Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 31, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

OUTSOURCING MEDICARE?....Here's the latest in outsourcing: get your heart bypass operation done in India for a fraction of the cost of having it done in Europe or America.

A study by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), and McKinsey consultants estimated "medical tourism" could be worth 100bn rupees (1.21bn) by 2012. Last year some 150,000 foreigners visited India for treatment, with the number rising by 15% a year, says Zakariah Ahmed, an analyst who helped compile the report.

....A number of private hospitals also offer packages designed to attract wealthy foreign patients, with airport-to-hospital bed car service, in-room internet access and private chefs. Another trend is to combine surgery in India with a yoga holiday or trip to the Taj Mahal.

According to the figures in the article, a heart bypass in America costs about $25,000 compared to $8,000 in India. Even with roundtrip airfare added on you can save a bundle.

Kevin Drum 11:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DELINEATING DISSENT....Andrew Sullivan is right to point with dismay to the final paragraph of Fred Barnes's recent diatribe in the Weekly Standard:

Senate Democrats have enough votes to block major Bush initiatives like Social Security reform and to reject Bush appointees, including Supreme Court nominees. They may be suicidal, but they could undermine the president's entire second term agenda. At his news conference last week, Bush reacted calmly to their vitriolic attacks, suggesting only a few Democrats are involved. Stronger countermeasures will be needed, including an unequivocal White House response to obstructionism, curbs on filibusters, and a clear delineation of what's permissible and what's out of bounds in dissent on Iraq.

Say what? The White House should tell us what kind of dissent on Iraq is permissible and what isn't? Is that really how these guys think?

As for curbs on filibusters, it's worth noting that Barnes is skating very lightly indeed over the story of why Democrats have been forced to filibuster a few of Bush's judicial nominees. I explain in more detail in the Washington Post today.

Kevin Drum 7:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LESSONS OF HISTORY?....Tom Cleaver of Redress Press sends along this clip from the New York Times. The date is September 3, 1967:

U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote
Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror

by Peter Grose, Special to the New York Times

WASHINGTON, Sept. 3-- United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam's presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.

According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong.

....A successful election has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson's policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South Vietnam. The election was the culmination of a constitutional development that began in January, 1966, to which President Johnson gave his personal commitment when he met Premier Ky and General Thieu, the chief of state, in Honolulu in February.

The purpose of the voting was to give legitimacy to the Saigon Government, which has been founded only on coups and power plays since November, 1963, when President Ngo Dinh Deim was overthrown by a military junta.

I know, I know, this doesn't mean Iraq is Vietnam. But you have to admit, this story is pretty spooky.

Kevin Drum 1:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

AND NOW, THE WEATHER....Here's something a little off the beaten path: an interview at CJR with Anthony Wood of the Philadelphia Inquirer about news coverage of the weather. He's not very happy with it:

We need to keep weather in its place. The over-emphasis on weather is as irresponsible as an over-emphasis on crime news. It can leave viewers and readers with a distorted view of the world in which they live and we are paying for it. You couldn't blame the benumbed public these days for thinking the universe has blown a circuit.

Ah, but just think what William Randolph Hearst could have done with the weather if only he'd had today's technology to work with....

Kevin Drum 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE MOOSE ON IRAQ....Marshall Wittman on the Iraqi elections:

We should not fall victim to either sour pessimism or irrational exuberance.

That's exactly right. It's not clear that the fundamental ground rules of the insurgency have been changed much by the election, but at the same time, the immediate success of the election itself is good news no matter what.

The rest of his post is right on target too.

Kevin Drum 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SELF-CORRECTING BLOGOSPHERE....Atrios is right to mock the pretensions of right-wing blowhards who loudly insist that the blogosphere is superior to old media because it's "self correcting." Their notion that someone else pointing out your errors counts as "self correction" is risible. By that standard, everything in the world is self correcting.

What makes this all the more mock-worthy is the longtime aversion of conservative bloggers to comment hosting, which is the only genuine self-correction mechanism in the blogosphere. Yes, my comment section might be full of trolls and their vitriol, but anyone who has a factual disagreement with what I write has a forum to point it out in the same place as the post itself.

But take a look at the Ecosystem. As I write this, the top ten conservative blogs are Instapundit, Powerline, LGF, Malkin, Captain's Quarters, Sullivan, Hewitt, Volokh, Wizbang, and The Corner. Of those, only three have comments, and the LGF folks do everything in their power to keep anyone outside their own sycophantic fan base from contributing.

There aren't enough liberals in the top 30 to even make a top ten , but the top six are Kos, Marshall, Atrios, Washington Monthly, Crooked Timber, and Yglesias. All but one host comments and if we could just get Josh off his butt we could make it a clean sweep.

The most laughable member of the conservative blowhard group, of course, is my very own fellow Irvinite, Hugh Hewitt. The man just wrote an entire book about the glories of the fast acting, self-correcting, interactive blogosphere, but his own blog has no comments. I'm not sure what he's afraid of, but apparently "interactive" and "self correcting" aren't really at the top of his list of virtues.

Tight message control has always been a key characteristic of conservative politics. It's emerged as a key characteristic of the conservative blogosphere too.

Kevin Drum 12:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SHARON-ABBAS COOPERATION....I hate to blog about the possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinians for an obvious reason: good news never lasts long. Still, the recent openings between Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, are genuinely encouraging. The latest news is that Sharon has agreed to withdraw Israeli forces from several West Bank cities in return for Abbas's success so far in reducing violence in the Gaza Strip.

As usual, there's no way of knowing how well this cooperation will hold up until after the next suicide bombing and there's bound to be one, after all. Still, it's hopeful news.

Kevin Drum 1:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 30, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DNC CHAIR UPDATE....Apparently the conventional wisdom has Howard Dean ahead in the race to become DNC chair, followed by former Texas congressman Martin Frost. The Boston Globe has a good rundown on the race today.

However, the state party chairs met today and Time reports that they decided to endorse Donnie Fowler. I'm not sure how valuable their endorsement actually is, but it's definitely a disappointment for Dean, who seems to be battling against the entire rest of the field. As near as I can tell, the anti-Dean forces think that as long as they can keep him from winning on the first ballot he's toast.

Stay tuned. Votes are cast on February 12.

Kevin Drum 9:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CANDIDE INVADES THE BLOGOSPHERE....I know, I know, I really need to ignore the wingnuts. It's better for my blood pressure.

But honestly, I just can't help myself sometimes. Instapundit links approvingly today to this post from Ann Althouse complaining seriously that the New York Times has changed one of the headlines on its website. Can you believe it!?! What's more, the new headline isn't as positive as the old headline. Bad New York Times! Biased New York Times!

Listen up, folks: the Times, like every other major newspaper, has a separate desk that handles its website. They don't publish one issue a day, either: they update the site continuously. New stories get added, old stories get modified, headlines change, etc. That might be annoying to bloggers, but until a story is committed to print it's subject to change. That's how the web works.

The screenshot on the right shows the collection of Times headlines as of 8 pm on Sunday. There are eight headlines about Iraq, seven of which are heavily positive and one of which is about the the number of people killed by insurgents. The only way the Times' coverage could be more positive would be to ignore the insurgent attacks altogether.

Which, I have a feeling, is what our conservative friends really want. No bad news, period, regardless of whether anything bad has actually happened. It's a brave, new, best-of-all-possible-worlds out there, folks.

Kevin Drum 8:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQI ELECTION BREAKDOWN....I just finished skimming through a bunch of reports on the Iraqi elections, and the current consensus seems to be that overall turnout was about 60% which is pretty good. Turnout appears to have been very high in Shiite and Kurdish areas and very low in Sunni areas.

But how high and how low? Here's my rough guess:

  • Shiite turnout: 70%

  • Kurdish turnout: 70%

  • Sunni turnout: 20%

(Based on an ethnic/religious makeup of 60% Shiite, 20% Kurd, and 20% Sunni, this adds up to a total turnout of 60%.)

If this is indeed how the turnout breaks down, and assuming that everyone votes for their own people, here's how the constitutional assembly will look:

  • Shiites: 70%

  • Kurds: 23%

  • Sunnis: 7%

I don't really have anything very compelling to say about this. I was just curious to see how the numbers were likely to break out and how marginalized the Sunnis would end up being. Obviously the answer is "pretty damn marginalized," but beyond that it's hard to say if it matters. The election is good news, but it's still security that's the real issue. It seems unlikely that anything has changed much on that score.

Kevin Drum 5:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PARTISAN MR. BUSH....I continue to dither about what exactly it is that motivates George Bush, but there's at least one thing that's always seemed clear to me: he is the most unfailingly partisan president we've had in a long time. It's genuinely hard to figure out a political philosophy that ties together tax cuts, Medicare expansion, war in Iraq, immigration reform, Mars missions, Social Security privatization, and vastly increased domestic spending, but even if ideological coherency sometimes takes a backseat in Bush's world, partisan advantage is always front and center.

Thomas Edsall and John Harris do a good job of deconstructing this in the Washington Post today. It's worth reading.

Kevin Drum 4:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB....Kieran Healy tries to use Google and only Google to calculate how many Olympic-sized pools it would take to hold all the blood in the world.

Big deal. Sure, he gets his answer (1,100 OSPs), but it would be more impressive if he'd done it using only his cell phone. I just got a new cell phone myself, and given its vast array of non-phone-related features I'll bet I could do it. If Kieran still needs to use Google for a task like this, maybe what it really means is that he needs a new phone?

Kevin Drum 3:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SELLING PRIVATIZATION....How long have conservatives been working to prepare the ground for Social Security privatization? For over two decades, reports Janet Hook in the LA Times today:

"It could be many years before the conditions are such that a radical reform of Social Security is possible," wrote Stuart Butler and Peter Germanis, Heritage Foundation analysts, in a 1983 article in the Cato Journal. "But then, as Lenin well knew, to be a successful revolutionary, one must also be patient and consistently plan for real reform."

The Cato article Hook is referring to isn't actually as sinister as the Lenin reference makes it sound (you can read it here), but it is fascinating. It basically lays out a long-term strategy for moving public opinion, and the conservative message machine has followed that strategy for 20 years through thick and thin:

"It started as the third rail of politics, but over a period of time conservatives kept at it until [their assumptions] began to sound like common sense," said George Lakoff, an expert in political communication at UC Berkeley.

Public opinion is the key to political change, and changing public opinion takes a long time. This piece is a wonderful little primer on how it's done.

Kevin Drum 2:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

INSIDE THE NFL....I don't live in Los Angeles, but I live close enough that I can take some civic pride in perhaps the finest show of municipal stubbornness on offer in the nation today: LA's decade-long refusal to spend one thin dime of public money on begging an NFL team to take up residence here.

With that in mind, Scott Gold has a fascinating piece in the LA Times today suggesting that the NFL actually likes this situation just fine. Why? Because with LA looming in the background, teams in other parts of the country have an easier time extorting concessions out of their cities by threatening to move if they don't get what they want. Gold suggests this has been the case in New Orleans, Seattle, Phoenix, and Indianapolis, and while sometimes the LA card is kept in the background, sometimes it's not:

[Indianapolis Colt owner Jim] Irsay's flirtation with Los Angeles was not subtle; at one point he applied for membership at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades.

So how long can other NFL clubs keep pulling this Godfather act? Gold says probably not for much longer:

The irony, said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist and a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, is that in the end, the NFL probably won't let any of the franchises that have threatened to move actually do it. Zimbalist thinks it more likely that the NFL will add a new team.

Many analysts say the strategy of using Los Angeles for leverage is about to run its course just as communities and government officials are getting wise.

It is virtually certain that no public money, at least in the form of general funds, will go toward building a stadium or renovating an existing one in Los Angeles.

The rest of the nation will then realize that stadium projects can be completed with private money alone, said David Carter, an L.A. sports consultant who has been keenly involved in the effort to get an NFL team back in Southern California.

If that had been clear 10 years ago, team owners would have had no leverage because taxpayers would have called their bluff, Carter said. Instead, he said, "If Southern California goes last, the NFL gets the best of both worlds."

The amount of taxpayer money that the NFL has suckered out of gullible working class sports fans for stadium deals that mostly benefit the ultra-rich is probably enough to save Social Security for the next century. But hey don't let it bother you too much. After all, it's not personal, it's just business. Capiche?

Kevin Drum 2:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SPECIAL LA TIMES BASHING EDITION....For the past couple of weeks the LA Times has been running an "experimental" Sunday column in which they allow their critics to savage them in print. So far this experiment hasn't gone so well: Mickey Kaus wants a gossip column and Hugh Hewitt demands a firmer adherence to the Republican party line in reports about Iraq. Yawn.

Today's column isn't bad, though: Marc Cooper complains that the conventions of journalistic objectivity produce bland, hard-to-fathom copy:

As thorough as The Times' reporting has been, it often reads as if written by acrobats in pain skilled professionals twisting themselves and their copy into knots as they strain to "balance" what they are actually seeing with the sometimes fantasy-based spin of both Iraqi and U.S. officialdom.

....Among the many Times dispatches from Iraq this past month, there was one tasty first-person report that boldly stood out from the lot....The Times should have the courage to run more of these first-person pieces full of personal observation, analysis and interpretation from a staff of reporters more than able to provide them. I suspect the resulting product would be contradictory different reporters seeing different realities. So what?

I agree. Unfortunately, since this criticism applies to all of American journalism, not just the LA Times, I'm still not convinced this experimental column is working.

This is especially true since the professional LA Times critics are put to shame today by its letter writers, who, like me, are wondering why the Sunday editorial section has seemingly decided that its target audience is fourth graders. Here are today's letters to the editor:

Charles W. Froehlich Jr. of San Diego: "In the Jan. 23 edition, I count almost one-third of the section constituted of cartoons."

Pauline Regev of Santa Monica: "Why not add the horoscopes, Dear Abby and a recipe or two to the newly formatted Sunday Opinion. Together with comics, the inane columns of Joel Stein and Michael Lewis, cutesy quizzes and illustrated sound bites, the dumbing down of what was once the most insightful section of your newspaper will then be complete."

Norman M. Lobsenz of Redondo Beach: "Can someone explain why The Times published Michael Lewis' "Domestic Drama" column (Jan. 23)?....I could not, for once, contain my irritation at the amount of useless stuff you publish while cutting out other stuff to save newsprint."

Um, yeah. I guess I'm just one of those old-fashioned fuddy duddies, but I kinda think the editorial section should mostly contain trenchant, hard hitting opinion on the big subjects of the day. For the past two weeks, though, the entire front page of the Sunday editorial section has been taken up by a gigantic cartoon. This might be worthwhile if the cartoons were actually funny and thought provoking, but take a look at this week's effort. WTF?

The Sunday editorial section is four pages longer than the usual daily section. In today's extra four pages, there are a grand total of three three! actual op-eds. The rest is cartoons, experimental columns, and cutesy little primers and anecdotes.

Like a TV series cancelled after the first show, it's time for this disaster to be put out of its misery. Surely the world contains enough bright, engaging writers with genuine opinions to fill up a serious op-ed section? And if there aren't, why not just turn it over to Jon Stewart and Bill Maher and be done with it?

Kevin Drum 1:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ELECTIONS IN IRAQ....The voting in Iraq seems to have gone pretty well. As expected, there were some attacks, but not many more than on a normal day. Also as expected, turnout was high among Kurds and Shiites, but lower in Sunni areas.

So how is the press treating it? I'm watching CNN right now and they seem pretty enthusiastic. The New York Times says there was a "party atmosphere" on the streets of Baghdad. The Washington Post reports that the election "yielded higher turnout than expected and less violence than feared." The LA Times observes that election day attacks "failed to create the turmoil that some feared."

That seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it? The war zealots in the blogosphere seemed to spend most of the runup to the election desperately trying to preempt potential bad news, but guess what? It turns out the press reports whatever's going on, both good and bad. Go figure.

UPDATE: I've now watched about an hour of CNN's coverage, and they're just gushing. But I thought the MSM hated freedom?

UPDATE 2: On the other hand, commenter Canucklehead notes that turnout is way down from Saddam's 99%. I have a feeling there's practically no one left in the blogosphere who retains a sense of humor about this, but I thought it was funny.....

Kevin Drum 11:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 29, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ UPDATE....According to CNN, voting in Iraq is going OK so far. Of course, polls have only been open for half an hour so far. Keep your fingers crossed.

Kevin Drum 11:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE LATEST FROM THE GOP....Mark Schmitt has the latest in Orwellian language control from Republicans, this one courtesy of Minnesota's governor. You really have to wonder about these guys sometimes. It's almost like they're required to do something outrageous just to prove their Republican bona fides these days, sort of the way aspiring mafia thugs are required to kill someone to become made guys or something. Or maybe it's a competition of some kind.

Or maybe they've just lost their humanity entirely. Hard to say.

Kevin Drum 11:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WEEKEND MOVIE REVIEW....Just thought I'd mention that I saw The Merchant of Venice last week and it was pretty good. I'm not really a big Shakespeare fan, but I've always liked MoV and this production was a nice one, both well paced and well staged. Al Pacino's phrasing of Shylock's lines was odd in a way I can't quite put my finger on certainly non-Shakespearean, in any case but it was also compelling and distinctive. Recommended.

(Just so you won't be inadvertantly disappointed, though, I should make clear that I have generally plebeian taste in almost everything, including Shakespeare movies. My favorite recent productions were Mel Gibson's Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing. If you think this shows appalling judgment, you should ignore my MoV recommendation as well.)

Let's see, what else have I seen recently? Sideways was OK, though I don't really understand either the wild praise or the heated abuse it seems to inspire in so many people. Coach Carter was predictable but watchable barely. Phantom of the Opera was disappointing, even though I like the musical.

That's it. I guess the Best Picture nominees are next on my list, along with Hotel Rwanda and a few others. What else is out there that I should be sure to see?

Kevin Drum 2:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WORK READINESS....New York State already requires high school students to pass a stringent battery of tests in order to earn a diploma, but apparently the business community remains unhappy with the skill level of graduating students. They want the state to award a "work readiness" credential to students who pass a new and different kind of test test:

The test would cover so-called soft skills in 10 broad areas, including the ability to communicate, follow directions, negotiate and make basic decisions. It will be tried out in pilot programs this spring and could be ready as early as the fall, officials said. The test, given by computer, would include one section on speaking skills, with oral answers to be recorded and then analyzed by examiners.

I've got nothing against testing for these abilities, but I have a different idea. The business community, as you may have heard, is our foremost booster of private enterprise. So why do they expect the taxpayers to subsidize a skills screening test for their prospective employees? Does the state pay for their drug screening?

Instead, how about if private testing firms create their own "work readiness" credentials? Competition would quickly separate the wheat from the chaff, and different firms would likely specialize in skills testing for different kinds of jobs. Employers would choose their preferred firms and preferred testing regimens and would pay to have their prospective new hires tested. Those who don't feel that this kind of testing is worth the extra cost would just rely on a diploma and a job interview, like they do now.

I can think of a few regulatory issues this might inspire, but nothing very onerous and nothing unsolvable. So why is the state involved in this at all? If the free market hasn't created a demand for this on its own, maybe it's not something the taxpayers should get too excited about either.

Kevin Drum 12:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 28, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

AMEN, BROTHER....What Max said.

Kevin Drum 11:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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A BIGGER MILITARY?....A bipartisan (but hawkish) group called on Congress today to increase the size of the armed forces:

While estimates vary about just how large an increase is required, and Congress will make its own determination as to size and structure, it is our judgment that we should aim for an increase in the active duty Army and Marine Corps, together, of at least 25,000 troops each year over the next several years....After almost two years in Iraq and almost three years in Afghanistan, it should be evident that our engagement in the greater Middle East is truly, in Condoleezza Rice's term, a "generational commitment." The only way to fulfill the military aspect of this commitment is by increasing the size of the force available to our civilian leadership.

What does this mean? Here's some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic:

Assuming that "several years" means at least three or four years, these guys are suggesting an increase of around 100,000 troops. This is roughly eight divisions.

A couple of years ago the CBO issued a report that estimated the cost of a new division at about $10 billion up front and then $5 billion per year to maintain and deploy. Eight divisions, then, would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 billion per year for the next few years and $40 billion to maintain after that. This amounts to a permanent increase in the defense budget of about 10%.

Should we do this? I have my doubts about an increase of this magnitude, although I think a smaller increase is pretty well justified. But regardless of my own view, which is open to change in either direction, this is a debate I'd really, really like to see us have. It gets straight to the heart of a question that our political leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, have been tap dancing around ever since 9/11: what are our future military plans in the war on terror?

George Bush does indeed talk about this being a task of generations, but he has consistently refused to risk public opinion by proposing the kind of military that this kind of commitment obviously requires. After all, that might scare off some of his supporters who think this is just happy talk. For his part, John Kerry did support an increase of 40,000 troops during the campaign and congressional Democrats reiterated their support for that earlier this week. At the same time, though, they've never really said what they want to do with those extra troops.

No one should be allowed to posture endlessly about America's enduring commitment to freedom if they don't have the guts to say clearly whether this means a military commitment and troop strength is a concrete issue that requires everyone to put their cards on the table. Do you think the war on terror requires large number of American troops to be deployed overseas for long periods or don't you? Do you think we're likely to be involved in another Iraq sometime in the future or not?

This is far more important than trivia like "saving" Social Security, a program that's solvent for at least the next 40 years, or pandering to the Christian right over gay marriage and cartoon rabbits. It's a real issue, and it's one we ought to be dealing with now.

Kevin Drum 6:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FIVE EASY PIECES....For the past few days I've been wondering what's going to happen next in the Social Security battle. What I mean is this: it now looks pretty certain that George Bush's private account plan isn't going to fly. Democratic opposition is pretty firm and it increasingly looks like too many Republicans are backing away from private accounts for Bush to pull out a victory. So what's the backup plan?

I haven't blogged about this for two reasons. First, it seems a little like looking past this week's game to the big game coming up next. That's a big no-no in sports and, I imagine, a big no-no in politics too. Still, if you can't noodle aimlessly about stuff like this on a blog, where can you noodle aimlessly about it?

The second reason I haven't blogged about it is a little more serious: I don't really have any ideas. Working on the assumption that Bush and his advisors understand the political reality as well as anyone, I figure they know they probably can't win and have something else up their sleeves. But I don't know what.

But today I want to take a guess. A couple of weeks ago Jon Chait wrote a long and informative article in the New Republic about tax reform. Here's how he describes a Republican strategy called "Five Easy Pieces":

The Five Easy Pieces strategy postulates that the long-time conservative goal of a sweepingly radical tax overhaul, such as replacing the income tax with a flat tax or a national sales tax, runs too much political risk. Instead, [longtime tax lobbyist Ernest] Christian has argued, conservatives can achieve the same goal by doing five things: cutting marginal tax rates, eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends, allowing more generous treatment of business investment, doing away with the estate tax, and establishing tax-free personal savings accounts. The three major Bush tax cuts to date have achieved the first four pieces, partially or completely.

I wonder if the final phase of this strategy is behind Bush's Social Security posturing? Maybe the plan looks something like this:

  1. Bush proposes private accounts for Social Security.

  2. As expected, Democrats go to the mattresses in opposition. However, in an effort to demonstrate reasonableness they all agree almost in passing that of course they have nothing against encouraging savings, but that it should be done in addition to Social Security, not in place of it.

  3. After pretending to give it a good try, Bush counts noses, realizes he can't win, and reluctantly agrees to settle for tax-free private accounts on top of Social Security, just like the ones Dems say they have nothing against. Of course, this will be the Republican version of tax-free private accounts big, unrestricted ones that mostly help the well off but by now the Dems can hardly oppose a compromise like this, can they?

  4. Part 5 of Five Easy Pieces is now enshrined in law.

Is this right? I don't know. But there has to be something going on that's not obvious on the surface. Bush has smart people advising him, and they must realize that the odds of getting Social Security privatization passed is virtually nil. My guess is that it can't even pass the House, and there's zero chance of it getting enough votes to cut off a filibuster in the Senate. So why expend so much political capital on such a quixotic venture? There's got to be something else going on.

Any other ideas?

Kevin Drum 1:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ZARQAWI UPDATE....AP is reporting that Iraqi forces think they're close to capturing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi:

Authorities in Iraq have arrested three close associates of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, officials said Friday, claiming to be close to capturing the al-Qaida-linked terror mastermind himself two days ahead of historic elections that extremists have vowed to subvert.

....Asked by reporters if authorities were close to arresting al-Zarqawi himself, [Deputy Prime Minister Barham] Saleh replied: "We are getting close to finishing off al-Zarqawi and we will get rid of him."

We've heard this before from the Iraqis, and it hasn't been true yet. Still, here's hoping it pans out this time.

Kevin Drum 12:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CHENEY AT AUSCHWITZ....The Washington Post's Robin Givhan complains today that everyone was dressed properly at yesterday's gathering to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz except for Dick Cheney:

The vice president, however, was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower.

Cheney stood out in a sea of black-coated world leaders because he was wearing an olive drab parka with a fur-trimmed hood. It is embroidered with his name. It reminded one of the way in which children's clothes are inscribed with their names before they are sent away to camp. And indeed, the vice president looked like an awkward boy amid the well-dressed adults.

