Posts Tagged ‘Ezra Klein’

Must-Reads of the Week: Nukes, Inconsistencies, Graphing the Economic Crisis, Half-Hookers, Palin 2012, Mailer’s Wife, & Complex Business Models

Friday, April 9th, 2010

1. Nukes. Jon Stewart and Andrew Sullivan both make the same point: Obama’s nuclear policy is the fulfillment of Ronald Reagan’s vision:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
The Big Bang Treaty
www.thedailyshow.com

2. Inconsistencies. Matt Yglesias:

The main difference between left and right with regard to property rights is simply that the right is invested in a lot of rhetoric about markets and property rights and the left is invested in different historical and rhetorical tropes.

… Formally, the right is committed to ideas about free markets and the left is committed to ideas about economic equality. But in practice, political conflict much more commonly breaks down around “some stuff some businessmen want to do” vs “some stuff businessmen hate” rather than anything about markets or property rights per se…

Or if you look at the energy sector, you’ll see that businessmen want to push property rights for the stuff that’s in the ground (coal, oil, whatever) and a commons model for the stuff (particulates, CO2) that’s in the air. You can call that “inconsistent” if you like, but obviously it’s perfectly consistent with what coal and oil executives want! And those industries are the most loyal supporters of “right” politics around.

3. Graphing the Economic Crisis. Ezra Klein puts out some interesting graphs about the economic crisis and nascent recovery including this one:

Klein explains:

This graph is a political problem for the Obama administration (if not, in the short-term, an economic problem). But it is also necessary for all the other graphs. The bank rescue, which added temporarily to the deficit, stabilized the stock market and set the stage for its recovery. The stimulus, which also added to the deficit, helped moderate the job losses and and has contributed to recent gains. You could’ve made the lines on this graph better, but only by letting the lines on the other graphs get worse.

4. Half-hookers. Lisa Taddeo for New York magazine writes about the burgeoning half-hooker culture which exists in a bizarre alternate reality existing so close to our own where celebrities and finance guys get their women:

The general-admission crowds dance, and the table crowds dance a little more woodenly, a little more entitledly, with their finger pads on their tables. The promoters are dancing with the models and the waitresses are dancing with the bottles and everybody finds a place on the floor.

The floor people, they are just to fill the place up. The celebrities and the athletes and the tycoons are the ones for whom this world is zealously designed. A rung below in after-work pinstripes are the money guys, the Deutsche guys and the Goldman guys and the no-name hedge-fund guys—the “whales”—guys like that one over there in a Boss suit and John Lobb shoes, standing beside the table that cost him $3,000. Standing very close to it, like a Little Leaguer who wants to steal second but has never done it before. This gentleman’s not dancing, but he’s thinking about it.

There’s quite a lot to the article. A fascinating piece of reporting.

5. Palin 2012. Chris Bowers makes the argument for why Sarah will win if she runs.

6. Mailer’s Wife. Alex Witchell profiles Norris Church Mailer, Norman Mailer’s final wife, whose story moved me as I read of it:

John Buffalo Mailer [stepson of Norris:] “People are their best selves and worst selves intermittently,” he told me, “and the best marriages navigate that ride over the hurt, which I believe they did right to the end. They both had options, and at the end of the day the life they created together won out over infidelity, illness and hard times…”

7. Complex Business Models. Clay Shirsky:

One of the interesting questions about Tainter’s thesis is whether markets and democracy, the core mechanisms of the modern world, will let us avoid complexity-driven collapse, by keeping any one group of elites from seizing unbroken control. This is, as Tainter notes in his book, an open question. There is, however, one element of complex society into which neither markets nor democracy reach—bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies temporarily reverse the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one.

Read the rest.

[Image by me.]

Evaluating Mitt Romney’s 2012 Candidacy

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

The blogs discuss whether or not Mitt Romney’s 2012 prospects have been passed by the health care reform so similar to his own in Massachusetts:

Marc Ambinder makes the case that the conventional wisdom on the left that health care reform’s passage has killed Romney’s 2012 candidacy is a reflection of “anchor bias — the same type of bias that consigned the Democratic majority to history the day after Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts.” Ambinder continues:

Romney is a serious, sober guy. Just read his book. It’s half a cliche campaign book, and half a really learned and well-thought-out disquisition on the problems facing American today. If the fundamental divide in the party is between the lambs being led to slaughter wing — the bleating, noisy wing — and the wing that seeks a solutions-oriented leader, Romney has a case to make.

