Archive for July, 2009

Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2009-07-31

Friday, July 31st, 2009

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What Do Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Che Guevera Have in Common?

Friday, July 31st, 2009

 Answer: Not much.

But Democracy in America’s anonymous blogger seems to think that some of liberal bloggers Ezra Klein’s and Matt Yglesias’s recent posts suggest a new and profound (indeed revolutionary) disenchantment with our means of governance. DiA cites Klein who recently wrote:

[Health care] like climate change, is a litmus test for our government. Both are serious, foreseeable and solvable threats to our society. One threatens to bankrupt the country. The other threatens irreversible damage to the planet we live on. Responding to such threats is the test of a political system. And our system will fail it. We will not avert catastrophic climate change. We will not protect ourselves from health-care inflation.

Yglesias recently wrote this post I’ve noted before explaining how our current media-political system can be manipulated so easily by people acting in bad faith – and how that leads to bad policy outcomes.

DiA tries to summarize this generation of pundits and policy wonks – led by Klein and Yglesias:

Mr Klein exemplifies the generation of young left-leaning policy wonks, journalists and activists who have been formed politically by the reaction against Bush-era conservatism, and for whom the Obama presidency represents the first experience of wielding political power. Like Mr Klein, many of these young progressives are fundamentally moderate, process-oriented wonks who, long before the Obama campaign even began, had accepted that the pragmatic limitations of real-world American politics rule out any utopian, or even first-best, solutions to most public-policy problems. They have happily dedicated themselves to figuring out what kinds of reform are possible within the constraints of corporate and interest-group lobbying, ideological and partisan divisions, and America’s kludgey, creaking 220-year-old machinery of government.

But now, DiA suggests, they have abandoned this moderation and want a revolution – that they have become disillusioned about our media-political processes due to Obama’s lack of success.

Certainly, Klein and Yglesias are extremely critical of the processes by which policy is created and by which the public views and understands policy debates. They believe that this system is broken. But both believed this before Barack Obama’s recent troubles – as Yglesias himself pointed out in response to DiA.

What DiA is missing is that reformists (towards both the right and left, but here I will look only at the left) have long been extremely critical of our media-political process works. Just two days ago, in The American Prospect, executive editor Mark Schmitt wrote:

[T]he idea that America’s “existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability ” flies in the face of all observed reality. For at least eight years, those institutions consistently failed to deliver accountability, and the Department of Justice and courts likewise failed to punish some of the greatest abuses of power in our history…

As Al Gore wrote in his book describing The Assault on Reason:

American democracy is now in danger—not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die. I do not mean the physical environment; I mean what is called the public sphere, or the marketplace of ideas.

It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know I am not alone in feeling that something has gone fundamentally wrong.

Or look at Lawrence Lessig’s lecture on Corruption – which eloquently makes the case for “disinterestedness” as one of America’s key founding principles which has been since lost. Read Glenn Greenwald’s blog – which constantly points out the deep and serious faults in our media-political processes. Obama himself made a number of these arguments. Virtually every intellectual reformist has a “theory of what’s wrong” – and what none of them seem to disagree with is that something is wrong.

While in other times, reformers may have focused more on accomplishing something regarding important issues – temperance, Wall Street greed, environmental issues, discrimination – today, the central problem facing reformers is how to reform the system itself. This is the essence of the reform movement today – from Obama to Gore, Lessig to Yglesias, Klein to van Heuvel.

Reformers have presented compelling critiques of how the media presents issues; of how Congress deals with issues; of how long-term problems such as an increasing number of uninsured, spiraling health care costs, climate change, copyright expansion, and many others are ignored or marginalized because any attempt to address these issues involves significant obstacles and risks in the present for an uncertain future benefit. One of the key beliefs that makes reformers reformers today is their understanding that America’s political system is broken and that our traditional democratic institutions just aren’t up to the job of managing serious and difficult areas and making rational, long-term decisions when the payoff only comes after policy-makers are out of office.

This idea was the basis of my post yesterday discussing Obama’s focus on outsourcing authority to independent, technocratic institutions as a way of getting around our broken media-political system.

