Kevin Drum - September 2012

Mitt Romney's Secret Plan for Afghanistan

| Mon Sep. 10, 2012 11:19 AM EDT

Here is Mitt Romney on Meet the Press yesterday, responding to criticism that he failed to say even a single word about Afghanistan in his acceptance speech:

I find it interesting that people are curious about mentioning words in a speech as opposed to policy. And so I went to the American Legion the day before I gave that speech. I went to the American Legion and spoke with our veterans there, and described my policy as it relates to Afghanistan and other foreign policy and our military. I've been to Afghanistan, and the members of our troops know of my commitment to Afghanistan and to the effort that's going on there. I have some differences on policy with the president. I happen to think those are more important than what word I mention in each speech.

And here is the sum total of what Romney said about Afghanistan in that speech:

Of course, we are still at war in Afghanistan. We still have uniformed men and women in conflict, risking their lives just as you once did. How deeply we appreciate their sacrifice. We salute them. We honor them. We respect and love them.

That's why I refer to this as a "secret plan," to go along with Romney's secret plans about taxes and budgets and preexisting conditions. Romney wants us to believe he's got some kind of detailed, deeply-considered plan to change our course in Afghanistan, but if he does, he's refusing to let any of us know about it. Apparently it's a secret.

Via Josh Gerstein, who has more.

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Please Give Us Some of Your Money

| Mon Sep. 10, 2012 7:21 AM EDT

Officially, I think we should all be more focused broadly on deception by politicians, not narrowly on lies. However, as many of you have pointed out, for fundraising purposes Mother Jones is pretty clearly focused on lies. And why not? If you got your facts from Fox News or the GOP, you'd think President Obama was raiding grandma's Medicare in order to give welfare to illegal immigrants who came to destroy America through same-sex marriage.

Luckily, you don't have to get your facts from the conservative noise machine. Mother Jones is here to fact-check the politicians, and when we expose lies, our stories are picked up and amplified by mainstream media outlets across the nation. As you know, however, MoJo is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and our journalism is mostly funded by donations. So if you happen to know any billionaires and can persuade them to throw us a million or two during this week's fundraising drive, that would be great.

But if you're not on a first-name basis with any billionaires, how about tossing ten or twenty bucks to the Mother Jones Investigative Fund instead? That's what we're really after anyway. Or even a C-note if you can swing it. It helps keep Mother Jones going, and that means that it helps keep this blog going too. Here's how to donate online:

Thanks! Every dollar helps.

Sorry, But the Job of Planetary Protection Officer is Already Taken

| Mon Sep. 10, 2012 12:40 AM EDT

Did you know that NASA has a Planetary Protection Officer? Well, they do, and her name is Catharine Conley.

Unfortunately, she does not have superpowers, and the planet she's in charge of protecting is Mars, not Earth. Also unfortunately, NASA seems to have ignored her during the preparation for the launch of the Curiosity lander, in the process violating its Prime Directive and possibly introducing terrestrial microbes to Mars. We just don't do a very good job of protecting planets, do we?

Within Hours, Mitt Romney Takes Back Everything He Said About Preexisting Conditions

| Sun Sep. 9, 2012 8:01 PM EDT

On national TV on Sunday morning, with millions of people watching, Mitt Romney told David Gregory that there were parts of Obamacare he actually liked. In fact, he said, one of the goals of his health care plan "is to make sure that those with preexisting conditions can get coverage." A few hours later, with approximately zero people listening, a spokesman quietly "clarified" what he meant:

In reference to how Romney would deal with those with preexisting conditions and young adults who want to remain on their parents’ plans, a Romney aide responded that there had been no change in Romney's position and that "in a competitive environment, the marketplace will make available plans that include coverage for what there is demand for. He was not proposing a federal mandate to require insurance plans to offer those particular features."

As it happens, we already have a competitive market for individual insurance. In addition, we already have demand for coverage of preexisting conditions. And yet, the marketplace doesn't make policies available to people with preexisting conditions.

Why? Because policies that cover preexisting conditions are big money losers unless you charge premiums high enough that no one could afford them. Because of that, nobody bothers to offer them in the first place. That's how the free market works. It would be nice if Romney could explain how he intends to square this circle.

It would also be nice if the mainstream press reported the fact that Romney doesn't plan to make sure those with preexisting conditions can get health coverage just as loudly as they reported his original misstatement. I'm not holding my breath.

UPDATE: BuzzFeed passes along yet another clarification. According to an aide, "Gov. Romney will ensure that discrimination against individuals with preexisting conditions who maintain continuous coverage is prohibited."

