Kevin Drum

Friday Garden Blogging - 5 June 2009

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 3:19 PM EDT

It's been a busy week and we all need a break.  So how about a nice, soothing garden to help everyone relax?  Here at Drum Central, the flowers are blooming, the upside-down tomato plant is thriving, our new redbud tree is growing, the sun is shining, and birds are chirping in the birdbath outside the kitchen window.

And, of course, Inkblot is admiring it all — as well he should since he's spent so many backbreaking hours supervising the gardeners.  It's exhausting!  And with that, I'm off to the car dealer to pick up my newly repaired and hopefully non-coolant-leaking wheels.  Have a nice weekend, everyone.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Standing Up to the Imperial Presidency

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 2:49 PM EDT

House Democrats, led by Barney Frank, are finally standing up against the Obama administration's support for the Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act of 2009 — an Orwellian amendment that would retroactively bypass FOIA and allow the administration to unilaterally block the release of photos of detainee treatment with no justification except their own say so.  Good.  Nick Baumann has more.

More on Obama and Democracy

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 2:43 PM EDT

Via email, reader Dan R. reacts to my post this morning on George Bush and his failed democracy agenda:

The problem with Bush's so-called "democracy promotion" wasn't just that it was half-hearted or hypocritical, but that it was such a simplistic approach to democracy: Elections are all that counts. It showed little appreciation for the elements of civil society that are a fundamental requirement of a successful democracy, and that make U.S.-style democracy possible in the U.S. but might not make it possible in a lot of other countries.

Now, I don't think Obama wants to go out and say that some countries aren't educated enough or have the civil traditions and institutions required for American-style democracy. So he's treading a fine line. But the reality is that the things he talked about — rule of law, government transparency, lack of corruption, equal administration of justice, freedom of the press, minority rights — are more realistic goals for many countries and appropriate way-stations on the way to what we would consider a full-fledged democracy.

I think Obama is exactly right in focusing on the values that underly democracy rather than the external forms....By striking a middle ground between "idealists" who would make democracy and human rights the sole focus of foreign policy and "realists" who would ignore American values in favor of American interests, this kind of thinking represents a very sophisticated step forward in our foreign policy.

Quote of the Day #2

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 1:26 PM EDT

From Bob Enyart, spokesman for Colorado Right to Life, on the assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller:

"If a Mafia hit man gets killed, people recognize it's an occupational hazard."

According to the LA Times, this was his way of explaining that "his group doesn't condone Tiller's slaying."

Obama and Democracy

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 1:12 PM EDT

Yesterday Michael Rubin complained that Obama never mentioned democracy in his Cairo speech.  Today he corrects the record: in fact, Obama dedicated an entire section of his speech to democracy.  Then he adds this:

But, I stand by the point of my post: Obama stepped back from demanding accountability at polls....Bush embraced democracy and transformative diplomacy. Many progressives and liberals turned on democratization because they didn’t want to be associated with Bush.  Now that Obama is victorious, it would be a real tragedy for progressivism, liberalism, and human rights if the progressive movement embraced cultural relativism and convinced itself that liberty really didn’t matter.

This is really one of the most annoying of all tropes from the Bush-defending right.  The plain facts here are pretty simple: George Bush talked a lot about democracy, but he was in favor of it only when it produced results he liked.  He was fine with democracy in Ukraine and he was fine with democracy in Lebanon.  He loved the purple fingers in Iraq — though only after the UN and al-Sistani pretty much forced elections on him.  Conversely, when Hamas won an election in Gaza, it was not so fine.  When Musharraf and Mubarak conducted obviously rigged elections in Pakistan and Egypt, his adminstration tut tutted a bit and then went about its business.  To the small extent that Bush was ever truly dedicated to democracy promotion in the first place — and it was never more than purely incidental to the Iraq war project — he had plainly given up on it completely by 2006 at the latest.

George Bush's main achievement in this arena wasn't to promote democracy, it was to completely cement Arab cynicism about America's obvious lack of concern for democracy.  Whether Obama is "stepping back" from this I couldn't say, but he certainly can't do any worse on the democracy promotion front than George Bush.

Unemployment and the Stress Tests

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 11:56 AM EDT

This is, obviously, nothing new, but Felix Salmon is right to remind us that the "adverse" scenario for Tim Geithner's stress tests — that is, the worst case doomsday projection — used an unemployment rate of 8.9% for 2009.  The reality, though, is already much gloomier: we're only up to May and the actual unemployment rate is 9.4% and still heading north.

One number doesn't represent an entire economy.  But this one is pretty important, and Treasury's forecasters weren't even in the right ballpark.  It makes you wonder how realistic the rest of their assumptions were.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Quote of the Day

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 11:43 AM EDT

From JB Williams, a "no nonsense commentator on American politics, American history, and American philosophy":

Why does the Obama administration need or want the latitude and longitude coordinates for every home in America? Why the rush to GPS paint every home in the next 90 days? Why must the marker be within 40 ft of every front door? For what possible purpose does the Fed [i.e., the Census Bureau –ed.] need GPS coordinates for every home, and under what authority do they have the right?

I sure hope nobody ever tells this poor guy about the U.S. Postal Service and how they manage to deliver mail to your house every day.  He'd probably have a stroke.

Chart of the Day

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 11:18 AM EDT

Dana McCourt provides this handy chart showing just what the stakes are in the fight over late-term abortions.  If, like me, you think that viability outside the uterus is the best rough measure of whether a fetus is a human being that deserves legal protection, this chart is telling: the absolute lower limit for viability is around 22 weeks, and only about 1% of all abortions are performed that late.  Past 24 weeks, according to a footnote later in the post, only about 100 abortions are performed per year.  Post-viability abortions are very, very rare, and performed almost exclusively for serious medical reasons.

