Kevin Drum

The Healthcare Summit So Far

| Thu Feb. 25, 2010 11:33 AM EST

Quick comment on today's healthcare summit: John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are smart enough to know their own limitations and choose others to speak for the Republican side. And they've mostly chosen speakers who are good at this stuff and know how to talk in ways that make sense.

The Democrats, who should be in better shape because they have a single leader, are insisting on letting every leader speak: Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Steny Hoyer, and Max Baucus so far. These folks are not great speakers. Why are they so lame that they insist on speaking anyway? For once in their preening lives, why don't they just fade into the background and let President Obama orchestrate their side? Obama may yet come out on top in today's session, but the behavior of the Democratic congressional leadership so far constitutes political malpractice.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

A Tale of Two Bernankes

| Thu Feb. 25, 2010 11:08 AM EST

Ben Bernanke testified before Congress yesterday. Here are two newspaper accounts of the exact same testimony. First, the Washington Times:

With uncharacteristic bluntness, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned Congress on Wednesday that the United States could soon face a debt crisis like the one in Greece, and declared that the central bank will not help legislators by printing money to pay for the ballooning federal debt.

And here is the Los Angeles Times:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke acknowledged Wednesday that the government's bulging deficits are reaching levels that are unsustainable in the long run, but he said substantial action to reduce them was probably at least two years away.

The embryonic recovery from the worst economic crisis in more than half a century, especially the nation's weak job market, is much too fragile to begin cutting back on government support any time soon, he said...."I'm not advocating, I don't think anyone's really advocating trying to balance the budget this year or next year," he said in delivering the Fed's semiannual report to Congress in front of members of the House Financial Services Committee.

Of course, there's another difference between the two accounts as well. Later in its piece, the LA Times does report that Bernanke also has long-term deficit concerns. They tell the whole story. Later in its story, the Washington Times.....reports that Alan Greenspan is concerned about deficits too. You can read their entire 1000-word account and never have any idea the Bernanke thinks big federal deficits are just fine for the next couple of years. Nice job.

Afghanistan Update

| Thu Feb. 25, 2010 1:52 AM EST

Via Spencer Ackerman, the Christian Science Monitor reports that Pakistan's offensive against Taliban leaders on its territory has been far more extensive than we thought:

Pakistan has arrested nearly half of the Afghanistan Taliban’s leadership in recent days, Pakistani officials told the Monitor Wednesday, dealing what could be a crucial blow to the insurgent movement.

In total, seven of the insurgent group’s 15-member leadership council, thought to be based in Quetta, Pakistan, including the head of military operations, have been apprehended in the past week, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

....Much about the arrests and Pakistan’s motives remain unclear, but they do reflect Pakistan’s evolving approach to the Afghan Taliban leadership inside its borders. “A year ago when this [Obama] administration was completing its first Afghanistan review and we asked the Pakistanis about the Afghan Taliban leadership operating from their country, they flatly denied it,” says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who led President Obama’s initial Afghanistan policy review. “Now not only do they say there are senior Taliban leaders in their country, but they are frankly taking action against them.”

Pakistan's motivations are still murky, but they're obviously pretty serious about this one way or another. And even if they're doing this only because they want to make sure they have a seat at the table when it comes time to negotiate a peace settlement with the Taliban, that's probably OK too. After all, no settlement is worth much of anything unless Pakistan is OK with it.

So far, Obama's Afghanistan strategy seems to be paying steady dividends. I'm still not especially optimistic about our chances of accomplishing much of lasting significance there, but things have certainly gone better than I expected. Stay tuned.

Fun With Frank

| Thu Feb. 25, 2010 1:14 AM EST

Via TPM, we bring you tomorrow's conservative conspiracy theories today! This one comes from neocon nutcase Frank Gaffney, who has discovered treachery in the newly redesigned logo of the Missile Defense Agency:

The new MDA shield appears ominously to reflect a morphing of the Islamic crescent and star with the Obama campaign logo....Even as the administration has lately made a show of rushing less capable sea- and land-based short-range (theater) missile defenses into the Persian Gulf in the face of rising panic there about Iran’s actual/incipient ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities, Team Obama is behaving in a way that — as the new MDA logo suggests — is all about accommodating that “Islamic Republic” and its ever-more aggressive stance.

Watch this space as we identify and consider various, ominous and far more clear-cut acts of submission to Shariah by President Obama and his team.

You know who else is secretly promoting Sharia? The Pillsbury doughboy, that's who. The proof is right here.

