Kevin Drum - April 2011

Paul Ryan's Voucher Plan for Medicare

| Mon Apr. 4, 2011 11:47 AM EDT

I imagine that we're going to spend a fair amount of time this week talking about Paul Ryan's plan to cut corporate taxes and slash Medicare, but I think I'll wait until tomorrow to jump in. I'd rather react to the plan itself than to the Sunday chat show version of what the plan might be.

But I'll just say this in advance: I'm pretty sure that Ryan is going to loudly and relentlessly insist that his Medicare proposal isn't a voucher plan. I'm not sure why, but I assume that "voucher" must have polled poorly in some recent Frank Luntz poll or something. But if it walks like voucher, talks like a voucher, and quacks like a voucher, then it's a voucher.

And it does, and it is. So don't let Ryan pull the wool over your eyes on this. You can like or dislike the plan all you want, but it's based on giving you money and then sending you into the private market to buy your own health insurance. That's a voucher, no matter how many times Ryan says it isn't. What's more, I'm pretty sure it isn't even a very good voucher plan. But I guess we'll know for sure tomorrow.

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Mike Huckabee's Memory Hole

| Mon Apr. 4, 2011 11:11 AM EDT

I can't really think of anything to actually say about this, but I'm sort of gobsmacked by Siddhartha Mahanta's piece today informing us that Mike Huckabee physically erased and crushed all the hard drives in his office when his term as governor of Arkansas ended:

In February, Mother Jones wrote to the office of Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe seeking access to a variety of records concerning his predecessor's tenure, including Huckabee's travel records, calendars, call logs, and emails. Beebe's chief legal counsel, Tim Gauger, replied in a letter that "former Governor Huckabee did not leave behind any hard-copies of the types of documents you seek. Moreover, at that time, all of the computers used by former Governor Huckabee and his staff had already been removed from the office and, as we understand it, the hard-drives in those computers had already been 'cleaned' and physically destroyed."

....What do the Huckabee files hold? The records could provide details on any number of unsettled controversies involving a governor that faced at least 15 ethics complaints concerning, among other things: his failure to report gifts and outside income, his alleged use of state funds and resources for political and personal purposes, and the pardon of a convicted murderer and rapist who went on to kill again once released.

A former high-ranking Arkansas Republican who was once close to Huckabee and who requested anonymity told Mother Jones that the destruction of the hard drives puzzled him. "I don’t know what that was about, if they had things to hide or not," he says. But, he adds, the episode fits with Huckabee's general reticence when it comes to public disclosure. "Huckabee just absolutely doesn’t trust anybody. In my experience, if you don't trust people, it's because you're not trustworthy. We see the world through our own eyes."

Apparently this came up briefly during Huckabee's 2008 presidential run, but died away quickly. And I assume that Arkansas doesn't have a law requiring gubernatorial records to remain public. But still: wow. Just wow.

Politics of the Rich, By the Rich, For the Rich

| Sat Apr. 2, 2011 11:38 PM EDT

Dan Eggen and Perry Bacon Jr. report on the start of Obama's fundraising campaign for 2012:

Facing an energized Republican Party and deep-pocketed conservative groups, President Obama is kicking off his 2012 reelection campaign with a concerted push for help from wealthy donors and liberal groups unbound by spending limits.

....Obama frequently points with pride to the role that smaller donors played in his 2008 election, when his campaign also openly discouraged spending by outside organizations. But now Obama finds himself seeking out the kind of big-money donations he has often criticized while encouraging independent groups to raise and spend unlimited money on his behalf.

Obama’s campaign manager-in-waiting, Jim Messina, has asked the party’s biggest supporters to raise $350,000 each this year, to be shared by Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee, far higher than goals set during the 2008 cycle.

I suppose that soon we'll be able to do away with even the charade that anyone with a net worth of less than a million bucks matters in the slightest. Given Obama's obvious deference to the rich over the past two years, this was probably sadly inevitable.