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In Case You Missed It: Best Reads of the Week on Whining Conservatives, Internet Battles, Peru, The Single Life, and the Unborn

Friday, July 31st, 2009

1. Whiny Conservatives. David Frum scolds conservatives for  quite whining and points out how silly they look doing so given how far the conservative movement has moved America since it gained power:

In 1975, the federal government set the price of every airline ticket, every ton of rail freight, every cubic foot of natural gas and every barrel of oil. It controlled the interest rates paid on checking accounts and the commission charged by stockbrokers. If you wanted to ship a crate of lettuce from one state to another, you first had to file a routemap with a federal agency. It was a crime for a private citizen to own a gold coin. The draft had ended only two years before, but not until 1975 itself did Congress formally end the state of emergency (and the special grant of presidential powers) declared at US entry into the First World War.

2. The Battle for the Internets. Fred Vogelstein writes in Wired about the brewing battle between Facebook and Google for the internet.

3. Peru’s Moment. Most of the world has lost ground in the financial crisis and recession. Daniel Gross in Newsweek tells the story of one country that has managed the financial crisis perfectly (Peru), and their secret ingredient: leadership in the years leading up to the crisis:

In the latter half of 2008, being a poor, export-dependent, commodity-producing country set you up for a vicious downturn. But Peru has weathered the storm, in large part because President Alan García, an old leftist turned center-leftist, and the Peruvian central bank have proved adept at a set of capabilities notably lacking in the United States in recent years: sound fiscal and financial management. Fearful of a return of hyperinflation amid rapid growth, Peru’s central bank raised interest rates throughout 2008. Instead of spending the foreign currency that piled up on its books ($32 billion at the end of 2008), the government saved it. In 2008, Peru ran a $3.3 billion budget surplus.
And so, when troubles came, it was able to respond in textbook fashion. In December 2008, García announced a stimulus program, promising to boost government spending by $3.2 billion, and to take up to $10 billion in further measures. The total of $13 billion in promised stimulus doesn’t sound like much, but that’s equal to about 10 percent of Peru’s GDP.

4. New York Wins Again. Forbes has released a list of the top cities for singles. New York is – as in everything else – number one.

5. This strong, invisible and unacknowledged force. David Brooks (in a piece that Yglesias ridiculed, justly on some grounds) – manages to write an interesting meditation on the importance of the unborn to our society:

People live in a compact between the dead, the living and the unborn, and the value of the thought experiment is that it reminds us of the power posterity holds over our lives.

Bonus: This song came out months ago, but I just starting enjoying it recently, so here’s to sharing:

[Image by me.]

Glenn Greenwald’s Ideological Wind Tunnel

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Michael Massing for the New York Review of Books has quite an interesting piece on blogging – specifically focusing on left-leaning political bloggers. This obviously involve discussing Glenn Greenwald – and Massing seems to have a similar reaction to his work. Though I cite Greenwald favorably quite often – I also ridicule him probably more than any other writer – especially when I read him too often.  (See for example, my piece entitled “Glenn Greenwald uses hyperbole the way other writers use punctuation;” or ” Greenwald’s rhetorical tics;” or “Psychoanalyzing Glenn Greenwald.”)  Here’s Massing’s mixed review:

In so vigilantly watching over the press, Greenwald has performed an invaluable service. But his posts have a downside. Absorbing the full force of his arguments and dutifully following his corroborating links, I felt myself drawn into an ideological wind tunnel, with the relentless gusts of opinion and analysis gradually wearing me down. After reading his harsh denunciations of Obama’s decision not to release the latest batch of torture photos, I began to lose sight of the persuasive arguments that other commentators have made in support of the President’s position. As well-argued and provocative as I found many of Greenwald’s postings, they often seem oblivious to the practical considerations policymakers must contend with.

[Image by Cushing Memorial Library Archives, Texas A&M licensed under Creative Commons.]

Best Line of the Week

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Goes to Ezra Klein describing Peter Orszag’s response to the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of IMAC:

That paragraph reads a bit like a very angry Data trying to hurt Spock’s feelings.

Is Obama Leading Us To A Technocratic Dystopia?

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Implicit in many of Obama’s policy proposals and programs is an assumption shared by many reformers (from here to here to here): that America’s political system is broken and that our traditional democratic institutions just aren’t up to the job of managing serious and difficult areas and making rational, long-term decisions when the payoff only comes after policy-makers are out of office. I’m not sure that they’re wrong – but I’m wary of the decision made by the Obama administration to focus on creating a technocracy to manage these areas.

