Kevin Drum

Simple Reform

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 1:00 PM EDT

Andrew Samwick thinks Democrats have done a lousy job of selling healthcare reform, and it's hard to argue with that.  But then he goes on to ask for evidence that any of the bills currently moving through Congress are better than a simple reform consisting only of:

1. Community rating
2. Guaranteed issue
3. Ex post risk adjustment
4. An individual mandate, with Medicaid for a fee as the backup option

I've seen a bunch of criticisms along these same lines, and I don't really get them. Granted, the bills now on the table have more to them than just these points, but not a lot more.  The core of all of them is insurance industry reform (#1-3) combined with subsidies for low-income families (#4).  With the exception of the much-debated public option, the additional stuff lies in the details (the subsidies aren't all Medicaid, children get treated differently than adults) or in modest expansions of Samwick's list (out-of-pocket caps, tax credits for small businesses).  The fact is that current reform efforts are already fairly modest.

Unless, of course, I'm misunderstanding Samwick and he means "Medicaid for a fee" literally.  That is, no subsidies and no attempt to expand coverage to the currently uninsured at all.  If that's the case, then the answer to his question is "Because they expand decent health coverage to millions of poor people."  If it's not, then I'm not quite sure what the problem is.  Putting the public option aside for the moment, are the additional details in the House and Senate bills really so abominable that he thinks they should torpedo the whole project?  Why?

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The Latest on Sarah P.

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 12:01 PM EDT

Just the other day I was thinking, "I wonder what's up with Sarah Palin? I haven't heard any good Palin gossip lately."

Well, Vanity Fair to the rescue.  In "Me and Mrs. Palin," Levi Johnston unburdens himself and tells his version of what life was like in the Palin household after the election:

Sarah was sad for a while. She walked around the house pouting. I had assumed she was going to go back to her job as governor, but a week or two after she got back she started talking about how nice it would be to quit and write a book or do a show and make “triple the money.” It was, to her, “not as hard.” She would blatantly say, “I want to just take this money and quit being governor.” She started to say it frequently, but she didn’t know how to do it. When she came home from work, it seemed like she was more and more stressed out.

Does this sound believable?  I'm not sure.  But it does sort of sync up with this report from Politico a couple of days ago:

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin this week will begin accepting and rejecting the more than 1,070 invitations she has received for paid speeches and political appearances since she resigned from office, aides said.

....She’s about 85 percent finished with her book, due out this spring from HarperCollins. Then she’ll begin looking through the inch-and-a-half thick file her lawyer, Robert Barnett, has built of offers for network and cable pundit gigs, documentaries and business opportunities.

Levi also says that when Palin first heard Bristol was pregnant, she insisted over and over that they keep it a secret and then allow her and Todd to adopt the baby when it was born.  I confess that I'm not sure this passes the credibility test either.  But he's pretty clear about it.

A Stealth Troop Increase

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 12:37 AM EDT

Julian Barnes reports in the LA Times that the Army is planning a stealth increase in troop strength in Afghanistan:

U.S. officials are planning to add as many as 14,000 combat troops to the American force in Afghanistan by sending home support units and replacing them with "trigger-pullers," defense officials say.

The move would beef up the combat force in the country without increasing the overall number of U.S. troops — a contentious issue as public support for the war slips. But many of the noncombat jobs are likely be filled by private contractors, who have proven a source of controversy in Iraq and a growing issue in Afghanistan.

....The changes will not offset the potential need for additional troops in the future, but could reduce the size of any request from Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander, officials said....Such a request could be submitted in coming weeks.

McChrystal is definitely showing off that "political savvy" his bosses have been looking for.  Still, an increase in combat troops is an increase in combat troops.  It doesn't really matter how you get there.  Just keep this in mind and add it to the total when McChrystal finally unveils his official request a few weeks from now.

Workers are Getting Screwed, Part MDCCXII

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 12:05 AM EDT

In a new study, 68% of the workers who were interviewed had experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week.  You heard that right.  In the previous week alone:

In surveying 4,387 workers in various low-wage industries, including apparel manufacturing, child care and discount retailing, the researchers found that the typical worker had lost $51 the previous week through wage violations, out of average weekly earnings of $339. That translates into a 15 percent loss in pay.

The researchers said one of the most surprising findings was how successful low-wage employers were in pressuring workers not to file for workers’ compensation. Only 8 percent of those who suffered serious injuries on the job filed for compensation to pay for medical care and missed days at work stemming from those injuries.

“The conventional wisdom has been that to the extent there were violations, it was confined to a few rogue employers or to especially disadvantaged workers, like undocumented immigrants,” said Nik Theodore, an author of the study and a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “What our study shows is that this is a widespread phenomenon across the low-wage labor market in the United States.”

