Saturday, February 27, 2010

Taxing McDonalds

I've become more and more of a fan of targeted punitive taxes intended to change behavior. I dislike banning things outright, but I'm all for making people pay more for them. Cigarettes are already taxed in this way, as is liquor, to a lesser extent. From time to time, various groups advocate a junk-food tax, or a soft-drink tax. This is a fantastic idea. Taxes raise revenue and disincentivize an unhealthy practice. Since a large percentage of our population is covered by evil, socialist, government-run health care (Medicare, Medicaid) this is also raising funds from unhealthy activities to pay for the health problems caused by diabetes and obesity.

It turns out that punitive taxes on unhealthy foods are more effective than subsidies on healthy food. Success! Unfortunately, there's a powerful lobby working against this. Who are these "Americans Against Food Taxes"? A small cross-section from their website:

7-Eleven, Inc.
Allen Beverages, Inc.
American Beverage Association
Atlantic Bottling Company
Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated
Coca-Cola Bottling Co. High Country
Coca-Cola Bottling Co. United, Inc.
Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Fort Wayne, IN
Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Minden, Inc.
Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Northern New England
Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Pottsville, PA
Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Winona, MN
Coca-Cola Bottling Works, Inc.
Coca-Cola Company, The
Coca-Cola Enterprises, Inc.
Coca-Cola of West Greenwich, RI
Dr Pepper Bottling Company of Dublin
Dr Pepper-Royal Crown Bottling Co.
Dr Pepper Snapple Group
Pepsi Bottling Group
Pepsi Bottling Ventures
Pepsi Northwest Beverages
PepsiAmericas, Inc.
PepsiCo, Inc.
Pepsi-Cola & National Brand Beverages
Pepsi-Cola of Florence, LLC
Pepsi-Cola of Rochester, MN
Pepsi-Cola Bottlers Association
Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Atmore
Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Central VA
Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Hastings
Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Hickory, NC
Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of LaCrosse
Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Logansport
Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of New York
Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Pipestone, MN
Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Roxboro, NC
Pepsi-Cola Decatur, LLC
Pepsi-Cola Dr Pepper Bottling Co.
Pepsi-Cola of Northeast Wisconsin
Pepsi-Cola of Topeka


Yeah, ok. Sure, you're just looking out for the little guy. Let's base taxes on policy reasons, please. This is just typical lobbying, masquerading as populism.


I enjoy Pepsi, KFC, and beer as much as the next guy, but I know they're bad for me, so paying more taxes on them seems like the right thing to do. If Medicare has to pay for an angioplasty down the road, fund it with taxes on the causes of all that junk in peoples' arteries.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Assassination

There's a lot of talk lately about this Mossad assassination of a Hamas leader. There seems to be a fair bit of outrage about how brazen an act of murder/assassination/terrorism this is, depending on one's perspective. I think there's also a fair amount of hypocrisy here. The US military (and CIA) have conducted dozens, if not hundreds of drone strikes against specific Taliban leaders in Pakistan. If anything, these are less forgivable, since they have a much higher rate of civilian casualties, and are of only dubious effectiveness. Why is it okay to assassinate people with missiles from planes, but not by sneaking up to the guy with a garrote?

XKCD has a similar take. Or something.

Taxes and the rich

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes:

The top 400 households paid 16.6 percent of their income in federal individual income taxes in 2007, down from 30 percent in 1995. This decline works out to a tax cut of $46 million per filer in 2007, or a total of $18 billion in tax cuts for these households per year.
[...]
Over roughly the same period, the top 400 filers enjoyed huge gains in pre-tax incomes. The average pre-tax income of this group rose by over 400 percent between 1992 and 2007, equivalent to a $275 million increase per person, after adjusting for inflation. In 2007 alone, average pre-tax incomes rose by 31 percent among these individuals.

God forbid the top marginal tax bracket go up a bit to help pay for health care.

Why we watch sports

Stories like this one:

The record books will say figure skater Joannie Rochette won a bronze medal at the Vancouver Olympics. But that is just the outward symbol of a more poignant victory, which she shared with thousands of roaring fans in the Pacific Coliseum on Thursday night – and many more around the globe.

Buoyed by thousands of letters from her small town in Quebec, from teammates, from strangers on Twitter, Rochette surmounted the sudden passing of her mother on Sunday to skate a heartfelt free skate and finish third. And then, instead of withdrawing to the privacy of her family, she spoke publicly – with poise and strength – for the first time since the weekend.

“I want to thank everyone who supported me – everyone around the whole world. I felt so much love in so little time. All of your comments, all of your letters, really helped me get on the ice and skate here for myself, my country, and my mom,” said Rochette, when asked to comment on her performance at a press conference afterward.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thoughts on the HCR Summit

 
yawn
 

"A wholly owned subsidiary"

Anthony Weiner is at wits end.

Selling Health Insurance across state lines

That is one of the favored Republican ideas for health care reform. The Democratic plan does this through national exchanges that have a mandated level of coverage. The Republican idea is to let states regulate, not have Federal regulation on level of coverage and costs, and allow consumers to buy from any company, no matter where it is based.

This is, in short, the situation enjoyed by credit card companies. Clearly, it makes no sense for credit cards to be only valid in one state. But the regulation of credit cards is left up to states, for the most part. What did that result in? A race to the bottom in regulation, by states competing for the high-paying jobs brought by the credit card industry. South Dakota is a case study in how this happened. Frontline has the story. Money quote:

With bipartisan support and backing from South Dakota's banking association, [former SD Gov.] Janklow proposed a special "emergency'' bill. "Citibank actually drafted the legislation,'' he said. "Literally we introduced it, and it passed our legislature in one day.''