Needless to say, if you believe that life begins at conception and are unwilling to accept that personhood is a continuum with some inevitable grayness, this won't persuade you of anything.  For the rest of us, who believe that fetuses become human beings at some point during pregnancy but before birth, it's worth understanding just how few post-viability abortions there are.  And since that 22-week marker is due to fundamental developmental issues related to the brain and the skull, it's unlikely that scientific advances outside of full-blown artificial wombs will ever have much effect on this.

In any case, no matter how you feel about this, now you know.  Late term abortions are very rare things indeed.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Dems v. Dems

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 2:43 AM EDT

Chris Hayes:

It seems strange, almost surreal, to say this, but the Republican Party, and arguably the whole conservative movement, is not the left's biggest enemy at the moment. On keeping a public plan in healthcare reform; streamlining student lending; and passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), cap and trade, financial regulation and a host of other structural economic reforms progressives hope to enact, the GOP is more akin to the garbage men than the alderman. [Click the link for an explanation of what this analogy means. –ed.]

"Most Republicans aren't waking up every day thinking, How do we kill banking regulation?" says Goehl. "Most people who listen to Rush Limbaugh aren't waking up thinking about how do we kill banking regulation. But the people with the deep pockets who have power in DC are thinking that.

"I sometimes get frustrated because it seems like the left isn't focused on corporate power. We like to talk about the Sarah Palins and Rush Limbaughs, and meanwhile the American Bankers Association is one of the main entities running the country."

....While the Republican Party shrinks, corporate interests are deftly molting their old K Street Project skin and crawling en masse inside the big tent being pitched by the Democratic Party. These same corporate interests have always had a purchase on Democrats, of course. But for much of the last decade, business interests had the luxury of spending most of their resources aiding their allies in the GOP.

Chris is right: the biggest threat to the Democratic agenda these days isn't the Republican Party.  It's the Democratic Party.

Healthcare and Bankruptcy

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 2:07 AM EDT

Last night I linked to story about a new study showing that medical bills contributed to 62% of all personal bankruptcies in 2007.  According to the authors, that's up 50% from 2001, once you adjust the numbers to compare apples to apples.

Megan McArdle is skeptical.  Objection 1: could slowly but steadily rising healthcare costs really cause such a huge increase in the bankruptcy stats in just six years?  It's hard to say without more data, but it sounds plausible to me given the fact that bankruptcies are outliers to begin with.  Objection 2: other studies have come to different conclusions.  That's addressed here.  Objection 3: why do the subjects of the study themselves self-report at different levels?  That's also addressed here.

But this is all just throat clearing.  Megan's real objection is this:

[Elizabeth] Warren and her co-authors have obscured important and obvious facts that call the integrity of the work into serious question.

....What Warren et. al. neglect to mention is that bankruptcies fell between 2001 and 2007.  In fact, they were cut in half.  Going by the numbers Warren et. al. provide, medical bankruptcies actually fell by almost 220,000 between 2001 and 2007, a fact that they not only fail to mention, but deliberately obscure.

Are Warren, et. al. unaware that bankruptcies fell by half?  No bankruptcy analyst could possibly be unaware of this fact; it has been the most talked-about phenomenon in the bankruptcy area since the 2005 law was passed.

....What's left out here?  That in 2001, 1.45 million households filed for bankruptcy.  In 2007, that number was 727,167.   Had their paper done the basic arithmetic, readers would easily have seen that their own numbers imply a decrease in medical bankruptcies, from about 750,000 to slightly over 500,000.  Yet their paper does not merely ignore this fact; it uses language that seems deliberately designed to conceal it.  I invite any of my readers to scan the paper for any hint that medical bankruptcies had fallen significantly over 6 years.

For my money, this is an important point that should have been addressed directly in the study.  At the same time, it's not clear that it's nearly as sinister as Megan suggests.  If I move out the fences in every baseball stadium in the country, the fact that fewer home runs are hit at Dodger Stadium isn't very interesting.  What is interesting is whether the proportion of home runs per at-bat goes up or down at Dodger Stadium more than it does elsewhere.

Likewise, the authors of the bankruptcy study faced a change in the law that affected all bankruptcies and made it impossible to compare raw numbers. The fences had been moved out, and a large number of people who once would have declared bankruptcy because of, say, a $20,000 medical bill, couldn't do so anymore.  Naturally the absolute number of medical bankruptcies went down, but that doesn't really tell us much.

It's impossible to say anything with certainty since the change in the law was so sweeping, but other data in the study suggests that bankruptcies with a medical component are similar to the overall population of bankruptcies, both demographically and otherwise.  They aren't systematically either better or worse off than average.  This in turn suggests that if you compare the better-off half and the worst-off half of all pre-2005 bankruptcy filers, their medical components probably matched pretty closely.

Why do we care?  Because bankruptcy filings after 2005, when the law made it harder to file, were probably similar to the worst-off half of the pre-2005 bankruptcy filings.  This means the group in the 2007 study is probably similar to the worst-off half of the group in the 2001 study — which makes a direct comparison impossible.  However, since the proportion of medical bankruptcies in that group likely mirrors the proportion in the entire pre-2005 population, it means that if the law hadn't changed and the total population of bankruptcies had stayed large, the proportion of medical bankruptcies probably still would have increased.  This is all very rough and tentative, and better data would be helpful.  Still, even though I agree that this is something the authors should have addressed head on, they probably did about as well as they could with the hand they were dealt.