Archive for November, 2009

National Review: “Soak the Rich!”

Monday, November 30th, 2009

The National Review gives Conrad Black some space to somewhat incoherently go after Barack Obama on economic issues. He writes with the accumulated resentments and reduced expectations of an old man – and one imagines one is meant to receive this incoherence as hard-won wisdom.

Black has formed his opinion of Obama’s health care plan without taking the time to understand it – as his one-sentence description makes clear: “the administration claimed that it would reduce medical costs by taking over the insurance of those already covered.” His simple health care plan simply calls on the Democrats to go after their interest groups – trial lawyers and unions – and ignore the rest of the factors undermining our health care system. A convenient position to take while writing for a right-wing publication.

He dismisses the consensus of economists (“The whole concept of stimulus is bogus”) with a single clause (“as the borrowing of the money consumes at least as much stimulus as it generates.”) He suggests Al Gore is an eco-terrorist and calls the plans to stop exacerbating climate change, “insane.” In short, Conrad Black throws every bit of feces he can – working off of the standard right-wing playbook.

But finally, he has a few interesting things to say – after spending the bulk of his piece proving his right-wing bona fides. He suggests a few taxes to raise – and here is what I find interesting. His first two ideas are standard: a strong gasoline tax and a tax on financial transactions. Both of these are much favored by those who know something about policy, but face serious obstacles in terms of the politics of getting them done. But his last idea is interesting and new (or at least new to me.)

[A] small, self-terminating wealth tax could be imposed on very large fortunes, to provide funds for those taxpayers to engage in legitimate anti-poverty projects they would devise themselves and have certified, like charities. The tax would decline as sensibly defined poverty declined, and would evaporate when poverty did. The greatest commercial minds in the private sector would have a vested interest in eliminating poverty and would produce a variety of imaginative methods of doing so.

I’m not sure how well this idea would work – but it is quite interesting. It seems to be an idea very much based on right wing presumptions but to have a traditionally liberal goal: using government policy to reduce poverty. And Black certainly has a personal history that leads him to understand the very wealthy he is attempting to manipulate with this tax. That said, it addresses itself not to the escalating divide between the rich and poor, but merely to reducing poverty. It presumes the rich are “the greatest commercial minds” when it seems evident to most liberals (including to me) that chance and luck play as great a role in success as mental skill. What is intriguing is that it attempts to marry the self-interest of the rich with the reduction of poverty. Whether this is the best means or not, it is a worthy goal.

Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2009-11-27

Friday, November 27th, 2009
  • Happy Thanksgiving! #
  • Summoned to determine the fate of Lehman Brothers, Wall Street's top executives had a BrickBreaker tournament instead. http://bit.ly/7IDTpY #
  • 65% of Nevadans have mortgages worth more than their property. http://bit.ly/63cCFt #
  • Stadium that holds 80,000 sold for as much as apartment in Manhattan. http://bit.ly/4Iwsx0 #
  • NBCs Dr Nancy Defends Drs in Breast Cancer Debate “We are on the verge of becoming a scientifically illiterate country” http://bit.ly/6oZ43g #
  • Who was listening to Christmas music this morning? That's right: this guy. #
  • I just voted for http://pic.gd/5f8872 Check it out! #TweetPhoto #
  • To Rep. Peter King: Please re-find your mavericky self and vote in favor of health reform. http://bit.ly/1xhcYF #hc09 #NY #11793 #

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The Un-American Pledge, Nietzsche (Republican), Islamists, Anti-Statism, Health Care Reform (again), and Abortion Politics

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Today, I present to you an early addition of the best reads for the long Thanksgiving weekend…

1. The Un-American Pledge. Michael Lind explains why the Pledge of Allegiance is un-American.

2. Nietzsche was a Republican. The Economist’s Democracy in America discusses Medicare and Nihilism. As it is undeniable that America’s population is aging, and that this accounts for the massive projected deficits in the future, and as everyone also acknowledges that such deficits are unsustainable, something must be done. The health care plans proposed by the Democrats include – along with various experimental measures to restrain health care spending – a Medicare commission “empowered to make decisions that automatically become law unless Congress comes up with equivalent savings” that will reduce spending as much. Republicans and the blandly smiling wise men and women of the pundit class have made it a point of conventional wisdom that Congress won’t be able to push through the cuts, and will find a way to circumvent this mandate. DiA, echoing a point Ezra Klein has been making repeatedly for the past few weeks, challenges those criticizing the plan to come up with something better:

If you don’t think an independent Medicare commission empowered to make decisions that automatically become law unless Congress comes up with equivalent savings will do the trick, then you have a responsibility to suggest something that will. Otherwise you’re just placing a bet that America’s government is going to self-destruct—a tenable argument, certainly, but not very helpful.

3. Learning from former islamists. Everyone else seemed to recommend this article a few weeks ago when it came out, but I just got to it recently myself. Johann Hari interviewed a number of former islamists who have recently renounced islamism and have begun to fight for their version of a “secular Islam” in Great Britain. He portrays this group as a vanguard. One of the islamists, Maajid Nawaz was a recruiter for an islamist group in Egypt for a time. Nawaz’s description of factors affecting recruitment seems to coincide with both intelligence agencies’ and liberals’ judgments, and to contradict the right-wing understanding:

“Everyone hated the [unelected] government [of Hosni Mubarak], and the US for backing it,” he says. But there was an inhibiting sympathy for the victims of 9/11 – until the Bush administration began to respond with Guantanamo Bay and bombs. “That made it much easier. After that, I could persuade people a lot faster.”

Eventually, Nawaz was imprisoned in Egypt. He was abandoned by the islamist group that he was working for. The only forces protecting him, as a British citizen, were forces he considered “colonial” and corrupt:

“I was just amazed,” Maajid says. “We’d always seen Amnesty as the soft power tools of colonialism. So, when Amnesty, despite knowing that we hated them, adopted us, I felt – maybe these democratic values aren’t always hypocritical. Maybe some people take them seriously … it was the beginning of my serious doubts.”

4. Anti-Statism: As American as Apple Pie. John P. Judis of The New Republic delves into the undercurrent of anti-statism in the American psyche.

5. Getting depressed about the public option. Timothy Noah depressed me more than anyone else with his ruminations on the public option.

6. Feeling better about health care reform. These pieces by Ron Brownstein and Andrew Sullivan though have made me feel much better about health care reform in general. Brownstein’s piece is especially helpful in looking at the various cost-cutting measures in the bill, and has a rather optimistic take. President Obama has apparently made that post “required reading” among White House staff. I’ll be following these posts up at a later date.

7. Abortion politics. The New Yorker had an extraordinary interview about abortion politics with Jon Shields. Shields seems to be, himself, pro-choice, but he seems to have reached an understanding of abortion as an issue which contradicts the propagandistic rhetoric that passes for most liberal commentary on abortion, which presents its opponents as being mainly concerned with keeping women in their place.

[Photo by road fun licensed under Creative Commons.]

Playing BrickBreaker While the Financial System Burned

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

The weekend of September 12 through September 14 – before the collapse of Lehman Brothers on Monday, September 15, 2009 and the near collapse of the world financial system that followed – was a frenzied one in the financial world. By this point, everyone knew huge events would occur: perhaps massive government bailouts, or perhaps multiple mergers of titans of finance, or if all else failed, a cascading series of major business failures. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, New York Federal Reserve Chairman Tim Geithner, and Securities and Exchange Commissioner Chris Cox thus convened a meeting of the “heads of the families” – the CEOs and top management of the big Wall Street firms – at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on Liberty Street in downtown Manhattan to try to, through collective action, stave off disaster.

Paulson and Geithner seemed to be trying to recreate the “Drama at the Library” that averted the Panic of 1907, in which J. P. Morgan almost single-handedly averted a financial catastrophe by himself, as he used his own fortune and cajoled other major bankers to inject liquidity into the stock markets and bond markets to keep them active. The high point occurred when Morgan locked the bankers and the trust company officials in his library to force them to reach a consensus on how to save the insolvent trust companies. A few years later, the Federal Reserve was created in a large part to mimic what J. P. Morgan had done in managing that financial crisis.

