Kevin Drum

Cat Fighting in Davos

| Sat Jan. 30, 2010 2:15 AM EST

If the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, there's at least a smidgen of justice in the world. Here's their latest report from Davos:

Not so long ago, financiers ruled the roost at the glitzy annual gathering of the global economic elite here in the Swiss Alps. At this year's gathering of the World Economic Forum, the unofficial theme seems to be, "First, kill all the bankers."

....The scorn poured on the industry at this year's get-together in the Swiss ski resort is a sign of a mounting international backlash against the financial sector. Popular anger about banks' role in the financial crisis, and their behavior in its aftermath, has spilled over to the world's elite business executives, politicians and regulators. Since gathering here Wednesday, they have been aiming sometimes bitter recriminations at the tainted masters of the banking universe.

Unfortunately, the most likely explanation for this isn't that Davos attendees are genuinely appalled by what bankers have done, but rather that they're appalled that bankers have managed to taint Davos itself, and by extension the rest of them. That's unforgivable. These are not people who like being mocked.

Still, even if this is just a bit of mega-millionaire cat fighting, it's better than nothing. At least the rest of us can enjoy the show for a bit.

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Healthcare Reform: It's Complicated

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 8:29 PM EST

We all love Jon Stewart, and a big part of the reason is that he's funny and he knows his stuff. So I was pretty disappointed to hear him flogging nonsense like this during his interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin last night:

I still don't understand why, with things like healthcare reform, they don't say "Here's the four things that are broken." If you have a preexisting condition, we're going to fix that. They don't let us negotiate drug prices. We'll fix that. We'll expand Medicare til you're 55. We'll do that. And we'll do tort reform. That's it. Four simple things. Done.

I assume that Stewart wasn't just being rhetorical, that he really doesn't understand why Obama hasn't taken this approach. And if someone as smart as him doesn't get it, we're doomed. For the record then:

  • Preexisting conditions. If you require insurance companies to take on all comers, even those with preexisting conditions, what happens is that people will stay uninsured until they get sick or need an expensive operation. Then they'll buy insurance, get taken care of, and drop back out. This is pretty obviously a recipe for driving insurance companies out of business.1 So to make this work you need a mandate to make sure everyone is insured all the time, not just when they get sick. And if you have a mandate then you need subsidies for poor families so they can afford to obey the law. And if you have subsidies then you need some kind of funding mechanism. And once you do all this, you have about 80% of the current legislation.
     
  • Drug prices. I'll give him this one. You could allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices without doing anything else. Republicans would vote unanimously against it, of course, since it would hurt pharmaceutical industry profits, but we could do it.2
     
  • Expanding Medicare. Medicare is already going broke. If you expand it to age 55, it'll go broke even faster. So if you're going to do this, you need to add in (a) a new funding stream, which means taxes, and (b) a basket of cost control measures, which means putting limits on treatment that people aren't going to like. Needless to say, taxes are unpopular and cost control is extremely complex.
     
  • Tort reform. As Barack Obama said today, medical malpractice costs are a nit. "The CBO or other experts say to me, at best, this could reduce health care costs relative to where they're growing by a couple of percentage points, or save $5 billion a year, that's what we can score it at, and it will not bend the cost curve long term or reduce premiums significantly." To be exact, CBO estimates savings to the government of $54 billion over ten years and a reduction in total U.S. healthcare spending of 0.5% per year. And that's a high-end estimate. Other estimates are lower.

    But it's even worse than that. If you did real tort reform — that is, making the system genuinely fairer for everyone — you'd end up reducing junk lawsuits but increasing payouts to the many people who are victims of malpractice but never sue. This would probably be a good thing, but on net it's not likely to save any money. In fact, it might even end up raising costs. More here and here.

And of course, nothing in Stewart's bullet points would solve the biggest problems of all: covering the 30 million uninsured and getting the skyrocketing growth of medical costs under control. If you don't do that, it's hardly worth bothering with.

