Kevin Drum - February 2013

Quote of the Day: Defining "Politically Plausible" Down

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 12:18 PM PST

From David Brooks, in a Q&A with Ezra Klein about his column today, in which he wrote (inaccurately) that the White House doesn't have a proposal to avert the sequester, "let alone one that is politically plausible":

What would be far enough, in your view? What would you like to see them offer?

My fantasy package, and I'm not running for office, would include a progressive consumption tax, and it would have chained CPI, and it would have a pretty big means-test of Medicare. I'd direct you to Yuval Levin's piece in the Times a few days ago, which seemed sensible.

I guess I shouldn't complain about this. I mean, props to Brooks for admitting that he went overboard, and props for being willing to talk to Ezra about it in a good natured way. Still, I have to chuckle when he complains about Obama not proposing a "politically plausible" plan, and then offers up an alternative that includes a progressive consumption tax, something that Republicans have been unrelentingly opposed to for decades in any reasonable form. Democrats aren't all that keen on the idea either. I think we really need to have a little chat about just what "politically plausible" really means.

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Who's Saying What About Gerrymandering?

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 11:53 AM PST

After rounding up a few comments from GOP members of Congress who are back in their districts this week talking about the sequester, Dave Weigel suggests that they're more likely to be realistic about things if they represent a swing district. Then this:

I enjoy the new, #slatepitchy argument that gerrymandering is overrated as an issue, and that it doesn't influence whether members moderate their votes or not, but sequestration's putting that to a test.

Hold on a second. Who's saying that? The argument I've heard making the rounds lately is that gerrymandering is probably responsible for a fairly modest change in the number of House seats Republicans won last year. The best guess seems to be around six or seven seats, which is nothing to sneeze at, but also a far cry from being solely responsible for the GOP's current majority. But who's been saying that gerrymandering has no effect on whether members feel any need to moderate their votes or their rhetoric? What have I missed?

UPDATE: Steve Randy Waldman suggests Weigel may have been referring to this post a few weeks ago from John Sides.

More Drones, Ever More Drones

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 11:35 AM PST

Speaking of drones, they just keep getting more and more popular. Today brings two pieces of drone news. First, Afghanistan:

The U.S. military launched 506 strikes from unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan last year, according to Pentagon data, a 72% increase from 2011 and a sign that American commanders may begin to rely more heavily on remote-controlled air power to kill Taliban insurgents as they reduce the number of troops on the ground

....The use of armed drones is likely to accelerate as most of the 66,000 U.S. troops in the country are due to withdraw by the end of 2014. The remotely piloted long-range aircraft, which kill targets with virtually no risk to American lives, carry an unmistakable attraction for military commanders.

Next, Mali:

President Obama announced Friday that about 100 U.S. troops have been deployed to the West African country of Niger, where defense officials said they are setting up a drone base to spy on al-Qaeda fighters in the Sahara.

....The drone base in Niger marks the opening of another far-flung U.S. military operation against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, in addition to ongoing combat missions in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The CIA is also conducting airstrikes against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan and Yemen....The drones will be based initially in the capital, Niamey, but military officials would like to move them eventually to the northern city of Agadez, which is closer to parts of northern Mali where al-Qaeda cells have taken root.

I don't think we should expect this trend to abate anytime soon.

UPDATE: And now this: "The United Arab Emirates is close to purchasing Predator drones from a San Diego County defense contractor, sparking concern among arms control advocates....The agreement would mark the first time a non-NATO country has obtained the American-made technology, which has reshaped modern warfare."

Can the President Target American Citizens on US Soil?

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 10:51 AM PST

A combination of uncertainty and ignorance has kept me from writing very much about either the wisdom or legality of drone strikes in general. The same is true of drone strikes against American citizens overseas. There is, obviously, a difference between killing citizens and killing foreign nationals, but I can't quite decide how important the difference is or where it should apply. On hot battlefields, there's no difference: you shoot at bad guys, and if one of them turns out to be an American turncoat, that's not a problem. But in our current war against Al Qaeda, where's the battlefield? Anywhere? Everywhere? Is it reasonable to restrict it solely to regions where American troops are actively fighting? If not, just how expansive should the definition be?

I apologize for being a squish about this, but I'm just not sure. This is one of the reasons so many of us would like to see the OLC memo spelling out the president's legal authority for targeting American citizens. Is it based on the 2001 AUMF and therefore constrained to Al Qaeda operatives, or is it based on the president's Article II authority and therefore usable against anyone? Is it geographically constrained? Is it constrained in any way?

