Today's Fundraising Pitch

Hey, guess what? It's fundraising season again! Why now? I guess the thinking is that you've already got your wallets out to support the candidates of your choice right about now, so why not donate to the media of your choice while you're at it? Maybe Mother Jones, for example?

A few dollars helps support this blog, and also helps support reporting like Karen Greenberg's story today that a federal judge has officially decided that, yes, torture is illegal. (There's more to the story than that, though, so go read it. You're paying for it, after all. Aren't you?)

So: please help us out. This blog, along with the rest of the vast Mother Jones empire, only gets part of its funding from advertising and magazine subscriptions. Like every other progressive magazine, we also need reader contributions. Click here for PayPal or here to donate by credit card. Thanks!

ACA Continuing to Work Normally

In news that should surprise no one, the Department of Health and Human Services has announced a set of temporary waivers for companies that provide mini-med healthcare insurance:

Thirty companies and organizations, including McDonald's (MCD) and Jack in the Box (JACK), won't be required to raise the minimum annual benefit included in low-cost health plans, which are often used to cover part-time or low-wage employees.

....The plans will be exempt from rules intended to keep people from having to pay for all their care once they reach a preset coverage cap. McDonald's, which offers the programs as a way to cover part-time employees, told the Obama administration it might re-evaluate the plans unless it got a waiver....The waiver program is intended to provide continuous coverage until 2014, when government-organized marketplaces will offer insurance subsidized by tax credits, says HHS spokeswoman Jessica Santillo.

In other non-shocking news, HHS also announced a couple of days ago that 3,000 companies so far have signed up to take part in a program that protects early retiree programs until healthcare reform fully kicks in in 2014. There are certain to be unanticipated bumps in the road as healthcare reform unfolds over the next few years, but so far everything that's happened has been pretty much according to plan. Somebody tell the Wall Street Journal.

America's Non-Decline

David Bell on the common theme of America's decline:

Twenty-two years ago, in a refreshingly clear-sighted article for Foreign Affairs, Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington noted that the theme of “America’s decline” had in fact been a constant in American culture and politics since at least the late 1950s. It had come, he wrote, in several distinct waves: in reaction to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik; to the Vietnam war; to the oil shock of 1973; to Soviet aggression in the late 1970s; and to the general unease that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Since Huntington wrote, we can add at least two more waves: in reaction to 9/11, and to the current “Great Recession.”

....What is particularly fascinating about these older predictions is that so many of their themes remain constant. What did our past Cassandras see as the causes of America’s decline? On the one hand, internal weaknesses — spiraling budget and trade deficits, the poor performance of our primary and secondary educational systems; political paralysis — coupled with an arrogant tendency toward “imperial overstretch.” And on the other hand, the rise of tougher, better-disciplined rivals elsewhere: the Soviet Union through the mid-'80s; Japan until the early '90s; China today.

My guess is that this is a bit more of a conservative impulse than a liberal one, since conservatives tend toward both an over-rosy view of the near past and a religious temperament that views man as a fallen creature. Still, that doesn't mean they're wrong. After all, in relative terms America has declined since World War II. How could it not? There's simply no possible world in which a single country could retain the kind of power and influence that America held over a shattered world in 1945. As other countries rebuilt and grew, the inevitable consequence was that their power would grow relatively faster than ours.

But what's remarkable, really, is how little America has declined. We are perpetually astounded that our military might doesn't guarantee us instant victory anywhere we go and that other countries are routinely able to make trouble for us, but that says more about our national psyche than about our actual global influence or military power. If anything, our ability to project power may be greater today than it's ever been, and it's certainly greater relative to other countries than it was 50 years ago. Economically, our share of GDP fell surprisingly little in the postwar era, from 28% to about 22%, and has stayed very nearly flat since 1980. And political idiocy aside, our ability to lead the world in a rebound from a world historical financial crash has actually been pretty impressive.

Anyway, I find that when I'm feeling depressed I think America is in terminal decline, and when I'm in a good mood I don't. Despite being sick at the moment, I'm in a relatively good mood today, so I don't think we're in decline. But ask me again next week and I might change my mind.

The Chamber of Commerce

After yesterday's report from ThinkProgress that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce "funds its political attack campaign out of its general account, which solicits foreign funding," Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has asked the Federal Elections Commission to investigate whether the Chamber is violating election law by raising money from foreign donors. That's a fine idea. Given the astronomical amount of spending the Chamber is doing this election cycle, I think Democrats would be wise to spotlight their role as vigorously as possible.