As options for Lehman began to dwindle on this September weekend, and its moment of insolvency came closer, Paulson and Geithner summoned the heads of the current elite of Wall Street to a room and told them to come up with a plan – if necessary using their own money to aid another company in the purchase of Lehman. These were the men (and some women) who were paid the big bucks to make the big decisions – all put in the same room with the goal to avert the disaster that they could all see would rock their industry. Yet despite all the power and the extraordinary circumstances, these top bankers were reluctant to help a competitor unless they could see their own upside, and were convinced that Washington would step in. As Andrew Ross Sorkin, reporter for the New York Times and author of Too Big to Fail, reported, conversations took place in which these top bankers made it clear that even as they felt a responsibility to the world at large, their first responsibility was to their shareholders. Systematic risk was the responsibility of the federal government, they felt.

Even with all these decision-makers gathered in a room, Sorkin explained that the “CEOs and their underlings” felt that “Despite the grave assignment they’d been given, there was little they could actually accomplish on the spot.” The top executives knew that the people with “real expertise” to figure out what could be done were doing their work elsewhere – the numbers people working for them who could understand high finance and Lehman Brothers’ balance sheet – and would let their bosses know their conclusions.

So, the executives, twiddling their thumbs, did what they could to pass the time. They did “vicious imitations of Paulson, Geithner, and Cox:

“Ahhhh, ummmm, ahhhh, ummmm,” one banker muttered, adopting Paulson’s stammer. “Work harder, get smarter!” another shouted, mocking Geither’s Boy Scoutish exhortations. A third did his best Christopher Cox, whom they all were convinced had little understanding of high finance: “Two plus two? Um – could I have a calculator?”

And of course:

Colm Kelleher, Morgan’s CFO, had begun playing BrickBreaker on his BlackBerry, and soon an unofficial tournament was under way, with everyone competitively comparing scores.

No word yet on what top score won the tournament.

As well all know, several days after the BrickBreaker tournament, Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner, and the Congress gave in and bailed out the executives in the room as they realized though these executives controlled vast amounts of capital, they were not willing or able to save their competitors and preserve the financial system in order to save themselves.

Most of the information from page 326 of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail. Quite an interesting book – well worth a read.

[Image by Cyndie@smilebig! licensed under Creative Commons.]

Dueling Op-Eds

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Last Friday saw two sets of dueling op-eds on the opinion pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times.

At the Post, Charles Krauthammer, professional pundit, accuses the Obama administration of aiding Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in giving “voice” to the “propaganda of the deed” that was September 11. Krauthammer accepts no justification offered and launches one after another attack on the very idea of trying KSM, and most of all, on the Obama administration for bringing him to trial. Reading Krauthammer, it is difficult to understand why Attorney General Holder made the decision he did. It seems unfathomable and downright un-American.

Elsewhere in the section, two former top Bush Justice Department officials – Jack Goldsmith and James Comey – make the case that Attorney General Holder’s decision was reasonable, though there may be reason to disagree with it. They go through some of the advantages of the Attorney General’s decision, and conclude:

The wisdom of that difficult judgment will be determined by future events. But Holder’s critics do not help their case by understating the criminal justice system’s capacities, overstating the military system’s virtues and bumper-stickering a reasonable decision.

Over at the New York Times, David Brooks and Paul Krugman have a more evenly balanced argument over Timothy Geithner.

Brooks’s conclusion was that Geither’s intervention was effective:

On the other hand, you would also have to say that Geithner, like many top members of the Obama economic team, is extremely context-sensitive. He’s less defined by any preset political doctrine than by the situation he happens to find himself in…In the administration’s first big test, that sort of pragmatism paid off.

Krugman though concludes Geither is part of the problem, and even if he got the short-term economics right, the political situation won’t allow for any significant course corrections because the initial steps were so against the popular mood:

Throughout the financial crisis key officials — most notably Timothy Geithner, who was president of the New York Fed in 2008 and is now Treasury secretary — have shied away from doing anything that might rattle Wall Street. And the bitter paradox is that this play-it-safe approach has ended up undermining prospects for economic recovery.