Unfortunately, the world is a complicated place. As Obama repeatedly told the Republican caucus today about their healthcare plan, the question is, "is this something that will actually work, or is it boilerplate?" Talking points just aren't enough. It has to actually work in the real world.

1Which would, of course, be fine with me. But I'm pretty sure that's not what Stewart had in mind.

2That is, we could have done it before Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate race. To do it now would require at least one Republican vote to break a filibuster, and that's vanishingly unlikely.

The Echo Chamber

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 8:04 PM EST

A regular emailer writes in with a theory about why Republicans allowed their Q&A with President Obama to be televised live:

I am surprised there is so much joking around about Obama creaming the GOP caucus on national TV today. I am not surprised, of course, by the jokes themselves — I am surprised that some of the underlying context is missing. Has everyone forgotten that, since the presidential campaign, the Fox News and congressional Republicans' line on Obama has been that he looks like a great orator in front of the teleprompter but is completely naked when taken off-script. It is with this in mind that we have to look at today's invitation — they wanted Obama on their home turf with their script and they thought they could humiliate him on national TV. They expected him to fumble and fail. In a sense, it was not dissimilar from the Democrats' campaign in Massachusetts.

This sounds plausible. Obama does use a teleprompter a lot, and conservatives have been drinking their own Kool-Aid for so long that they ended up believing their own puerile mockery about it being a crutch for a narcissistic, empty suit of a president. I guess that's the downside of living in the Drudge/Fox/Rush echo chamber.

The funny thing, though, is that if you watch the Q&A with your eyes (and ears) open, it's pretty obvious why Obama uses a teleprompter. It's not that he doesn't have the answers. He demonstrated today that he knows his stuff cold. But he does grasp for words sometimes, hesitating for extended periods and then coming up with some real clunkers. For example:

I raise that because we're not going to be able to do anything about any of these entitlements if what we do is characterized, whatever proposals are put out there, as, well, you know, that's — the other party is being irresponsible; the other party is trying to hurt our senior citizens; that the other party is doing X, Y, Z.

"The other party is doing X, Y, Z" is not going to go down in history as great oratory. Obviously Obama and his communications team are aware that he's prone to this kind of thing sometimes, and they'd just as soon avoid it. Thus the teleprompter.

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 January 2010

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 4:01 PM EST

Inkblot and Domino are waiting. And waiting. And waiting. For something. I'm not sure what. Probably dinner, though this picture was taken around two in the afternoon, so dinner was a very long way away.

In the meantime, who knows? Maybe someone will come out and do some gardening. Maybe someone will walk their dog on the sidewalk beyond the far wall. Maybe a hummingbird will come flitting around. All sorts of possibilities. And if they wait long enough, dinner will arrive! It always does eventually.

The First and Last Question Time

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 3:42 PM EST

Luke Russert tweets:

GOP aides telling me it was a mistake to allow cameras into Obama's QA with GOP members. Allowed BO to refute GOP for 1.5 hours on TV

Probably so. Which is why, even though it was fun to watch, it's unlikely to happen again. It didn't just put Obama on an equal footing with Republican attacks; in fact, the format forced Republicans to tone down their attacks and then gave Obama an inherent advantage in responding since he was guy at the mike. The guy at the mike always has the advantage.

This gets back to what I was saying earlier about the Drudge/Fox/Rush noise machine. Right now Republicans have a built-in advantage when it comes to attack politics and they'd be fools to give it up. A format like this, which puts the president front and center, allows him to directly call out distortions and lies, and rewards conversation rather than machine-gun style talking points, is something Republicans should justifiably be very afraid of. Unless they're suicidal — or somehow figure out a way to take better advantage of the format — they'll never allow this to happen again. Without the noise machine, they're lost.

Catcher in the Rye

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 3:25 PM EST

Ezra Klein didn't like Catcher in the Rye:

Holden Caufield was a miserable punk. It might be an achievement to channel that brand of narcissistic alienation, but there's no joy to be found in its company. Similarly disappointing was the hushed promise that there was something rebellious and titillating in the book. I can't remember how that reputation was conveyed to me. Maybe my English teacher explained it explicitly, circling "banned" on the green chalkboard. But by the time I got to "The Catcher in the Rye," there was nothing rebellious about it. As Malcolm Jones writes, "any allure the book might have had as 'forbidden goods' was stripped away the day the first English teacher put it on a required-reading list."

