Kevin Drum

No Joking Please, We're British

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 12:58 PM EST

On Friday I twittered:

If my browsing speed doesn't improve soon, I'm going to fly a plane into the internet. Don't pretend you weren't warned.

Just joking! But a reader emails me a warning that if you live in Britain, you'd better be careful with stuff like this. Paul Chambers was arrested last month for twittering a not dissimilar joke:

Yesterday, the court heard that the message read: "Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"

Rob Desira, prosecuting, told the court: "The message was posted on the Twitter social networking site. He admitted posting the message into the public domain but never intended the message to be received by the airport or for them to take it seriously."

....After his arrest, Chambers was suspended from work pending an internal investigation. Detectives also confiscated his iPhone, laptop and home computer...."I would never have thought, in a thousand years, that any of this would have happened because of a Twitter post. I'm the most mild-mannered guy you could imagine."

OK, maybe it was a dumb thing to do. But arrested, suspended from work, laptop and phone confiscated, and now facing possible jail time? Come on.

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Credit Cards: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 12:31 PM EST

The CARD Act takes effect today. Hooray! No more retroactive interest rate increases! Overdraft protection is opt-in! Fees have to be clearly labeled!

But the hills are alive with reports of what credit card companies are doing to make up for this. The New York Times reports that fees on international transactions are likely to go up without anyone telling you. Felix Salmon reports that banks are now pushing reward cards heavily because they have higher interchange fees. The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls (ground zero for credit card companies) reports that subprime cards now carry interest rates of 79.9%. The Washington Post reports that clever new fees are proliferating to make up for the old ones. And of course, as MoJo and a cast of thousands have reported, card companies have been busily raising rates on everyone for months in preparation for the great day.

Bottom line: don't take your eye off the ball yet. Some of the most egregious abuses are gone, but new ones are bound to spring up. If you have any good stories of your own to tell, leave 'em in comments.

Obamacare Unveiled!

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 11:24 AM EST

President Obama unveiled his compromise healthcare plan today, and it's almost exactly what everyone expected. Here's the White House list of the "key changes" he's proposing to the Senate bill that passed last December, along with annotations:

  • Eliminating the Nebraska FMAP provision and providing significant additional Federal financing to all States for the expansion of Medicaid [i.e., the end of the "Cornhusker Kickback," essentially by making the same deal available to all states];
  • Closing the Medicare prescription drug “donut hole” coverage gap;
  • Strengthening the Senate bill’s provisions that make insurance affordable for individuals and families [i.e., higher subsidies for low-income families];
  • Strengthening the provisions to fight fraud, waste, and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid;
  • Increasing the threshold for the excise tax on the most expensive health plans from $23,000 for a family plan to $27,500 and starting it in 2018 for all plans [i.e., removing the special deal unions got on the excise tax and instead making their deal available to everyone];
  • Improving insurance protections for consumers and creating a new Health Insurance Rate Authority to provide Federal assistance and oversight to States in conducting reviews of unreasonable rate increases and other unfair practices of insurance plans [i.e., allowing HHS to prevent gigantic premium increases like the 39% rise recently announced by Anthem in California].

These are modest changes, but they ought to be enough to bring everyone back to the table. Wonks get to keep the excise tax, but it's scaled back considerably to keep unions happy. However, in order to keep it from being a "sweetheart deal," the change applies to all high-cost health plans, not just those for unions. Increased subsidies and increased federal Medicaid financing also ought to make everyone happy.

This will cost money, of course, but the White House insists that its plan will cut the deficit by $100 billion over ten years, just like the current Senate bill. How? It cuts payments to Medicare Advantage a bit more than the Senate bill, it expands the Medicare payroll tax on high-income individuals to cover investment income as well as wage income, and increases assessments on the pharmaceutical industry a bit.

(Plus, in a fascinating little aside, it rasies a bit of money by eliminating the "black liquor" tax credit loophole. See here for details on this ingenious little tax system ripoff.)

Anyway, no big surprises here. There's no public option, and Obama's plan threads the needle between the House and Senate bills pretty carefully. He's obviously hoping for a low-drama compromise that both sides can agree to pretty quickly. Next stop: the Thursday "conversation" with Republicans on C-SPAN. Should be interesting stuff, especially if the Democratic caucus gets its act together and decides to support Obama's plan without too much squawking and infighting. Stay tuned.

The Oath Keepers

| Mon Feb. 22, 2010 8:00 AM EST

Paranoid right wingers who think Barack Obama is hatching plans to round them up into internment camps are old news. Even paranoid right wingers with guns are barely worth a second glance these days. But how about paranoid right wingers with guns and uniforms? Meet the Oath Keepers, the hottest new patriot group in the country. Justine Sharrock spent months getting to know them:

Founded last April by Yale-educated lawyer and ex-Ron Paul aide Stewart Rhodes, the group has established itself as a hub in the sprawling anti-Obama movement that includes Tea Partiers, Birthers, and 912ers. Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, and Pat Buchanan have all sung its praises, and in December, a grassroots summit it helped organize drew such prominent guests as representatives Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, both Georgia Republicans.