It’s interesting to see such jousting on the same op-ed page. As opposing sides make their case, one can often learn more than from reading mere news.

NBC’s Dr. Nancy Defends Doctors in Breast Cancer Debate: “We are on the verge of becoming a scientifically illiterate country”

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

One of the main competitions in our politics, aside from the liberal versus right-wing, and the establishment versus anti-establishment, is the the competition between technocrats and idiocrats. While technocrats may be ascendant in Obama’s Washington, as policy wonks and experts attempt to solve intractable problems with technical solutions and brainpower and science, the idiocrats, who try to get their agenda through by fooling enough of the people enough of the time, still have a solid hold on the political discussion.

Idiocrats take advantage of that old adage, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and make sure smoke obscures any issue in which they want to get their way. Rather than respond to their opponents on the merits, they simply describe their opponents and their agenda as the fulfillment of the idiocrat’s worst fears: “Nazi!” “Socialist!” “Communist!” Terrorist!” “America-hater!” “Death panels!” “Government-mandated abortion!” “Reparations!” “Secret Muslim!” “Radical!” For those who are not paying enough attention to the issue to sort through all the competing claims, this extremist rhetoric, while not convincing them, causes them to assume something bad is going on, even if it isn’t as bad as is being claimed.

For example, even as the health care plan Obama has proposed is largely based on previous Republican proposals, and seems to take into account conservative critiques of big government while still making progress towards liberal goals, idiocrats have condemned it in the harshest terms possible, raising every possible fear – from government kidnapping your children and indoctrinating them into socialism, to rationing by death panels, to runaway spending bankrupting the country, to abortion mandates, to the destruction of the employer-based health care system, to the destruction of Medicare. It makes little difference that it is hard to imagine a plan that both rations care brutally and leads to runaway spending, or that everyone acknowledges our current system is on an unsustainable course, or that the measures included in the bills under consideration represent the most significant attempt at cost control in a generation.

Last week, as part of a continuing effort to generate smoke to obscure real issues, the Wall Street Journal editorial board started a deliberate lie to undermine the health care reforms in Congress by claiming (without evidence and contrary to news reports as well as the the recommendation itself) that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force – a independent, technocratic organization of doctors started by Ronald Reagan – had changed its recommendations regarding breast cancer prevention as part of Obama’s push to reduce the health care costs. This explosive claim became the focus of the public debate, instead of the recommendations of the report itself and their rationale.

On Sunday, Meet the Press had a typically “even-handed” debate between their own Dr. Nancy Snyderman and Ambassador Nancy Brinker, founder of an organization dedicated to fighting breast cancer. The whole 12 minute segment is worth watching (transcript), as you can see Brinker acknowledging that the task force might be right on the science, but at the same time suggesting that we shouldn’t show any weakness in our war against cancer by suggesting mammograms might not always be a good thing. She made a few valid points, giving certain circumstances in which mammograms would be better than alternatives, but she couldn’t and didn’t dispute the task force’s medical conclusions.

But the piece is truly worth watching for “Dr. Nancy” took on the idiocrats who were muddying the issue and defended the scientific conclusions of the doctors:

DR. SNYDERMAN: [O]ver 1900 women screened over a 10-year period of annual mammograms, one life is saved and there are a thousand false positives, which means ongoing, unnecessary tests.  Now remember, the scientists who did these numbers, their role is, as scientists, to take the anecdotes and the passion and the emotion out of it.  And I recognize that’s hard as part of the message.  But they’re to look at the public health issues of how we screen. And we’ve always known that mammography for women in their 40s has been fraught with problems.  It is not as precise for older women [She meant younger here].  On that Nancy and I have great agreement.  So what their consensus was is that there are a lot of unnecessary screenings for that one life.  Now, if you’re that one life, it’s 100 percent.  I get that.  But their charge as an independent body was to look at the cumulative research as scientists.