Jonathan Chait responds to Ambinder:

Actually, I think Ambinder has this backwards. Right now, Romney looks fine — he has money, name recognition, decent polling, and the like. What you have to do is project how the current dynamic is going to play in 2012. At the moment, Republican leaders are trying to demonize the Affordable Care Act, so they have little incentive to point out that it’s basically Romneycare plus cost controls. But in the context of the 2012 race, with the Affordable Care Act settled into law and a contested GOP primary going on, there will be lots of Republicans playing up the comparisons between Romneycare and Obamacare. Romney appears political viable right now because most Republican voters have not been exposed to the Romneycare-Obamacare comparison — or if they have, it’s been made by advocates of the latter, rather than by Republicans who they trust. When the attacks come, Romney just has no convincing reply…

[But] I’d like to see Romney win the nomination, because he’s intelligent, competent, and has some decent moral instincts buried somewhere beneath a thick coat of pandering demagoguery. I just don’t see it happening.

Ezra Klein:

The passage of Obamacare is going to make life harder for Mitt Romney in 2012. Which makes the White House pretty happy. Romney isn’t the world’s most skilled politician, but he’s one of the more credible challengers Republicans can muster. If the passage of health-care reform wounds his candidacy without killing it off entirely, that’s a big win for the Obama administration: It means Romney takes up some, but not enough, of the sensible Republican vote, making it even likelier that someone totally unelectable wins the nomination…

The White House thinks that 2012 is where they can deal a serious blow to the Fox Newsification of the Republican Party. But that only works if someone from the Fox News wings of the party wins the nomination (and, of course, if Obama really trounces that person)

Jonathan Chait responds to Klein:

From Obama’s perspective, the crazier the Republican nominee, the better. Better Tim Pawlenty than Mitt Romney, and better Sarah Palin than Tim Pawlenty.

The broader liberal calculation is different. It’s almost certainly true that liberals will want Obama to win reelection. But we have to balance that desire against minimizing the downside in case he doesn’t.

Andrew Sullivan:

I’m sorry but he says he’s running against an all-powerful central government, but he backed the indefinite, open-ended, unlimited, “Double Gitmo!” executive powers seized by Bush and Cheney? He set up a mini-version of Obamacare and now wants to lead a party that wants to repeal Obamacare? Worse for him, Obama is now shrewdly embracing Romney…

And how do you get past the problem that no one likes him and no one rightly trusts him? And that he’s a Mormon running for the nomination of a Southern evangelical organization?

Palin is the one to beat. She’s the real identity of the current GOP – and as fake as the rest of them (though nowhere near as fake as Romney, but, then, who is?).

Meanwhile, David Harsanyi chips in from the Denver Post in a piece being promoted by the National Review (which has been notably quiet on this issue):

“Overall, ours is a model that works,” Romney explained. “We solved our problem at the state level. Like it or not, it was a state solution. Why is it that President Obama is stepping in and saying ‘one size fits all’ “?

Federalism is a good argument that has nothing to do with health care reform models, as Romney knows well. Here’s what he should have said years ago:

“Everyone makes mistakes. Heck, I made a huge one. My plan, first hijacked by state liberals and now copied by Barack Obama, has created a fiscal nightmare in my state… I am here to extract my name from that botched experiment by repealing its ugly stepson Obamacare so Americans work together to pass genuine, common sense, market-based reform.”

Then again, it is entirely possible Romney genuinely believes his health care model works.

In which case, his position just doesn’t cut it.

My two cents: Projections are inherently flawed – and long-term political projections are akin to predicting the weather in a particular days several years away: Sometimes, rules of thumb work (“March goes in like a lion and out like a lamb” to “Opposition parties do well in the first mid-terms after a presidential election.”), but you can’t count on them. Looking at the fundamentals is more important than looking at current trends. (“November is usually cold,” does better than “It’s gotten hotter in 5 successive days this April!”) But even projections based on the fundamentals don’t always hold.

