Kevin Drum

Mother Jones is a Bimonthly Publication

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 5:12 PM PDT

Dave Schuler, in a post on a different subject entirely, happens to mention this:

An auto-antonym is a word that has two meanings: it means one thing and also its opposite. The perfect example of an auto-antonym is inflammable which means incapable of burning and also capable of burning....Other auto-antonyms include fast, cleave, sanction, and let. The last means either allow or prohibit (mostly in the legal phrase “without let or hindrance”). There’s a sizeable list here.

Most of these auto-antonyms are actually kind of questionable, more examples of words with different senses than they are literal antonyms.  And in that spirit, one of the best examples of this kind of thing is biweekly (or monthly or yearly), which can mean either twice a week or every other week.  This came up yesterday in response to this post, and what makes it so special is that unlike most of these word pairs, this one is pretty much impossible to tease out via context.  If I say that David Brooks is a biweekly columnist, you have no idea which sense of the word I mean.

How does this happen?  Different senses of a word that are near opposites but pretty easy to distinguish via context are easy to understand.  That kind of thing happens all the time.  But how does a word evolve into total confusion like this?  A brief bit of googling doesn't turn up anything very helpful, but it seems like there ought to be an interesting story behind this.

(And Mother Jones?  We're the kind of bimonthly publication that comes out six times a year.)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Optimistic About Healthcare

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 12:11 PM PDT

So why do I remain fairly optimistic that a decent healthcare reform bill will pass?  Sometimes I wonder myself.  But here are three reasons.  First, Jon Chait, who thinks getting bipartisan support for a bill was always a chimera:

The ultimate endgame entailed getting all the Democrats to pull together and pass something.

Of course, Democrats didn’t want to do this. They wanted bipartisan support, mainly for political cover. Moderate Democrats won’t do this until it becomes clear that the Republican Party is dead set against reform, completely in hoc to its right-wing base, and not negotiating seriously....In that sense, August moved the ball pretty far down the field.

Second, Carl Hulse of the New York Times, reports that conservative Democrats haven't been too fazed by the August freak show:

Even after the tough town-hall-style meetings, unrelenting Republican assaults and a steady stream of questions from anxious voters, interviews with more than a dozen Blue Dogs and their top aides indicate that many of the lawmakers still believe approval of some form of health care plan is achievable and far preferable to not acting at all.

....The political temperature of the Blue Dogs — and their ideological counterparts in the Senate — after the five-week recess is crucial. As representatives of some of the nation’s most conservative territory represented by Democrats, they potentially have the most to lose if a Democratic bill spurs a backlash....One lawmaker in the group, Representative David Scott of Georgia, said his determination to enact a health care overhaul had been increased over the recess because of what he called the spread of misinformation and other unfair tactics engaged in by the opposition.

And third, there's the fact that conventional wisdom places Dems in a very, very deep hole right now:

Some of the most prominent and respected handicappers can now envision an election in which Democrats suffer double-digit losses in the House — not enough to provide the 40 seats necessary to return the GOP to power but enough to put them within striking distance.

Top political analyst Charlie Cook, in a special August 20 update to subscribers, wrote that “the situation this summer has slipped completely out of control for President Obama and congressional Democrats.”

Now, put all this together and look at it from the Democrats' perspective.  Republicans have been given every chance and have obviously decided to obstruct rather then work on a bipartisan compromise.  So the Blue Dogs and centrist Dems feel like they're covered on that angle.  What's more, the townhalls have shown them what they're up against: if they don't pass a bill — if they cave in to the loons and demonstrate that their convictions were weak all along — they're probably doomed next year.  Their only hope is to pass a bill and look like winners who get things done.

When you're up against a wall, you do what you have to do.  Politically, Dems have to succeed, and at this point they've all had their noses rubbed in the fact that the only way to succeed is to stick together.  What's more, Barack Obama has a pretty good knack for coming in after everyone else has talked themselves out and cutting through the haze to remind people of what's fundamentally at stake.  If he can do that again, and if he has the entire Democratic caucus supporting him, they can win this battle.

Nearly every Democrat now has a stake in seeing healthcare reform pass.  The devil, of course, is in the word "nearly," but at this point even Ben Nelson probably doesn't want to be the guy to sink a deal if he's literally the 60th vote to get something done.  It's usually possible to pass a bill when everyone's incentives are aligned, and right now they're about as aligned as they can be.  That's why, on most days, I remain optimistic.

UPDATE: A commenter at James Joyner's site describes Obama's style this way: “He operates like a community organizer: let people have their say, let them wear themselves out, then step in and define the consensus.”  At his best, I think that gets it about right.

And when is Obama going to do this?  Next Wednesday in an address to a joint session of Congress.  Nice symbolism there.  I hope it works.

Quote of the Day

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 10:37 AM PDT

From David Axelrod, commenting on how his boss plans to knock some heads and get engaged in the healthcare debate any day now:

It’s time to synthesize and harmonize these strands and get this done.