Later, as Ambassador Brinker tried to simultaneously politicize the issue while claiming not to be, Dr. Nancy interjected with a righteous defense of science:

The key line that got me:

I would argue that we are on the verge of becoming a scientifically illiterate country if we don’t at times separate [science and politics]…

In a large measure, the promise of Obama, the hope he held out, was to break the hold that idiocrats have over our political debate. Thus far, this is a battle he does not seem to be winning.

Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2009-11-20

Friday, November 20th, 2009
  • That's What You Get For Trusting a WSJ Editorial… http://2parse.com/?p=4306 #
  • Sarah Palin: The candidate for those who thought Bush was too eloquent, too popular, and too moderate. #
  • "I give to thee, the most badass torch lighting in Olympics history: Barcelona 1992." http://bit.ly/1yEUOX
    (Thanks @reddit) #
  • The direction the GOP is heading is a repudiation of Reagan's legacy. http://bit.ly/ke4Xd #
  • Precedent for KSM trial: Israel’s prosecution in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucrat who engineered the Holocaust. http://bit.ly/45WPR9 #
  • Health care reform is most significant effort @ cost control in a generation. http://2parse.com/?p=4301 (Inpired by @ezraklein) #
  • 2parse.com Presents Exclusive Pictures of Obama Bowing to More Anti-American Groups… http://2parse.com/?p=4297 #
  • In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the "indefensible." http://bit.ly/4iu5H9 #
  • Seinfeld, laughing: "That surprised me. It surprised me. I have no idea it would be that revolting." #

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That’s What You Get For Trusting a WSJ Editorial

Friday, November 20th, 2009

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal had an editorial that got passed around as if it were a news story, insisting that the decision of a board of doctors and scientists to recommend that biannual breast cancer screening only for those between the ages of 50 and 75 “is a sign of cost control to come.” The editorial cited this fact:

But the panel—which includes no oncologists and radiologists, who best know the medical literature—did decide to re-analyze the data with health-care spending as a core concern.

Yet this isn’t what news articles are reporting:

Panel members said politics and questions of cost were never part of their discussions of the risks and benefits of mammograms — in fact they are prohibited from considering costs when they make guidelines.

Or this:

In reaching its recommendations, the task force of doctors and scientists determined that early and frequent mammograms often lead to false-positive readings and unnecessary biopsies, without substantially improving the odds of survival for women under 50.

And it is not the rationale given by the report itself:

The harms resulting from screening for breast cancer include psychological harms, unnecessary imaging tests and biopsies in women without cancer, and inconvenience due to false-positive screening results. Furthermore, one must also consider the harms associated with treatment of cancer that would not become clinically apparent during a woman’s lifetime (overdiagnosis), as well as the harms of unnecessary earlier treatment of breast cancer that would have become clinically apparent but would not have shortened a woman’s life. Radiation exposure (from radiologic tests), although a minor concern, is also a consideration.

Adequate evidence suggests that the overall harms associated with mammography are moderate for every age group considered, although the main components of the harms shift over time. Although false-positive test results, overdiagnosis, and unnecessary earlier treatment are problems for all age groups, false-positive results are more common for women aged 40 to 49 years, whereas overdiagnosis is a greater concern for women in the older age groups.

There is adequate evidence that teaching BSE is associated with harms that are at least small. There is inadequate evidence concerning harms of CBE.

That hasn’t stopped this from becoming a right wing talking point nor from causing concerns among independents uncertain about whom to believe – the statements of the board itself, claiming they focused on science, or the speculating opinions of right wingers, playing into people’s worst fears.

I have some advice for those people on the fence: Read the damn report if you don’t trust the media. Don’t put your blind faith in the often discredited Wall Street Journal editorial page.

The Emotional Logic of Trying KSM in Federal Court

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

This is the response of a friend of mine on her Facebook page to the news that Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and 4 other detainees were going to be tried in federal court in New York.

When I heard the news, my first response was different: “Good. Finally we’re starting to deal with this mess,” the mess being the uncertain state of detainees and whether along with the many unresolved issues stemming from September 11. There was a kind of satisfaction – that we would finally be making progress, that decisions were being made, that the limbo that has been in place since September 11 would finally be resolved.

