Kevin Drum - April 2012

Yet Another Retired Spook Says Netanyahu is a Nutcase

| Sat Apr. 28, 2012 11:36 AM EDT

I know Israeli politics is even crankier and more partisan than ours, but even so it's hard not be impressed by the number of national security figures who have recently suggested that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is basically a nutcase. Here's the latest:

“I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings,” said Yuval Diskin, who stepped down last May after six years running the Shin Bet, Israel’s version of the F.B.I.

“I have observed them from up close,” Mr. Diskin said. “I fear very much that these are not the people I’d want at the wheel.” Echoing Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, Mr. Diskin also said that the government was “misleading the public” about the likely effectiveness of an aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

....Ronen Bergman, an Israeli analyst and author of the 2008 book “The Secret War With Iran,” said in an interview that Mr. Diskin’s comments were significant because he left the government in good standing with Mr. Netanyahu — unlike Mr. Dagan, who was forced out — and because he was widely respected “for being professional and honest and completely disconnected from politics.”

In somewhat related news, the LA Times reports that President Obama is playing good cop to Netanyahu's bad cop:

U.S. officials said they might agree to let Iran continue enriching uranium up to 5% purity, which is the upper end of the range for most civilian uses, if its government agrees to the unrestricted inspections, strict oversight and numerous safeguards that the United Nations has long demanded.

....A senior administration official said that if Iran fulfills U.S. and other world powers' demands for strict enforcement of U.N. monitoring and safeguards, "there can be a discussion" of allowing low-level domestic enrichment, "and maybe we can get there, potentially." But the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, emphasized that such discussions remained only a small possibility because Iran has shown so little willingness to meet international demands.

Like Diskin, I continue to have my doubts that Israel could effectively take out Iran's nuclear facilities on its own. I say this with a keen appreciation that I don't know squat about operational military affairs, but even so, I still don't see it. They could unquestionably do a bunch of damage, but given the distances involved and the size of the Israeli Air Force, it's really hard to believe that they could do much more than set back the Iranian program a year or so.

All of which keeps me wondering what's really going on here. Is Netanyahu really hellbent on a military strike? Or is there some kind of complicated Israeli-U.S. bluff unfolding? Neither option quite seems wholly believable, so I don't really know what to believe. Stay tuned.

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Friday Cat Blogging & Fundraising - 27 April 2012

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 1:57 PM EDT

On the left we have a rare action shot of Inkblot. This isn't rare because he never walks around, it's rare because I'm not a quick enough photographer to catch him very often before he either flops onto the ground or else rushes up to nuzzle the camera lens. But this time I did, right in the middle of all our glorious spring foliage. And on the right, we have a classic: a cat in a bag. It never gets old, does it?

But you know what else we get in spring aside from glorious foliage? Spring fundraising! Over on the right Clara and Monika have 15 reasons you should help support our investigative journalism, and it's an impressive list that includes pink slime, Vivian Maier, exploding Pintos, redefining rape, and our invention of the po' boy. But I'll add two more right below, because there's more to life than investigative journalism, right? Here's how to donate:

As always, many thanks to those of you who throw a few dollars our way. It's what keeps us going, cats and humans both.

Water Really is More Important Than Money

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 12:54 PM EDT

Burt Likko has today's Complaint of the Day™:

Why is it that I need to create a not-less-than-twelve-character username, consisting of at least one capital letter, at least one lowercase letter, at least one punctuation symbol, and at least one number, and then create a unique password of not less than twelve characters, also consisting of at least one capital letter, at least one lowercase letter, at least one punctuation symbol, and at least one number, and go through a 258-bit double-encryption process to get my water bill from the County of Los Angeles online?

Impressive! Congratulations, DWP! I just went through my annual ritual of changing all my online passwords because, you know, it seems like a good idea, right? And I didn't find a single site that wouldn't accept an 8-character password with at least one uppercase letter, one lowercase letter, and one number. That includes three or four passwords for various financial institutions. But I guess water is super special or something.

Can Clean Energy be a Wedge Issue in 2012?

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 12:15 PM EDT

Rolling Stone's latest interview with President Obama was pretty dull, and in any case I nearly became ill just from reading the cloying, self-congratulatory introduction by (of course) Jann Wenner. I made it up to "Having complimented me during our last interview on my brightly colored socks...." and had to get up and take a break.

But David Roberts reminds me that although Obama made no news, he did make a worthwhile point about the Republican electorate:

Given all we've heard about and learned during the GOP primaries, what's your take on the state of the Republican Party, and what do you think they stand for?

First of all, I think it's important to distinguish between Republican politicians and people around the country who consider themselves Republicans. I don't think there's been a huge change in the country. If you talk to a lot of Republicans, they'd like to see us balance the budget, but in a balanced way.

