Kevin Drum - December 2010

Christmas Cat Blogging - 24 December 2010

| Fri Dec. 24, 2010 9:31 AM PST

Painting of the blog communications hub did not go as smoothly as hoped. In fact, it didn't happen, for reasons too complicated to spell out. So it'll happen on Monday and Tuesday instead, and there's a pretty good chance I'll be disconnected from the outside world both days. Then again, maybe not! Who knows. In the meantime, the economy is looking up (even I'm getting slightly more optimistic), so whether you celebrate Christmas, the war on Christmas, or some other holiday, I hope you have a nice one. And with that, here's our traditional holiday catblogging. Enjoy!

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Housekeeping Note

| Thu Dec. 23, 2010 10:42 AM PST

This is a real housekeeping note. The communications hub of this blog is being painted today, and it turns out they can't paint around me. So I have to disconnect and let them get on with things. I'll be back tomorrow, though possibly with not much more than cat blogging. See you then.

Your Morning Joe

| Thu Dec. 23, 2010 10:00 AM PST

Michael O'Hare marvels at a fabulous new espresso machine that works only with coffee pods from the manufacturer at a price of (he figures) about $66 per pound:

What I can’t understand is how these geniuses were so dumb as to market a machine that uses tap water. How hard could it be to design a sealed aluminum non-refillable $15 water pod, filled with one of several different gourmet waters matched to the coffee blends (the coffee pods come in about twenty different color-coded blends), like, say, Milano da rubinetto, Pioggia pura romana da mattina, Nestlé’s own Poland Spring (in 3 elastic modulus grades) already in pods, Amazona prima colheita do verão, Flaque Boulevard St. Germain, Fiji-Dasani custom coffee blend (also approved for Mercedes engine cooling systems), Gelbschnee fondé puro (Nestlé’s local house brand), and so on. People who will pay five to ten times extra for stale coffee grounds will certainly pay through the nose for water with a name on it.

Apparently these things are endorsed by George Clooney (in Britain anyway; I'm not sure about the States) and, according to the Guardian, are selling like hotcakes. Mike suggests that you buy one of these things for someone you don't like. Sure, it's expensive, but your victim will be stuck with a lifetime of pain shelling out a dollar per pod for their morning joe. Merry Christmas!

POSTSCRIPT: Question for the coffee drinkers: is this any different from those K-Cup coffeemakers? I don't drink coffee, so I don't keep up with this stuff. Seems like pretty much the same concept, though.

Weird Science

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 10:54 PM PST

This is from a small study which might turn out to be wrong, so take it with a grain of salt. (Or sugar.) But apparently the placebo effect might work even if patients know they're getting fake medicine:

Half the patients were given a bottle with the word "placebo" printed on it. The pills it held, they were told, were like sugar pills. The patients were told they didn't even need to believe in the placebo effect, but had to take the pills twice daily. The other half were given no treatment at all.

At the end of the three-week trial, 59% of the patients taking the placebo said their symptoms had been adequately relieved, far outstripping the 35% in the non-treatment group.

...."What seems to be the active ingredient is the warm, personal relationship," said Dr. Howard Brody of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

Fascinating, no? Anyone want to take bets on whether this gets replicated in a larger study?

A Congress That Works! Huzzah!

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 7:55 PM PST

Jon Chait on the flurry of congressional activity that closed out the year:

I strongly approve of the ends of the lame duck Congress, but as a small-d democrat, I don't approve of the means. Why should Congress have a period of time to act in which many members enjoy zero accountability before their constituents? The arrangement is ripe for abuse.

On the other hand, the manic productivity of the lame duck session appears to be a response to another anti-democratic mechanism, the filibuster. Mitch McConnell's block-everything, grind-down-the-clock method created a pent-up demand among moderate and even mainstream Republicans who waned to govern. So now they have a few frantic weeks to do a lot of things they wanted to do all along, but refrained out of partisan loyalty.

I'd look at this with a little wider lens. Basically, what happened this year is that we've finally reached the logical end state of a longtime problem. For as long as I can remember, it's been a truism that you can't get anything done in an election year. The out party doesn't want to give the president a victory and the in party is afraid to take on anything controversial that might hurt at the polls. So legislative progress in even numbered years is generally pretty paltry.