This has long been Romney's position, and it's not clear if it's meaningful or not. This kind of protection has been the law of the land since 1996 for people with group coverage. And people who lose group coverage already qualify for individual COBRA coverage for 18 months. So the only way Romney's statement means anything is if he's saying he would pass a law that requires insurance companies to offer permanent individual coverage at a reasonable price to people who lose their group coverage. Needless to say, Romney has never actually committed to that particular detail.

UPDATE 2: And keep in mind that even if Romney did commit to this detail, it's still far, far less than Obamacare's preexisting conditions provision, which is what Romney originally implied he supported. Obamacare simply guarantees that you can get health coverage, full stop, no matter what preexisting conditions you may have.

Mitt Romney Unveils Yet Another Secret Plan

| Sun Sep. 9, 2012 11:21 AM EDT

Now that he's definitively trailing in the polls and needs to appeal to non-wingnuts, it turns out that Mitt Romney doesn't hate Obamacare quite as much as he's been telling the tea partiers for the past year:

"Of course there are a number of things that I like in health care reform that I'm going to put in place," he said in an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. ''One is to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage." Romney also said he would allow young adults to keep their coverage under their parents' health-insurance.

Under normal circumstances, I'd write a long post about how ridiculous this is. If you guarantee that people with preexisting conditions can get coverage, people will game the system by getting coverage only when they get sick. To avoid that, you have to create a stable risk pool for insurers by mandating that everyone maintain coverage all the time. And if you have a mandate, then you need to subsidize poor people, which in turn means you have to have a funding source for the subsidies. More here.

Like I said, that's what I'd do under normal circumstances. But host David Gregory didn't bother asking Romney about any of these pesky details, and I guess I can hardly blame him since Romney wouldn't have answered. This is just another one of Romney's secret plans, like which tax loopholes he'll close, how he'll win the war in Afghanistan, and who will pay the price if Medicare costs rise faster than his growth cap. Romney has diligently refused to answer any of these questions, and he's even been fairly honest about why: if he explained all this stuff, some of the answers would be unpopular and the Obama campaign would point that out.

So that's that: in Romneyland it's ice cream sundaes all day long. And their plan to hit the gym to work off the calories? No need to worry your pretty little heads over that. They'll tell you about it later.

UPDATE: Unsurprisingly, a spokesman "clarified" Romney's statement within hours. It turns out he doesn't have any intention of making sure that people with preexisting conditions can get coverage after all. More here.

Obama is Apparently a Tougher Negotiator Than You Think

| Sat Sep. 8, 2012 9:14 PM EDT

I never have a good sense of how much to trust Bob Woodward, so I'd take the following recreated dialog with a grain of salt. Still, here it is. It's all taking place at the tail end of last year's debt ceiling talks, after John Boehner has pulled out of negotiations twice, House Republicans are loudly refusing any compromise at all and threatening to let the nation default, and the only GOP offer on the table would raise the debt ceiling for less than a year. If he agreed to it, President Obama would have to fight the same battle all over again in the middle of an election year:

“So,” the president said, “if we give $1.2 trillion now in spending cuts” — the amount in the House bill to get the first increase in the debt ceiling for about six to nine months — “what happens next time?” The Republicans would then come back next year, in the middle of the presidential campaign, and impose more conditions on the next debt ceiling increase. He could not give the Republicans that kind of leverage, that kind of weapon. It was hostage taking. It was blackmail. “This will forever change the relationship between the presidency and the Congress.

“Imagine if, when Nancy Pelosi had become speaker, she had said to George W. Bush, ‘End the Iraq war, or I’m going to cause a global financial crisis.’ ”

So, Obama said, they had to break the Republicans on this. Otherwise, they would be back whenever it suited them politically.

They were out of options, Geithner said. The only one might be accepting the House bill, loathsome as it might be. “The 2008 financial crisis will be seen as a minor blip if we default,” he said.

The president said, “The Republicans are forcing the risk of a default on us. I can’t stop them from doing that. We can have the fight now, or we can have the fight later on, but the fight is coming to us.”

So, no, Obama said, he was not going to cave. Period. He said good night, got up and left. He was very agitated.

....Obama never had to confront the veto question. A few days later, House Republicans dropped their insistence on the two-step plan. The final plan accepted a debt limit increase that would take the country through the 2012 presidential contest. It also postponed $2.4 trillion in spending cuts until early 2013.

Interesting. If this is really how it all went down, Obama is a harder-nosed negotiator than most liberals have been giving him credit for.

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Can Spain Get Competitive With Germany Fast Enough to Save the Euro?

| Sat Sep. 8, 2012 5:28 PM EDT

On Thursday I wrote that fiscal imbalances were the eurozone's fundamental problem. In a nutshell, if the euro is going to survive, either periphery countries have to become more competitive and boost their exports or else core countries will have to subsidize them with gigantic amounts of aid pretty much forever. Unfortunately, neither of those options seems very likely.

