Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 1:31 PM EDT

From Andrew Sullivan:

Killing the leader of the group that protected bin Laden seems like a big deal to me. Think for a minute about the attempt to paint Obama as Carter. Now think of three real-time operations — the killing of the Somali pirates, the release of the NoKo hostages, and now the targeted killing of the Taliban's leader. Does that sound like Jimmy Carter to you? Now how about getting Osama? Wouldn't that be a coup? I suspect he's working hard on it.

Hmmm.  I hadn't quite thought of it that way.  But it's an interesting point.  Obama hasn't yet had a substantive foreign policy success on the scale of Jimmy Carter's Camp David Accords (or even on the scale of returning the Panama Canal, for that matter), but on the little things he's been remarkably successful.  Or remarkably lucky.  Or both.  Either way, though, these little successes breed a sense of competence and self-possession that can help make things go better on the larger stage too.  Maybe Obama really does lead a charmed life.

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Permanently Unemployed?

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 1:09 PM EDT

Today's unemployment news was generally good: we're still losing jobs, but we're not losing them as fast as we have been.  For now, at least, it looks like the stimulus is having an effect and the economy might be getting ready to improve.

But there are still some disturbing signs, and CBPP shows one of them in the chart on the right: job losses may be slowing, but the number of long-term unemployed is at a record high, way above even the peak it hit during the 1981 recession.

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this, but for some reason it reminded me of this article on the front page of the New York Times today:

Digging out of debt keeps getting harder for the unemployed as more companies use detailed credit checks to screen job prospects.

....Once reserved for government jobs or payroll positions that could involve significant sums of money, credit checks are now fast, cheap and used for all manner of work. Employers, often winnowing a big pool of job applicants in days of nearly 10 percent unemployment, view the credit check as a valuable tool for assessing someone’s judgment.

But job counselors worry that the practice of shunning those with poor credit may be unfair and trap the unemployed — who may be battling foreclosure, living off credit cards and confronting personal bankruptcy — in a financial death spiral: the worse their debts, the harder it is to get a job to pay them off.

This is, admittedly, the equivalent of a single anecdote in the broader economic picture, but I continue to worry that a cluster of trends are converging to produce a larger class of the permanently unemployed than we've had in the past.  It's possible that I'm just worrying too much.  But this recession has affected the poorly educated way worse than high school and college grads; it's hit men worse than women; things like poor credit or a felony conviction seem to have become nearly permanent black marks; and unskilled jobs are continuing to dwindle despite a big drop in the illegal immigrant population.

I don't want to push this theme too far because I haven't yet done the work to really get a reliable sense of what's going on.  But I wonder, when this recession is finally over, if we're going to find ourselves in a European-esque mode with a large and growing population that's almost continually unemployed or, at best, underemployed.  More later.

The Lies of August

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 12:37 PM EDT

Hey, I thought MSM columnists weren't allowed to use the word "lie"?  Either (a) Steven Pearlstein didn't get the memo, (b) the rules are different for Pulitzer Prize winners, or (c) Republican lies about healthcare reform have caused his brain to explode:

There is no credible way to look at what has been proposed by the president or any congressional committee and conclude that these will result in a government takeover of the health-care system. That is a flat-out lie

....Health reform will cost taxpayers at least a trillion dollars. Another lie.

....The Republican lies about the economics of health reform are also heavily laced with hypocrisy. While holding themselves out as paragons of fiscal rectitude, Republicans grandstand against just about every idea to reduce the amount of health care people consume or the prices paid to health-care providers.

And he didn't even get around to mentioning the "Democrats want to kill granny" meme or the "Obama wants you to snitch on your neighbor" meme or the "liberals want to provide spa vacations to illegal immigrants" meme.  I guess his column wasn't long enough.

