Kevin Drum

Who Voted for Ahmadinejad?

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 12:50 PM EDT

Conventional wisdom says that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's main base of support was in Iran's small towns and rural villages while Mir-Hossein Mousavi's support came mainly from young people and urban areas.  Eric Hooglund, an expert in rural Iran, casts some doubt on this:

Take Bagh-e Iman, for example. It is a village of 850 households in the Zagros Mountains near the southwestern Iranian city of Shiraz. According to longtime, close friends who live there, the village is seething with moral outrage because at least two-thirds of all people over 18 years of age believe that the recent presidential election was stolen by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

....Carloads of villagers actually drove to Shiraz to participate in the massive pro-Mousavi rallies that were held on the three nights prior to the balloting. And election-day itself was like a party in Bagh-e Iman. Many people openly announced their intentions to vote for Mousavi as they cheerfully stood in line chatting with neighbors, and local election monitors estimated that at least 65 percent of them actually did so. “Although some probably really voted for [Ayatollah Mehdi] Karubi, who also is a man of the people,” said election monitor Jalal.

....By Saturday evening, the shock and disbelief had given way to anger that slowly turned into palpable moral outrage over what came to be believed as the theft of their election. The proof was right in the village: “Interior Ministry officials came from Shiraz, sealed the ballot boxes, and took then away even before the end of voting at 9 pm,” said Jalal. In all previous elections, a committee comprised of representative from each political faction had counted and certified the results right in the village. The unexpected change in procedures caught village monitors off guard, as it did everywhere else in the country.

Read the whole thing.

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Healthcare CEOs Shoot Themselves in the Foot

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 12:25 PM EDT

Yesterday the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations decided to investigate the practice of recission.  This is when you pay your premiums for years to a healthcare insurer, then get sick, and then have your insurance cancelled.  The insurance industry executives at the hearing did not exactly cover themselves with glory:

A Texas nurse said she lost her coverage, after she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, for failing to disclose a visit to a dermatologist for acne.

The sister of an Illinois man who died of lymphoma said his policy was rescinded for the failure to report a possible aneurysm and gallstones that his physician noted in his chart but did not discuss with him.

....Late in the hearing, [Bart] Stupak, the committee chairman, put the executives on the spot. Stupak asked each of them whether he would at least commit his company to immediately stop rescissions except where they could show "intentional fraud."

The answer from all three executives: "No."

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said that a public insurance plan should be a part of any overhaul because it would force private companies to treat consumers fairly or risk losing them. "This is precisely why we need a public option," Dingell said.

Even the Republicans on the committee couldn't defend the insurance company position.  A few more hearings like this and getting a public option into healthcare reform is suddenly going to look like a real possibility.  Nice going, guys.

Sarah Palin's Political Instincts

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 11:34 AM EDT

A few days ago David Letterman told a crass joke about Bristol Palin.  It was, as Paul Farhi points out, similar to a million other crude jokes told about the Palin family over the past year.  But this time Sarah Palin went ballistic and last night Letterman apologized. James Joyner comments:

A week ago, I wrote a post titled Letterman Palin Jokes Cross the Line, both excoriating Letterman for his remarks but defending him from the ridiculous charge that he was some sort of pervert who liked to joke about 14-year-olds.  Since then, Letterman first explained his remarks and subsequently apologized for them profusely. And rightly so.

But I have a hard time believing Palin was legitimately confused days later about the target of the joke and, in light of the previous jokes told about Bristol’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, particularly outraged at this one.   Instead, she took advantage of the initial media brouhaha over the Willow/Bristol confusion and made a big spectacle, hoping to both remove the Bristol mess out of the realm of legitimate ridicule and reframe herself as an aggrieved party rather than a rather cartoonish figure.

Letterman may have gone over the line, but that plainly wasn't what bothered Palin.  She was just looking for some free publicity, and getting her supporters worked up over a supposed insult from a dissolute member of the East Coast liberal elite played directly into her standard class resentment schtick.  It shows impressive political instincts, in a way.  It's a good thing she's not as ruthless, smart, or tireless as Richard Nixon or we might all be in real trouble.

In related news, check out the Sarah Palin shrine at the New York Stock Exchange.

Best in Blog: 17 June 2009

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 9:00 AM EDT

A quick round up of quick MoJo reads:

Those meddling kids at the State department asked Twitter to postpone the Fail Whale's Tehran cameo; Wall Street breathed a sigh of relief; and this week's adorably endangered animal is the Hawaiian monk seal.