In many of Obama’s programs and proposals, there is a bureaucratic independent or quasi-independent agency that is designed to manage whatever process is relevant to the program and that receives from the Congress authority to make decisions on its own. To the technocrats’ credit, in most cases, although the decision-making is outsourced to these agencies, Congress has some sort of limited veto over them. The appeal of outsourcing authority to these institutions comes from the fact that they are theoretically insulated from politics and are capable of making minor decisions over a long period of time which – if managed properly – can effect significant changes. The idea is that – rather than forcing through a controversial and wholesale change – you set up an independent agency that will gradually manage things in order to achieve the changes needed. This makes a great deal of sense politically – as the agency can be tasked with some anodyne goal that everyone can agree on – and as it makes controversial decisions,  politicians can distance themselves from each individual decision while still supporting the independence of the organization (as you often see with the Federal Reserve). They can say they didn’t vote for this or that specific proposal – and that they oppose it – but that given the authority of this independent agency, there’s little they can do. On a policy level, this also makes sense – as any attempt to push through wholesale reform is limited by one’s knowledge at the time the legislation is drafted. Better to experiment and try various small steps and set up different incentives to accomplish the same thing than to attempt to impose some pre-made solution. It’s also worth noting that these technocratic institutions are often supported on a bipartisan basis – while specific reforms are generally opposed by one side or the other. The appeal is obvious – yet the anti-democratic impulse is disturbing.

One example of these organizations is the IMAC (or Independent Medical Advisory Committee) which would be a technocratic institution that would set the pay rates for reimbursement of various Medicare programs and eventually perhaps for all government-sponsored insurance (as MedPAC does now) and also compare and evaluate what treatments work best to treat different conditions and make recommendations. Unlike MedPAC which simply advises Congress, IMAC would make annual recommendations which would take effect if accepted by the president and not vetoed by the Congress. The White House has been selling this plan as a way to take the politics out of Medicare reimbursements and restrain costs. A similar approach helps explain why Obama is pushing for the Federal Reserve (the organization to which the IMAC is most often compared) to be the regulator of those institutions that are “too big to fail” as well as tracking and regulating various other systematic risks – despite their role in the collapse that just occurred. What the Federal Reserve is known for is its independence from political pressure and its technocratic bent, thus making it the perfect vehicle for Obama’s efforts to reform the financial industry even though it clearly failed so recently. There is the proposal for a National Infrastructure Bank which would direct federal transportation money – again, independent of political concerns. The cap-and-trade program would likewise gradually institute dramatic reforms by giving authority over to a technocratic institution that would manage carbon emissions – distancing these actions from politically accountable leaders.

On each individual proposal, the solution seems compelling, but as an overall trend, it is disturbing. When Obama was elected, many claimed that there was a similar feeling of hope and progress to when John F. Kennedy was elected – and as then, when Kennedy gathered “the best and the brightest,” Obama has reinvigorated the idea of public service. But the downfall of these Kennedy men was their belief that they could “control events, in an intelligent, rational way.” Obama’s technocrats do not seem to have this same hubris. Their hubris is of a different variety: they believe that they can best manage complex areas and achieve needed reforms not through political action but by creating bureaucracies onto which they put the difficult political decisions.

But what kind of system do we end up with then? As rules and regulations are created by technocrats and then merely accepted or rejected by the elected officials. This system seems to resemble an oligarchy with democratic checks. With the Federal Reserve along with other less independent agencies already deputized to take care of most government responsibilities, we have already started down this road – but it doesn’t seem wise to double down on this approach. Unfortunately, I do not offer a solution – only a concern.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Bill Maher Explains Why Profits Don’t Need To Be Part of Our Health Care System

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Bill Maher – as is his wont – perfectly parries the conservative arguments defending our “capitalist” health care system by linking it to capitalism in general:

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But Bill, the profit motive is what sustains capitalism.”

Yes, and our sex drive is what sustains the human species, but we don’t try to fuck everything!

There are exceptions, rule, and regulations to everything. Maher – by bringing the matter back to sex – demonstrates that the radical capitalist ideology that seeks to impose itself on every facet of life is in fact just that – an unpragmatic and radical ideology. And he makes the case that liberals and the others in the majority who are opponents of this radical capitalism that the profit motive is a good thing – just like sex drive – but like sex, it needs to be constrained in order to be productive and not destroy our society.

