Kevin Drum

A Systemic Failure?

| Thu Dec. 31, 2009 12:19 PM EST

I've been waiting for someone smarter than me to make this point. So here's Spencer Ackerman on the Christmas bomber:

Abdulmutallab’s father told embassy officials in Abuja that he didn’t know where his son was, but might be in Yemen. The CIA had that information. NSA has information that a Nigerian might be used for an attack sponsored by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. If all of this had gone into the [National Counterterrorism Center], would someone have put two and two together — setting off the process for pulling Abdulmutallab’s visa or putting him on the no-fly? Maybe. And the rationale for the all-source, multi-agency NCTC is all about intelligence sharing. But remember: the inputs are that the guy’s dad says he’s dangerous; he’s Nigerian; he might be in Yemen; and al-Qaeda in Yemen may be looking to use a Nigerian in a forthcoming attack. Is that really enough?

The answer to that question most certainly requires a policy decision, not an intelligence decision. The intelligence community is drinking from a fire hose of data, a lot of it much more specific than what was acquired on Abdulmutallab. If policymakers decide that these thin reeds will be the standard for stopping someone from entering the United States, then they need to change the process to enshrine that in the no-fly system. But it will make it much harder for people who aren’t threatening to enter, a move that will ripple out to effect diplomacy, security relationships (good luck entering the U.S. for a military-to-military contact program if, say, you’re a member of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, since you had contacts with known extremists), international business and trade, and so on. Are we prepared for that?

In retrospect, terrorism dots always look easy to connect, but people rarely think about all the other similar dots. If the information we had on Abdulmutallab should have been enough to keep him off the flight to Detroit, then we're also saying that that's the level of information that should be sufficient to keep anyone off a flight to Detroit. Is that what we want?

Maybe. But it's far from obvious after just a cursory glance. Public pressure is invaluable to keep the federal government honest, but it can also become a myopic feeding frenzy. The intelligence community plainly needs to account for itself here, and upon investigation we might decide that there really was a systemic breakdown. But it's way too early to say that with any confidence.

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Airport Security

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 8:53 PM EST

Matt Yglesias says he's skeptical about the value of ratcheting up security even further in airports, and then adds this:

The last point I would make, raised by DanVerg on Twitter, is that even if airplanes were completely secure you could always kill people by detonating a bomb in some other crowded place. For example, you could blow something up in a crowded airport security line.

I'd take something different away from this. The fact that al-Qaeda keeps focusing on airplanes is a sign of how weak they are. Sure, they could detonate a bomb in a security line, but it wouldn't kill very many people and it certainly wouldn't have the psychological impact of taking down a jumbo jet. Alternatively, they could try to blow up a chemical plant or something like that, but that's out of their league. They'd have to get a team of operatives into the country and then they'd have to do all the planning and all the execution within the borders of the United States, where surveillance is far greater than it is in Yemen or Nigeria. They plainly don't have the resources to do this, and every in-country plot we've uncovered since 2001 has been bumbling and amateurish.

Obviously this could change, but at the moment I think it's wrong to say al-Qaeda "could always kill people" in a bunch of other ways. In fact, the evidence suggests that they can't, at least not in any wholesale way. In that sense, then, airport security really does seem like one of the better places to focus our security efforts. I just wish we could do it more sensibly.

The Rich Are Different From You and Me

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 7:59 PM EST

Thanks to a combination of Republican idiocy (in 2001) and Republican obstinacy (in 2009), the estate tax will go away completely in 2010, only to return in 2011. So if you're rich, and you're close to death, you'd do well to hang on for another couple of days before you expire. Or so the story goes:

"I have two clients on life support, and the families are struggling with whether to continue heroic measures for a few more days," says Joshua Rubenstein, a lawyer with Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York. "Do they want to live for the rest of their lives having made serious medical decisions based on estate-tax law?"

....To make it easier on their heirs, some clients are putting provisions into their health-care proxies allowing whoever makes end-of-life medical decisions to consider changes in estate-tax law. "We have done this at least a dozen times, and have gotten more calls recently," says Andrew Katzenstein, a lawyer with Proskauer Rose LLP in Los Angeles.

Of course, plenty of taxpayers themselves are eager to live to see the new year. One wealthy, terminally ill real-estate entrepreneur has told his doctors he is determined to live until the law changes.

"Whenever he wakes up," says his lawyer, "He says: 'What day is it? Is it Jan. 1 yet?'"

This seems crazy to me. Congress has long had the power to retroactively change tax rates, and they'll almost certainly reinstate the estate tax sometime in 2010. The Journal says that the odds of a successful court challenge to a retroactive increase "is a subject of debate in the estate-planning world," but it's hard to believe that anyone really takes that seriously.