I'm the last person who should be commenting on J.D. Salinger, but my first thought when I read this was that the problem wasn't so much with the book — or with its status as mandatory reading — but with the fact that Ezra read it around 1999. By then it had lost a lot of what made it original. Will makes this point better than I could:

My defense of Salinger is simple: I think The Catcher in the Rye is the first book that truly captures the vernacular of adolescence. In a media environment that is absolutely saturated with adolescent drama and humor, this may strike you as an unremarkable accomplishment. But The Catcher in the Rye was written just as youth culture was entering into the popular conscious, so Salinger deserves credit for anticipating a pretty significant cultural sea change.

I think that's right. In 1951, Catcher in the Rye really was rebellious and titillating. By 1974, when I read it, not so much. By 1999, it might as well have been distributed on folio leaves. It's become part of the high school canon because it's a book by a serious author that also seems genuinely appealing to teenage kids, and it's not as if high school English teachers have a huge selection of books like that to choose from. But frankly, it's probably not all that appealing anymore. By the time most kids get to their first American lit class these days, they've already spent half a decade reading stuff exactly like it. Time to revise the canon.

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Cell Phone Follies

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 2:59 PM EST

Michael O'Hare points today to a study that shows (a) cell phone driving is dangerous, (b) laws that ban it are effective, but (c) these laws don't reduce accident rates. Why?  Because the laws don't ban hands-free talking on cell phones, and that's just as dangerous as talking on a handset. But again: why? Why is talking on a cell phone more dangerous than listening to the radio or chatting with a passenger? Mike takes a swing at answering:

The party on the other end of the phone conversation is an adult to whom you psychologically owe attention, but unlike the adult passenger, has no idea of what you are seeing through the windshield.  A passenger will subconsciously stop talking if something untoward or just complicated is unfolding on the road ahead, and will expect you to suspend the conversation similarly, so she causes no important distraction at the critical moments when you need to be driving on all neurons, and you are aware of all this. In contrast, the person on the phone can’t do either of these things, and you are aware of that as well.  When you need to navigate a tricky bit of road, there’s no time to ask someone to be quiet, and telling a peer to shut up for a minute, in any terms, is so rude that it absolutely requires an excuse that makes it take even longer (“can you hold on for a minute? one of the kids is playing with my blunderbuss and I think it’s loaded”).

This strikes me as plausible. As another possibility, I'd add that (for reasons that escape me) people seem to be more excitable talking on the phone than in person. I'm not sure why, but maybe it has to with the nature of not having a face in front of you and not getting any nonverbal feedback. Any other ideas?

In the meantime, stop talking on your cell phone when you drive. And stop texting too. Just stop. Your signal breaks up a lot and it's hard to have a decent conversation anyway. So just stop.

Obama in Baltimore

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 1:56 PM EST

Obama is adressing the GOP retreat in Baltimore right now, and it's being televised live. It's remarkable that Republicans agreed to this. The guy at the mike always has an advantage in these kinds of forums, and in any case Obama is better than most at this kind of thing. For the most part, he's running rings around them. I don't know if this will have any long-term effect, but it's good for Obama and, regardless, a good show. Presidents should do this kind of thing more often.

Obama's Blind Spot

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 1:39 PM EST

Both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama finished their first year in office with the economy in trouble and their approval ratings in tatters. And yet, Obama's troubles seem much worse than Reagan's. Some of this, I think, is just hindsight bias: we all know that Reagan's presidency turned out OK in the end, so it's easy to view his problems as less severe than they were. But Bruce Bartlett argues, convincingly I think, that there's more to it: Reagan had a compelling and consistent narrative of liberal failure that got him through the bad times and set him up to take credit for eventual recovery. Obama doesn't:

I bring up this history because Obama inherited a great many problems from the George W. Bush administration similar to those Reagan inherited from Carter. But rather than draw a clear distinction between his policies and those of the past, as Reagan did, Obama has tended to continue those policies. And in those cases where his policies are sharply different, Obama has tended to downplay those differences.

