Kevin Drum - October 2010

The Ghost of Congress Future

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 11:39 AM EDT

"GoolsbeeGate" is a look at things to come if Republicans take over the House in November. I can't wait. It sounds like a worthy successor to the Clinton Christmas card investigation. 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

How the Taliban Does It

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 10:07 PM EDT

Dion Nissenbaum of McClatchy reports that although the Pakistanis have blocked U.S. military convoys passing through Torkham to Afghanistan, they're letting everyone else through, including Taliban fighters:

"Every day, 40,000 to 70,000 people pass through the border, we can't handle it," said Gen. Mohammed Zaman Mamozai, the commander of the Afghan Border Police stationed at Torkham gate. "For us it's very difficult, and it's not possible to ask every single person where they are going and if they have a passport."

....For nearly a decade, the U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to cut off the remote, high altitude mountain trails Taliban forces use to smuggle weapons and fighters into Afghanistan. Now, the U.S. military is turning its attention to the border crossing.

"More and more we've realized that they are not coming through the passes, they're just coming through the . . . gate," said one U.S. government official in Afghanistan who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could candidly discuss the unfolding plan to focus on the border crossing.

Wait a second. After ten years, we're only now realizing that the Taliban might be coming in and out of Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass? That can't possibly be right, can it?

The Real McCain

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 4:45 PM EDT

Todd Purdum in Vanity Fair:

The prevailing question about John McCain this year is: What happened? What happened to that other John McCain, the refreshingly unpredictable figure who stood apart from his colleagues and seemed to promise something better than politics as usual? The question may miss the point....It’s possible to see McCain’s entire career as the story of a man who has lived in the moment, who has never stood for any overriding philosophy in any consistent way, and who has been willing to do all that it takes to get whatever it is he wants. He himself said, in the thick of his battle with Hayworth, “I’ve always done whatever’s necessary to win.” Maybe the rest of us just misunderstood.

I'm hardly the best judge of character in the world, but I confess that the McCain phenomenon has always baffled me. Even back in the glory days of the Straight Talk Express he seemed like a consummate phony to me, sucking up to reporters not because he was being unusually candid, but because it seemed like a good strategy to beat a well-financed guy who was running ahead of him. He's always been nasty, he's always been hot tempered, he's always looked out for number one, and he's always been willing to take whatever position was convenient at the time. All politicians shade their messages now and again, but on that score McCain has always been a politician's politician.

Or so it seemed to me. I've never understood how he managed to convince so many people otherwise for so long.

Today's Fundraising Pitch

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 1:07 PM EDT

Hey, guess what? It's fundraising season again! Why now? I guess the thinking is that you've already got your wallets out to support the candidates of your choice right about now, so why not donate to the media of your choice while you're at it? Maybe Mother Jones, for example?

A few dollars helps support this blog, and also helps support reporting like Karen Greenberg's story today that a federal judge has officially decided that, yes, torture is illegal. (There's more to the story than that, though, so go read it. You're paying for it, after all. Aren't you?)

So: please help us out. This blog, along with the rest of the vast Mother Jones empire, only gets part of its funding from advertising and magazine subscriptions. Like every other progressive magazine, we also need reader contributions. Click here for PayPal or here to donate by credit card. Thanks!

ACA Continuing to Work Normally

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 12:45 PM EDT

In news that should surprise no one, the Department of Health and Human Services has announced a set of temporary waivers for companies that provide mini-med healthcare insurance:

Thirty companies and organizations, including McDonald's (MCD) and Jack in the Box (JACK), won't be required to raise the minimum annual benefit included in low-cost health plans, which are often used to cover part-time or low-wage employees.

....The plans will be exempt from rules intended to keep people from having to pay for all their care once they reach a preset coverage cap. McDonald's, which offers the programs as a way to cover part-time employees, told the Obama administration it might re-evaluate the plans unless it got a waiver....The waiver program is intended to provide continuous coverage until 2014, when government-organized marketplaces will offer insurance subsidized by tax credits, says HHS spokeswoman Jessica Santillo.