There are scores of patriot groups, but what makes Oath Keepers unique is that its core membership consists of men and women in uniform, including soldiers, police, and veterans. At regular ceremonies in every state, members reaffirm their official oaths of service, pledging to protect the Constitution — but then they go a step further, vowing to disobey "unconstitutional" orders from what they view as an increasingly tyrannical government.

....On a clear September evening, I found myself in suite 610 at the Texas Station casino in North Las Vegas mingling with two dozen Oath Keepers state leaders, directors, and hardcore devotees....Oath Keepers is officially nonpartisan, in part to make it easier for active-duty soldiers to participate, but its rightward bent is undeniable, and liberals are viewed with suspicion. At lunch, when I questioned my tablemates about the Obama-Hitler comparisons I'd heard at the conference, I got a step-by-step tutorial on how the president's socialized medicine agenda would beget a Nazi-style regime.

I learned that bringing guns to Tea Party protests was a reminder of our constitutional rights, was introduced to the notion that the founding fathers modeled their governing documents on the Bible, and debated whether being Muslim meant an inability to believe in and abide by — and thus be protected by — the Constitution. I was schooled on the treachery of the Federal Reserve and why America needs a gold standard, and at dinner one night, Nighta Davis, national organizer for the National 912 Project, explained how abortion-rights advocates are part of a eugenics program targeting Christians. I also met Lt. Commander Guy Cunningham, a retired Navy officer and Oath Keeper who in 1994 took it upon himself to survey personnel at the 29 Palms Marine Corps base about their willingness to accept domestic missions and serve with foreign troops. A quarter of the Marines he polled said that they would be willing to fire on Americans who refused to disarm in the face of a federal order — a finding routinely cited by militia and patriot groups worried about excessive government powers.

Are these guys for real, or are they all hat and no cattle? I'm still not sure. But you should read the story and decide for yourself.

Lying About Torture, Part 2

| Sun Feb. 21, 2010 7:04 PM EST

A few days ago, Jonathan Bernstein pointed out that former Bush/Rumsfeld speechwriter Marc Thiessen was continuing to claim that the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed in 2003 helped foil a terrorist plot to crash an airplane into a Los Angeles skyscraper. This was obviously a lie. Why? Because the cell leaders of the LA plot were arrested a year before KSM was captured.

Apparently this kind of crude, low-rent deception isn't limited to Thiessen. It turns out that the same sort of clumsy lying was also part of the CIA's classified "Effectiveness Memo," which the Bush administration relied on to bolster its legal case for torturing terrorist suspects. In Newsweek yesterday, Michael Isikoff reported that the recently released Justice Department report about the lawyers who approved the CIA's interrogation program spilled the beans on what this memo said. In particular, the memo defended torture by claiming it was critical to the capture of al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubayda:

One key claim in the agency memo was that the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogations of Zubaydah led to the capture of suspected “dirty bomb” plotter Jose Padilla....“Zubaydah’s reporting led to the arrest of Padilla on his arrival in Chicago in May 2003 [sic].”

But as the Justice report points out, this was wrong. “In fact, Padilla was arrested in May 2002, not 2003 ... The information ‘[leading] to the arrest of Padilla’ could not have been obtained through the authorized use of EITs.” (The use of enhanced interrogations was not authorized until Aug. 1, 2002 and Zubaydah was not waterboarded until later that month.)....As Newsweek reported last year, the information about Padilla’s plot was actually elicited from Zubaydah during traditional interrogations in the spring of 2002 by two FBI agents, one of whom, Ali Soufan, vigorously objected when the CIA started using aggressive tactics.

If torture were really as effective as the Thiessen/Cheney wing of the conservative movement thinks, they'd hardly risk resorting to such obvious lies to defend it. They'd have so much good evidence in favor of it that they wouldn't need to bother. But apparently they don't.

Democracy for Sale, California Style

| Sun Feb. 21, 2010 4:32 PM EST

LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, who is on something of a crusade against big corporations hijacking the California initiative process, tells the story today of a big corporation hijacking a municipal initiative process in order to exempt itself from the laws that apply to everyone else. The city is Carpinteria, on the Pacific coast just north of Los Angeles:

The corporation is Venoco Inc., an independent oil company with revenue of more than half a billion dollars a year, which currently owns an oil storage facility in Carpinteria....This Denver-based firm is spending lavishly to pass a ballot initiative specifically exempting itself from the city's industrial development and environmental rules.