But who knows? Maybe this is all a clever plan on the part of Democrats. Maybe they're just waiting for some rich and unsympathetic person to die (think Leona Helmsley or someone like that) and then they plan to use this person as a poster child for Republican greed and pandering to the rich. The ads write themselves: "You pay taxes on everything you earn. But conservative mogul Richard Mellon Scaife just left $1.2 billion to his kids and they don't have to pay a single cent on it. Today's Republican Party: protecting billionaire contributors while you keep the country running."

Eh. Probably not. But you never know. Someone might be able to make hay out of this.

Full Body Scanning

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 3:50 PM EST

As much as I hate both the partisan screeching and the inane rush to pin blame in the underwear bombing case before we really have any idea what happened, I also confess that I don't understand the (bipartisan! international!) hysteria that's prevented full body screening machines from being put in use on a wider basis. They perform "virtual strip searches that see through your clothing and reveal the size and shape of your body," says the ACLU, and earlier this year the House voted to prohibit their use for primary screening. Both Democrats and Republicans voted for the ban by wide margins.

I'll defer to the experts on how and where these devices are best used, but privacy concerns strike me as daft. Yes, the machines show the shape of your body under your clothes. Big deal. That strikes me as way less intrusive than pat-downs, wands, bomb-sniffing dogs, hand inspections, and no-fly lists. If we put up with that stuff, why on earth would we suddenly draw the line at a full body scanner?

We go nuts whenever a terrorist tries to set off a bomb, but we also go nuts over an effective, noninvasive technology just because it gives TSA screeners a brief glimpse of our body fat level? That's crazy.

The End of Health Insurance

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 12:39 PM EST

"Community rating" is wonkspeak for a requirement that health insurers cover everyone at the same price, regardless of preexisting conditions or health status. James Surowiecki says it makes private health insurance unnecessary:

Congress’s support for community rating and universal access doesn’t fit well with its insistence that health-care reform must rely on private insurance companies. After all, measuring risk, and setting prices accordingly, is the raison d’être of a health-insurance company....Congress is effectively making private insurers unnecessary, yet continuing to insist that we can’t do without them.

The truth is that we could do just fine without them: an insurance system with community rating and universal access has no need of private insurers.

I agree, and it's one of the reasons that, warts and all, I support the current healthcare reform legislation so strongly. My take is that community rating at the national level can eventually lead to only two outcomes: (a) the end of private health insurance completely1 or (b) the transformation of private insurers into regulated public utilities. Roughly speaking, Option A is what you see in Canada or Sweden, Option B is what you see in Germany and the Netherlands. I'd prefer the former, but the regulated utility model works OK too, and it's hard to see how you avoid one or the other in the long run.

It would be nice to have a public option in the current legislation since it would probably speed up the process I'm talking about. But Surowiecki is right: community rating plus universal access makes private insurers obsolete. Soon they'll be doing nothing but basic administrative work, and within a few years this will become too obvious to ignore. At that point, Congress will either enact a public option that eventually grows large enough to put private insurance out of business, or else regulation of the private industry will grow to the point where it becomes a nonissue. It's too bad we'll have to wait so long for this to happen, but today's healthcare legislation puts it on the road to inevitability.

1That is, its end as a primary health insurer. Private insurers will likely stay around to provide supplementary or specialized coverage.

Midterms are Coming

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 11:15 AM EST

On Monday I twittered:

Why haven't we heard yet from Dick Cheney re: NW 253 bombing? Really feel like we could use his perspective.

Ha ha. Just kidding, of course. But I guess Cheney took me seriously. Here he is yesterday:

As I've watched the events of the last few days it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war. He seems to think if he has a low key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won't be at war.

What a loathsome human being. As for the more general calculated Republican freakout over this, credit where it's due to Politico for pointing it out. The GOP is really mining new lows these days.

More here. Or a million other places as well. It's nothing new that Republicans are doing everything they can to exploit terrorism for political advantage, but they sure are stepping up the crassness level these days.

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The Financial Lobby at Work

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 6:48 PM EST

Ryan Grim and Arthur Delaney write today about the House Committee on Financial Services — aka the banking committee — and how Democrats decided to populate it when they won control of Congress in 2006:

The banking committee [...] is known as a "money committee" because joining it makes fundraising, especially from donors with financial interests litigated by the panel, significantly easier. The Democratic leadership chose to embrace this concept, setting up the committee as an ATM for vulnerable rookies. Eleven freshman representatives from conservative-leaning districts, designated as "frontline" members, have been given precious spots on the committee. They have individually raised an average of $1.09 million for their 2010 campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; by contrast, the average House member has raised less than half of that amount.

....Because the frontline members face the possible end of their careers in November and may be beholden to the whims of powerful donors, the Democrats' 13-seat advantage on the committee is weaker than it appears. If seven members break with the party on a vote, the GOP wins. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) refers to them as "the unreliable bottom row." (The second row is little better, populated by the Democrats from red-leaning areas who first took office after the 2006 election.)

