Kevin Drum

Obama Announces Bold New Decade-Old Strategy in Iraq

| Wed Jun. 10, 2015 10:29 AM EDT

Here's our bold, new, never-before-tried strategy for beating ISIS:

In a major shift of focus in the battle against the Islamic State, the Obama administration is planning to establish a new military base in Anbar Province, Iraq, and to send up to 450 more American military trainers to help Iraqi forces retake the city of Ramadi.

....To assemble a force to retake Ramadi, the number of Iraqi tribal fighters in Anbar who are trained and equipped is expected to increase to as many as 10,000 from about 5,500.

More than 3,000 new Iraqi soldiers are to be recruited to fill the ranks of the Seventh Iraqi Army division in Anbar and the Eighth Iraqi Army division, which is in Habbaniyah, where the Iraqi military operations center for the province is also based.

Roger that. More American "trainers." More Iraqi fighters, who will turn out to be great this time. Honest. Oh, and a brand new target: Ramadi instead of Mosul.

Should work like a dream. I can't think of anything that could go wrong this time.

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Is King v. Burwell Already a Done Deal?

| Tue Jun. 9, 2015 1:44 PM EDT

I'm curious about something. I've read what now seems like a thousand blog posts about whether Republicans are going to offer a plausible legislative fix if the Supreme Court kills Obamacare subsidies in states that use the federal exchange. (Answer: no.) I've read another thousand about what the effect will be if the Supreme Court kills Obamacare subsidies. And another thousand about other topics related to King v. Burwell.

But all these posts and news articles seem to be written less and less in the conditional tense. It's as if everyone has already given up on the possibility that the Supreme Court will do the right thing and simply hand down a ruling based on the plain intent of the law, keeping Obamacare subsidies in place.

So how about that? Have we all given up? Maybe I'm being far less cynical than I should be, but I'm still assuming King v. Burwell will go against the plaintiffs.

Am I alone in this? What are the Vegas odds these days on how the ruling is going to go?

Louisiana Republicans Now Wish They'd Never Heard of Grover Norquist

| Tue Jun. 9, 2015 11:29 AM EDT

It's hardly surprising when Democrats criticize Grover Norquist, the godfather of the anti-tax movement. But following like sheep behind Norquist's demands to lower taxes always and everywhere has gotten states in so much trouble that even some Republicans are now begging him to be a little less obstinate. Sadly for Louisiana, Norquist is having none of it:

A group of self-described "conservative" Republican state representatives took their complaints to Norquist himself, asking him to give them some wiggle room on raising taxes and to shoot down some Jindal-backed legislation that they say would set a "dangerous precedent" in how government could mask revenue hikes.

....Sunday’s letter — signed by Louisiana House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Joel Robideaux (R) and 10 other state Republican representatives — asked Norquist to take into account the previous tax cuts Louisiana has passed in recent years and the effect they will have in the future when assessing whether the state is in compliance with the no tax pledge....Furthermore it asked Norquist to weigh in on the so-called SAVE proposal, which they said would allow governments in the future to raise billions of dollars in revenue in the guise of a revenue-neutral budget.

....However, Norquist refused to take the bait. While declining to come out for or against the tax credit proposal, he said it qualified as an offset and asked the lawmakers, "If you don’t like the SAVE Act, why not find other offsetting tax cuts that are more to your liking? "Norquist also scoffed at the Republicans' plea that their past tax cuts be taken into account, writing "[u]nder that logic, President Obama could argue he didn’t raise taxes."

In other words, go pound sand. But then, what did they expect? Norquist has one and only one thing going for him—thou shalt never raise taxes, no how, no way—and Bobby Jindal is still delusional enough to think he's running for president. So no taxes are going to be raised in the Pelican State. And if that causes massive pain and dislocation? Well, that's just tough, isn't it?

Here Are America's Top 50 Health Care Thugs

| Mon Jun. 8, 2015 5:36 PM EDT

As long as we're on the subject of how poor people get screwed in the United States, the Washington Post revisits an old favorite today: the way hospitals gouge the uninsured. Here's their summary of a new study that looks at the 50 biggest gougers, which charge uninsured patients more than ten times the actual cost of care:

All but one of the these facilities is owned by for-profit entities, and by far the largest number of hospitals — 20 — are in Florida. For the most part, researchers said, the hospitals with the highest markups are not in pricey neighborhoods or big cities, where the market might explain the higher prices.

