Kevin Drum

This Little History Lesson Should Terrify Vladimir Putin

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 12:58 PM EST

Why did the Soviet Union lose control of its satellite states behind the Iron Curtain in 1989? Lots of reasons, but the proximate cause was a disastrous war in Afghanistan; plummeting oil prices; and a resulting economic crisis. Here is Yegor Gaidar:

The timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to September 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices, and Saudi Arabia quickly regained its share in the world market. During the next six months, oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed by approximately the same amount in real terms. As a result, the Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive.

The Soviet leadership was confronted with a difficult decision on how to adjust....Instead of implementing actual reforms, the Soviet Union started to borrow money from abroad while its international credit rating was still strong. It borrowed heavily from 1985 to 1988, but in 1989 the Soviet economy stalled completely. The money was suddenly gone. The Soviet Union tried to create a consortium of 300 banks to provide a large loan for the Soviet Union in 1989, but was informed that only five of them would participate and, as a result, the loan would be twenty times smaller than needed.

The Soviet Union then received a final warning from the Deutsche Bank and from its international partners that the funds would never come from commercial sources. Instead, if the Soviet Union urgently needed the money, it would have to start negotiations directly with Western governments about so-called politically motivated credits. In 1985 the idea that the Soviet Union would begin bargaining for money in exchange for political concessions would have sounded absolutely preposterous to the Soviet leadership. In 1989 it became a reality, and Gorbachev understood the need for at least $100 billion from the West to prop up the oil-dependent Soviet economy.

....Government-to-government loans were bound to come with a number of rigid conditions. For instance, if the Soviet military crushed Solidarity Party demonstrations in Warsaw, the Soviet Union would not have received the desperately needed $100 billion from the West....The only option left for the Soviet elites was to begin immediate negotiations about the conditions of surrender. Gorbachev did not have to inform President George H. W. Bush at the Malta Summit in 1989 that the threat of force to support the communist regimes in Eastern Europe would not be employed. This was already evident at the time. Six weeks after the talks, no communist regime in Eastern Europe remained.

This sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it? War, sanctions, an oil crash, and finally bankruptcy. And while history may not repeat itself, it sure does rhyme sometimes: 25 years later Vladimir Putin has managed to back himself into a situation surprisingly similar to the one that led to the end of the Soviet Union and the final victory of the West—the very event that's motivated almost everything he's done over the past few years. This is either ironic or chilling, depending on your perspective.

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Gouging the Gougeable: Yet Another Triumph of the American Health Care System

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 12:12 PM EST

Len Charlap has had a couple of outpatient echocardiograms recently. Elisabeth Rosenthal tallies up the damage:

The five hospitals within a 15-mile radius of Mr. Charlap’s home here charge an average of about $5,200 for an echocardiogram, according to an analysis of Medicare’s database. The seven teaching hospitals in Boston, affiliated with Harvard, Tufts and Boston University, charge an average of about $1,300 for the same test. There are even wide variations within cities: In Philadelphia, prices range from $700 to $12,000.

....In other countries, regulators set what are deemed fair charges, which include built-in profit. In Belgium, the allowable charge for an echocardiogram is $80, and in Germany, it is $115. In Japan, the price ranges from $50 for an older version to $88 for the newest, Dr. Ikegami said.

Because Mr. Charlap, 76, is on Medicare, which is aggressive in setting rates, he paid only about $80 toward the approximately $500 fee Medicare allows. But many private insurers continue to reimburse generously for echocardiograms billed at thousands of dollars, said Dr. Seth I. Stein, a New York physician who researches data on radiology. Hospitals pursue patients who are uninsured or underinsured for those payments, he added.

This is now such a common story that it's hard to work up the outrage it deserve. Is this practice corrupt? Merely venal? Or just crazy? I don't even know anymore. What I do know is that if an outpatient echo costs $80 in Belgium and $500 via Medicare, there's no conceivable justification for a $5,200 charge. It bears no relationship to the actual cost of the test, and is designed primarily to gouge the occasional uninsured patient who has no choice in the matter along with the (inexplicable) occasional insurance company willing to pony up even for obviously outrageous charges. One of the hospitals that performed an echocardiogram on Charlap didn't even bother denying that this is what they're doing:

In a statement, the hospital in Princeton that performed Mr. Charlap’s first, more expensive echocardiogram noted that “the vast majority of customers” paid much less than the listed prices. It added that its pricing reflected the need to offset losses because many programs, including Medicare, reimburse less than the cost of delivering services.