Do we really want Blue Cross writing insurance laws?

I am a Tom Perriello fan

I said this before, but it bears repeating. We need more Tom Perriellos in congress. From an interview with David Roberts of Grist(emphasis mine):

If we were going to wait for the Senate to do anything, we would do nothing. This stuff should have been done 10 to 20 years ago. We’re so far behind China, Europe, and other areas in the energy jobs of the future because neither party has had the guts to take this on.  There are so many spineless people in D.C. To me, the new politics—“change we can believe in” —was about starting with what would solve our problems, not what would get us reelected.
[...]
I’m sick of starting with what can we get through the Senate; let’s start with what solves the damn problem.  Until the Senate gets its head out of its rear-end and starts to see the crisis we’re in, our country is literally at risk. Our economy is at risk, because these jobs are being created overseas.  It should have the same urgency with this problem that it had bailing out Wall Street. We are swearing an oath to do what’s necessary to protect this country, not do what’s necessary to get a bill through the Senate.

I wish I lived in the Virginia 5th so I could vote for this guy. He wants to solve big problems, end of story.

(HT: David Roberts via Matt Yglesias)

On second thought...

The Sunni Iraqi party National Dialog Front decided they won't boycott the election after all. Maybe they remembered what happened last time they boycotted an election?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Economist fail (II)

In the longer Briefing section in the same issue of the Economist as the Leader I critiqued earlier, the authors expand on the causes of paralysis. It says many of the same things, though they do a better job of examining structural causes and the general dysfunction in Washington. One section, however, stood out to me:

[A] president who cannot legislate has other ways to get things done. He can, for example, use executive authority.
[...]
Since Massachusetts, the White House’s interest in governing by regulation has grown. Rahm Emanuel, Mr Obama’s chief of staff, told the New York Times last week that the administration was reviewing a list of presidential orders and directives “to get the job done across a front of issues”
[...]
In short, a president blocked in Congress is not without resources. [...] War and economic crisis have always augmented the powers of the White House, and for the foreseeable future Mr Obama will continue to enjoy the dubious “benefits” of both.

I wasn't particularly happy with my snark about the president not being a monarch in the previous post, but this part really is a head-scratcher. Is the Economist suggesting that the President respond to a failure in America's structural institutions by gathering yet more power to himself? If there has been one constant in American history, it has been the steady accumulation of power by the Oval Office. Under Bush, this caused significant consternation on the left, but it is an old story. Teddy Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography,“The Constitution did not explicitly give me power to bring about the necessary agreement with Santo Domingo. But the Constitution did not forbid my doing what I did.”

I don't think this is a particularly good thing. President Bush made extensive use of signing statements to change laws as he signed them, essentially bypassing the legislature. Is the Economist advocating further disregard for Congress? It seems to me that the solution to a dysfunctional legislative system is reform of the legislative system, not accumulation of power in the executive. Can you blame Obama, a constitutional law professor and a liberal, for wanting to work within the system, instead of bypassing it?

It is puzzling to me.

(EDIT: Forgot the link. Fixed.)

NFL mortality

CBC reports:

Studies in the United States show that men who play five or more years in the NFL have a life expectancy of 55, 20 years less than the average in the general public. For linemen, perhaps due to their size, the life expectancy is 52.

Why doesn't this cause more outrage? NFL players have a life expectancy DECADES shorter than the population as a whole. How can people continue to look the other way as young men scramble their brains on the field? Where is the NFLPA? Why does it fall to Mike Ditka and his Gridiron Greats to bring attention to this issue and raise money for those former NFL players who are having serious health issues?

I know that the NFL has tried to use the rules to outlaw the worst hits, but maybe they should pay more attention to concussions and the brain damage that can result. They've made (very small) strides in this direction in the past year or so, but there's a long way to go. The NFL needs to step in and do something about all the unhealthy habits of linemen, and all the damage that is done by concussions. The status quo is unacceptable.

(HT: Mononymous)

The case for truth in politics.

DiA looks at conservative claims that the stimulus created no jobs:

If conservatives start running around saying that it's impossible for government spending to create jobs, liberals will find they have to start claiming that it's impossible for tax cuts to create jobs, and fairly soon, where once there was American democratic political discourse, you will have two mutually unintelligible camps of errant zealots flinging garbage at each other.

Yes. Intelligent debate would be nice. It is sorely lacking in today's political climate.

The current GOP

Douthat laments:

Still, after a year and change of the post-Bush G.O.P., the idea of a right-of-center party that just offers “good speeches and interesting promises” sounds pretty appealing to me.

Sad.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Economist fail

This week's leader in the Economist tries to answer the question "What's wrong with Washington?" Their answer? Barack Obama. Now I love the Economist, I think it's the best print news source out there. But this piece is so far off the mark it's laughable.

It is simply not true to say that nothing can get through Congress. Look at the current financial crisis. The huge TARP bill, which set up a fund to save America’s banks, passed, even though it came at the end of George Bush’s presidency. The stimulus bill, a $787 billion two-year package, made it through within a month of Mr Obama taking office. The Democrats have also passed a long list of lesser bills, from investments in green technology to making it easier for women to sue for sex discrimination.

