GOP Throws Ryan Under the Bus

Paul Ryan's proposal to gut Medicare sure didn't last long:

Senior Republicans conceded Wednesday that a deal is unlikely on a contentious plan to overhaul Medicare and offered to open budget talks with the White House by focusing on areas where both parties can agree, such as cutting farm subsidies.

On the eve of debt-reduction talks led by Vice President Biden, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) said Republicans remain convinced that reining in federal retirement programs is the key to stabilizing the nation’s finances over the long term. But he said Republicans recognize they may need to look elsewhere to achieve consensus after President Obama “excoriated us” for a proposal to privatize Medicare.

Um, yeah, it was Obama's fire breathing stemwinders that turned the tide. It had nothing to do with the fact that constituents hated the idea and Republicans would have lost 50 seats in the next election if they'd stuck with it. Nothing at all.

I Still Think the Photos Should Be Released

I'm going to double down on my belief that photos of Osama bin Laden's body should be released now that I've read President Obama's justification for holding them back:

President Obama decided Wednesday not to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s body, saying such images could incite violence and be interpreted as displaying “trophies” of his death, the White House said. “It’s important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool,” Obama said in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” program.

Sorry. That's not good enough. There are specific reasons for keeping things classified, and the fact that something "could" incite violence or might be used in a way that makes life more difficult for the White House isn't one of them. That's little more than an all-purpose excuse that can be used for keeping anything classified.

Bottom line: distasteful or not, there's a clear and obvious public interest in the killing of the mastermind of 9/11. Unless releasing the photos would compromise operational details of the raid, the American public has as much right to see them as Obama does.

UPDATE: I'd add that although photos obviously wouldn't change the minds of all the conspiracy theorists who think the whole thing was faked, it would change some of them. That's pretty worthwhile.

Is the Taliban Now Ready to Deal?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports that the White House believes the killing of Osama bin Laden will help us on two fronts:

The Obama administration is seeking to use the killing of Osama bin Laden to accelerate a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and hasten the end of the Afghanistan war, according to U.S. officials involved in war policy.

“Bin Laden’s death is the beginning of the endgame in Afghanistan,” said a senior administration official who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations. “It changes everything.” Another senior official involved in Afghanistan policy said the killing “presents an opportunity for reconciliation that didn’t exist before.” Those officials and others have engaged in urgent discussions and strategy sessions over the past two days about how to leverage the death into a spark that ignites peace talks.

....U.S. officials expressed hope on Tuesday that Pakistan’s failure to find bin Laden — or its possible complicity in sheltering him — could lead Islamabad to adopt a softer position on Afghan reconciliation. They think that Pakistani officials, who have interfered with peace efforts in the past, have an opportunity to play a more constructive role. “Our hope is that they are so embarrassed by this that they try to save face by trying to help their neighbor,” one U.S. official said.

It's hard to tell if this is wishful thinking or not. If you'd asked me point blank, I would have guessed that in the short term bin Laden's death would motivate the Taliban to fight even more furiously and motivate the Pakistanis to redouble their support and pull away from the United States. Embarrassment doesn't usually cause people to back down, and in any case, Pakistan's primary goal of keeping Afghanistan out of the orbit of India hasn't changed a whit. If anything, it might seem even more urgent now.

But this is just a wild guess. Hopefully Obama's foreign policy boffins have a better read on this than I do.

Federalize Medicaid!

Back in 2009, Congress provided additional Medicaid funding to states on the condition that they keep eligibility requirements steady. This is called Maintenance of Effort, and as Suzy Khimm reports, Republicans want to do away with it:

The State Flexibility Act would not go as far as the Ryan plan, which proposes a massive overhaul of the Medicaid funding structure. But it would allow states to take a knife, if not a hatchet, to the program....Having already made steep cuts to provider payments and benefits, "some states will certainly make eligibility cuts," says Edwin Park, VP for health policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Moreover, by introducing new procedural hurdles—Mississippi, for instance, has made it harder for people to renew coverage—states could deter more-vulnerable residents from signing up, says Park. Similar proposals put forward in California would have reduced enrollment by 500,000, he adds.

This is, obviously, one way to cut healthcare expenditures: just provide healthcare to fewer people. Preferably the poorest and sickest, since they don't contribute to political campaigns and aren't very reliable voters.

On a less cynical policy level, it's also worth noting that although there are lots of programs that are best handled at the state and local level because local officials understand local conditions better, healthcare really isn't one of them. Sick is sick, and treatment for chronic diabetes doesn't change much from California to Mississippi. What's more, Medicaid expenses always rise during recessions (more poor people = more Medicaid), which is also when state revenues crater and cutbacks are inevitable. This not only hurts sick people with low incomes, it makes economic turndowns even worse than they have to be.

