As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Honduras, Red State

I think the plan for the ruling regime in Honduras is to negotiate out the clock on restoring Mel Zelaya. He only has a few months left on his term, and so endless talks would just serve to push resolution past the end. While they talk the talk of diplomacy, the government is using mercenaries, in violation of international conventions, to suppress dissent and support the rulers.

Meanwhile, the ruling regime has spent over $600,000 in a high-profile lobbying campaign, hiring those responsible for America's bloody crackdown in Central America in the 1980s like Otto Reich, along with corporate whores like Lanny Davis who will literally say anything for money. This has allowed them to gather friends at the top of the government, particularly Congressional Republicans like Sen. Jim DeMint.

Let's see, endless delays in negotiations, use of mercenaries, fealty to lobbyists, PR as a national policy.

They really are a mirror for American democracy! Circa 2002, at least.

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War Council After Peace Prize

David Kilcullen, Paul McCartney to Stanley McChrystal's John Lennon for the COIN set, unsurprisingly thinks that an outright escalation is the only path to victory in Afghanistan.

(CNN) -- An influential adviser to the U.S. commander in Afghanistan declared Friday that anything less than 25,000 extra international troops in the country would not be enough to win.

David Kilcullen, who also advised U.S. commanders in Iraq, told CNN's Christiane Amanpour the window of opportunity to turn around the war is closing.

Kilcullen's comments came as President Barack Obama, only hours after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, again met with his top advisers to discuss strategy and troop levels in Afghanistan.

The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is reportedly asking for up to 40,000 extra troops. Some reports say there is an option on the table to send 60,000 additional troops, almost doubling the U.S. force now in the country.

Kilcullen, who has just come back from Afghanistan -- said the Obama administration needs to finish the strategy review as soon as possible. While the war is not as bad as some say, "it's worse than any other time in the past," he said.

Kilcullen is also aware of the problems of governmental corruption and the lack of a partner in the civilian leadership in the country. But he's certainly foregrounding the use of military force to overcome the fact that we'd be protecting the population in service to an illegitimate government.

The discordance of the war council at the White House on the day Barack Obama was handed the Nobel Peace Prize was not lost on the Afghans.

"I'm not sure I understand -- this isn't for peace here, is it?" said bank worker Homaira Reza. "Because we haven't got any."

Irfan Mohammed, whose shop windows were rattled a day earlier by a massive blast outside the Indian Embassy in central Kabul, said he believed Obama was a good man, and perhaps deserving of the laurel.

"But so far as Afghanistan goes, he hasn't made up his mind what to do," Mohammed said.

I still think the Nobel Committee, consciously or unconsciously, is undertaking some behavioral economics here. I don't know if it will work, but clearly Obama is in some kind of box.

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I'm So Pretty, Cosell, You Can't Stop Me!

Hey Silvio Berlusconi, you're no Muhammad Ali:

ROME (Reuters) – Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Friday dismissed suggestions that he should step down for the good of Italy's image, saying he was the only person qualified to lead the country now and by far the best in Italian history.

Berlusconi, speaking at his first news conference since Italy's top court lifted his immunity from prosecution and opened the way for a resumption of corruption trials against him, also said he was the man most persecuted by judges "in the entire history of the world."

Berlusconi was asked by an American reporter about calls by critics that he step down because his personal and legal problems damage Italy's image in the world.

"The reality is completely the opposite," he said, remaining unusually calm in his response. "In my opinion, and not only mine, I am the best prime minister we can find today."

This is not a recent delusion of grandeur. Berlusconi has repeatedly claimed that he is the finest leader Italy has ever had, and all indications are that he actually believes it.

And if I essentially owned an entire country, and could shield myself from accountability at will - even with his immunity lifted, there are plenty of schemes he can and will use to avoid prosecution, and given his age he can never face jail time - I'd think I was pretty great myself.

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Friday Random Ten... The Last?

I've been toying with JUST keeping the site open for the Random Ten. So no, probably not the last. And I'm likely to have a few more things over the weekend if I have the time. So long but not goodbye...