In particular, is it, at the very least, constrained to prohibit the targeting of American citizens on US soil? Even a squish like me knows that it better be. But as Glenn Greenwald points out today, the Obama administration flatly refuses to acknowledge this:

[CIA nominee John] Brennan has been asked the question several times as part of his confirmation process. Each time, he simply pretends that the question has not been asked, opting instead to address a completely different issue. Here's the latest example from the written exchange he had with Senators after his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee; after referencing the DOJ "white paper", the Committee raised the question with Brennan in the most straightforward way possible:

Obviously, that the US has not and does not intend to engage in such acts is entirely non-responsive to the question that was asked: whether they believe they have the authority to do so. To the extent any answer was provided, it came in Brennan's next answer. He was asked:

Could you describe the geographical limits on the Administration's conduct drone strikes?"

Brennan's answer was that, in essence, there are no geographic limits to this power: "we do not view our authority to use military force against al-Qa'ida and associated forces as being limited to 'hot' battlefields like Afghanistan." He then quoted Attorney General Eric Holder as saying: "neither Congress nor our federal courts has limited the geographic scope of our ability to use force to the current conflict in Afghanistan" (see Brennan's full answer here).

I'm not happy over the wingnut attacks on pretty much all of Obama's nominees for Cabinet-level posts, and I'm loath to add fuel to the fire. But in this case, both liberals and conservatives deserve a straight answer. As CIA director, will Brennan be working under legal guidelines that allow him to target American citizens on US soil? Or, since the CIA is prohibited from operating domestically, a better question might be: will he be working under legal guidelines that allow him to work hand-in-glove with the Pentagon to target American citizens on US soil?

It's not enough to say there are no plans to do so. I should damn well hope not. But we deserve to know whether the president thinks he has the authority to do this if he ever changes his plans.

For more on this, see Adam Serwer's piece today noting that even some former Obama officials are now calling for limits to the president's unilateral authority over targeted killings.

The GOP's Benghazi Obsession Explained!

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 9:54 AM PST

Benghazi!, the long-running off-off-Broadway musical extravaganza, is still packing them in. Ed Kilgore points today to a brief review of the current state of play from NPR's Ari Shapiro, who makes an interesting point at the end:

Benghazi has become a sort of catchword. To Republicans, it symbolizes everything bad about the Obama administration. It's not the first word to fill that role. At the start of the president's first term, it was Obamacare. Later, Solyndra.

....Data from the Pew Research Center suggest not every voter is following this story equally. In November, Pew found that Republicans were twice as likely to follow Benghazi closely as Democrats or independents.

That could be because conservative media hammered the story nonstop. But the discrepancy suggests that this rallying cry could be effective at ginning up the base without driving away people on the other side, who may not be paying attention.

OK, I guess that's obvious. It's obvious after someone points it out, anyway: If you're going to make fundraising hay out of a pseudo-scandal, it's actually better if you focus on something that the rest of the world thinks is too ridiculous to bother following. Not only does this help with the fundraising pitch—the liberal media is part of the cover-up!—but you don't lose independent votes since non-wingnuts have simply tuned the whole thing out. This helps solve a mystery: why do congressional Republicans spend so much time obsessed with such palpable nonsense. Aren't they embarrassed? Answer: Maybe,1 but it's actually safer not to stray outside the fever swamp and take the risk of independents realizing what you're spending your time on.

1Then again, maybe not.

Steven Brill Explains Why Hospitals Screw the Uninsured: Because They Can

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 9:07 AM PST

Steven Brill has a gigantic cover story in Time this week about one of my pet healthcare peeves: the simply insane prices that hospitals charge uninsured patients. We often talk about American healthcare prices being 50 percent or 100 percent or even 150 percent higher than in other developed countries, and that's obviously a serious public policy problem. But those are just the prices that insurance companies pay. If you don't have insurance, and you're unlucky enough to land in the hospital, you can expect to be charged 3x, 4x, or 5x those prices. A heart attack that costs Aetna $50,000 will cost you $200,000 or more if you don't have insurance.

Why? You'd think there would be some answer more sophisticated than "because they can," but that's about the size of it. Most people who come to the emergency room have no choice and no bargaining power. Hospitals can, almost literally, charge them whatever they feel like. And as Brill documents meticulously, they do. They're not eager to talk about it, either. As one hospital spokesman told Brill when he asked to see the "chargemaster" price list used to bill uninsured patients, "Most people never pay those prices....So I’m not sure why you care." Faced with an actual bill, he got annoyed: "I’ve told you I don’t think a bill like this is relevant. Very few people actually pay those rates."