They fail to note that TARP was a fairly liberal idea, pushed hard by a Republican administration in a time where everyone was scared to death of the financial system collapsing. And it still took two tries to pass. The stimulus passed on a party-line vote in the house, and had one Republican vote in the Senate, Arlen Specter, who later became a Democrat. And that was when Obama's approval rating was in the 60s. Is the point that emergency measures can pass congress when one party has staggering majorities? These are not normal circumstances. Then there's a list of smaller bills, most of which had to overcome filibusters, and are fairly uncontroversial anyway.

A criticism with more weight is that American government is good at solving acute problems (like averting a Depression) but less good at confronting chronic ones (like the burden of entitlements). Yet even this can be overstated. Mr Bush failed to reform pensions, but he did push through No Child Left Behind, the biggest change to schools for a generation. Bill Clinton reformed welfare.

These are examples of one party pushing for the other party's priorities. A Democrat rolling back part of the social safety net and a Republican trying to fix public education. Never mind that many teachers nicknamed NCLB as "No School Left Standing." Yes, if Obama wanted to cut taxes for the rich, he could get bipartisan support. Maybe.

The Senate, much ridiculed for antique practices like the filibuster and the cloture vote, was expressly designed as a “cooling” chamber, where bills might indeed die unless they commanded broad support.

A cooling chamber, not a deep-freeze. House Democrats have compiled a list of 290 bills that have passed the House and died in the Senate. 290 bills. 290 BILLS!

It is not so much that America is ungovernable, as that Mr Obama has done a lousy job of winning over Republicans and independents to the causes he favours. If, instead of handing over health care to his party’s left wing, he had lived up to his promise to be a bipartisan president and courted conservatives by offering, say, reform of the tort system, he might have got health care through; by giving ground on nuclear power, he may now stand a chance of getting a climate bill.

Please tell me how he could have won Republicans over. He did offer tort reform. He got nothing for it. The GOP voted against PAYGO, despite ripping Obama for deficit spending. Republicans voted against a bipartisan deficit commission that they cosponsored. Republicans know that they can win elections by making Obama fail. There is no incentive to give him a victory on anything.

Handed health care to his party's left-wing? This is essentially a Republican approach to health-care reform. His party's left wing (people like my Rep, Keith Ellison) want single-payer, they want Medicare for all. In the absence of that, they at least wanted a robust Public Option. They didn't even get that! This is the least invasive, most incremental reform possible that still helps cover the millions of Americans who lack insurance.

He gave ground on nuclear power, and now he might get a bill that has nothing but subsidies for nuclear power and renewable energy. No carbon tax (the left-wing version), no cap-and-trade (the GOP position before Obama started to support it). This isn't a solution, it's a giveaway. Obama has not taken the left-wing position on a single issue.

Rather than regretting how the Republicans in Congress have behaved, Mr Obama should look harder at his own use of his presidential power.

This reads like the same garbage we've been hearing from inside the beltway for the past year. Somehow Obama can make things happen by caring about them. He can't pass legislation on his own. He can't force Senators or Representatives to do what he wants. He's the president, not a king. 

Hospital infections

I linked to a very old study on hospital infections and deaths in my post on Tim Pawlenty's health care ideas. Turns out a new one just came out:

Each year nearly 300,000 U.S. patients get serious cases of pneumonia and sepsis -- bloodstream infections -- during their hospital stays. Almost 50,000 of them die.
[...]
In an analysis that's not in the published paper, the authors looked at how many deaths could be averted each year "if the Medicare rules were perfectly effective," Laxminarayan says. The answer: Fewer than 100.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Deficits

The CBPP has a new version of a great graph up, to go along with more deficit analysis:

A bleak picture

Douthat looks at demographics:

This means that while the energy of activists may be pushing the Republicans to the right on size-of-government issues, the concerns of their central constituency could end up pulling them inexorably leftward on entitlements.
[...]
This wouldn’t be a terrible things if Social Security and (especially) Medicare accounted for, say, ten percent of the federal budget. [...] [W]e could easily end up with a straightforwardly big-government party in the Democrats, and a G.O.P. that wins election by being “small government” on the small stuff (earmarks, etc.) while refusing to even consider entitlement reform. That’s a recipe for one of two things: Either the highest taxes in American history and a federal government that climbs inexorably toward 30 percent of G.D.P., or a Greece or California-style disaster.

We're pretty much already at this point, when it comes to the party platforms. I don't subscribe to the "big-government Democrat" argument, but Douthat is right in that we're on an unsustainable path. A big step toward fixing this would be health-care reform. The only real Republican nods toward small government and entitlement reform are the Ryan/Coburn health care plan and the Ryan Roadmap. Neither has much support among Republicans, and both are unacceptable to anyone who wants the US to have any kind of safety net for its citizens. This leaves the imperfect bill currently in the works. It's a start. It needs to pass. And then it needs to be improved.

Cynicism

Chait takes on the narcissism, cynicism and lack of scruples currently present in our politicians and political coverage:

Still, what strikes me most about the retrospective advice being proffered to Obama is its sheer amorality. Politicians do need to look after their popular standing, but that's not all they need to do. The broken health care system represents a massive economic and moral crisis. It's hard to imagine a Democratic president winning a clear-cut election victory and bringing in the largest Congressional majorities since Lyndon Johnson and not trying to fix the problem. The purpose of winning elections is to solve problems like health care. There's something strange about advice that presumes it's appropriate to value the preservation of popularity above all else.

"Call a lie a lie."