Meanwhile, Blackwater lost a federal-issue fryer (and $55 million), health care reform is feeling a bit faint, and Chastity Bono's sex change = shrug.

And the question of the day: Are there any senators whose Tweets aren't cringeworthy? This guy, not so much.

Still Listening

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 1:27 AM EDT

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau report today that Congress is once again becoming concerned that the NSA is intercepting domestic email messages without a warrant:

Supporting that conclusion is the account of a former N.S.A. analyst who, in a series of interviews, described being trained in 2005 for a program in which the agency routinely examined large volumes of Americans’ e-mail messages without court warrants. Two intelligence officials confirmed that the program was still in operation.

....He said he and other analysts were trained to use a secret database, code-named Pinwale, in 2005 that archived foreign and domestic e-mail messages. He said Pinwale allowed N.S.A. analysts to read large volumes of e-mail messages to and from Americans as long as they fell within certain limits — no more than 30 percent of any database search, he recalled being told — and Americans were not explicitly singled out in the searches.

There's also this:

The N.S.A. is believed to have gone beyond legal boundaries designed to protect Americans in about 8 to 10 separate court orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to three intelligence officials who spoke anonymously because disclosing such information is illegal. Because each court order could single out hundreds or even thousands of phone numbers or e-mail addresses, the number of individual communications that were improperly collected could number in the millions, officials said.

....Overcollection on that scale could lead to a significant number of privacy invasions of American citizens, officials acknowledge, setting off the concerns among lawmakers and on the secret FISA court. “The court was not happy” when it learned of the overcollection, said an administration official involved in the matter.

Rep. Rush Holt (D–NJ), chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel is investigating.  "Some actions are so flagrant that they can't be accidental," he says.

Chart of the Day

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 12:57 AM EDT

Josh Harkinson says the big new climate report released today by the Obama administration is no big deal because it's largely the same as the draft report that was released by the Bush administration last year.  Technically, maybe that's true.  But even though the report won't directly affect either legislation or agency rulemaking, surely it matters that we have an administration that actively and willingly releases a comprehensive report like this rather than one that fumes and delays and denies for four years before finally being forced to make it public with about the same enthusiasm that most of us reserve for getting a root canal?

Besides, even though it's primarily a review of existing literature, it's a pretty good review, covering everything from wildfires to rainfall to hurricanes to the fact that Illinois will look like Texas by 2100 (that's on p. 117).  Having a report this good, this comprehensive, and this authoritative may not save the planet, but it's still a pretty worthwhile data source to have around.

What's more, it's a gold mine of colorful charts!  And you know I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff. So here's your chart of the day: a 15-year history of electrical grid problems caused by increasingly extreme weather.  That's a new one on me, so maybe it's a new for you too.  The full report is here.

UPDATE: I picked this chart sort of randomly just because I'd never seen anything like it before.  Turns out there was a good reason for this: the increase in electrical grid problems is mostly the result of better reporting, not climate change.  Sorry about that.  Details here from Warren Meyer.

UPDATE 2: Evan Mills, who created this chart, emails to respond to Meyer's criticism.  He points out that (1) the caption specifically says this data doesn't demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship, (2) the growth in weather-related incidents is not merely an artifact of better data collection, and (3) there was a larger increase in warm weather incidents than cold weather incidents.  However, regardless of whether climate change has caused any of the recent increase in grid disturbances, the data does show what may be in store for us in the future if climate change continues.  More here.

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Permit, Permit, Who Gets the Permits?

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 9:17 PM EDT

Does the Waxman-Markey energy bill really give away 85% of its emission permits to big polluters?  Dave Roberts says no: most of the permit allocations go to consumers, households, and green energy programs.  Only about 22% of the permits go to big industrials.  That's still about 22% too high, but it's a lot less than most press reports would lead you to believe.  Details here.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 5:23 PM EDT

Twitter was scheduled to go down for scheduled maintenance today, but it was postponed at the request of the State Department:

Confirmation that the U.S. government had contacted Twitter came as the Obama administration sought to avoid suggestions it was meddling in Iran's internal affairs as the Islamic Republic battled to control deadly street protests over the election result.

....Twitter Inc said in a blog post it delayed a planned upgrade because of its role as an "important communication tool in Iran." The hour-long maintenance was put back to 5 p.m. EDT/2100 GMT, which corresponds to 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday in Iran.