The Slow Death of Financial Regulation

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 7:01 PM EST

So how is Chris Dodd doing in his negotiations with Republicans over financial reform? Felix Salmon points us to a memo from Taylor Griffin and Tony Fratto that suggests a compromise on the Consumer Finance Protection Agency is in the works: "An independent agency with its own source of funding would be established to regulate all federally chartered banks. The agency would have two divisions: one to conduct prudential regulation and one for consumer protection. The agency’s director would decide disputes between the divisions." Felix comments:

I'm not entirely clear what this means, but it seems, on its face, to imply that the FDIC, OTS, and OCC will all be combined into one agency, which would then have somewhat conflicting goals, when it comes to the zero-sum tug-of-war between banks and consumers. On the one hand, it would be responsible for ensuring that banks are profitable and well-capitalized; on the other hand, it would be responsible for ensuring that banks don't gouge consumers in their search for adequate profits.

Most worryingly, the consumer-protection part of the agency would only seem to have control over federally chartered banks. That's a very bad idea indeed, since it's precisely the non-bank financial institutions — subprime lenders, payday lenders, non-bank credit card companies, Walmart, etc etc — which need as much if not more regulation, from a consumer protection point of view, as the banks.

....So, there's no good news here, I'm afraid. And I'm inclined to agree [] that if working with Corker means losing the guts of the CFPA, it's best to ditch him altogether and just try to push something through the Senate with the support of Democrats alone.

As much as I'm in favor of a strong CFPA, I've never thought it was the linchpin of financial reform. Much more important are broad, effective limits on leverage and capital requirements. Unfortunately, the Senate bill probably won't do very much on that front either, and what limits it does put in place are likely to be limited to conventional banks. But as with the CFPA, if the bill's scope doesn't include all the non-bank financial institutions, it's really not likely to do much good.

So I agree with Felix in one sense: if you don't have rules that go beyond conventional banks, you're not doing anything very useful. But what I don't get is his belief that if Bob Corker won't bend on this, then "it's best to ditch him altogether and just try to push something through the Senate with the support of Democrats alone." How exactly can Democrats do this? This kind of regulatory stuff can't go through reconciliation, and it's certain to be filibustered. So without some Republican support, passing a bill is impossible. I don't really see what alternative there is.

What Do Conservatives Want?

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 6:24 PM EST

NOTE: See update below.

This chart comes from John Sides, who gathered information from the 2008 American National Election Study about spending priorites. Self identified conservatives, it turns out, aren't actually in favor of cutting spending on much of anything. Child care scored the worst for some reason, getting more hostility than even perennial bogeymen like foreign aid and welfare. Still, even at that, only 20% of conservatives wanted to cut child care spending, and scores dropped precipitously from there.

What to make of this? It's a pretty good guess that if conservatives don't want to cut Social Security then they don't want to cut Medicare either. War on terrorism is probably a pretty good proxy for the defense budget. Low scores for public schools + welfare + aid to the poor suggests they don't really want to cut social safety net programs. And interest on the national debt is off limits no matter what they think. That accounts for about 90% of the federal budget right there, and spending on highways, the environment, crime, science, and foreign aid probably takes care of another 5%. And that's pretty much the whole ball of wax.

The lesson from this? It turns out that conservative politicians really do represent their base pretty well. They like to yammer endlessly about cutting spending, but when push comes to shove, there's not much they really think we're spending too much on. It's all just venting.

UPDATE: It turns out that Sides made some mistakes in his original chart. The corrected version is on the right, and a corrected post is here.

The basic point still holds: conservatives aren't in favor of cutting very much. However, foreign aid is still a bogeyman, though it represents only a tiny part of the federal budget, and conservatives are in favor of cutting "welfare" generally, though not so much in favor of cutting specific welfare programs.

This makes a little more sense: opposition to "welfare" is a longstanding conservative issue. Still, when you get down to specifics, there still aren't very many programs that more than a small fraction of conservatives actually want to cut.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

"Guess Your Age" Goes Digital

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 3:23 PM EST

According to Pew's "How Millennial Are You?" quiz, I am not, in fact, a Baby Boomer. Interpolating from the graph, they think I was born in 1969, which makes me sort of an early Gen Xer. Only 11 years off!

I'm not sure why. Is it because I have a Facebook profile? A cell phone? Because I think interracial marriage is just fine? I'm not sure. The reason I'm nowhere close to being a Millennial is obvious (no text messaging, no tattoos, no video game playing, etc.), but the reason I don't fit the Baby Boomer profile is a little more mysterious.

Anyway, this either means I retain some youthful vigor or else that I have failed to grow up. Take your pick. The quiz is here.

Limbaugh's Waterloo?

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 2:07 PM EST

One possible benefit of the Obama presidency: it's driven Rush Limbaugh so mad that he's dropping his guard and allowing his racist demagoguery to get more and more overt. Just possibly, this might finally prod a few conservatives to disown him. Just possibly.

What's the Deal With the BloomBox?