That's what DiA thinks newspapers need to start doing:

For better or for worse, journalistic discourse is changing. Newspapers, whichever stance they take on an issue, are going to have to start exercising their judgment and calling a lie a lie. That was what they should have done in the summer of 2004, when a small core of propagandists began spreading lies about John Kerry, and that is what they ought to do now. And the public will just have to sort out which newspapers they find more trustworthy.
This runs into the same problem that blogs and cable news are falling into. People read the sources that confirm their own beliefs, and decry anything that differs as propaganda from the other side. Then again, conservatives are already convinced that the NYT is a radical left-wing publication, so what can they lose? I don't see where a paper will get a reputation for being tough on both sides, if for no other reason than that right now, there are a lot more lies coming from the right than the left. The left isn't completely above distorting facts for their purposes, but I think an independent fact-checking would fall harder on GOP claims, causing cries of liberal bias.

Is there a way around this? I don't know. But something needs to be done, since the media is failing the public. Climate change deniers are growing in number, even as the science becomes more incontrovertible.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Stuff I Only Vaguely Understand

I took macro-econ about 4 years ago, so I'm kind of hazy on this sort of thing. Paul Krugman, however, has a Nobel Prize in economics. And he thinks the Fed is tightening monetary policy far too early. Basically, the argument that we keep hearing from the Fed is that the continued low interest rates are a risk of inflation. Note that right now, inflation is nonexistent. And unemployment is still around 10%.

The way it looks from here, monetary policy is still too tight. Of course, interest rates are up against the zero bound, so lowering rates further is not an option for the Fed. It can, however, essentially print money. Since the Fed's normal inflation target is ~2% and right now we're at ~0%, this would actually seem to be in line with the Fed's stated goals.

Instead, Bernanke and the Fed seem to be reacting to an imaginary inflation threat and preparing to pull back, amid 10% unemployment. Color me confused.

The Economist has a good look at the pros and cons here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

William Souder thinks I am destroying writing

Ok, so that title is a bit narcissistic. He thinks blogs and twitter are doing it.

The new electronic wave is a tsunami of words, but one in which formal writing is being devalued and destroyed and steadily replaced by digital writing, that strange, wonderful, scary, compressed species of expression that is bleeding the life out of the written word.

It really is a shame that we are getting writing that sounds more like how people actually talk than how folks up in the Ivory Tower think. But ok, fine, I'll give it to you. Blogs are way too colloquial. But books still exist.

You're at least equally likely to be reading this essay not "on" paper, but online.
...
With luck, this essay will get boiled down to a handful of simple declarations noted on blogs and websites.

Luckily, I did actually read it on paper. But wouldn't his head have exploded if I had been reading it on my phone? I'll try not to pare his essay down too much. But hey, such is the medium!

And yet I look at a device like the Kindle with horror. Yes, you can read "Moby Dick" on one. But why would you -- unless you were, say, stranded in Logan Airport in Boston late at night and had a sudden urge to read "Moby Dick"? Then, one supposes, it might make sense, if not for the fact that when you went to download "Moby Dick" to your Kindle you would sleepily discover that it is available in that digital format for free. In other words, thanks to electronic publishing, this 656-page classic of literature is now worthless.

Wait, what? I thought it was the written word that was dying, not the paper and ink used to convey it. And how does making a classic more widely available make it worthless? I would think Mr. Souder would hail the widespread distribution of such a classic of written word to us unwashed masses with computers. Did Moby Dick increase in worth as the prices for paperbacks jumped from $1 to $7 over the past half century? Wait, even better, if worth is based on price, Sarah Palin's Going Rogue must be an instant classic! That one costs $28.99 new! That's far more than Moby Dick has ever cost! There are better uses for the Kindle than Moby Dick regardless.

The enormous revenues once produced for publishing houses by writers like Stephen King and Tom Clancy used to subsidize the much greater number of less-famous writers whose books don't necessarily make money but which were, once upon a time, worth writing and worth reading.

Actually, that's no longer necessary. With services like Breadpig, anyone can get published. No doubt Mr. Souder would find it horrifying that I'm comparing Randall Munroe's stick figures to whatever obscure author he had in mind while writing that sentence, but my point stands. You no longer need to submit your work to the editors at Random House to get published. Which is fine, since nobody reads the slush pile anymore anyway.

One hallmark of the literate mind is a rich vocabulary. Smart people look up words.

Ok, so he's advocating writing like "a literature professor with a big ole stick up his butt," to paraphrase West Wing. I'm not sure why I should strive to make my writing incomprehensible to the public, but continue.

Here's one worth knowing that may have occurred to you if you've read this far: Luddite.

[...]More recently the term is applied to anybody not totally down with new electronic media and all that they imply.

[...]The question before us is whether texting and tweeting and e-mailing and turning books into ephemeral electronic pages still leaves us with the written word.

I have my doubts.

Well, at least he admits it. Sort of. His is just one example of a cacophony of voices lamenting the rise of the internet and blogosphere. I'll join a different cacophony, the one calling for a moratorium on cranky old writers complaining about the internet. Leave us alone, and go back to your ever dwindling circle of self-congratulatory writers and your indescribably boring 10,000 word essays in paper publications that lose money.

Worthless political media

George Packer has a pretty funny piece about the weird way politics are covered:

Imagine Karzai’s recent inaugural address as covered by a Washington journalist:

“Speaking at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr. Karzai showed himself to be at the top of his game. He skillfully co-opted his Pashtun base while making a powerful appeal to the technocrats who have lately been disappointed in him, and at the same time he reassured the Afghan public that his patience with civilian casualties is wearing thin. A palace insider, who asked for anonymity in order to be able to speak candidly, said, ‘If Karzai can continue to signal the West that he is concerned about corruption without alienating his warlord allies, he will likely be able to defuse the perception of a weak leader and regain his image as a unifying figure who can play the role of both modernizer and nationalist.’ Still, the palace insider acknowledged, tensions remain within Mr. Karzai’s own inner circle.