Like other attendees, the vice president was wearing a hat. But it was not a fedora or a Stetson or a fur hat or any kind of hat that one might wear to a memorial service as the representative of one's country. Instead, it was a knit ski cap, embroidered with the words "Staff 2001." It was the kind of hat a conventioneer might find in a goodie bag.

This is not the biggest deal in the world, but it sure is peculiar especially since, as the bottom picture from a ceremony today shows, Cheney had a dark overcoat with him. It's not like he accidentally left it at home or something. I wonder what the deal was?

Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 27, 2005
By: Amy Sullivan

LOVE THY NEIGHBOR. AND SPONGEBOB....Focus on the Family's head honcho James Dobson may disapprove of SpongeBob Squarepants for the cartoon character's alleged promotion of homosexuality/tolerance of gays/possible homosexual orientation (the exact charge is a bit unclear). But the United Church of Christ has stepped out solidly in support of SpongeBob. You can read all about SpongeBob's visit to UCC headquarters and view his photo diary at the denomination's website. Says the UCC's general minister and president Rev. John Thomas, "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we."

Amy Sullivan 7:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FIDGETING FOR LIFE....Many years ago I remarked to my sister-in-law that I was impressed by her ability to sit so still. When I sit I'm always fidgeting. Today, though, we learn that fidgeting is good for you:

The most detailed study ever conducted of mundane bodily movements found that obese people tend to be much less fidgety than lean people and spend at least two hours more each day just sitting still. The extra motion by lean people is enough to burn about 350 extra calories a day, which could add up to 10 to 20 pounds a year, the researchers found.

"There are these absolutely staggering differences between people who are lean and people who are obese," said James A. Levine of the Mayo Clinic, who led the research being published in Friday's issue of the journal Science. "The amount of this low-grade activity is so substantial that it could, in and of itself, could account for obesity quite easily."

Perhaps more importantly, Levine and his colleagues also discovered that people appear to be born with a propensity to be either fidgety or listless, indicating that it will take special measures to convert the naturally sedentary into the restless -- especially in a society geared toward a couch-potato existence.

Need to lose weight? Fidget!

Kevin Drum 4:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CATO CALCULATOR....Matt and Jesse have been having fun with the Cato Institute's Social Security Calculator, a handy piece of agitprop designed to convince you that private accounts will make us all as rich as Croesus. However, just in case you actually take this kind of thing seriously, figuring that even Cato has to calculate compound interest honestly, keep in mind the assumptions behind the "Calculate" button:

  • It assumes a 60-40 Stock-Bond fund that returns 5.27% per year. This means they're assuming a long-term real stock return of about 7% and a bond return of about 3%. This is absurdly high.

  • It assumes real wage growth throughout your life of 4% per year. In other words, if you're 30 years old and making $30,000 per year, they figure that by the time you retire at age 67 you'll be hauling in $128,000 in 2004 dollars. If you're a 30-year-old stock broker, there's a chance that will happen, but if you're a 30-year-old grocery checker there isn't.

  • They blithely assume away "debt service costs that could arise from financing the residual obligations of the current Social Security system." Cato's plan is a very expensive one, and its transition costs would probably be in the range of $20 trillion or so over 75 years. That's a lot to assume away.

Bottom line: the Cato calculator is a crock. Always remember to read the fine print.

Kevin Drum 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

UNION BUSTING....Back in 2002, President Bush complained that Senate Democrats didn't care about national security because they wouldn't approve his plans for the new Department of Homeland Security. Of course, the thing Democrats disapproved of wasn't DHS itself, which was their idea in the first place, it was Bush's plans to gut civil service protections for DHS employees.

On Wednesday the plan for DHS was announced, and I think it highlights the difficult position facing unions today. According the the Washington Post, the new rules restrict the ability of unions to negotiate over "such matters as where employees will be deployed, the type of work they will do and the equipment they will use." Disputes will be arbitrated by an internal board instead of an independent agency, and the union claims that overall pay will also be reduced under the new rules.

These are all things that probably strike a lot of people as unfair, and if the union plays its cards correctly it might be able to build a fair amount of public sympathy for its position. But there's also this:

A raise or promotion -- moving up in a pay range or rising to the next one -- will depend on receiving a satisfactory performance rating from a supervisor, said officials with homeland security and the Office of Personnel Management.

...."They are encouraging a management of coercion and intimidation," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. He added: "This is not a modern system. This is a step backward."

This is the point at which the public probably tunes out. Civil service protections were put in place to prevent political manipulation of government employees, not to guarantee endless promotions to mediocre workers regardless of their performance. If John Gage thinks that basing pay increases partly on the results of an annual review constitutes "a management of coercion and intimidation," public support for his union will evaporate. To most people, paying for performance sounds pretty reasonable.

I think this is one of the big dilemmas for old line unions like the industrial unions and the public employee unions. Most Americans support the idea that workers should be paid decently and treated fairly, and often support unions when those are the issues. But when the issue becomes a hardline defense of pure seniority or Byzantine work rules, it looks like unions are just defending the right not to work very hard. Nobody supports that, especially for people being paid with tax dollars.

This has the effect of reducing overall public support for unions, which in turn reduces the ability of unions to protect even the things where they do have public support. It's a vicious circle.

Kevin Drum 1:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PRIVATIZATION IN CHILE....You really need to read all of Larry Rohter's article in today's New York Times about Chile's experience with Social Security privatization, but I can't resist one excerpt. As background, note that privatization was introduced in 1980 under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet:

Chile spends about $2 billion a year to pay retirees from its armed forces, according to Mr. Scolari. The military imposed privatization on the rest of the country, but was careful to preserve its own advantages and exclude fellow soldiers from the system. Despite calls that the military be forced to give up its exemption, no civilian government has been prepared to pursue that.

There's too much other good stuff in the article to know where to begin. Just read the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 1:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 26, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY BONDS....In 2018 (approximately), payroll taxes will no longer be enough to cover Social Security payments. To make up the difference, treasury bonds from Social Security's trust fund will be sold back to the government, and in order to pay for those bonds income taxes will have to be raised.

Is this fiscal Armageddon? Hardly. As I say in Thursday's Christian Science Monitor, middle-class workers have been subsidizing high earners for over 20 years as part of the bargain crafted in the Greenspan/Reagan reforms of 1983:

For more than two decades, low- and middle-income Americans have kept their part of the bargain, paying more in payroll taxes than Social Security needs and helping to keep income taxes low. In return, beginning in 2018, high earners are expected to start paying a bit more in income taxes in order to help keep payroll taxes low.

The key point here is that payroll taxes are mostly paid by middle and low income workers and they've been overpaying for years. Income taxes are mostly paid by the well off, and the extra money from payroll taxes has allowed them to underpay for years. In 2018 that reverses, so paying back those bonds isn't just a moral obligation between generations, it's also a moral obligation between the wealthy and the middle class.

Here's an interesting addendum. During the editing of this piece the Monitor's op-ed editor asked me how much income taxes would have to be raised. There's no precise answer to this, but after a bit of mental noodling I told her it was in the neighborhood of 1% per year for 20 years starting in 2018, a total increase of about one-fifth compared to today's tax rates. This startled her because it seemed so high.

But here are some numbers to chew on:

  • In 2004, Social Security had income of $653 billion and paid benefits of $500 billion.

  • That amounts to a surplus of $153 billion. If workers weren't overpaying that amount, we'd have to make it up with higher income taxes in order to stay revenue neutral.

  • Total personal income taxes in 2004 amounted to $765 billion. Raising an additional $153 billion would require income taxes to increase by one-fifth.

So while a one-fifth increase in income taxes starting in 2018 might seem like a lot, income taxes would be a fifth higher right now today if the middle class weren't already overpaying payroll taxes by considerably more than a fifth. Compared to that, the phased in approach starting a decade from now looks pretty sweet, doesn't it?

UPDATE: Based on comments, "20%" changed to "one-fifth" throughout. Just to be clear, if you pay, say, 15% of your income in income taxes, a one-fifth increase means you'd pay 18% of your income in taxes.

Kevin Drum 10:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SELF-ESTEEM....This wasn't online yesterday, but psychologist Roy Baumeister had an op-ed in the LA Times on Tuesday summarizing a literature review he did last year that examined the effects of self-esteem:

Here are some of our disappointing findings. High self- esteem in schoolchildren does not produce better grades....Self-esteem doesn't make adults perform better at their jobs either....Likewise, people with high self-esteem think they make better impressions, have stronger friendships and have better romantic lives than other people, but the data don't support their self-flattering views....It was widely believed that low self-esteem could be a cause of violence, but in reality violent individuals, groups and nations think very well of themselves....High self-esteem doesn't prevent youngsters from cheating or stealing or experimenting with drugs and sex.

There were a couple of benefits to high self-esteem ("It feels good and it supports initiative"), but that's it. His conclusion?

After all these years, I'm sorry to say, my recommendation is this: Forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline.

Recent work suggests this would be good for the individual and good for society and might even be able to fill some of those promises that self-esteem once made but could not keep.

My mother, who taught fourth grade for 30 years and became heartily sick of parents who insisted that she hand out high grades to undeserving kids in order not to damage their self-esteem, says "hear hear."

Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PRIORITIES....Margaret Spellings took over as Education Secretary on Monday. So what did she do on Tuesday?

Answer: she wrote a letter to PBS complaining that an episode of one of their children's shows included a passing reference to a gay couple:

"Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode," Spellings wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to Pat Mitchell, president and chief executive officer of PBS.

"Congress' and the Department's purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television."

I'm glad to see Spellings has her priorities straight. I wonder what she'll do today?

(Via Sam Heldman.)

Kevin Drum 2:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY AS A WEDGE ISSUE....Have you noticed that Republicans are now treating Social Security as a classic wedge issue? Off the top of my head, the following groups have already been targets of attempts to peel them off from the rest of the country:

  • The elderly. They've been promised over and over that current retirees and those "close to retirement" won't be affected. The message is clear: there's no need to fight us on this since we aren't going to touch your benefits.

  • The young. George Bush has tacitly endorsed the belief of many young people that Social Security will be bankrupt by the time they retire and that they'll never get a dime from it. This intergenerational fear is a key component of the private account sales job: after all, regardless of whether private accounts are a good idea, they're still better than nothing, right?

  • Blacks. Bush met with black leaders on Tuesday to try to convince them that they get a raw deal from the current system because blacks have shorter lifespans and therefore don't collect their fair share of benefits. The fact that this isn't true had its usual effect on Bush's willingness to say it: none at all.

  • The well off. Under the current Social Security system, the well off get relatively lower benefits (compared to contributions) than the poor. In other words, the well off probably would do better with private accounts than they do with the current system. The top 20-30% of income earners are the core wedge group the whole private account concept was built around in the first place.

Republicans are obviously trying to ignite open warfare by playing all of these groups off each other, and it's potentially a very effective strategy. After all, if you can get active support from the young, the well off, and blacks, while dulling opposition from the elderly, you've got quite a coalition. Tell them each different stories and then watch them fight it out with whoever's left.

(What's even more ironic is the obvious identity of "whoever's left": middle and working class white men, a group that's among President Bush's most enthusiastic supporters. You'd think Bush would show them a little more gratitude.)

I suspect this strategy won't work, because in the end these groups won't rise to the bait. Still, it's something to watch out for. It's a very cynical wedge strategy, something that Republicans have gotten very, very good at over the past few decades.

Kevin Drum 1:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MEDIA KUDOS....Since the press gets a lot of bashing in the blogosphere, and occasionally right here on my own blog, it's worth commending them for their coverage of the CBO budget report yesterday. Despite the confusing array of numbers on offer, the major papers all got both the story and the headline right: namely, that in an apples-to-apples comparison, the budget deficit is getting worse.

The New York Times headline said "Budget Deficit Will Rise Again," and the story included the excellent graphic reproduced above. The LA Times headed their story "Budget Deficit to Set Record," and noted in the second paragraph that "congressional analysts forecast a generally worsening budget outlook, saying the federal deficit would become a knottier problem in the next 10 years." The Washington Post headline read "Record '05 Deficit Forecast."

Social Security reporting has been getting more accurate too, even if more and more reporters are buying into the administration's Orwellian language decrees about "personal accounts" vs. "private accounts." So maybe there's hope after all.

UPDATE: Needless to say, the Wall Street Journal editorial page refuses to go along with the crowd. Their record of egregious intellectual dishonesty remains unbroken.

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Pundit payola... First it was Armstrong Williams. Now, we have a second example of a conservative pundit on the Bush administration payroll. In a scoop in today's Washington Post, Howard Kurtz reports that syndicated columnist and pro-wedlock guru Maggie Gallagher had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to promote the president's $300 million marriage promotion initiative. She also received $20,000 from the Justice Department to write a report titled "Can Government Strengthen Marriage?" for a conservative advocacy group, the National Fatherhood Initiative, the founder of which, Josh Marshall notes, is Wade Horn, the HHS assistant secretary who arranged the first contract. Gallagher never disclosed any of this to her readers.

What's striking about this emerging payola scandal is the aggressive cluelessness of the participants towards basic standards of journalistic decency. Remember how Armstrong Williams claimed never to have considered that it might be wrong to take a quarter million dollars of government money to promote the administration's education policies as an "independent" opinion journalist and not, at the very least, disclose the fact? Gallagher betrayed the same indifference when confronted by Kurtz. "Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it?...I don't know. You tell me."

This is an attitude you're seeing a lot of today in Washington. The ascendant class of conservative pundit-operatives looks upon old strictures of behavior with a kind of incomprehension, even contempt. In this moral universe, Pentagon advisor Richard Perle can think it's perfectly ok to pen a Wall Street Journal op-ed praising an Air Force plan to lease refueling planes from Boeing at hideously jacked-up rates while at the same time being a principal in a venture capital fund into which Boeing invested $20 million. In this environment, James Glassman can feel just fine about editing a conservative web magazine that is published by a notorious GOP lobbying firm whose clients' causes receive favorable editorial coverage on the site.

These are perhaps egregious examples, the revelations of which still have some ability to shock. But as long as the perpetrators continue to prosper in Washington--as Perle and Glassman do, and Williams and Gallagher no doubt will--their sins have the effect of stretching the boundaries of what is considered acceptable, and slightly lesser sins draw no notice. In his famous essay "Defining Deviancy Down," Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that "over the past generation...the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can "afford to recognize" and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the "normal" level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard." Moynihan was writing about behavioral standards among the broad middle-class and the poor. Something similar, I think, is happening at the highest levels of public life in Washington.

Paul Glastris 9:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BAD STUFF....Did the Iraqi police really arrest terrorist thug Abu Musab al-Zarqawi but then let him go seven hours later because they didn't recognize him? Please tell me this isn't true.

Kevin Drum 1:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOD STUFF....I've been out all evening and don't have time to blog now, but Josh, Matt, and Atrios have lots of good stuff up.

Kevin Drum 1:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 25, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE BUDGET FANTASYLAND CONTINUES....Hot on the heels of the CBO's projections, the White House made their own budget projections today:

President Bush will ask Congress for an extra $80 billion next month, mostly to cover costs of the war in Iraq, and White House officials predicted this afternoon that the budget deficit would hit a new record of $427 billion this year.

....White House officials said today that they were still on track to fulfill President Bush's campaign promise of reducing the budget deficit in half by 2009.

So last year's deficit was $412 billion, and this year's deficit will be $427 billion, but they're still "on track" to cut the deficit in half.

Clap your hands!

Kevin Drum 5:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

24 TRIVIA....This is completely off topic, but 24 fans may have noted that in last night's episode the Secretary of Defense's daughter who is apparently her father's ideological soulmate mentioned that a guy she had recognized was familiar because she had previously seen him at a Heritage Foundation shindig.

As I recall, it was never clear in previous seasons whether President David Palmer was a Democrat or a Republican. Sure, he was a black guy who was formerly a senator from California, but hey, who knows? California elected Arnold, after all. But this latest bit of dialog pretty clearly indicates that the Secretary of Defense's daughter, and therefore the Secretary of Defense as well, are the kind of folks who hang out at Heritage Foundation events and are therefore Republicans. In addition, the SecDef's son, who hates his father's politics, is some kind of lefty peacenik type.

Unless you require considerably more stringent standards of proof than I do in matters like this, I'd say that Palmer was clearly a Democrat and this season's president, who beat him in the election that took place in the off season, is a Republican. Whether that means we can expect a more kick butt executive response to terrorism remains to be seen.

Kevin Drum 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RUMSFELD NOT WELCOME IN GERMANY?....This is fascinating: via Volokh, I see that Donald Rumsfeld has officially canceled a trip to the Munich Security Conference. Doug Feith will be going in his place.

The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights filed a complaint in December with the Federal German Prosecutor's Office against Rumsfeld accusing him of war crimes and torture in connection with detainee abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

Rumsfeld had made it known immediately after the complaint was filed that he would not attend the Munich conference unless Germany quashed the legal action.

The presumption here is that Rumsfeld is afraid of being arrested, although that's not entirely clear. German prosecutors are still examining the CCR complaint and haven't even decided to mount an investigation yet, let alone arrest anyone. Rumsfeld's nonattendance seems more likely to be motivated by a desire to pressure the German government than by an actual fear of arrest.

Still, who knows? I doubt this will go anywhere at least, I hope it doesn't go anywhere, no matter how much I dislike Rumsfeld but it's at least worth a post. I'm surprised it hasn't gotten any attention before.

Kevin Drum 3:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

URL UPDATE....Ezra Klein has decided to leave the cozy confines of Pandagon and move to a place of his own. However, he assures me that he and Jesse are still the best of friends. His new address is:

http://ezraklein.typepad.com

Update your bookmarks.

Kevin Drum 1:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FUN WITH LUSKIN....Jesse points out today that Donald Luskin doesn't know anything about economics or even simple arithmetic. I guess that's not really news, but it's remarkable that Luskin keeps getting stupider over time. Here is Luskin complaining about the future total value of Social Security payments:

If payrolls are $295.5 trillion and the deficit is $10.4 trillion, that means Social Securitys anticipated payments to the infinite-horizon must, by definition, be $305.9 trillion....

Luskin is telling us that total Social Security payments will be higher than total payroll. This is a powerful mind at work.

Brad DeLong now calls Luskin "the stupidest man alive." Personally, though, I think this is unfair to stupid men. Luskin is in a class by himself.

And Brad is right to wonder, yet again, why National Review continues to print his stuff. It's one thing to employ economic writers who have conservative views, but it's another to employ economic writers who plainly have no clue what they're talking about. Don't they have any self respect left at all?

Kevin Drum 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEFICITS FOREVER....The CBO's latest deficit projections are out, and the press is accurately reporting that they show a reduced deficit for 2005 only because the CBO is projecting zero new expenses for the war in Iraq. Why? Because last year supplemental military appropriations totaled $115 billion and CBO is required by law to extrapolate that into the future. This year so far there have been no supplemental military appropriations, so CBO is now legally required to extrapolate that into the future.

No, this doesn't really make sense, but that's the way it goes. In reality, last year's deficit was $412 billion, and this year's deficit is not going to be $368 billion, it's going to be at least $400 billion and probably higher.

What's more, the 10-year deficit projection is even worse. The CBO report itself explains all this nicely if you're willing to wade through the text. If you're not, I've created a handy graphic below.

Bottom line for an apples-to-apples comparison: last September CBO was projecting a 10-year deficit of $861 billion not counting Iraq. Today, CBO is projecting a 10-year deficit of $1,364 billion not counting Iraq. In other words, the projected deficit sans Iraq has gone up 58%.

That's still a bit of a fiction, since it doesn't include reasonable assumptions about future tax cuts and spending increases. Those estimates come later in the report. But even without that, the bottom line is that deficit projections continue to get higher and higher. We may soon find out, as Dick Cheney is alleged to have said, whether deficits really matter.

UPDATE: Max has more, including his own estimate of future deficits compared to the official "baseline" estimates CBO is legally required to supply.


Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 24, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

EQUAL TIME FOR PTOLEMY....How often do I get to link to a snarky Instapundit post that I completely agree with? Not often. But this one is right on the money.

Kevin Drum 11:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

YEAH, BABY!....Brad Plumer thinks the Democratic agenda announced today is too wimpy. Why not aim for the moon?

The Democrats, after all, have no hope of getting any of these things passed over the next four years. Especially since House Speaker Dennis Hastert has already declared that no bill will get by the lower chamber unless it has the support of a majority of Republicans. So the Democrats don't need to craft bills that hew closely to political reality. Like Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite, they can promise that "If you vote for me, all of your wildest dreams will come true." So on education, for instance, they could have proposed universal preschool. On voting reform, they could have promised to abolish the electoral college, or eliminate gerrymandering. On budget reform, they could have vowed to "end corporate pork as we know it". What? These things will never happen, you say? Who cares? The goal of an opposition agenda isn't to get stuff passed through Congress; the goal is to define what the opposition party stands for.

Arf!

Kevin Drum 8:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FANTASTIC!....I went out to get my hair cut this afternoon at our local Fantastic Sam's (nothing's too good for me!), and as I was leaving a guy walked up to me and introduced himself.

"Hi, I'm Steve Freyer, the chairman of Fantastic Sam's. Did they treat you well in there?"

"Um, sure. Everything was fine."

"Do you come here often."

"Every four weeks or so."

"Just you, or does the rest of your family come here too?"

"Just me."

"Would your wife ever consider coming here?"

I didn't actually laugh out loud at this point, but not to put too fine a point on it, no, she wouldn't. Fifteen dollar haircuts are more my style than hers. But I made up a better excuse than that.

"She's been getting her hair cut by the same gal for 20 years now. There's no way she'd ever switch." (Note: this is a 100% true statement.)

"That's a tough bond to break."

So there you have it. I've now met the chairman of the board of Fantastic Sam's, out in the real world talking to his customer base to see how they're doing. Based on this conversation, I guess they're trying to figure out how to get more female business these days. Fifteen dollar haircuts for guys probably barely pays the electricity bill.

Kevin Drum 7:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COVERT OPS, PART 4....Should the Pentagon have the authority and flexibility to run covert operations that might be illegal for the CIA? I've argued that this is something that needs a very public debate, but today Jeffrey Lewis at ArmsControlWonk.com goes further. He says the whole thing is a bad idea for a very practical reason: the track record of covert ops is "uniformly miserable."

Should the United States undertake operations that, if disclosed, endanger national security? Rarely, if ever, for two reasons:

  • First, covert operations are almost certain to be disclosed. Covert operations violate the first rule of life in Washington: Dont ever do anything that you wouldnt want to see on the front page of the Washington Post. The story by Bart Gellman helps drive the point home that, more often than not, covert operations eventually become public knowledge.

  • Second, covert operations often fail because they are covert. Shielding programs from Congressional oversight allows for small programs to devolve into gigantic, often bizarre, schemes that would never pass muster with Congress. Writing about the Iran-Contra affair, [Gregory] Treverton warned of the danger from centralizing White House control over covert operations. Excluding the designated congressional overseers, Treverton wrote, also excluded one more political scrub, one more source of advice about what the American people would find acceptable.

Given that the challenge posed by AlQaeda is, largely, an ideological bid for the hearts and minds of millions of Muslims perhaps one more political scrub might not be such a bad idea.

Treverton's 1987 review of covert ops in Foreign Affairs is behind a subscription wall, but read Lewis's post for a summary. Obviously 9/11 has changed the calculus of covert ops, but their checkered history is a warning that at the very least they should be kept under control via vigorous political oversight.

Kevin Drum 1:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MANUFACTURING CRISIS....The LA Times has a story this morning about the Great California Budget Debacle. Today's angle is that Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to slash spending on the poor but refuses to consider closing tax loopholes used by the rich:

One of the only tax breaks the governor is considering scaling back is a renters' credit for low-income seniors. Under Schwarzenegger's plan, the credit would be eliminated for elderly Californians earning more than $13,000 per year.

That proposal would save the state $100 million annually.

But the governor's plan would leave intact the mortgage deduction that the wealthy enjoy on million-dollar vacation homes. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has suggested that removing the deduction could save the state several times the amount gained by the renters' credit cut.

Another of the governor's proposals would cut payments to caretakers for the disabled and frail elderly from more than $10 an hour to minimum wage, $6.75. The move would save the state $195 million.

Yet high-end hotels in downtown San Francisco could continue to claim tax credits from an "enterprise zone" that was intended for economically depressed neighborhoods but has now grown to include wealthy urban areas. Studies suggest the state is losing at least $50 million per year on the credits.

This is fine as far as it goes, but what strikes me as perverse is that all these stories about the GCBD (which are legion in California papers) overlook the biggest elephant in the room: the fact that Schwarzenegger actively created a huge part of the budget crisis himself. Just as George Bush seems to hope that tax cuts will create an artificial crisis atmosphere that allows him pursue pet projects like Social Security privatization, Schwarzenegger campaigned on a pledge to cut the auto license fee. This slashed $3-4 billion in revenue, an amount that would go a very long way toward eliminating California's problem. Like Bush, Schwarzenegger seems to actively like the idea of cutting taxes in order to create an ongoing crisis that provides him with a pretext to pursue his real agenda.

