Kevin Drum

9/11 Truthers and Tweets

| Sat Sep. 12, 2009 12:10 AM EDT

Happy weekend y'all—Laura here, back with the latest Kevin and David week-in-review podcast. This week: Kevin and David bat around Obama's speech timing, Joe Wilson, and the weirdest thing about Twitter. Plus: David doesn't really like to talk about the truthers, which makes his latest take on Van Jones and 9/11 conspiracies all the more interesting. And is that a dog I hear in the background chez Kevin? Give a listen: Kevin and David's 9/11 Week-in-Review podcast.

Laura McClure hosts weekly podcasts and is a writer and editor for Mother Jones. Read her recent investigative feature on lifehacking gurus here.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 11 September 2009

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 3:13 PM EDT

It's flash photography day!  Which is not so great since the flash on my camera is pretty mediocre.  What's more, although it does a miraculous job of eliminating redeye in humans, it's not so great at eliminating laser eye in cats.  But somehow we soldier on anyway.  On the left, Inkblot is snoozing on a pile of fresh laundry under the ever-watchful gaze of the Brobdingnagian Fuzzy.  On the right, Domino falls for the old finger in the sky trick.  They just never learn.

Flooding the Zone

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 2:55 PM EDT

You be the judge: did the Washington Post fulfill its duty to inform the public last night by running a mere eight separate pieces about Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's healthcare speech on Wednesday?  Or is anything less than a dozen a sign that they aren't really trying anymore?  After all, Politico had at least 15 Wilson-related pieces, including a big front pager by Andie Coller headlined "A Party of Cranks?"

I suppose I shouldn't complain, but unlike a lot of my fellow lefties, I'm not convinced that obsessing over Joe Wilson actually does our cause any good.  It's time to send him back under the rock he crawled out from.

Watching the Watchmen

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 2:23 PM EDT

Amy Zegart says that one of the biggest unfinished pieces of business from 9/11 is reform of intelligence oversight.  Not reform of the intelligence community itself, which has made at least some progress over the past few years, but specifically of congressional oversight.  Congress simply refuses to take action to make its oversight both serious and consequential.  For example:

Both the House and Senate have repeatedly rejected proposals before and after 9/11 to give the Intelligence Committees appropriations powers. Instead, the intelligence budgetary system is divided: Intelligence Committees can threaten to punish recalcitrant agencies with budget cuts, but Appropriations Committees must deliver. History has shown that they don’t, and that savvy intelligence agencies game the system — bypassing the Intelligence Committees and getting their pet projects funded by the appropriators instead. One congressional staffer recently told me that the Senate Intelligence Committee has tried to kill three expensive and ineffective satellite programs — on a bipartisan basis — for years. They’ve finally terminated 2 of them, but all were funded far longer than they should have. We’re talking billions of dollars.

Bad stuff.  But no surprise, either.  Congress is famously disjointed (it's why the healthcare and climate change bills have both been forced to wend their way through multiple committees, getting watered down at every stop), and Appropriations is always a prize appointment because everything that matters ends up in its clutches eventually.  This strikes me as very, very unlikely to change.  But it should!

The Freefall of 2008

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 1:28 PM EDT

Ezra Klein surveys yesterday's report from the Census Bureau and says: "Median income dropped a bit, poverty rose a bit, and so too did the number of Americans without health insurance. But the actual changes aren't very large."

Based on the reporting I saw yesterday, which initially caused me to think that income had dropped only slightly, this is a widespread view.  But it just isn't true.  In fact, the 2008 drop in median household income was the biggest since the Census Bureau started tracking this stuff in 1976.  Income dropped $1,860 in 2008, and the next closest competitor is 1980, when it dropped $1,439.  Last year was the worst year for household income in both absolute terms and percentage terms in the past three decades.

And, as Ezra says, that was only 2008.  This year is likely to be as bad — or possibly worse. Income drops typically persist for several years during a recession, and the combined impact of this recession is almost certain to do more damage to middle class incomes than any recession since World War II.