And of course, that's true. Few people do pay those rates. But it's a scandal nonetheless that the most vulnerable possible group of people you can imagine—uninsured patients with emergency problems—are routinely gouged by hospitals just because they can.

Obamacare will help when it kicks in next year because more people will be covered by commercial insurance. More could be done by either covering everyone or else mandating competitive rates even for the uninsured. Unfortunately, as Matt Yglesias says, Brill shies away from the obvious conclusion of his own research:

For reasons I do not understand after having read the conclusion twice, Brill rejects both of these ideas in favor of meaningless tinkering around the edges. He wants to alter medical malpractice law, tax hospital operating profits, and try to mandate extra price transparency. That's all fine, but it's odd. His article could not be more clear about this—health care prices are high in America because, by law, we typically allow them to be high. When foreigners force prices to be lower, they get lower prices. When Americans force prices to be lower (via Medicare), we get lower prices. If we want lower prices through new legislation, the way to get them is to write laws mandating that the prices be lowered.

Read the article anyway, though you might want to have your blood pressure meds handy when you do. Just don't pay any attention to Brill's policy recommendations. That part is all wet.

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Obama Does Indeed Have a Proposal to Avert the Sequester

| Thu Feb. 21, 2013 10:48 PM PST

It's fascinating to watch the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Brooks show. Today brings a sighting of Mr. Brooks, explaining why politicians of both parties have decided they secretly love the sequester after all:

Democrats get to do the P.C. Shimmy....Under the Permanent Campaign Shimmy, the president identifies a problem. Then he declines to come up with a proposal to address the problem. Then he comes up with a vague-but-politically-convenient concept that doesn’t address the problem (let’s raise taxes on the rich). Then he goes around the country blasting the opposition for not having as politically popular a concept. Then he returns to Washington and congratulates himself for being the only serious and substantive person in town.

Sequestration allows the White House to do this all over again. The president hasn’t actually come up with a proposal to avert sequestration, let alone one that is politically plausible.

He does have a vague and politically convenient concept. (Tax increases on the rich!). He does have a chance to lead the country into a budget showdown with furloughed workers and general mayhem, for which people will primarily blame Republicans. And he does have the chance to achieve the same thing he has achieved so frequently over the past two years, political success and legislative mediocrity.

If Brooks doesn't like Obama's proposal, that's fine. But Obama certainly has one. It includes specific cuts to entitlements, including the adoption of chained CPI for Social Security and $400 billion in various cuts to healthcare spending, along with further cuts to mandatory programs as well as to both defense and domestic discretionary programs. Altogether, it clocks in at $1.1 trillion in spending cuts and $700 billion in revenue increases, mostly gained from limiting tax deductions for high-end earners. The proposal is here. Today, just hours before Brooks wrote his column, the White House put up a blog post specifically saying that this proposal is "still on the table."

So to recap: President Obama does have a proposal. It's extremely specific. It includes cuts to entitlements. And by all measures, its roughly 2:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases is pretty popular with the public.

Brooks is right about one thing, though: it's not politically plausible. But that has nothing to do with either the reasonableness of the plan or with Obama's willingness to cut a deal. It's solely because of Republicans' flat refusal to tolerate any deficit reduction plan that includes even a dime in additional revenue. Unless you believe that any proposal which doesn't pander to this intransigence is inherently unserious—and I'm not sure why you would—it's unclear to me how this can be laid at Obama's feet.

There Are Always New and Inventive Ways to Deny Health Coverage to Risky Prospects

| Thu Feb. 21, 2013 6:08 PM PST

Brad DeLong links today to his wife, Ann Marie Marciarille, who in turn links to a New York Times article from a few days ago about small companies who choose to self-insure for health coverage. Here's the basic drill:

  1. Regulations are looser for companies that self-insure, so more small companies are doing it.
  2. Obamacare is (probably) accelerating this process.
  3. But small companies that self-insure need "stop loss" coverage, just in case one employee has a gigantic health disaster that could bankrupt them.
  4. Stop loss insurers are loosely regulated too, which means they can choose to insure only companies with young, healthy workforces.
  5. And they do.

The Times explains what happens next:

As a result, companies with less healthy work forces may find self-insuring more difficult....Insurance regulators worry that commercial insurers — and the insurance exchanges being set up in every state to offer a range of plan options to consumers — will be left with disproportionate numbers of older, sicker people who are more expensive to insure.

That, in turn, could drive up premiums for uninsured people seeking coverage in the exchanges. Since the federal government will subsidize that coverage, it, too, could face higher costs, as would some employees and employers in the traditional insurance market.