That's because it's afraid that Carpinteria's elected officials, left to their own devices, might not greenlight its proposal to operate a 10-story oil derrick round the clock on its property next to a 225-home residential neighborhood and on the edge of the ecologically sensitive coastal bluffs.

[Gruesome details follow.....]

So here we are on the cusp of a new California trend: businesses that don't care to bother with legitimate government regulatory procedures scampering directly to the voters. All it takes is money. Venoco has reported spending more than $155,000 on the initiative up to the end of 2009, but a company spokesman told me last week that more money has been spent since then. And the election is still three months away.

So let's take a guess and say that Venoco is going to spend half a million dollars in a city with 6,000 registered voters. It's democracy in action! One can only hope that, regardless of the merits of Venoco's case, the residents of Carpinteria are smart enough to defeat this resoundingly just to send the appropriate message. The corporatization of the California initiative process has been a cancer for a long time, and it's long past time to put a stop to it.

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On Torture

| Sun Feb. 21, 2010 1:40 PM EST

Gen. David Petraeus on whether he wishes Bush-era interrogation techniques were available to him for the questioning of captured Taliban military leader Abdul Ghani Baradar:

Whenever we have, perhaps, taken expedient measures, they have turned around and bitten us in the backside....Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are nonbiodegradables. They don't go away. The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick in the Central Command area of responsibility. Beyond that, frankly, we have found that the use of the interrogation methods in the Army Field Manual that was given the force of law by Congress, that that works.

Conservative Mike Potemra, responding at National Review to critics who insist that he offer a clear definition of what he considers torture:

Instead of trying to find a definition, and to get everyone to agree to it, I ask myself the following, about any given interrogation practice: “If agents of Fidel Castro’s regime, or of China’s laogai, engaged in this activity, would I condemn it as torture?” That, I think, is the wisest course, because asking this question prevents me from endorsing acts that might be evil simply because it may be in my own self-protective interest (as an American who doesn’t want to be injured or killed in a terrorist attack) to do so.

As Potemra says, it isn't hard to define torture if you're honest with yourself. And as Petraus says, it isn't hard to figure out that regardless of whether or not it produces short-term gains, torture nearly always plays into your enemies' hands in the longer run. The case against torture is both profoundly moral and concretely pragmatic and always has been.

Why Small Bore Healthcare Reform Doesn't Work

| Sun Feb. 21, 2010 12:59 PM EST

Everyone — Democrats, Republicans, tea partiers, you name it — is supposedly in favor of banning insurance companies from turning down people with preexisting conditions. When you ask about small, bipartisan changes we could make in the healthcare arena, this is one of the proposals that gets hauled out most frequently.

Now, the reason you can't implement this except as part of a larger reform effort is pretty obvious. I've written about it numerous times, including here and here. But just in case you need a case study to convince your friends, the LA Times writes today about New York state's experiment with guaranteed issue:

The state has become a victim of a dangerous dynamic in insurance markets. Laws allowing consumers to buy insurance at any time often saddle companies with a lot of high-cost customers. That in turn drives up premiums, pushing away younger, healthier people who are vital to a functioning insurance system.

"You basically can't have a functioning insurance market if people can buy insurance on the way to the hospital," said Mark Hall, a Wake Forest University economist who studied New York's experience.

....[In 1992] state lawmakers approved the "guaranteed issue" provision, which prohibited insurance companies from denying coverage to customers, even those with preexisting conditions. Such rules became popular in the early 1990s, as states including New Jersey and Washington contended with insurance companies that were denying coverage to people with preexisting health problems.

New York went further, becoming the first state to also include a "pure community rating" requirement that prohibited insurers from varying premiums based on customers' age or health, another common industry practice. Three years later, the state required all HMOs to offer a comprehensive, standardized package of benefits.

The law allowed consumers to buy insurance after they became sick with only a relatively short waiting period. They could also drop it when they no longer needed it. The New York insurance market did not collapse, as some insurers had warned. But in the ensuing years, more older and sicker New Yorkers bought individual health plans. And premiums shot upward.

Well, yes. If the only people who buy coverage are ones who know their claims will be higher than their premiums, insurance companies are toast. They'll just keep raising their prices in an endless spiral to keep up with their losses. The only answer is to mandate that everyone be covered all the time so that insurance companies have a reasonable pool of customers to balance out their gains and losses. And then provide subsidies to low-income families that can't afford the coverage they're legally required to have. And then put in a funding source to pay for the subsidies.

What a great idea that would be! And just think: Both the House and the Senate have already approved bills that would do exactly this. All they have to do now is reconcile a few modest differences and pass them. So what's stopping them?

POSTSCRIPT: On another healthcare note, I wrote a post two days ago saying that I didn't remember ever seeing the mainstream press explain the endlessly repeated Republican proposal to allow insurance policies to be purchased across state lines. Well, David Adesnik found one. It was on page 20 of last Sunday's New York Times. You can read it here.