So let's just federalize Medicaid. Medicare works fine on a national level, after all, and during a recession the federal government can fund higher Medicaid expenses automatically by running a bigger deficit. It's a nice automatic stabilizer that not only helps the poor and the sick but helps the economy too. What's not to like?

Who is Osama?

So it seems as if a goodly number of teenagers don't know who Osama bin Laden is. Gadzooks! But let's put this into a little perspective.

We're talking about 16-year-olds here. I was 16 years old in 1974. So let's try to think of someone who was quite famous in the late 60s but who had largely dropped off the front page from 1970-74. How about Daniel Ellsberg? Or William Calley? Maybe Moshe Dayan?

None of these are perfect subsititutes. But how shocked would you be if I told you that I hadn't heard of William Calley until some teacher of mine mentioned him in a class in 1974? Probably not very. I was only 12 when he was most famous and not paying much attention to the news. And it's not as if no teens under the age of 17 have ever heard of bin Laden. Just some of them. Probably the same ones who haven't heard of much of anyone outside the usual teen circle of pop stars and TV celebrities. This isn't exactly a feather in the cap of American teendom, but it's not a sign of the Apocalypse either. It's just kids not knowing or caring about some of the things their elders take for granted. Nothing much new about that.

Public Records Should be.....Public

Should the White House release photos of Osama bin Laden that were taken after he was shot during Sunday's raid? I'm surprised this is even being debated. Of course they should. These are public records of a very public operation against public enemy #1, and like it or not the public should have access to them. The only reason to withhold them would be for reasons of operational security, and I don't think that applies here. Security issues are probably legitimate when it comes to releasing real-time video of the actual raid, but not to still photos of bin Laden himself.

Release the photos. And the video of his burial at sea, for that matter. These are public records, folks.

Quote of the Day: Lying About the Budget

Jonathan Cohn:

It’s becoming pretty clear how Republicans plan to defend their budget. They’re going to lie about it. 

Yep. Sadly, that seems to be a pretty good strategy in today's media environment.

When he planned the 9/11 attacks, was Osama bin Laden's goal to drag the United States into a series of endless wars that would bankrupt us? I said earlier that I was "a little skeptical of attempts to take this argument too far" because bin Laden's statements to this effect all came well after 9/11. But Daveed Gartenstein-Ross tweets:

Re OBL not having economics in mind on 9/11, see his contemporary comments to Allouni, which I quote here: http://bit.ly/kf1vdx 

So I clicked:

Bin Laden's strategy's initial phase linked terrorist attacks directly to economic harm....In a wide-ranging interview conducted by Al Jazeera's Taysir Allouni in the month following the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden spoke at length about the extent of the economic damage the attacks had inflicted. "According to [the Americans'] own admissions," he said, "the share of the losses on the Wall Street market reached 16%. They said that this number is a record."....Factoring in building and construction losses, along with lost productivity, he concluded that the cost to the United States was "no less than $1 trillion."

But this is an entirely different thing. This is merely bin Laden bragging about the amount of damage caused by the 9/11 attacks themselves. It says nothing about whether his longer term goal was to draw the United States into ruinously expensive military adventures overseas and massive internal security overreactions at home.

Just to be clear: I agree that economic warfare was implicit in bin Laden's thinking. (Likewise, Gartenstein-Ross agrees that America's potential future insolvency is mostly the result of domestic politics, not the war against al-Qaeda.) I'd just be careful about inferring more than the evidence will bear here. The first time that bin Laden explicitly said that his strategy was to bleed the United States into bankruptcy was in 2004, after the United States had invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe that really was his intent all along. But it seems more likely that it was something he invented after the fact to make it look as if everything was going according to plan. It may have been one thread in his thinking, but I'm not sure you can say too much more than that about it.

FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH: My take on al-Qaeda's actions and motivations comes largely from Steve Coll's Ghost Wars and Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower. And Wright does say that bin Laden "wanted to lure the United State into Afghanistan, which was already being called the graveyard of empires" (though he doesn't source this contention). But bin Laden himself seemed to have more prosaic views, namely that the United States was inherently decadent and weak and would retreat from the Middle East if faced by a sufficiently determined jihadist guerrilla movement, and his #2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared to believe that striking the United States (and thus drawing the U.S. into battle) would serve primarily as a way of inspiring young jihadists to join the cause.

But I'm unquestionably no expert on this. Maybe there's more evidence than I think that bin Laden's strategy from the start was to bait the United States into spending itself into bankruptcy. I'd just like to hear a little more pre-9/11 evidence for this.

Eating the Poor

Jon Chait takes note of the remarkably large contingent of conservatives who seem genuinely outraged that Democrats accuse Paul Ryan and other Republicans of not wanting to fund healthcare for the poor and the vulnerable:

Who do they think is on Medicaid? Prosperous, healthy people?

