Kevin Drum

Harnessing Nationalism

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 1:05 PM EDT

Brad Plumer today:

A recurring source of anxiety among op-ed writers lately is the fear that China is winning some sort of clean-energy race. Earlier this month, venture capitalist John Doerr and GE head Jeffrey Immelt took to The Washington Post to fret that Chinese cars were 33 percent more efficient than U.S. cars, that China was investing ten times the fraction of its GDP on clean energy that the United States was, and that China was on track to generate five times as much wind power by 2020. "We are clearly not in the lead today," they concluded. "That position is held by China, which understands the importance of controlling its energy future."

Those pleas for stronger U.S. action have some merit....But framing these efforts as some sort of zero-sum competition, in which only the winners benefit, isn't quite right. The entire planet will benefit from cheaper, better sources of clean energy, and it's not as if we'll somehow "lose" if China makes a massive push to mop up its emissions.

Sometimes there can be such a thing as too much intellectual honesty.  This is one of those times.

Look: on the global warming front, "Bangladesh will drown and California will have more wildfires in 2080" doesn't seem to be doing the job.  So if the only way to convince Americans to get serious about this stuff is to have 4-star generals issue grim warnings about climate change being a national security threat, followed by corporate honchos ginning up some kind of "green race" with the scary Chinese, then so be it.  If this kind of thing got us to the moon, maybe it can save the planet as well.  I say we go along.

Besides, having the Pentagon worry about climate-induced global instability is a good thing.  And competing with China to produce wind turbines is way more productive than endless scaremongering about whether they're going to build an aircraft carrier or two by 2020.  So let's get in the spirit of things.  We must never allow the quasi-socialist Chinese hordes to overtake us in producing green technology!  Green tech is the future of our country!  Buy (green) American (stuff)!  USA!  USA!

POSTSCRIPT: Brad actually does have some serious points to make about cooperating with the Chinese on green tech.  But that's hard to turn into a jingoistic crowd pleaser, I'm afraid.

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The Real Barack Obama

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 11:25 AM EDT

Our story so far: Democrats offer up a bipartisan proposal to fund advance care counseling and Republicans turn it into a plan to create death panels.  Democrats agree to fund home nurse care and Republicans tar it as a secular brainwashing program.  Democrats take Republican concerns about cost containment seriously by setting up the Independent Medicare Advisory Council and Republicans start screaming about "rationing."  Democrats give in on a public option and accept a co-op program in its place and Republicans dig in and finally announce that they're just going to oppose everything no matter what Democrats do.

The White House has taken notice:

Given hardening Republican opposition to Congressional health care proposals, Democrats now say they see little chance of the minority’s cooperation in approving any overhaul, and are increasingly focused on drawing support for a final plan from within their own ranks.

....Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said the heated opposition was evidence that Republicans had made a political calculation to draw a line against any health care changes, the latest in a string of major administration proposals that Republicans have opposed.

“The Republican leadership,” Mr. Emanuel said, “has made a strategic decision that defeating President Obama’s health care proposal is more important for their political goals than solving the health insurance problems that Americans face every day.”

OK then.  Obviously Emanuel said this with presidential approval, so the question is: did Obama ever expect anything different?  Was his calm, deliberative, bipartisan sales pitch genuine, or did he know it would fail all along?

We've been asking this question ever since the primaries — does he really believe he can sweet talk Republicans into cooperating with him? — and we still don't know the answer.  Obama is a guy who plays his cards very close to his chest.  But the next couple of months should give us a clue.  If he really believed it, then he probably doesn't have much of a Plan B and the next stop for this train is Chaosville.  But if it was mostly an act, then his next step is obvious: he'll make a barnstorming public case that he made a good faith effort to work with Republicans but they were just completely intransigent.  He'll attack them mercilessly and do everything he can to whip public opinion into a lather against the obstinate, obstructionist, reactionary GOP.

If that was his plan all along, it wouldn't be a bad one.  He correctly divined a long time ago that the American public was weary of endless partisan fighting and wanted a break, and he rode that insight to victory.  Regardless of his own beliefs, then, it meant he had to start his presidency by demonstrating a genuine effort to work across the aisle, and he had to keep it up long enough to show he was serious.  Only if it plainly failed would he be able to turn the screws and start fighting on pure partisan lines.

Will it work?  Stay tuned.

Barney Frank and the Loons

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 10:18 AM EDT

Here's a clip from the Barney Frank Show, soon to be a reality series on MSNBC.  Sean Hannity and Michele Bachman were all over this last night, full of faux dismay and tut tutting about how Frank treated his constituents, but oddly enough, they didn't play this particular clip featuring the woman proudly waving the Obama = Hitler sign.  Strange, isn't it?