For non-Californians who aren't up on all this, the details make it even worse. The license fee in California was reduced by Democratic governor Gray Davis in 1998, but with the proviso that it would return to its original rate if the state faced a funding shortfall. In 2003 Davis raised the fee back to its original level and was demonized in the recall election with ads in which a young woman with a Valley Girl twang whined memorably that "it's ridiculous, nobody can afford that." Of course, the fact that everyone had paid "that" a mere five years earlier meant nothing. Davis went down to a crushing defeat.

So what's Schwarzenegger up to? He campaigned on a promise never to cut education funding and went back on his word almost immediately. He campaigned on a promise to end "crazy deficit spending," but adopted Gray Davis's deficit spending plans almost verbatim within months. He's made some interesting proposals, and has demonstrated some genuine charisma and political talent, but in the end his only real tactic seems to be the same one George Bush loves so much: convincing the public that everything is a crisis and he's the only one who can deal with it.

We've now made the leap from the "permanent campaign" to the "permanent crisis." I suspect we're not going to be very happy about that evolution a decade from now.

Kevin Drum 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Best Care Anywhere... Veterans hospitals are usually thought of as Dickensian institutions that waste billions of tax dollars providing at best sub-par care to poor, aging veterans. But as Phil Longman of the New America Foundation makes clear in his amazing cover story in the latest issue of The Washington Monthly, the VA system has undergone a revolution over the past decade. Veterans hospitals are now providing higher-quality healthcare at lower costs than any private sector enterprise in the country. I know it sounds unlikely, but as Longman explains, the evidence is quite clear:

Who do you think receives higher-quality health care. Medicare patients who are free to pick their own doctors and specialists? Or aging veterans stuck in those presumably filthy VA hospitals with their antiquated equipment, uncaring administrators, and incompetent staff? An answer came in 2003, when the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published a study that compared veterans health facilities on 11 measures of quality with fee-for-service Medicare. On all 11 measures, the quality of care in veterans facilities proved to be significantly better.

Here's another curious fact. The Annals of Internal Medicine recently published a study that compared veterans health facilities with commercial managed-care systems in their treatment of diabetes patients. In seven out of seven measures of quality, the VA provided better care. It gets stranger. Pushed by large employers who are eager to know what they are buying when they purchase health care for their employees, an outfit called the National Committee for Quality Assurance today ranks health-care plans on 17 different performance measures. These include how well the plans manage high blood pressure or how precisely they adhere to standard protocols of evidence-based medicine such as prescribing beta blockers for patients recovering from a heart attack. Winning NCQA's seal of approval is the gold standard in the health-care industry. And who do you suppose this year's winner is: Johns Hopkins? Mayo Clinic? Massachusetts General? Nope. In every single category, the VHA system outperforms the highest rated non-VHA hospitals.

Longmans story explains how the VA pulled this off. In short, because the VA has lifetime relationships with its customers, it has an incentive to invest in the costly (in the short term) computerized case management and evidence-based medicine systems that keep people healthy over a lifetime and keep costs down over the long run; whereas in private sector health care, customers bounce around as they change jobs, so any hospital or HMO that invests heavily in the information-based preventative medicine systems that everyone (including the White House) says are needed winds up enriching its competitors.

The VAs success has the potential to shift the terms of the debate about health care and health policy in America. Everyone knows that rising healthcare costs is the real fiscal crisis this country faces. And conservatives, led by New Gingrich, are getting on the info-tech bandwagon, saying that electronic billing and evidence-based medicine is one of the two main keys to controlling healthcare costs, the other being the introduction of more consumer price-shopping via "individual savings accounts." What the VA experience shows is that the latter idea undermines the former: the more people "shop" for healthcare by bouncing around from provider to provider based on price, the less incentive the providers will have to invest in the technologies Gingrich and company say are the answer.

Beyond that wonky analysis is, I think, a profound political opportunity. Conservatives are forever shutting down progressive health care reform ideas by saying that the more government gets involved the worse things will be. But in the VA, you have a totally government-run healthcare system that is besting the private sector on both cost and quality. And it's a system wrapped in the patriotic colors of the American military! That doesnt mean Democrats should start arguing for government-run health care--though they migh consider Longman intriguing suggestion that we let the VA take over bankrupt non-VA hospitals and make citizens who provide non-military national service eligible for VA care. But it sure does challenge the notion that the only way to fix our broken private-sector-dominated healthcare system is to make it even more private sector.

Paul Glastris 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Bestiality... In his summer 2001 address to the nation, President Bush explained that he was putting into place a new policy of limiting federal support for embryonic stem cell research to a handful of existing cell lines, promising that this would allow scientists "to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line." Turns out, however, that his policy does lead to the crossing of a fundamental--and rather gross--moral line, though not the one he was worried about.

According to the LA Times, a study released yesterday by researchers at the University of California San Diego and the Salk Institute shows that all the stem cell lines approved by the president are contaminated with mouse DNA. The reason is that these cells were propagated in Petri dishes filled with mouse cells, calf blood serum, and other lovely animal byproducts meant to induce the human stem cells to grow. That this medium might have tainted the stem cells was something scientists openly worried about at the time the White House was formulating its policy. The new study merely confirms that fear, showing that the stem cells incorporated a type of sialic acid that is common in many mammals but isn't produced by humans. Apparently, this doesn't mean that anyone treated with such cells would sprout a tail and long whiskers. Rather, the human body's immune system would notice the foreign substance and destroy the stem cells, rendering the cells useless as therapies to fight Parkinson's disease and other ailments.

The Times describes this discovery as a "setback" to the president's stem cell policy. In reality, it's really more like a final, complete repudiation of an idea that was pragmatically dubious from the beginning, but pushed forward anyway for political and ideological reasons and presented with an air of moral seriousness. Which is to say, it was typical Bush administration policy.

Paul Glastris 6:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PENTAGON'S NEW MAP....On the recommendation of several people, I have finally finished slogging through Thomas P.M. Barnett's bestselling book, The Pentagon's New Map. It was an intensely frustrating experience.

Barnett, a military theorist and consultant formerly with the Naval War College, presents the following thesis: the primary division in the world today, he says, is between two sets of countries that he calls the Core and the Gap. The Core consists of advanced countries that play by the rules and are committed to globalization (primarily Europe, North America, and Japan) plus countries that are committed to getting there (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and some others). The Gap is everyone else: a collection of disconnected, lawless, and dangerous countries such as Colombia, Pakistan, and North Korea, plus most of the Middle East and Africa. (A detailed map of the Core and the Gap is here.) American military action since World War II has been confined almost exclusively to the Gap, which means the task of the United States over the next several decades and in particular the task of the United States military is to shrink the Gap and eventually convert the entire world to the values of the Core. Only then will America and the rest of the current Core be safe.

So why was the book so frustrating? Because normally it's not fair to summarize booklength arguments in a single paragraph this way. You really need to read the entire book and absorb all the author's evidence to understand what he's saying. In this case, though, you don't. Barnett doesn't really present supporting arguments as much as he simply relates anecdotes about the personal journey that led him to his conclusion that globalization is the key security issue of our time a conclusion that's eventually presented as sort of a personal epiphany. Either you buy it or you don't. (If you want a longer summary of the book anyway, Barnett's own version in the March 2003 issue of Esquire is here.)

In my case, I don't have a problem with Barnett's idea that Gap countries pose a greater danger to America than, say, China although apparently this is a tough sell in the military. That takes care of his first 300 pages or so. But the final hundred pages have their own problem: a sense of destiny that goes way beyond mere optimism and turns into something little short of religious faith in America's ability to be right under all circumstances. For example, here is his argument about why America should feel free to intervene in Gap countries whenever we feel like it:

What gives America the right to render judgments of right and wrong, or good versus rogue?....What gives America the right is the fact that we are globalization's godfather, its source code, its original model. We restarted globalization after World War II and we have made it largely in our image....This gift of global connectivity generating peace is one we must keep on giving, because to let the process stall is to risk its demise, to possibly lose all for which we have sacrificed so much in the past.

This isn't an argument, it's just an assertion, and one that will convince no one aside from Americans who are already believers. Barnett spends a lot of time insisting that we need the support of the rest of the Core in our mission to eliminate the Gap, but there are damn few Core countries that are going to feel comfortable trailing along to clean up after our wars if this is the extent of our justification.

And make no mistake: that's exactly what Barnett thinks the rest of the Core should do. America has the only military capable of projecting power, he says, and we should feel free to use it unilaterally whenever we feel it's necessary. But the nation building that comes afterward well, that's everyone's problem. In other words, America should decide where to wage war, and the rest of the world should follow our lead. The example of Iraq doesn't give me a lot of confidence that this is a workable strategy.


The book is unsatisfying in other ways as well. For starters, it suffers from a bad case of Tom Friedmanism: rah rah globalism leavened with simplistic lists and preciously named rules. For example, here's a summary of how he thinks American military power will create world peace:

America as global cop creates security. Security creates common rules. Rules attract foreign investment. Investment creates infrastructure. Infrastructure creates access to natural resources. Resources create economic growth. Growth creates stability. Stability creates markets. And once you're a growing, stable part of the global market, you're part of the Core. Mission accomplished.

But there's no analysis of even the first part of this chain: does America as global cop really create the security needed for all the rest of this to happen? I'm not sure history is kind to this notion, but in any case I'd expect at least a full chapter justifying it. But there's really nothing. Again, it's more assertion than argument.

In the end, Barnett makes two big proposals. The first, of course, is that American has to be ready and willing to enforce security everywhere within the Gap. The second is that we need two militaries: the standard one we have now, which fights and wins conventional wars, and a second one, which occupies countries and performs nation building. This is an interesting notion, but he never takes it anywhere. Could such a military force work? Would other countries really join us in this? What does it take to perform successful nation building anyway? There's a rich literature in these topics, but very little of it is reflected in Barnett's book.

I feel like I'm being unfairly harsh toward Barnett, who seems like a good guy who's been thinking about this stuff for a long time. But in the end, the problem wasn't that he failed to persuade me, it was that he didn't even try. I kept waiting for the argument to start, but instead I just kept getting more and more description. Sure, the Gap is unstable and disconnected, but can American power connect it? Yes, we can wage war unilaterally if we want to, but can we also get the rest of the Core to follow our lead if we do? Maybe evangelizing globalization to the Gap is a good thing, but is it enough to stop war? It didn't stop World War I. And what's required in addition to military power anyway? Barnett never really says.

Thus my frustration. It's possible that Barnett is on the right track, but he needs to write a book that makes his case, rather than just states it. He's writing a second book now, and maybe he'll do just that. We'll have to wait and see.

Kevin Drum 12:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SUMMERS, STAGE 3....The great Larry Summers controversy now appears to be in Stage 3. In the past couple of days there's been a spate of newspaper articles and op-eds examining the actual question Summers raised: are there innate differences in mathematical ability between men and women?

That's fine, I suppose, and most of the ones I've read do a reasonable job of presenting the evidence pro and con and concluding (correctly, as far as I know) that the evidence available today is (a) inconclusive and (b) at most, indicates that innate differences are small.

But why is Summers allowed to set the agenda for the press? Why aren't there a spate of articles examining the evidence regarding cultural barriers to advancement in math and science careers among women? Here are two examples from the New York Times. The first one is from a 2,000-word article in the science section of Monday's paper:

Dr. [Megan] Urry cited a 1983 study in which 360 people half men, half women rated mathematics papers on a five-point scale. On average, the men rated them a full point higher when the author was "John T. McKay" than when the author was "Joan T. McKay." There was a similar, but smaller disparity in the scores the women gave.

The second is from an op-ed in Sunday's paper:

Studies of the ways that grant applications are evaluated have shown that women are more likely to get financing when those reading the applications do not know the sex of the applicant.

But these are both throwaway sentences in longer articles that are primarily about whether or not biological differences exist. Instead, how about a 2,000-word article in the science section of the Times focused on socialization issues, something that even most researchers who study brain structure agree is a bigger problem than biology? It can't be for lack of people to talk to or lack of research to cite. So what's the problem?

Kevin Drum 12:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 23, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SUPER BOWL....Patriots vs. Eagles, eh? That's an All-American Super Bowl, isn't it? And as Matt notes, it's also an all-blue-state Super Bowl, surely an important consideration in these partisan times.

So who to root for? I used to travel to Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, all the time to visit one of our engineering sites, and thus developed a slight loyalty to the Pats (Los Angeles not having a pro football team, of course). On the other hand, Bostonians will become insufferable if they win both the World Series and the Super Bowl. So in the end, I guess I don't care. In fact, that's pretty much how it's turned out every year since the evil Georgia Frontiere stole the Rams from us and absconded to St. Louis. Unless I can root against the Rams, it just doesn't matter.

Kevin Drum 10:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COVERT OPS, PART 3....The Washington Post's Barton Gellman follows up today on the Pentagon's increasing usurpation of the CIA's traditional role in running covert operations. A recently created organization called the Strategic Support Branch is the heart of the Pentagon's operation:

Military and civilian participants said in interviews that the new unit has been operating in secret for two years in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places they declined to name. According to an early planning memorandum to Rumsfeld from Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the focus of the intelligence initiative is on "emerging target countries such as Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, Philippines and Georgia." Myers and his staff declined to be interviewed.

....Pentagon officials said they established the Strategic Support Branch using "reprogrammed" funds, without explicit congressional authority or appropriation. Defense intelligence missions, they said, are subject to less stringent congressional oversight than comparable operations by the CIA.

...."Operations the CIA runs have one set of restrictions and oversight, and the military has another," said a Republican member of Congress with a substantial role in national security oversight, declining to speak publicly against political allies. "It sounds like there's an angle here of, 'Let's get around having any oversight by having the military do something that normally the [CIA] does, and not tell anybody.' That immediately raises all kinds of red flags for me. Why aren't they telling us?"

This should be a public discussion. It's entirely arguable that the military should have a greater role in human intelligence gathering, and it's equally arguable that they should be less restricted in their actions than the CIA. But "arguable" is the operative word here: there are considerable risks in this approach, and Congress should debate them openly. After all, the only reason for the Pentagon to keep this secret even from Republican congressmen is because they suspect that even Republican congressmen wouldn't approve of what they're doing. That's reason enough to find out what's really going on.

Kevin Drum 1:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

POLITICAL BUFFOONERY....George Bush's inaugural speech was fine as far as it went. We're all in favor of freedom and democracy, after all.

But I've now read what? At least half a dozen stories trotting out Bush confidants and senior aides, both named and unnamed, to assure us that Bush was just talking smack. He didn't really mean anything he said, and friendly dictators around the world don't have a thing to worry about. Poppa Bush is the latest.

Even accepting that rhetorical BS is a politician's stock in trade, this is inexplicable. What's the point in giving a speech like this if you're going to spend the next week telling everyone to ignore it? This is political buffoonery of a high degree.

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 22, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

INSURANCE QUESTION....A friend of ours just told us that auto insurance for their just-turned-16-year-old son will be $4,800 per year. Insurance for their 18-year-old daughter is $3,000 per year.

Is this normal? Just curious.

Kevin Drum 3:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SUMMERS IN CONTEXT....Harvard president Larry Summers, who has spent the past week being cuffed around for suggesting that biological differences might explain the scarcity of women in the sciences, apologized for the third time on Thursday and may have raised the number to four or five by now (I've lost track of the precise count). And so it's worth noting that the backlash to the backlash has now begun.

Today in the Washington Post, for example, Ruth Marcus winces at MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins's "bring-out-the-smelling-salts" reaction to Summers's speech and suggests that maybe Summers was on to something after all. Perhaps there really are innate differences between men and women that help account for the low number of women in the sciences. Over at Slate William Saletan bemoans the "pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers."

Now, I happen to agree that Hopkins's Victorian reaction was absurdly melodramatic. What's more, as empirical questions, Summers's propositions are perfectly legitimate. Social scientists should study this stuff and let their results lead them where they may.

But context is everything. Consider the following hypothetical:

Let's say that you are the mayor of Los Angeles. A couple of years ago there was a huge scandal in which the LAPD was accused of beating up prisoners who were already in custody and of generally using excessive force on a routine basis. Local communities were outraged. Commissions were formed. Recommendations were made. And yet reports of police brutality continue to pour in and the city is now under a federal consent decree.

So UCLA decides to hold a conference on the subject of police-community relations. And they invite his honor to speak at lunch. "Be provocative," they say.

Der Tag arrives, and the mayor speaks. He agrees that police brutality is a problem and offers the pro forma observation that there are surely institutional causes that we ought to investigate and reform. And yet, he continues, isn't it also worth noting that it's awfully hard to attract levelheaded young recruits to careers as police officers? After all, people who aren't already slightly unhinged in their hatred of criminals aren't likely to go through the grueling training necessary to become a cop. And another thing: studies have shown that police officers tend to have high testosterone levels, and this causes them to overreact to stressful situations. His own father was a cop, he says, and he slapped us kids around a fair amount, so he's got some personal experience with this.

Question: would you accept the mayor's protests that he was just speaking as an interested citizen, not the mayor of a city currently under a federal consent decree for excessive police brutality? Would you accept the idea that he was merely raising provocative questions, not offering excuses for the city's lack of progress during his tenure?

Nah, probably not. Even if he's right, it sure sounds like he's offering excuses, doesn't it?

And in the end, that was the problem with Summers's remarks. It's not that he raised illegitimate questions. He may even be right. But as the president of an institution that's had a sharply declining track record of hiring women in the sciences during his tenure, it sure sounds an awful lot like he's trying to say that there's not really much he can do about it.

Thus the outrage. Context is everything.

Kevin Drum 3:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CHALABI FINALE?....This is weird. Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Sha'alan says he plans to arrest Ahmed Chalabi. Why? Because he claims that Chalabi posted forged documents on his website that defamed him. "I will take legal action against Chalabi and have him arrested after the (Eid al-Adha) feast," Sha'alan told the London-based Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat.

That's pretty thin for an arrest warrant, isn't it? On the other hand, announcing it now should also give Chalabi plenty of time to get out of Dodge something that Chalabi has plenty of reason to do since Sha'alan says he plans to turn him over to Interpol to face bank fraud charges in Jordan.

Of course, "face charges" isn't quite the right wording, since Chalabi was long ago convicted in absentia of these charges. If Jordan gets its hands on Chalabi, they'll presumably just toss him in jail straightaway, the formalities of a trial having already been dispensed with.

Questions abound. Why announce his arrest to the world before actually nabbing him? Does the defense minister really have the authority to turn him over to Interpol anyway? And what do the American authorities think about all this?

And most important, is this the end of the road for Chalabi? Or merely another speed bump in his long and checkered career? Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Juan Cole has further speculations and explanations about the whole thing. As he says, the whole affair is rather peculiar on both sides.

UPDATE 2: Interior Minister Falah al-Naquib says there's no arrest warrant for Chalabi, and since he's the guy in charge of arrest warrants it seems like he'd be in a better position to know than the Defense Minister. This looks more and more like it's just a spat between Chalabi and the Allawi government.

Kevin Drum 12:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 21, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BOOM....Where does this stuff come from? Here is Fred Barnes writing about old fogey foreign policy realism vs. George Bush's new wave foreign policy idealism:

Security, of course, is the goal of the realists. They prefer democracies, but they're not adamant about it. If an autocratic country is friendly to the United States and opposes America's enemies, the realists are quite satisfied. Transforming such a country into a democracy would not be part of their foreign policy agenda. Think of Saudi Arabia in this regard, or Pakistan.

Bush rejects this thinking. The best way to achieve the realists' goal of maximum security for America, he believes, is for there to be more democracies in the world. In effect, Bush said the policy of idealists will lead to the goal of realists. "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," he said. Boom! The wall between the two schools is gone, at least in the president's formulation.

Saudi Arabia? Pakistan? Whatever else you can say about George Bush, he hasn't done squat to move either of these countries into the ranks of democracy. He treats the theocrats in Saudi Arabia with kid gloves because they can jack up oil prices if they ever get pissed off at us, and he treats the military dictatorship in Pakistan with kid gloves because they provide a bit of help now and then while pretending to hunt down Osama bin Laden.

There are good reasons for Bush to treat Saudi Arabia and Pakistan this way. Lots of presidents have done the same thing. But Bush hasn't rejected realism, he's fervently embraced it while telling his speechwriters to say the opposite.

Boom indeed.

Kevin Drum 4:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

INTELLIGENCE CHAMPS....In all the discussion recently about whether the CIA or the Pentagon produces better intelligence, there's one answer that gets continually overlooked: neither. The real intelligence champ is the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), which you may recall as the agency that got it right about the aluminum tubes and then went on to write a lengthy (but ignored) dissent to the infamous 2002 NIE claiming that Saddam Hussein was mere years or maybe months! away from building a nuclear bomb.

Dumb luck? In the Washington Monthly this month, Justin Rood says not:

Not everyone in Washington is a fan of INR. Many neoconservatives especially see the agency as a threat to the more vigorous military project they advocate....But there's a simple bottom-line test for intelligence: Who called it right most often? And on the big questions, INR has consistently gotten right what other agencies have gotten wrong.

What's most remarkable about this track record is that it comes from an agency with 160 analysts and a budget of $50 million. "Decimal dust," INR's boss calls it. That compares to around 5,000 analysts at the CIA alone and a total U.S. intelligence budget of about $40 billion.

Fascinating stuff. Rood describes four reasons for INR's success, and you'll be unsurprised to learn that the most important is "a culture that tolerates dissent." That's something the CIA and the Pentagon could definitely use a bit more of.

Kevin Drum 1:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WORDPLAY....This is a random note to the blogosphere: there is no such word as "anyways." It's "anyway."

This just sets my teeth on edge....

UPDATE: Laziness will kill you every time. As several commenters have pointed out, "anyways" is listed in standard dictionaries including all three of the volumes that reside two feet from my desk as (variously) nonstandard, archaic, colloquial, or dialect versions of "anyway." I think I'd still argue that this makes it unsuitable for standard written English, but then again so are "heh," "um," "er," "gotta," and "dunno," which are all blogosphere favorites for capturing conversational tone.

The hell with all that, though. I still don't like it. I guess I'm officially entering curmudgeonhood or something.

Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BEST PRICING....Complaints that the federal government is too sluggish and bureaucratic are common. But complaints that the feds are too efficient and businesslike? You don't hear that one so often.

Today, though, a drug industry shill named Benjamin Zycher complains about exactly that. Government agencies like the VA aren't "negotiating" prices with pharmaceutical companies, he complains, they're just shaking them down:

What's actually happening is something that does not sound quite as appealing: price controls.

....The VA is entitled under the law to receive either the minimum 24% discounted price or the "best price," whichever is lower. These "best prices" are not just for the VA; many healthcare programs receiving federal funding also are entitled to them. That is how the federal government, state Medicaid programs and others receive the benefits of private-sector negotiations without actually having to undertake negotiations themselves.

And if drug companies refuse to play by these rules? They then would be precluded from selling any of their products to the VA....

Question: is this guy just lying through his teeth, or is he really this clueluess about how the business world works?

Standard discounts and "best price" contracts are both common. Almost routine, in face. When I worked in the software industry, pretty much every deal we did that was big enough to require a negotiated contract in the first place included language guaranteeing the purchaser the same price as our most preferred customer. And if we refused? Then we lost the deal. In other words, we were "precluded" from selling our products to them.

For a customer the size of the VA, there isn't a company in the world that wouldn't negotiate a very favorable price and unblinkingly agree to guarantee them "most favorable pricing." The VA is just negotiating the exact same kind of contract as practically every large commercial customer in the world.

So save your tears for Big Pharma. After all, you don't think Merck and Pfizer are foolish enough to sign contracts with their suppliers that don't guarantee themselves most favorable pricing, do you?

Kevin Drum 11:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 20, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

VOTING IN IRAQ....On ABC News tonight they had a report about preparations for voting in the city of Mosul. The original plan was to have 100 polling places, but because of the violence there that's been cut down to 40.

The population of Mosul is 2 million, and you can probably figure that about two-thirds of that number are eligible to vote. That means each polling place will have to handle 33,000 voters. Even if turnout is only 50%, that's still about 16,000 people per polling station.

Even 100 polling stations sounds like far, far too few. But 40?

Kevin Drum 11:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WONDERS OF TECHNOLOGY....Jonah Goldberg thinks I should blog something about George Bush's inaugural speech, but I don't feel like it. I will say this, though: I'll bet him a C-note that six months from now no one will remember a word he said.

Instead, let me regale you with the surprising news that technology sure is getting better at an amazing rate, isn't it? Let's compare.

The first laser printer I ever bought was a used LaserJet II in 1992. As I recall, I paid $800 for it. It printed at 300 dpi and cranked out 8 pages per minute.

A few days ago, thanks partly to recommendations from readers, I purchased a Brother MFC-8440. It prints at 600x2400 dpi and spits out an astounding 21 pages per minute.

But wait! There's more. It's also a fax machine, and employs something called "Super G3," which is remarkably fast. It can fax a page in about 5 seconds, compared to about 20 or 30 seconds a decade ago, and comes with a pretty complete range of features, including autodial, broadcast fax, and PC fax.