....But what's happened, I think, in the Republican caucus in Congress, and what clearly happened with respect to Republican candidates, was a shift to an agenda that is far out of the mainstream — and, in fact, is contrary to a lot of Republican precepts. I said recently that Ronald Reagan couldn't get through a Republican primary today, and I genuinely think that's true. You have every candidate onstage during one of the primary debates rejecting a deficit-reduction plan that involved $10 in cuts for every $1 of revenue increases. You have a Republican front-runner who rejects the Dream Act, which would help young people who, through no fault of their own, are undocumented, but who have, for all intents and purposes, been raised as Americans. You've got a Republican Congress whose centerpiece, when it comes to economic development, is getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency.

....I think it's fair to say that this has become the way that the Republican political class and activists define themselves.

This isn't the biggest insight in the world, or anything, but it's something I try to keep firmly in mind. Mostly I fail, but it's still worth keeping in mind: lots of conservatives may very well be true believers who inhale Drudge and Rush and Fox News, but lots of them aren't. They're just ordinary, non-fire-breathing folks who happen to be a little more conservative than me. This presents an opportunity for liberals, of course, and David suggests that one area ripe for wedge making is clean energy:

Obama’s contention is that the GOP political class and activist base have worked themselves into a blind ideological fury, but most people who identify as Republican do not share their rigidity. They are more likely to lean in the direction of Independents and moderates.

If this is true, it identifies a political vulnerability. Democrats ought to be able to exploit the differences between the masses and the ideologues, to set them at odds with one another.

I’m not sure how many genuine “wedge issues” there are, actually, but one that shows up in the polls over and over again is clean energy. As I wrote back in January, clean energy is a wedge issue that favors Democrats.

Read the whole thing to get the details of David's argument. My guess is that this is unlikely to become a major campaign issue on its own, but you never know. If the right event comes along, it could push this into the spotlight and force Romney to take some unpopular hardline positions. Ideally, I suppose we'd discover a huge shale deposit in Yosemite National Park and then demand that Romney disown all the folks on the right who would immediately pop up to insist that the Obama administration is anti-growth for opposing a drilling rig on top of Half Dome. That might do it.

We Should Be Tough On Crime, Unless It's Crime We Approve Of

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 11:17 AM EDT

It's pretty hard to keep up with the faux outrage these days. Just this morning I read that Darrell Issa is getting ready to hold Eric Holder in contempt over the right's favorite endless whipping boy of the past year, Fast & Furious, but I guess this is already old news. Yawn. Apparently the latest ginned-up outrage comes from a video in which an EPA official recaps a pep talk he gave to his team two years ago:

It was kind of like how the Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean. They'd go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they'd find the first five guys they saw and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.

Ouch. Maybe not the best analogy to use. But let's hear the rest:

And so you make examples out of people who are in this case not compliant with the law. Find people who are not compliant with the law, and you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them, and there is a deterrent effect there. And, companies that are smart see that, they don't want to play that game, and they decide at that point that it's time to clean up.

Ah. So he wants his team to go after people who break the law and hit them hard. Set an example. That sounds very....conservative. James Q. Wilson would approve, no? Unless, of course, it's environmental laws we're talking about. In that case, I guess it's better just to ignore them.

Yet More Mind-Boggling Compensation News From Wall Street

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 10:30 AM EDT

Here's some heartwarming news from the LA Times today:

Less than a year before the 2008 collapse of Lehman Bros. plunged the global economy into a terrifying free fall, the Wall Street firm awarded nearly $700 million to 50 of its highest-paid employees, according to internal documents reviewed by The Times.

.... The rich pay packages for so many people raised eyebrows even among compensation experts and provided fresh evidence of the money-driven Wall Street culture that was blamed for triggering the financial crisis. "Many people are going to be stunned at how well some people were being paid," said Brian Foley, an executive compensation expert in White Plains, N.Y. "This wasn't a matter of five or six people being paid a lot."

....The records illustrate that enormous pay wasn't limited to top executives but was dished out to a wide range of traders and others who sometimes took home even bigger paychecks than the CEOs who ran their companies.

It's nothing to get upset about, though. Just a few bad apples. The exception that proves the rule. The black sheep of the family. Surely you don't believe that all of Wall Street was doing this, do you?

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Economy is Doing OK, But Not Great

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 9:53 AM EDT

I suppose I should do a pro forma post about today's GDP announcement, so here it is: GDP increased 2.2% last quarter. The general consensus is that this is "meh." It's not great, especially for an economy supposedly coming out of a recession, but it's not horrible either, and it might get revised upward next month anyway. Bottom line: if it's a blip, it's no big deal. If it's the first sign of a slowing economy, it's pretty bad news. But we'll have to wait and see. More details here.

Government-Run Healthcare is More Efficient Than Private Healthcare

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Can the government provide healthcare more efficiently than the private market? There's no simple answer to that, but a couple of recent data points suggest the answer is yes.

First there's Medicare. It's true that long-term Medicare costs remain our most critical budget problem, thanks to aging baby boomers and ever-expanding treatments for chronic illnesses and end-of-life care. But per-capita Medicare spending has been on a long downward trend, and that trend has been so steady and predictable that a recent study suggested that spending growth per beneficiary over the next decade would be close to zero. Earlier this week we got some confirmation of this when the annual Social Security Trustees report was released. Most of the media attention focused on Social Security, whose financial position deteriorated compared to last year thanks to a slowing economy and an aging population. But using the same economic forecasts, the trustees nonetheless projected no deterioration in Medicare's financial picture. Why? "Once you dig into the numbers," says the Washington Post's Sarah Kliff, "the most plausible explanation is a pretty encouraging one: Our health-care system is getting better at delivering the same medicine more efficiently."