Anyway, it's here mainly for entertainment value.  Not everyone can afford to do this, and not everyone has Barney's, um, way with words either.  Still, it shows a refreshing willingness to call a loon a loon instead of just fretting defensively about decorum and manners, and it's also fun to watch.  Fun is good!  And while some people will be offended by it, I'll bet the majority reaction outside the right wing would eventually become supportive if more Dems did this.  People would start laughing at the loons instead of pretending their black helicopter nonsense represents some kind of genuine upwelling of "heartland" grievance.  Give 'em hell, Barney.

Filibuster Wanking

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 10:02 AM EDT

This is, I admit, just total blue sky wanking, but the whole healthcare reconciliation debate raises another question: what if Democrats got rid of the filibuster?

Basically, this is easy to do.  Without going into all the gory details, it depends on having a friendly Senate chair declare the filibuster unconstitutional and then having it sustained by a majority of the Senate.  So all you need is Joe Biden (the chair) and 51 Democrats to support him and the filibuster is history.

This would, obviously, be the end of Barack Obama's post-partisan unity act, and the next step would be for the opposition party to go ballistic and shut down the Senate.  That's what Dems would have done if Republicans had tried this, and it's what Republicans would do if Democrats try it.  At that point, either the Senate chair rams through rule changes that eliminate the various ways individual senators can halt business, or else it becomes a pure public relations battle.  So who would win?

Beats me.  But I don't think it would depend very much on the nature of the bill that touched things off.  It would depend on how the public felt when they learned — really learned — just how the Senate works and how wildly undemocratic it is.  I suspect most people don't really have a clue about this and would basically support a move to make it into a majoritarian institution.

On the other hand, the public is also generally repelled by exercises in pure power mongering, and there's no question that's what this would be.  So it's a tossup.  I wouldn't mind finding out, though.

POSTSCRIPT: Yes, I know this isn't in the cards or anything.  But it's August.  Aside from death panels, things are slow.  Give me a break.

Fighting the Ghosts

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 12:51 AM EDT

An awful lot of journal articles supposedly written by medical researchers are actually written by pharmaceutical company PR departments.  Someone is finally starting to do something about it:

With a letter last week, a senator who helps oversee public funding for medical research signaled that he was running out of patience with the practice of ghostwriting. Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has led a long-running investigation of conflicts of interest in medicine, is starting to put pressure on the National Institutes of Health to crack down on the practice.

....The full scope of the ghostwriting problem is still unclear, but recent revelations suggest that the practice is widespread. Dozens of medical education companies across the country draft scientific papers at the behest of drug makers. And placing such papers in medical journals has become a fundamental marketing practice for most of the large pharmaceutical companies.

“Just three days ago, I got a request to be the author of a ghostwritten article about the effectiveness of a cholesterol-lowering drug,” Dr. James H. Stein, professor of cardiology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, said this month. “This happens all the time.” He declined to attach his name to the paper.

Grassley's a weird dude, and he's been notably unhelpful on the healthcare reform effort.  But at least he's not completely worthless.  Good for him for taking this on.

Breaking a Public Option Filibuster

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 5:56 PM EDT

Armando, in his usual restrained way, asks why I think Republicans can filibuster a healthcare bill:

Republicans alone can not filibuster anything. So tell me Kevin, who are the Dem senators who are going to join a GOP filibuster of health care reform? Let's stick to the facts please. Even when you are shilling for a Dem capitulation on health care reform.

Well, it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, and unless someone gets Teddy Kennedy back on the floor of the Senate, Democrats only have 59 votes right now.  As for the Democratic senators who might join a filibuster if the bill contains a public option, who knows?  But Ben Nelson is certainly a candidate.  So are Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu.

On the other hand, it's possible that Harry Reid could hold the entire Democratic caucus together and then add a senator or two from Maine to successfully break a Republican filibuster.  Maybe.  Not many people seem to think this is likely, but your guess is as good as mine.

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Are We Getting Kicked Out of Iraq?

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 5:27 PM EDT

Last year the Iraqi parliament approved a Status of Forces Agreement that called for U.S. troops to withdraw from cities by June 2009 and to leave the country completely by December 2011.  At the time, there was a plan to submit the SOFA to a referendum, but that never happened.

Now, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has apparently decided to revive the idea:

If Iraqi lawmakers sign off on Maliki's initiative to hold a referendum in January on the withdrawal timeline, a majority of voters could annul a standing U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, forcing the military to pull out completely by January 2011 under the terms of a previous law.

It is unclear whether parliament, which is in recess until next month, would approve the referendum. Lawmakers have yet to pass a measure laying the basic ground rules for the Jan. 16 national election, their top legislative priority for the remainder of 2009.

