Kevin Drum

Patriot Games

| Wed Sep. 9, 2009 11:51 AM EDT

In some biography of FDR that I read once, I remember learning that one of Roosevelt's parlor tricks was to have a guest draw a straight line anywhere through a map of the United States, and he'd then name every county along the line, as well as the party leaders and other political VIPs in the county.  Impressive.

Compared to that, I suppose that drawing a map of the United States freehand isn't that big a deal.  Still, it's impressive in its own way.  Maybe we should make all our U.S. senators perform patriotic tricks like this. Via James Joyner.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

No More Miracles

| Wed Sep. 9, 2009 11:23 AM EDT

Over at his new digs, Bruce Bartlett offers some belated advice on healthcare reform from the perspective of someone who was deeply involved in the 1986 Tax Reform Act:

Before the tax reform proposal ever went to Congress in 1985, Treasury already knew all the potential problem areas, which provisions were expendable and which ones were not. Consequently, Treasury was able to manage the inevitable trade-offs necessary to get a bill enacted without sacrificing the basic goal.

I would just add from my own experience that the 1986 act was the culmination of a long-term process that began with a lot of discussion on Capitol Hill, at think tanks and elsewhere about ideas such as a flat rate consumption tax, a comprehensive income tax and other options. By the time the Reagan administration sent a formal proposal to Congress the basic idea of tax reform was clear in everyone's minds. Even so, it took a solid year of work to get a final bill.

This sort of process never occurred with health reform. There was never a study from the Department of Health and Human Services laying out the options, discussing the pros and cons of various alternatives, or with the sort of reference data that is essential for developing really big policy changes. In fact, there has never really been a formal White House proposal. This has made it easy for Congress to take control of the whole health reform debate, with Obama often appearing to be a mere bystander.

For a couple of reasons, I'm not sure I buy this.  First, practically everyone seems to agree that the 1986 Tax Reform Act was little short of a miracle: not only did it manage to accomplish significant tax reform, but it did so without caving in to special interests at every turn.  That might be because Treasury was so well prepared, but lots of bills that have been equally well researched beforehand have failed.  More likely it was because of the bullheadedness of Donald Regan, virtuoso lobbying by James Baker, a Congress that genuinely wanted reform on both sides of the aisle, and the fact that the stars just happened to align.  It was sui generis, and I'm not really sure how many lessons we can learn from it.

Second, healthcare reform has been studied to death.  Granted, there isn't a three-volume HHS study sitting around, but few domestic subjects have gotten more attention from both scholars and activists over the past decade, and all the various options and the tradeoffs between them are well known to virtually everyone.  What's more, before this process ever started there were half a dozen actual proposals on the table from actual members of Congress.  There was in no way a dearth of serious, detailed thinking widely available on healthcare reform.

The real problem is that we just don't have the consensus for action that we had with tax reform in the mid-80s.  Roughly speaking, Democrats wanted to close loopholes and Republicans wanted lower top marginal rates, and both were willing fend off the special interests in order to make a deal on those terms.  This time around, there's nothing Republicans want, so there's no deal to be had.  Democrats have no choice but to bull something through on their own, and with Republicans already opposed en masse they can't afford to make too many other enemies.  The result is a mediocre bill that makes some good progress, but does so only by bribing special interests instead of standing up to them.

Overdraft Hell

| Wed Sep. 9, 2009 10:19 AM EDT

The New York Times has a nice front page piece today about overdraft fees on debit cards, and for the most part it's the usual horror show: the fees are outrageously high; banks deliberately arrange them so that you always pay the maximum number of fees, not the minimum; an enormous fraction of their operating profit now comes from overdraft fees; and they actively adopt policies designed to encourage overuse of debit cards.  And naturally this hits the hardest among those who are the most financially stressed in the first place: 93% of all overdraft charges come from 14% of bank customers, most of them lower-income consumers.

That's all blood-boiling stuff, but it's also been pretty well covered over the past year or two.  However, I did learn a couple of new things from this piece.  First, I always figured that as bad as the overdraft racket was, at least you could opt out if you want and just have the bank turn down any debit that would take your account below zero.  Nobody ever does it, but in theory you have the option.  Right?  Wrong:

Ruth Holton-Hodson discovered that the hard way. She keeps close tabs on the welfare of her brother, who lives in a halfway house in Maryland and uses what little he has in his account at Bank of America to pay rent and buy an occasional pack of cigarettes or a sandwich.

When the brother, who has a mental illness that she says requires her to assist with his finances, started falling behind on rent, Ms. Holton-Hodson found he had racked up more than $300 in debit card overdraft fees in three months, including a $35 one for exceeding his balance by 79 cents.