Was Joseph Stack a Terrorist?

| Sat Feb. 20, 2010 9:55 PM EST

Was Joseph Stack a terrorist? Andrew Sullivan says yes: "This was obviously an act of terrorism. When someone is mad at the government, and when he flies a plane into a federal building, killing two and traumatizing countless others and urges others to do the same, he is a terrorist." Glenn Greenwald says yes: "The issue isn't whether Stack's grievances are real or his responses just; it is that the act unquestionably comports with the official definition." Dave Neiwert says yes: "Since when, after all, is attempting to blow up a federal office as a protest against federal policies NOT an act of domestic terrorism?" Dave then helpfully supplies the FBI's official definition:

Domestic terrorism refers to activities that involve (1) acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; (2) appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (3) to influence the policy of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (4) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. [18 U.S.C. § 2331(5)]

Well, let's take a look at this. I've added numbers to the FBI definition for easy reference, and obviously Stack met conditions #1 and #4. No argument there.

But how about #2? Was Stack trying to intimidate civilians? In his manifesto he says, "Nothing changes unless there is a body count....But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change." Italics mine. This means (obviously) that he was willing to kill himself to make a point. Then there's this: "I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt." Is he talking here about more killing of civilians? Or is he hoping that other people follow his lead and kill themselves, with the numbers eventually getting so big that the "American zombies" wake up? At best, it's unclear. He's certainly not trying to inspire civilian fear here (he wants them to wake up, not give in), but beyond that it's hard to say.

But if #2 is ambiguous, #3 isn't: Stack doesn't really have a policy he wants changed. He's mad at the government, he's mad at paying unfair taxes, and he's mad at the turns his life has taken. But if, instead of killing people, suppose he had been holding them hostage. What would his demands have been? Repeal of Section 1706 of the tax code? That's about the closest he comes to saying something specific.

"Jews out of Palestine" is a policy grievance. Ditto for "abortion is murder," "freedom for Tamil," and "Jim Crow forever." But all Stack has is a vague and inchoate rage caused by his feeling that he's been screwed by the IRS and nobody is willing to help him. Calling that a policy grievance is to strip the word of all meaning.

Not everybody who goes postal is a terrorist. Stack didn't have a political agenda in the usual sense of the word, he was just a guy who'd reached the end of his rope and finally snapped. That happens to thousands of people every year. Stack may have chosen to end his life a little more spectacularly than most, but that doesn't raise him to the level of a terrorist.

POSTSCRIPT: Just for the record, I agree with all the commenters (and others) who say that if Stack had been a lone wolf Muslim who had some equally vague complaints about, say, being treated badly by U.S. customs officials, right-wingers would be quick to call it terrorism if the guy snapped and killed a few in revenge. But they'd be wrong, and the way to fight this attitude is not for lefties to insist that Stack is a terrorist too, it's to insist that we use the word properly for everyone. You need to have some kind of at least semi-coherent political agenda to be a terrorist, and "the IRS sucks" is no more one than "the INS sucks."

The Insurance Industry's 11th-Hour Gift

| Sat Feb. 20, 2010 1:49 PM EST

The LA Times reports on the recent rash of huge rate increases on individual policies by health insurance companies:

Health insurers across the country are dramatically increasing rates and slashing benefits for many of the estimated 17 million consumers with individual insurance policies, while making it almost impossible to obtain affordable alternatives.

....Rate increases by insurance companies are a fact of life for the nation's insured, but sharp hikes this year in California have provoked a national outcry that has brought criticism from President Obama and prompted investigations in Sacramento and Washington.

...."A lot of what you see today is a product of the way the market works," said Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's Washington-based lobbying arm. "The market is broken. Those people who do need the coverage wind up covering the cost of everyone else."

Italics mine. Look: if the chief flack for the health insurance industry says the market is broken, then you have to believe that the market is broken. And it won't fix itself, either. Despite what Republicans pretend to believe when they're in front of the cameras, the way to correct this isn't to deregulate further, allowing insurance companies to raise rates even more freely. It's to broaden the insurance pool by mandating guaranteed issue so that no one gets turned down for a policy; enforcing community rating so that everyone pays a fair price; creating an individual mandate so that healthy people can't game the system by buying insurance only when they get sick; and establishing federal subsidies so that low-income families can afford the premiums. And guess what? That's what the current bill in Congress does. So let's pass the Senate bill, agree on a compromise with the House version, and then pass it via reconciliation. It's good policy, it's good politics, and the insurance industry, bless its black, greedy little heart, has unexpectedly done an 11-hour face plant and given Democrats all the cover they need.

And if conservatives freak out when they finally figure out that Democrats have the stones to pass healthcare reform after all? Let 'em.