Obama, Libya, and Me: A Followup

| Sat Apr. 2, 2011 8:23 PM EDT

I tend not to respond very often to criticism of my blog posts because I usually figure justice has been done when I've had my say and everyone else has had theirs. Responding further usually just turns into a pissing match that accomplishes nothing.

But I guess I need to respond to some of the reactions to my post yesterday about Libya and Obama's judgment. I could pretty much ignore Brian Doherty and Doug Mataconis, who simply find it risible that I think well of Obama in the first place, but today Glenn Greenwald decided to jump in. After an apparent attempt to win a gold medal in the insult Olympics by comparing me to Britney Spears, he concedes that trust does play a role when you're deciding who to vote for:

But that's in a different universe than deciding that — once they're in power — you're going to relinquish your own critical faculties and judgment to them as a superior being, which is exactly what Drum (and Spears) announced they were doing...."[T]hinking" that way is an absolute abdication of the duties of citizenship, which compel holding leaders accountable and making informed judgment about their actions (it's a particularly bizarre mindset for someone who seeks out a platform and comments on politics for a living). It's also dangerous, as it creates a climate of unchecked leaders who bask in uncritical adoration. I honestly don't understand why someone who thinks like Drum — whose commentary I've usually found worthwhile — would even bother writing about politics; why not just turn over his blog to the White House to disseminate Obama's inherently superior commentary? And what basis does Drum have for demanding that Obama inform him or the nation of the rationale for his decisions, such as going to war in Libya; since Drum is going to trust Obama's decisions as intrinsically more worthwhile, wouldn't such presidential discussions be a superfluous act?

This strikes me as an appallingly hostile reading of what I wrote, especially for anyone who's followed my writing and knows perfectly well that I haven't reliquished my critical faculties to anyone. Still, I wrote yesterday's post hastily and maybe my intent wasn't as clear as it could have been. So let's take a second crack at it.

I think pretty highly of Barack Obama's judgment. But what does it mean to say that? Just this: that I think highly of his judgment even when I disagree with him. How could it be otherwise, after all? If, when you say that you trust somebody's judgment, what you really mean is that you trust their judgment only to the extent that they agree with you, that's hardly any trust at all. Just the opposite, in fact.

To make this more concrete, I also think highly of Glenn Greenwald's judgment on issues of civil liberties and the national security state. This means that when he takes a different position than mine, it makes me stop and think. After all, we're on roughly the same wavelength on these subjects, and they're subjects that he's often thought about longer and more deeply than me. This doesn't mean that I've outsourced my brain to Glenn, but it does mean that he influences my judgment, and that's especially true on issues that I'm unsure of.

Ditto for Obama. Unlike Glenn, perhaps, I'm unsure about the wisdom of our Libya intervention, and the fact that I'm unsure makes me more open to giving Obama's judgment a fair amount of weight in this matter. That's what it means to respect another person's judgment. On the other hand, as my post made clear, it doesn't mean that he's persuaded me. As I said twice, I think the Libya intervention was a mistake. I wouldn't have done it. But partly because a president I respect disagrees, I'm open to the possibility that I'm wrong. His position has made me stop and think.

The passage that I guess has caused me the most trouble is this one: "The reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I'd literally trust his judgment over my own." That was phrased more strongly than it should have been, but I guess I took it for granted that "any doubt at all" means "enough doubt to make me unsure of myself." If I weren't unsure of myself, after all, I'd hardly be interested in Obama's views or anyone else's.

So: did I express myself poorly? Or were these responses unfairly hostile readings of what I meant? I guess you can decide. But considering that the whole point of my post was that my trust in Obama's judgment was being "sorely tested" and that it was only intact "for now, anyway" — well, it seems pretty clear to me that I'm hardly treating Obama with "uncritical adoration." Rather, I was talking out loud about the role that trust in someone else's judgment plays in my own.

In any case, for the record, this is the point I was trying to get across. You can make up your own mind whether I succeeded.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald responds here. (See update at the bottom.)