In other non-shocking news, HHS also announced a couple of days ago that 3,000 companies so far have signed up to take part in a program that protects early retiree programs until healthcare reform fully kicks in in 2014. There are certain to be unanticipated bumps in the road as healthcare reform unfolds over the next few years, but so far everything that's happened has been pretty much according to plan. Somebody tell the Wall Street Journal.

America's Non-Decline

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 12:26 PM EDT

David Bell on the common theme of America's decline:

Twenty-two years ago, in a refreshingly clear-sighted article for Foreign Affairs, Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington noted that the theme of “America’s decline” had in fact been a constant in American culture and politics since at least the late 1950s. It had come, he wrote, in several distinct waves: in reaction to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik; to the Vietnam war; to the oil shock of 1973; to Soviet aggression in the late 1970s; and to the general unease that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Since Huntington wrote, we can add at least two more waves: in reaction to 9/11, and to the current “Great Recession.”

....What is particularly fascinating about these older predictions is that so many of their themes remain constant. What did our past Cassandras see as the causes of America’s decline? On the one hand, internal weaknesses — spiraling budget and trade deficits, the poor performance of our primary and secondary educational systems; political paralysis — coupled with an arrogant tendency toward “imperial overstretch.” And on the other hand, the rise of tougher, better-disciplined rivals elsewhere: the Soviet Union through the mid-'80s; Japan until the early '90s; China today.

My guess is that this is a bit more of a conservative impulse than a liberal one, since conservatives tend toward both an over-rosy view of the near past and a religious temperament that views man as a fallen creature. Still, that doesn't mean they're wrong. After all, in relative terms America has declined since World War II. How could it not? There's simply no possible world in which a single country could retain the kind of power and influence that America held over a shattered world in 1945. As other countries rebuilt and grew, the inevitable consequence was that their power would grow relatively faster than ours.

But what's remarkable, really, is how little America has declined. We are perpetually astounded that our military might doesn't guarantee us instant victory anywhere we go and that other countries are routinely able to make trouble for us, but that says more about our national psyche than about our actual global influence or military power. If anything, our ability to project power may be greater today than it's ever been, and it's certainly greater relative to other countries than it was 50 years ago. Economically, our share of GDP fell surprisingly little in the postwar era, from 28% to about 22%, and has stayed very nearly flat since 1980. And political idiocy aside, our ability to lead the world in a rebound from a world historical financial crash has actually been pretty impressive.

Anyway, I find that when I'm feeling depressed I think America is in terminal decline, and when I'm in a good mood I don't. Despite being sick at the moment, I'm in a relatively good mood today, so I don't think we're in decline. But ask me again next week and I might change my mind.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Chamber of Commerce

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 12:38 AM EDT

After yesterday's report from ThinkProgress that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce "funds its political attack campaign out of its general account, which solicits foreign funding," Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has asked the Federal Elections Commission to investigate whether the Chamber is violating election law by raising money from foreign donors. That's a fine idea. Given the astronomical amount of spending the Chamber is doing this election cycle, I think Democrats would be wise to spotlight their role as vigorously as possible.

This was something that occurred to me a couple of weeks ago while I was watching one of the Chamber's attack ads aimed at Barbara Boxer. The ad itself is nothing special, but what struck me was the tagline at the end: "The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is responsible for the content of this advertising." What do most people think of when they hear that? Well, most people aren't plugged into DC politics, so what they think of is the local chamber of commerce. You know, some local bankers, car dealers, retailers, and so forth. Business oriented, sure, but mostly folks who don't have any big ideological axe to grind. Civic boosters. Pillars of the community.

But that's not what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is anymore. Under CEO Tom Donohue it long ago became a hard right-wing lobbying group blessed with a huge war chest dedicated to electing Republican candidates who will watch out for corporate interests. Their advertising, I suspect, is a lot more credible than it should be because most people don't know this. Democrats would be well advised to start a determined campaign that gets the word out about who the Chamber really is these days.

More Growth, Please

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 10:57 PM EDT

Remember that record pile of cash that U.S. companies have amassed over the past year? It's finally being put to use:

For months, companies have been sitting on the sidelines with record piles of cash, too nervous to spend. Now they're starting to deploy some of that money — not on hiring workers or building factories, but to prop up their share prices.