Funny because it's true.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tim Pawlenty's health care ideas

Tim Pawlenty, who is not running for president, had an Op-Ed in Sunday's WaPo with "five common-sense ways to tackle runaway health-care costs". First, I'm growing sick of "common sense" being a political buzzword. Much of policy is not common sense. It's complicated. That's why we elect people, who then have big staffs, so they can figure it out for us. Second, Pawlenty is certainly not doing this to raise the profile of his policy chops in preparation for a presidential run. Let's tackle his five ideas one at a time:

(1) Incentivize patients to be smart consumers

Good idea. In fact, there are provisions in the current bill to make insurance more transparent, as well as doing research into what treatments work best. Currently most doctors get this information from...the companies that developed the treatments/drugs/technology. Unfortunately, comparative effectiveness research has been vilified by the GOP as rationing, or the evil government telling you treatments you can and can't have.

(2) Pay for performance

Great idea, and to be honest, the current bill doesn't do enough in this regard. It would meet stiff resistance from hospitals, I would think. Of course, if this were to be proposed by a Democratic congress or President Obama, I have no doubt that it would be portrayed as a massive government intervention in the market. It remains a good idea, and I would love to see Democrats put more emphasis on reform of providers. Mayo Clinic has a salary/performance-based pay system for its doctors and it provides a very good standard of care.

(3) Liability reform

Of course, tort reform. There is some effort to address this in the current bill. Not a lot, but wonks agree that tort reform would only work around the edges, as far as cost control goes. Also, we should work to eliminate the mistakes that cause these lawsuits. In 2000, over 100,000 people died due to infections acquired in hospitals. This is unacceptable. Some hospitals have made huge strides in fighting this with very simple reforms. Providing incentives for improving that number would likely help far more than capping the amount of damages that can be awarded in a malpractice suit.(In this case, I think penalties for bad infection rates could be very effective, and hospitals would work hard to improve if it is losing them money.)

(4) Interstate health-care insurance

The House health-care bill provides for national exchanges on which non-profit insurance plans can be offered nationwide. These plans would, of course, be regulated by the government, which is anathema to the right. The exchanges would provide competition, which is the nominal reason for this demand. However, they wouldn't allow health insurance to turn into credit card companies. Credit card companies have migrated to the states with the least stringent regulations, since their cards can be used anywhere. I'm not sure that's a good idea with credit card companies, and health insurance is unregulated enough as-is. Pawlenty touts his (and my) state's great health insurance laws. Well, I doubt insurance companies would be flocking to a state that limits the overhead and profits that a company can run, as Minnesota does.

(5) Modernize health insurance

This is kind of a catch-all for Pawlenty. He talks vaguely about disconnecting health insurance from employers, which is a great idea, but which would, necessarily, mean the end of the tax exemption of health insurance premiums through employers. He also talks, of course, about eliminating discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. As I have noted previously, this only works in combination with an individual mandate and subsidies for the poor. And it is most definitely necessary, and just as definitely part of the current bill. He also wants to expand the use of Health Savings Accounts. Most places I have worked offer these, and they are a decent plan for young, healthy people. Those people don't really need help right now anyway.

He also talks about improving the information technology used by hospitals, which was actually part of the stimulus, as well as the current health care bill. He says we should reform the tax code so that individual and group purchases are treated the same way. This means one of two things. Providing a tax credit for individual insurance or eliminating the tax exemption of employer-based insurance. The latter would be a better idea, as it distorts the market in its current form. It also (as part of our weird, employer-based system) hides the true cost of insurance from consumers. Over-consumption would be less of a problem if people realized how much insurance was costing them. Encouraging healthy life-styles is a good idea, and can actually be rolled into changing to a pay-for-performance model for doctors.

So, as you can see, he really does have some good ideas. So good, in fact, that they're already in the Democratic bill! This is another indication of just how centrist "Obamacare" is. It isn't some "Bolshevik plot," but rather a very conservative take on expansion of coverage and cost-controls. Universal single-payer would do a great job at controlling costs, but liberals shelved that dream in favor of this centrist plan. So what does Pawlenty have to say about that bill?

The health-care reforms proposed by the president and congressional Democrats are meeting stiff resistance because they would take America's health care in the wrong direction. Runaway costs are the underlying reason that so many citizens do not have access to health care and that our system needs reform. Rather than focus on cost-cutting reforms like the ones I described, Democrats focused solely on expanding access -- hoping that more mandates and government spending would somehow circumvent the fundamental issue of runaway costs.

As I demonstrated above, the Democratic plan includes just about everything he wants. And it also expands coverage to 30 million Americans who don't currently have health insurance. Is Pawlenty willing to come out and say that those 30 million Americans (and the millions more that will lose coverage in the coming years) are out of luck? That's not a moral response, and more importantly, it's bad policy. The people without insurance are less healthy, since they get no preventative care. Then when they do get sick, they wait until they absolutely have to see someone, and end up in the emergency room.