And Marciarille picks up the story from there:

The moral of the story? Wherever and whenever we have competing insurance products whose profitability is determined by calculating every health care payout as a loss, the insurance markets will respond accordingly — ever inventing more methods, even if once or twice removed, to screen those who need health insurance out of the health insurance marketplace.

This is the problem with private insurers: they only have three basic ways of making more money: (a) charging higher premiums, (b) operating more efficiently, or (c) reducing payouts. Option A is limited by competition. Option B is nice to think about, but pretty hard to implement consistently. And Option C....

Well, Option C means either denying coverage to iffy customers in the first place, or else denying treatment to sick people who you have the misfortune to cover despite your best efforts. In a free market the incentives to do these things are very strong, which means the only way to stop them from spiraling out of control is with heavy-handed regulation, of the kind they have in Switzerland. But Obamacare doesn't quite have regulations that heavy-handed, and that's going to cause some growing pains. Eventually we'll get there.

Journalism and the Death of Hildy Johnson

| Thu Feb. 21, 2013 3:34 PM PST

Megan McArdle writes today about our elite class and its growing lack of connection to the working class world:

Since I moved to Washington, I have had series of extraordinary conversations with Washington journalists and policy analysts, in which I remark upon some perfectly ordinary facet of working class, or even business class life, only to have this revelation met with amazement.

....Then there was the time I responded to the now-standard lament that graduates of elite schools tend to gravitate to banking and consulting by pointing out that traditional management rotation programs frequently involve less-than-glamorous stints in line jobs; one of my friends from business school ended up running a call center for a telecoms firm. Another very smart, very wonky person who I deeply respect argued that this was an idiotic misuse of an elite MBA, for both the company and the MBA. Which is just 100% wrong. It is not a waste to have a smart, well-educated person in telecoms  management. And senior executives at a telecom should have run a call center, or done something very similar: that's where you learn to understand your customers, and the core challenges of your business.

But many of the mandarins have never worked for a business at all, except for a think tank, the government, a media organization, or a school—places that more or less deliberately shield their content producers from the money side of things....In fact, I think that to some extent, the current political wars are a culture war not between social liberals and social conservatives, but between the values of the mandarin system, and the values of those who compete in the very different culture of ordinary businesses—ones outside glamor industries like tech or design.

Without endorsing every word in this essay, I can say that I've certainly felt a bit of this myself, even though (like Megan) I'm not exactly some sort of hardscrabble coal-miner's son who overcame a life of poverty to get to my current exalted position as a blogger for a lefty magazine. Still, I spent a couple of decades in the business world before I became a pseudo-journalist, and it does seem to make a difference in my outlook sometimes.

(Not enough of a difference, I'm sure my conservative readers would say. Nonetheless, a difference.)

As it happens, I don't have a lot to add to this. I just thought it was worth linking to. In a way, it's an ancient complaint—book learning vs. street smarts—and the big question I have is whether anything about today's elites is really very different from yesterday's. It's the same question I had after reading Chris Hayes' Twilight of the Elites.

However, there's certainly one profession that I think elitism has changed a lot, and probably not for the better: mine. Reporters of the past were a mix of everything from Walter Lippman to the working class strivers from The Front Page. But there aren't many Hildy Johnsons left today. That may not be an unalloyed bad thing, but on balance it's a loss. No matter how hard you try, it's tough to really empathize with the common problems of half the population if you don't have, and have never had, any real connection to them. I suspect that our modern trivia-centric, narrative-obsessed style of DC journalism owes a lot to this.

Spending Cuts Still (Much) More Popular Than Tax Increases

| Thu Feb. 21, 2013 11:36 AM PST

The good news for Democrats in today's new Pew/USA Today poll is that if Congress and the president fail to reach an agreement on the sequester, 49 percent of the public say they'll blame Republicans. Only 31 percent say they'll blame Obama. He's obviously winning the PR battle here.

But not all the news is so cheery. In a separate question, 70 percent said it was "essential" to pass major legislation this year to reduce the budget deficit. What's worse, there was very little support for doing this primarily through tax increases. A whopping 73 percent of the public want to address the deficit either entirely or mostly via spending cuts. Only 19 percent want to do it entirely or mostly via tax increases. It's true that most of the public prefers a deal that includes some new revenues, but that preference is small enough that it's not likely to produce any movement on taxes from Republicans.

In other news, the public is enormously in favor of raising the minimum wage; Obama's approval rating is up a bit and Republicans' approval ratings are at record lows; immigration is on a knife-edge; and nobody cares about climate change.