And there's more. On Wednesday, Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll reported on a new study of Medicaid spending by states. Despite years of horror stories about Medicaid bankrupting state budgets, the study found that most of the increase over the past decade has simply been due to inflation and population growth, not the rising cost of medical care. Adjusted for inflation and population, it turns out that Medicaid spending rose by less than 4% between 2002 and 2011. (That's the dotted line in the chart on the right.) Why has Medicaid done so well? The study quotes Vernon Smith, former Medicaid director for Michigan:

When you look at the rate of growth for all the major payers — Medicaid, Medicare, employer-sponsored insurance, National Health Expenditures — what you see is that no other payer has constrained the rate of growth in spending as well as Medicaid has. [] The reason is that no payer has been as motivated to undertake cost containment as state governments.

This is a key insight, and it doesn't apply only to state governments. One of the problems with the employer-centered healthcare model that we adopted accidentally during and after World War II is that it does a pretty good job of hiding costs. Sure, our premiums and copays rise every year, but most of us have very little idea how much our medical insurance really costs. We pay a small portion, and the rest is, from our point of view, effectively free. By contrast, in European countries, which have done a much better job of controlling costs than the U.S., spending comes largely out of tax dollars, which means that legislatures and taxpayers have to face up to the cost of healthcare every year when they pass a budget. The fact that the process is played out in the rough and tumble of the political spotlight gives everyone a strong incentive to hold down spending. After all, rising costs mean rising taxes.

Until the cost of medical care bites, Americans won't put a lot of pressure on the healthcare industry to rein in its prices and administer care more efficiently. Taxpayer-supported national healthcare could help us get there. The relative efficiency of Medicare and Medicaid are bellwethers we should pay attention to.

Sometimes Dumb Science Turns Out to be Pretty Smart

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 12:12 AM EDT

Members of Congress love to grandstand about allegedly idiotic studies being funded by federal grants. But guess what? It turns out that a lot of this dumb sounding research ends up being pretty useful:

Federally-funded research of dog urine ultimately gave scientists and understanding of the effect of hormones on the human kidney, which in turn has been helpful for diabetes patients. A study called “Acoustic Trauma in the Guinea Pig” resulted in treatment of early hearing loss in infants. And that randy screwworm study? It helped researchers control the population of a deadly parasite that targets cattle costing the government $250,000 but ultimately saving the cattle industry more than $20 billion, according to Cooper’s office.

More here.

Zealots to the Left of Me, Zealots to the Right of Me

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 6:08 PM EDT

A "self-perpetuating oligarchy" is an organization where the current leadership plays a strong role in picking its successors. Corporations are an example: the board of directors chooses a CEO, who periodically nominates new members to the board, which eventually chooses the next CEO.

But corporations are only weakly self-perpetuating, since boards usually don't have a lot of loyalty to a particular style of management and CEOs usually don't care all that much who takes over after they retire. Beside, CEOs can be fired. A much better example is the Catholic Church: popes appoint cardinals unilaterally, and the College of Cardinals elects a pope when the old one dies. What's more, popes can't be fired and they care a lot about appointing cardinals who are ideologically sympatico. Mark Kleiman, after reading about the Church's recent humiliation of American nuns for being insufficiently anti-sex, comments:

As the characteristic risks of the democratic republic are corruption and demagogy, and the characteristic risks of hereditary rule are incompetent rulers and succession struggles, the characteristic risk of the self-perpetuating oligarchy is gerontocracy.

For most of the history of the Catholic Church, even the well-fed and well-cared-for tended to drop off by around age 70. So gerontocracy wasn’t a big threat. But modern nutrition, sanitation, and medicine have extended the life of the body by more years than they’ve extended the acuity of the mind. John Paul II put in a rule to get rid of aging Cardinals — mostly so he could complete the process of packing the College with members of his own faction — but didn’t apply the rule to himself, and continued to wear the Triple Tiara until he was long past it.

So — from a secularist perspective — here’s wishing a very long life to Pope Benedict XVI. I doubt that his commitment of the Church to the side of reaction and plutocracy around the world — continuing the work of John Paul II — is now reversible. So the faster the whole thing crashes and burns, the better.

It seems like every time I turn around I'm confronted by growing extremism. The Catholic Church is, increasingly, little more than an angry collection of reactionary old men who hate the modern world. The Republican Party is a refuge for bright-eyed true believers intent on tearing down the modern state. The state of Israel, unable to break the grip of its most expansionist zealots, is busily wreaking its own destruction and doing its best to drag us along with them. Large swaths of the Muslim world remain captured by the fever dreams of its most radical factions.

Unfortunately, none of this seems to be crashing and burning. Not yet, anyway. So when does the wave finally crest and start to break?

Or am I just imagining all this because I'm in a bit of a punk mood today?