Kevin Drum

Dreamland

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 1:02 PM EST

A few weeks ago I began taking a blood pressure med, and yesterday my doctor asked if I'd noticed any side effects.  I told her I had a bit of dry mouth at night and that my dreams were a little more vivid than usual.  However, since I normally don't remember my dreams at all, "a little more vivid" didn't really mean much.

But last night was a deluge.  Four dreams that I remember!  Holy cow.  Here they are: (1) I reached an agreement with a contractor to add an innovative new kind of room addition to my house that was half above ground and half underground.  There were allegedly environmental benefits of some kind to this.  (2) I recorded a radio program explaining the differences between a 401(k) and a defined benefit pension.  I kept getting interrupted, and at one point I got distracted and made up a cockamamie explanation for what "401" stood for.  Then I remembered it referred to a section of the tax code and tried to pass off my previous explanation as a joke. (3) I was in the oceanside apartment of a pair of blogger friends.  They were pointing out the window to a dock, showing me where the press boat was going tie up so that I knew the sightlines for taking pictures. (4) I was part of a group that had just caught some terrible virus and was being herded into a van for transportation to an army quarantine center.  Sirens were blaring and lights were flashing when I suddenly woke up.

WTF?  I normally remember maybe one dream a month, and even then only momentarily.  And now four in one night?  Because I'm taking a diuretic to lower my blood pressure?  And one of them is about 401(k)s?  Come on.

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Kennedy and Healthcare Reform

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 11:59 AM EST

Matt Yglesias misses Ted Kennedy's presence in the healthcare reform debate:

I’m confident that were he still alive, he’d be saying what Sherrod Brown and Jay Rockefeller are saying — namely that when a deal like this is on the table, you say yes, pretend to like Joe Lieberman, get the thing done, do some good for the American people, and move on to other priorities. But he’s not alive. And I can’t prove that’s what he’d say. So we’re left instead with other folks like Brown and Rockefeller or just don’t have the same high profile or credibility needed to help sell people on this arrangement.

One of Kennedy's great regrets in life was not figuring out a way to cut a deal with Richard Nixon over his proposal to provide universal healthcare in 1971.  He changed his mind in 1973 and came close to reaching agreement with Nixon, but by then AMA opposition combined with the distraction of Watergate took it off the table, not to return for another two decades.  Steven Pearlstein provides a capsule summary here.

So you really hardly have to guess here.  Kennedy had vivid personal memories of rejecting a healthcare deal because it wasn't good enough, and then watching the moment pass and having reform die utterly. If he were alive today, there's no question that he'd be fighting to pass the current bill, warts and all.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent provides a different take from Kennedy historian Adam Clymer:

Rather, Clymer says, Kennedy’s regret was that the differences between both parties were unbridgeable, making agreement impossible and losing a historic opportunity — not that his side had failed to give up enough to get that agreement.

“Kennedy was sorry that they didn’t reach an agreement” and that both sides “never reached closure,” Clymer told our reporter, Amanda Erickson. He dismissed the idea that Kennedy regretted not giving up enough: “That’s not the same thing at all.”

Duly noted, though this is actually a fairly nuanced difference of interpretation.  In any case, the differences Kennedy had with Nixon were far greater than the gaps we're trying to bridge today.  I don't think there's any doubt he would have supported the current deal.

Holiday Fundraising

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 2:06 AM EST

Hey, it's fundraising time again!  Can you feel the excitement?

I'll keep it short: running a magazine, a website, and four separate blogs is expensive.  Real journalism always is.  But the recession is affecting us the same as everyone else, and we're running a few dollars short this year.  So we're trying to raise $50,000 before we kick off 2010, and twenty or thirty bucks from a few hundred of my readers can get us a good part of the way there.

So that's the pitch: if you like the blog, if you like the magazine, if you like our brand of journalism, help us out if you can.  Don't starve the cats to do it, but if you can afford 10 or 25 or 50 dollars to keep us going, click here to contribute.  Or go here to contribute via PayPal.  It's quick, secure, and tax deductible.  Thanks!

Congressional Kabuki

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 1:49 AM EST

McClatchy reports that Obama is on his own when it comes to selling his caucus on expansion of the war in Afghanistan:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that it's up to President Barack Obama to persuade reluctant Democrats to fund his Afghanistan troop buildup — his most important foreign policy initiative — because she has no plans to do so herself.

....That, coupled with lukewarm public support — in the latest Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey, only 51 percent of the respondents said they support the surge — suggests that support for the administration's Afghan policy is brittle, at best.