Theories of the Financial Crisis: Goldman Sachs Did It! (cont.)

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

To follow up on my initial piece: Joe Hagan in New York magazine addressed the various accusations and news stories about Goldman Sachs’ role in the economic crisis and its aftermath – and he had inside access to the top honchos at Goldman Sachs as they attempted damage control. Hagan seems to have gone into the piece fair-minded and, unlike Taibbi and other polemicists, tried to give the pro-Goldman side its due – but he still ended up summarizing the two takes on Goldman Sachs’s business model thus:

On Wall Street, there are two interpretations of this business model: Either the firm is so brilliant at making near-riskless bets that it continually attracts more clients, who don’t mind being used for the golden database if it means more profits for them—or it’s a giant casino in which the house has gamed the system by knowing every hand at the table and using that information to enrich itself at the expense of others.

Read Hagan’s whole piece – it’s quite good. It’s hard to see how these two models are different – except that on one hand, Goldman is seen as good for its clients; and in the other bad. Either way, for the market and country as a whole, what do they contribute? And how is it that a company can make so much money making “near-riskless bets”? In a real market, one couldn’t – because everyone else would be providing the same “near-riskless bets.” But Hagan provides an expanation – the presumption that Goldman Sachs uses its access to its clients portfolios and finances to become more knowledgeable about the market than almost any other participant. Which is why they saw the subprime mortgage fiasco coming and while still providing these mortgages, bet that they would lead to a disaster. Hagan quotes Peter Solomon – “chairman and founder of the investment bank Peter J. Solomon Company” – explaining how Goldman Sachs along with other Wall Street firms has an interest in creating unfree markets – all the better to profit from if one already has advantages:

The interest of the Street, dominated by Goldman Sachs, has been to have markets that are opaque, inefficient, and unregulated. And that’s been the policy for twenty years. That’s what the world is reacting to.

Hagan explains  Goldman Sachs is able to make money because it exploits the inefficiencies in the market – it profits not from free markets but from unfree ones. Hagan also quotes Joseph Stiglitz deriding the business model of Wall Street firms in general, and Goldman in particular:

“Much of their recent profits seemed to be derived from ‘trading,’ which typically means gambling—not lending,” says Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize–winning economist who teaches at Columbia University. “It is lending which is required if our economy is to be revived; it was gambling that got our financial system into trouble.”

Goldman Sachs’s outrageous recent success proves once again that it is a proud beneficiary of gambling and unfree markets – with the government taking any losses. No wonder people people are losing faith in the financial system.

The Libertarian-Democratic Alliance Will Survive

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Jon Henke over at The Next Right scoffs now at Markos Moulitsas’s prediction – a few years back – of “an emerging brand of ‘libertarian Democrats.'” Henke makes two mistakes in his scoff: first, he equates the tea bagging movement with libertarianism; and second, he is extrapolating from the immediate post-election dynamics to more general party dynamics in the future.

In the first, he is certainly right that the Tea Bagging movement has adopted libertarian themes and rhetoric – and there are certainly libertarians among this group. But there are also many right-wingers of other sorts. And if the Tea Baggers truly were outraged by government spending, they had eight years to get excited before Obama took office. The Tea Bagging movement is an odd combination of right-wingers angry with Obama using libertarian rhetoric and libertarians who are fed up with everyone in American politics except Ron Paul. But I’d be pretty certain that the majority of people at these rallies decrying socialism and government interference also join in the right-wing’s attempts to demonize Obama for his modest steps in reining in the national security state.  Henke – in equating the Tea Bagging movement and libertarianism does libertarians a rather severe disservice.

Second, it was inevitable that the libertarians that were part of the anti-Bush coalition would not fit so well into the pro-Obama coalition, despite their support for Obama over McCain in 2008. It was always clear that Obama would not move fast enough on national security matters – and would not even attempt to go far enough for libertarians – and that Obama’s domestic agenda, especially health care, goes against libertarian principles. That said, there are significant areas of agreement between libertarians, progressives, and liberals – and these are considerably stronger than those between right-wingers, Republicans and libertarians. On economic matters, the Republican Party has done very little to embrace free market reforms – instead, embracing a form of crony capitalism; on national security issues, the party has embraced every accoutrement of a police state; on spending, Republicans have been far more fiscally irresponsible; on social issues, the Republican Party has abandoned libertarian principles and embraced a christianist platform. The Democratic Party – on the other hand – is for reigning in the police state (though not enough); and on social issues, it often sides with libertarians; on economics and spending, this gets more complicated. Obama’s positions do seem at first glance to be exactly what libertarianism stands against – but if I’m right about what Obama is doing – that he is adapting the Democratic Party and liberalism to a market-state in which the state seeks to provide the maximum opportunity to its citizens rather than providing for them (as socialist, Communist, and post-New Deal American capitalist states did), then the Democratic Party’s economic platform will be less of a threat to libertarian values and the party will be more or less aligned with the libertarians on every issue.