There's also a flatbed color scanner built in. Native resolution is 600x2400, which is better than my previous standalone scanner, and quality is excellent. It's a little slow at high resolutions, but amazingly speedy at lower resolutions. The OCR software is feature limited, but works fine.

What else? It's also a copier, and not only does it crank out remarkably high quality copies, it also sorts and stacks, enlarges and reduces, and does just about everything else a normal office copier does.

And installation? Pretty much a breeze. I just stuck in the disk, clicked a few buttons during a 10-minute process, and it was all done. Everything worked flawlessly.

And I bought it at CostCo for $359.

You're amazed, aren't you? Admit it. Even though everything I just said is so common as to be banal, it's still pretty amazing. I really have no idea how the hedonic pricing gurus at BLS take all this into account. This is what? A 90% price decrease compared to ten years ago? 95%? 99%?

Then again, the LaserJet II was built like a tank. What if the MFC-8440 goes belly up a year from now? Would that suddenly mean prices haven't really gone down as much as it seemed initially? Hmmm....

Kevin Drum 7:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CATASTROPHIC SUCCESS?....Peter Beinart has an intriguing take today on why Social Security privatization is doomed. Here's the ending:

Having made it almost impossible to be a bipartisan Democrat, Bush may be about to learn that they can be useful to have around. Somewhere, Charlie Stenholm is laughing.

Read the whole thing to find out why Charlie Stenholm might be laughing, and why Tom DeLay might not be.

Kevin Drum 4:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE REAL GEORGE BUSH?....Lanny Davis, a longtime Democratic attorney and former counsel to Bill Clinton, was also a classmate of George Bush's at Yale. He tells this anecdote today in the LA Times:

One of my most vivid memories is this: A few of us were in the common room one night. It was 1965, I believe my junior year, his sophomore. We were making our usual sarcastic commentaries on those who walked by us. A little nasty perhaps, but always with a touch of humor. On this occasion, however, someone we all believed to be gay walked by, although the word we used in those days was "queer." Someone, I'm sorry to say, snidely used that word as he walked by.

George heard it and, most uncharacteristically, snapped: "Shut up." Then he said, in words I can remember almost verbatim: "Why don't you try walking in his shoes for a while and see how it feels before you make a comment like that?"

Remember, this was the 1960s pre-Stonewall, before gay rights became a cause many of us (especially male college students) had thought much about.

Davis seems to think that this somehow excuses Bush's gay marriage demagoguery during the election, something that Bush now appears to be backing away from. "I hope it suggests a return to the 'compassionate conservatism' I remember and that he practiced in his two terms as governor of Texas," he says.

Let's take this at face value which I'm inclined to do. I don't know Bush's heart any better than anyone, but I've heard enough anecdotes like this to convince me that Bush personally has nothing against gays and nothing against equal rights for gays.

So what does this mean? It means that even though Bush's own moral values dictated tolerance and understanding in this case, he deliberately decided to betray his own beliefs and appeal instead to the most bigoted and divisive aspects of his fellow citizens in order to win the presidency. And he's backing down now only because homophobic bigotry is no longer useful to his ambitions.

Please excuse me while I retch.

Kevin Drum 3:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Words to remember... "A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt...If the game runs sometime against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake."
Thomas Jefferson, 1798

Paul Glastris 1:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TAXING THE RICH....I am outsourcing this post to Andrew Tobias:

As reported here in years past, when Jeb [Bush] first became governor of Florida he faced a challenge. How do you cut taxes for the rich in a state with no income tax? Cutting the sales tax wouldnt work that would help everybody. Cutting the property tax wouldnt work that would help almost everybody.

What to do? What to do? (What would Jesus do?)

Jeb hit on cutting the Intangible Property Tax that most Floridians have never even heard of (because it applies only to folks with considerable portfolios of stocks and bonds). He cut this tax in half.

Specifically, he cut it from a very modest two-tenths of one-percent (applicable to only some assets not to retirement accounts, for example) to just one-tenth of one percent. Great for the wealthy; but when was the last time you saw a middle-class tax halved?

....Anyway, thats ancient history.

You can probably guess what comes next, but to catch yourself up on Jeb's latest plans, read the rest of the post.

Kevin Drum 12:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FOUR MORE YEARS....I hope everyone will forgive me for not feeling too inspired today....

Kevin Drum 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 19, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

REGRETS, I'VE HAD A FEW....Via Tim Dunlop, who still thinks I shouldn't have said anything nice about Andrew Sullivan a few days ago, comes this valedictory from Colin Powell's deputy, Richard Armitage:

"I'm disappointed that Iraq hasn't turned out better. And that we weren't able to move forward more meaningfully in the Middle East peace process."

Then, after a minute's pause, he adds a third regret: "The biggest regret is that we didn't stop 9/11. And then in the wake of 9/11, instead of redoubling what is our traditional export of hope and optimism we exported our fear and our anger. And presented a very intense and angry face to the world. I regret that a lot."

Me too, Rich, me too.

Kevin Drum 10:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COVERT OPS REVISITED....I mentioned yesterday that I thought the most notable part of Seymour Hersh's latest article in the New Yorker was his description of how covert ops are being moved from the CIA to the Pentagon in order to avoid traditional congressional oversight. Jennifer Kibbe wrote about this issue last year in Foreign Affairs, explaining that although the 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act requires both a presidential finding and congressional notification prior to covert operations by either the CIA or the Pentagon, there's an exception for "traditional military activities":

Although the act itself does not define "traditional military activities," the phrase, according to the conference committee report, was meant to include actions preceding and related to anticipated hostilities that will involve U.S. military forces or where such hostilities are ongoing....

The problem, however, lies in the interpretation of the word "anticipated," since if future military hostilities are anticipated, no finding or notification is required. Actions in support of anticipated fighting are most commonly thought of in the literal sense, as those undertaken to "prepare the battlespace." Indeed, the conference committee report of the 1991 law defines "anticipated" hostilities as those for which operational planning has already been approved. But according to a knowledgeable Pentagon official, some in the Defense Department believe that the act gives them the power to undertake activities "years in advance" of any overt U.S. military involvement.

The unconventional nature of the war on terrorism already makes "traditional military activities" harder than usual to define, and Donald Rumsfeld apparently wants to take full advantage of that ambiguity by changing both the size and reporting structure of Special Operations Command (SOCOM):

Rumsfeld began building up the military's unconventional forces last year after being incensed by their inability to enter Afghanistan until after the CIA had prepared the ground for them.

....Rumsfeld also significantly increased SOCOM's authority by changing it from a "supporting command," which can only contribute to other combatant commands' missions, into a "supported command," which can plan and execute its own independent operations (if authorized by the secretary and, if necessary, the president). This change removed a layer in the chain of command governing special operations forces. The previous chain of command ran from the secretary to a regional unified command (European Command, for instance) and then to SOCOM; now, under the new system, the secretary of defense and SOCOM are directly linked. In giving Rumsfeld more control over special operations, however, the change reduced the number of people reviewing proposed missions. And by cutting out regional commands, it also increased the risk that special forces units will plan missions without properly considering (or being reminded of) possible local repercussions.

The editors of Foreign Affairs have kindly posted the entire essay online, and it's worth reading to get a full flavor of what's going on. It's notable, for example, that the SOCOM commanders themselves have considerable misgivings about their new role.

For myself, I don't think there's any question that special ops teams have and should have an increased role to play in today's world of asymmetrical warfare. At the same time, though, it's simple reality that their very nature makes covert operations prone to abuse. If Congress wants to surrender its oversight of these operations and let the Pentagon run loose, and if the American public is OK with that, that's one thing. But to allow its oversight to lapse by default is quite another. This is a transformation that should be decided by a full and public debate, not a shadowy bureaucratic end run. Save the shadows for the covert operations themselves.

Kevin Drum 5:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY ROUNDUP....The good folks at CEPR have created a website that provides a summary of the main press reports about Social Security each week. Their first installment is here, and a new one will be posted each Monday. If you want to receive the report by email, you can sign up here.

Good stuff, and an easy way to keep in touch with what's going on. Now if only they provided links to their featured stories....

Kevin Drum 3:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

EXIT POLL FINALE....Edison/Mitofsky, the company responsible for exit polling in the 2004 election, released their final report today about what went wrong. For starters, it appears that although there was one technical glitch related to sample weighting, weighting was not the overall problem:

The weighted national survey numbers showed Kerry with 51% and Bush with 48%. The final national popular vote margin ended up being 2.5% for Bush. Thus, the national exit poll had an error of 5.5 points on the difference in the Democratic direction which is similar to the 5.0 average from the state surveys.

In other words, even with the initial weightings applied, the results were still wrong by 5.5 percentage points.

So what was the problem?

The inaccuracies in the exit poll estimates were not due to the sample selection of the polling locations at which the exit polls were conducted. We have not discovered any systematic problem in how the exit poll data were collected and processed. Exit polls do not support the allegations of fraud due to rigging of voting equipment. Our analysis of the difference between the vote count and the exit poll at each polling location in our sample has found no systematic differences for precincts using touch screen and optical scan voting equipment.

Having eliminated those possibilities, they end up back where they started: they believe the problem is that Kerry voters were more likely to fill out exit poll questionnaires than Bush voters. There's no way to really prove this, but they offer several suggestive statistics:

  • The error rate was smaller in precincts where the interviewers attempted to survey every voter. Error rates went up in larger precincts where interviewers surveyed every third or every tenth voter.

  • Error rates were higher in swing precincts (those that had approximately equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans).

  • Older interviewers had smaller error rates than younger interviewers.

  • Error rates went up significantly if interviewers were required to stand 100 feet away from the polling place.

The report's conclusion is that when they had greater discretion (i.e., in swing precincts and in larger precincts where they couldn't interview everyone), younger interviewers unconsciously tended to select younger voters, who were more likely to have voted for Kerry. Likewise, younger voters were more likely than older voters to agree to fill out a survey from a young interviewer.

There's still a fair amount of guesswork involved in this, though, and it seems to have been mostly a process of elimination. No other source of error appears to have been present, so the error must have come somehow from an oversampling of Kerry voters in individual precincts.

And the solution? Basically, better training of interviewers and "legal remedies" to reduce the distance that some polling officials enforce on the interviewers. Not very exciting stuff.

Kevin Drum 1:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DESPERATE HOUSES....I imagine that fans of Desperate Housewives already know this, but I didn't:

Each house on the show which is shot on the Universal Studios back lot known as Colonial Street carries a rich heritage and unique design.

For example, Bree's abode was in the now-defunct NBC series "Providence" and Lynette's manse can be seen in the 1951 classic film "Bedtime for Bonzo." Also making appearances are the old "Leave It to Beaver" house and "The Munsters" hangout.

How about that? You learn something new every day.

Kevin Drum 12:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE ANNUAL TAX CUT....How do Republicans ensure corporate support for their tax cuts, even the ones that don't affect corporate taxes much? Nick Confessore interviews Grover Norquist in the New York Times Magazine this week and Norquist explains it all:

"As long as we have the annual tax cut, all the business guys are in line," Norquist explained to me, noting that business trade associations like the National Association of Manufacturers helped lobby for Bush's 2001 cut, even though it did nothing to reduce corporate rates. Norquist described his pitch to K Street this way: "This year, we're doing a tax cut. You want to help us with this year, you're at the front of the line for next. You didn't get in this year, you can get in line for next year. But we're going to be doing a tax cut, however small, because we can go as small as we have to to get a tax cut every year. That is what we did for the last four years. That is what we are going to do for the next four years."

There's much more about Republican tax "reform" in Nick's article, including Jim DeMint's amusingly insane description of why the middle class should eagerly embrace something that looks like higher taxes but really isn't once you've transcended normal consensus reality and seen the light.

The scary part, of course, is that DeMint believes his own gibberish. It almost makes me nostalgic for old fashioned corporate mendacity.

Kevin Drum 1:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

"DEAD HORSE"....There's something ironic about a senior Republican congressman proclaiming that President Bush's forthcoming Social Security proposal is a "dead horse" and then in the next breath musing about the idea that maybe women should get lower benefits because they live longer. That's not exactly a proposal designed to get broad bipartisan support itself.

But I think Bill Thomas is right: after all the wailing and gnashing of teeth on both sides is over, Bush's privatization plan will go down in flames. Democrats are going to keep a pretty united front on this, and that united front is going to scare at least 40 or 50 Republicans away from supporting it. The votes just aren't there.

But here's the funny thing: surely Karl Rove knows this? Unless I'm missing something, it seems like a no brainer. So what's the point?

I dunno. Maybe a head fake of some kind? Back in 2002 I couldn't figure out why Bush initially opposed a vote on the Iraq war either, since it was obvious that he'd win one easily. In that case, generating Democratic demands for a vote was probably the underlying reason, since that prevented Democrats from then claiming that the whole thing was just a partisan trap.

This time, though? What's the point of loudly pushing a proposal you're going to lose? What's behind it all?

UPDATE: Turns out Ed Kilgore is wondering the same thing. His hunch is that it's a bait-and-switch: Democrats will end up loudly saying that private accounts are great, but only in addition to Social Security, not instead of it. So in the end, Bush will "compromise" and sign a bill that leaves Social Security alone but creates big tax-sheltered savings accounts ideally suited for tax avoidance by high earners.

Could be, I suppose. It sounds a little too clever even for the Karl Roves of the world, but I guess you never know. Something to keep an eye out for, anyway.

Kevin Drum 12:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 18, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

REALITY BASED TROOPS....Via Brad Plumer, here's an exchange between Joe Biden and Condoleezza Rice today:

BIDEN: Now, how many [Iraqi forces] do you really think are trained that Allawi can look to and say, I can rely on those forces? What do you think that number is?

....RICE: We think the number right now is somewhere over 120,000.

....BIDEN: Well, I thank you for your answer. I think you'll find, if you speak to the folks on the ground, they don't think there's more than 4,000 actually trained Iraqi forces. I strongly urge you to pick up the phone or go see these folks.

4,000? Biden believes Rice is off by a factor of 30x? Sheesh.

Kevin Drum 5:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COVERT OPS....Seymour Hersh's latest New Yorker article is getting a lot of attention because of his allegation that the Bush administration has plans to invade Iran. But that's not what really caught my eye after reading through his piece. Here's what Hersh said.

First, that the Defense Department is conducting special ops reconnaissance inside Iran and developing plans to destroy Iran's nuclear bomb program. This is undoubtedly true. But that's what militaries do: they create plans. Frankly, they'd be derelict if they weren't trying to figure out where Iran's nuclear sites were and developing contingencies for taking them out.

Second, that in return for Pakistani cooperation we agreed not to make a fuss about A.Q. Khan's nuclear network. By itself, that doesn't strike me as much of a bombshell either. The Pakistanis have supposedly agreed to shut down Khan's network, after all, and it's merely a public humiliation of Khan himself that we've agreed to forego. I can live with that if we genuinely got some valuable cooperation in return.

Third, that they're dead serious about all these plans and a strike against Iran is already a certainty. But that's not all: Hersh says administration hawks are convinced again that not only will this destroy Iran's nuclear program, but will also provoke a pro-western uprising against the mullahs. It's regime change on the cheap, Part 2! This fantasyland thinking is obviously more disturbing, but at the same time Hersh's sources for all this seem fairly thin. Definitely worth keeping an eye on, though.

Fourth, though, is the part that ought to be getting more attention. Hersh says with seemingly considerable backup that the administration has a broad plan to remove covert operations from the CIA and centralize them all in the Pentagon. Why? Because they believe that Pentagon ops are exempt from 70s-era laws that limit covert activities. In other words, no oversight. Just lock and load.

That's something that deserves some more scrutiny. You can obviously make an argument that 9/11 profoundly changed the way we wage war, and you can also make an argument that laws passed three decades ago ought to be revisited and updated. But this is a debate we should be having loudly and publicly, not in back rooms and closed door briefings. If we don't, we'll regret it a decade from now. We always do.

Kevin Drum 3:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER....Harvard President Larry Summers has apparently put his foot in his mouth again, telling a conference last week that while there are lots of possible reasons women do less well than men in math and science careers, one of them might be related to hardwired genetic differences. I have my doubts about that, but I don't feel like getting into a substantive discussion of the issue since my knowledge of the empirical evidence is probably about as shaky as Summers's.

This, however, is annoying:

Several women who participated in the conference said yesterday that they had been surprised or outraged by Dr. Summers's comments, and Denice D. Denton, the chancellor designate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, questioned Dr. Summers sharply during the conference, saying she needed to "speak truth to power."

I would like to lead a crusade to forever ban the phrase "speaking truth to power," especially in academic settings. It's always uttered in tones that imply vast moral courage for doing so, and in Stalinist Russia that would have been true. In the 21st century American university system, however, most academics do nothing but speak truth to power, as loudly and as frequently as they can. Their punishment? Tenure, usually.

Of course, the fact that this was not a junior faculty member questioning Summers, but a fellow university president, makes it all the more ridiculous. Disagree all you want, folks, but let's please not pose as the second coming of Nelson Mandela while doing it.

Kevin Drum 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

STRYKER BRIGADES....Via James Joyner, Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker reports that the Army's new Stryker Brigades have been phenomenal successes:

"The extraordinary performance that the two Stryker Brigades that we had in Iraq are going to be legend in my view," Schoomaker said....Stryker units also showed the benefits of integrated systems, he said, moving more than 400 miles from Mosul to Najaf in 48 hours, fighting two battles along the way. This is the operational agility and capability the Army wants and is promoting with its modular organizational changes.

It looks like "Clinton's General" is doing pretty well, isn't he? Eric Shinseki turned out to be right about the need for more troops in Iraq, and apparently he turned out to be right in his fight with Donald Rumsfeld over the value of light, mobile Stryker Brigades too. Not bad for a squishy liberal, eh?

Kevin Drum 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COURTS AND SOCIAL POLICY....A FOLLOWUP....Should liberals quit trying to use the courts to advance their social agenda? I posted about this a couple of days ago, and today Nathan Newman offers a much more detailed defense of his view that doing so actually retards social progress in the long run by provoking a conservative backlash. His main post is here and a short followup post is here.

To repeat myself, although I've long found this argument intriguing I'm not yet ready to say I'm convinced. And since creationism in public schools is one my hottest of hot buttons, it's not surprising that I find myself especially wary of arguments like this:

Frankly, religious fundamentalists have a good case that evolution attacks their belief system. Darwinism directly contradicts a literal reading of the bible creation story. To the extent that secularists claim a non-religious view of the world is an ethical view of the world PROTECTED by the free exercise clause, a non-religious explanation of our origins is part of an ethical view of the world that cannot be ESTABLISHED by the state.

I'm not arguing that Darwinism should therefore be excluded from schools as some on the religious right would claim. But I am arguing that the courts shouldn't try to look at religious motives for legislation and instead should limit any intervention to protecting the religious liberty of all students. If a majority pushes to teach Intelligent Design in schools and a teacher of ID is using it in a way that makes atheist Darwinists feel intimidated, that's a situation calling for intervention in the name of religious liberty.

I myself would not argue that Darwinism in biology classes is protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Rather, I would argue more narrowly that everything else is forbidden. If a school district decides not to teach biology at all, that's fine. But if they do teach it, they aren't allowed to include religious proselytizing in the curriculum.

The distinction here is this: creationism is Christian proselytizing, a no-no for government bureaucrats. Intelligent Design is so clearly a thinly veiled version of creationism that it's forbidden too. Darwinism, however, is simply science. School districts are free to stop teaching science if they want, but if they do teach it, they have to teach Darwinism just as much as they have to teach Newtonian mechanics, Boyle's law, and the theory of relativity.

Does this position run the risk of infuriating Christian fundamentalists and provoking a backlash? Of course it does. It already has. And yet I find myself unconvinced that that's sufficient reason to back down on this. There's plenty of crackpot science out there, and public schools should no more be allowed to teach Intelligent Design than they should be allowed to tell students that pi equals 3. Even if Nathan is right, that's a bridge I just can't cross.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias weighs in on Nathan's side: "Dependence on the courts makes liberals fat and lazy. Important political fights are won on the airwaves, on the op-ed pages, in the streets, and at the ballot box. The "culture wars" fights are largely winnable, but only if you play the game and learn to play it well."

UPDATE 2: The invaluable Sam Heldman, now blogging once again, has a different take: if liberal judges really do invite conservative backlash, why is it that conservative judges don't invite liberal backlash? And he's got an example!

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND SOCIAL SECURITY....Trawling through the latest Washington Post poll didn't really produce anything especially newsworthy, but when you look at all the Social Security questions taken together the results are sort of intriguing. Here they are:

  • President Bush insists that Social Security is in crisis and won't be able to fund future payments. 60% of the population agrees with him.

  • Bush's favored solution for this is private accounts. 55% of the population supports this.

    And yet:

  • When asked who they trust to handle Social Security, only 37% of the population says Bush. 50% prefer the Democrats.

There's gold in them thar hills if the Dems can just figure out a way to mine it!

On a related note, despite several weeks of nonstop fear mongering it's notable that Social Security still isn't that big a concern to most people: it's rated as only the sixth most important topic (behind Iraq, terrorism, the economy, healthcare, and education). And tort reform, Bush's other big initiative? It's next to dead last. So far, the American public doesn't really seem to share Bush's priorities.

Kevin Drum 1:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 17, 2005
By: Paul Glastris

Remembering Marjorie Williams... A beloved member of The Washington Monthly extended family, journalist and columnist Marjorie Williams, died yesterday, after a long, brave battle with cancer. She was 47. She is survived by her husband, Slate columnist and Monthly contributing editor Timothy Noah, and her two beautiful children, Will and Alice.

Its impossible to exaggerate what a fantastic person Marjorie was. She possessed in abundance qualities you dont normally find in the same person. She was brilliant and sweet, self-assured and self-effacing, ruthlessly honest and unfailingly considerate. She had a dazzling mind, a delightfully tart tongue, and a generous heart. Spending time at her and Tims home, which my family and I often did, you felt both excited and at easewith the kids playing in the toy-strewn living room and the adults talking politics around the island in the kitchen. And in those conversations, when Marjorie talked, you wanted to listen.

Regular readers of The Washington Post and Vanity Fair circa the 1990s will probably remember her work, especially her extraordinary profiles of Washington power players. Journalists crank out hundreds of such pieces a year, the vast majority of which are utterly forgettable, owing largely to the inherent difficulty of the genre. Its tough to say something new and interesting about people who have already been profiled many times, especially canny Beltway officials who are experts at manipulating their image. Yet Marjorie was always able to crack such people, and her profiles rose to the level of literature, as David Von Drehle explains in his wonderful obituary of Marjorie in todays Post:

A portrait by Ms. Williams was seen as a ritual signifying that a person had reached the center of the political universe. First came the charm, then the withering scalp-to-toenails examination under her all-seeing eye. Her conclusions were published for millions to read in keen and crystal prose.

She profiled everyone from Bill Clinton to James A. Baker, Al Gore to Colin L. Powell, Larry King to George Stephanopoulos, from archetypal insider Clark Clifford to upstart moneyman Terry McAuliffe. Her portraits blended microscopic observations and universal conclusions as a sort of Plutarch's "Lives" for an end-of-millennium Washington.


Over at beliefnet, editor Steve Waldman and his wife Amy Cunningham offer another perceptive and touching reminiscence of Marjorie, including a story Id forgotten: about how Steve and I, in a drunken conversation, determined that if we had to choose someone to write the one and only profile that would ever be done of us, the person wed pick would be Marjorie. (Theres room on the site for others to share their memories of Marjorie.)

Marjorie also wrote a widely-read column for the Washington Post, the great subject of which was the unavoidable existential tensions of working motherhood. No one, with the possible exception of her good friend and fellow columnist Ruth Marcus, captured these tensions with more grace and wisdom than Marjorie.

In addition to her column and profiles, Marjorie frequently reviewed books for The Washington Monthly (she insisted on a clause in her contract with Vanity Fair allowing her to do so). She was a master of that form, too. She could be, depending on the material, appreciative or withering, often in the same sentence, as when she said of a book by Betty Friedan if this slim volume has any virtue, it is as proof that fame, influence, and the well-earned sense of respite that comes at the end of an illustrious career are the enemies of good writing.

In Marjories memory, weve collected and posted her reviews; you can read them here.

I hope othersperhaps her colleagues at the Post or Vanity Fairwill make available the rest of Marjories splendid pieces, online or, better yet, in book form. Her work deserves to live on, as I know her memory will.

Paul Glastris 3:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BIG TENT?....Tim Roemer, who is running for DNC chair, apparently got upset over the weekend after an anonymous memo was circulated that criticized his stand on various liberal issues, notably his pro-life abortion stance. I'm not quite sure what his real beef is, since criticizing someone's policy positions seems pretty legitimate to me, but I'll let that pass since I don't know just how nasty the memo was. This, on the other hand, is ridiculous:

Roemer said Democrats should learn from the Republican Party, which has allowed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to play prominent roles. Both of them support abortion rights.

"Republicans have a big tent; why can't we?" he asked.

