Kevin Drum

Healthcare Gets to 60

| Sat Dec. 19, 2009 2:42 PM EST

Finally, some good news: Sen. Ben Nelson (D–Neb.) has agreed to support the Senate healthcare bill.  That's 60 votes, and that should be the ball game.

So what got his vote?  Aside from a comically transparent piece of bribery that gives Nebraska a little extra Medicaid money, it was a deal over abortion language. Here's the LA Times explanation of Nelson's "opt-out" provision:

Under the agreement, individual states would be allowed to prohibit insurers from offering abortion services in new regulated insurance marketplaces, or exchanges, where Americans who do not get health benefits through work would shop for coverage. Senate officials said that is consistent with current law, which gives states this authority over their insurance markets.

But if states do not exercise that option, insurers would be free to offer abortion coverage to customers in an exchange, even if they receive federal subsidies. If a woman who receive a subsidy wants to get a policy that covers abortion, she would have to send two payments to the insurer, one of which would be placed in an account reserved for abortion coverage.

Any insurer that offers an plan with an abortion benefit would also have to offer a parallel plan that does not cover abortion services.

This is....not that bad, actually.  Obviously it's not as good as full funding for reproductive services, but that was never even remotely on the table.  But not only does this language mean that probably two-thirds of the population will have access to abortion coverage through the exchange, it also (I think) relieves the fear that the Stupak amendment in the House bill would eliminate abortion coverage from private insurance altogether.  The argument was that insurers would decide it was too much trouble to offer multiple policies and would just default to the version they offered on the exchange, which wouldn't cover abortion services.  But Nelson's compromise makes it clear that there are going to be multiple policies one way or another, so there's little reason to think that current private coverage will change much.

That's my first take, anyway, and since Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray support Nelson's language, I assume they see it the same way.  Curious to hear from others on this, though.

Onward, then.  I always figured that Nelson would eventually compromise, since I think he's driven largely by genuine, longstanding concerns, not by personal pique.  But he sure had me thinking otherwise for the past couple of days.  In the end, though, he hasn't gutted any major provisions, he's agreed to a constructive compromise on abortion, and his only price was a ridiculous but tiny deal for Nebraska on Medicaid reimbursement.  Not bad.  Now all we have to do is rein in Bart Stupak, who's busily trying to scuttle the whole thing.

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Copenhagen Finale

| Sat Dec. 19, 2009 1:41 PM EST

David Corn and Kate Sheppard have a pretty good first-draft-of-history tick-tock on the final round of negotiations at Copenhagen, and you should read their whole piece.  But just to get a flavor of the thing, here's how the final few minutes of the dealmaking went down according to Brazilian Ambassador Sergio Serra:

As the discussion continued, Obama dropped a term on the table: "examination and assessment." This suggested direct monitoring of Chinese emission curbs by outsiders. Chinese officials in the room pronounced it unacceptable."We weren't that happy with it, either," Serra noted. So a new description—"international consultations and analysis" — was worked out. A "consultation" is obviously less intrusive than an "examination." But what does "international consultations and analysis" — soon to be referred to as ICA — mean? Asked this, Serra shrugged and said, "Ehhhh." He added, "The definition will be negotiated by a panel of people. They will decide what it means, like everything else." Obama promised to sell this not-well-defined ICA phrase to the Europeans. He also told Wen and the others that he had been asked by the Europeans to push for the below-2 degrees level.

The resolution of that six-word dispute eased the US-China deadlock that had paralyzed the summit, creating space for an agreement that may not be an agreement — christened the "Copenhagen Accord."

This is worse than an arms control negotiation.  Yuck.  And of course, the final agreement is almost comically vague, providing no numerical targets at all except for those in Appendix I, which is entirely blank.  Each individual country will fill it in later.  In other words, there's virtually nothing here except for a vague agreement that, yes, global warming is real and we probably ought to do something about it someday.

On the other hand, this post from Bill McKibben about how Barack Obama has "gutted progressive values" seems pretty over the top.  Copenhagen obviously didn't produce much of an agreement, but it's hard to see how Obama is the big villain in all this.  He's hemmed in domestically by Congress and internationally by China and other countries that flatly aren't willing to accept tough limits, and it's a little hard to see how he could have waved a magic wand and changed this.

Still, there's no two ways about it: by last September it was already obvious that Copenhagen wasn't going to produce much, and it managed to fail even those low expectations.  The only minuscule bright spot is that what we got was slightly better than what seemed likely Friday morning: total chaos and a complete breakdown.  By that low bar, producing a piece of paper of any kind counts as a success.