Crime and Punishment

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 12:08 PM EDT

Good news, Californians!  Our state may be a shambles, debt-ridden and stuck in an endless political quagmire, but Arnold Schwarzenegger has just signed a bill that makes it safe to organize March Madness pools in your workplace:

The new law changes the penalty for participation in a non-commercial or an office "sports betting pool" from a misdemeanor, punishable by fines up to $1,000, to an infraction, punishable by a fine not to exceed $250.

Since we're so fond of naming laws after people, I think we should call this one Margaret's Law, after Margaret Hamblin, the 76-year-old grandmother who was busted in 2006 for running a $50 football pool at an Elks Lodge.  She was fined $130 and had her fingerprints and mug shot taken after she was cited for running a betting pool.

But no longer!  We're free of the jackbooted tyranny of the office pool gestapo!  Surely marijuana legalization can't be far behind?

No More Coups in Pakistan?

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 11:31 AM EDT

Juan Cole says the possible death of Baitullah Mahsud, leader of Pakistan's Taliban Movement and likely mastermind of the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007, is only the second most important news out of Pakistan:

The really big news out of Pakistan in the last week was the  finding of the restored Supreme Court that Gen. Pervez Musharraf's emergency decree of November, 2007, was unconstitutional. The ruling has larger implications, in perhaps suggesting that all of Pakistan's military coups have been unconstitutional. This is the first time that the Pakistani Supreme Court has so forcefully stood up to the military.

If the American press and political establishment was serious about supporting democracy in Pakistan and the Muslim World, we'd have seen an avalanche of comment praising the Supreme Court ruling as a victory for democracy. I did a keyword search at Lexis under television transcripts and could not find any evidence that anyone in national television or radio except Julie McCarthy at NPR even mentioned the epochal Pakistani Supreme Court ruling!

Consider it reported.  I confess to some skepticism about how seriously to take a court decree that military coups are unconstitutional, since military coup leaders don't generally pay a lot of attention to the niceties of judicial review in the first place.  But Prof. Cole calls it "a bigger turning point in Pakistani history than any we have seen since 1947," so it's worth knowing about.

Vive La Healthcare

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 2:01 AM EDT

David Gauthier-Villars has a piece about France's healthcare system in the Wall Street Journal today that's worth a read.  Like everyone, the French have been fighting a rearguard action against financing problems in their system for as long as I've been reading about it, but that means something a little different there than it does here:

Despite the structural differences between the U.S. and French systems, both face similar root problems: rising drug costs, aging populations and growing unemployment, albeit for slightly different reasons. In the U.S., being unemployed means you might lose your coverage; in France, it means less tax money flowing into Assurance Maladie's coffers.

....Today, Assurance Maladie covers about 88% of France's population of 65 million. The remaining 12%, mainly farmers and shop owners, get coverage through other mandatory insurance plans, some of which are heavily government-subsidized. About 90% of the population subscribes to supplemental private health-care plans.

Italics mine.  Despite the story's focus on France's "financing woes" — a problem shared by every healthcare system in the world — the chart on the right tells the real story.  The French spend a third less than we do per person and have a growth rate about a third lower than ours.  We should be so lucky as to have woes like that.  Their healthcare costs may be rising, but their tax-funded system reins in costs better than ours and still remains among the best in the world.

No system is perfect, but the French do pretty well.  Service is top notch, costs are reasonable, everyone is covered, administrative costs are low, the private sector is substantial, and supplemental insurance is common for people who want more than the standard level of care.  It is, ironically, a very American approach to universal care.  If we had our heads screwed on straight, we could do a lot worse than to adopt it wholesale.

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Starkman on Taibbi

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 9:42 PM EDT

Over at CJR today, Dean Starkman has an almost pitch perfect review of Matt Taibbi's famous (or, depending on your point of view, infamous) evisceration of Goldman Sachs in last month's Rolling StoneGo read it.  Both his praise and his criticism match mine nearly perfectly.  There's hardly a word I disagree with.