Well, that's either cunningly brilliant or terminally vapid.  I'm not sure which.  I guess it depends on whether Obama ends up passing a healthcare bill or not.  If he doesn't, his decision to keep his distance from the fight until the very end will be judged as harshly as Clinton's decision to write a 1000-page bill and dump it on Congress.  If he does, that same decision will be judged a brilliant coup.  Personally, I think it has a pretty good chance to be the latter.  We'll see.   More here.

Simple Reform

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 10:00 AM PDT

Andrew Samwick thinks Democrats have done a lousy job of selling healthcare reform, and it's hard to argue with that.  But then he goes on to ask for evidence that any of the bills currently moving through Congress are better than a simple reform consisting only of:

1. Community rating
2. Guaranteed issue
3. Ex post risk adjustment
4. An individual mandate, with Medicaid for a fee as the backup option

I've seen a bunch of criticisms along these same lines, and I don't really get them. Granted, the bills now on the table have more to them than just these points, but not a lot more.  The core of all of them is insurance industry reform (#1-3) combined with subsidies for low-income families (#4).  With the exception of the much-debated public option, the additional stuff lies in the details (the subsidies aren't all Medicaid, children get treated differently than adults) or in modest expansions of Samwick's list (out-of-pocket caps, tax credits for small businesses).  The fact is that current reform efforts are already fairly modest.

Unless, of course, I'm misunderstanding Samwick and he means "Medicaid for a fee" literally.  That is, no subsidies and no attempt to expand coverage to the currently uninsured at all.  If that's the case, then the answer to his question is "Because they expand decent health coverage to millions of poor people."  If it's not, then I'm not quite sure what the problem is.  Putting the public option aside for the moment, are the additional details in the House and Senate bills really so abominable that he thinks they should torpedo the whole project?  Why?

The Latest on Sarah P.

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 9:01 AM PDT

Just the other day I was thinking, "I wonder what's up with Sarah Palin? I haven't heard any good Palin gossip lately."

Well, Vanity Fair to the rescue.  In "Me and Mrs. Palin," Levi Johnston unburdens himself and tells his version of what life was like in the Palin household after the election:

Sarah was sad for a while. She walked around the house pouting. I had assumed she was going to go back to her job as governor, but a week or two after she got back she started talking about how nice it would be to quit and write a book or do a show and make “triple the money.” It was, to her, “not as hard.” She would blatantly say, “I want to just take this money and quit being governor.” She started to say it frequently, but she didn’t know how to do it. When she came home from work, it seemed like she was more and more stressed out.

Does this sound believable?  I'm not sure.  But it does sort of sync up with this report from Politico a couple of days ago:

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin this week will begin accepting and rejecting the more than 1,070 invitations she has received for paid speeches and political appearances since she resigned from office, aides said.

....She’s about 85 percent finished with her book, due out this spring from HarperCollins. Then she’ll begin looking through the inch-and-a-half thick file her lawyer, Robert Barnett, has built of offers for network and cable pundit gigs, documentaries and business opportunities.

Levi also says that when Palin first heard Bristol was pregnant, she insisted over and over that they keep it a secret and then allow her and Todd to adopt the baby when it was born.  I confess that I'm not sure this passes the credibility test either.  But he's pretty clear about it.

A Stealth Troop Increase

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 9:37 PM PDT

Julian Barnes reports in the LA Times that the Army is planning a stealth increase in troop strength in Afghanistan:

U.S. officials are planning to add as many as 14,000 combat troops to the American force in Afghanistan by sending home support units and replacing them with "trigger-pullers," defense officials say.

The move would beef up the combat force in the country without increasing the overall number of U.S. troops — a contentious issue as public support for the war slips. But many of the noncombat jobs are likely be filled by private contractors, who have proven a source of controversy in Iraq and a growing issue in Afghanistan.

....The changes will not offset the potential need for additional troops in the future, but could reduce the size of any request from Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander, officials said....Such a request could be submitted in coming weeks.

McChrystal is definitely showing off that "political savvy" his bosses have been looking for.  Still, an increase in combat troops is an increase in combat troops.  It doesn't really matter how you get there.  Just keep this in mind and add it to the total when McChrystal finally unveils his official request a few weeks from now.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Workers are Getting Screwed, Part MDCCXII

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 9:05 PM PDT

In a new study, 68% of the workers who were interviewed had experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week.  You heard that right.  In the previous week alone:

In surveying 4,387 workers in various low-wage industries, including apparel manufacturing, child care and discount retailing, the researchers found that the typical worker had lost $51 the previous week through wage violations, out of average weekly earnings of $339. That translates into a 15 percent loss in pay.

The researchers said one of the most surprising findings was how successful low-wage employers were in pressuring workers not to file for workers’ compensation. Only 8 percent of those who suffered serious injuries on the job filed for compensation to pay for medical care and missed days at work stemming from those injuries.

“The conventional wisdom has been that to the extent there were violations, it was confined to a few rogue employers or to especially disadvantaged workers, like undocumented immigrants,” said Nik Theodore, an author of the study and a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “What our study shows is that this is a widespread phenomenon across the low-wage labor market in the United States.”