The fact that liberal states sometimes elect moderate Republicans to state office doesn't mean the Republican party is a "big tent." Quite the contrary. The very fact that these guys are so famous for their moderation is an indication of how rare moderate Republicans have become. It's also worth noting that the actual leadership of the Republican party is a very small tent indeed, and uses guys like Giuliani and Schwarzenegger strictly as window dressing. They have exactly zero influence on Republican party policies and exactly zero chance of ever having any influence.

Now, DNC chair is not primarily a policymaking position, so to that extent I don't think Roemer's positions disqualify him from consideration. However, I would like to have a DNC chair who doesn't publicly glorify as a "big tent" an opposition party that in reality has become nothing but smaller and ever more insular over the past two decades: more ideological, more extremist, more intolerant, and increasingly self-righteous. Praise their organization and their zealotry if you will, but not their openness to opposing views. Enough's enough.

Kevin Drum 2:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MLK JR....Jeralyn Merritt suggests that everyone take a few minutes today to reacquaint themselves with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. She says this one is her favorite: "An eye for an eye leaves everybody blind."

Of course, as King well knew but so many fans of Old Testament justice don't or simply refuse to accept the Biblical admonition of "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" was never intended as an endorsement of revenge. Rather, it was intended as a limit on revenge: instead of endless cycles of vengeance, punishment was henceforth required to be proportional. If someone knocks out a tooth, you're not allowed to commit murder in return.

King's best known legacy took this a step further, of course, as embodied in the quote Jeralyn spotlighted today. It's a good choice.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOW LONG WILL YOU LIVE?....I've been arguing for a while that the economic projections underlying predictions of Social Security doom are overly pessimistic. It seems likely to me that both economic growth and immigration rates will be higher than the government projects, which means that Social Security is in good shape for 60 or 70 years, not 40.

But those aren't the only projections that are critical to Social Security's future health, and a few weeks ago the New York Times ran an article suggesting that the government's projections of life expectancy were actually too optimistic, and thus made the system seem healthier than it really was.

I didn't post about it because I was on vacation at the time, and in any case it was a very frustrating article, full of dueling quotes with practically no backup for their various contentions. For example:

Last year an expert panel advising the Social Security Administration found "an unprecedented reduction in certain forms of old-age mortality, especially cardiovascular disease, beginning in the late 1960's."

....David A. Wise, a Harvard professor who is director of the program on aging at the private, nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research, said: "Almost all demographers outside the government think that death rates will continue to fall faster than the decline incorporated in the projections of the Social Security Administration. Most think life expectancy will increase more rapidly than Social Security says. That's not good for the finances of Social Security."

Maybe. But take a look at the chart on the right, which shows life expectancy at age 65 for the past six decades. Nothing about it seems either radical or unprecedented.

For men, there's an inflection point in 1973. Since then, male life expectancy has increased steadily by one year per decade.

For women, there's an inflection point in 1979. Since then, female life expectancy has hardly budged. In fact, in the past two decades female life expectancy at age 65 has increased by a grand total of four months.

These numbers are so steady and unambiguous that it's unclear why anyone thinks they're suddenly going to start skyrocketing beyond the current projections used by the Social Security actuaries. On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine provided an explanation of sorts:

A 65-year-old man today can expect to live to nearly 82. According to the most likely projection, in 2080 he should expect to live to 86. [Social Security's chief actuary Stephen] Goss says that the agency is assuming that medical technology will deliver more ''miracles.'' Most demographers agree with him, and some even think the agency is not being optimistic enough. The only trouble is, as Goss notes, that over the past 20 years ''they have been wrong at every turn. There has been less improvement than we were expecting.'' Indeed, the improvement in mortality has slowed significantly. And no one is sure why it has slowed. Nonetheless, the agency expects a sharp rebound over ensuing decades. Its fiscal gloominess thus depends on a speculative uptick in medical miracles.

In other words, historical data suggests that Social Security's longevity projections are fine. In fact, more than fine: they already project higher life expectancies than the data supports, and the only reason to think they should be higher still is if you assume even more spectacular medical breakthroughs than they do.

And who knows? Maybe that's what will happen. Then again, maybe our Big Mac consumption will outstrip medical science's ability to save us from ourselves. But in any case it hardly seems reasonable to base current policy on unknowable future breakthroughs. For now, it looks to me like Social Security's life expectancy projections are probably pretty reasonable.

Kevin Drum 12:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 16, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PRIVATIZATION....Via Body and Soul, here's an amusing exchange between two Washington Post reporters and President Bush in an interview on Friday:

The Post: Will you talk to Senate Democrats about your privatization plan?

THE PRESIDENT: You mean, the personal savings accounts?

The Post: Yes, exactly. Scott has been --

THE PRESIDENT: We don't want to be editorializing, at least in the questions.

The Post: You used partial privatization yourself last year, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes?

The Post: Yes, three times in one sentence. We had to figure this out, because we're in an argument with the RNC [Republican National Committee] about how we should actually word this. [Post staff writer] Mike Allen, the industrious Mike Allen, found it.

THE PRESIDENT: Allen did what now?

The Post: You used partial privatization.

THE PRESIDENT: I did, personally?

The Post: Right.

THE PRESIDENT: When?

The Post: To describe it.

THE PRESIDENT: When, when was it?

The Post: Mike said it was right around the election.

THE PRESIDENT: Seriously?

The Post: It was right around the election. We'll send it over.

THE PRESIDENT: I'm surprised. Maybe I did. It's amazing what happens when you're tired. Anyway, your question was? I'm sorry for interrupting.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Kevin Drum 6:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY PROJECTIONS....When the Social Security trustees project the future, they actually make three projections: pessimistic, optimistic, and intermediate. The intermediate one gets all the press, but which one has historically turned out to be most accurate? Roger Lowenstein tells us today in the New York Times Magazine:

David Langer, an independent actuary who made a study of Social Security's previous projections compared with the actual results in 2003, thinks the ''optimistic'' case is its most accurate. Over a recent 10-year span, the trustees' intermediate guesses turned out to be quite pessimistic. Its optimistic guesses were dead on, and its pessimistic case sort of a doomsday situation was wildly inaccurate.

In the "optimistic" case, of course, Social Security is solvent forever even with no changes as the chart on the right shows. (Note: the chart illustrates the projected health of the trust fund under all three scenarios. When the blue lines hit zero, the trust fund is exhausted. Click the chart to read the underlying details.)

More generally, Lowenstein's piece is excellent reading. It includes lucid explanations of most of Social Security's most critical issues, some very good historical information about the program, and a nice discussion of actuarial issues (which I plan to revisit tonight). It's an outstanding primer and well worth reading.

Kevin Drum 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE COURTS AND DEMOCRACY....Nathan Newman has an interesting post up explaining why liberals should quit turning to the courts for support of their social views: because it doesn't work. Take separation of church and state, for example:

Secularism increased in strength democratically in the United States throughout this century until the 1960s. But the Supreme Court decisions on religion and then abortion became a populist rallying cry for the building of the religious right in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Instead of having to rhetorically attack their fellow citizens for secular changes in law, the religious right could blame these legal changes on a malevolent "elite", centered in the Supreme Court, that was attacking their way of life.

This is a common argument and, I've long thought, an interesting one. I'm not sure I entirely agree with it on either historical or social grounds, but it's certainly food for thought.

As it happens, though, my biggest problem with this argument has always been technical. I happen to think that liberals have basically won the church-state argument, and all that's left is fighting over scraps that aren't worth it. It just feeds the religious right's feeling of righteous besiegement while gaining almost nothing in practical terms. Who really cares if Roy Moore plops a Ten Commandments monument in front of his courthouse?

Still, even though I feel that way personally, someone is going to take this kind of stuff to court. There's just no way to stop it. And if I were a judge, what choice would I have then? The damn thing is pretty clearly unconstitutional whether it offends me personally or not. Ditto for Intelligent Design, which any honest judge would conclude after only cursory research is nothing more than creationism with a pretty face.

In the end, then, even though I agree with Nathan that some of the fringe issues being litigated today are probably counterproductive for liberals (though I'm less sure I agree with him about some of the core rulings of the 60s), I'm still not sure where this leaves us. What's the next step?

Kevin Drum 1:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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MAKING A LIST, CHECKING IT TWICE....For the past few weeks Josh Marshall has been industriously collecting names of congress critters who are members of what he calls the "Fainthearted Faction" Democrats who are saying nice things about the president's Social Security privatization plan and the "Conscience Caucus" Republicans who are bucking the party line and refusing to go along with it. Click the links to see who the current members are.

I'm bringing this up because I figure there are probably at least three or four people out there who read this blog but don't read Josh, and you might be interested in looking at the lists. Josh keeps them updated with help from his readers, so if you've gotten a communique of some kind from one of your congressional representatives that would put them in one camp or another, fire off an email to Josh and let him know.

Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FIREFOX QUERY....I have a Firefox question. Frequently, when I click a hyperlink, the page jumps slightly and my mouse is no longer over the link by the time I release the mouse button. When this happens, I have to move my mouse and click the link again.

Needless to say, this is annoying. In fact, it's the only real complaint I have about Firefox. Does anyone have any idea what might be causing this and how I can get it to stop?

Kevin Drum 12:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ANOTHER VOICE HEARD FROM....In the New York Times today, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill lobs a bomb at what he calls George Bush's "tepid" plan for Social Security privatization. Here's what he thinks we need:

We should ask ourselves what would be a worthy aspiration for the financial security of retired Americans in the years ahead. My answer is that we should establish a process that will produce a substantial annuity for every American at retirement age.

By substantial, I mean at least $1 million.

O'Neill doesn't provide many details, but he does say that everyone over 35 should be left in the current system. Only young people would be part of his program to provide every worker with a $1 million nest egg by the time they retire.

Of course, he warns us that "the social policy technocrats" will have a few wee questions about how we're going to accomplish this. That's my cue, isn't it? So here are my wee questions. (Note: I assume that O'Neill means a million bucks in today's dollars, so everything that follows is also calculated in today's dollars.)

  • First, O'Neill seems to think that we can keep the payroll tax intact at its current rate of 12.4%, which will provide young people with enough money to fund these new accounts. But assuming a 5% real return over a working life of 45 years, building a nest egg of $1 million requires contributions of $6,000 per year, and at 12.4% you can only contribute this amount if your income is $48,000 or more. More than half the country couldn't do it.

    What to do? O'Neill suggests only that the federal government could make up the difference. In other words, good old government transfer payments would continue to do a booming business.

  • But let's assume we could do this anyway. Maybe people will work longer. Maybe returns will be higher. Maybe O'Neill is even more optimistic about wage growth than I am. What would the system look like in, say, 70 years, after all of today's 35-year-olds are dead and the new system has completely taken over?

    This is all back of the envelope, but I figure the population of retired people in 2075 will be around 100 million, give or take a bit. At $1 million each, that's a total of $100 trillion in investments.

    The total market capitalization of all public companies in the United States is about $12 trillion today. At a long term real growth rate of 3%, that number will be roughly $100 trillion in 2075.

    In other words, retirees would own everything. That's a bit of a bleak future for everyone else, isn't it?

  • The transition costs would be a little steep too, wouldn't they? Just for starters, O'Neill says that everyone under 35 would stop paying into the current system and would instead put their payroll taxes into private accounts. Everyone over 35 would continue to get normal Social Security benefits.

    Fast forward 30 years and what do you have? Everyone over 35 is retired, so there's no one left paying into the system. Not one penny. And yet all those folks who are over 35 today will still be collecting benefits. In current dollars, you can figure that's about $1 trillion per year being paid out in benefits with zero taxes to cover it. Hmmm.

So what's going on? Am I missing something huge and fundamental here? Because unless I am, O'Neill is talking out his ass, substituting airy nonsense about the "courage to dream big" for an actual plan with actual numbers attached to it.

Of course, maybe I am missing something huge and fundamental. But what? Show me the numbers, Paul.

Kevin Drum 12:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 15, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CRISIS-MONGERING....Dick Meyer's "Against the Grain" column at CBSnews.com yesterday is actually even more remarkable than Josh Marshall says. After several hundred words acknowledging the Bush administration's relentless use of phony crises to whip the public into a lather, he says this about Social Security:

But in defining the issues supporting an aging population so narrowly, the Democrats are every bit as disingenuous as the administration. When you put Social Security on top of Medicare, on top of rising medical costs and in the context of a shrinking workforce and expanding elderly population, you have something pretty close to a crisis. But its not one either party is talking much about.

Um, Dick? The Democrats aren't defining anything here. President Bush is the one who has chosen to focus exclusively on Social Security and he's also the one who chose to support a fantastically bloated and inefficient expansion of Medicare costs in 2003. Democrats just aren't the ones setting the agenda these days.

And while I'm at it, there's another rhetorical device worth noting here because I see it so often: writing about Social Security's financial problems and the shrinking workforce and the expanding elderly population. But these are all the same thing: Social Security's long-term problems, such as they are, are caused by an increase in the elderly relative to the size of the workforce. They aren't separate things.

What's more, it all washes out in the numbers. If you say, for example, that Social Security costs are going to rise x%, that number all by itself includes every single cause of rising costs: workforce growth, wage growth, life expectancies, immigration rates, etc.

(I get this a lot in comments. I'll say something like "Social Security will cost 6.5% of GDP in 2050" and someone will respond that the real problem is that there are fewer workers to support a growing number of retirees. But that's why Social Security is going to cost 6.5% of GDP in 2050 in the first place. Once you put a dollar figure on it, you've covered everything.)

If Social Security and Medicare were strictly demographic issues that is, more retirees living longer neither one would be a huge problem. You can pick your own preferred solution, but even in the worst case some modest combination of benefit cuts and revenue increases phased in over a period of decades would solve everything. The real problem isn't Social Security or Medicare per se, it's healthcare costs in general. That's the problem that needs to be solved, not healthcare for old people alone.

But no one wants to do it. Why? Because unlike Social Security, it's a really hard problem and it doesn't lend itself well to simplistic, demagogic solutions. In other words, it just doesn't fit George Bush's agenda.

Kevin Drum 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DAN RATHER, MEET JOHN STOSSEL....Jack O'Toole, in the course of musing about Dan Rather's sins, reminds us of the remarkably similar though less remarked on sins of pro-business 20/20 journalist John Stossel. Here's the story behind a Stossel-reported 20/20 segment aired in February 2000:

  • Stossel sets out to produce a story demonstrating that organic produce is a sham.

  • Hires scientists to test pesticide residue on organic and non-organic produce.

  • Scientists don't actually test produce, but they do test chickens. Result: conventional chickens have pesticide residue, organic chickens don't. A victory for organic chickens!

  • On resulting 20/20 episode, chicken results are ignored. Instead, Stossel claims ABC tested produce, and that ordinary produce has no more pesticide residue than organic produce.

  • Environmental group writes letter telling Stossel that his own researchers say his report was wrong. However, they are dismissed as partisan advocates and ignored. The 20/20 segment airs a second time.

  • Months later, the New York Times writes about the controversy. Suddenly, with the mainstream media involved, the criticism is taken seriously.

  • ABC investigates and discovers environmental group is correct. After six months of stonewalling, Stossel goes on air and finally apologizes. "I am deeply sorry I misled you," he says.

  • However, he insists that the gist of the report is still correct, and attributes the error to honest confusion over test results, not political bias.

End result: the producer of the segment was suspended for a month and no action was taken against Stossel aside from a public reprimand.

Because he's a southern gentleman, Jack is kind enough to say that he doesn't think Stossel should be fired over this. Oddly, though, he thinks Dan Rather should be. But why? If recklessly reporting untruths because they fit an alleged underlying political bias is a firing offense for a prime time journalist on a TV news magazine, then it's a firing offense. If it's cause for a reprimand, then it's cause for a reprimand. I don't quite see why standards should be different just because it's a bunch of conservatives howling this time around instead of liberals.

Kevin Drum 1:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ASLEEP AT THE SCALPEL....A couple of days ago I posted about a new study that confirmed the startling news that medical interns who have been awake for 30 straight hours probably aren't functioning at full capacity. However, I'm afraid some of you might not have taken this problem sufficiently seriously. So at least for the men in my audience I'm afraid I have to do something to get your attention. Here's the testimony of medical student Jonathan Dworkin over at Aspasia:

In New York City residents routinely begin their day at six or seven in the morning, work twelve hours, then stay on call all night. In a practice that I think is particularly cruel, they typically don't get home until noon the following day several hours after morning rounds. During this extended time they perform simple tasks, like circumcisions. That's right, circumcisions. During my clerkship in Elmhurst Hospital, Queens, I noticed that many of the OB interns would do the deed post call. The man behind the guillotine is the same man that hasn't slept since last Tuesday. And you wonder why there's some funny looking penises out there?

Yuck. But it did get your attention, didn't it?

On a more serious note, Jonathan quotes the following from a 2000 journal article defending the traditional practice of forcing interns to work until their brains turn to jelly:

There is little evidence to support the claim that sleep deprivation is a serious cause of medical misadventures. Nevertheless, the changes in house officers' working hours and responsibilities have profound implications. Changes in the time allotted to teaching, the ability to learn from patients admitted after a shift is over, and the increasing loss of continuity, all may have a negative impact on physician training. It is not clear that trainees are being realistically prepared for the actual practice of medicine physicians often work extended hours.

The most serious concern that has been raised is the loss of professionalism by physicians. Residents are now viewing themselves as hourly workers, and the State has intervened in an area of training formerly left to the profession to manage. We are now training doctors in New York State who will be comfortable working in an hourly wage setting, but not in the traditional practice of medicine as it has been in the United States during this century. We are concerned that this may sever the bond between doctor and patient a bond that has been the bedrock of our conception of a physician.

The most remarkable thing about this is how obviously lame it is I think "transparent bullshit" is the term Jonathan uses. It's like listening to five year old trying to invent an explanation for why he put the cat in the washing machine. It doesn't stand up to even a moment's scrutiny.

Just something to keep in mind when you're deciding whether to have your kid circumcised. Caveat emptor.

Kevin Drum 12:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 14, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

A FOOL FOR A PATIENT....Should the FDA allow Merck to sell its cholesterol-lowering drug Mevacor without a prescription? Michelle Cottle thinks not:

As a nation, Americans are apparently too stupid (or stubborn) to recognize that Big Macs and Big Gulps aren't the foundation of a healthy diet, but thanks to several gazillion dollars in direct-to-consumer drug advertising, we all consider ourselves experts in pharmacology.

....No matter what kind of qualifiers, disclaimers, and helpful tips Merck scrawls across Mevacor's box (or, more likely, crams onto a package insert printed in type so tiny it will make your eyes bleed), a fair number of self-medicating geniuses will think that the best way to prevent heart disease is to take two Mevacor for every six pieces of fried chicken they plan to eat that night. Don't laugh. It will happen and happen frequently.

That sounds about right.

Kevin Drum 4:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SULLIVAN ON TORTURE....Andrew Sullivan responds today to a typically fatuous Denis Bowles column in NRO about torture:

The only word for this is denial. Please, Denis, read the reports. At least thirty inmates have died after "coercive techniques" in U.S. custody. The government itself has conceded that the U.S. has tortured five inmates to death. Hundreds more have been hospitalized or permanently physically scarred. Even if you radically restrict your analysis to the night shift in Abu Ghraib, the abuses far outstrip forcing people to listen to music or laughing at nakedness. What has happened to American conservatism when it is reduced to ridiculing genuine and important issues of human rights?

Needless to say, I have a different answer to Andrew's final question than he does, but at the same time I have to say that his site has become a must read for anyone who cares about the torture scandal. He had a very good review piece in the New York Times Book Review yesterday, and has been following the subject aggressively on his site for quite a while.

For what it's worth, I can't really forgive him for his relentless and demagogic post-9/11 dismissals of war opponents as little more than craven cowards and rape room apologists, but at least he's on the side of the angels on this subject. That's something.

Kevin Drum 1:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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JUST AN ORDINARY "OUTREACH EFFORT"....Jeez, speaking of the Armstrong Williams scandal, I was gobsmacked to read in the Washington Post today that outgoing Education Secretary Rod Paige, who was responsible for the deal with Williams, won't even admit he did anything wrong. Hell, Williams himself has apologized repeatedly, and even George Bush has pretended to be upset about it. Paige, though, says that secretly paying a journalist to plug the administration line on TV and in print is just a standard "outreach effort."

If this is SOP, then who else have they signed deals with?

Kevin Drum 1:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DISCLOSURE....Since "full disclosure" is apparently the order of the day, I guess I'd better start that way. Let's see now: I once wrote a post criticizing Markos Moulitsas Zniga of Daily Kos, and he wasn't very happy about it. What else? I think I spoke to him on the phone for a minute or two once. And the editors of the Monthly have met with him. Plus Markos has the same first name as the Monthly's publisher. And he's part Greek, like its editor.

I guess that's it. That said, this manufactured story about Markos and Jerome Armstrong consulting for Howard Dean is pretty idiotic even by conservative hack standards. Kos announced he was working for Dean and had a disclaimer on his site about this for quite a while. For his part, Jerome actually quit blogging completely while he worked for Dean.

In other words, there's nothing wrong with what they did. Nothing to explain. Period. It was all completely above board, and wingnut efforts to pretend that this is somehow a liberal version of the Armstrong Williams debacle are pathetic. Get a new horse, guys.

Kevin Drum 12:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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OP-ED OF THE DAY....Jon Chait today:

When the White House appointed retired Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.) to co-chair its commission on tax reform last week, newspapers described him, as they always do, with phrases like "moderate," "valuable broker between the parties" and "legendary dealmaker." Given the conventions of objective journalism, a truly accurate description, like "repellent sleazebag," might be too much to expect. But was it truly necessary to shower him with such lofty descriptions?

The man has a way with words, doesn't he?

Kevin Drum 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 13, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

HATCHET JOB....Over at Boffoblog, fellow Californian John Baughman was happy to see my takedown of Orrin Hatch's self-servingly selective memory the other day but thinks Hatch's central claim that judicial filibusters are unconstitutional deserves attention too. So he gives it some.

Kevin Drum 10:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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POLITICAL HARDBALL....Over at Tapped, Matt Yglesias says today's Democrats need to do to George Bush what Tip O'Neill did to Ronald Reagan in 1983: beat his brains in.

Right now, strictly speaking, the White House doesn't need any Democratic support to pass a bill and doesn't expect to give much up in order to get it. That means there's no basis for a genuine compromise. The only way to get a compromise is to convince the Republicans that a failure to achieve one is going to bring the rest of their agenda crashing down around them. That calls for demonstrating an eagerness not for compromising with the GOP but for using Social Security as a political bludgeon with which to destroy the Republican Party.

After all, liberals have been moaning since forever that cultural politics prevent them from getting voters to focus on the left's popular economic ideas. Well, what better way to get the voters to focus on economics than to have a president whose top agenda items are gutting Social Security and enacting drastic budget cuts? This is a fight Democrats should be thrilled to have. And if they win not just blocking the carve-out, but humiliating everyone associated with it that, and only that, will lay the groundwork for a sensible compromise that adjusts the benefit structure, tax rates, and retirement age of Social Security while creating new ways to boost private savings.

Sam Rosenfeld disagrees. What we really need to do is what Bill Kristol did to Bill Clinton in 1993: beat his brains in.

Bill Kristols famous strategy memos [urged] Republicans to reject any and all health care proposals from the White House sight unseen.....Kristol penned these memos as head of the Project for a Republican Majority, launched in November 1993 to frame a new Republicanism by challenging not just the particulars of big-government policies, but their very premises and purposes.

Kristol warned of the political and ideological repercussions of a successfully passed health care bill it would revive the Democrats reputation as the generous protector of middle-class interests and relegitimize middle-class dependence for security on government spending and regulation but he also promised that a successful and total defeat of Clintons plan, if handled in the correct way by the Republicans, would mark a watershed in the resurgence of a newly bold and principled Republican politics.

Hey, 1983, 1993, whatever. These both sound like pretty good analogies.

Sam's real disagreement with Matt is whether the end result of all this Democratic hardball should be some kind of Social Security compromise plus the destruction of the Republican party, or whether we should be focused solely on the destruction of the Republican party. I could live with either of those, I suppose, but since my first choice is to leave Social Security alone for a while, I guess I'm in Sam's camp. The consequences of not reaching a compromise are pretty much nil, after all, so why bother?

In any case, leaving the Republican leadership lying in the gutter and begging for mercy would do wonders for Democratic morale, wouldn't it? Count me in.

Kevin Drum 10:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BAKER JOINS WITHDRAWL FACTION....Bush family major domo James Baker appears to be joining the "declare victory and get out" crowd:

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, an architect of the U.S. war with Iraq in 1991, is advising the Bush administration to consider a phased withdrawal of some of the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Otherwise, Baker says, the United States risks being suspected of having an "imperial design" in the region.

....former President George H.W. Bush's secretary of state said, "any appearance of a permanent occupation will both undermine domestic support here in the United States and play directly into the hands of those in the Middle East who however wrongly suspect us of imperial design."

There sure is a lot of this going around. Some pretty senior Republicans have been getting awfully nervous about Iraq lately, and apparently they've decided on a party line for why they're counseling withdrawl: we're not losing because we have too few troops in Iraq, we're losing because we have too many troops. I imagine this has the advantage of not sounding like a direct criticism of Bush and Rumsfeld while still advancing a plausible reason why we need to get out.