These first years of Obama’s presidency were always going to strain the libertarian-Democratic alliance. But it seems the long term trends favor this alliance.

[Image by Brian Buchanan licensed under Creative Commons.]

Stop ObamaCare Before Obama Murders Your Comatose Wife and Infant Daughter!

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

I received an email this morning from Townhall.com entitled, “ObamaCare Equals Government Funded Euthanasia” with the above image. I’m sort of curious why they couldn’t have just shown a picture of Obama with a gun to the baby’s head. It would have been more effective at getting their message across. But then again, they might be concerned about losing the white male gun owner vote – ’cause after all, its hard to maintain that Obama is both a liberal pansy (who’s the next Hitler and therefore is going to take away your guns) and that he carries a Glock around so he can take out any infants he sees.

But I take this email to demonstrate that the right is now stepping up its blizzard of lies about the Democratic health care reform bill over the August recess. Here’s some context for the photo:

Everyone knows that nationalized healthcare is a terrible idea but everyday we unearth even more awful details in what is in the proposed government-run plan.

A nation of Terri Schiavos with a National Euthanasia Bill?

In 2005, a COURT ordered the removal of a feeding Tube from Terri Schiavo. It outraged a nation. If the Government takes over health care, bureaucrats will decide who lives and dies in America. In the name of “creating efficiencies,” they will delay – or deny – treatment to critically ill patients because it costs too much.

We will have a NATION of Terri Schiavo’s, with a faceless Federal Bureaucracy pulling the plug instead of a Court.!

Sound crazy? It happens every day in Great Britain.

You can STOP what will in effect be government sponsored euthanasia in America if you ACT NOW.

If you care about the Sanctity of Life, the proposed Government Takeover of Health Care is an attack on your values.

It’s quite interesting that Town Hall would bring up Terri Schiavo – the pinnacle of right-wing overreach that helped alienate libertarians from the Republican camp – and that led the public to near unprecedented levels of agreement over the matter. 62% of Americans favored removing the feeding tube – and 82% of Americans believed that Congress and the President should have stayed out of the matter. Yet Town Hall – speaking only to its base – sees Schiavo as a rallying cry. And not just to their base – they claim that the removal of the feeding tube, “outraged a nation.” I wonder what it accomplishes to lie to your base and tell them that they are the real majority, aside from radicalizing them and alienating them from the American system.

But getting back to the substance of what they are claiming, they bring up a repeated right-wing canard – that:

If the Government takes over health care, bureaucrats will decide who lives and dies in America. In the name of “creating efficiencies,” they will delay – or deny – treatment to critically ill patients because it costs too much.

So many inaccuracies – as, to start, the Democratic health care reform doesn’t lead the government to take over health care. At worst, it would lead to a government-provided health insurance. And any health insurance – private or public – will deny treatment on occasion due to expense. The problem with our status quo is that rationing occurs both by cost – depending on what insurance plan you have and by health insurance company bureacrats whose job it is to deny as many treatments as possible and/or to rescind your policy if they can’t deny the treatments. That sounds a lot less like rationing and more like a war that health insurance companies are waging against the sick of America – a war in which their goal is to maximize their profits regardless of the cost to society or their paying customers.

As to the Democratic health care reforms endorsing government-funded abortion and euthanasia, I truly wonder who actually buys this load of crap. Clearly, it is an attempt by Town Hall to manufacture outrage – but who is stupid enough to believe this? Too many people, I’m sure.

Edit: On reddit, criswell improves the image, writing:

Man, look at his eyes! Obama sure hates that baby!

That pic is all kinds of win…. But it could be better… It may be too subtle for your average American… It needs… something….. Hmmmm….

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