Foreign policy is clearly the area where Obama had the most to gain by a break with the past. He could have easily argued that the whole Iran-Afghanistan conflict was ill-conceived, based on bad intelligence and a ridiculously Utopian idea that we could impose democracy by military force in countries that had no experience with it or any of the requisite institutions....On the economy, Obama has done a terrible job of explaining how much of the mess he is dealing with was caused by the Bush administration's policies....Obama could also have explained how the Federal Reserve's easy money policy created the housing bubble, the crash of which is at the heart of our current economic problems. Yet he reappointed Republican Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve rather than using the expiration of his term as an opportunity to break from the past and chart a new course by at least appointing a Democrat like San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen.

....Finally, on health care, Obama never once blamed Bush and his party for ramming through a massive unfunded expansion of Medicare in 2003, which in part necessitated the Medicare cuts that were part of his health reform effort....In short, at every point Obama has failed to break sharply with the Bush administration. Indeed the Cato Institute has taken to calling Obama's administration Bush's third term.

There's a lot to this, though I'd add that Reagan also passed his signature domestic initiatives — big tax cuts and defense spending increases — and rallied his base by firing the air traffic controllers. Obama hasn't done any of that. But Bruce is right when he says that although Obama may be a liberal, "he is fundamentally a moderate — what we in Washington call a 'goo-goo,' a good government person, a pragmatist who deals with problems as they arise without seeing them as part of pattern of failure and without any preconceived idea of what should be done about them based on ideology or political philosophy." That's admirable in its way, but it doesn't get things done in a hyperpartisan political swamp, and it doesn't set up Obama to take credit for things when the economy gets better. Reagan worked hard to make sure that his tax cuts would be viewed as the driving force of recovery — though Paul Volcker's interest rate cuts surely deserve most of the credit — but will Obama credibly be able to say that his stimulus package and bank bailouts were responsible for recovery when it appears this time? I doubt it.

I'm a fan of Obama's, but this has always been his big blind spot. He came to office convinced — sincerely, it seems — that he could change the tone of Washington DC. That was always a fantasy. The way to get things done is to make a case for them, build public support for them, blast your enemies for opposing them, and just generally fight like hell for them. It can be done with a smile, but it has to be done. Obama seems to have a hard time getting that.

How They Do It

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 12:46 PM EST

Sen. Dick Durbin is upset that Republicans get to cast controversial votes without any real consequence. Steve Benen comments:

Durbin's right; they did. Every reckless, irresponsible, hypocritical, dangerous, and incoherent step Republicans take, they do so "with impunity."

They do so because they're pretty confident that Democrats won't effectively raise a fuss, the media won't care, and the public won't know. And they're right.

But take a step back: how are Democrats supposed to effectively raise a fuss? Republicans can do it easily: they just start bleating, and within a few hours their complaints are splashed across Drudge, repeated on a 24/7 loop on Fox News, the topic of email barrages from conservative interest groups, and the subject du jour of every talk radio show in the country. At that point the rest of the media picks up on the story because "people are talking about it." It's making waves. Which is true: it really is making waves because this kind of attention gets the conservative base genuinely outraged. And if something is getting lots of attention, then that by itself makes it a legitimate story regardless of its intrinsic merit.

But what megaphone do Democrats have? Virtually none. If they start complaining, some blogs will pick it up. Maybe Maddow and Olberman will talk about it. And that's it. There's no noise machine. And so there's nothing to force the rest of the media to bother with it unless they decide the underlying story itself is important.

I don't really want a liberal noise machine in America that's on the same level as the Drudge/Fox/Rush noise machine. It would make life almost unbearable. But without it, Democrats will never be able to compete in the outrage department. As it is, they can complain all they want and the media will mostly yawn. But when Republicans do it, it's a story. It's hard to see that changing anytime soon.