At that point, illnesses which could have been caught early and treated are far more serious. The cost of their care then gets dumped on the hospital when uninsured can't pay. The hospital then has to raise its rates on those who can pay in order to cover their costs, and insurance companies raise premiums. The uninsured are part of the problem. They're not just an inconvenient subsection of poor people. Covering them is part of the solution, not an impediment to it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

When state politics meet national politics

Tim Pawlenty gave his State of the State address today. Two related thoughts:

1) He's running for President. The parts I heard were full of bad jokes and anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric. Lots of talk about lowering the tax burden of Minnesota, not as much about our $1.2bn deficit. I'm surprised he didn't give the speech remotely from Nashua, NH or Des Moines, IA.

2) There is no way Minnesota is going to be able to deal with this budget shortfall. Obviously, all the states are having budget troubles as revenue drops in this recession. This is the reason the federal government needs to spend money to prop up demand and thereby get people working and buying stuff again. Counter-cyclical spending. Unfortunately, states can't run deficits the way the federal government can. This is why aid to the states was a big part of the stimulus. To deal with shortfalls in revenue, states had to make painful spending cuts. Unfortunately, this recession is bad enough that you're not going to be able to cut your way out. There just isn't enough fat in a state budget to cut. You end up cutting teacher salaries and laying off important city workers.

Well, then, it looks like you're going to need to raise your revenue inflow. But wait, T-Paw is running for president. He's running as a fiscal conservative (6 out of his 8 years as governor MN ran a deficit, which I think is the definition these days) and in current terms, that means that all taxes are bad, as is all government. He knows he'll get killed by his GOP primary opponents if he raises taxes. So he's going to go to the DFL-controlled state legislature and tell them to balance the budget with spending cuts, and don't raise taxes. They'll tell him he's an idiot, that you need to raise taxes. He'll veto any tax increase, they won't be able to find enough cuts, and T-Paw will probably resort to unallotments again.

Does this sound like good governance? No, but it's good politics for T-Paw. He can point to his fiscal conservative credentials in making painful cuts and never raising taxes. Unfortunately, the state of Minnesota will suffer.

EDIT: Heh, I'm sure he's on Hannity tonight to raise awareness of Minnesota issues, and not to raise his national profile.

EDIT2: Definitely not running for President.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Stop being scared.

Jon Stewart tells Newt Gingrich why we should try Khalid Sheik Muhammed and others in NYC:

Honestly, and I say this with all due respect. I lived through it. I live blocks from there. I would love to see them tried in a court there. I want him--I would like him to do it. I'll tell you the thing that upsets me more, is the fact that we haven't rebuilt the area. That upsets me more. And I would be happy and I would be proud of New Yorkers' ability to handle whatever inconvenience it is to show off our resilience, and our lack of fear in the face of these idiots. And I would be delighted. I would be--I would be delighted.

Amen, brother. This is the thing that gets me. Is there a better way to show the world how much better we are than these "idiots" than by showing them that we aren't scared? We will stick to the principles this country was founded on, and we will subject them to justice our way. We won't resort to their tactics of fear, torture, intimidation and total disregard for human rights or the Bill of Rights. This is America, we're not afraid of these extremists.

There's another exchange later where Gingrich says we shouldn't be treating them as common criminals but as our mortal enemies. Stewart again hits the nail on the head, saying that treating them as anything other than common criminals elevates them, gives them more stature than they deserve.

Jon Stewart is dead on. These terrorists don't deserve our fear. We must show that we ARE better than them. We can start by bringing Khalid Sheik Muhammed to a courtroom blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center and trying him, convicting him, and putting him in a Supermax prison for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

But can they govern?

Douthat thinks the GOP may win back congress, but they're not ready to govern yet:

Essentially, the combination of high unemployment and liberal overreach has afforded conservatives an unexpected chance to change the destiny that history seemed to have laid out for them — years if not decades in the wilderness, that is, followed by a slow and painful climb back to power in a fundamentally altered country. But if you want to change your destiny, you need to change yourself, with new ideas, better leadership, and a more realistic understanding of why you lost and what the times require of you. There have been glimmers of this kind of change in the G.O.P. But for a party that might actually have some political power at this time next year, and the responsibilities that come with it, glimmers aren’t going to be enough.

This is the problem. I can understand the electorate's disgust for the state of affairs in Washington right now. It's ugly, and the ugliest parts are the ones most often reported. But what I don't get is how you can possibly want to put the GOP back in charge? Are our memories really that bad?

Perhaps if this was a party with legitimate differences of opinion and a solid plan of their own to deal with the problems we're facing, it would be understandable. But they're not. They've shown themselves to have no real policy positions other than "the opposite of what Obama wants." This is a party that drove us deep into debt and got us mired in two unwinnable wars. Those positions haven't changed. Now the party wants to bomb Iran, fix the deficits by cutting taxes, and reform health care by making seniors unable to pay for it.

The Democrats may well deserve to be voted out of power. That doesn't make the GOP the right choice as an alternative.

The Failure of the Media

It's not a new phenomenon. In a Calvin and Hobbes strip from ~15 years ago, Calvin and Hobbes have the following exchange:

C: I like following the news! News organizations know I won't sit still for any serious discussion of complex and boring issues.

C: They give me what I want: antics, emotional confrontation, sound bites, scandal, sob stories and popularity polls all packaged as a soap opera and horse race! It's very entertaining.

H: Then commentators wonder why the public is cynical about politics.

C: You can tell this is an in-depth story, because it's got an article next to the chart.