As I read the fundamentals: Whether the Obama administration embraces Romney or not, I don’t see how he can win the Republican nomination for the reasons that Chait raised (when his Republicans opponents tar him with supporting Obamacare, it will stick) – added to the complications that Sullivan harps on (a Mormon running to lead an evangelical party). If Romney wins the Republican nomination, his flip-flopping on health care would only solidify the image of him as a pandering demagogue with no real principles. Still, he’s the Republican I’d most like to see win the nomination on the off-chance the Republicans are able to win in 2012. The fundamentals there look very weak for any Republican though unless unemployment is rising in 2012.

[Image by Paul Chenowith licensed under Creative Commons.]

Our Unhinged Debate on Health Care Reform (cont.)

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Ezra Klein:

I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of the death threats being made against congressmen who voted for health-care reform. Nuts are nuts. But there is a danger to the sort of rhetoric the GOP has used over the past few months. When Rep. Devin Nunes begs his colleagues to say “no to socialism, no to totalitarianism and no to this bill”; when Glenn Beck says the bill “is the end of America as you know it”; when Sarah Palin says the bill has “death panels” — that stuff matters.

I remember listening to the debate the night the House passed the Senate bill and the reconciliation fixes. There are a lot of critiques I could imagine folks on the right making of the legislation. “Regulations to define a minimum insurance benefit will impede innovation in low-deductible plans.” “Congress doesn’t have the will to stick to the cost savings, and until they prove able to do so, we can’t pass a new health-care entitlement.” “The health-care system is broken, and adding a new benefit doesn’t make sense outside the context of radical reform, as it will just create a new set of stakeholders who will resist the necessary changes.”

But totalitarianism? Death panels? The end of America as we know it? These critiques aren’t just wrong in their description of a cautious, compromised reform that uses private insurers and spends only 4 percent of what we spend on health care in an average year. They’re shocking in terms of what the speakers believe their colleagues and representatives are willing to do to the American people.

Read the whole thing. This type of post is what makes Ezra Klein a great blogger and a must-read.

Must-Reads of the Week: China’s distortionary exchange rate policy, Mario Savio, David Brooks, Ezra Klein, & Dana Priest’s The Mission

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Apologies for the very, very light posting. There are quite a number of personal issues I’ve been dealing with – aside from the uprooted tree in my yard and miscellaneous damage.

But let me still give you some must-reads for the week.

1. China’s distortionary exchange rate policy. On Sunday, Keith Bradsher in the New York Times gave a good primer on how China is using currency manipulation and the global trade organizations to gain economic advantages as part of a global strategy to increase China’s power. China has also been using the global financial crisis to further their economic aims:

China is starting to describe its currency interventions as stimulus. But unlike extra government spending in the United States and other countries, currency intervention does not expand global demand, but shifts it from other countries to China.

Paul Krugman followed this up with a column urging action regarding China:

Today, China is adding more than $30 billion a month to its $2.4 trillion hoard of reserves. The International Monetary Fund expects China to have a 2010 current surplus of more than $450 billion — 10 times the 2003 figure. This is the most distortionary exchange rate policy any major nation has ever followed.

And it’s a policy that seriously damages the rest of the world. Most of the world’s large economies are stuck in a liquidity trap — deeply depressed, but unable to generate a recovery by cutting interest rates because the relevant rates are already near zero. China, by engineering an unwarranted trade surplus, is in effect imposing an anti-stimulus on these economies, which they can’t offset. [My emphases.]

My first attempt to make sense of this issue here.

2. Mario Savio. Scott Saul of The Nation follows up with an excellent profile of Mario Savio who at one point seemed poised to lead the 1960s radical New Left, but who then dropped out of public view:

Savio was a revolutionary and civil libertarian, logician and poet, scientific observer and self-aware partisan–and in his heyday a virtuosic extemporizer who seemed not so much to perform all these identities as to incarnate them. He was, in short, an icon of possibility for his generation of student activists; and so it’s a great historical riddle, tinged with pathos, why he was, in Berkeley in 1964, the lightning rod of his time and, almost immediately afterward, a man who couldn’t conduct the energy he’d summoned.

3. David Brooks on Obama. David Brooks wrote an excellent column last Friday arguing that both the right and left have Obama wrong, as they accuse excessive fealty to an extreme left wing ideology and of being a weak, passive, unprincipled traitor respectively. Brooks describes Obama as I have always understood and described him – and in fact, as he has described himself:

Obama is as he always has been, a center-left pragmatic reformer. Every time he tries to articulate a grand philosophy — from his book ”The Audacity of Hope” to his joint-session health care speech last September — he always describes a moderately activist government restrained by a sense of trade-offs.