I wonder if anyone in the White House is buying it?

Kevin Drum 9:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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TAKE THAT, BLOGGERS!....Jonah Goldberg reports that CBS has modified the PDF file of its Rathergate report so that you can no longer cut and paste text from it. As it happens, I downloaded a copy of the report to my hard drive when it first came out, so I was able to check up on this.

Sure enough, I can copy text from the original report but I can't from the version that's currently on the web.

Like Jonah, I'm struggling to figure out a non-petty reason for this. Both versions are the same size, so it wasn't revised to cut down the filesize. And the report itself appears to be identical in both versions. So why modify the document solely to make it harder to excerpt passages from it?

That's a stumper, all right. And who gave the order?

Kevin Drum 7:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SOCIAL SECURITY: A CONVERSATION....One of the drawbacks of the blog format is that it's fundamentally a collection of snippets. This makes it almost impossible to divine a blogger's actual position on a complex subject like Social Security unless you're willing to search through the archives and figure it out from individual posts.

But I've posted enough snippets on Social Security over the past couple of months that it's probably time to put them together so everyone knows more or less where I stand at the moment. I've constructed it as a dialog, and it's below the fold so you can skip it if you're not interested.

Imaginary Interlocutor: What are your nonnegotiable starting points?

Me: Simple. Social Security must be:

  • Universal. Everyone pays in, everyone gets benefits. It is not merely "welfare for old people" a phrase usually uttered with a contemptuous shrug.

  • Risk free. A reasonable benefit level should be guaranteed by the federal government, because it's the government that has the resources to spread risk most widely. There are plenty of appropriate places for risk in our society, but retirement isn't one of them.

These are goals. I'm open to just about any means of achieving these goals.

To meet those goals Social Security has to be solvent. What should we do about that?

Nothing. We have plenty of bigger fish to fry right now.

Nothing? As in zilch? Zero? Nada?

Yep. A decade ago the Social Security trustees forecast that the trust fund would be exhausted in 2029. Today they've moved the date out to 2042 you can see the details here. The Congressional Budget Office thinks it's good until 2053. And if you use slightly less pessimistic economic projections than these guys do something a lot of economists think we should it's good until at least 2060 or 2070.

In other words, Social Security is in good shape for at least 40 years and maybe more like 60 or 70 years. So our best bet is to leave it alone and revisit the subject in another decade or so.

But even if the problem is that far off, aren't we better off doing something now instead of waiting?

I don't think so. If we were talking about 20 or 30 years, I'd agree. But at some point it just stops making sense to plan too far into the future our economic forecasts are too uncertain to allow us to make reasonable choices. A decade from now we'll know a lot more about the real trajectory of the economy, and there will still be plenty of time to act if the news is bad.

Really, though, we start running into problems in 2018, don't we? That's not so far off. At that point we start redeeming the bonds in the trust fund and we have to raise income taxes to pay them off.

Sure although the 2018 date is iffy too. More to the point, though, that increase in income taxes was all part of the 1983 Social Security reform proposed by Alan Greenspan and approved by Ronald Reagan. Basically, the bargain was this: lower and middle class workers would overpay payroll taxes for a few decades, and following that the well off would overpay income taxes for a few decades. The required increase in income taxes is fairly modest, and like it or not, we can't renege on that deal now anyway. More details are here, if you're interested.

OK, but suppose the trustees are right about the 2042 date and the trust fund really is going to become insolvent then? What would you do?

I'd rather not get into that.

You have to.

Oh, all right. If the trustees are right, then we need to implement some combination of benefit cuts and tax increases to stabilize the system. The normal retirement age has already been increased to 67, and I'm not crazy about raising it further I think there are less painful alternatives. I'd probably do the following two things:

  • Currently, initial Social Security benefits are increased each year in line with wage growth. For a middle income earner, the initial benefit is kept equal to about 40% of pre-retirement wages.

    After that initial benefit is calculated, annual cost-of-living increases are calculated using the Consumer Price Index. However, many economists believe the CPI overstates actual inflation, which means benefits are probably being increased more than they should be. We could eliminate half the estimated shortfall in the trust fund by reducing the cost-of-living increase to about half a percentage point less than the CPI.

    This is a very small reduction, and it's also a fair reduction since it could take effect immediately. Thus, it would affect both current retirees and future retirees equally.

  • To make up the other half of the shortfall I'd raise the cap on payroll taxes. Today, only income up to $90,000 is subject to payroll tax.

    I'm not sure what the exact numbers on this should be, but my guess is that the cap would need to be increased to about $200,000 or so. This should be done gradually starting in about ten years.

Other ideas are here if you want to put together your own rescue plan. The table on page 25 is a handy quick reference.

Why wait ten years to start increasing taxes? Why not do it now?

I don't see the point in raising taxes right now. Social Security is already overfunded at the moment, and increased payroll taxes would just go straight into the general fund. The general fund certainly needs more money, but I'd prefer that it come from some other source instead of through the backdoor of increased payroll taxes.

How about private accounts? What's wrong with that?

In principle, nothing. Private accounts invested in stocks would probably have pretty good returns and would also increase national savings. Those are both good things, but only if the accounts are honestly funded.

Honestly funded?

Yeah. If we just increase the deficit and use borrowed money to fund private accounts, it won't work. That's George Bush's plan. But borrowing money to invest in the stock market won't do a thing for national savings: the savings in the private accounts are offset by dissaving in the form of increased federal deficits. What's more, the high returns become kind of a mirage too. Unless private accounts boost economic growth, high returns just become a way of shifting money around. Someone gets more, but someone else gets less. I don't really see the point.

So how would a good private account plan work?

First, it would be funded by a tax increase. For the sake of discussion, let's say three additional percentage points in the payroll tax. Since this doesn't increase the deficit, the private accounts really would increase national savings. That in turn would probably help economic growth.

Second, projections of long-term returns from private accounts need to be calculated honestly. You can't assume slow economic growth when you're projecting Social Security's future demise and then turn around and assume high economic growth when you're projecting returns from private accounts. As Dean Baker explains here, an honest plan needs to be based on real stock returns of 5% and total portfolio returns of about 3.5%.

Third, any private account plan needs to have some kind of safety net. What if your investment does poorly? What if you live to a hundred and run out of money?

How do you solve the safety net problem?

The most interesting idea I've heard so far came from Phil Longman in Fortune last month. The idea is simple: raise the retirement age to, say, 72. After that, normal Social Security kicks in and everyone is covered no matter how long they live. Your private account would cover you between age 67 and age 72.

This is fairly clever because it limits the downside risk. If your investments do poorly, you might have to put off retirement for a year or two, but that's all. It's bad, but not catastrophic. (Of course, if your investments do well, you can retire early.) What's more, you know exactly how long your private account needs to last: five years.

Any other thoughts?

Sure, but they're mostly just doodles. For example, there's no law that says Social Security has to be funded solely through payroll taxes. Medicare is funded partly through payroll taxes and partly from the general fund, for example. Maybe OAS (the retirement potion of Social Security) should continue to be funded through payroll taxes and DI (the disability portion of Social Security) should be funded from the general fund. That wouldn't reduce the cost of Social Security, of course, but it would put the system on a more solid financial footing.

I've heard ideas for other funding sources too: an energy tax, for example, or the estate tax. I'm not sure how much sense these ideas make, and I'm not sure how stable they are as funding sources, but they're interesting possibilities. They also sound like political nonstarters, though.

Any final thoughts?

Yeah: Social Security is not in crisis, no matter how many times George Bush says it is. The trust fund has gotten a lot stronger over the past decade, and our best bet is to wait and see if it continues to get stronger yet.

If it doesn't, there are simple and fairly painless remedies available. Conversely, private accounts strike me as little more than a desperate desire for a free lunch although they might be worth trying if they were implemented by paying for them honestly. George Bush, however, has no such intention, and would instead combine huge benefit cuts and massive borrowing with increased risk and an implied contempt for the very idea that the federal government should guarantee our elderly a dignified retirement.

In the meantime, we have bigger problems to worry about: Iraq, defense transformation, Medicare and rising healthcare costs in general, the growing federal budget deficit, and the skyrocketing trade deficit, just to name a few. Social Security "reform" is little more than a smokescreen to avoid dealing with harder problems that George Bush doesn't have any easy answers for.

Kevin Drum 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ECONOMIC STIMULATION ADVICE NEEDED....If I can be allowed to abuse my blogging position for a moment, does anyone have any advice about buying a laser-based multifunction device? I need all four main functions print, scan, fax, copy and it has to be laser-based since I have a (possibly irrational) hatred of inkjet printers. The Brother MFC-8440 seems like the leading contender right now, but I'm wide open to other suggestions if you have personal experience to share. Price range should be between $400-$800.

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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MORE ON GERRYMANDERING....I continue to feel guilty about my post last week opposing Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to end gerrymandering in California. It was just so....hackish. Sure, I copped to my own hackishness, but even so I felt like I had to wash my hands afterward to keep from feeling like I was turning into a liberal version of Hugh Hewitt.

So I'm happy to recommend this column from Peter Beinart as an intelligent rejoinder:

California Democrats...should enthusiastically agree to implement his proposed change after the next census, in 2011. Given that Democrats will likely still control California's state legislature then, the switch could still cost them seats. But that's a price worth paying to try to build momentum for a national change in the way redistricting is done.

And the response shouldn't be limited to the Golden State. Democrats across the country should jump on the Schwarzenegger bandwagon, demanding that their states also take redistricting away from the state legislatures that deny voters a real choice over who represents them. In a state like Florida, where the GOP has absurdly gerrymandered to ensure a mass of safe Republican seats, such a change could bring real Democratic gains and perhaps even help put control of the House back in play.

....Openings like this don't come along very often. If Democrats don't seize it, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

But is Beinart right? If Democrats led a charge to end gerrymandering, would it sweep the nation or would it sweep only the blue states where they were leading the charge? Make no mistake: this is a very high risk strategy that assumes Republican leaders can be embarrassed into following suit. Maybe they can, but count me as still needing to see a sign somewhere to give me faith.

And that brings up another question that's been on my mind: could Congress pass anti-gerrymandering legislation at a national level? I'm not concerned with the politics of the legislation, just its constitutionality. Are there any legal scholars out there who can address this?

The Voting Rights Act places enormous constraints on how states can draw districts, and this leads me to believe that Congress could dictate general principles for drawing district lines if it wanted to. Is this true? If it is, why not have congressional Dems make this a national level crusade, which is where it belongs in the first place?

Kevin Drum 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BLOCKBUSTER MEDICAL NEWS....This isn't the biggest issue in the world, but the New England Journal of Medicine has published yet another study showing that keeping medical interns awake for 30 hours straight is probably not such a good idea:

Researchers found that interns more than doubled their risk of getting into a car accident after being on call, a stint that meant working for 32 consecutive hours with only two or three hours of sleep, on average. Interns were also nearly six times as likely to report nearly having an accident on their way home.

....The researchers say those limits don't give doctors enough time to sleep. A study published last fall, also in the New England Journal, found that interns who spent every third night working in the intensive care unit made 36% more medical errors than interns who kept less onerous schedules. They also made serious diagnostic errors 5.6 times as often as their well-rested counterparts, the study found.

I've heard a litany of defenses of this practice from senior medical folks, and they couldn't sound more lame if they tried. They sound like nothing so much as a bunch of 50s frat boys defending hazing after some freshman has been found dead in an arroyo somewhere.

It's unbelievable that this system has continued as long as it has and unbelievable that it continues to be defended. Do we really need studies to tell us that people who have been awake for 30 consecutive hours probably aren't making very good decisions? And that both patients and others are suffering from this?

Would you want your mother to be looked after by a trainee who's been on her feet for 30 hours? I wouldn't.

Kevin Drum 11:44 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Simon Rocks... Kevin recently made a pretty strong case for Howard Dean as DNC chair. I'd been thinking along the same lines, and would add one more argument to Kevin's list: that if Democrats don't pick someone like Dean, who has cred with the moveon.org crowd, that whole, vital part of the base, which is furious with the party establishment (or what remains of it) could conceivably bolt to some third party.

But Matt Yglesias, responding to Kevin, makes a pretty strong case for Simon Rosenberg, who heads a DC-based fundraising/thinktank called New Democrat Network. Rosenberg is definitely an inside-the-beltway guy, not a household name beyond party circles, and that's a significant disadvantage compared to Dean. But what's impressive about Rosenberg is that, even more than Dean, he "gets it." By that I mean that he understands the power and genius of what conservatives have built for themselves over the years (the think tanks, media outlets, K Street coordination etc.), and the desperate need for progressives to build their own set of oppositional institutions that can craft an interlocking set of penetrating new ideas, messages, and strategies, or else accept Republican control of government for the next 50 years (read his thoughts here). Rosenberg also grasped, quicker than most insiders I know, the value of what was going on with the early Dean and Draft-Clark movements, and reached out to that community with gusto, to the point where, as far as I can tell, he's garnered significant support among those folks. Finally--and I know this from having talked to him over the years--he really hates the feckless, self-dealing, self-delusional tendencies of the insider class of Democrats among whom he has worked, and isn't afraid to say so. Indeed, he was one of the few sources who talked to Amy Sullivan on the record for her piece on why Democrats promote loser consultants.

So, while I'm not saying he'll win, I do think Rosenberg has a shot, and if he does win, I think he'll shake up the party in the ways it needs shaking up.

Paul Glastris 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 12, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

REVISING AND EXTENDING....There are reasonable arguments to be made both for and against the Senate's filibuster rule, but Orrin Hatch's lengthy dissertation on the subject in NRO today is jaw-droppingly self-serving. Here's his recollection of how he behaved back when Bill Clinton was president:

Focusing on President Clinton's judicial nominations in 1999, I described what has been the Senate's historical standard for judicial nominations: "Let's make our case if we have disagreement, and then vote."

....Along with then-Majority Leader Trent Lott, I repeatedly warned that filibustering Clinton judicial nominees would be a "travesty" and helped make sure that every Clinton judicial nomination reaching the full Senate received a final confirmation decision.

That's mighty righteous of him, isn't it? Why, he insisted on a vote for "every Clinton judicial nomination reaching the full Senate."

Of course, quite a few of them didn't reach the full Senate despite the fact that they had majority support. And why was that? Because they were bottled up in the Judiciary Committee, Orrin G. Hatch, chairman. What's more, many of them were bottled up via arcane Senate rules that Hatch has systematically dismantled now that it's a Republican president who's nominating judges.

So here's a deal for the Republican leadership: allow Democrats to use all the same rules that Republicans have made such copious use of over the past few decades in order to stall judicial nominations and prevent them from coming before the full Senate for an up or down vote. That means rules like anonymous holds, blue slips, and minority consent to report out nominees.

Those rules have all but disappeared since George Bush was elected. Give them back and maybe the filibusters will stop. Deal?

Kevin Drum 7:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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JOAN OF ARK....From an LA Times op-ed about religious ignorance in America:

According to a 1997 poll, only one out of three U.S. citizens is able to name the most basic of Christian texts, the four Gospels, and 12% think Noah's wife was Joan of Arc.

It took me a minute to get the Joan of Arc thing, but I was definitely giggling when I figured it out.

Kevin Drum 1:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE PRESS AND THE PRESIDENT....What's the answer to news stories like this?

Far from his dairy farm in central Utah, 27-year-old Josh Wright stepped onto a stage with President Bush on Tuesday and related the warning his father had given the other day in the barn.

"He looked me in the eye and he said, 'Don't depend on Social Security. You're independent....Don't plan on having Social Security there when you get older.' "

The president looked at Wright approvingly. "At your age," he said, Social Security "will be bust by the time it comes for you to retire."

...."If you're 20 years old, in your mid-20s, and you're beginning to work, I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the United States Congress has got the willingness to act now," Bush said.

Now, these are obviously lies designed to convince young people that they will get no Social Security benefits at all when they retire something that every serious analyst knows to be flatly false. Even in the worst case scenario beloved of Republicans, Social Security will never be bankrupt. It will merely pay out reduced but still substantial benefits starting 40 or 50 years from now.

So what's the right thing for the press to do? Obviously they have no control over what the president says. And like it or not, they really do have to report what he says. He's an important guy, after all. And if he says stuff like this over and over, the press is pretty much obliged to report it over and over.

And despite the sterling example of the liberal blogosphere, it's equally obvious that reporters can't preface every quote from the president with, "In yet another attempt to deceive the public, George Bush said today...."

In this particular case, the LA Times took the usual tack of quoting a couple of Democrats who "responded" to Bush's statement in the 12th paragraph of the story. That's page A14 in the print edition, for readers keeping score at home. In other words, practically no one saw even that much of a response to Bush's plain misstatement.

So what's the answer? What should a responsible press do when faced with a president who baldly lies over and over about stuff like this in a blatant attempt to scare the hell out of people? Somebody needs to figure it out, because people like George Bush have no incentive to stop lying if the press lets them get away with it. It's a brave new world, guys.

Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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LIBERAL BIAS?....Was political bias against George Bush responsible for the badly botched 60 Minutes segment about Bush's National Guard record? Howard Kurtz offer up this assessment today:

"In any fair-minded assessment of how CBS performed and why they so badly butchered their own standards, this has to be part of the explanation," said former New York Times reporter Steve Roberts, now a professor at George Washington University. "It's not just that they wanted to be first, they wanted to be first with a story that was critical of the president."

This is a common opinion, but the problem is that it doesn't back up the charge of political bias. Just the opposite.

The fact is, Roberts has it exactly right: CBS wanted to be first with a story that was critical of the president. It didn't matter that George Bush happened to be president at the time. They just wanted a bombshell story about the president.

Anyone who thinks otherwise needs a reality check. Bill Clinton was trashed by the press like no president since Richard Nixon, frequently on the basis of spoon fed lies from rabid Clinton haters, and Al Gore was lampooned mercilessly during the 2000 campaign by a press corps that openly despised him. There are plenty of things to be said about this Bob Somerby is your go-to guy on this subject but partisan bias is not high on the list.

There's nothing an investigative reporter wants more than a big story about the president. Any president. Was that part of the reason CBS rushed the National Guard story? Of course. Was the fact that Bush was Republican also part of the reason? Not likely. History just doesn't back that up.

Conspiracy theorists please take note.

Kevin Drum 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE END OF THE SNIPE HUNT....It's finally official: Saddam didn't have any WMD. And we've given up pretending to look.

UPDATE: Snipe hunt, not snark hunt. That's what I meant. Honest.

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24....Matt Yglesias, currently hooked on The Wire, has given up on 24. Why? Because in this season's opening episode Jack Bauer broke into an interrogation room, locked everyone else out, and shot a bad guy in the knee in order to extract some information about a kidnapping scheduled to happen ten minutes later. "Just about the most juvenile case for torture one can imagine," he says.

I don't get it. My problem with this scene wasn't that 24 had suddenly sunk to the level of torturing suspects to get information. My problem was that it was doing it yet again. I mean, this is just SOP in the 24 universe. Why is it suddenly such a turnoff?

As it happens, the 24 premiere didn't do much for me either, but for different reasons. First, there are practically no returning characters so far. That's kind of a drag. But far more important is that the writers need to come up with something new. Really new. Sure, Jack works for CTU, and that means he's going to chase down terrorists. But when every season turns into a massive global terrorist plot, it eventually gets hard to tell them apart. Which city are they going to threaten to obliterate this time?

My suggestion would have been to tone it down this season. Pick a small terrorist plot with an interesting twist. Focus on some different characters. Ditch the endless cell phone conversations with Air Force One. It could still have been plenty exciting and fast moving, but it would have been a change of pace. Something genuinely different from the first three seasons.

But no one asked me. Sigh. The kneecap shooting was dumb, but it's the idea of sitting through yet another indistinguishable Middle Eastern terrorist plot that's got me fidgety. I'll watch at least a couple more episodes, but that might be it. We'll see.

Kevin Drum 1:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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STUDYING WAR NO MORE?....A couple of days ago I wondered if Fred Kagan and Andrew Sullivan both of whom have been critical of Donald Rumsfeld for committing too few troops to Iraq would have supported delaying the war in order to increase troop strength. I didn't really expect an answer, but Sullivan at least appears to think that he would have if he'd understood what was really happening:

I'd say it's obvious that Shinseki was correct [in saying we needed more troops]. Should we have gone to war under the circumstances then prevailing? Probably not. Given the lack of urgency with regard to Saddam's WMDs (yes, this is hindsight, but so is all of this), we obviously should have waited.

This appears to be a nearly complete turnaround. He tacitly acknowledges that George Bush exaggerated the WMD threat and says it's now "obvious" that we should have delayed the war.

Under the circumstances, I think he owes Hans Blix an apology.

Kevin Drum 12:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 11, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

HOWARD DEAN FOR DNC CHAIR....Howard Dean officially announced today that he's running for DNC chair, and I have to say that I've warmed up to his candidacy a lot over the past couple of weeks.

As a presidential candidate I wasn't much of a Dean fan because I figured he didn't have a snowball's chance of winning an election against George Bush. I still believe that. If John Kerry couldn't engage the center of the electorate, there's no way Dean could have.

But that's not really a drawback for a DNC chair because he's not competing for the center with George Bush. He's leading a party. And his strengths in this position would be considerable:

  • He's a well known figure, which means he'd automatically get more attention than any of the other candidates. There's no substitute for the kind of charisma he's got, and it's something Democrats desperately need. With all due respect, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid just aren't going to get the kind of face time that Dean can get.

  • He's not afraid to speak out. He'll beat up on the opposition, he'll stir the pot, and he'll say interesting things. He's also shown that he's willing to say things to Democrats that they need to hear too, whether they like it or not.

  • Despite his reputation, his policy preferences are pretty centrist. That means he can appeal to both the reformist wing of the party and the DLC wing.

  • I'll bet he's a pretty good fundraiser. Like it or not, the DNC chair needs to raise money from big donors, and I think Dean can do that. But he also has a proven ability to raise money from nontraditional sources.

Dean made some mistakes on the campaign trail last year, but I wouldn't hold that against him. He'll learn fast, and in any case mistakes aren't as big a deal as DNC chair as they are in the spotlight of a campaign. We can afford a few mistakes here and there.

I suspect his biggest weakness is probably organizational. But there are plenty of good organizers out there. As long as Dean recognizes his own strengths and weaknesses, that shouldn't be a big problem.

Right now, Dems need someone who can shake things up like Dean. If I had a vote, he'd have mine.

Kevin Drum 7:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SLEAZE....Movement conservative veteran Quin Hillyer has a very good piece in the New Republic today about the corruption and sleaze that's become endemic in the upper reaches of the Republican party. I already knew about the ethics complaints against Tom DeLay and the now routine practice of holding House votes open for hours, but I didn't know about all this:

Back [in 1995], House Republicans loudly trumpeted their strict new near-ban on lobbyists' gifts to representatives and staffers; in 2003, they gutted the gift ban by raising the gift-value limit by about tenfold. Back then, they put stricter limits on the types of free junkets available to members and staff; in 2003, they exempted "charitable" junkets from those limits. Back then, they boasted about opening the legislative process to public scrutiny by making all committee hearings (unless classified for security reasons) open to the public; now, they write most of the significant parts of their bills behind the closed doors of House-Senate conferences.

....Republicans also changed the rule governing how ethics investigations can start in the first place. The former rule was that if the ethics committee remained in a 50-50 partisan deadlock for 45 days about whether to launch an investigation, an inquiry would begin. That way, the minority at least earned the right to be heard. This month, the GOP conference changed that rule to require that a majority of the committee must agree before the panel can start an investigation. The upshot? A determined majority party can now protect any one of its members from internal House investigation, no matter how reasonable the minority's suspicions.

Amazing. It took Democrats 40 years to start losing losing their soul to corruption. Republicans have left them in the dust in a mere decade.

Kevin Drum 6:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CRACKPOTS....Chris Mooney says we need to wake up:

[In Salon,] Michelle Goldberg really gives you a feel for the anti-evolutionist juggernaut that's now preparing to bowl over the educational system, ending on this sobering note: "Evolution's allies might win the battle for Dover's biology classes, but they're losing America." Indeed, it's nearing high time for some serious alarmism about the ongoing anti-evolutionist campaign. Scientists need to wake up, fast those who haven't already. And then they need to start to fight back.

That said, I'm not as pessimistic as Goldberg. Although Democratic politicians tend to be cowards on this subject, the elite media still have no love for creationism, and that's a powerful force to be reckoned with. Science's defenders should bring out national television crews, and let them interview the Bible-thumpers who come out for these battles on the local level. One of these types appears in Goldberg's article and I'm telling you, mainstream journalists are not ready to embrace people like this.

I think Chris is right. As I've said before, the mainstream media really is biased toward showing what they're familiar with, and what they're mostly familar with is their fellow college educated social liberals. Unfortunately, this is a two-edged sword: when it comes to the crackpot end of the spectrum, lefty crackpots get a lot of press and end up convincing a lot of people that liberals are nuts, but conservative crackpots are mostly considered weird loons confined to their weird little rural communities and are therefore ignored.