I doubt that Medicare is reimbursing less than the cost of performing an echocardiogram, but you can see what's going on here. The "vast majority" of patients do indeed pay far less than list price. So why have such a high list price? In order to gouge the tiny minority who are gougeable.

It's lovely the way American medicine works, isn't it?

The Ruble Continues Its Free Fall

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 10:50 AM EST

Well, we have our answer: the Russian central bank's last-ditch effort to stop capital flight didn't work. It was indeed taken by the market as a sign of desperation, not strength. The ruble recovered a bit right after the surprise interest hike in the middle of the night, but by mid-morning panic had settled back in and the ruble was once again in free fall. Even the enticement of 17 percent interest wasn't enough incentive for people to keep their rubles in Russian banks:

By early afternoon in Moscow, the ruble dropped sharply, reaching 80 to the dollar, a record low and a 35% decline from opening levels when it rallied briefly. At 1630 local time, the dollar was trading around 73 rubles....Deputy Chairman Sergei Shvetsov called the situation “critical,” the Interfax news agency reported. “At lot of (market) participants are in serious condition because of these events.”

“The choice the central bank made (to raise rates) was between very bad and very, very bad,” he said, noting that the bank could yet take more measures to stabilize the market....Economists warned that the central bank appeared to be losing control of the market and might have no alternative but to restrict trading. “Capital controls as a policy measure cannot be off the table now,” said Citigroup’s Mr. Costa.

Stay tuned.

Quote of the Day: Russian Central Bank Decides It Needs to Destroy the Economy In Order to Save It

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 9:05 PM EST

From Neil Irwin, commenting on the huge interest rate jump announced by Russia's central bank in the wee hours of the morning:

It may go without saying, but a 6.5 percentage point emergency interest rate increase announced in the middle of the night is not a sign of strength.

Roger that. Russian central bankers hope that this will be an incentive for people to keep their money in Russia, earning high interest, instead of shipping rubles out of the country at warp speed and squirreling them away in any safe haven that comes to hand. And maybe it will work. Alternatively, as Irwin suggests, it may be viewed as a sign of desperation, causing Russia's oligarchs to pile on the dilithium crystals and ship out their money even faster. You never know what's going to work when a currency crisis goes into panic mode.

In any case, even if it works, the price is going to be high. Here in America, we argue about whether the Fed will choke off recovery if it raises interest rates to 2 percent. Russia is now at 17 percent. Even if this puts a halt to currency flight, it's going to kill their economy. In Russia tonight, there are no good options left.

The Lima Climate Talks Actually Produced Something Important: An Idea

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 3:42 PM EST

So what should we think about the recently concluded climate talks in Lima? They were, as usual, a dog's breakfast. Rich countries fought their usual battles with poor ones. The talks nearly foundered completely. Over the weekend the wording of the draft agreement went from "weak to weaker to weakest," in the words of Sam Smith, chief of climate policy for the environmental group WWF. And in the end, no legally binding limits were set on greenhouse gas emission.

That sounds pretty bad. And yet, something important happened in Lima. As weak as the final language turned out, it does do one thing: it asks every country on the planet to submit a plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn't mandate what the plans should be. It doesn't require any independent review of the plans. It doesn't set out any timetables. But it does require a plan from everyone.

This is something new. It may not be legally binding, but then, no agreement was ever likely to be. For the first time ever, though, Lima enshrines the idea that every country should have a plan to fight climate change. This is similar to Obamacare, which is flawed in dozens of ways but, for the first time in American history, enshrined in law the idea that everyone should have access to affordable health coverage. Once you do that—once you get that kind of public agreement to an idea—you can use it as a building block. Eventually Obamacare will become universal health care. In the same way, Lima may eventually be the building block that produces a universal agreement to fight climate change on a global scale.

This is a fairly rosy view of the Lima agreement, and I don't want to oversell it. Still, the mere principle that every country on the globe should have a formal plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is important. Once the plans are in place, they become a concrete starting point for climate activists everywhere. And then they go from weakest to weaker to weak to something that's actually meaningful. Everywhere.

It's not enough. But it's something.

The Russian Ruble Is Now Entering Free Fall

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 12:52 PM EST

Speaking of a possible economic crisis in Russia, it looks like the ruble is now entering free fall:

For months, Russia’s ruble has been falling in line with a decline in oil. But now, the selloff has stepped up a gear amid a broad rout in emerging-market currencies. Monday, the dollar shot above 63 against the battered Russian currency....“There’s no relief in sight, the mood on the market is pessimistic. Any recovery in the ruble is used to buy into foreign currencies,” said Igor Akinshin, a trader at Alfa Bank.