....Community Health Systems operates 25 of the hospitals on the list; Hospital Corp. of America operates another 14. “They are price-gouging because they can,” said Gerard Anderson, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, co-author of the study in Health Affairs. “They are marking up the prices because no one is telling them they can’t.”

....Most hospital patients covered by private or government insurance don’t pay full price because insurers and programs like Medicare negotiate lower rates for their patients. But the millions of Americans who don’t have insurance don’t have anyone to negotiate on their behalf. They are most likely to be charged the full hospital price. As a result, uninsured patients, who are often the most vulnerable, face skyrocketing medical bills that can lead to personal bankruptcy, damaged credit scores or avoidance of needed medical care.

It's hard to find the words to describe how loathsome this is. It's a structure deliberately designed to bleed the maximum possible amount from the people who are least able to afford it and least able to fight back. We normally associate this kind of thing with Charles Dickens novels, or with thugs in leather jackets who have a habit of breaking kneecaps. But these thugs all wear suits and ties.

I'm not really sure how they sleep at night, but I guess they find a way.

How Big Is the Penalty For Not Paying a 34-Cent Bill?

| Mon Jun. 8, 2015 2:30 PM EDT

Before we went up to City of Hope, Marian prepaid a bunch of our monthly bills. That way our service providers would all have a little stash of money to draw from in case we missed a bill.

As a result, we recently got a bill for 4 cents from Verizon. Please don't bother paying this, they said. We'll just pick it up in June's bill. We also got a bill for 34 cents from AT&T. Unlike previous bills, this one didn't include a return payment envelope and the remit portion of the bill didn’t include an address to send the payment. Sounds like they didn't want us to bother paying either, right?

Nope. They may want it to look like they don't want payment, but after finally getting hold of someone at the billing center (Marian is much more tenacious about this stuff than I am), they told us they did indeed want payment. In fact, if we didn't pay this 34-cent bill, we would be assessed a $6.50 late fee.

This is just a tiny slice of life that's either annoying or amusing for someone like me. However, it's also a tiny slice of life that, when you multiply it by a hundred, partly explains how poor people are continually screwed over and have a hard time ever digging out of debt. Nice work, AT&T. You are indeed a symbol of American ingenuity.

I'm Against Easy Voting for All. Some People Just Aren't Competent to Vote Rationally.

| Mon Jun. 8, 2015 11:37 AM EDT

Ezra Klein notes today that the argument against making it easier to vote is often very simple: it's not a good idea to make it easy to vote:

If that sounds a bit odd to you, then read Daniel Foster's argument against Clinton's idea, which lays the objection bare: "the people who can’t be bothered to register (as opposed to those who refuse to vote as a means of protest) are, except in unusual cases, civic idiots." And who wants civic idiots choosing our next president?

For a rejoinder, read Slate's Jamelle Bouie, who writes, "You get better at voting the more often you do it. Relatively uninformed voters in one election might become highly informed voters a few cycles later. More participation could make us a more engaged country."

I have a quarrel with both sides in this argument. In a modern democracy, we don't try to decide which voters are highly informed and thus "worthy" of voting. You can vote if you have an IQ of 200 and you can vote if you're a nitwit. The reason is simple: the decisions of the state affect both voters equally. Everybody gets to vote because everybody has a stake in the outcome.

This is not the way it's always been, of course. In early America only white male landowners could vote, because others were thought incapable of properly exercising the franchise. (That was the official excuse, anyway.) But even then, there was also an argument based on engagement with the state. White male landowners were thought to have a real stake in the decisions of the government, and therefore would vote their interests more intelligently.

Both those things have changed over time. Everybody is now acknowledged to be capable of voting in their interests, and everybody is now acknowledged to have a stake in what the government does. That's the argument for making it easy for everyone to vote. It doesn't matter if this means we'll get more voters who don't read National Review or can't name the Speaker of the House. What matters is that all these voters have just as big a stake in what the government does as you or I do. And if they have a stake, we should make it easy for them to vote.

Of course, no one really cares about this. The real argument for making voting easy is that it will increase the number of Democratic-leaning voters. And the real reason for making voting hard is that it will lower the number of Democratic-leaning voters. Everyone knows this. Sadly, all the other high-minded arguments for and against are just kabuki.

As it happens, my own guess is that highly engaged voters probably vote more stupidly than people who live normal lives and don't even know what GDP is, let alone whether it's gone up or down under the current occupant of the White House. (Scientific backup here.) If I had my way, anyone who shows an actual interest in politics—all of us who read and write this blog, for example—would be deemed obviously neurotic and forbidden from voting for dog catcher, let alone president. People like us would get to rant and rave and publish op-eds, but only people who are bored by us would actually get to vote. Any objections?