Hoisted From Comments

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 7:21 PM EDT

Is the mainstream media giving a lot of attention to the "Democrats want to kill granny" meme?  Commenter majun says, "My impression has been that FOX covers it as the unvarnished truth, MSNBC tends to make fun of it and debunk it a lot and CNN falls in the middle."  Sounds about right.  And then there's this exchange:

g.powell: But the right-wing crazies really believe this stuff about "kill granny". My father is one of them. He moved up the schedule of some elective surgeries at the VA because he is convinced Obama is out to kill him.

Anonymous: Wow g. powell. Now that's what I call irony! Moving up surgery within a govt run health care system (the VA) because govt-run health care is so scary.

g.powell: It's worse than that, my dad hates the idea of socialized medicine — it would be a disaster for the country — but loves the VA. Don't ask me to explain. I have thousand of these stories. The laws of physics and logic behave differently in Crazyland.

That's from the land of the email chain letter.  Just thought I'd share.

Disrupting the Disruptors

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 6:42 PM EDT

Rotwang says that whining about right-wing mobilization over healthcare reform just makes liberals look weak.  We're bigger and have a better case and we should just make it:

The numbing details of health care reform are important and worth discussing, but the argument against the [teabaggers] is pretty simple. If you hate socialized medicine, do you want to abolish Medicare? Why not? If not, why not have more Medicare, rather than less? Why not have wider access to health insurance that resembles what Members of Congress have? Medicare is their soft underbelly. It's socialized medicine that people already have, are used to, and support. More, not less. Once that is established, you can have a civil discussion about all the details.

That's exactly what my mother was saying to me on the phone last night.  And it's very logical.  I don't think it will work with these folks, but it's very logical.  I'm not sure Rotwang thinks it will work either, considering his ultimate advice:

Anybody who is unwilling to throw people out of their meetings should not be organizing them.

Yeah, but that has to be done very, very carefully indeed.  One small slip and you'll end up on a 24/7 loop on Glenn Beck's show.  Videotape of your goons dragging some 70-year-old grandma out of the room by her hair will not play well at all in the fabled heartland.

I guess I'd propose the following for members of congress speaking at town hall events: (1) Announce beforehand that there have been organized efforts to disrupt constituent meetings and it might happen here too, (2) ask everyone to please stay calm even in the face of provocation, (3) have your own cameras there to record the lunatics, and (4) rely on the fact that organized screaming doesn't wear well with the American public.  And then turn up the volume on your sound system.

Either that or you can get on the stage and announce that some there are some shaggy punks outside burning an American flag and you want some volunteers to go teach them a lesson.  That should get the riff raff out of the room.

Gog, Magog, and George Bush

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 5:13 PM EDT

I may regret posting this, but here's an account of how George Bush tried to talk French president Jacques Chirac into supporting the invasion of Iraq:

Chirac recounts that the American leader appealed to their “common faith” (Christianity) and told him: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East.... The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled.... This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”

This bizarre episode occurred while the White House was assembling its “coalition of the willing” to unleash the Iraq invasion. Chirac says he was boggled by Bush’s call and “wondered how someone could be so superficial and fanatical in their beliefs.”

After the 2003 call, the puzzled French leader didn’t comply with Bush’s request. Instead, his staff asked Thomas Romer, a theologian at the University of Lausanne, to analyze the weird appeal.

....In 2007, Dr. Romer recounted Bush’s strange behavior in Lausanne University’s review, Allez Savoir....Subsequently, ex-President Chirac confirmed the nutty event in a long interview with French journalist Jean-Claude Maurice, who tells the tale in his new book, Si Vous le Répétez, Je Démentirai (If You Repeat it, I Will Deny), released in March by the publisher Plon.

This isn't brand new: the Toronto Star wrote about it a couple of months ago, though it's gotten very little attention since.  In any case, consider it your weirdness of the day.  Not that we've exactly been lacking for that lately.....

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)