Sitting on these unprecedented levels of cash, U.S. companies are buying back their own stock in droves. So far this year, firms have announced they will purchase $273 billion of their own shares, more than five times as much compared with this time last year, according to Birinyi Associates.

....Some companies are buying back shares partly because they don't want to invest in developing new products or services while consumer demand remains weak, analysts said. "They don't know what they want to do with all the cash they're sitting on," said Zachary Karabell, president of RiverTwice Research.

I've always hated companies that do share buybacks. I know all the arguments in favor of it, but as far as I'm concerned it's nothing more than a desperate effort to curry favor with shareholders and meet short-term bonus targets, carried out by a management team that has no idea how to grow their business. And if they don't know how to grow their business, they should just announce that they've decided to adopt the corporate model of a regulated utility and start paying out regular, steadily growing dividends.

End of rant. Aside from all that, though, this particular news tells us once again that the most likely cause of slow economic growth right now isn't structural, it's cyclical. People aren't buying stuff, and because of that businesses aren't investing in growth. Increase demand, and they'll start up again.

The Future of the Tea Parties

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 4:16 PM EDT

The tea party movement is all about small government and constitutional values, right? But what about hot button social issues? Stephanie Mencimer reports that the leadership of the Tea Party Patriots met in Orange County, California, a few days ago to chat about that:

Over the weekend, TPP leaders met with members of the Council for National Policy to try to raise some money. CNP is a secretive and powerful club that has worked to make the Republican Party more socially conservative. Founded in 1981 by Tim LaHaye, the evangelical minister, political organizer, and author of the Left Behind books about the coming apocalypse, CNP's board reads like a who's who of the GOP's evangelical wing.

In September [...] Bob Reccord, CNP's executive director, moderated a chummy panel discussion of tea party activists, including Tea Party Patriots national coordinators Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler. Meckler, who often emphasizes that the tea party movement does not touch social issues because they are too divisive, told the audience that in fact, tea partiers were angry because of "this idea of separation of church and state. We're angry about the removal of God from the public square." The comment suggested that at least the Tea Party Patriots weren't averse to joining the culture wars — at least if it meant tapping social conservatives' significant fundraising abilities.

No, probably not averse at all. Add that to Monday's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Bill Kristol and friends, urging tea partiers not to include national defense in their zeal for budget cutting, and what do you get? Answer: a bunch of people who believe in low taxes, reactionary social policy, a big military, and cutting spending for all welfare spending that goes to people other than them.

Does anyone seriously think the tea party movement won't eventually support all that stuff? Of course it will, because it's the conservative wing of the GOP on steroids, not some brand new grassroots reaction to TARP and the stimulus bill. The sooner everyone figures that out, the better.

Revisiting McDonald's

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 2:46 PM EDT

The chart on the right is not a very exciting one, but it's important. It's a followup to last week's post about McDonald's threatening to cancel its current healthcare policy because of the passage of ACA. As you recall, the original story in the Wall Street Journal was wrong in some respects and overblown in others, and in any case, the "mini-med" policy that McDonald's currently offers is pretty sucky. Getting rid of it would be one of the benefits of ACA, not an "unintended consequence."

Today, Aaron Carroll puts some numbers to "sucky" and I've added some bloggy value by converting his numbers into a colorful chart. The current McDonald's policy is the red bar on the right: it costs employees $1,664 per year and offers maximum coverage of $10,000.

Now compare that to what a McDonald's employee can get when ACA kicks in in 2014. At minimum wage, he or she will be eligible for Medicaid and will have to pay nothing. A $9/hour, subsidized private insurance will cost $858. At $10/hour it will cost $1,030. Even at $12/hour — more than virtually anyone makes at McDonald's — the premium is $1,720, only a dollar a week more than the current mini-med policy.

And that's for real health insurance. Under ACA, the vast majority of McDonald's workers will get genuine health insurance that's either free or no more costly than even the laughable micro-med option that offers maximum coverage of $2,000. When 2014 rolls around and McDonald's does away with both its mini and micro-med policies, that won't be an unintended consequence of ACA. It will be the whole point.