If conservative crackpots got half that press that folks who camp out in redwood trees got, ordinary Americans would probably be a lot more scared of them. It's time to put these guys front and center.

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE COSBY SHOW?....Bill Cosby for president? Maybe, maybe not. But the Washington Monthly's editors think the Democratic establishment should look beyond the same old crowd and consider a few unconventional candidates for 2008. Their picks are in this month's issue but you can read about them here.

Kevin Drum 12:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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PRIVATE ACCOUNTS....A CASE HISTORY....A couple of decades ago Britain undertook pension reform. Their solution will sound eerily familiar to anyone following George Bush's Social Security proposals: Phase 1 slashed benefits by indexing future increases to prices instead of wages and Phase 2 promised to make up the difference via private accounts. So how did it work out?

At the exact moment that America contemplates replicating this disaster, many in Britain some conservatives included are looking more and more kindly on American Social Security as a model for reform. The National Association of Pension Funds, a group of employers who sponsor the nations largest schemes, is urging government not to expect the private sector to shoulder the burden of keeping the nations elderly from poverty. Chief executive Christine Farnish notes that its actually cheaper for the state to carry the risk, adding that in looking for a system that offers the best combination of modest guaranteed retirement benefits delivered at low cost, the U.S. Social Security program seems the best model. It doesnt have to make a profit, and it delivers efficiencies of scale that most companies would die for, she says.

Private pensions turned out to be riskier, more expensive, and more subject to fraud than government sponsored pensions. George Bush, of course, is trying to convince Americans that exactly the opposite will be true of his plans. Maybe he should have one of his famous chats with Tony Blair before he goes any further with this flim-flammery.

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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RATHERGATE FINALE....My curiosity finally got the better of me and I spent the afternoon reading the official CBS report on Rathergate (main report here, exhibits here). Birthday festivities then occupied the evening, which means I'm just getting around to blogging about it now.

As it turns out, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. But my primary reaction is simple: it's a train wreck. A complete disaster. You have to read the whole report to get the full flavor, but the nickel version is simple: it's unbelievable that this 60 Minutes segment ever got on the air.

The whole story revolves around the infamous Killian memos, and the key problem with the memos was never the typographical evidence although that was pretty damning but rather their provenance. The memos came from a guy named Bill Burkett, but where did Burkett get them? Here's the testimony of Mary Mapes, who produced the 60 Minutes segment that aired them, and Michael Smith, a freelance journalist who worked with Mapes:

Smith told the Panel that when Lieutenant Colonel Burkett provided the documents on September 2, he said that he had received them anonymously in the mail. Mapes said that Lieutenant Colonel Burkett stated that he received the documents after he was interviewed on a national television show in February 2004 concerning President Bushs TexANG service, but did not say how he received them or from whom. Mapes added that she spoke to Lieutenant Colonel Burkett on several occasions over the next couple of days to get more information about the source of the documents. Ultimately, Lieutenant Colonel Burkett told Mapes on either September 4 or 5 that he had received the documents from another former Texas Army National Guardsman, Chief Warrant Officer George Conn.

....Mapes told the Panel that Lieutenant Colonel Burkett told her that Chief Warrant Officer Conn, if contacted by Mapes, would not confirm that he had provided the documents to him. Mapes said that she attempted to call Chief Warrant Officer Conn at an address in Texas, but was unable to contact him. Mapes added that it was her understanding that he was living in Germany, but she did not try to locate him in Germany.

(Note: the background on all this is extremely complex. If you want to catch up, background on Bill Burkett is here, background on George Conn is here, and background on the Killian memos is here.)

Put plainly, this account is simply beyond belief. At the time the 60 Minutes segment was aired last September, Burkett had already spent years peddling a story about George Bush's National Guard files being "scrubbed." He had talked to hundreds of reporters about it. I myself talked to him for two hours back in February. He was manically anti-Bush, and if he had had any incriminating documents it's inconceivable that he would have held them back until September.

Keeping that background in mind, here's what happened: Burkett first said he got the memos anonymously, and then, after much prodding, changed his story and said he had gotten them from a former National Guard friend, George Conn. That change of story alone should have set off alarm bells. But there's more: Conn is about the least likely source imaginable for these memos.

Burkett and Conn had worked together at the Texas Guard in 1997 and both had left in 1998. But Killian died in 1984. How did Conn have access to Killian's personal memos 14 years later? And even if he did, did Conn filch the documents in 1998 but not tell Burkett about them, even though he knew Burkett was intensely interested? And did he then keep them secret for six full years, even though he knew that his friend Burkett was desperately trying to convince the world of Bush's mendacity during this entire time?

And that's not all: not only did Conn supposedly keep the memos secret all this time a period during which he publicly disparaged Burkett's "scrubbing" story several times but Burkett's story implies that Conn suddenly reversed course in March and, for no apparent reason, finally told Burkett about the documents. But even then he didn't turn over originals, which could have been easily verified. Only copies! And then Burkett decided to wait six months before showing them to anyone! This yarn is so nonsensical to anyone who had been following this story that it should have set off ear splitting klaxons. And to top it off Burkett told the CBS reporters not to even try to contact Conn to verify the story! And then warned them to be careful verifying the memos, even though they were supposedly from a trusted colleague. The klaxons should have been shattering eardrums at that point.

A child would be suspicious of this story and Burkett later admitted it wasn't true. But in the end, even though Conn was allegedly the source of the documents, and even though this made no sense at all, no one at CBS tried to contact him in Germany. Why? I talked to Conn for 20 minutes when I was researching this stuff in February. If I could get hold of him, why couldn't they?

I don't know how well I'm explaining all this, but trust me: the idea that George Conn was the source of these documents beggars belief. To then accept their authenticity without talking to Conn and despite qualms from at least one document expert, is mind boggling. To later describe Burkett as an "unimpeachable" source takes you straight off into the gamma quadrant.

This story should never have seen the light of day. It was a travesty of journalism.


So why do I have mixed feelings? There are a few reasons.

First, because Atrios has a point when he compares this to other media scandals. Plenty of other people have peddled plenty of worse stuff and gotten practically no attention for it. It's only when conservatives start yelling about "liberal bias" that it becomes a cause celebre. This is a tiresome double standard.

Second, because Dan Rather has led a distinguished career and doesn't deserve to be tarred with this as his defining moment.

And third, because it's pretty clear that the reason the story was aired wasn't due to liberal bias, it was because of a far more prosaic journalistic sin: wanting to beat the competition. The CBS producers were afraid USA Today was going to break the story and they wanted to break it first. What's more, conservatives who complain that the report exonerated Rather of bias but didn't do the same for the blogosphere are being deliberately disingenuous. Blogs freely admit they're partisan, so of course the report acknowledged that.

In the end, though, all this is just a coda to a miserable, miserable story. In the end, there's no defense for what CBS did.

Kevin Drum 3:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 10, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

UNIONS....The liberal blogosphere doesn't pay very much attention to unions, and that's a shame. Sure, they're not perfect, but on core liberal issues like growing income inequality and growing income risk, they probably do more good than any liberal constituency around.

But the key to their ability to raise wages for low and middle income workers is their right to organize workplaces in the first place and protecting this right is the job of the National Labor Relations Board. However, as the New Republic points out today, the NLRB's protection of the power to organize has been steadily eroded by a succession of Republican administrations:

According to a study of 400 union election campaigns in manufacturing plants by Cornell sociologist Kate Bronfenbrenner, 51 percent of employers in 1998 and 1999 threatened to close a plant if a union won an election, and 25 percent fired at least one worker for union activity.

....Union membership has plummeted from 23 percent in 1979 to 12.5 percent today. Some of that drop is due to a shift from unionized manufacturing industries to nonunionized whitecollar services, but most of the decline stems from the NLRB's acquiescence to aggressive--and often illegal--employer tactics. American workers are, of course, the principal victims of labor's decline. (Union workers enjoy a 15.5 percent advantage in wages over nonunion workers with comparable skills and are 18.3 percent more likely to have health insurance.)

....With labor's power ebbing, business has increasingly been able to dominate public policy issues, from taxes to environmental protection to Social Security. That might not bother Bush, Tom DeLay, and Karl Rove. But it's not a good thing for the rest of us.

No it's not.

Kevin Drum 7:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NEW BLOG RECOMMENDATIONS....A recent email from Brian Linse prompts me to offer up a New Year's blog list for my readers. The following blogs aren't necessarily new, but they're all blogs that I started reading within the last year or so and now find myself reading pretty regularly. Some are now highly popular, others aren't. Here they are:

Obviously my complete blog reading list is much larger than this, but these are the ones that have become regular stops in just the past year or so. Enjoy.

And of course, feel free to add your own new favorites in comments.

Kevin Drum 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS....Paging Brad DeLong. I need your help in analyzing John Tamny's piece in NRO today about the trade deficit:

Perhaps more importantly, it has to be remembered that we ultimately exchange products for products. Notwithstanding the media hand-wringing about the kindness of strangers, no one in the real world is able to import something without exporting something first. In short, trade balances are logically illusory in that we only receive goods and services to the extent that we give something in return.

Trade balances are logically illusory? We have now reached a point where NRO's financial writers aren't even trying. They have simply decided by fiat that no event that takes place during the presidency of George W. Bush can possibly be bad. Even Louis XIV would be envious of such courtiers.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TWO PERCENT OF GDP....Brad Plumer summarizes the Decembrist:

Mark Schmitt thinks that Bush actually has two goals in the great Social Security phase-out scheme. First, of course, is to raze the program to the ground. The second, though, is to paint the Democrats as hidebound defenders of the status quo, and the Republicans as the party of bright and shining reform.

I think that's about right, and it's a measure of how successful Republicans have already been at this that virtually the entire "responsible" commentariat accepts the need for Social Security reform. Even Ron Brownstein, a perceptive guy, offhandedly trashes "Democrats now piously denouncing any cuts in retirement programs" in his LA Times column today.

Now, if you want to argue for benefit cuts, that's fine. If Social Security's condition worsens over the next decade I could be talked into modest benefit cuts myself. But ask yourself this: why is it so universally and unthinkingly accepted that of course benefit cuts are necessary to bring Social Security into balance?

Suppose you accept the pessimistic assumptions of the Social Security trustees. Suppose their economic and demographic predictions are correct. What does it mean?

It means that the total cost of Social Security will rise from about 4.5% of GDP to about 6.5% of GDP over the course of the next several decades. In other words, even if all the gloomy scenarios are correct, here's what it would take to keep Social Security benefits the same as they are today: an increase in taxes equal to about two points of GDP over the course of 30 or 40 years.

That's nothing. And yet we've somehow come to live in a bizarro world in which a tax increase of two points of GDP over four decades is so unthinkable that of course we need to cut benefits. This despite the fact that Social Security benefits for low and middle income workers average about 40% of their pre-retirement income, hardly a king's ransom.

How did we get to this point? How did we convince ourselves as a society that raising taxes by a small amount in order to keep Social Security benefits at a barely livable level is literally unthinkable?

Someday our children will look back on this era and wonder what kind of madness overtook us. Healthcare costs are spiralling out of control, we're spending $100 billion a year on an unwinnable war overseas, the combination of budget deficits and trade deficits threatens to ruin us, and yet somehow what really matters is that we have to cut Social Security benefits today today! in order to avoid the mere possibility of a small tax increase decades in the future.

It's madness. And yet we live in a time when madness has become conventional wisdom. I wonder what it will take to wake us up?

Kevin Drum 12:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FIRE THE CONSULTANTS....Why have Democrats had such a hard time winning elections lately? Maybe part of the answer is lousy campaign consultants. Bob Shrum, who keeps getting hired despite his enviable record of 0-7 in presidential contests, gets most of the attention for this phenomenon, but in the latest issue of the Monthly Amy Sullivan suggests that Joe Hansen might actually be a better poster boy:

After losing seven of nine close races in 2002, Hansen was again a man in demand during the last election cycle. His firm handled five of the most competitive Senate races in 2004, including the twoTony Knowles in Alaska and Erskine Bowles in North Carolinathat prognosticators thought were most winnable. Only one of Hansen's candidates, Ken Salazar in Colorado, pulled out a victory.

Republicans appear to be rather smarter about this:

While Democrats have permitted a Washington consultancy class to become comfortably entrenched, Republicans have effectively begun to pension off their own establishment. The D.C. consultants for the GOP have their list of clients, but they're definitely on the outside looking in, Chuck Todd told me. The Bush people have been very careful to give them workbut they're not in the inner circle. In 2004, seasoned Washington media strategist Alex Castellanos paid the bills with a handful of safe congressional races and a few unsuccessful primary challengers. Meanwhile, nearly every tight Senate race (North Carolina, Alaska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Florida) was handled by a Tampa-based firm, The Victory Group.

Read the whole thing. Especially if you're one of those people who's running for DNC chairman.

Kevin Drum 1:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ....Three stories today paint a very grim collective picture of Iraq. First, there's the Newsweek article I mentioned earlier about the Pentagon's aptly named "Salvador Option." Maj. Gen. Muhammad Abdallah al-Shahwani, director of Iraqs National Intelligence Service, describes it this way:

Shahwani...said that the U.S. occupation has failed to crack the problem of broad support for the insurgency. The insurgents, he said, "are mostly in the Sunni areas where the population there, almost 200,000, is sympathetic to them."

...."The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists," he said. "From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation."

In other words, the only way to defeat the terrorists is to terrorize the Sunni population ourselves. This may actually be true. In fact, I fear that it is true. But true or not, it's unthinkable that we're seriously considering this kind of barbarism as official policy. It's a pretty clear sign that the Pentagon no longer thinks we have much chance of winning in Iraq.

Second, the New York Times reports that talk of "disengagement" is all the rage in Washington DC:

The rumblings about disengagement have grown distinctly louder as members of Congress return from their districts after the winter recess, and as military officers try to game out how Sunni Arabs and Shiites might react to the election results.

....all over Washington, there is talk about new ways to define when the mission is accomplished not to cut and run, but not to linger, either....For the first time, there are questions about whether it is politically possible to wait until the Iraqi forces are adequately trained before pressure to start bringing back American troops becomes overwhelming.

And finally, Andrew Sullivan quotes the prowar group Stratfor as having given up completely:

The issue facing the Bush administration is simple. It can continue to fight the war as it has, hoping that a miracle will bring successes in 2005 that didn't happen in 2004. Alternatively, it can accept the reality that the guerrilla force is now self-sustaining and sufficiently large not to flicker out and face the fact that a U.S. conventional force of less than 150,000 is not likely to suppress the guerrillas.

Is there anybody left who still thinks we can win in Iraq? Anybody, that is, aside from George Bush, who apparently lives in a cocoon and refuses to allow bad news to pass through his doors? It sure doesn't sound like it.

And yet the crew that's responsible for this is going to remain in charge for four more years. Four very long years.

Kevin Drum 1:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 9, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PROFANITY WATCH....From the Guardian:

The key players behind last night's BBC broadcast of Jerry Springer the Opera joined forces this weekend to defend the programme, which has achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the most complained about television event ever.

Jerry Springer the Opera has been a West End hit for some time now, which is remarkable enough on its own, but what's more remarkable is Mediawatch's complaint: they allege that the show contains 8,000 swear words. Stewart Lee, who wrote the show, says the number of profanities is actually "several thousand less" than Mediawatch's figure, but even this implies a total of four or five thousand. Considering that the average opera libretto clocks in (my guess) at not much more than 8,000 words total, this must be some kind of record.

So when is PBS going to air it?

Kevin Drum 8:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FORBIDDEN PLANET....I whiled away a couple of hours yesterday watching Forbidden Planet on DVD for the tenth or twelfth time, and a couple of questions sprang to mind:

  • I've heard dozens of times that the film is a science fiction adaptation of The Tempest, but where does this come from? Did the filmmakers acknowledge this, or is it something that fans have intuited from a few surface similarites between characters? Frankly, the comparison has always seemed like a stretch to me, sort of like claiming that any film about teenagers falling love against their parents' wishes is based on Romeo and Juliet. (For an opposing viewpoint, though, see here for a good rundown of the similarities. Aside from the Altaira/Miranda comparison, however, these mostly strike me as pretty forced.)

  • How come it's never been remade? Sure, a remake would probably get done by someone like Jerry Bruckheimer and end up being a horrible embarassment, but then again, you never know. Maybe somebody decent would make it and do a good job with it. In any case, it certainly seems to have more potential for a retelling than Flight of the Phoenix.

Anyway, too bad about those Krell, though. Millions of years old, and yet they somehow forgot about their unconscious minds. That was quite an oversight on their part, wasn't it?

Kevin Drum 5:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NOT ENOUGH TROOPS IN IRAQ?....Fred Kagan takes a swipe at Donald Rumsfeld this week in the current issue of the Weekly Standard. Andrew Sullivan links approvingly and agrees with Kagan's primary complaint: Rumsfeld went to war with too few troops in Iraq, and this has been the primary reason for the vast array of problems we've encountered there.

They might be right although it's also arguable that we would have had all the same problems no matter how many troops we had committed to the war. Still, taking their criticism at face value for the sake of discussion, I wonder if they know what they're really saying?

Here's why I ask. Suppose Rumsfeld had agreed with guys like Eric Shinseki and proposed an invasion with more troops. How many could he have called on?

Several months ago I chatted with Phil Carter about this and then did a bit of research on my own, and as near as I can tell the answer is this: if we used every single active combat brigade of the Army and Marines denuding our forces everywhere in the world to do it and then filled up every possible National Guard and reserve brigade, we might scrape up about 500,000 troops.

Of course, no one seriously suggests that we should strip every last soldier from Europe, North Korea, and our other overseas deployments. Realistically, then, the maximum number of troops available for use in Iraq is probably pretty close to the number we have now: 300,000 rotated annually, for a presence of about 150,000 at any given time.

The only way to appreciably increase this is to raise the Army's end strength by several divisions, and this is exactly what Kagan and Sullivan think Rumsfeld has been too stubborn about opposing. But as they acknowledge, doing this would take a couple of years and as they don't acknowledge, it would have made the war politically impossible. The invasion of Iraq almost certainly would never have happened if Rumsfeld had told Congress in 2002 that he wanted them to approve three or four (or more) new divisions in preparation for a war in 2004 or 2005.

In other words, when Rumsfeld commented that you go to war "with the army you have," he was exactly right. Kagan and Sullivan both supported the Iraq war, but it never would have happened if Rumsfeld had acknowledged that we needed 100,000 more troops than we had available at the time.

For that reason, conservative critiques of Rumsfeld on these grounds strike me as hypocritical. Would Kagan and Sullivan have supported delaying the Iraq war a couple of years in order to raise the troops they now believe are necessary? If not, isn't it a little late to start complaining now?

Kevin Drum 5:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WATCHING THE WATCHMEN....In popular legend, one of the blogosphere's greatest strengths is its ability to expose media bias and malfeasance and hold the press accountable. For a long time I've disagreed: God knows the press deserves its share of criticism, the same as any other large institution, but with few exceptions blogosphere criticism tends to be both ignorant and juvenile.

Instapundit, for example, has written a seemingly endless stream of contemptuous posts about the media over the past year, but when I click the links and read the stories in question, there's usually nothing there except trivia: a tendentious reading of one word in a headline, unhappiness that a favored group wasn't quoted, etc. There's just no there there.

Today he offers up an almost self-parodic example. Newsweek reports that the Pentagon is considering something called "The Salvador Option":

Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administrations battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a successdespite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.

Glenn's complaint? The contras were Nicaraguan, not Salvadoran! The editors at Newsweek are idiots!

This is like something a triumphant fourth-grader would say, and it's unfortunately typical of blogosphere media criticism. In fact, the Reagan administration believed from the beginning that Nicaragua was supporting the Salvadoran rebels, and this was one of their reasons for opposing the Sandinistas in the first place. What's more, contra-resupply efforts were based at Ilopango air base in El Salvador, a fact that became public after Eugene Hasenfus' flight from Ilopango was shot down in 1986. The government denied that it was involved, of course, but Hasenfus and Ilopango which was a center of U.S. support for both the Salvadoran government and the Nicaraguan contras were nonetheless the early sparks that set the Iran-Contra investigation in motion in the first place.

El Salvador was a key part of Reagan's obsession with Central America and was also a key part of the Iran-Contra investigation. The editors at Newsweek, many of whom were probably covering this story when it happened, are undoubtedly well aware of this. Would-be media critics ought to be aware of it too.

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 8, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

FUN WITH NUMBERS....Brad DeLong has made this point many times before, and makes it again today, but I'd like to expand on it slightly myself. Why? In the forlorn hope that people who write about this stuff will see it and stop making the same mistakes over and over.

(And no, I'm not talking about NRO's Larry Kudlow, who is Brad's target du jour. I'm talking about journalists who make this mistake honestly.)

The mistake in question is the difference between total job growth and average employment level. Here's the raw data for the past few years in handy table format:




Starting
# Of Jobs




Ending
# Of Jobs




Total Job Growth


Average Employment Level Over Entire Year

Growth in Average Employment Level Over Previous Year

2002

130.66 million

130.10 million

-.6 million

130.34 million

---

2003

130.10 million

130.04 million

-.1 million

129.94 million

-.4 million

2004

130.04 million

132.27 million

+2.2 million

131.28 million

1.3 million

Do you see the difference? Total job growth in 2004 the number of jobs in December vs. the number at the beginning of the year was 2.2 million.

However, the average employment level throughout all of 2004 is a different number. To calculate it, you take the individual job numbers for each month and average them together, which means that it's usually about halfway between the starting and ending numbers. In 2004 that average number was 1.3 million higher than the average number from 2003.

As Brad points out, a year ago the White House forecast total job growth of 3.8 million, but growth in the average employment level of 2.6 million. In Larry Kudlow's case, he is pretending that the forecast of 2.6 million actually applied to total job growth and that therefore the White House forecast was spot on and supply side economics is a triumph. He knows better, of course, and is just hoping that his readers won't catch him in this lie. (We already know his editors won't.)

However, there are others who make this mistake in good faith, since it's not always clear which number is which if this isn't your primary area of expertise which it's not for most reporters.

But now you know. Total jobs and average employment level are two different things. If you write about this stuff, be sure you know the difference.

UPDATE: Edited slightly to try and make the explanation clearer. More details about "average employment level" below the fold if you're interested.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the total number of nonfarm jobs every month. To get the "average employment level" for a given year, you simply add up the numbers for each month and divide by 12. This gives you a number that's normally about halfway between the January number and the December number.

For extra credit, calculate it yourself! The chart below shows the monthly numbers for the past decade. For 2003, just add 'em up and divide by 12. Then do the same for 2004. The difference between the two numbers is the growth in the average employment level.


Kevin Drum 4:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

VINTAGE WOLFOWITZ....In celebration of Paul Wolfowitz's decision to stay at the Pentagon, I'd like to take this chance to reprint my favorite Wolfowitz testimony of all time. This is from the New York Times account of Wolfowitz's testimony before Congress on February 28, 2003, a mere three weeks before the invasion of Iraq:

Mr. Wolfowitz...opened a two-front war of words on Capitol Hill, calling the recent estimate by Gen. Eric K. Shinseki of the Army that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in postwar Iraq, "wildly off the mark." Pentagon officials have put the figure closer to 100,000 troops.

....In his testimony, Mr. Wolfowitz ticked off several reasons why he believed a much smaller coalition peacekeeping force than General Shinseki envisioned would be sufficient to police and rebuild postwar Iraq. He said there was no history of ethnic strife in Iraq, as there was in Bosnia or Kosovo.

He said Iraqi civilians would welcome an American-led liberation force that "stayed as long as necessary but left as soon as possible," but would oppose a long-term occupation force. And he said that nations that oppose war with Iraq would likely sign up to help rebuild it. "I would expect that even countries like France will have a strong interest in assisting Iraq in reconstruction," Mr. Wolfowitz said. He added that many Iraqi expatriates would likely return home to help.

....Enlisting countries to help to pay for this war and its aftermath would take more time, he said. "I expect we will get a lot of mitigation, but it will be easier after the fact than before the fact," Mr. Wolfowitz said. Mr. Wolfowitz spent much of the hearing knocking down published estimates of the costs of war and rebuilding, saying the upper range of $95 billion was too high....Moreover, he said such estimates, and speculation that postwar reconstruction costs could climb even higher, ignored the fact that Iraq is a wealthy country, with annual oil exports worth $15 billion to $20 billion. "To assume we're going to pay for it all is just wrong," he said.

You just can't make this stuff up.

And for the record, it was about a week later when I reversed course and began opposing the Iraq war. This testimony wasn't the only reason, of course, but it was sure part of it. It was stuff like this that finally made it completely clear that even the smart people in the Bush administration (and Wolfowitz is a smart guy) didn't have a clue what they were getting themselves into.

Kevin Drum 1:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WOLFOWITZ FOREVER....Despite rumors to the contrary, Paul Wolfowitz will be staying on as Deputy Secretary of Defense. Phil Carter, on vacation this week, emails to draw attention to Wolfowitz's confirmation that he'll be sticking around:

"I have been asked to stay and have accepted," Wolfowitz said yesterday in a brief statement issued through a spokesman. "I can't imagine life after Don Rumsfeld."