This year that dynamic turned pathological. There were, it turned out, quite a few issues that both sides really did want to address, but party discipline simply trumped everything. It wasn't just one thing that got held up, it was nearly everything. Republicans didn't want to hand Democrats a victory on DADT or New START or even a food safety bill, and Democrats were too cowardly to press for progressive tax legislation.

So we finally reached the nonsensical point at which both sides wanted to get things done but the upcoming election allowed none of it to move forward. Even though all of this stuff had supermajority support (hell, New START turned out to have the support of 71 senators), the only time it could get done was during a lame duck session.

I don't know if this was a one-off occurrence or a harbinger of things to come. I guess we'll find out in 2012. But until something finally implodes and produces a real groundswell for systemic change, maybe we should all be grateful for the existence of lame duck sessions. It might be the only time that the modern Congress actually works the way it's supposed to.

Filibuster Reform Warms Up

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 5:35 PM PST

This is unexpected: every single returning Senate Democrat has signed a letter urging Harry Reid to change the rules surrounding filibusters when the new Congress convenes in January. Ezra Klein has a good take on this:

They say elections have consequences. So too, it turns out, does obstruction.

....It's no surprise that some Senate Democrats want to see the practice reworked. What's remarkable is that all Senate Democrats want to see it reworked. It's not just the young senators like Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall and Michael Bennett, but the older veterans like Barbara Mikulski and Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin.

Their unity stems from an unlikely source: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has mounted more filibusters in the past two years than occurred in the ’50s and ’60s combined. Uncontroversial bills like an extension of unemployment benefits that passed 97-0 and food-safety legislation that passed with 73 votes frequently faced multiple filibusters and months of delay. The minority has been so relentless and indiscriminate in deploying the once-rare failsafe that the majority has finally decided to do something about it.

There's no telling exactly what changes Democrats might try to impose, and no telling if they have the gumption to do it on their own if they can't garner any support from the Republican leadership for a bipartisan compromise reform. For one thing, if they aren't able to come to a compromise agreement with Mitch McConnell, any attempt to change the rules would require favorable rulings from the president of the Senate, Joe Biden. And obviously his support would depend on whether his boss goes along.

So we'll see. But this is actually a suprisingly auspicious time to take action. On the Democratic side, you have a lot of anger caused by the relentless obstruction and bad faith from the Republican caucus over the past two years. On the Republican side, you have the fact that they control the House, which means they don't have too much to fear from a filibuster-less Senate in the immediate future. The real benefit of reform would come sometime down the road when a single party once again controls both houses of Congress and the presidency, and there's no telling which party will be in charge the next time that happens. In any case, January might turn out to be pretty interesting. Stay tuned.

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Senate Deal on First Responders Gets Closer

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 11:33 AM PST

Greg Sargent reports that the 9/11 first-responders bill might pass after all:

UPDATE, 12:43 p.m.: Senate aides say they are now hopeful they can pass the bill via "unanimous consent," which means it can happen quickly today. More when I learn it.

UPDATE, 1:08 p.m.: GOP Senator Mike Enzi, one of the lead Republican negotiators on the 9/11 bill, supports the deal, Enzi spokesperson Jessica Straus confirms to me. That's a big step forward: It means Republicans are on board, which makes "unanimous consent" passage — which is the fastest way forward — more likely.

Straus also confirms to me that the deal trims the cost of the bill from $6.2 billion to $4.2 billion.

So pressure from the base combined with garden variety dealmaking (unanimous consent in return for cutting the bill to $4.2 billion) wins the day after all. And everyone gets to go home for Christmas. More details at the link.

Net Neutrality Fever

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 11:18 AM PST

The FCC approved new net neutrality rules yesterday, and conservative talkers have gone ballistic. It's a "Trojan horse"; it's "total government control of the Internet"; it's "yet another government takeover." ThinkProgress provides a handy greatest hits compilation on the right, and George Zornick notes just how crazy this all is:

Of course, these provisions do nothing of the sort. Network neutrality rules are explicitly designed to prevent anything like Internet censorship or control — they prohibit providers from being able who gets to “determine who gets to say what, where, how often,” in Limbaugh’s words. In fact, as noted, open Internet groups like Free Press believe the new rules do not go far enough because they do not protect the Internet over mobile devices, and contain exemptions for companies like AT&T. Needless to say, there is nothing in the provisions that would allow the government to censor or control Internet access.