This was something that occurred to me a couple of weeks ago while I was watching one of the Chamber's attack ads aimed at Barbara Boxer. The ad itself is nothing special, but what struck me was the tagline at the end: "The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is responsible for the content of this advertising." What do most people think of when they hear that? Well, most people aren't plugged into DC politics, so what they think of is the local chamber of commerce. You know, some local bankers, car dealers, retailers, and so forth. Business oriented, sure, but mostly folks who don't have any big ideological axe to grind. Civic boosters. Pillars of the community.

But that's not what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is anymore. Under CEO Tom Donohue it long ago became a hard right-wing lobbying group blessed with a huge war chest dedicated to electing Republican candidates who will watch out for corporate interests. Their advertising, I suspect, is a lot more credible than it should be because most people don't know this. Democrats would be well advised to start a determined campaign that gets the word out about who the Chamber really is these days.

More Growth, Please

Remember that record pile of cash that U.S. companies have amassed over the past year? It's finally being put to use:

For months, companies have been sitting on the sidelines with record piles of cash, too nervous to spend. Now they're starting to deploy some of that money — not on hiring workers or building factories, but to prop up their share prices.

Sitting on these unprecedented levels of cash, U.S. companies are buying back their own stock in droves. So far this year, firms have announced they will purchase $273 billion of their own shares, more than five times as much compared with this time last year, according to Birinyi Associates.

....Some companies are buying back shares partly because they don't want to invest in developing new products or services while consumer demand remains weak, analysts said. "They don't know what they want to do with all the cash they're sitting on," said Zachary Karabell, president of RiverTwice Research.

I've always hated companies that do share buybacks. I know all the arguments in favor of it, but as far as I'm concerned it's nothing more than a desperate effort to curry favor with shareholders and meet short-term bonus targets, carried out by a management team that has no idea how to grow their business. And if they don't know how to grow their business, they should just announce that they've decided to adopt the corporate model of a regulated utility and start paying out regular, steadily growing dividends.

End of rant. Aside from all that, though, this particular news tells us once again that the most likely cause of slow economic growth right now isn't structural, it's cyclical. People aren't buying stuff, and because of that businesses aren't investing in growth. Increase demand, and they'll start up again.

The Future of the Tea Parties

The tea party movement is all about small government and constitutional values, right? But what about hot button social issues? Stephanie Mencimer reports that the leadership of the Tea Party Patriots met in Orange County, California, a few days ago to chat about that:

Over the weekend, TPP leaders met with members of the Council for National Policy to try to raise some money. CNP is a secretive and powerful club that has worked to make the Republican Party more socially conservative. Founded in 1981 by Tim LaHaye, the evangelical minister, political organizer, and author of the Left Behind books about the coming apocalypse, CNP's board reads like a who's who of the GOP's evangelical wing.

In September [...] Bob Reccord, CNP's executive director, moderated a chummy panel discussion of tea party activists, including Tea Party Patriots national coordinators Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler. Meckler, who often emphasizes that the tea party movement does not touch social issues because they are too divisive, told the audience that in fact, tea partiers were angry because of "this idea of separation of church and state. We're angry about the removal of God from the public square." The comment suggested that at least the Tea Party Patriots weren't averse to joining the culture wars — at least if it meant tapping social conservatives' significant fundraising abilities.

No, probably not averse at all. Add that to Monday's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Bill Kristol and friends, urging tea partiers not to include national defense in their zeal for budget cutting, and what do you get? Answer: a bunch of people who believe in low taxes, reactionary social policy, a big military, and cutting spending for all welfare spending that goes to people other than them.

Does anyone seriously think the tea party movement won't eventually support all that stuff? Of course it will, because it's the conservative wing of the GOP on steroids, not some brand new grassroots reaction to TARP and the stimulus bill. The sooner everyone figures that out, the better.

Revisiting McDonald's

The chart on the right is not a very exciting one, but it's important. It's a followup to last week's post about McDonald's threatening to cancel its current healthcare policy because of the passage of ACA. As you recall, the original story in the Wall Street Journal was wrong in some respects and overblown in others, and in any case, the "mini-med" policy that McDonald's currently offers is pretty sucky. Getting rid of it would be one of the benefits of ACA, not an "unintended consequence."

Today, Aaron Carroll puts some numbers to "sucky" and I've added some bloggy value by converting his numbers into a colorful chart. The current McDonald's policy is the red bar on the right: it costs employees $1,664 per year and offers maximum coverage of $10,000.