Doing Comparisons Right

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 12:51 PM EDT

Apparently the LA Times has some kind of moronic deal that allows them to reprint Ron Brownstein's columns in their print edition but not online.  So it's off to National Journal to see Brownstein's latest, ripped straight from the blogosphere and therefore old news to everyone here (Republicans are the Party of No; old-style coalitions have broken down; we're moving to a de facto parliamentary system; etc. etc.).  It's basically fine, though, except for this one paragraph that's become pundit conventional wisdom lately:

It is revealing that Obama is facing nearly unanimous Republican opposition on health care just four years after President Bush couldn't persuade a single congressional Democrat to back his comparably ambitious Social Security restructuring.

I understand why people write stuff like this, and the parallels are strong enough to make it defensible.  But is it really true?

Maybe I'm remembering things through partisan-colored glasses, but my recollection is that there are some pretty significant differences here.  First, George Bush never sought out any compromise at all.  He insisted on a pure, budget-busting carve-out privatization scheme and never gave Democrats so much as a chance to make a deal.  But what if he'd made it clear that he was open to compromise?  Say, part carve-out, part add-on, and with a modest collection of benefit cuts and tax increases to go along with it?  I suspect a lot of Dems would have been open to something like that, but Bush never gave them a chance.

Second, it wasn't just Democratic opposition that killed Social Security privatization.  Thanks to Bush's intransigence, his plan became so radioactive that even a lot of Republicans didn't support it.  By the time Congress returned from its summer recess, it was obviously DOA and no bill was even introduced.

There are obvious superficial similarities between Social Security in 2005 and healthcare reform in 2009.  But in the former, Bush outlined a purely conservative proposal and never gave an inch on it.  In the latter, Obama has outlined a generally liberal proposal but allowed some give and take with Republicans.  As Brownstein himself mentions, the plan's basic structure has support "from such Republican-leaning groups as hospitals, drug manufacturers, and the American Medical Association, which fought almost all previous reform efforts. Obama told the AMA last summer that he is open to some medical-malpractice reform, a top Republican priority. And for months, he has signaled his willingness to retrench on creating a public competitor to private insurance companies, the idea that most enrages conservatives."

The Social Security comparison will probably never go away because it's just too good a story.  Too good to check, in fact.  But it's only half true.  The punditocracy really ought to stop peddling it.

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Yet More West Coast Unfairness

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 12:13 PM EDT

Contrary to his usual practice, USC football coach Pete Carroll told the press that players wouldn't be available for interviews after practice on Thursday.  How come?

"We're leaving in 44 minutes," he said, referring to a row of buses waiting to take the Trojans to the airport. "We've got to get out of here."

Part of his concern stemmed from an NCAA rule that prohibits teams from leaving more than 48 hours before a competition. Because kickoff at Ohio Stadium is scheduled for 5 p.m. PDT, the team plane was not scheduled to leave the ground until 6 p.m. on Thursday, with an estimated arrival at the hotel past 1 a.m. ET.

Hmmph.  That's completely unfair to West Coast teams traveling east.  Why not have a rule that says you can't arrive more than 48 hours before kickoff instead?  It's not as if coaches would leave really early and then schedule long layovers at O'Hare, would they?

Did Osama Fail?

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 11:39 AM EDT

Tony Karon writes today that al-Qaeda has failed:

The purpose of the 9/11 attacks was not simply to kill Americans; they formed part of bin Laden's strategy to launch a global Islamist revolution aimed at ending U.S. influence in Muslim countries, overthrowing regimes there allied with Washington, and putting al-Qaeda at the head of a global Islamist insurgency whose objective was to restore the rule of the Islamic Caliphate that had once ruled territory stretching from Moorish Spain through much of Asia.

Today, however, al-Qaeda is believed to comprise a couple of hundred desperate men, their core leaders hiding out in Pakistan's tribal wilds and under constant threat of attack by ever-present U.S. drone aircraft, their place in Western nightmares and security assessments long-since eclipsed by such longtime rivals as Iran, Hizballah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

All true.  At the same time, 9/11 touched off two wars; a regime of officially sanctioned torture by the United States; a massive increase in our surveillance apparatus; a population grown so fearful that it's meekly accepted a new routine of intrusive security checks that would have been unthinkable a generation ago; and a multi-trillion dollar debt that's still growing without end.  Osama didn't get his caliphate, but still: if what he got at the cost of 19 lives and few box cutters was a failure, I'd hate to see what counts as a success.