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Friday Cat Blogging - 5 June 2015

| Fri Jun. 5, 2015 2:26 PM EDT

I suppose I could write a post about the Rubio family's many traffic tickets, but I dunno. Seems to me that 23 mph in a school zone is pretty safe driving. Florida sure does have some strict rules about that, I guess.

In any case, it's far more pleasant to round out the week with some catblogging. Here is Hopper blissfully stretched out while her brother grooms her chin. So sweet. At least, it was until Hilbert got tired of licking and decided to clamp his jaws around Hopper's neck. I pushed him away, but this is sadly typical behavior from our own Dr. Hilbert and Mr. Hyde.

At the moment, Hilbert is resting right next to me. He exhausted himself running from window to window to watch our local squirrel hopping along the fence. At one point his tail was flapping so vigorously he was knocking stuff off my desk. But now the squirrel is gone and it's snoozing time.

Here's Why Libertarians Are Mostly Men

| Fri Jun. 5, 2015 12:34 PM EDT

Jeet Heer investigates a burning question today: why are most libertarians men? He offers several plausible explanations, but I think he misses the real one, perhaps because it's pretty unflattering to libertarians.

So here's the quick answer: Hardcore libertarianism is a fantasy. It's a fantasy where the strongest and most self-reliant folks end up at the top of the heap, and a fair number of men share the fantasy that they are these folks. They believe they've been held back by rules and regulations designed to help the weak, and in a libertarian culture their talents would be obvious and they'd naturally rise to positions of power and influence.

Most of them are wrong, of course. In a truly libertarian culture, nearly all of them would be squashed like ants—mostly by the same people who are squashing them now. But the fantasy lives on regardless.

Few women share this fantasy. I don't know why, and I don't really want to play amateur sociologist and guess. Perhaps it's something as simple as the plain observation that in the more libertarian past, women were subjugated to men almost completely. Why would that seem like an appealing fantasy?

Anyway, this is obviously simplistic and unflattering, and libertarians are going to be offended by it. Sorry. But feel free to take some guesses in comments about why women don't take to libertarianism as strongly as men.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in May

| Fri Jun. 5, 2015 11:51 AM EDT

The American economy added 280,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at 190,000 jobs, which is quite a bit better than the past two months. The unemployment rate ticked up a few hundredths of a point and now rounds off to 5.5 percent, slightly higher than last month. But it was mostly because more people are entering the labor force, which is a good thing.

Roughly speaking, this report is fairly good news. Not great news, especially after the lousy jobs reports in March and April, but OK. Our economy continues to putter along in second gear.

Yet Again, Congress Is Too Scared to Assert Its Warmaking Powers

| Thu Jun. 4, 2015 12:41 PM EDT

Our Congress is really a piece of work when it comes to national security. In 2011, President Obama announced that he could go to war against Libya without congressional approval. Congress hemmed and hawed, but in the end was unable to agree to do anything about it. Two years later members of Congress were vocal about Obama's lack of action against Syria when it was revealed that the Assad regime had been using chemical weapons. Obama eventually responded and asked Congress for approval to take military action. Congress did nothing. Now we have yet another war, this time against ISIS, and Obama asked for congressional approval months ago. Result: nothing. Members of Congress would rather be free to lambaste Obama on the campaign trail than to actually commit themselves to a strategy.

So now what? HuffPo's Jennifer Bendery reports that Rep. Barbara Lee (D–Calif.) added a clause to the 2016 defense spending bill stating that “Congress has a constitutional duty to debate and determine whether or not to authorize the use of military force” against ISIS. It passed, but only barely. Steve Benen is acerbic:

Right. So, the Obama administration launched airstrikes in August 2014. The president called on Congress to authorize the mission in December 2014. Obama devoted part of his State of the Union address to this in January 2015. The White House even sent draft legislative language to Capitol Hill in February 2015.

And in June 2015, a committee was willing to endorse a non-binding measure that said Congress really should, someday, do something to meet its constitutional obligations.

That’s it. That’s as far as lawmakers have been willing to go.

Indeed, much the committee didn’t even want to even go this far. When Barbara Lee urged members to support her proposal, the committee chairman held a voice vote and deemed it defeated. When Lee insisted on a roll call, it passed 29 to 22, overcoming Republican opposition. (All 22 “no” votes came from GOP members.)

In other words, nearly half the committee wasn’t even willing to go this far.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Congress. Makes you proud to be an American, doesn't it?