4. Ezra Klein. Ezra Klein best summarized the CBO score released yesterday and how it gave the Democrats exactly what they needed:

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill cuts deficits by $130 billion in the first 10 years, and up to $1.2 trillion in the second 10 years. The excise tax is now indexed to inflation, rather than inflation plus one percentage point, and the subsidies grow more slowly over time. So one of the strongest cost controls just got stronger, and the automatic spending growth slowed. And then there are all the other cost controls in the bill: The Medicare Commission, which makes entitlement reform much more possible. The programs to begin paying doctors and hospitals for care rather than volume. The competitive insurance market.

This was a hard bill to write. Pairing the largest coverage increase since the Great Society with the most aggressive cost-control effort isn’t easy. And since the cost controls are complicated, while the coverage increase is straightforward, many people don’t believe that the Democrats have done it. But to a degree unmatched in recent legislative history, they have.

Klein then succinctly explained what was missing from the Republican approach to the deficit that this health care bill – to its great credit – attempted to address:

Our long-term deficit is not a function of our current spending, which is manageable. It is a function of our expected spending growth, particularly in health care. With the system growing at 8 percent a year and GDP growing at 2 percent or 3 percent a year, there’s a real long-term problem there. But you can’t cut, or even tax, your way out of it. If you cut 5 percent from the system in one year, that cut disappears by the next year.

5. The Mission. I’m currently reading this 2003 book by Dana Priest who writes for the Washington Post on the military’s mission and how it evolved after the Cold War through the 1990s and into the War on Terror. Absolutely excellent. I highly recommend it.

[Image by me, this morning.]

Must-Reads of the Week: A history lesson, Reconciling Chart, Theism, Starbucks, the New Global Middle Class, the Beijing Consensus, and the Traitorous Supreme Court

Friday, March 12th, 2010

A history lesson in ramming through one piece of legislation. Ezra Klein gives a short history lesson describing the tactics used by Republicans to “ram through” the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit.

Reconciling chart. The New York Times provides a chart of all the times reconciliation has been used.

Theism. Andrew Sullivan provides a beautiful quote from David Foster Wallace making what may be the best case for theism generally that I’ve seen.

Starbucks. Greg Beato for Reason has an interesting if annoying skewed take on Starbucks and its attempts to stay hip. His history and overall point is interesting, but the point of view he injects, his contempt for his less capitalist brethren, is irritating.

The New Global Middle Class. Rana Foroohar and Marc Margolis in Newsweek describe the new “global middle class” which “is more unstable and less liberal than we thought.” The examples they give are rather frustrating though. Brazil’s middle class is described as “more unstable and less liberal” because they applaud “more state control of the oil industry to keep out greedy foreign firms” and that “they don’t need outside advice on how to structure their societies, thank you.” The Russian middle class’s support for Putin and the Chinese support of the Beijing consensus are also cited and are much better examples proving their point. An interesting article, that touches on some gradually evolving issues in a way that most articles do not – but it seems to harness facts to reach their end rather than allow the facts to dictate the result.

The Beijing Consensus. Yang Yao in Foreign Affairs speculates that the Beijing Consensus – “a combination of mixed ownership, basic property rights, and heavy government intervention” – may be eroding. And as “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) lacks legitimacy in the classic democratic sense,” and “has been forced to seek performance-based legitimacy instead, by continuously improving the living standards of Chinese citizens,” the end of this consensus would lead to “greater democratization.”

The Traitorous Supreme Court. Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy takes on the Andrew McCarthy/Liz Cheney line of attack calling those attorneys currently in the Justice Department who represented some of those branded terrorists by the Bush administration asking this question:

Does McCarthy think the Justices of the Supreme Court are guilty of aiding the enemy, and that (if we treat them like everybody else) they should be “indicted for coming to the enemy’s aid during wartime”?

[Image by me.]