In short, by setting up the committee as a place for shaky Democrats from red districts to pad their campaign coffers, leadership made a choice to prioritize fundraising over the passage of strong legislation. "It makes it difficult to corral consensus," says Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), a subcommittee chairman, of the unwieldy panel.

The whole piece is worth a read, including the explanation of how financial interests these days tend to get local frontmen — realtors, car dealers, farmers, small credit unions — to push for loopholes that would be hard to pass if it were obvious that Wall Street firms were behind them. And for sheer entertainment, don't miss the description of senior members of the banking committee twisting themselves into knots to change their votes on legislation in order to curry favor with industry lobbyists once they've decided they were supporting a lost cause. It's politics at its finest.

But of course, keep one other thing in mind too: Democrats may cave on some of this stuff — and shame on them for doing so — but at least there's still a core group of them willing to do what's right. On the Republican side, the number of committee members willing to what's right is precisely zero.

Quote of the Day: Grandstanding Watch

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 2:08 PM EST

From Chris Hayes, responding to the mindless blathering of Rep. Peter King (R–Hysteristan) about Obama's response to the underwear bomber:

It sounds like you're saying they've been insufficiently grandstanding on the issue.

"I don't know why you'd say that," King said. And you know what? He probably really doesn't.

Repealing Reform

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 1:43 PM EST

Apparently the conservative base is demanding that all good Republicans campaign next year on repeal of healthcare reform. This is probably a good strategy since it (a) makes for good rabble rousing but (b) will never have to be followed up on.  Republicans will never get either the 60 votes they'd need for repeal or the two-thirds they'd need to override an Obama veto, so why not promise the moon?

But since there's not a lot to blog about this week, I guess I'm curious about how exactly they're going to do this. The problem, as other people have also pointed out, is that the current bill has basically been stripped down to the bare minimum you can have once you start from the point that everyone agrees about: reforming the insurance industry. Crudely speaking, the moving parts go together like this:

  • Insurance companies are required to take all comers, regardless of preexisting conditions.
  • This requires regulation of pricing, since taking all comers is meaningless if they're priced out of the market.
  • Regulation of pricing would destroy the private insurance market, since sick people would all buy cheap insurance and bankrupt the companies. So you have to ensure that everyone buys insurance, even the young and healthy. Thus, an individual mandate.
  • But if you're going to have an individual mandate, then you have to include subsidies so that poor people can afford it.
  • And that's the ball game.

Now, there's more to healthcare reform than just this. There's Medicaid expansion for example, which I suppose Republicans could fight against. But Medicaid is cheaper than subsidies, so costs would go up if they did that. There are also all the cost cutting measures and pilot projects in the bill, and some of them are unpopular. But again, they'd basically be surrendering completely on even the idea of reining in healthcare costs if they attacked that.

So what do they have left to campaign against? Maybe the specific funding sources, but that would be a pretty raw bit of pandering to the rich. The fact is that at any level of real detail, Republicans just don't have much of an argument.

I suppose this doesn't matter, though. It sort of reminds me of the too-clever liberal response whenever conservatives start railing about cutting the deficit without raising taxes. It goes something like this: "OK, fine. But two-thirds of the federal budget is taken up by Social Security, Medicare, national defense, and interest on the debt. You don't want to cut that stuff, so to eliminate the deficit you'd have to slash about half of the remaining stuff. So what are you going to cut?"

Liberals always ask that question, conservatives never answer it since they know perfectly well it would piss off practically every registered voter in the country, and it makes no difference. They just keep saying it anyway, and lots of voters buy it. Probably it would be the same with healthcare reform. They'd refuse to say just exactly what they'd cut, and it wouldn't really make any difference. It's the thought that counts, after all.

More Drama Please, Obama

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 12:40 PM EST

"I'm not sure you can get more beltway than this article," writes a friend.  Here's the article:

There is a sense of déjà vu in the Obama administration’s response to the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day. A by-now familiar pattern has been established for dealing with unexpected problems.

First, White House aides downplay the notion that something may have gone wrong on their part. While staying out of the spotlight, the president conveys his efforts to address the situation and his feelings about it through administration officials. After a few days, the White House concedes on the issue, and perhaps Barack Obama even steps out to address it.

....By the time Obama addressed the public with a brief televised statement, his critics had made such headway that the White House was left with this lede in the New York Times: “President Obama emerged from Hawaiian seclusion on Monday to try to quell gathering criticism of his administration’s handling of the thwarted Christmas Day bombing of an American airliner as a branch of Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.”

It’s the kind of story the White House might have avoided if Obama hadn’t waited so long to forcefully react to the incident.

That's right: if only Obama insisted on immediately grabbing the spotlight and relentlessly overhyping events for his own political gain, maybe the right would leave him alone. Sounds like a solid plan to me.