Pulling the Trigger

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 1:07 AM EDT

A few days ago I noted that legislative "triggers" have a long history of sounding good but not really working.  Either nobody likes the idea in the first place or else they turn out to be toothless in the crunch. Over at Slate, Tim Noah takes a closer look and agrees: triggers are mostly just a bunch of flimflam:

Legislative triggers have an especially dismal history in health care policy, argues Timothy S. Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee. In 1996 the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act required states to impose health-insurance reforms similar to those proposed in the current health reform bill; if the states failed to act, the federal department of Health and Human Services would impose them. States failed to implement reforms—and so did HHS.

In 2003, when Congress added a drug benefit to Medicare, it worried that its new program to provide coverage through private plans subsidized heavily by the government would prove ineffective. But a trigger to end the program focused only on whether these private plans would serve all regions of the country, which they did. The trigger failed to address the real problems that emerged: fraud, abrupt changes in formularies and drug charges after beneficiaries signed up, and high costs.

Meanwhile, a separate trigger in the bill required the president to address projected shortfalls within 15 days of receiving notice that 45 percent or more of Medicare funding was drawing down general revenues. Congress would then appropriate the necessary additional funds under an expedited procedure. But when President Bush notified Congress in 2006 that the 45 percent threshold had been exceeded, Congress did nothing. The threshold has been exceeded every year since then. Congress continues to do nothing.

So do triggers ever work?  According to Noah, the only clear success story has been with base closings: the 1990 base closing bill created a commission to recommend closures, with the closings to be automatically triggered unless Congress objected within 45 days.  It didn't, and the bases were closed.

That's better than nothing, I guess, but Noah seems on pretty firm ground when he says that a public option trigger in the healthcare bill would probably be little more than window dressing.  When the time comes, Congress will still have to define what the public option should look like, and that will require congressional action.  There's nothing automatic about it, trigger or no trigger.

Still, a trigger is probably better than nothing, especially if its requirements are spelled out in sharp detail.  Even if, practically speaking, nothing happens unless Congress acts, the existence of a clear formula would at least provide supporters with a hook for demanding action down the road.  In all likelihood, though, that's all it would be: a way to guarantee that the public option gets renewed attention someday.  But whether it's now or later, it's still going to have to get enough votes to land on the president's desk.  If that's where we end up, let's just make sure the trigger has a short enough fuse that it lands on this president's desk.

Our Lost Decade

| Thu Sep. 10, 2009 7:24 PM EDT

Today the Census Bureau released its latest income numbers, and they weren't pretty: median income dropped by nearly $2,000 between 2007 and 2008.  Nor was the long term picture much better: median income in the past decade has dropped from $52,587 in 1999 to $50,303 in 2008.

But there's more to your earnings than just cash income.  As we've all been reminded over and over lately, healthcare costs are skyrocketing, which means that healthcare premiums paid by your employer have risen dramatically during the past decade.  That's all part of your compensation too.  So if you add in employers' contributions to healthcare premiums, how do things look then?

Answer: a little better, but still nothing to write home about.  Roughly speaking, if you add together both cash income and healthcare premiums and adjust everything for inflation, median income over the past decade has increased from about $56,400 to $57,000.  In other words, a whopping 1%.  It really has been a lost decade1.

1Though not for everyone.  During the same period, the average income of the richest tenth of a percent increased by about $2 million, or about 35%.  No wonder there wasn't much left for the rest of us.

NOTE FOR NERDS: There's no bulletproof source for the value of healthcare premiums over time, and in any case the value differs depending on whether you're married, single, have kids, etc.  So here's what I did to get a rough cut on the data.

Basic cash income table is here.  Healthcare premium estimates for the past decade are here.  I subtracted the employee contribution and then took the average of family and single coverage.  This may understate the cost a bit, but not by much.  Then I applied the GDP deflator to put all the healthcare costs in 2008 dollars.  This is strictly a cheap and cheerful bloggy estimate, but it's probably not too far off the mark.