Paul Ryan’s Principled Objections to Obama’s Health Care Reforms

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Last week, Derek Thompson made a point countering the man he calls “the wonderful Hendrick Hertzberg” of The New Yorker. Hertzberg had claimed that the health care bill is “Ideologically and substantively… centrist. It has Republicans, and Republicanism, in its family tree.” Thompson counters this:

So health reform adheres to the Republican platonic ideal, even if no flesh-and-bone Republicans vote for it? Maybe. Or maybe it doesn’t adhere to Republicanism at all because it’s garnishing a decidedly liberal goal with conservative touches. Maybe saying “it’s already bipartisan” is like a steakhouse saying its filet mignon is vegetarian, because it’s served with quite a lot of carrots.

He uses Representative Paul Ryan’s principled dissent from Obama’s health care reform as the counterexample disproving Hertzberg’s claim.

But this doesn’t really acknowledge Hertzberg’s point – also made here and throughout the liberal opinionosphere. Obama’s health reform bill has more in common with previous Republican attempts to reform health care than with previous Democratic ones. It seems like a genuine attempt to fuse the ends Republicans focused on and the methods they used with the social justice issues Democrats were concerned with. The Republican opposition has been far from principled – as they have used every populist and procedural and inside tactic to block this. They have defended Medicare; they have attacked Medicare; they have attacked every cost-cutting measure and then railed against the bill for failing to cut costs (which it still manages to do); they have claimed it is radical while at the same time claiming it doesn’t go far enough. Ideology seemed to have little to do with this knee-jerk response – and the rhetoric attacking it had very little to do with the bill itself. Aside from the widely debunked death panels and such, there is the constant claim that this bill will increase the deficit and represent a “government takeover of 1/6th of the economy.” The government takeover claim is so ridiculous as the bill would leave most of the health insurance market untouched (including those portions already controlled by the government to popular acclaim such as Medicare.) And yet the “government takeover” line has proven so effective that Republicans have started to brand everything as “government takeovers.” (Net neutrality legislation is now the “government takeover of the Internet” according to John McCain.)

But Thompson (who I often enjoy reading – he’s a good and often fair commentator) wants to find some good faith disagreements. There are some. Republicans tend to favor less government involvement. When the Democrats proposed an intrusive regulatory system, they proposed something similar to Obama’s plan. Now that Obama has proposed this, they demand – if we are to accept Paul Ryan as their representative as Thompson does – that the government pull back from health care entirely and dismantle Medicare and other such programs. Except you wouldn’t know that from what most of them say. They are out there attacking this bill for cutting Medicare. They are attacking the bill as a sellout to the insurance industry. They are attacking the bill with everything they can think of. Which is why it is hard to give credence to any principled reason for the unanimous Republican opposition.

There are reasons to oppose this bill – and some people do so for principled reasons. Paul Ryan is likely one (though as was evident when Ezra Klein interviewed him) he often stoops to disingenuous talking points to do so.

Some people have fundamental disagreements that prevent them from supporting Obama’s moderate, centrist, tinkering health care reforms. Paul Ryan objects now to measures that increase the deficit (it bears repeating that he voted for all the Bush measures that exploded the deficit.) But he also objects to measures that decrease the deficit while increasing the role and size of government too. And he likes to keep claiming that this health care bill will increase the deficit, not because he thinks it does, but because it increases the size of government. This isn’t a principled objection. This is a political calculation that harping on the deficit plays into people’s anxieties about government overreach.

In other words, contra Derek Thompson, Paul Ryan is a man who decided to become a vegetarian when Obama became the chef. The other Republicans meanwhile are demanding the kitchen using animals for food while simultaneously defending the right of every elderly individual to have bacon cheeseburgers. Obama’s health reform would be a well-balanced meal – with some vegetables, some steak, and some tofu, a nice salad, a fruit dish and a scoop of ice cream for desert. It’s a mish-mash with something for everyone except the pure carnivores and vegetarians which no one is claiming is vegetarian – only that it’s got something for everyone. That’s bipartisanship.

P.S. Has it occurred to anyone (I’m sure it has) how Paul Ryan became a star?

First, Ryan unveiled a budget counterproposal that proposed radical changes to America’s social bargain.

Then Obama singled Rep. Ryan out at the Republican Congressional Retreat saying that Ryan “stud[ied] this stuff and [took] it pretty seriously” and that he had “made a serious proposal” to cut the deficit.

Then Ryan made a point to Obama during the bipartisan summit that was about the only one Obama didn’t demolish (which most pro-Ryan partisans took as gleeful confirmation that their man could do no wrong.)