....The country’s bond markets are also under strain. Russia’s dollar bond maturing in Sept. 2023 is yielding 7.102%, up from 6.633% on Friday.

It's above my pay grade to speculate on how this ends. But it's worth keeping an eye on.

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No, the Tea Party Is Never Going to Join Up With Anti-Corporate Liberals

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 12:17 PM EST

This really can't be said often enough:

I'm afraid we need to call B.S. on this idea of Elizabeth Warren (or any other "populist") becoming a pied piper to the Tea Folk, pulling them across the barricades to support The Good Fight against "crony capitalism." Yes, many "constitutional conservatives" opposecorporate bailouts. But they also typically support eliminating not just subsidies but regulation of big banks and other corporations.

That's from Ed Kilgore, and he's responding to the suggestion that the real divide in American politics isn't between left and right, it's between pro-corporate and anti-corporate. Spare me. Sure, the tea partiers opposed TARP and were hazily in favor of just letting all the banks collapse in 2008, but that was little more than a fleeting morsel of emotional outrage. As Kilgore says, tea partiers may say they oppose corporate power, but when it comes time to vote, they can be counted on to support the folks who oppose any and all regulations that might actually rein in the power of corporations generally and Wall Street in particular.

But every once in a while they'll get themselves exercised over some trivial issue of "crony capitalism" like reauthorizing the Export-Import bank, and suddenly pundits will rediscover the supposedly populist right. Give it a rest, folks. The tea partiers will no sooner find common cause with Elizabeth Warren than they will with Mother Jones. In reality, they couldn't care less about ExIm or the swaps pushout or any of the other shiny objects that right-wing fundraisers occasionally find useful for replenishing their coffers. On the economic side of things, what they care about are low taxes and slashing welfare. On the social side of things, they care about abortion, guns, gays, and the moral decay of everyone else. The rest is just fluff.

Here's Why Banks Care About Gutting Dodd-Frank

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 11:05 AM EST

Elizabeth Warren got a lot of attention last week for rallying liberals against a provision of the cromnibus spending bill that repealed a portion of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. This particular bit of the law had required FDIC-insured banks to get out of the custom swaps business. If they wanted to buy and sell risky derivatives, the parent company needed to do it at a separate entity outside the bank, not with government-insured cash.

But why did Wall Street actually care about this? Even if the swaps are "pushed out" to a subsidiary outside the FDIC umbrella, they're still part of the bank holding company. If the swaps are profitable, the holding company makes money either way. Ditto if they lose money. So who cares? Via Matt Yglesias, here is John Carney of the Wall Street Journal to explain why this was so important:

The advantage: [The bank depository units], with implicit government backing, are considered less risky than parent holding companies....Citigroup’s insured depository unit is rated A2 by Moody’s; the parent company is a far lower Baa2. So a bank buying a derivative contract from the parent would receive a higher capital charge than if it bought it from the depository unit. So the price Citi could fetch for it would be lower. The same divergence exists at the other banks, though to a lesser degree.

The result: Each would suffer from having to push derivatives out of their depository units. In effect, they would lose the advantage of the higher rating and perception of government support.

FDIC-insured depository units have higher credit ratings thanks to their government guarantee. Because of this, swaps sold under the depository umbrella also have a higher rating, and can be sold at a higher price. Outside this umbrella, with its lower parent company rating, the price would have to be discounted. That makes the swaps business less profitable.

As Matt points out, this is an indication that Dodd-Frank is actually doing its job: "Investors aren't confident that Citi is 'too big to fail' and likely to get future bailouts. That's why Citi wants to get as much business as possible done under the shield of the FDIC."

I guess, in a way, this is a small bit of solace to take from last week's sordid episode of congressional capitulation to Wall Street: it only mattered because financial reform seems to be working. A little bit, anyway. If it were really working, of course, bank parent companies would be so well capitalized that their credit ratings would be nearly as good as their FDIC-insured subsidiaries. Obviously we're not quite there yet.

Krugman: "Russia Keeps Looking More Vulnerable to Crisis"

| Sun Dec. 14, 2014 11:31 AM EST

Paul Krugman just left a conference in Dubai, and decided to write a bit about oil prices because all the geopolitical stuff he heard was pretty grim. But the oil stuff wasn't that interesting. His one paragraph about geopolitics is:

My other thought is that Venezuela-with-nukes (Russia) keeps looking more vulnerable to crisis. Long-term interest rates at almost 13 percent, a plunging currency, and a lot of private-sector institutions with large foreign-currency debts. You might imagine that large foreign exchange reserves would allow the government to bail out those in trouble, but the markets evidently don’t think so. This is starting to look very serious.

