. It appears, based on the public statements of al-Maliki and others, that the impending decisions of the panel on the de-Ba’athification status of these individuals will bring this entire affair to a close.

Needless to say, this is a .... noteworthy .... amount of executive interference with the judiciary. Marc Lynch is cautiously pessimistic:

I still expect this to work out in one way or the other and for the elections to go ahead, and for some Sunni politicians to take advantage of any attempt by others to boycott. I don't expect it to lead directly to a return of the insurgency. But at the same time, by this point significant damage has probably already been done....Sunni-Shia resentments have been rekindled, with such polarization evidently being seen as a winning electoral strategy in certain quarters. Sunni participation may well be depressed, though a full-out boycott is unlikely. The damage is likely to be measured in increments, not in a single apocalyptic collapse.

Gregg Carlstrom is, I guess, slightly more pessimistic. But no one seems to think it spells doom. The election is on March 7.

Two days ago in the LA Times:

In a rare move toward bipartisanship, Senate Democrats prepared Tuesday to unveil an $85-billion jobs bill that would include payroll tax breaks for employers who create new jobs, aid to small businesses and other GOP-backed ideas to attack unemployment.

....According to a draft outline of the bill circulated by Senate Democrats, the cornerstone would be a proposal to give businesses that hire unemployed workers this year an exemption from the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax. If they keep those workers more than a year, employers would get an additional $1,000 tax credit per employee.

But wait! It turns out that's not quite enough bipartisanship! So there's this:

Notably, the measure does not address the estate tax, a legislative priority for many Republicans. But according to Baucus and Grassley, the negotiators agreed not to put off the issue much longer.

"First we will work to ensure that the scope of the Finance Committee package retains its bipartisan character," they said. "Second we are committed to timely consideration of permanent bipartisan estate and gift tax reform."

And what exactly does the estate tax have to do with a jobs bill? Nothing — unless you're concerned about out-of-work Wall Street heirs. It's just the price of cooperation from Republicans, because making a tax cut the centerpiece of the actual jobs bill wasn't enough for them. So they demanded quick action on even more tax cuts.

But it's bipartisan! And with regular folks suffering in a bad economy, who could possibly object to a tax cut for the rich? It'll be trickling down to you and me soon enough, I'm sure. Via Ezra Klein.

Via Matt Yglesias, conservative Jonathan Kay describes the conspiracy theory madness that was running rampant at the national tea party convention last week:

In Nashville, Judge Roy Moore warned, among other things, of "a U.N. guard stationed in every house." On the conference floor, it was taken for granted that Obama was seeking to destroy America's place in the world and sell Israel out to the Arabs for some undefined nefarious purpose. The names Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers popped up all the time, the idea being that they were the real brains behind this presidency, and Obama himself was simply some sort of manchurian candidate.

A software engineer from Clearwater, Fla., told me that Washington, D.C., liberals had engineered the financial crash so they could destroy the value of the U.S. dollar, pay off America's debts with worthless paper, and then create a new currency called the Amero that would be used in a newly created "North American Currency Union" with Canada and Mexico. I rolled my eyes at this one-off kook. But then, hours later, the conference organizers showed a movie to the meeting hall, Generation Zero, whose thesis was only slightly less bizarre: that the financial meltdown was the handiwork of superannuated flower children seeking to destroy capitalism.

Kay was appalled at all this, but in fairness, he's a Canadian conservative, so he's probably something of a parlor pink by tea party standards. He doesn't really count as a true believer. As for the movie, centrist conservative John Avlon liked it. It was "a smart and comprehensible look at the results of fiscal irresponsibility," he said, though he undermined that point immediately by admitting that it featured "commentary from Amity Shlaes, Shelby Steele, Victor Davis Hanson, and Newt Gingrich, among others." But you can watch the trailer for yourself and make a snap judgment. We'll have to wait for spring to see the whole thing.

So is Sarah Palin really tapping into the id of the American public, ready to ride a wave of anti-Washington populism straight to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? The Washington Post's David Broder seems to think she might be, but his newspaper's numbers say different. Palin's favorability rating? Down six points since November. Her net favorable/unfavorable rating is now -18%. Is she qualified to be president? A stunning 71% say no. Even among the fabled base of conservative Republicans, only 45% consider her qualified. I guess that tea party speech didn't work out as well as she'd hoped.

Floundering on Terror

Spencer Ackerman describes how badly Republicans have floundered on national security issues ever since the Christmas bombing attempt:

Mirandizing terrorists inhibits intelligence collection? Wrong. Charging a terrorist in criminal court is a danger? Hundreds have been convicted that way. Non-torturous methods of interrogation fail? They work better. Call the Obama team pussies and they’ll back down? They’ll smack the tartar off your teeth. The public will rally around Republicans if they just ignorantly yell OMG TERRORISM loud enough? They’ll go to the other guy.