Ryan’s star in the Republican Party has been rising – seemingly because he was singled out by Obama for praise, and because Obama didn’t go after some of the figures Ryan used in a later event even though pundits after the fact were able to do so easily. Ryan seems principled and telegenic. However, his ideas are so radical, only a tiny portion of Americans would agree with them.

I wonder if the White House doesn’t see Ryan as the perfect face for the good and principled side of the Republican Party, as opposed to the ugly partisan one Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin don.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Must-Reads During This Week: Perfect Storm for Health Reform, Making Controversy, Cyberwar, Limiting Government, Liz Cheney’s Al Qaeda Connection, George Will, and the Coffee Party

Monday, March 8th, 2010

In lieu of a substantial post today (as I’m having trouble getting back into the blog-writing habit), here’s a few links to worthwhile articles.

1. Perfect Storm. Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic explains that a “Perfect Storm Nearly Killed Health Reform; Another Storm May Save It.” However, what Ambinder describes as the “perfect storm” that might save health reform seems to be more properly called Obama’s willingness to wait out bad news cycles.

2. Controversy. Ezra Klein opines usefully on “how to make something controversial“:

The media is giving blanket coverage to this “controversial” procedure being used by the Democrats. But using reconciliation for a few fixes and tweaks isn’t controversial historically, and it’s not controversial procedurally. It’s only controversial because Republicans are saying it is. Which is good enough, as it turns out. In our political system, if Democrats and Republicans are yelling at each other over something, then for the media, that is, by definition, controversy.

3. Cyberwar? Ryan Singel of Wired‘s Threat Level reported some of the back-and-forth among the U.S. intelligence community, explaining why Republicans want to undermine and destroy the internet for national security as well as for commercial reasons. The Obama administration’s web security chief maintains in an interview with Threat Level that, “There is no cyberwar.”

4. Limiting government. Jacob Weisberg of Slate always seems to be looking for the zeitgeist. His piece this week is on how Obama can embrace the vision of limited government.  While all the pieces are there, he doesn’t quite make the connection I want to make: that government is absolutely needed even as it must be limited and its power checked. A post on this line has been percolating in my mind for some time, and now that Weisberg has written his piece, I feel its just about time for me to write mine.

5. Liz Cheney, Al Qaeda Sympathizer? Dahlia Lithwick slams Liz Cheney for her recent ad calling the Justice Department the “Department of Jihad” and labeling some attorneys there the “Al-Qaeda 7”:

Given that the Bill of Rights pretty much evaporates once you’ve been deemed a jihadi lover of Bin Laden, you might think Liz Cheney would be super-careful tossing around such words They have very serious legal implications…Having worked for years to ensure that the word jihadist is legally synonymous with guilty, Cheney cannot be allowed to use it casually to describe anyone she simply doesn’t like.

6. George Will: More Partisan Than Independent? Ezra Klein catches George Will out in a rather telling fit of procedural outrage over the Democrats’ use of reconciliation in the Senate. Plus, Klein uses this nifty chart to illustrate that dramatic change that George Will doesn’t happen to comment upon:

7. Coffee Party. I’m intrigued by this idea, though I don’t know how workable it is.

[Image taken by me over the weekend.]

Obama Chooses Policy Over Politics

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Ezra Klein:

[W]hat appears to be happening is that Barack Obama is listening to his policy people. He didn’t scale back the health-care reform bill because they convinced him that the different pieces didn’t work on their own. He’s trying to close Guantanamo because a lot of people who work on this stuff think we should close Guantanamo. That’s the thing about electing a smart technocrat as president: He’s swayed by smart, technocratic arguments. The political people are being used to help sell and shepherd the policy, and to figure out how much of the policy can pass Congress, but they seem to be losing the major arguments over what that policy should be.

That sounds about right. I don’t know how effective this style of governing is though. I expected more of a pivot from the White House focusing more on politics than policy after Scott Brown’s defeat. I don’t think that’s ideal – but it seems necessary if Obama wants to keep Congress Democratic. It doesn’t seem any longer that this is the lesson the White House took.

Or it is, but they’re not letting their timing be determined by these dramatic events. Perhaps, as he has so often, Obama plans on waiting out the negative media cycle and then going for the win.