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 1:47 PM EST

On Sunday I watched 60 Minutes do a segment about Bloom Energy, a new fuel-cell startup from Silicon Valley that's supposedly created a revolutionary new energy source. Unfortunately, I was left completely in the dark about how good the technology really is. The BloomBox runs on various kinds of gas, but the primary fuel source for most customers will likely be natural gas, so the obvious question is: does it produce electricity more efficiently than a gas-fired power plant? Today, the New York Times sort of tells us:

Bloom executives said the energy server, which can be installed in a matter of hours, operates at an efficiency of 50 to 55 percent and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50 to 100 percent depending on the type of fuel used.

Mr. Sridhar said the Bloom Energy Server has been generating electricity at a cost of 8 to 10 cents a kilowatt-hour. In California, where Bloom has installed 30 fuel-cell systems, commercial electricity rates averaged about 14 cents a kilowatt-hour in October 2009, according to the latest figures from the United States Department of Energy. Elsewhere, commercial rates averaged 7 to 24 cents a kilowatt-hour.

....Bloom executives said the company spent years developing a proprietary seal made from low-cost materials to prevent cracks and leaks. They estimate that the Bloom boxes will have a 10-year lifespan and that the company will have to swap out the fuel-cell stacks twice during that time. Mike Brown, an executive with UTC Power, a leading fuel-cell maker, said the fuel cells need to last at least four or five years for the technology to be competitive.

Hmmm. I'm still a little stumped. The average price of electricity to commercial customers in the U.S. is about 10 cents per Kwh, roughly the same as the BloomBox. But does the BloomBox price take into account replacing the fuel-cell stacks every three or four years? That's not clear. But even if it does, this suggests that the BloomBox will be a decent — though hardly transformational — power source only in areas where electricity costs are higher than average, not for the mass market. As for greenhouse gas emissions, it's hard to see an apples-to-apples benefit. If you compare a gas-fueled BloomBox to a gas-fired electric plant, greenhouse gas emissions ought to be the same, shouldn't they? The fuel cells don't do anything to the carbon content of the gas, after all. So is the environmental benefit simply the fact that a BloomBox can also run on greener fuel sources, and can do it more easily than most big generation facilities? I'm still a little confused here.

I suppose this will all get sorted out in time and we'll learn what's really going on. But even more mysterious is this:

The byproduct of fuel cells is water, and Bloom has patented and proved a fuel-cell design that could also tap electricity generated by solar panels and wind farms to electrolyze water to produce hydrogen that could be used as fuel in the cell. “That’s the killer app,” said Mr. Sridhar, who said such a product probably would introduced within a decade.

Hold on. They're saying that we can use solar panels to create electricity, pump the electricity into a BloomBox to create hydrogen, use the hydrogen to power a fuel cell, and this is somehow more efficient than simply using the electricity directly generated by the solar panel? My thermodynamics professor would have been scandalized. Am I missing something here?

The Press and Reconciliation

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 12:39 PM EST

If Democrats want to pass a healthcare bill, there's only one way to do it: the House needs to pass the existing Senate bill and then the two sides need to agree to a few limited changes. These changes would be passed through both House and Senate via "reconciliation," which allows budget-related measures to be approved with a simple majority. Technically, it's not that hard. But politically, as Bob Somerby points out after watching a CNN report, Democrats start out at a huge disadvantage because the press has basically already adopted Republican talking points to explain how this works:

What the heck is “reconciliation?” So far, we’ve been told that it’s “a controversial parliamentary short-cut”—a “fast-track approach,” a “tactic.” The controversial tactic “would allow Democrats to pass health-care reform without any Republican support.” HOWLER readers may know what that means—but many CNN viewers did not. Who knows? According to what they had just heard, such viewers may have thought that “reconciliation” would let health reform pass by a majority vote among Democrats. More likely, they still didn’t have any real idea how the “tactic” works—although the very first thing they had been told is that it’s “controversial.”

Guess what, kids? That’s loaded language.

The truth, of course, is simpler. The basic healthcare bill has already been passed in the Senate via regular order. The House can pass the Senate bill and President Obama can sign it into law via regular order. Changes to the bill that affect revenues and outlays — i.e., things that affect the budget — can then be tacked onto a budget bill later this year and passed on an up-or-down vote via the budget reconciliation process. Here's a reconciliation primer:

It was created in 1974 as a way of ensuring that annual budgets could be passed without being filibustered.

It has been used to pass the annual budget in all but seven years since 1980. It's a routine procedure used by both Republicans and Democrats.

It was used to pass Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut and both of George Bush's big tax cuts.

It was used to pass welfare reform.

Virtually every healthcare reform of the past three decades, including COBRA, EMTALA, S-CHIP, and others has been passed via reconciliation.

There's nothing wrong with the media reporting that Republicans oppose the use of reconciliation to amend the healthcare bill. Of course they do. But they owe it to their audience to explain that reconciliation does nothing more than allow a simple majority vote to pass budgetary issues and that it's been used routinely by both parties for decades. That's just the simple truth.