No, Medicaid is a bare-bones program throwing a lifeline to people who are in bad shape. Cutting Medicaid may be the politically easiest way for Ryan to clear budget room to preserve Bush-era revenue levels, as Medicaid patients have little political clout. But it is, well, deeply immoral. I'm actually surprised that conservatives not only can't seem to imagine (or care about) the consequences of such policies, but they can't even imagine that people like Obama would actually feel moral outrage at their plan. They can't imagine a liberal objection as representing anything other than an attempt to score political points. It's bizarre. I mean, of course Obama finds it morally objectionable to take away medical care to people in nursing homes and children with special needs. That's why he's a Democrat.

It's not just conservatives, either. Media talking heads routinely stroke their chins and then, more in sorrow than in anger, accuse Democrats of "scare tactics" when they warn people about what Republican budget cuts will mean. Is that a scare tactic? I suppose it is. But it's also the truth. The truth is that Paul Ryan's budget, like so many Republican proposals before it, would decimate Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP, and dozens of other programs that benefit the elderly, the poor, and the disabled. Democrats think that's a bad idea because we think those programs are good things. What's more, we think it's an immoral idea because that decimation would primarily serve the purpose of keeping tax rates low on corporations and the rich. You may or may not agree about this, but either way it's not really that hard to grasp what's motivating liberals to feel the way they do.

Giving Osama bin Laden Too Much Credit

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross argues in Foreign Policy that American policymakers never really understood Osama bin Laden's strategy for defeating the West:

One lesson bin Laden learned from the war against the Soviets was the importance of his enemy's economy. The Soviet Union didn't just withdraw from Afghanistan in ignominious defeat, but the Soviet empire itself collapsed soon thereafter, in late 1991....He has compared the United States to the Soviet Union on numerous occasions — and these comparisons have been explicitly economic. For example, in October 2004 bin Laden said that just as the Arab fighters and Afghan mujahidin had destroyed Russia economically, al Qaeda was now doing the same to the United States, "continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy." Similarly, in a September 2007 video message, bin Laden claimed that "thinkers who study events and happenings" were now predicting the American empire's collapse. He gloated, "The mistakes of Brezhnev are being repeated by Bush."

I confess that I've always been a little skeptical of attempts to take this argument too far. This might well have been a thread in bin Laden's thinking, but these "explicitly economic" comparisons all seem to have come after 9/11 and seem suspiciously opportunistic to me. Still, there's obviously something to this, and after totting up the multi-trillion dollar cost of our various responses to al-Qaeda over the past decade, Ezra Klein muses on how successful bin Laden ended up being:

It isn’t quite right to say bin Laden cost us all that money. We decided to spend more than a trillion dollars on homeland security measures to prevent another attack. We decided to invade Iraq as part of a grand, post-9/11 strategy of Middle Eastern transformation. We decided to pass hundreds of billions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts and add an unpaid-for prescription drug benefit in Medicare while we were involved in two wars. And now, partially though not entirely because of these actions, we are deep in debt. Bin Laden didn’t — couldn’t — bankrupt us. He could only provoke us into bankrupting ourselves. And he came pretty close.

It’s a smart play against a superpower. We didn’t need to respond to 9/11 by trying to reshape the entire Middle East, but we’re a superpower, and we think on that scale. We didn’t need to respond to failed attempts to smuggle bombs onto airplanes through shoes and shampoo bottles by screening all footwear and banning large shampoo bottles, but we’re a superpower, and our tolerance for risk is extremely low. His greatest achievement was getting our psychology at least somewhat right.

Italics mine. I'm just not willing to go that far. Yes, Afghanistan and Iraq and homeland security cost us a lot and have contributed to our parlous fiscal state. But bin Laden had nothing to do with the Bush tax cuts, nothing to do with the housing bubble, and nothing to do with an unfunded prescription drug benefit. And most importantly of all, bin Laden had nothing to do with the upcoming growth of Medicare, something that we've known was coming for decades. There's simply no question that our short-term deficit was caused mostly by tax cuts and the Great Collapse of 2008, just as there's no question that our long-term deficit is caused mostly by spiraling Medicare expenses. By comparison, the cost of our response to al-Qaeda has been fairly modest.

Looking backward from, say, 2030, our response to 9/11 will seem like a pretty small contributor to our fiscal (in)solvency. I'll peg it at less than 10%. For a handful of terrorists living in a compound in Afghanistan, that's pretty impressive. But in the grand scheme of things, it's still a nit. If America really does end up bankrupting itself, bin Laden will have had nothing to do with it. The cause will be a delusional conservative political culture that throws temper tantrums at the thought of properly funding our nation's most popular social programs. They'd rather bring down the government than raise taxes by a few percent of GDP, and that, not a handful of delusional religious fanatics on the other side of the globe, is the real cause of our problems.