Protesting with Doughnuts

| Sat Dec. 19, 2009 1:10 PM EST

If you're ever curious about why so many people hate teachers unions, check out this little story in the LA Times today about the Centinela Valley Union High School District.  Long story short, on the last day of school before break, a minimum day, the district planned to feed their mostly low-income kids the usual mid-morning snack.  The union was pissed about this because it would extend the day by 15 minutes, so teachers all kept the kids in class and fed them Krispy Kreme doughnuts instead.  Result: the district had to throw away the unused snack food, they lost $10,000 in federal funds, and teachers got to leave 15 minutes earlier.

"A lot of teachers are very protective of their time," said the union rep.  No kidding.

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 December 2009

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 4:17 PM EST

Man, am I in a bad mood today.  I'll spare you the details.  And there's only one answer for that: cats!  Big ones.  On the left, I figured I'd show you the pillow/pod combo that I mentioned last week as a distraction to keep Domino off my desk.  It was working pretty well until yesterday, when she suddenly seems to have decided it's no longer a favored snoozing spot.  Not sure why.  Hopefully it's just a passing thing.  On the right, Inkblot is inhabiting a box of tissue paper that a few minutes before was a box full of Christmas ornaments.  A few minutes later it was a napping spot.  Festive!

Speaking of which, a regular reader emailed this morning to remind me that next Friday is (a) Christmas and (b) a Friday.  I'm not really planning to blog that day, so how about a catblogging extravaganza instead?  Send me a Christmas-themed photo of your cat, and I'll post a bunch of them next Friday.  In fact, since I'm actually a secular liberal Christmas-hater underneath my mild exterior, you can also send me Hanukkah cats, Kwanzaa cats, Eid cats, or just plain old holiday cats.  Just make it festive somehow and your cat can be famous!  I'll post a dozen or so of the best.  My email address is calpundit@cox.net.

Reasonable Conservatives

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 3:58 PM EST

The "Party of No" reactionaries are pretty annoying.  The "centrist" Democrats are pretty annoying.  But sometimes I wonder if the "reasonable conservatives" are even worse.  After providing us with four reasons to support the Senate healthcare bill and six reasons to oppose it, David Brooks ends with this today:

So what’s my verdict? I have to confess, I flip-flop week to week and day to day. It’s a guess. Does this put us on a path toward the real reform, or does it head us down a valley in which real reform will be less likely?

If I were a senator forced to vote today, I’d vote no. If you pass a health care bill without systemic incentives reform, you set up a political vortex in which the few good parts of the bill will get stripped out and the expensive and wasteful parts will be entrenched.

I wonder.  Does Brooks really flip-flop every day on this?  If he does, then by an amazing coincidence, every single moderate conservative has done the exact same thing and come to the exact same conclusion: a sort of sad declaration that although reforming healthcare is a noble idea, the current legislation on offer is just too compromised, too full of barnacles and bribes, too lacking in real reform to deserve support.

And the same thing is true of climate legislation.  And financial regulatory reform.  And stimulus spending.  It's amazing!  They all have fine goals, but in their current form none is worth supporting.  They're just too messy.

But look: these guys all know how the political system works.  Nothing ever comes through Congress pure and pristine.  "Systemic incentives for reform," as Brooks well knows, is just another way of saying "ways to push costs down."  And plans to reduce costs are all going to be demagogued endlessly and cynically by every conservative officeholder and pundit in the country, leaving Democrats with no choice but to water them down, pretend they're something else, or just plain run away from them.

So we end up with a sausage.  We always end up with a sausage.  Brooks knows this.  So if that's his excuse for not supporting healthcare reform, he's just blowing smoke.  He knew months ago what the basic Democratic plan was, and he knew months ago that anything this big would end up compromised and messy.  Pretending now that this is why he opposes it really grates.  If he just doesn't like liberal ideas about healthcare reform, he should have the guts to come out and say so directly.

Quote of the Day: Getting Serious

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 1:36 PM EST

From Felix Salmon, on the Washington Post's decision to team up with entitlement scold Pete Peterson and former Reader's Digest editor Jackie Leo to produce a new publication called The Fiscal Times:

With any luck, this will help move the press in general, and WaPo in particular, away from the normal emphasis on who's winning the political game on Capitol Hill, and towards more substantive analysis of policy issues.

That's a good one, Felix.  I've been feeling pretty down this morning, but this gave me a much needed belly laugh.  Thanks.

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The Public and the Climate

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 1:18 PM EST

Here's the last year's worth of answers to a Washington Post poll question about whether or not the government should regulate greenhouse gases even if it costs you an extra 25 bucks a month.  As you can see, in the most recent survey support for regulation jumped from 39% to 55%.