That last line is particularly hilarious if you've ever been unlucky enough to read USA Today. My point being:

1) Calvin and Hobbes is awesome.
2) The media has been letting the public down for a long long time.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cradle of Coaches (II)

The Star Tribune has a more detailed article on all the Miami U connections on the Saints staff. What can I say? We're just that good. Pay no attention to the fact that Sean Payton is wearing the wrong Miami gear in that photo.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Well, that's depressing.

Harry Reid is as mad as hell

And he's not gonna take it anymore!

Or at least, he's going to complain about it.

Rahmbo?

Recently, rumors have been swirling that Rahm Emanuel has been pushing the "pare it down" option for health care reform: take the popular bits and pass them. I've pointed out why this is a bad idea previously.

For all the talk about "Rahmbo" and his hardball style, it seems to me that he is often the first person to compromise his principles in favor of getting something--anything--done. He is famously quoted in the NYT as saying "The goal isn’t to see whether I can pass this through the executive board of the Brookings Institution. I’m passing it through the United States Congress with people who represent constituents." Now, I understand that political constraints exist, and in this era of the constant filibuster requirement, they're even tougher. But this is a guy whose nickname is Rahmbo, who sent a dead fish to an enemy, who has a nameplate in his office that reads “Undersecretary for Go Fuck Yourself.” I would expect him to do more to knock heads together and force the Dems that he got elected in 2006 to vote for the President's top priorities.

The 2006 elections are another case in point. This is where his willingness to compromise arguably worked well for the Democrats. By running conservative, often pro-life, candidates in reddish districts, he was able to win historic majorities for the Dems. Even that wasn't an unqualified success. There have been mixed results from those Dems. Some (like now GOP Rep Parker Griffith) voted against all the major legislation: stimulus, health care, and cap-and-trade. Some have taken very politically risky votes, supporting Obama's efforts from very red districts. Overall, I would say it was a success.

In my opinion, that same strategy doesn't necessarily apply when working on policy. Obama would be better served by a Chief of Staff that is more willing to stand his ground on policy, and work hard to get those freaked-out Democrats to stand on principle and vote for the better policy, instead of just capitulating to the most conservative members of the Dem caucus. Rahm got them elected, he should make it clear that they were elected to govern, not cover their asses.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I think I might vomit

TPM is reporting that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) is putting a blanket hold on ALL executive nominations. The reason? He wants tens of billions of dollars in defense earmarks for his state, and he's pissed that he's not getting them. I'm disgusted, but not surprised. And that's the worst part. At some point, these politicians should be held accountable for their reckless and feckless behavior. But they probably won't.

EDIT: I didn't catch this on the first run-through, but Matt Yglesias pointed out on Twitter that the company Shelby is trying to get money for is Northrop/EADS. EADS may not be a familiar name, but it is the parent company of Airbus. Yes, Shelby is screwing with the governance of the country... because he wants tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer money to go to a massive European corporation. I don't really go for pointless "BUY AMERICAN!" or protectionism, but isn't this a little silly?

EDIT #2: Yglesias, a man after my own heart, even uses my preferred adjective in his blog post on this charlie-foxtrot. Parochial!

Am I a conservative?

Sullivan's ideal take on lowering the deficit is quite enticing:

Given my druthers, I'd means-test Medicare and social security and cut defense much more deeply than seems faintly possible given the grip of what that great conservative president, Dwight Eisenhower, called the "military-industrial complex." I'd also bring an ax to the corporate welfare that makes a mockery of capitalism, and aim for a VAT to increase revenues. My belief is that Medicare is far too generous to prosperous boomer retirees, while the healthcare system is far too cruel to the working poor

Well overdue

The US Postal Service will issue a stamp this year featuring Calvin and Hobbes. You may have noticed that my (physical) reading list includes a book about Calvin and Hobbes and its creator, Bill Watterson. I grew up on Calvin and Hobbes, and own several many of the collections of the strip. Watterson recently gave his first interview in years. In the corresponding article, the journalist says:

For many newspaper readers, flipping back to what used to be called the funny pages is bittersweet. It's dependable amusement, yes, with Funky and Garfield and Beetle, but it's also a daily reminder that someone's missing.

As my brother can attest, when I'm sitting around watching football on a Sunday, I always pull out the funnies from his Sunday Star Tribune, and invariably complain about the lack of... funny. What I'm really saying is "There's no Calvin and Hobbes..."

It says something about the quality of the strip that it is as engaging a read at 24 as it was when I eagerly opened the paper to read a new strip at age 8. It's too bad Watterson stopped writing so soon after he started.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cradle of Coaches

Jeff Dickerson points out that Sean Payton worked on Randy Walker's staff at Miami University, and also has other coaches on his staff with MU ties. Chalk up another successful coach from the Cradle!

Just for fun, here's Minority Leader Boehner saying nice things about Miami (probably the bluest part of his district):

A vision of the future

The inability of our politicians to seriously look at ways to reduce the debt (non-security discretionary spending freeze? really?) has brought us to the point where nobody wants to raise taxes or look at entitlements. So what happens as revenues fall or stagnate, entitlement and defense spending continue to rise, and drastic spending cuts become necessary? Handily, there's a small-scale model happening right now in Colorado Springs. Seems unpleasant:

More than a third of the streetlights in Colorado Springs will go dark Monday. The police helicopters are for sale on the Internet. The city is dumping firefighting jobs, a vice team, burglary investigators, beat cops — dozens of police and fire positions will go unfilled.

The parks department removed trash cans last week, replacing them with signs urging users to pack out their own litter.

...