This is what? Disturbingly fawning? Tragically overdependent? Painfully sophomoric? I can't quite make up my mind.

Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TRACKBACK SPAM....The comment spam war has now been kicked up another notch: when I woke up this morning I had to delete five trackback spams from the previous post. Two online pharmacies had spammed the post with multiple trackbacks.

I'm sure this has been around for a while, but I think it's the first time it's happened to me, and it coincides with a massive increase in attempted comment spam over the past week. The conversational nature of the blogosphere is definitely getting harder and harder to maintain.

Kevin Drum 12:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CRISIS MANAGEMENT....This would have made an excellent blog post, but instead it's an excellent article by Jim VandeHei in the Washington Post today:

Warning of the need for urgent action on his Social Security plan, Bush says the "crisis is now" for a system even the most pessimistic observers say will take in more in taxes than it pays out in benefits well into the next decade.

He calls the proliferation of medical liability lawsuits a "crisis in America" that can be fixed only by limiting a patient's right to sue for large damages. And Bush has repeatedly accused Senate Democrats of creating a "vacancy crisis" on the federal bench by refusing to confirm a small percentage of his judicial nominees.

...."This White House had made an art of creating crisis where a crisis does not exist," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

You said it, Harry. Bush has this schtick down pat.

(And you really have to love the last one. Sure, I'm not surprised that Bush is mad at Democrats for filibustering some of his judicial nominees, but a "vacancy crisis" over ten judges? Please.)

Kevin Drum 1:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MOZART FOR TEENAGERS....This is fascinating:

Co-op, a chain of grocery stores, is experimenting with playing classical music outside its shops, to stop youths from hanging around and intimidating customers. It seems to work well. Staff have a remote control and can turn the music on if there's a situation developing and they need to disperse people, says Steve Broughton of Co-op.

The most extensive use of aural policing so far, though, has been in underground stations. Six stops on the Tyneside Metro currently pump out Haydn and Mozart to deter vandals and loiterers, and the scheme has been so successful that it has spawned imitators. After a pilot at Elm Park station on the London Underground, classical music now fills 30 other stations on the network. The most effective deterrents, according to a spokesman for Transport for London, are anything sung by Pavarotti or written by Mozart.

I can think of loads of terrific spinoffs on this idea. Unfortunately, I'll bet the effect wears off over time. Too bad.

Kevin Drum 1:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 7, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BLOGS AND THE MEDIA....Business Week reports that the New York Times is vaguely considering moving to a subscription model for their website. Reuters adds this observation:

Newspaper industry consultant John Morton, who heads Morton Research Inc., said he thinks many newspapers want to wean readers off free online content and transform their Web sites into paid-only publications.

Free editions of newspapers on the Web are "quickly falling out of favor," he said. "I think you will see newspapers selling electronic subscriptions or print subscriptions, or a combination of both, which is what the Wall Street Journal does, and has been very successful at."

For all the big talk in the blogosphere, if this happened it would pretty much spell the end of political blogging. Without a copious supply of online newspapers and magazines providing the raw material, there are very few bloggers who would have anything left to say.

Kevin Drum 5:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

WHO JUDGES TEACHERS?....Kevin asked below who would evaluate teachers in a system that rewarded effective teachers with merit pay. One solution that many school districts have turned to is hiring outside evaluators to provide more objective assessments of their teachers. Who are these evaluators? Well, with a growing number of districts looking to cut costs by offering buy-outs to their teachers (you can hire two or even three teachers for the price of one experienced one, after all), a lot of teachers are retiring earlier than they expected and looking for something to do with their free time. That means there is a pool of teachers and administrators with twenty or thirty years of experience who are free to work through companies that contract with districts, evaluating as many or as few teachers as they want.

The question of whether merit pay is a good idea is a bit more difficult. As the daughter of two public school teachers, in principle I like the idea of rewarding particularly good teachers. But that's not necessarily what would happen here. Unless you hire someone to come in and observe every teacher in the building, that's awfully hard to do. During the last few years my dad spent teaching in an inner city high school, some genius decided to make teachers accountable by requiring them to write out justifications for each failing grade students received. My dad's report went something like, "Student X failed because he was arrested in October and hasn't been in class since, Student Y was shot in November and has turned in only half of his homework assignments from the hospital, Student Z had a baby in December and has missed two-thirds of the classes since..." Do you punish a teacher for that? At the other end of the scale, my mom teaches gifted and talented students who consistently score among the school and district averages on assessment tests. Does that make her a better teacher than her colleagues (she does happen to be an innovative and engaging educator, but you see my point...)? I don't know what the answer is, but I'm open to new ways to encourage creative and effective teachers that don't involve cloning my parents.

UPDATE:I've already received some obnoxious responses from people who say, "those who can't teach evaluate." Again, I'm torn as to whether it would be a good idea to use evaluators to determine which teachers should receive merit pay. But the reason I pointed out that evaluators are now increasingly retired teachers with plenty of experience is precisely because the old lazy knock on educational consultants doesn't quite hold anymore. My dad is one of these evaluators who, after more than thirty-five years as a teacher and then administrator, is more uniquely qualified to assess good and bad teaching than your average bureaucrat.

Amy Sullivan 5:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MANAGING TEACHERS....Fomer IBM CEO Lou Gerstner writes today in favor of merit pay for teachers. I don't really know enough about the subject to have a firm opinion, although since I've spent my entire life in the private sector it seems like a pretty natural idea to me.

But here's an observation. Not really a criticism either pro or con, just an observation: who's going to do the evaluation?

This has long been a key question, of course, and the usual answer is the one Gerstner suggests: test scores plus "a wide variety of measurements of excellence, including peer and principal review." But ask yourself: in the private sector, how do evaluations get done? Answer: by your boss.

This is where it gets interesting. With the exception of salespeople, white collar workers are very seldom evaluated using simple numerical tools like test scores. Those are sometimes part of the process, but for better or worse, the bulk of the evaluation is a subjective one made by your boss.

Now, this is obviously imperfect and sometimes unfair, but it's the way the world works and most of the time it works tolerably well. But the reason it works even as well as it does is that most white collar workers have a boss who works fairly closely with them and sees the job they're doing first hand.

Compare that to a typical elementary school, in which 20 or 30 teachers are managed by a single principal who sees them work at most for a few hours a year. How can a principal make any kind of reasonable evaluation based on that level of observation?

It's not possible, and that brings me to my observation: for all the talk about the efficiency of the private sector, I can't think of a private sector company that would allow itself to be as undermanaged as a typical public school. If my local elementary school were a part of IBM, it would probably have two or three first line managers, each managing a couple of grade levels, who would then report to the principal. These managers would spend their time actually managing: observing teachers, dealing with parents and the district office, mentoring new teachers, and evaluating performance.

But of course that's a joke: no elementary school that I know of has this level of management. They may have aides, nurses, and special ed consultants, but the principal is the only actual manager on the schoolgrounds.

So there's the paradox: I don't think teachers are somehow immune from needing supervision, any more than any other white collar worker. But there's precious little of it available, and it would cost a fortune to provide it. Private sector firms seem to think that reasonable levels of management make them better companies, but public schools don't. Why?

Kevin Drum 12:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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PAY FOR PLAY....Eduwonk calls it "sleazy." ABC's Note is having trouble picking its jaw up from the floor. Why? Because USA Today has confirmed via a Freedom of Information request that the Department of Education has been paying commentator Armstrong Williams to shill for the No Child Left Behind Act and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots.

So what's the fuss, anyway? As I recall, that's sort of like how the Godfather worked too. "We got newspaper guys on our payroll. They might like a story like that." It's amazing how often the Bush administration reminds me of that movie.

Kevin Drum 11:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BACKDOOR DRAFT....The Pentagon is apparently considering a new policy that would effectively turn some Army reservists into full-time active duty soldiers:

Under current policy, a reservist is not to serve on active duty for more than 24 months, although those months can be split among multiple deployments that occur over a period of years.

The change under consideration, the Army official said, would essentially make a reservist eligible for an unlimited number of call-ups but stipulate that no single mobilization would last more than 24 consecutive months.

....But any extension in deployments is sure to prompt grumbling -- or worse -- in an Army Reserve community that numbers more than half a million and has begun showing signs of serious stress. Both the Guard and the Army Reserve have reported significant shortfalls in meeting recruitment targets in the past few months. And earlier this week, an internal memo from the chief of the Army Reserve surfaced warning that his forces are nearing a breaking point.

If this happens, it's for all intents and purposes a draft.

Kevin Drum 12:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 6, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQI ELECTIONS....I keep hoping that the January 30th vote in Iraq can go forward as scheduled, since this seems like the least bad of the alternatives still open to us. But it's not looking good. The commander of American ground forces in Iraq says four provinces are still too insecure to allow safe voting:

Baghdad is one of the four provinces identified by the commander, Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz as having insecure areas....The other provinces, the general said, were Anbar, which includes Falluja and Ramadi; Nineveh, which contains Mosul; and Salahadin, which includes Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein.

So: the four provinces containing the cities of Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, and Tikrit. That's sort of like an American election in which California, New York, Illinois, and Ohio couldn't vote. In fact, it's worse: those four provinces contain about 50% of Iraq's population.

Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski aren't very optimistic about the election either:

Rather than leading toward stability, Scowcroft said he feared the election would further alienate Iraq's Sunni Muslim population and "has a great potential for deepening the conflict."

....Brzezinski said the United States could meet its goals of producing a reasonably stable Iraqi government "if we are willing to put in 500,000 troops, spend $200 billion a year, probably have the draft and have some kind of wartime taxation."

I hope they're wrong. But I fear they're right.

Kevin Drum 11:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RUNNING SCARED....Josh Marshall links today to a Wall Street Journal article about a meeting between Republican senators and Karl Rove to discuss Social Security and other domestic issues:

Senate Republicans signaled their wariness yesterday in a private retreat on the year's legislative agenda with White House adviser Karl Rove. An attendee said the senators gave Mr. Rove "a subtle but clearly identifiable message that the GOP [Grand Old Party] would go along...but they were scared to death."

Scared to death! As well they should be. And this should be a message to Senate Democrats not to back off on their opposition to Bush's plans. When your opponents are running scared, that's the time to stick together and keep them as scared and as exposed as possible.

At least, it is if you have any intention of winning elections in the future.

Kevin Drum 1:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MEDICAL ERRORS....Here's an interesting tidbit in the debate about medical malpractice: a new study that suggests one of the causes of malpractice lawsuits is surprise! malpractice.

David Phillips of UC San Diego examined all deaths from medication errors between 1979 and 2000 and discovered that deaths spike around the beginning of the month:

Government assistance payments to the old, the sick and the poor are typically received at the beginning of each month. Because of this, there is a beginning of the month spike in purchases of prescription medicines, Phillips says. Pharmacy workloads go up and in line with both evidence and experience error rates go up as well. Our data suggest that the mortality spike occurs at least partly because of this phenomenon.

....The beginning of the month mortality spike was particularly pronounced in people for whom the mistakes proved rapidly fatal those who were dead on arrival at a hospital, died in the emergency department or as outpatients. In this category, deaths jumped by 25 percent above normal.

In other words, part of the reason for the increased death rate is that when workloads increase at the beginning of each months, many pharmacies react by rushing orders instead of increasing staffing levels.

This is far from the whole story, of course, but it's definitely part of it: one way to cut down on medical malpractice suits is to cut down on medical malpractice. And the sad fact is that we have some pretty good ideas about how to do this, too. If only it got as much attention and lobbying as the insurance industry brings to bear on tort reform, we could cut down on both malpractice and malpractice suits. Quite a concept, eh?

Kevin Drum 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

MAKING IT OFFICIAL....Newsweek reports that chief White House speechwriter Michael Gerson (who is moving on to advise Bush on policy) is expected to be replaced by Wall Street Journal editorial-page writer William McGurn. [Insert "And that's different from what he's been doing, how?" joke here.]

I'm not aware of any policy expertise that Gerson has--this is completely speculative on my part, but I wonder if he'll simply be a general advisor or step in to work on faith-based policy in particular, given his background as a theology major at the evangelical Wheaton College. Since the initiative has, up to this point, been just a political outreach tool, this could signal a change in White House policy. Or not.

I will say this for Gerson: During the 1990s, whenever I heard Clinton utter a particularly good turn-of-phrase, I'd think, "Wow, he's just so good with words." Over the past few years, when I've heard Bush speak eloquently, I've thought, "Wow, that's a well-written speech."

Amy Sullivan 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GERRYMANDERING....Governor Arnold delivered his State of the State speech last night, and I came away deeply depressed. But not for the reason you might expect.

Sure, he as much as admitted that his upcoming budget proposal would be mostly smoke and mirrors. And yes, his teacher merit pay proposal sounded more like demagoguery to me than a serious proposal to make schools better. What's more, both his "affordable housing" spiel and his prescription drug discount card came across as garden variety political pandering dressed up in populist language.

Still, something good may come of all this, and maybe his proposals will sound better after he releases a few more details about them. You never know.

No, what depressed me was Schwarzenegger's proposal to end gerrymandering in California and that's hugely ironic, because not only is this is a great idea, but the scuttlebutt says that in order to get Democrats to support it Schwarzenegger will agree to extend term limits from the current 14 years (6 in the legislature and 8 in the senate) to 20 or 24 years. That's also a good idea, since the combination of safe seats and absurdly short terms means we have a legislature that's both extremist and inexperienced. It's a toxic brew.

So why am I depressed? Because the insanely partisan atmosphere of contemporary American politics means I can't support this proposal even though I think it would be good for the state. After watching Texas Republicans ram through a brutally gerrymandered mid-decade redistricting that gained the Republican party four congressional seats in the 2004 election, how stupid would a California Democrat have to be to agree to meekly support a goo-goo proposal that would have the effect of giving Republicans more seats in yet another state? Guys like Tom DeLay and Hugh Hewitt would be guffawing in their beers for days about our terminal naivete if we went along with this. Raw power would be their ally in red states and appeals to progressive idealism would be their ally in the blue states. That's quite a combination.

So as much as I hate myself for this, count me out. Gerrymandering is a national problem, and it ought to be dealt with nationally so that both blue states and red states are affected equally. If George Bush were serious about reform, instead of advancing hack ideology as a response to phony crises, he'd spend his time on this instead of Social Security and tort reform. But he's not and he won't. And so we're stuck.

UPDATE: I note from my trackbacks that many moderates and conservatives are unhappy with my stand on gerrymandering reform. I don't blame them. But how about if we make a deal?

Here it is: get Texas to adopt Arnold's reform. As soon as they do, not only will I support Arnold, I will personally gather signatures, raise money, contribute money, and blog endlessly for the cause. Any takers?

Kevin Drum 12:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

KEN MEHLMAN HATES CHRISTMAS!....I was about to delete the mass email from Ken Mehlman this morning without reading it (The "We're bringing the Inauguration to you!" subject line was too depressing, especially since I can see inauguration parade preparations from my office window as it is...) But, boy, I'm glad I did, because now I'm starting to believe that there really is a war on Christmas.

"Dear Amy," it began, "I hope you and your family had happy holidays." Oh my gosh! There is is--that evil phrase, the mere utterance of which has the power to obliterate Christmas from all hearts and minds. Bill O'Reilly, Bill Donohue, and the other wingnuts have just been blaming the wrong people for the attack on Christmas. It's not the liberal elites. It's the conservative elites, the head of the Republican National Committee, no less. What does Ken Mehlman have against Christmas, anyway? (Okay, so he's Jewish, but still...) Next thing you know, I bet he'll want to ban religious music from national party conventions. He must be stopped.

Boy, oh boy, I can't wait to tune into the "O'Reilly Factor" tonight to hear Bill denounce Mehlman's support of the "anti-Christmas forces."

Amy Sullivan 11:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 5, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TORTURE UPDATE....It appears that the military's Southern Command has decided to open an investigation into FBI reports of torture being used on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Of course, the FBI reports were sent to the military in the first place, so they've known about this for a long time. The only thing that's changed is that now a lot of other people know about it too.

In other words, they don't really care if prisoners are being tortured. They only care if anyone else finds out about it. Makes you proud, doesn't it?

Kevin Drum 5:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TORT REFORM....Here is George Bush today on the subject of tort reform:

President Bush today demanded congressional action this year to rein in what he called "frivolous" lawsuits against doctors and hospitals, saying the time had come to impose federal restraints on a system traditionally left to the states.

....The legislation Bush favors would limit damages in malpractice cases, restrict class action lawsuits and curb asbestos-related litigation.

Let's see now:

  • Limiting malpractice damages does nothing to rein in frivolous lawsuits. Frivolous cases either get thrown out of court or are settled for nuisance money.

  • Restricting class action lawsuits might have some merit, but it doesn't have anything to do with frivolous suits against doctors and hospitals.

  • Curbing asbestos-related litigation accomplishes nothing except curbing asbestos-related litigation.

There really are things that could be done to restrict frivolous lawsuits against doctors and hospitals. For example, Charles Kuffner notes today that Massachusetts has figured out one piece of the puzzle.

But none of Bush's proposals would have any effect at all on frivolous malpractice lawsuits. As usual, instead of trying to solve a problem, he's merely using a problem as an excuse to do something else that he wants to do anyway regardless of whether or not it has any effect. I wonder how long it will take the medical profession to realize that nothing Bush is proposing will actually help them in any way?

Kevin Drum 5:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY PRIVATIZATION IN PICTURES....Like Ross Perot, we're all about visual aids here at Political Animal. After all, a chart is worth a thousand words, right?

So here's a chart everyone ought to pay attention to. As we all know by now, George Bush's favored Social Security privatization proposal is rumored to be Plan 2 of the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security known to its friends as CSSS Plan 2. This plan diverts one-third of payroll taxes to private accounts and cuts guaranteed future benefits by one half. (It does a couple of other things too, but these are the biggies.)

So: how does CSSS Plan 2 compare to the alternative of doing absolutely nothing? The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office produced a report last July that examined exactly that. The chart below summarizes their findings.

Keep in mind that this chart is a worst case estimate for the "do nothing" alternative. It assumes there are no changes whatsoever to the system and that the trust fund becomes insolvent in 2053, at which point benefits would suddenly be cut by about 20%. Here's how that compares to CSSS Plan 2:

Hmmm. CSSS Plan 2 doesn't look too good, does it? Maybe good old fashioned Social Security is a better bargain after all.

Of course, I'm being unfair. Sure, guaranteed benefits will be slashed under CSSS Plan 2, but those slashed benefits will be augmented by the returns from private accounts. So what happens when we add up both guaranteed benefits and private account benefits in CSSS Plan 2? Here's the revised chart:

Private accounts still aren't as good as simply doing nothing. And this is despite the fact that this analysis stacks the deck in favor of private accounts by assuming stock market returns of 6.8% and total portfolio returns of 5.2%. That's pretty bullish.

So here's the deal: if we (a) do absolutely nothing and (b) assume that the CBO's economic estimates are accurate and the Social Security trust fund will become insolvent in 2053, thus forcing big benefit reductions, we're still better off than under CSSS Plan 2. More reasonable scenarios which include stronger economic growth, modest tax increases paired with modest benefit reductions, and more realistic stock returns make CSSS Plan 2 look even worse.

And did I mention that CSSS Plan 2 also produces bigger budget deficits for the next couple of decades?

Here's the CBO's bottom line: For a middle-income earner born today, first-year benefits even under the crisis scenario of Social Security "bankruptcy" would amount to $19,900. Under the private account scenario, initial benefits would amount to $14,600.

Now, tell me again why anyone aside from Wall Street brokers is supposed to like this plan?

Kevin Drum 3:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TORTUROUS....Shorter Glenn Reynolds: I'm usually against torture, but if Democrats are against it too then maybe it's not so bad after all.

Kevin Drum 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEMS AND SOCIAL SECURITY....So what happened while I was gone? Let's see: the blog world decided to hold a competition to see who could be the most nauseating in their use of the Asian tsunami as an excuse for partisan point scoring. Bob Somerby decided to lob another rhetorical nuke in my direction. The Republican leadership figured out that official approval of congressional corruption might be a wee bit too much to take even for true believers. USC won the Orange Bowl and the national championship 55-19.

Oh yeah, and George Bush looks set to announce a Social Security dissolution plan even more outrageous than anyone was guessing. No suprise there, though: we all know that Bush likes bold ideas. The rubes are expecting a $300 billion tax cut plan? Give 'em a $600 billion plan. A 2 percentage point carveout of Social Security taxes to fund private accounts? Pshaw. How about 4 percentage points instead? And while we're at it, let's propose cutting guaranteed benefits in half too.

However, Ron Brownstein reports that at least one Senate Republican thinks there's room for compromise with Senate Democrats. How about if we also raise payroll taxes? That would be a good thing for Democrats to be associated with, wouldn't it?

Yeah, that's the ticket. Luckily, Brownstein also reports that even centrist Democrats are backing off from any cooperation with Bush's privatization plan, and thank God for that. I mean, I'm a centrist Dem myself, and surely my fellow centrists have figured out by now that George Bush is uninterested in compromise of any sort? Nothing good has ever come from any attempt to work with Bush, and nothing good will come of it this time either.

Social Security is in the strongest shape it's been in for two decades, but George Bush nonetheless chose this particular moment to declare that it's in "crisis" and needs to be privatized. That makes it pretty obvious he's not trying to solve a problem, he's just looking for an excuse to wage a partisan, ideological war for something he's always wanted regardless of whether we need it or whether it works.

Bush needs to be sent down to stinging defeat on this, and any Democrat who hasn't figured that out ought to step down and give his seat to someone who does. If congressional Democrats can't manage a united front against an obvious political ploy aimed straight at the heart of the social safety net, they might as well pack up and go home.

Kevin Drum 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 4, 2005
By: Paul Glastris

Tax Attacks III... A while back I suggested that if Democrats are interested in playing a little offense, they could do worse than champion the cause of eliminating the ability of footloose corporations to extract tax concessions out of job-hungry state and local governments.

These are some of the least-productive of all corporate giveaways. They add virtually no jobs to the nation as a whole, yet happen routinely because city A knows that if it doesn't offer up the tax breaks, the corporation in question will send--or at least threaten to send--its jobs to city B. Obviously, the extortion could end tomorrow if every state or local government agreed not to play the game. Then they could compete solely on criteria that really matter: availability of land, skilled employees, reliable public services etc.

The nation's governors have on occasion talked about creating a pact to stop the bidding war, but it's never quite happened. What's needed is federal action--a statute that would block these unproductive giveaways. Such a statute ought, of course, to come from Congress; Democrats and enlightened Republicans should offer up one. But meanwhile, as I noted before, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati has taken the initiative, with a ruling last fall that in essence defines the grossest of these giveaways as a violation of the Commerce Clause.

A number of readers posted quite impressive comments questioning both the legal and political merits of this strategy. Since then, one of the attorneys who made the winning argument to the court, Peter D. Enrich of Northeastern University School of Law, sent me an email defending his views. I post that email here with his kind permission.

First, as for the merits of the Commerce Clause claim: Of course, we'll
have to see what ultimately happens in the 6th Circuit and perhaps in the
Supreme Court, but the decision rests on a very strong and univocal base of
case law and scholarship, all of which points to the conclusion that a very
wide array of the most common state/local tax incentives for businesses are
unconstitutional. If it would be helpful, I'm happy to give you references
to both case law and law review articles. I anticipate that, in the next
few months, there are likely to be several other cases presenting the same
arguments in a number of other states.

Second, for those who argue that these incentives are essential to provide
jobs, it's important to note the broad body of econometric research which
debunks the notion that state/local taxes or tax incentives are a
significant factor in business location decisions. The simple fact is that
state/local taxes represent, on average, only about 1 percent of a
business's costs; they're far too small a factor to play a real role in
rational decisionmaking. Probably the best recent survey of the economic
literature is Robert Lynch, Rethinking Growth Strategies (Economic Policy
Institute 2004), although similar results are reached by a broad array of
others (referenced in Lynch's book) with less "political" connections. The
only demonstrable effect of the incentive competition is the dramatic
reduction in the share of the costs of state and local government that are
borne by businesses, not any increase in -- or shift of -- levels of
investment or employment.

The political challenge is that it's very hard for any state or local
official to urge his jurisdiction to be the first one to "unilaterally
disarm." That's where the Commerce Clause argument becomes useful.
However, the courts can't solve this alone. In fact there's already
legislation pending before Congress that would undo the decision. So, what
we need now is political support for getting the states out of the "race to
the bottom" business, and for refocusing their energies on the positive
functions (schools, roads, amenities, etc.) that can truly improve business
climates...

[T]hanks for bringing the topic to another audience.

Prof. Peter D. Enrich
Northeastern Univ. School of Law

Paul Glastris 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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January 3, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE....Quick note: I'll be offline for two more days, returning on Wednesday. Some of my colleagues at the Monthly might post a few items today and tomorrow, and I'll be back at full strength after that.

In the meantime, the New York Times has a good editorial on Social Security today. Bottom line: no crisis here, and a "modest package of benefit cuts and tax increases phased in over decades" can solve whatever small problems Social Security might actually have. They're right, and it's good to see them say so.

Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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