Ms. Holton-Hodson said she spent two years asking bank employees if her brother could get a card that would not allow him to spend more than he had. Though Bank of America does not typically allow customers to opt out of overdraft protection, it finally granted an exemption.

“I’ve been angered and outraged for many years,” she said. “When there is no money in his account, he shouldn’t be able to pay.”

Go ahead and try to defend that.  I dare you.  And then there's this:

In 2005, after intense industry pressure, the Federal Reserve ruled that overdraft charges should not be covered by the Truth in Lending Act. That meant bankers did not have to seek consumers’ permission to sign them up, nor did they have to disclose the equivalent interest rate for the fees.

Well, of course the Fed ruled that way.  Just because banks are charging the equivalent of 3,000% interest on these fees is no reason to force banks to disclose that fact to customers.  That's our Fed!

But maybe the worst aspect of the whole thing is the almost unbearable smarminess of the bank lobbyist who blew off the whole subject with this: “Everyone should know how much they have in their account and manage their funds well to avoid those fees,” Scott Talbott told the Times.  There's a circle in hell reserved for this guy.

UPDATE: Some practical reform suggestions here.

Tough Choices

| Tue Sep. 8, 2009 9:12 PM EDT

One of the common features of the healthcare reform bills currently on the table is that they include a personal mandate combined with insurance subsidies.  What this means is that you're required to buy health insurance if you don't get it from your employer, but the government will help pay for it if you can't afford it.

But what's the right level of subsidy?  The draft bill introduced by Sen. Max Baucus today provides subsidies for families earning up to 300% of the poverty level, or $66,000 per year.  That's a problem: health insurance can easily set you back $15,000 or more, and requiring families with modest incomes to suddenly add a $15,000 item to their annual budget may be more wishful thinking than serious policy.  What's more, politically it's likely to prove to be very, very unpopular.

Much better would be 400% of the poverty level, or $88,000 per year.  There would still be some unhappy families, but a lot fewer of them.  It's a big difference.

Now, compare this to the much discussed "public option."  This would be a federal insurance plan offered in addition to private insurance, and the idea behind it is that the competition would help force down insurance prices across the board.  That would also make a big difference to a lot of families.

Ideally, we'd like to have both in the final bill.  But what if we can't?  So here's the question for the day: if someone put a gun to your head and forced you to choose between (a) a public option and (b) a higher subsidy level, which would it be?  Please show your work.

Art vs. Artists

| Tue Sep. 8, 2009 4:49 PM EDT

Aside from constructing a remarkably baroque but (I hope!) properly positioned shelf for my computer mouse — all in an effort to reduce the increasing pain in virtually every joint in my right arm — I also read Tyler Cowen's Create Your Own Economy this weekend.  I don't really trust myself to blog an overall reaction to it, so instead I offer up this excerpt for discussion.  It's a comparison of traditional culture, in which the artist produces a sustained, integrated performance of some kind, to modern culture, which we increasingly create ourselves by stitching together bits and pieces:

Today we don't usually receive comedy, tragedy, and the sublime all in ready-to-consume, prepackaged form.  As I've stated, we're more interested in this idea of assembling the bits ourselves.  For all its virtues, it takes well over three hours to hear Don Giovanni straight through, perhaps four hours with intermission.  Plus the libretto is in Italian.  And if you want to see it live, a good ticket can cost hundreds of dollars plus travel costs.

So we instead pick up cultural moods and inputs we want from disparate sources and bring them together through self-assembly.  We take a joke from YouTube, a terrifying scene from a Japanese slasher movie, a melody from a three-minute iTunes purchase, and the sublime from our memories of last year's visit to the Grand Canyon, perhaps augmented through a photograph.  The result is a rich and varied stream of inner experience.

Tyler's contention is that the "mental ordering" involved in collecting lots of cultural bits and then obsessively organizing them can be every bit as gratifying and inspiring as consuming a play by Shakespeare or a novel by Faulkner (or a Broadway show or a genre romance novel).  But this strikes me as a chimera: it's like comparing your own amateur piano playing with taking in a performance by Glenn Gould.  They're both worthwhile activities, and the former can illuminate the latter, but that doesn't mean you get the same thing out of them.  That's because Gould is a genius and you're not.  There's more to art than whether it lights up your brain's pleasure centers.

It's unfair to offer just this short excerpt without more of Tyler's surrounding argument, but one way or another an awful lot of the book hinges on the idea expressed here: namely that obsessive mental ordering of cultural bits is increasingly providing a substitute for the enjoyment of traditional, long-form art created by others.  He might be right that this is happening, but I'm double plus unconvinced that it's as positive a development as he suggests.  Opinions?