Needless to say, this is just kabuki.  Republicans will all vote for the expansion, which means that Obama only needs a few dozen Democratic votes, which he'll get easily.  Pelosi knows perfectly well that this is a cost-free protest on her part, and so does Obama.

Sleazy Sewers and Healthcare Reform

| Wed Dec. 16, 2009 9:02 PM EST

Glenn Greenwald has this to say about the Senate healthcare bill now that the public option and the Medicare buy-in have been stripped out:

In essence, this reinforces all of the worst dynamics of Washington.  The insurance industry gets the biggest bonanza imaginable in the form of tens of millions of coerced new customers without any competition or other price controls.  Progressive opinion-makers, as always, signaled that they can and should be ignored [...] Most of this was negotiated and effectuated in complete secrecy, in the sleazy sewers populated by lobbyists, industry insiders, and their wholly-owned pawns in the Congress.  And highly unpopular, industry-serving legislation is passed off as "centrist," the noblest Beltway value.

This is pretty much correct.  The individual mandate was a way of getting support from the insurance industry.  The backroom deal with Big Pharma was a way of getting support from the drug industry.  The change in Medicare reimbursement rates was a way of getting support from doctors.  The gutting of the Medicare commission was a way of getting support from hospitals.  Provisions related to biologics, home healthcare, and the prescription drug doughnut hole were a way of getting the support of AARP.

Any honest observer has to concede that all this makes it hard to defend the final product.  Except for one thing: in 1994 Bill Clinton failed to get the support of these groups and healthcare reform died.  If Obama had done the same, it would have died this year too.  There's really just no question about this.  It's ugly, but that's the real world.  Which brings me to the place where I think Glenn is wrong:

Looked at from the narrow lens of health care policy, there is a reasonable debate to be had among reform advocates over whether this bill is a net benefit or a net harm.

From any kind of progressive point of view it's hard to see how you could seriously argue that the current bill is a net harm. Sure, it makes compromises to powerful interests that are hard to swallow.  But that's why they're called powerful interests: because they can kill your legislative priorities if you don't assuage them.  In return, though, the Senate bill brings down insurance rates, expands Medicaid, offers the prospect of moderately priced insurance to tens of millions of the uninsured, forces insurers to take you on even if you have a chronic pre-existing condition, mandates minimum levels of coverage, and takes several small but important steps toward reducing the future growth of healthcare costs.  That's an enormous advance for the progressive agenda.

There's an alternate universe out there in which you could get all this stuff without compromise based on the sheer force of progressive arguments.  Sadly, it's not this universe.  I sure hope we don't have to learn this the hard way yet again.

Sunspots and Global Warming

| Wed Dec. 16, 2009 7:43 PM EST

I was googling around a couple of weeks ago and happened to end up clicking a bunch of links that took me down a particular rabbit hole of climate change skepticism related to solar cycles.  It was fascinating in a gruesome kind of way, but I never wrote a post about it and eventually it drifted from my mind.  Today, though, Brad Plumer comes through with a link to a piece in the Independent explaining just where this theory originally came from and how it's become so widespread.  Also, why it's wrong.1  Worth a read.

1An explanation largely notable because the scientist who originally advanced the sunspot theory refuses to address his main critic because he "is not a scientist."  Good to see the tables turned here for once.

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Cantor to Unemployed: Drop Dead

| Wed Dec. 16, 2009 6:49 PM EST

Dave Weigel notes today that Republican House Whip Eric Cantor sent out an email blast today opposing a bunch of safety net extensions, including extension of unemployment benefits, COBRA subsidies, Medicaid matching rates, and child credits. Says Dave: "Attacking this stuff — and implying that a Republican majority would cut off these benefits — is something an opposition party can do, but something very hard to imagine a Republican congressional majority getting away with."

Maybe.  But this morning on the Imus show Cantor doubled down:

We haven't had a discussion in Washington this year about wealth creation, about job creation. It's all been about trying to provide more safety net, trying to take from those who have been able to create wealth and opportunity and redistribute it. You know, that's not the America that any of us know.

So there you have it: no help for the unemployed, just more tax cuts for the rich.  Sounds pretty Republican to me!

(What's that? you say.  Cantor didn't say anything about tax cuts for the rich?  Sure he did.  He just said it in code.  Read his statement again.)

$80 Grand to Goof Off?

| Wed Dec. 16, 2009 2:49 PM EST

Elizabeth Wurtzel writes about recruiting at the top drawer law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore:

The class of associates that just joined Cravath was asked to defer their arrival for a year in exchange for a sweet deal: They would receive $80,000 to not work, plus they would get benefits and student-loan payments. This offer was optional.