Yes it is, and the reference to Venezuela-with-nukes is telling. A Russian economic crash could just be a crash. That would be bad for Russia, bad for Europe, and bad for the world. But it would hardly be the first time a midsize economy crashed. It would be bad but manageable.

Except that Russia has Vladimir Putin, Russia has a pretty sizeable and fairly competent military, and Russia has nukes. Putin has spent his entire career building his domestic popularity partly by blaming the West for every setback suffered by the Russian people, and that anti-Western campaign has reached virulent proportions over the past year or two. If the Russian economy does crash, and Putin decides that the best way to ride it out is to demagogue Europe and the West as a way of deflecting popular anger away from his own ruinous policies, it's hard to say what the consequences would be. When Argentina pursues a game plan like that, you end up with a messy court case and lots of diplomatic grandstanding. When Russia does it, things could go a lot further.

I have precious little sympathy for Putin, whose success—such as it is—is based on a toxic stew of insecurities and quixotic appetites that have expressed themselves in a destructive brand of crude nativism; reactionary bigotry; disdain for the rule of law, both domestic and international; narrow and myopic economic vision; and dependence on an outdated and illiberal oligarchy to retain power. Nonetheless, there are kernels of legitimate grievance buried in many of these impulses, as well as kernels of necessity given both Russia's culture and the post-Cold War collapse of its economy that has left it perilously dependent on extractive industries.

I don't know if it's too late to use the kernels as building blocks to improve, if not actually repair, Western relations with Putin's Russia. But it's still worth trying. A Russian crash may or may not come, but it's hardly out of the realm of possibility. And if it happens, even a modest rapprochement between East and West could help avoid a disastrous outcome.

Ted Cruz Shoots Self in Foot, Declares Victory

| Sat Dec. 13, 2014 8:29 PM EST

File this under "with friends like this, who needs enemies?"

Republican senators fumed as a strategy developed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) intended to undercut President Obama’s immigration action seemed to backfire, giving Democrats a chance to move a batch of controversial Obama administration appointments.

....Saturday’s session was required after conservative Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) objected to an effort by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) late Friday to adjourn the Senate for the weekend....He and Cruz had sought to force a vote to strip out funding that would be used to implement Obama’s plan to halt deportations for as many as 5 million immigrants.

Without the ability to leave for the weekend, Reid instead began the process of bringing 20 long-stalled nominations to a vote, including Obama’s nominee for surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, who was a target of groups like the powerful National Rifle Assn. over his advocacy for stricter gun laws. Shortly after noon the Senate began the first of what could be 40 procedural votes that could lead to confirming all the nominees by the end of the week.

The Cruz/Lee proposal was entirely symbolic in not just one, but two separate ways:

  • It was merely a "point of order" to express opposition to funding President Obama's executive order on immigration. It would have accomplished nothing.
  • It had little chance of passing anyway.

So now everyone has to spin their wheels on the Senate floor over the weekend instead of seeing their families or watching the Army-Navy game. By itself, that might deserve only the world's tiniest violin. But as long as they're there and have some extra time, Harry Reid decided to start the process of approving a whole bunch of Obama nominations that otherwise might have dropped off the calendar later in the week as senators began pressing to start the holiday recess. That meant Obama's nominees would have had to face a Republican Senate in January, but now, thanks to Cruz and Lee, they'll all be safely in office by then.

I'm sure the NRA is thrilled. Ditto for all the Republicans who were apoplectic over the nomination of Tony Blinken as deputy secretary of state. And megadittoes—with a megadose of irony—for Cruz, Lee, and all their tea party buddies who objected to confirming Sarah Saldaña to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Their objection, of course, was meant as a protest against Obama's executive order on immigration. Now, thanks to a dumb little stunt that was pathetic even as an empty protest against Obama's immigration plan, they're going to lose an actual, substantive protest against an Obama immigration nominee. Nice work, guys.

But I guess it's a nice big platter of red meat that plays well with the rubes. With Cruz, that's all that counts.

UPDATE: You gotta love this:

Only the Democrats seemed able to wrest a modicum of enjoyment from the day’s proceedings. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, said that it was “inconvenient to be here voting around the clock” but that he was “kind of pleased at how it’s working out.” Mr. Cardin said, “We will get these confirmations done, and we may not have gotten them done otherwise.” And as Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, struggled to explain to a group of reporters just what Mr. Cruz was trying to achieve, Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, loped by and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Let me know if you need backup,” Mr. Booker said with a grin.