Fascinating.  The original upgrade schedule would have cut service in the middle of the day in Tehran.

Via Sullivan, of course.

Wall Street Breathes a Sigh of Relief

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 5:07 PM EDT

It's still good advice to say that we should wait until tomorrow, when the administration's new financial regulations are formally unveiled, before we start taking potshots at them.  But if Binyamin Appelbaum's report in the Washington Post is on target — well, we might as well get started today after all.

Let's see.  The SEC will expand its database of securities and will "encourage" the adoption of standardized contract language.  Yippee.  Credit rating agencies will be required to make "a clear distinction" between the ratings assigned to asset-backed securities and other forms of debt such as corporate bonds.  This is about #287 on the list of regulatory problems we need to solve.  And then there's this:

Sales of asset-backed securities provided the bulk of funding for mortgages and other consumer lending during the economic boom, as investors spent trillions of dollars buying what was often advertised as a safe, more lucrative alternative to ordinary bonds....The administration concluded that securitization encouraged looser lending standards, because companies that sold loans to investors had little reason to care whether borrowers could repay those loans.

....The administration's proposal is not just an attempt to clean up the securitization market. The goal is also to help revive that market, which has seen almost no activity in the last year....The final component addresses financial incentives, for instance requiring firms to retain a [5%] stake in each security. The plan also would prohibit firms from hedging that risk, meaning that they could not make an offsetting investment.

Are they kidding?  First, how do you prevent banks from hedging risk?  There are just too many clever ways to do it.  The SEC will never be able to keep up with this.  Second, 5%?  Seriously?  What's the point?  There are lots and lots of recklessly constructed securities that are enormously profitable even if you know to a near certainty that you're likely to lose 5% of the value sometime down the road.  That's not nearly enough to rein in the bubbling endorphins and giddy short-term greed that drives credit bubbles.  And it's especially not enough if Wall Street continues paying its traders and executives based on how much money they earned in the past 365 days.

Look: I'll wait until tomorrow, and then listen to what smart people have to say about the full regulatory package.  But if this is the starting point of negotiations as this package heads off to Congress, things are really, really not looking good.

Controlling Healthcare Costs

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 3:37 PM EDT

Can Barack Obama and congressional Democrats control healthcare costs?  Megan McArdle doubts it:

I'd say we have substantial empirical evidence that we are not going to control the health care cost inflation which is busting Medicare's budget, much less the new costs the administration is planning to add.  We have been trying to control health care costs since the 1970s made it clear that Medicare was going to get really, really expensive.  And any idea that you care to name, from comparative effectiveness research to healthcare IT to preventive medicine . . . these have all been on the table for more than thirty years, under one name or another.  They haven't happened.

The answer that those promising magical cost reductions need to ask is "Why haven't they happened?" and "What has changed to make them feasible now?"  But when I ask this question, I get angry demands that I put forward my plan for cost control, rather than merely critiquing everyone else's.  This seems rather like demanding that I put forward my design for a perpetual motion machine before I am allowed to point out problems in the US energy market.

This is an entirely reasonable position.  But I suspect the answer to cost containment lies less in technical arguments about healthcare policy than it does in arguments about taxation.  Right now, not only is America is rich enough to afford expensive healthcare, but the cost of that care is largely hidden.  For seniors, it comes via Medicare, and Medicare taxes haven't gone up much recently.  Its problems are still largely in the future.  The rest of us mostly get healthcare from our employers, and the only cost increases we see are higher copays — which are painful, but not quite painful enough to spur us to do much about them.

So what will spur us to get serious about cost containment?  My guess is: universal healthcare, paid for out of taxes.  A taxpayer funded system actually makes healthcare costs more visible than our current system, and a universal system is much bigger than Medicare alone.  A universal public system will, eventually, require painful tax increases, and that's the point at which the public will finally be willing to accept cost containment measures.

And if it doesn't?  Then it means, via revealed preferences, that Americans want expensive, unlimited healthcare even when the costs are fully and completely known to them.  That's not my preferred outcome — I think a lot of that money could be far better used on other things — but if that's what taxpayers turn out to want, then that's what taxpayers turn out to want.  That's how market democracies work.  My guess, though, is that it's not what they want.  They just don't know it yet because they're too far removed from the costs of the current system.  National healthcare will change that.