Now compare that to what a McDonald's employee can get when ACA kicks in in 2014. At minimum wage, he or she will be eligible for Medicaid and will have to pay nothing. A $9/hour, subsidized private insurance will cost $858. At $10/hour it will cost $1,030. Even at $12/hour — more than virtually anyone makes at McDonald's — the premium is $1,720, only a dollar a week more than the current mini-med policy.

And that's for real health insurance. Under ACA, the vast majority of McDonald's workers will get genuine health insurance that's either free or no more costly than even the laughable micro-med option that offers maximum coverage of $2,000. When 2014 rolls around and McDonald's does away with both its mini and micro-med policies, that won't be an unintended consequence of ACA. It will be the whole point.

Our Dumb Media

Howard Kurtz sums up the state of cable news in under 140 characters:

Looks like the biggest news Obama is gonna make all week is that presidential seal falling off his lectern. Still seeing it replayed.

Why is it being endlessly replayed? Because it's the perfect prop for every lazy pundit invested in a narrative about "Obama's presidency falling apart at the seams" or some such. It's the killer rabbit of 2010. We are not just ruled by idiots, we are reported on by idiots too.

The Do-Nothing 111th Congress?

From a recent National Journal poll:

The perception that bickering is on the rise has doubled since January 2009, when Obama took office and 50 percent of respondents thought the two parties were working together more than in the past. That number had dropped to 25 percent by early April, 2009. This week it came in at eight percent.

Well, that seems accurate enough. I sort of wonder who the 8% are who persist in believing the parties are working more closely than in the past, but still, not bad, American public! Unfortunately, the American public then blew it on the next question:

At first, it's hard to make sense of this. Whether or not you approve of what Congress has done this term, they've done a lot. There's the big three, of course: a huge stimulus package, healthcare reform, and financial reform. And then plenty of smaller things: the Lilly Ledbetter Act, college loan reform, rescuing GM and Chrysler, credit card disclosure, gas mileage improvements, and plenty of other stuff. So why the disconnect?

I'd guess four things are at work here. First, the public has no idea how much major legislation usually gets passed in a single congressional session. So even if they're aware of the three major bills that passed this term, they don't realize that's more than usual.1 Second, they don't perceive that most of this stuff affects them. Stimulus has gotten a bad rap, healthcare reform doesn't take effect until 2014, and financial reform is too abstract to understand. Third, their bar is set high. Sure, three big things got done, but they expected more. What about climate change? And immigration reform? And DADT repeal? And closing Gitmo? And four, the economy sucks. As long as Congress hasn't fixed that, nothing else really matters.

1And in fairness, compare Obama's first two years to George Bush's first two years. Bush got a big tax cut, declared war on al-Qaeda, passed the PATRIOT Act, passed Sarbanes-Oxley, and signed campaign finance reform into law. Compared to that, it's not clear why the average citizen should consider the current Congress any more successful than usual.

What the Market Wants

Ezra Klein writes about the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a group created by the healthcare reform law that's charged with getting Medicare costs under control and is independent of congressional dysfunction and gridlock:

You'd think people who worry about the market's confidence in our ability to control spending would be shouting about this from the rooftops. The IPAB is the single most significant cost control we've ever imposed on the single most fiscally dangerous program in our budget. But Republicans are specifically targeting it for repeal, even as they praise Bernanke's remarks. Meanwhile, I wonder whether [Ben] Bernanke even knows IPAB is in there.

We have a system where it seems like it would be in everyone's interest to praise and support this reform, but instead, it's mainly been attacked, dismissed or ignored. Republicans would prefer to win the next election than increase the market's confidence in our ability to balance our books. Frankly, if I were the market, this would make me worry.

Well now, that depends on what "the market" is truly interested in. Is the market (a) worried about future deficits and eager to support cost cutting measures, or is it (b) worried about its paycheck and eager to elect a party that's good for rich people? I would say there's scant evidence for (a) and overwhelming evidence for (b). Paul Krugman has endlessly presented evidence that the financial market has demonstrated its lack of concern about deficits by driving down long-term interest rates to historic lows. Meanwhile, political scientists have presented endless evidence that "the market" (with quotes, meaning that I'm now talking about the actual men and women who make trades and run companies) cares mostly about how much money they personally make and is able to make its preferences on this score crystal clear to the political class. That's two different "markets," not one, and if you look at it that way the behavior of the market(s) makes perfect sense.