The Pakistan Problem

| Tue Sep. 8, 2009 12:55 PM EDT

Pakistan, as we all know, has become pretty virulently anti-American over the past few years.  Saeed Shah of McClatchy provides the latest:

The lively Pakistani media has been filled with stories of under-cover American agents operating in the country, tales of a huge contingent of U.S. Marines planned to be stationed at the embassy, and reports of Blackwater private security personnel running amuck. Armed Americans have supposedly harassed and terrified residents and police officers in Islamabad and Peshawar, according to local press reports.

Much of the hysteria was based on a near $1 billion plan, revealed by McClatchy in May and confirmed by U.S. officials, to massively increase the size of the American embassy in Islamabad, which brought home to Pakistanis that the United States plans an extensive and long-term presence in the country.

...."I think this recent brouhaha over the embassy expansion has been difficult to beat back," said Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador, in an interview Thursday....Patterson said she wrote last week to the owner of Pakistan's biggest media group, Jang, to protest about the content of two talk shows on its Geo TV channel, hosted by star anchors Hamid Mir and Kamran Khan, and a newspaper column of influential analyst Shireen Mazari in The News, a daily, complaining that they were "wildly incorrect" and had compromised the security of Americans.

Sounds like August in America.  Less snarkily, this is a problem that you can't really say is undercovered, since it's gotten a fair amount of attention lately, but is nonetheless probably underappreciated: Pakistanis really, really don't like the United States.  That's been true for a long time, and as Shah makes clear, it's even more true now.  In the latest Pew poll, America's favorability rating was a whopping 16%.

I'm not sure how you operate in an environment like that.  I hope Gen. McChrystal has a few ideas to offer when his long-awaited Afghanistan assessment is released later this month.  But I'm not holding my breath.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Chocolate and the Efficient Market Hypothesis

| Tue Sep. 8, 2009 11:42 AM EDT

Kraft Foods has made a $16 billion bid to acquire Cadbury PLC, maker of fine British chocolates.  Naturally, Cadbury turned them down:

Prior to Kraft going public with its offer on Monday, Cadbury had already rebuffed the advance in private. In publicly rejecting it, Cadbury said the offer, a 31% premium to its closing share price on Friday, "fundamentally undervalues" the company.

This is precisely what every company always says whenever someone offers to buy them: even though the offer price is 20% or 30% or 40% higher than the current stock price, it always "fundamentally undervalues" the firm.

In other words, corporate CEOs universally reject the efficient market hypothesis, and since Wall Street as a whole seems to agree, that means that essentially the entire finance industry rejects the EMH.  So if that's the case, why should anyone else believe it?

POSTSCRIPT: Related trivia: my mother once had a cat named Cadbury.  I conducted a blind taste test once of British-made Cadbury's chocolate and its American-made twin, and everyone involved could taste the difference and preferred the British version.  Cadbury Australia has a phenomenal selection of varieties, far more than the pitiful three or four we have in America.  The last time I was there in the early 90s, one of the varieties was chocolate with a creamy chocolate filling, and it was great.  Sadly, their website suggests it's no longer made.  Sic transit etc.  On the other hand, some of the other varieties look well worth a try.

Healthcare in 1,000 Words or Less

| Tue Sep. 8, 2009 10:55 AM EDT

Jon Cohn assesses the state of play of healthcare reform over at TNR, and he's on pretty much the same page as me: August didn't kill it; Democrats are finally facing the reality that they can't count on any Republican votes; reconciliation is now a serious threat; and Dems fully understand that failing to pass something would be calamitous.  So he's cautiously optimistic.  The difference is that his version of this is based on real expertise and extensive reporting, not just a gut feel.  Go read.

Quote of the Day

| Mon Sep. 7, 2009 11:25 AM EDT

From James Joyner:

When Thomas Friedman loses faith in a war, it’s time to give up.

The subject is Afghanistan, and Friedman doesn't quite say that we should withdraw.  He says, "This is a much bigger undertaking than we originally signed up for."  He says it's become a war between light black and dark black and "light black is simply not good enough to ask Americans to pay for with blood or treasure."  He says, "I feel a vast and rising ambivalence about this in the American public today, and adopting a baby you are ambivalent about is a prescription for disaster."

You'd think anyone who could write all that would take the obvious next step and recommend that we get out.  But no.  The farthest Friedman is willing to go is to suggest that the war in Afghanistan ought to be "debated anew."  Sheesh.

Happy Labor Day!

| Sun Sep. 6, 2009 10:53 PM EDT