Books of the Zeitgeist

| Sat Apr. 2, 2011 1:23 PM EDT

One of Tyler Cowen's readers asks which books are the Great Gatsby of each decade since the 20s? I take this to mean books that both sold well and have come to represent their era. Sounds like fun. Here are Tyler's picks in bold, with alternates from me:

1930s: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck. That would be my choice too, though I might add Gone With the Wind as the biggest escapist novel of a decade that really needed its escapism.

1940s: Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler. This is a tough decade. How about The Naked and the Dead instead? — though it's true that it doesn't really represent the 40s as they were lived in America.

1950s: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, with Kerouac’s On the Road as a runner-up. Both good choices. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit too, though it doesn't hold up well. And how about On the Beach?

1960s: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, with The Bell Jar and Herzog as runners-up. Hmmm. Tough decade. Valley of the Dolls? Portnoy's Complaint?

1970s: This is tough. There is Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, Stephen King, and even Peter Benchley’s Jaws. I’ll opt for Benchley as a dark horse pick, note that these aren’t my favorites but rather they must be culturally central. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is another option, as this truly is an era of popular literature. I'd choose The Serial, though I don't think it was ever a bestseller.  Or maybe The World According to Garp or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintencance.

1980s: Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Good choice. The Hunt for Red October belongs here too.

1990s: The Firm, by John Grisham, or Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible. Maybe Brokeback Mountain. Perhaps I'm being too hard on the 90s, but I'd pick The Bridges of Madison County. Also, Primary Colors, though that might be my political bent talking.

2000s: Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point. Oh come on. Let's stick with fiction. Maybe the Harry Potter series? When I think of the aughts I think of terrorism and economic collapse, but I'm not sure there were any big novels that really captured either of those things.

UPDATE: One thing that occurred to me while I was writing this, and also occurred to a few commenters, is that sometimes books written in one decade are good representations of another decade. Among WWII novels, for example, I'd say that The Caine Mutiny is more iconic of the 40s than The Naked and the Dead. But Caine was written in the 50s.

But maybe that doesn't matter. Who cares when a novel was written? Maybe Caine Mutiny is iconic of the 40s and Lord of the Rings is iconic of the 60s, even if they were written in the wrong decades.

Friday Cat Blogging - 1 April 2011

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 3:03 PM EDT

We're having an early summer here in Southern California. Yesterday it was 90 degrees outside, and you know what that means: piles of cats snoozing in the afternoon warmth. As I write this they're in almost exactly the same positions, enjoying their midday siestas. After all, what else is there to do between breakfast and dinner?

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DADT Repeal Going Smoothly

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 2:04 PM EDT

Politico reports that the repeal of DADT is going great so far:

The military’s repeal of its longstanding “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is not facing resistance from troops and is on track to take full effect this fall as planned, top commanders told a House committee on Friday.

Clifford Stanley, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Military Personnel that the military has trained 9 percent of its forces over the past month without any resistance to the new policy....Stanley, and U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William E. Gortney who also testified, said they hadn’t heard of any service members grumbling about the new policy. “I think we’re on the right path and I think midsummer is achievable” Gortney said.

That's good news. But here's my favorite part of the article:

Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), [...] wondered aloud whether DADT repeal is even necessary. He said he suspected that the gay and lesbian military who have been discharged have likely violated other standards of conduct.

Gortney quickly rejected the hypothesis, telling Scott that he had himself dismissed a Navy officer in the early 1990s, shortly after the policy was implemented, simply because the officer had told his chaplain that he was gay. The anecdote shocked Scott.

“He did not violate your standard of conduct?” Scott asked.

“No, sir,” Gortney replied.

“That’s not the answer I thought you would give,” Scott said.

To which Gortney said quickly: “It happens to be the truth.

This kind of stuff really makes you wonder. Was Scott genuinely surprised by this? Is he so stuck in the conservative bubble that he truly didn't know that the vast majority of gays and lesbians who have been discharged under DADT did nothing else wrong? These guys really need to get out more.