City recreation centers, indoor and outdoor pools, and a handful of museums will close for good March 31 unless they find private funding to stay open. Buses no longer run on evenings and weekends. The city won't pay for any street paving, relying instead on a regional authority that can meet only about 10 percent of the need.

Sounds like fun, right? Maybe someday we'll have an adult conversation about taxes, defense, and entitlements in this country.

Do your jobs.

Sullivan wants journalists to do their jobs, as well (emphasis in original):

In my view, every single Republican who appears on cable or radio and who complains about the debt and rules out any tax hikes should be directly and specifically asked every single time what they propose to cut. Specifically. Every single time. Equally, every single Democrat who says they want to tackle the debt needs to be asked every single time which taxes they propose raising. Specifically. Every single time. If the journalist looks like an asshole, get over it. It is our job to look like assholes. We are professional assholes. We get paid to be rude. In order to expose the truth.

Amen, brother.

Fruit of the Boom

AG Eric Holder sent a letter to Senate Minority Leader McConnell today, blasting him for his opposition to civilian trials for the Captain Underpants. It includes the following line, demonstrating just how ridiculous the GOP is being:

Some have argued that had Abdulmutallab been declared an enemy combatant, the government could have held him indefinitely without providing him access to an attorney. But the government's legal authority to do so is far from clear. In fact, when the Bush administration attempted to deny Jose Padilla access to an attorney, a federal judge in New York rejected that position, ruling that Padilla must be allowed to meet with his lawyer. Notably, the judge in that case was Michael Mukasey, my predecessor as Attorney General. In fact, there is no court-approved system currently in place in which suspected terrorists captured inside the United States can be detained and held without access to an attorney; nor is there any known mechanism to persuade an uncooperative individual to talk to the government that has been proven more effective than the criminal justice system.

Game. Set. Match.

Will McConnell tone it down? I doubt it.

DiA vs Kristol

Democracy in America (or, rather, the Economist writer by the initials R.M. who contributes to that blog) offers a brutal take-down of William Kristol's pro-DADT column. Well worth reading. To his credit, Kristol has scaled back from advocating disastrous wars. Now he's just advocating bigotry. Progress!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Republicans vs The Military

That's the name of an article by Steve Benen. He points out that since taking office, Obama has sided with the military establishment (Petraeus, Mullen, Powell, etc) on every issue, from Gitmo to Afghanistan to the F-22 to Don't Ask, Don't Tell. On every issue he has been roundly criticized by the right for his views.

Benen wants to know why this isn't a bigger deal? I have to think that if the situation were reversed, Democrats would be eviscerated for trying to hold a position not shared by the military brass. Why is the GOP getting a free pass? Is it time to poke some holes in that time-honored meme of the GOP being the party of the military? As far as I can tell, the GOP is far more interested in protecting military contractors and the military-industrial complex than actually protecting our troops. (That's not to exempt some in the Democratic party who do the same. You all know I despise the Democratic congress only slightly less than the Republican congress.)

Maybe the clear distinction made today in the Don't Ask, Don't Tell hearings will get somebody talking about this. I can't find a transcript of today's hearings yet, but several Republican Senators made statements along the lines of "I disagree with Sec. Gates and Adm. Mullen, and so I am glad it takes an act of congress, and this policy cannot be ended by fiat."

(HT on the Benen article goes to Sullivan)

Ideas (and the exchange thereof)

Ezra Klein interviewed Paul Ryan about his budget plan. These two wonks get into a pretty good discussion of how to fix health care.

It is pretty interesting, and Ryan actually acknowledges the problem that is health care costs. His solution, in my mind, relies way too much on the invisible hand of the markets. Health care is not a TV, as Klein points out. I think it is also telling that when asked what he dislikes about the current bill under consideration, he's not really able to name specifics, other than a general dislike of big government. His complaint about exchanges makes little sense to me. The whole point of the exchanges was to promote competition and transparency, be it within states or across state lines (which sounds like a GOP talking point), so I don't understand the objection.

Interesting exchange (no pun intended), nonetheless.

Ideas

The GOP has one! Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) knows how to reform health care and balance the budget by 2080. Allow DiA to explain:

Mr Ryan has put forward a serious proposal for shrinking medical-cost inflation and hence shrinking the long-term federal budget deficit. It does so by ending America's provision of first-rate health care to all seniors. Rich seniors will still be able to afford high-quality medical care. Poor seniors won't. They will suffer more and die younger.

Kudos for the intestinal fortitude to stick it to seniors like that. Then again, there's this:

First of all, if you hit 65 before 2021, you still get Medicare, with all of its current perks. You're grandfathered in. So if you're 54 or over right now, his bill is a great deal for you: you get caviar, and everybody younger than you has to pay for it.

We go from paying for things by piling debt on our children... to just gutting the benefits those children will get, while they still have to pay for their grandparents' single-payer health care. But at least this doesn't piss off the current members of AARP. Is there an alternative?

A different approach to solving America's health-care cost problem might involve letting Medicare use its vast bargaining power to negotiate lower rates with the providers of pharmaceuticals; establishing a commission of experts (MedPAC) to rate the effectiveness of medical procedures, to avoid wasteful incentives in the current fee-for-services medical model; and establishing bundled payments for disease management, to achieve Mayo-Clinic-like efficiencies in care while improving quality. Those are the models proposed in the Democratic bills currently in Congress.

Ah yes. That.

(And yes, the benefits aren't gone entirely under Ryan's plan. But they're deliberately indexed to NOT keep up with health care inflation. It amounts to the same thing.)