But I hadn’t anticipated the emotion it would stir up in many others, who reacted with a kind of visceral disgust. Most of the various reasons used to justify this disgust are manageable issues: the disclosure of classified information; the use of the trial as a platform for Al Qaeda propaganda; the security threat to New York City; the possibility of an acquittal; and whether terrorism should be treated as a crime or an act of war.

I don’t see any of these reasons as explaining the visceral reaction. They are the rational explanations we reach for after we reach our decision, rather than what compels us to come to the decision.

It is my opinion – and I want to make that clear as I am merely speculating as to what other people believe – that this issue has been such an emotional one because a trial of KSM would represent a kind of emotional closure to the trauma of September 11. Thus, the stakes are high. For 8 years, the Bush administration seemed unwilling or unable to move beyond the trauma of that day. They created an ad hoc legal structure to deal with terrorism that was often parallel and inferior to what was already in place. Surely compromised in their panic, they authorized the brutal torture of many guilty men and some innocent. Without in depth knowledge of the organization or the area of the world in which it operated, they simply decided to use their most valuable resource: money; they offered bounties to militias for each person they brought in, without any consistent way of evaluating whether these people brought in were guilty of anything or were knowledgeable about anything relevant. They were unwilling to let any person who had been captured free, on the chance that they might be wrong, and so held innocents as prisoners for years. In this climate of fear, a hunch of an investigator was enough to hold a man prisoner for years without any evidence and without any trial and without any accountability. While the Bush administration gradually scaled back the worst abuses, often due to court or rarely, Congressional, intervention, it never repudiated the precedents it set in the panic, precedents that if invoked would create an authoritarian executive.

This is what bothered most of the liberals, what they feared. They saw in Bush’s immediate response an understandable panic, but in the precedents he set by refusing to repudiate the measures he took, the seeds of the destruction of our republic.

On the other hand, what I believe underlies right wingers’ (and others’) defense of these precedents is a lack of faith in America’s system of justice. This lack of faith is evidenced by the right wing characterization of our courts as “liberal” or ‘left-wing” despite the fact that a sizable majority of judges have been appointed by Republican presidents. It is evidenced by the caricature of our criminal justice system and our tort system that the right wing promotes – a caricature in which hard-working, innocent corporations are persecuted by greedy trial lawyers and criminals are set free on technicalities. (See Footnote.) Those who already distrusted our justice system found in September 11 further proof of this – as they blamed our courts for releasing information to Al Qaeda, for letting terrorists free, and for undermining investigations into terrorism. An alternative justice system was created within the military to deal with those suspected of terrorism, one in which initially, suspects had few rights – whether to call witnesses in their defense, to question their accusers, to be presumed innocent, to see evidence held against them, or even to be released if despite all of this, they were found innocent. Not surprisingly, this unjust system caused a number of the military’s judge advocates and prosecutors (including the Chief Prosecutor) to resign in protest. Some of the worst flaws in this military commission system have been fixed, as courts and Congress intervened – but the system has been delegitimized in the view of much of the world. Most defenders of this system of military commissions opposed the fixes at the time as well.

This is where we stand today. There is an emotional logic to the decision and to the responses that informs the debate far more than the mere facts and policy issues.

The purpose of terrorism is to undermine the legitimacy of the state. The rule of law and our justice system is at the core of what makes a state legitimate, what allows a state to gain the informed consent of the governed. By creating an alternative justice system to deal with terrorism, we – to put the matter in the strongest terms – preemptively give up one of the core foundations of the state’s legitimacy. This only makes sense if our justice system itself is fundamentally corrupt and/or illegitimate, or if terrorism in some way invalidates it.

Trying Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in an open trial in federal court in a system with well-known precedents and rules demonstrates that the 3 successful attacks on September 11 failed to bring down our justice system along with the towers. He will be tried; given the evidence against him, he will almost certainly be found guilty; and then he will be executed. (Though I oppose the death penalty, but there are exceptions to every rule.) That will be the sternest measure of justice we can give him on earth. After that, we must trust to powers beyond our own to mete out the appropriate suffering.

Footnote: There are examples which demonstrate this caricature, and which refute it, and there are common sense reforms which could reduce the instances of abuse of the system.

