Kevin Drum - September 2013

As Budget Iceberg Nears, Republicans Are Eagerly Drilling Holes in the Lifeboat

| Fri Sep. 13, 2013 11:33 AM EDT

Congress has a grueling vacation schedule this month, and this will probably prevent them from doing any real work on passing a stopgap funding bill to keep the government running after September 30. So here's the answer:

One group of conservatives on Thursday pressed what they called a compromise: a one-year stopgap spending bill that would raise the debt ceiling for a year, delay all aspects of the health care law for a year, and give back some of the Pentagon cuts as a sweetener. Backers insisted on Thursday that it was a package Mr. Obama should be able to accept.

Why yes! In return for Democrats doing something they hate, Republicans will agree to make them do something else they hate. That's Negotiating 101, folks!

We are doomed.

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Go Ahead and Drink Lots of Water. Just Don't Be Fooled Into Thinking It Will Improve Your Health.

| Fri Sep. 13, 2013 10:18 AM EDT

Oh man:

First lady Michelle Obama led Wisconsin high school students in a toast to “the best drink in town” Thursday as she launched a campaign to encourage people to drink more water — something she said was the single best thing Americans could do to improve their health.

“Water is so basic, and because it is so plentiful, sometimes we just forget about it amid all the ads we watch on television and all the messages we receive every day about what to eat and drink,” Mrs. Obama said. “The truth is, water just gets drowned out.”

We all know this isn't true, right? You should just drink when you're thirsty. You don't need eight cups of water a day, and drinking boatloads of water doesn't improve your health. It doesn't clear your kidneys of toxins, it doesn't improve organ function, it doesn't help you lose weight, it doesn't prevent headaches, and it doesn't improve your skin tone. More here.

On the other hand, if the First Lady's message is to drink water instead of sugary crap, that would be fine. Unfortunately, that message got ditched long ago, a victim of corporate realities. According to food scientist/activist Marion Nestle, Obama's anti-childhood obesity campaign "is premised on the idea that change won’t happen without buy-in from the food industry."

Which is, sadly, probably true, and the article above suggests that the food industry has accepted the water message because beverage companies all make as much money from selling bottled water as they do from selling soda. So whatever. The Diet Coke brand manager may not be thrilled with this water initiative, but the Dasani guy thinks it's just peachy.

British Banks About to Get More Consumer Friendly

| Thu Sep. 12, 2013 11:17 PM EDT

One of the things that keeps people from switching banks is that it's a pain in the ass. In Britain, they decided to do something about that:

Under orders from the U.K. government to remove barriers to competition, large and small lenders alike have spent two years and a total of about £750 million ($1.2 billion) preparing to make it possible for checking-account customers to switch banks within seven business days. Starting Monday, the banks will have to handle the process of moving accounts and making sure that automatic bill payments and money transfers are shifted seamlessly to the customer's new bank

The experiment is being closely watched not just in Britain but also by industry officials and policy makers in the U.S., where banks aren't obligated to assist customers who want to defect to a rival institution and the switching process can drag on for more than a month. Industry consultants said the British project could become a template for banks in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Uh huh. Sure it could. I'm sure that a year from now the finance lobby will have prepared a dozen white papers explaining what a disaster this has turned out to be for British customers, and how adopting it in the U.S. would raise costs for everyone and all but destroy consumer banking. And that will be that. After all, if banks say something would be bad for consumers, who could doubt them?

AIPAC Sure Got Trounced on Syria, Didn't They?

| Thu Sep. 12, 2013 7:41 PM EDT

MJ Rosenberg dances a gleeful dance today about AIPAC's failure to move the needle on Syria:

Reports from Capitol Hill reveal that AIPAC's big lobbying day for war with Syria changed no votes. Not one

....The reason it failed can be described as a shift in the zeitgeist. The American people do not want to militarily engage in the Middle East again. It has had it — which is no surprise after Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and even the democratic collapse in Egypt.... America is no longer buying what the neocons are selling. As Phil Ochs would say: we aint a marching anymore.

I'd dial down the triumphalism a bit myself, but Rosenberg does raise a question I've been wondering about too: What happened to AIPAC? Did they really get blown off as badly as they seem to have been? Did they not put much effort into this? Or was public opinion just too strong?

Frankly, the latter seems the least likely. Public opinion has never stopped them before. Nonetheless, they seem to have had about as much influence as Paul Krugman at a tea party meeting. So what happened?

Syria Diplomacy Starting to Break Up on the Shoals of Reality

| Thu Sep. 12, 2013 2:22 PM EDT

Here's the latest from Syria:

Syria will start handing over information on its chemical weapons to international groups a month after it signs the Chemical Weapons Convention, President Bashar Assad has told a Russian TV channel....“I believe the agreement will come into force a month after the signing and Syria will start submitting data on its chemical weapons stockpile to international organizations. These are standard procedures and we are going to stick to them,” he said.