They were surprised by this?  Seriously?  Sure, I suppose 68% is higher than I would have guessed, but I sure wouldn't have guessed that this kind of thing was confined to a "few rogue employers" either.  How many reports of mistreatment do we have to get before we finally figure out that labor violations are rampant in this country?

The 25/25 Rule

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 3:49 PM PDT

Virginia Republican Bob McDonnell is in trouble.  He's running for governor, and a couple of weeks ago he happened to mention to a pair of Washington Post reporters that he had written his master's thesis at Regent University on "welfare policy."  So they went to the Regent library and took a look.  It turns out that "welfare policy" was a pretty bloodless way of describing it:

He described working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators." He described as "illogical" a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.

Oops.  He's supposed to be a moderate conservative, you see. Michelle Cottle comments:

I find myself torn in this fight. In general, I find the obsession with politicians' student writings excessive. Most of these papers spring from the  brains of people in their early- to mid-20s who have spent the past several years in the self-indulgent cocoon of academia.

....That said, Republicans are hardly in a position to gripe about this tendency. Anyone recall the frenzy the Right whipped itself into over Hillary's thesis on Saul Alinksy or Michelle O's thesis on black Princeton grads? The former ostensibly proved Hillary to be a socialist and the latter revealed Michelle to be a militant whitey-hating bigot. Ah, good times.

So we're to judge Democrats by their academic ramblings but not Republicans? I think not.

I have a solution to this problem that I call the 25/25 rule: it doesn't count if you did it more than 25 years ago or before your 25th birthday.  Obviously there are exceptions to this.  A major scandal (Watergate, say) or career accomplishment (passing a bill) should stay with you more or less forever.  Likewise, if you can show a consistent pattern of behavior, then the entire historical track record is fair game.

But for modest, one-off stuff like this, I think 25/25 works pretty well.  Sadly for McDonnell, he doesn't qualify on either count: he wrote his thesis 20 years ago, when he was 34 years old.  So there's no need to be torn: McDonnell was no utopian teenager scribbling out plans to save the world in the pot-ridden 60s.  He was a grown man writing during the first George Bush administration.  That doesn't mean his thesis should disqualify him from office or anything, but it does mean that it's fair for his opponents to bring it up in their campaigns.  It's up to McDonnell to convince us that he doesn't believe this stuff anymore.

Wildfires and Climate Change

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 2:37 PM PDT

At last year's Netroots Nation I ran into CAP's Brad Johnson one day, and he told me that one of the consequences of global warming was increased wildfire activity in California.  I wasn't sure I really believed that, so he promised to send me some stuff to read.

Well, he did, and I read it, and he was right.  I blogged on that shortly afterward, and with fire season on us once more it's worth writing about again.  Roughly speaking, it turns out that land use issues are probably responsible for about half of the increase in western wildfire activity over the past few decades and climate change is responsible for the other half.  The mechanism is pretty straightforward: higher temperatures lead to both reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas and an earlier melt, which in turn produces a longer and drier fire season.  Result: more and bigger fires.  Plus there's this, from CAP's Tom Kenworthy:

In recent years, a widespread and so far unchecked epidemic of mountain pine beetles that has killed millions of acres of trees from Colorado north into Canada has laid the foundation for a potentially large increase in catastrophic fires. Climate change has played a role in that outbreak, too, as warmer winters spare the beetles from low temperatures that would normally kill them off, and drought stresses trees.

In the western United States, mountain pine beetles have killed some 6.5 million acres of forest, according to the Associated Press. As large as that path of destruction is, it’s dwarfed by the 35 million acres killed in British Columbia, which has experienced a rash of forest fires this summer that as of early this month had burned more than 155,000 acres. In the United States to date about 5.2 million acres — an area larger than Massachusetts  —have burned this year.

Destruction of trees by the mountain pine beetle, combined with climate change and fire, makes for a dangerous feedback loop. Dead forests sequester less carbon dioxide. Burning forests release lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. More carbon dioxide adds to climate change, which raises temperatures, stresses forests, and makes more and bigger fires more likely.

It’s a frightening prospect, as British Columbia’s Forests Minister Pat Bell told an International Energy Agency conference last week. “I am not a doomsayer,” said Bell. “I am not one who wants to say we are beyond the tipping point. But I am afraid that we are getting close to that.”

Today, 100,000-acre conflagrations that take two weeks to contain and kill three or four firefighters along the way are perfectly normal here in Southern California.  They weren't when I was a kid. This is partly due to global warming, and it's something that's happening now — not in 2050 or 2075 or 2100.  And it's only going to get worse if we don't do something about it.

Toys and Books

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 12:12 PM PDT

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act makes it illegal to sell toys that haven't been tested for lead content.  In general, I think that's a perfectly fine idea.  At the same time, wiping out the second-hand market for clothing and books seems pretty draconian.  And this just stinks.  Maybe CPSIA could use a revisit?