If the SOFA is voted down, American troops have to leave within a year.  That means January 16, 2011 instead of December 31, 2011.  It's not at all clear why Maliki is doing this, but Juan Cole takes a guess:

I am just speculating, but I wonder if this measure was pushed by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is close to the ayatollahs in Tehran, who in turn may want to speed up the US withdrawal because they have become afraid of a 'color revolution' in Iran promoted by the US. Staging such things from neighboring Iraq would be easier than doing it from a greater distance...

Meanwhile, there's this:

In an effort to defuse mounting Arab-Kurdish tensions, the U.S. military is proposing to deploy troops for the first time in a strip of disputed territory in northern Iraq, the top American general in Iraq said Monday.

....Though the plan is still not finalized, Odierno said that he had discussed it recently with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and with Massoud Barzani, the president of the regional government, and that both had been receptive to the idea.

So on the one hand Maliki is supporting a referendum that might force a faster troop withdrawal, while on the other hand he's supporting renewed U.S. patrols even though the SOFA banned them starting last month.  The fig leaf is that the patrols will be in "mostly rural" areas, but that's a fairly thin excuse.

Anyway, I'm not sure what to make of all this.  But it wouldn't bother me at all if the Iraqi public voted down the SOFA and we ended up withdrawing a year earlier than planned.

Big Bang Healthcare

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 1:43 PM EDT

I know, I know, healthcare can get tiresome.  But as part of the great debate over whether we need revolutionary change all at once vs. something "good enough" that we can build on, I think it's worth pointing out that most of the great universal healthcare systems of Western Europe took the latter route.  The French, for example, began covering lost wages from illness in the late 20s, and then began constructing a genuine national healthcare system shortly after World War II.  But that was just a start.  It took nearly 50 years before it became truly universal.  Here's the timeline from Wikipedia:

1947: extended social security to government workers.

1948: established three retiree insurance programs for non-salaried, non-farm employees (artisians, industrial and commercial workers, and among the liberal professions).

1952: established mandatory retiree insurance program for farmers, managed by the mutualité sociale agricole (MSA).

1961: established mandatory health insurance for farmers, allowing them choice among providers.

1966: established maternity health insurance for non-salaired, non-farm workers, managed by the CANAM.

1966: established mandatory insurance programs for farm-related accidents, non-work related accidents, and work-related sicknesses with free-choice of provider.

1972: protection enforcement of salaried farm-workers against work-related accidents, written into law.

1975: universalized retiree insurance mandatory for working population.

1978: establishment of unique program for ministers, religious congregation members, and personal insurance other non-covered persons.

1999: the complete institutionalization of universal health care.

2001: additional assistance provided for families who need help with daily tasks.

2002: compensation established for all medical-related accidents whether fault is found or not.

Even now, not everything is covered.  Above the lowest income levels, patients are required to pay 20-30% of the costs of care up to a certain amount, and private insurance is widely used to cover this gap.  There's a similar story in most other countries.  You can find a brief summary of Germany's evolution here, for example.

This is just some food for thought.  All countries are constrained in what they can do by past experience, existing institutions, and powerful interest groups.  But the important thing, I think, is to pass a law that makes the principle of universal coverage the law of the land.  Once that's in place, there's no going back even if the first pass is highly imperfect.

The Shoals of Washington DC

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 12:40 PM EDT

David Roberts says that Netroots Nation was more subdued this year than last.  That's hardly a surprise.  But it's not just the fact that 2008 was an election year and 2009 isn't:

The sense, rather, is that we are witnessing a tsunami of progressive enthusiasm, organizing, and, um, Hope crash on the shoals of the status quo ... and the status quo isn’t budging. Bit by bit, the giddy high of those days following Obama’s election is dissipating. It’s dispiriting.

For what it's worth, this isn't just a liberal problem.  9/11 and the Iraq war masked a lot of this during George Bush's first term, but conservatives ended up feeling the same way before long.  They wanted a revolution, but instead they got NCLB.  And a wimpy stem cell compromise.  And Sarbanes-Oxley.  And McCain-Feingold.  And a huge Medicare expansion. And complete gridlock on Social Security.

Not exactly what they signed up for.  The tax cuts were great, of course, but what about abortion and gay marriage and entitlement reform and slashing the size of government and ANWR and the Endangered Species Act and everything else on the conservative wish list?  They got most of what they wanted on the national security front (missile defense, big Pentagon budget increases, a couple of nice wars), but on the domestic front most of them felt like Bush ended up delivering almost nothing.

It wasn't quite that bad, of course.  They did get the tax cuts, after all.  And they got a new bankruptcy law and a bunch of right-wing judges.  But for the most part, their domestic agenda crashed on the shoals of the status quo too.  Washington DC is a tough place to get anything done.

District 9

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 11:45 AM EDT

I saw District 9 the other day, and it was.....odd.  More below the fold if you don't mind reading some spoilers.