Meanwhile, the UN says that it has received a letter from Syria on the country’s intention to join the treaty banning the production of chemical arms, their stockpiling and use. The Syrian government’s letter of accession is being translated, AP cited UN associate spokesman Farhan Haq as saying Thursday. Signing the letter accession begins the process for a country to become party to the international agreement, the official said.

It doesn’t mean that Syria will sign the documents, fulfill the obligations and that’s it. It’s a bilateral process aimed, first of all, at making the US stop pursuing its policy of threats against Syria,” Assad said, adding that a lot would also depend on the extent to which Russia’s proposal is accepted.

The Washington Post has a more definitive quote from Assad's interview: "When we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack, and also ceases arms deliveries to terrorists, then we will believe that the necessary processes can be finalized."

So....this doesn't sound very promising, does it? Assad is apparently saying that Syria will (a) sign the convention, (b) wait a month, (c) start submitting data, and then (d) eventually start getting rid of its chemical weapons. Or maybe not. It all depends on whether the U.S. stops arming the rebels. Stay tuned.

Chart of the Day: Public Ignorance About Medicare is Really, Really High

| Thu Sep. 12, 2013 1:22 PM EDT

Here's your Medicare myth of the day: It turns out that a majority of Americans believe that retirees get about as much from Medicare as they pay in during their lifetimes. Or maybe even less.

As it turns out, this is precisely the opposite of the truth. The best estimate out there suggests that a single male will pay $60,000 in Medicare taxes over his lifetime and receive $170,000 in benefits during retirement.1 That's a 3:1 benefit ratio—and the numbers are more favorable for women and way more favorable for couples. Medicare is just about the most amazing bargain imaginable. Most of us don't come within a country mile of actually paying for all the care we get.

It also turns out that when you ask people why Medicare costs are rising, they rate fraud and poor management at the top and new technology at the bottom. The truth, again, is just the opposite. Medicare has some fraud problems, but they're fairly modest. It's basically a pretty well managed program. New drugs and new treatments, however, are responsible for nearly half of the increase in Medicare costs over the past few decades. It's the #1 cost driver by a ton. Adrianna McIntyre has the details here.

What this shows, once again, is the power of right-wing ideas in American discourse. After years of misleading the public about death panels and waste and taxes, the public pretty much believes it. Medicare isn't welfare; we paid for it! Costs aren't rising because we all insist on the latest and greatest treatments even if they don't work; it's lousy management! Welcome to conservo-land.

1Since this always comes up: yes, this is adjusted for inflation and investment returns. From the report: "The 'lifetime value of taxes' is based upon the value of accumulated taxes, as if those taxes were put into an account that earned a 2 percent real rate of return (that is, 2 percent plus inflation). The 'lifetime value of benefits' represents the amount needed in an account (also earning a 2 percent real interest rate) to pay for those benefits."

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Mitch McConnell Earns the Wrath of Anti-Obamacare Jihadists

| Thu Sep. 12, 2013 11:47 AM EDT

Today brings the weirdest fact check ever. It turns out that Mitch McConnell's primary opponent, Matt Bevin, has leveled the worst accusation that it's possible to accuse a fellow Republican of. So what is it? Pedophilia? Raising taxes? Putting a solar panel on his house?

Nope. It's insufficient dedication to destroying Obamacare. And McConnell is fighting back by enlisting the Washington Post's fact checker to check some facts. But here's what prompted Glenn Kessler to give Bevin a thermonuclear four Pinocchios:

McConnell, as Obama would attest, has been a consistent thorn in the side of the administration on the health-care law. For instance, McConnell helped ensure that not a single Republican—including even moderates who were sympathetic to Obama’s aims–voted for the final version of the law....McConnell’s office provided The Fact Checker with links to the more than 100 speeches, made between June 2009 and March 2010, and they were often fairly tough. Indeed, as Talking Points Memo has noted, the irony is rich that anti-Obamacare machine McConnell helped foster has now turned against him.

This is....weird. As even Kessler acknowledges, Bevin's attack is solely about defunding Obamacare, not about opposing it back in 2010. I mean, just watch the attack ad. It's crystal clear. And yet, the best McConnell can do is point to 100 speeches given before Obamacare passed? He's all but conceding that Bevin is right.

I certainly agree about the richness of the irony that McConnell's anti-Obamacare machine has turned against him. And I agree that on a tactical basis, McConnell is correct that the anti-Obamacare jihad is virtually certain to fail and virtually certain to hurt Republicans in the end. His political sense on this is better than Bevin's.