But James Wimberley says things might not be as bleak as I think. Spain is the current epicenter of Europe's problems, and Gavyn Davies writes in the Financial Times that Spain's labor costs have been converging toward the European average for the past three years and could become fully competitive within another couple of years. James says this actually understates the improvement Spain is making:

Spain itself is part of the Euro average. So are the other countries in trouble: Greek and Irish labour costs have also shrunk, and Italian ones have plateaued. If you look at Spanish labour costs relative to the trade-surplus Euro core (France, Germany, Netherlands, etc) the improvement is even sharper.

I was curious about that, so I took a look at a simpler comparison: Spain vs. Germany. In this case, it turns out that convergence is more like three or four years away, not two:

The main reason the chart begins in 2000 is because that's when the data series starts, but it's not a bad starting point anyway. 2000 is just before the big post-euro runup, and represents a time when Spain and Germany were fairly competitive with each other. If they can return to a point where they're relatively as competitive as 2000, Spain could start digging itself out of its troubles and the euro could survive.

But that's a big if. It assumes no big shocks — like, say, Greece exiting the euro. It assumes that both Spain and Germany maintain their paths of the past three years. It assumes that the euro can survive three or four more years of fiscal imbalances. It assumes that austerity doesn't destroy Spain's economy completely. It assumes that being competitive with Germany is enough to make Spain competitive with the rest of the world too.

That's a lot of ifs, and it's why I remain fairly pessimistic. Still, it goes to show that, outside of Greece, Europe's problems may not be impossible. If Germany were willing to do something to accelerate convergence between the core and periphery, not just stay on the present path, and commit to gradually rising cross-country fiscal transfers, then better days might not even be all that far off. I'm not sure what the odds are of that, though.

Friday Cat Blogging - 7 September 2012

| Fri Sep. 7, 2012 2:47 PM EDT

Today's catblogging demonstrates the changing of the guard around here. For many years, freshly laundered sheets were Inkblot's exclusive preserve. In fact, the entire bed was his exclusive preserve. I guess he chased Domino off it once too many times. But that's slowly changing, and Domino is now spending increasing amounts of time curled up at our feet. Last week, for the first time in years, she gingerly sidled up to a pile of lovely, warm sheets, twirled around a few times to get her bearings, and then promptly fell asleep.

Today, however, she is being forced to take terrible, nasty, yucky little green pills. It's for her own good, but she doesn't believe us and she's fighting pretty hard against the indignity of it all. It's only going to get worse over the next ten days, and I'm hoping the vet tells us we can just crush them up and put them in her cat food. We'll see.

Weird Republican Outrage Watch

| Fri Sep. 7, 2012 2:06 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan just put up a post that happens to include a video of Marco Rubio making a joke a couple of years ago about a blizzard-induced power outage in Washington DC: "The president," he said, "couldn't find anywhere to set up a teleprompter to announce new taxes." It got big yuks from the CPAC crowd.

Anyway, this reminded me of something: Republicans sure have a lot of bizarrely puerile criticisms of President Obama, don't they? I don't mean big policy stuff. I'm not talking about death panels or EPA regulations or Dodd-Frank or any of that. I'm talking about things like this:

  • The endless outrage over his return of a Winston Churchill bust that the British government had loaned to George W. Bush.
  • The never-gets-old tittering over his use of a teleprompter.
  • The talk-radio jihad against the Chevy Volt.
  • The indignation over Michelle Obama's effort to get kids to eat better.

This stuff is just weird. I guess there must have been similarly juvenile stuff that animated liberals back when Bush was president, but what? Pretzel jokes?

Why Did the Labor Force Shrink So Much in August?

| Fri Sep. 7, 2012 1:01 PM EDT

From the LA Times today:

The Labor Department said the jobless rate dropped over the month, to 8.1% from 8.3% in July, but that came as many people dropped out of the labor market. In a nation where the population is growing, a shrinking labor force suggests that many workers are giving up job searches because they are striking out in the employment market or don't see good prospects.

That's what you'd think, all right. And yet, although the number of people not in the labor force shot up by about half a million in August, the number of "discouraged workers" didn't budge. So what caused the labor force shrinkage?

Beats me. But BLS data does suggest one thing: the shrinkage came almost entirely among those with a high school diploma or less. Among that group, the labor force shrank by 637,000. Among those with bachelor's degrees, the labor force grew by 707,000. This is for workers 25 and older, so it has nothing to do with an influx of college students graduating this summer (and I'm using seasonally adjusted figures anyway).

I'm not sure what this means. Maybe it's just noise. Or maybe I'm not reading the data carefully enough — an occupational hazard among us amateurs. Still, something seems a little off here. Why did so many high school grads (and dropouts) leave the labor force?