Lamar Alexander Defends Senate from Those Who Say It Needs Reform

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Watching Lamar Alexander being interviewed on This Week it struck me that he was defending how the least popular institution in America works. Being a politician, he wouldn’t admit this outright – but his meaning was rather clear:

Well, you know, former governors — and I’m one — always have a hard time with the Senate. You know, we’re — we’re used — governors are used to saying, “Let’s go this way,” and a legislator in a reactor to things. So that’s part of the problem.

According to Alexander, the problem is that governors expect to get things done – that’s “part of the problem.” Lamar Alexander defends the the Senate as an institution designed to slow things down; but he further defends the current status quo which combines recent rules changes and a changed political atmosphere, to create an institution now seemingly designed to prevent any major legislation from being passed at all. Lamar Alexander though – and many other Republicans these days – defend this status quo. Alexander claims that this inability to create big programs means we instead will have to adopt a piecemeal approach, which is better. From an interview with Ezra Klein:

It is arrogant to imagine that 100 senators are wise enough to reform comprehensively a health-care system that constitutes 17 percent of the world’s largest economy and affects 300 million Americans of disparate backgrounds and circumstances.

He lists all the failed bills that attempted to find comprehensive solutions to problems that failed in the Senate: Immigration and social security reform under Bush, health care reform under Clinton, health care and climate change under Obama. But Alexander sees this as a good thing:

We don’t do comprehensive well in the Senate. It’s not because we don’t do our job well. It’s because we’re such a complicated country.

The common understanding, and probably the true one is that Alexander – like George Will – apparently has come around to this disdain for comprehensive solutions in the period since a Democrat took office. Accusations always fly back and forth over convenient flip flops regarding institutional power and procedures once the balance of powers changes. This isn’t news – and its hard to figure out how to approach this issue if you don’t take the position being offered at face value, even if you can see the partisan strings that seem to be motivating the change in position. Even Alexander’s position seems at odds with the Republican plans he cites and supports – allowing insurance to be sold across state lines for example which is an extremely radical move.

But if you squint you may see some consistency in Alexander’s positions. Alexander may not be deriding radicalism as it seems, but, as his words say, “comprehensive” radicalism. The problem isn’t then that the Senate might introduce a radical change that entirely changes America’s health care system – it’s that the solution is comprehensive and complicated. One thing each of the comprehensive failures Alexander points out have in common is that they all involved difficult and contentious issues with many interests groups competing and the reform attempted to preserve many elements of the status quo. The only status quo that I’ve heard Lamar Alexander defend however is the broken legislative body of which he is a member.

On the other hand, Alexander was a major proponent of Bush’s tax cuts which were radical, budget-busting legislation that significantly re-wrote America’s social contract. They weren’t part of some comprehensive plan though – they were just one isolated measure enacted (perhaps) without regard to the consequences or preserving the status quo. (Or, actually several isolated measures.) He supported the Iraq War which was certainly radical – but once again, didn’t seem to be part of any comprehensive plan to accomplish anything. He supported Medicare Part D – which seem much closer to being comprehensive, but could also be seen as merely “fixing a hole in the roof” and helping out the seniors who he needs to get reelected.

Senator Alexander’s problem then isn’t with radical measures passing the Senate. It is with well-thought out and complicated legislation – with, in his words, “comprehensive” legislation.

[Image by Talk Radio News licensed under Creative Commons.]

Why Bipartisanship Is Impossible: The parties are locked in a zero-sum struggle for control of the government

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Ezra Klein:

The problem with the Senate is not that you can’t get 60 people out of 100 people to agree on something. It’s that roughly half the folks will lose any chance at a promotion, and they may even lose their job, if they agree with the other half. Bipartisanship isn’t impossible because people disagree on the finer points of American policy, though many of them certainly do. It’s impossible because the parties are locked in a zero-sum struggle for control, and you don’t gain an advantage if you give the other side a major accomplishment and then tell the American people they really did a good job reaching out to your and your colleagues. That’s the equivalent of saying to your employer, “Don’t give me a promotion, and in fact, think hard about whether you might want to lay me off next year.”

As I’ve said before, it is very near to impossible to build out an ideological model explaining why Republicans who voted for the deficit-financed Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit would vote against the deficit-neutral health-care reform bill. But it’s very easy to build out a model explaining why Republicans would vote for a bill that would help them if it passed and against a bill that would hurt them if it failed. Same goes for Democrats. Good-faith disagreement is not the explanation that best fits the data.