....I've been told that none of the graduates of Yale Law School who were headed for Cravath accepted their offer of $80,000 to surf and sunbathe, or go forth and save the world. Since no one at either institution is willing to discuss this — and I don't blame them, because I would be embarrassed too — I don't know this for certain. But here's what I'm sure of: Not everybody took Cravath up on this peachy keen opportunity to do anything for a year with pay and benefits. And that by itself is disturbing enough.

Felix Salmon says this piece has been gnawing at him all day.  "What on earth would possess a law student fresh out of Yale Law to decline this offer?" he wonders.  My guess is that Wurtzel answers the question here:

Those who will be joining the firm next year are slightly, but only by a smidge, less lucky: They get $65,000 to put off employment for a year, with the same perquisites, and acceptance is mandatory.

Law students who get offers to join Cravath tend to be super ambitious Type A folks, and that's a big part of why they want to get their careers started right away.  But surely fear is the biggest reason for turning down this offer, isn't it?  Fear #1: this is just a test.  Anyone who takes them up on it will be tagged forever as a slacker.  Who wants that?  Fear #2: if the economy is still bad a year from now — and apparently Cravath has already decided that it will be — will Cravath keep paying me not to work?  Along with yet another class they want to keep on the hook?  And after two or three years of this, what then?  My skills are rusty, my classmates have two or three years of valuable experience and professional networking, and Cravath will toss me aside.  What happens after that?  Will some other top firm take a flyer on someone who's spent the past few years watching reruns of The Wire or lying on the beach?

I'm not nearly the workaholic that a top Yale law student is, but I wouldn't touch this offer with a bargepole.  I'd get my suits pressed, shine my shoes, and show up to work.  When times are tough, who wouldn't?

How To Wreck an Economy in Eight Short Years

| Wed Dec. 16, 2009 1:37 PM EST

Conservatives spend a lot of time whining these days about how Barack Obama is always blaming them for all the problems he faces.  Personally, though, I'd say Obama has been remarkably restrained about the whole thing, especially when it comes to our disastrous fiscal situation.  In a mere eight years, George Bush and the Republican Party managed to take a thriving economy and a federal surplus and turn it into a hair's breadth escape from Great Depression II and an endless fiscal sinkhole.  Rome may not have been built in a day, but it didn't take much longer than that for the modern Republican Party to bankrupt America.

Anyway, here's a nice chart from the wonks at the CBPP to illustrate this.  I think they take the right tone here:

While President Obama inherited a bad fiscal legacy, that does not diminish his responsibility to propose policies to address our fiscal imbalance and put the weight of his office behind them. Although policymakers should not tighten fiscal policy in the near term while the economy remains fragile, they and the nation at large must come to grips with the nation’s deficit problem. But we should all recognize how we got where we are today.

All clear now?

Obama and the Bankers

| Wed Dec. 16, 2009 1:11 PM EST

Matt Yglesias echoes a thought that's been bouncing around in my head lately too: sometimes you need to pick a fight even though you know you can't win.  Big ticket items like healthcare and climate change are bad candidates for that kind of thing, since a public fight with Congress might sink the whole thing.  But:

Financial regulation, it seems to me, would be that issue. In broad terms, the idea of regulating big banks is popular. And substantively speaking, a weak bill that’s full of loopholes would genuinely do very little good. We’re not in imminent danger of a bubble/crash replay but if we do something called “financial regulatory reform” we’re unlikely to do it again until there is a new panic. So there’s a strong case for coming out swinging against denouncing a too-weak bill as a sham and drawing some bright lines. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll do some Taibbi-style denunciations of Geithner & Rahm.

I agree, but I'd spin it a little differently.  Healthcare is an example of a standard issue major bill: it has lots of moving parts that all interlock, and the whole thing is a delicate balance designed to hold together just long enough to get 60 votes.  Screw with one piece and the whole edifice might come crashing to the ground.

But I think financial reform is different.  You can do it in lots of little pieces if you want, and taking a populist stand on one piece doesn't necessarily endanger everything else.  So why not do it?  Why not pick a signature issue or two and really hammer away?  Make a few fire-breathing speeches about how you agree with Alistair Darling about taxing banks that hand out huge bonuses and will be sending legislation to Congress to make that happen.  It'll probably fail, but at least it moves the conversation forward and gets the public engaged.  The fact that you fought the good fight won't really hurt you (the nation's bankers obviously don't think much of you already), and far from sinking the whole reform effort, it might actually help keep the rest of the bill(s) from getting watered down even more.  A couple million postcards has that effect sometimes.

Of course, this all depends on what Obama really thinks of financial reform in the first place, and that's a bit of mystery.  It would be nice to get a bit of a hint, though.