Health Care Reform is the most significant effort at cost control in a generation, if not ever.

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Once health care reform passes, the White House has signaled it will begin to focus more specifically on the deficit. (Also, on jobs, cap and trade, and financial regulation.)

But as the Obama administration presented it initially: Health care reform is deficit reduction. (Ezra Klein, health care policy wonk, blogger, and columnist for the Washington Post, has been making this case all along, as have many other technocratic types and policy wonks and health care experts.) That’s why Peter Orszag made the phrase, “bend the curve” into a buzzword, referring to the attempt to bring down the rate of growth of health care spending. Here for example is a graph of our projected budget deficit as a percentage of GDP based on current growth rates, lowering those growth rates, and adopting measures to have Britain-like growth rates:

While any bill that might get past Congress at this point won’t live up to the early wet dreams of policy wonks (It won’t even bring us to the level of the blue line in the above graph), it would – to quote Ezra – still “represent the most significant effort at cost control in a generation, if not ever.” (my emphasis.) (He specifically refers to three provisions in the Senate Finance Committee bill: the excise tax on high-cost insurance plans; the newly empowered Medicare Commission; and various delivery-system reforms.) In fact – again according to Ezra – the “health-care reform bills currently under consideration in both the Senate and the House actually cut money from the deficit.” Despite this, the same Republicans (often the exact same individuals) who 6 years ago cast “a vote to add about $400 billion to the deficit in the first 10 years, and trillions more in the decades after that,” with Medicare Part D are now criticizing the current bill which would decrease the deficit as “fiscally irresponsible.”  Ezra:

It’s like watching arsonists calling the fire department reckless.

This constant obstructionism by the Republicans – on both matters of fiscal stimulus and health care – is gradually eating away at the public will to act and is therefore undermining confidence in America’s economy and long-term fiscal situation, and by undermining this confidence, making a disaster more likely. Noam Scheiber of The New Republic describes how the struggle to enact meaningful health care reform is a concern for the largest holders of American debt, the Chinese:

To his surprise, when Orszag arrived at the site of the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), the Chinese didn’t dwell on the Wall Street meltdown or the global recession. The bureaucrats at his table mostly wanted to know about health care reform, which Orszag has helped shepherd…”At some point, if you refuse to contain health care costs, you’ll go bankrupt,” says Andy Xie, a prominent Shanghai-based economist, formerly of Morgan Stanley.

The efforts at cost control proposed by the Democrats might fail, as Republicans suggest. But it is irresponsible not to try, and to obstruct any attempts to try. Republicans have begun to demagogue the bills before Congress both for cutting Medicare and for increasing the amount of health care spending. They are not willing to give the Democrats any political cover to take any fiscally responsible measures. This partisan refusal to work towards solving long-term problems has been the key to Republican successes from 1994 to the present. (Not so for the Democrats, many of whom joined George W. Bush in passing his No Child Left Behind act, his tax cuts, and his Medicare Part D bill, but undoubtedly, both sides bear some blame.) This has created a political culture in which Washington has two directives:  “spend money on things I like and don’t raise my taxes.” This isn’t solely a Republican problem. It is more that the Republicans, by remaining stubbornly united, have made these flaws evident. Klein again:

The issue isn’t that some storm will unexpectedly slam into the economy and there will be nothing anybody can do, but that the storm will hit and Congress will choose to do nothing

The biggest danger America faces is not rising health-care costs or global warming or the budget deficit. It’s the political system’s inability to act on these issues, even though the solutions are generally quite clear.

Take a moment and read the articles linked to – especially the three Ezra Klein posts from the past two days. (On the Senate Finance Bill’s cost control measures; On Medicare Part D; and On Our Political System’s Inability to Act.)

Keep in mind that Obama’s proposals are not “radical leftist” but essential and moderate tinkering that incorporates Republican as well as Democratic ideas. The Tea Party-ers may be outraged at the imaginary specters of death panels and government-mandated abortion. But it is the rest of us who should be outraged at the inability of our political system or our politics to address these long-term issues responsibly.