They were surprised by this?  Seriously?  Sure, I suppose 68% is higher than I would have guessed, but I sure wouldn't have guessed that this kind of thing was confined to a "few rogue employers" either.  How many reports of mistreatment do we have to get before we finally figure out that labor violations are rampant in this country?

The 25/25 Rule

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 6:49 PM EDT

Virginia Republican Bob McDonnell is in trouble.  He's running for governor, and a couple of weeks ago he happened to mention to a pair of Washington Post reporters that he had written his master's thesis at Regent University on "welfare policy."  So they went to the Regent library and took a look.  It turns out that "welfare policy" was a pretty bloodless way of describing it:

He described working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators." He described as "illogical" a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.

Oops.  He's supposed to be a moderate conservative, you see. Michelle Cottle comments:

I find myself torn in this fight. In general, I find the obsession with politicians' student writings excessive. Most of these papers spring from the  brains of people in their early- to mid-20s who have spent the past several years in the self-indulgent cocoon of academia.

....That said, Republicans are hardly in a position to gripe about this tendency. Anyone recall the frenzy the Right whipped itself into over Hillary's thesis on Saul Alinksy or Michelle O's thesis on black Princeton grads? The former ostensibly proved Hillary to be a socialist and the latter revealed Michelle to be a militant whitey-hating bigot. Ah, good times.

So we're to judge Democrats by their academic ramblings but not Republicans? I think not.

I have a solution to this problem that I call the 25/25 rule: it doesn't count if you did it more than 25 years ago or before your 25th birthday.  Obviously there are exceptions to this.  A major scandal (Watergate, say) or career accomplishment (passing a bill) should stay with you more or less forever.  Likewise, if you can show a consistent pattern of behavior, then the entire historical track record is fair game.

But for modest, one-off stuff like this, I think 25/25 works pretty well.  Sadly for McDonnell, he doesn't qualify on either count: he wrote his thesis 20 years ago, when he was 34 years old.  So there's no need to be torn: McDonnell was no utopian teenager scribbling out plans to save the world in the pot-ridden 60s.  He was a grown man writing during the first George Bush administration.  That doesn't mean his thesis should disqualify him from office or anything, but it does mean that it's fair for his opponents to bring it up in their campaigns.  It's up to McDonnell to convince us that he doesn't believe this stuff anymore.

Wildfires and Climate Change

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 5:37 PM EDT

At last year's Netroots Nation I ran into CAP's Brad Johnson one day, and he told me that one of the consequences of global warming was increased wildfire activity in California.  I wasn't sure I really believed that, so he promised to send me some stuff to read.

Well, he did, and I read it, and he was right.  I blogged on that shortly afterward, and with fire season on us once more it's worth writing about again.  Roughly speaking, it turns out that land use issues are probably responsible for about half of the increase in western wildfire activity over the past few decades and climate change is responsible for the other half.  The mechanism is pretty straightforward: higher temperatures lead to both reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas and an earlier melt, which in turn produces a longer and drier fire season.  Result: more and bigger fires.  Plus there's this, from CAP's Tom Kenworthy:

In recent years, a widespread and so far unchecked epidemic of mountain pine beetles that has killed millions of acres of trees from Colorado north into Canada has laid the foundation for a potentially large increase in catastrophic fires. Climate change has played a role in that outbreak, too, as warmer winters spare the beetles from low temperatures that would normally kill them off, and drought stresses trees.

In the western United States, mountain pine beetles have killed some 6.5 million acres of forest, according to the Associated Press. As large as that path of destruction is, it’s dwarfed by the 35 million acres killed in British Columbia, which has experienced a rash of forest fires this summer that as of early this month had burned more than 155,000 acres. In the United States to date about 5.2 million acres — an area larger than Massachusetts  —have burned this year.

Destruction of trees by the mountain pine beetle, combined with climate change and fire, makes for a dangerous feedback loop. Dead forests sequester less carbon dioxide. Burning forests release lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. More carbon dioxide adds to climate change, which raises temperatures, stresses forests, and makes more and bigger fires more likely.

It’s a frightening prospect, as British Columbia’s Forests Minister Pat Bell told an International Energy Agency conference last week. “I am not a doomsayer,” said Bell. “I am not one who wants to say we are beyond the tipping point. But I am afraid that we are getting close to that.”

Today, 100,000-acre conflagrations that take two weeks to contain and kill three or four firefighters along the way are perfectly normal here in Southern California.  They weren't when I was a kid. This is partly due to global warming, and it's something that's happening now — not in 2050 or 2075 or 2100.  And it's only going to get worse if we don't do something about it.