....The GOP, for the first time in decades, is completely discredited on national security, without any credible spokespeople, after the public remembers the experience of how Republicans started an unnecessary war at the expense of a necessary one. And now it’s all exposed.

They really do seem to have lost a lot of the old magic, haven't they? The problem is that they don't seem to have any other game plan than to reflexively bellow about Democrats being soft on terrorism no matter what the circumstances. Get Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab talking more effectively than Bush got Richard Reid to talk and they're soft for not doing it with torture. Double troop strength in Afghanistan compared to Bush-era levels and they're soft for not increasing it more. Increase drone attacks in Pakistan and they're soft for not capturing terrorists alive. Their complaints have gotten so hysterical and preposterous that it's hard for anyone outside their own base to take them seriously anymore. Increasingly, on national security issues the Republican Party in 2010 is about like Joseph McCarthy circa 1955. The rubes just aren't buying their act anymore.

Buried in Salt

This is old news, but who cares. It's from New York City and I'm blogging it today anyway:

Mayor Bloomberg and the Health Department have opened a new front in the battle to get New Yorkers, and maybe all Americans, to eat more healthily. The target now is salt.

Commissioner Thomas Farley has forged a consensus among government officials and health advocates that calls on the food industry to reduce the amount of sodium in a wide array of products. The goal is to cut the nation's salt intake by 25% over five years.

What's good about the plan is that it seeks to enlist food companies to voluntarily meet the target, and to do so gradually so palates used to a great deal of salt won't know the difference.

I tend toward high blood pressure, so I generally try to watch my sodium intake. But it's hard! At breakfast, my cereal has sodium. At lunch, my bread has sodium, my mustard has sodium, and my deli ham has sodium. Pretzels too. Pickles are a great snack, but they have enough sodium to choke a horse. Rice pilaf at dinner? Sodium.

Etc. etc. You get the drift. Now, some of this is unavoidable. Pickles just have lots of sodium. But what about all this other stuff? On the rare occasions that I buy peanuts, I buy the low sodium variety. Guess what? They taste plenty salty. I recently bought a can of "ultra low sodium" tuna. I made a tuna sandwich out of it and couldn't tell the difference. Danola makes a low sodium ham. Ditto.

So what's with all the sodium? I've never liked packaged mashed potatoes, but the other day a friend of ours suggested we should try a new brand. We did, and she was right: they weren't bad. Except for one thing: too salty! I was at a nice restaurant last week and had a small piece of chicken that was delicious. One of the best I've ever had. Except that it had too much salt.

So here's my question: why all the salt? Are "palates used to a great deal of salt" really the norm these days? Am I just more sensitive than most people to saltiness? Because it seems to me that you could cut the sodium content of nearly every processed food product in America by half and end up with something that's not only healthier, but better tasting.1

Obviously, though, the food industry, which spends billions of dollars to figure this stuff out, is convinced their customers think otherwise. Are they right? What say you?

1What makes this especially odd to me is that I don't generally have a discriminating palate. When it comes to fat and sugar and all the other stuff that's bad for you, I'm all for it. But salt? I'm ready to cry uncle.

Yesterday Megan Carpentier wrote a post debunking the idea that Wall Street bankers had recently begun switching their allegiances, contributing more to Republicans than Democrats. It was a little complicated, though, so I just skimmed it and then moved on to something else.

But Matt Steinglass was more alert than me and noticed that Carpentier buried the lead:

The amazing part of the article isn't that some folks on Wall Street might be successful at convincing reporters that they will defund politicians who touch their institutions' profits or their bonuses. The amazing part is that some folks on Wall Street might think it would be a good idea to convince reporters that they will defund politicians who touch their institutions' profits or their bonuses. One would think that at a moment of intense public anger against the financial industry, politicians would find it risky to openly admit that they owe their jobs to campaign contributions from that industry, and would hence be unlikely to vote against financial reform in response to naked threats communicated via the mainstream media. And one would think that finance industry bigwigs would understand that.

This suggests that the finance industry is so confident of its ownership of Congress that it couldn't care less whether average voters know about it. As for John Boehner's office apparently leaking to the Wall Street Journal that Mr Boehner had been soliciting contributions from Democratic-leaning finance-industry machers by promising to be more protective of Wall Street's interests...well, it's hard to tell who these guys think they're supposed to be working for.

When you put it that way: yes, it is pretty amazing. As for who these guys think they're working for, though, I don't imagine this is something that's really all that hard to figure out.