Republicans and the Poor

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 1:45 PM EDT

Ezra Klein writes today about Republican Party priorities:

I’m not saying that congressional Republicans don’t care about poor people.

I'm not sure why you wouldn't say that, but whatever. Onward:

But they really care about rich people. So far, the policy agenda they’ve pushed has been a mixture of very expensive tax cuts for the very wealthy and very deep cuts to a lot of programs that focus on the very poor. It’s . . . curious.

....Now they’ve moved onto deficit reduction, or at least spending cuts, and their priorities in the 2011 budget are telling. Their cuts are coming from non-defense discretionary spending. That’s a category of spending, as you can see here, that tends to focus on services to the poor, the jobless and children. Among other cuts, they’ve proposed slicing more than $1 billion off Head Start, $1.1 billion off the Public Housing Capital Fund, $752 million from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, and $5.7 billion from Pell Grants. I could, of course, go on. Democrats have tried to widen the cuts out to other categories so their impact falls less heavily on the disadvantaged, but so far, Republicans have refused. If we’re going to cut spending, we’re going to do it on the backs of the poor.

In other words, congressional Republicans don’t care about poor people. But then, that's hardly anything new. They never have before, so it's hardly surprising that they still don't.

UPDATE: And the GOP assault on Medicaid is about to gear up too. Jon Cohn has details here.

Who's Afraid of the F-Bomb?

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 12:42 PM EDT

A few years ago, after Cher and Bono dropped a couple of F-bombs on live TV, the FCC tightened up its obscenity rules and fined a bunch of broadcasters. The broadcasters fought back, and in 2009 the Supreme Court sent the case back to the 2nd Circuit Court, which overturned the FCC's new rules. So what's next? Stephanie Mencimer reports:

With the Second Circuit decision, broadcasters have been liberated to drop the F-bomb at will, and evangelical groups are seething. But what really ticks off indecency activists these days is that the case has landed squarely in the lap of the Obama administration, whose Justice Department is charged with appealing—or not—the decision to the Supreme Court on behalf of the FCC. To date, the Justice Department has twice asked for an extension for filing the appeal, which is now due April 21. Religious-right groups have accused Justice of dragging its feet to let the case simply die.

On Wednesday, Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, blasted the administration for not doing more to protect America's children from dirty words....Meanwhile, the Parents Television Council, which brought the original complaint regarding the Golden Globes broadcast in 2003, sent out an urgent appeal to supporters asking them to pressure the administration to act.

Ah yes, the Parents Television Council. I remember them. Back in 2004, when this stuff was first in the news, Mediaweek obtained an estimate of where indecency complaints came from. Answer: the Parents Television Council. That's it. In 2003-04, the PTC was responsible for over 99.8% of all indecency complaints to the FCC. I've illustrated this with the handy chart on the right.

As Stephanie points out, one reason the Justice Department might be hesitating is because the 2nd Circuit made it very clear that writing obscenity rules precise enough to be constitutional is really hard. But another reason might be that virtually no one except the PTC actually seems to care much about obscenity on television anymore. Welcome to the cable era, folks.

Unemployment Still the Problem, Not Inflation

| Fri Apr. 1, 2011 11:02 AM EDT

We had a decent jobs report today, which suggests the economy might be recovering a bit. So does that mean we need to start worrying about inflation? David Leonhardt says no:

The average hourly wage across the economy — including salaried employees — did not grow at all in March. It was $22.87, just as it had been in February. And from January to February, it rose only a single cent.

Over the last year, hourly wages have grown 1.7 percent. That matches the smallest annual increase since the recession began, in late 2007. In the middle of 2009 — when the economy was still shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs a month — the annual increase was significantly larger: about 2.5 percent.

It’s all but impossible to have an inflationary spiral if wages are not rising rapidly.

Businesses are starting to hire at moderately promising rates, but unemployment is still high, and it's going to stay high unless job growth picks up a lot. And with unemployment high, it's hard to see how any kind of broad-based inflation can stick. Unemployment is still our big problem, not inflation.