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Toys and Books

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 3:12 PM EDT

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act makes it illegal to sell toys that haven't been tested for lead content.  In general, I think that's a perfectly fine idea.  At the same time, wiping out the second-hand market for clothing and books seems pretty draconian.  And this just stinks.  Maybe CPSIA could use a revisit?

Reading and the Whale

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 2:45 PM EDT

Should schoolkids be allowed to read whatever they want?  Or should teachers assign them specific books?  Here's the brief for the defense:

What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” said Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University who was assistant education secretary under President George H. W. Bush. “Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular. But that’s what you should do in your free time.”

This whole debate seems odd to me because it conflates two different things.  In earlier grades, say 1-8 or so, we're teaching reading.  Within reason, letting kids pick books they're personally attracted to seems like a good approach since it's more likely to keep them interested in reading for its own sake.

But in later grades we're introducing them to the literary canon, and that's where it becomes more appropriate for teachers to pick the books.  American Literature is a subject, just like history or chemistry, and an expert in the subject ought to choose the reading list.

On the subject of Moby Dick in particular, though, I take issue with Matt Yglesias:

All that said, I love Moby Dick. Every American should read Moby Dick, it’s our great national epic and you can’t understand the country without it.

I read Moby Dick a couple of months ago.  I didn't care for it.  I'll spare you the details since I'd just be opening myself up to quite justified charges of philistinism, and who needs that?  But I will say this: I don't feel like I understand our country any better for having read it.  And "you can’t understand the country without it" is an even stronger claim that requires an equally strong defense.  I'm eager to hear it.

The Strange Amnesia of David Brooks

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 1:33 PM EDT

I'm generally pretty well disposed toward David Brooks.  We wouldn't run the country the same way, but he's not a zealot and he's usually not boring.  For a biweekly columnist, that's not bad.

But today's column feels like it came straight from Sarah Palin's PR shop with just a light rewrite:

Anxiety is now pervasive....The public’s view of Congress, which ticked upward for a time, has plummeted....There are also warning signs in the Senate....The public has soured on Obama’s policy proposals....Driven by this general anxiety, and by specific concerns, public opposition to health care reform is now steady and stable. Independents once solidly supported reform. Now they have swung against it.

Etc.  You'd think that Obama had been working in a vacuum or something.  There's not even the briefest mention of the primary cause for all this: the deliberate decision by the Republican Party to hand over the reins to its most extreme wing and adopt a scorched earth counterattack to Obama's entire agenda.  He agreed to cut the stimulus package by $100 billion and put 40% of it into tax cuts.  That cut no ice.  Democrats proposed a cap-and-trade proposal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions because it uses market mechanisms instead of crude command-and-control directives — and then adopted hundreds of compromises to water it down.  Didn't matter.  Max Baucus has been "negotiating" over healthcare reform with Republicans in the Senate for months and Obama has been careful not to criticize.  But that turned out to be a charade.  Tim Geithner's financial bailout plan was limited and business friendly.  No matter.

Independents haven't "swung against" healthcare reform.  They've been the target of a massive campaign of lies and demagoguery.  Brooks says that Obama needs to embrace "fiscal responsibility, individual choice and decentralized authority," but every time he's done that it's gotten him nowhere.  In fact, just the opposite: for the most part these proposals just invite blistering counterattacks from supposedly conservative Republicans.

And contra Brooks, Obama hasn't moved to the left.  He's done almost exactly what he said he'd do during the campaign — sometimes to my chagrin.  So what accounts for an entire column on this subject that doesn't even mention the Republican opposition?  Beats me.  I guess Brooks just finally got tired of reading pieces like this.

Leaving Afghanistan

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 12:41 PM EDT

George Will, after running through the immense difficulties of nation building in Afghanistan, says this:

Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

One of the things I never seem to hear much about is what the generals think would happen if we withdrew from Afghanistan.  If the answer is that the Taliban is likely to take over completely, that's one thing.  But if it's more likely that the Taliban and the central government would continue fighting, with the Taliban maintaining control over a limited area of the country and the central government maintaining control over the rest, that's quite a different outcome.

If, after eight years, the Karzai regime is so weak that the former is likely, then our task is probably hopeless and we should withdraw in the way Will suggests.  But if the latter is more likely, would it really be necessary to go that far?  Why not offer to lease Bagram from the Afghan government for a billion dollars a year, offer some additional money in military and rebuilding aid, and then continue the mission of fighting al-Qaeda from there while leaving the Taliban to Karzai?  We know how to protect a military base from an insurgent force like the Taliban, and fighting from there would be a helluva lot easier than trying to do it from offshore.

This is probably a hopelessly ignorant suggestion.  Does anyone ever try to maintain a military base in a country riven by civil war?  I'm not sure.  But it would be interesting to hear the experts chime in on this.