Over at NRO, Kathryn Jean Lopez takes this as evidence of trickery on the Post's part.  In previous polls they asked how you'd feel if your electric bill went up $25, but in the latest poll they asked how you'd feel if your energy bill went up by $25.  "And so 55 percent wanted to feel good," she says, "and could do so with the less direct question."

I think I'd take a wee bit different lesson from this: polls like this are lousy indicators of true public opinion.  Asking about "energy costs" isn't nefarious, it's just more accurate since cap-and-trade affects all energy, not just electricity.  Still, the change in public opinion is surprisingly strong anyway, which mostly goes to show that there are a lot of people who simply don't have very strong opinions on this topic.  And that in turn means there's a pretty wide scope for public opinion to be influenced.  How are we doing on that?

Bad Friday

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 12:12 PM EST

David Corn on the last day of the Copenhagen talks:

No deal. Not even a fig leaf. That seemed to be the implication of President Barack Obama's much-anticipated speech at the Copenhagen climate summit.

....His eight-minutes of remarks signaled a global train wreck. Not hiding his anger and frustration, he said, "I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt."....Obama played it simple and hard. He maintained the United States was calling for three basic principles: mitigation, transparency, and financing....Obama essentially accused other leaders of preferring "posturing to action." He explained, "I'm sure many consider this an imperfect framework...No country will get everything it wants."....Obama was clearly venting: "We know the fault lines because we’ve been imprisoned by them for years."....This was not a speech of persuasion; it was one of positioning. After the morning meeting, Obama and his aides had obviously calculated that a deal was far off—perhaps not even possible—and that there was not much Obama could say in this speech to grease the way to a meaningful agreement.

Bloomberg on the state of the healthcare bill:

Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson threw a Christmas deadline for passage of health-care legislation into further doubt, rejecting a compromise on abortion and saying he doesn’t see how fellow Democrats can resolve all his objections.

“I can’t tell you that they couldn’t come up with something that would be satisfactory on abortion between now and then and solve all the other issues that I’ve raised to them, but I don’t see how,” Nelson said in an interview with KLIN radio in Lincoln, Nebraska.

....Nelson told reporters that he has a “laundry list of concerns” besides abortion. And while he doesn’t want to start over on the legislation, an incremental approach might be better to first focus on health-care costs, he told KLIN.

Top 'o the morning to you too!  I think I'll just go back to bed now.

Bernanke Then and Now

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 5:44 PM EST

Courtesy of Sen. David Vitter (R–La.), Brad DeLong gets the chance to ask Ben Bernanke why he's not willing increase the Fed's inflation target from 2% to 3%:

The Federal Reserve has not followed the suggestion of some that it pursue a monetary policy strategy aimed at pushing up longer-run inflation expectations. In theory, such an approach could reduce real interest rates and so stimulate spending and output. However, that theoretical argument ignores the risk that such a policy could cause the public to lose confidence in the central bank’s willingness to resist further upward shifts in inflation, and so undermine the effectiveness of monetary policy going forward. The anchoring of inflation expectations is a hard-won success that has been achieved over the course of three decades, and this stability cannot be taken for granted.

I think this demonstrates pretty well why it's entirely possible to say both (a) Bernanke's background made him extremely well suited to play a crisis management role in 2007-08 and he did a good job at it, but (b) he's not the right guy to lead the Fed going forward.  What we're likely to need over the next few years isn't a crisis manager, but someone who unwinds the Fed's position gradually and takes its role in boosting employment more seriously.  But Bernanke is a mainstream conservative, and mainstream conservatives have always been more concerned with inflation than with unemployment.  This was entirely predictable, and it's why, even though he did a creditable job in his first term, he shouldn't have gotten a second.

Friedman's War

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 4:10 PM EST

Matt Yglesias reads Tom Friedman so you don't have to:

I think I lack the words to adequately express how morally outrageous Tom Friedman’s call for a Muslim civil war is. But we can at least focus a bit on how factually inaccurate it is.

I was all ready to be outraged, but it turns out Friedman probably isn't asking for the military kind of civil war at all:

We don’t need more NATO allies to kill more Taliban and Al Qaeda. We need more Arab and Muslim allies to kill their extremist ideas....Only Arabs and Muslims can fight the war of ideas within Islam....What is really scary is that this violent, jihadist minority seems to enjoy the most “legitimacy” in the Muslim world today. Few political and religious leaders dare to speak out against them in public....How many fatwas — religious edicts — have been issued by the leading bodies of Islam against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Very few....Etc.

I say Friedman "probably" isn't asking for a military conflict because, unfortunately, he also includes a paragraph about the "ferocity" of the American civil war and says, "Islam needs the same civil war."  But it's still couched as a war against bad ideas, and I imagine that's what he's really focused on.  Still, Friedman could stand to clear this up for us.  Just what kind of war does he want in the Muslim world?