Nonetheless, on a purely factual basis, it sure looks to me like Bevin is right. In the fight against defunding Obamacare, McConnell is pretty plainly not on the side of the tea partiers who want to see their representatives battle it out to the bitter end. So why all the Pinocchios?

No, Obama Didn't Plan on Syrian Inspections. He Did Something Better.

| Thu Sep. 12, 2013 10:37 AM EDT

Can we please get over the silliness I'm hearing from a few quarters that President Obama had gamed out the whole Syria affair before it even happened? It's embarrassing. John Kerry made an obviously unscripted comment—which the press twisted into a "gaffe" because, hey, that's what they do—and Russia seized on it for reasons of its own. Perhaps to gum up the works. Perhaps to get itself out of a jam it was tired of. Who knows? But Obama pretty plainly didn't plan it and didn't welcome it.

There's really no reason to go down this path anyway. If you want to give Obama credit, give him credit for something he deserves: being willing to recognize an opportunity when he sees it. I can guarantee you that George W. Bush wouldn't have done the same. But Obama was flexible enough to see that he had made mistakes; that congressional approval of air strikes was unlikely; and that the Russian proposal gave him a chance to regroup and try another tack. That's not normal presidential behavior, and it's perfectly praiseworthy all on its own. 

In the meantime, it's rock solid certain that Assad isn't going to launch another gas attack anytime soon, which means that, by hook or by crook, Obama has achieved his goal for now. No, it's not the way he planned it, but the best war plans seldom survive contact with reality, and the mark of a good commander is recognizing that and figuring out to react. It may not be pretty to watch it unfold in public in real time, but it's nonetheless the mark of a confident and effective commander-in-chief. It's about time we had one.

Dems Getting Ready to Roll Over on Budget Yet Again

| Thu Sep. 12, 2013 12:55 AM EDT

Since House Republicans have steadfastly refused to pass a FY2014 budget—mostly on the peculiar grounds that if they did, it would force them to open negotiations with the Senate and run the risk of, um, negotiating—the only way to keep the government running for the next few months is via a short-term stopgap called a Continuing Resolution. So that's where all the budget action is right now. What will be in the CR? Jonathan Cohn gives us a peek at where we stand right now:

The White House, in its 2014 budget, called for spending levels of $1.058 trillion during the next fiscal year....Senate Democrats passed a similar proposal. The original House Republican budget, the one crafted by Paul Ryan, sought $967 billion in total spending.

This new House Republican proposal calls for spending levels of $988 billion. As Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, says, “That number is intolerable.... Why is the compromise between $1058 billion for the Senate, $1058 billion for the White House, and 967 for the House $988 billion?”....And it’s even less of a compromise than it seems at first blush. The extra spending in the new House proposal—the difference between the $967 billion in the original budget and the $988 billion in the new one—is almost entirely in additional defense spending.

....For the proposal to become law, Senate Democrats would have to approve it. So would Obama....Precisely because the proposal would extend only through December, they seem less likely to fight it, as Salon's Brian Beutler and MSNBC's Suzy Khimm have noted....The danger, of course, is that undoing the cuts will be even more difficult if they've been in place for another two-and-a-half months.

The House Republican caucus may be crazy and its leadership may be weak. But they’re laying the foundation for a debate that will end with spending cuts that further weaken the economic recovery—and continue to undermine vital government services.

Hooray! Liberals are getting ready to cave in without a fight yet again. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, doesn't it?

Facebook Founder Talks About NSA Surveillance

| Wed Sep. 11, 2013 10:13 PM EDT

Mark Zuckerberg probably isn't America's greatest spokesman for the value of allowing people to maintain their privacy. He is, after all, the guy who declared a few years ago that privacy was no longer a "social norm." Nonetheless, at today's TechCrunch conference in San Francisco, Michael Arrington decided to ask him what he thought about all the recent revelations of NSA surveillance. Here's what he said:

It's our government's job to protect all of us, and also to protect our freedoms and protect the economy—and companies. And I think that they did a bad job of balancing those things here. Frankly I think the government blew it. I think they blew it on communicating the balance of what they were going for here with this.

The morning after this started breaking a bunch of people asked them what they thought, and the government's comment was, oh don't worry, basically we're not spying on any Americans.

And it's like, oh wonderful, that's really helpful to companies who are trying to serve people around the world. That's really going to inspire confidence in American internet companies. Thanks for going out there and being really clear about what you're doing. So I think that was really bad.

I guess the guy is consistent, anyway. As near as I can tell, he really doesn't care about privacy. The only part of this whole episode that stuck in his craw was the NSA's public statement that its mission is to spy on foreigners, something that he's afraid will hurt Facebook's business.

Which it might—though probably only slightly. Still, you'd think somebody in Zuckerberg's business might have developed a slightly broader view of these things by now. There was more going on here than just a momentary breakdown in the NSA's communications shop.