I've had an email conversation lately with a conservative reader who is absolutely convinced that this is an effort by Democrats to rid the internet of conservative voices. But as Zornick notes, this is nuts. The whole point of net neutrality is just the opposite: it would continue to allow internet providers to discriminate on the basis of volume but not on content. So if you're a heavy internet user and have a lot of bits streaming through your pipe, they can charge you more. But that's it. They can't charge either content providers or you based on what you say or who you are. It's hard to think of anything that should assuage conservative concerns more. And yet, somehow this has become the latest grand conspiracy theory. It's craziness.

The War on Pensions

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 11:03 AM PST

Dave Weigel reports in Slate that Republicans are determined to wage a battle in 2011 to slash public employee pensions. And it might work:

What could the pension fund people and the public sector unions be so worried about? Right-leaning Reuters columnist James Pethokoukis laid it out for them. If the states aren't bailed out, they're going to have to start cutting budgets. If there's total transparency about pension funds—and voters are already in the mood to shave the benefits and numbers of public workers—then that's where you can cut. Republicans might even be able to pass legislation that would allow states to declare bankruptcy, which would move the pension debate from politics to court, zapping all of the unions' leverage. "From the Republican perspective," wrote Pethokoukis, "the fiscal crisis on the state level provides a golden opportunity to defund a key Democratic interest group."

In a nutshell, state pension problems are twofold. First, states haven't been keeping up the necessary contribution levels over the past decade. Second, the recent financial collapse has hit pension funds hard. Pension funds always look bad during recessions, and they look especially bad now. So if you create forecasts based on the current depressed values of the funds, as pension critics like to do, they look like disaster areas. In reality, if you use more reasonable forecasts, public pension funds are stressed, but not quite the monster black holes that Republicans are making them out to be. Dean Baker has a bit more on that here.

Politically, though, this could work anyway. In the past, taxpayers accepted the tacit tradeoff between low pay for public employees and high pensions. But public employees aren't low paid anymore. The bulk of the evidence suggests that the upper echelons (doctors, lawyers, managers) are underpaid compared to comparable private sector employees, but the lower echelons (clerks, mechanics, trash collectors) aren't. And those are the workers that most taxpayers think about. The model public employee for most people isn't a public defender, it's a unionized DMV clerk or a unionized public school teacher. Both are pretty unsympathetic figures these days.

(I was talking to a union guy a few weeks ago for a story I'm writing, and he mentioned with a grimace that whenever he talks to white collar types about unions, they always bring up teachers unions. They don't necessarily hate public sector unions generally, but they loathe teachers unions, which are the ones they actually come into contact with on a regular basis if they have kids in school. That loathing then seeps into their attitude toward every other union as well.)

This promises to become a pretty serious battle. For Republicans it's got everything: the tea parties will love it, it provides an alternative to raising taxes, and as Pethokoukis says, it helps defund a key Democratic interest group. What's not to like?

And Democrats are going to have a tough time with it. You can make a pretty good argument that pension funds aren't as badly off as their worst critics say, but the fact remains that they're in bad shape. And hitting up recession-weary taxpayers for a tax increase to make them solvent is going to be very, very unpopular. This could very well turn into a latter-day version of the tort reform war, which also (from the GOP point of view) combined an ideological win with a chance to defund a major Democratic donor group. It could get pretty ugly.

Conservatives Finally Turn on Their Own

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 10:21 AM PST

When liberals complained about Republican opposition to the 9/11 first-responders bill, it wasn't news. But when conservatives complain, suddenly it can no longer be ignored:

The remarks by Mr. Giuliani capped several days of withering criticism from all corners of the political spectrum as it appeared that Congress could depart for the year without voting on the first responders bill because of Republican efforts to block it.

Headlines in normally conservative news outlets blasted Republicans. Newsmaxx.com wrote that: “Giuliani Raps Fellow Republicans for Holding Up 9/11 Heroes Money‎.” Fox News host Shepard Smith drew attention to Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who has said he will try to block the legislation.

....On Wednesday morning, the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, called the G.O.P.’s opposition to the bill “a terrible mistake” for the party.

I suppose this is useful in a way. Some days I wonder just what it takes to get conservatives to treat anything as an actual issue, rather than just a partisan cudgel, and I guess now I know. This is their limit.