On Call - Kings of Leon
Cosmic Sing-a-Long - Cryptacize
Party Up (Up In Here) - DMX
Everybody Loves Somebody - Dean Martin
It's Gonna Be (Alright) - Ween
What New York Used To Be - The Kills
The National Anthem - Radiohead
Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana
No One's Gonna Love You - Nicole Willis & The Soul Investigators
Clouds - Cibo Matto

Have a great weekend.

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CFPA Gets Big Boost From Obama

The White House actually made news today. Really, and it had nothing to do with Norway. The President came out with a full-throated endorsement of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, actually foregrounding it among all the other elements of financial regulatory reform.

But a central part of our reform effort is also aimed at protecting Americans who buy financial products and services every day -- from mortgages to credit cards. It's true that the crisis we faced was caused in part by people who took on too much debt and took out loans they couldn't afford. But my concern are the millions of Americans who behaved responsibly and yet still found themselves in jeopardy because of the predatory practices of some in the financial industry. These are folks who signed contracts they didn't always understand offered by lenders who didn't always tell the truth. They were lured in by promises of low payments, and never made aware of the fine print and hidden fees [...]

As we've seen over the last year, abuses like these don't just jeopardize the financial well-being of individual Americans -- they can threaten the stability of the entire economy. And yet, the patchwork system of regulations we have now has failed to prevent these abuses. With seven different federal agencies each having a role, there's too little accountability, there are too many loopholes, and no single agency whose sole job it is to stand up for people like Patricia, Susan, Maxine, Andrew and Karen -- no one whose chief responsibility it is to stand up for the American consumer, and for responsible banks and financial institutions who are having to compete against folks who are not responsible.

So under the reforms we've proposed, that will change. The new Consumer Financial Protection Agency that I've asked Congress to create will have just one mission: to look out for the financial interests of ordinary Americans. It will be charged with setting clear rules of the road for consumers and banks, and it will be able to enforce those rules across the board.

This was an idea from Elizabeth Warren that had absolutely no traction in Washington, and now the President of the United States is backing it in major speeches. He even attacked the US Chamber of Commerce for opposing it. To me, that's a big deal. But Oslo went and ruined everything. Oslo!!

I was on a conference call with Austan Goolsbee after the speech, and he emphasized three key points:

1) transparency - the importance of writing rules for credit cards, loans, etc., in clear language with full disclosures
2) fairness - it's time to get rid of unfair or predatory practices like payday lenders, and level the playing field for community banks.
3) accountability - not only would financial institutions and regulators be held accountable (the thinking is that the only thing a CFPA regulator would do is protect consumers, instead of the current disparate nature), but consumers would be able to take responsibility without being taken advantage of.

There was a reporter from the Philly Inquirer on the call who had the gall to say that the people affected by deceptive practices in the financial industry "made some dumb decisions." This is going to be the standard claim from the right (remember Rick Santelli's "I don't want to subsidize the loser's mortgages" rant?) so it's important to be armed with the facts. The fact is that regardless of whether you "go out there and shop" (another claim by this lunatic), financial products are written currently in deliberately obtuse ways, and the profit margins of the lenders or banks are directly proportional to how much of the fine print they can hide. People intuitively know this, and all the associated games along with it. And they deserve a federal agency at least tasked with looking out for them.

Now unfortunately, some of this comes a little late, as the National Community Reinvestment Coalition mentioned today:

“We applaud the President’s necessary leadership on financial reform. Clearly the President felt it necessary today to speak out against the weakening of the bill. Unfortunately, the damage from corporate lobbying in Congress may have already been done,” said John Taylor, president and CEO of NCRC.  "The ability of the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) to protect the most financially vulnerable individuals and communities has already been undermined by substantial changes to the bill.”

“Most importantly, the proposed agency will not have sufficient independence from the existing regulators, whose failure to enforce the law was the reason for the establishment of the agency,” said Taylor. “The exclusion of enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act was also a major concession to the financial services lobby, and allows them to continue to shirk affirmative obligations to serve and lend to working class Americans, within the constraints of safe and sound underwriting.”

In particular, Taylor is talking about the removal of "plain vanilla" financial products that would set a baseline standard for what's minimally required. And that's true. But it's good that Obama jumped in now before this weakens any further. And it would be good to re-emphasize this after the Nobel fervor blows over.

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California's Past, California's Future

Gordon Skene posted a fascinating echo of the past, from a Jerry Brown address to the state the day after the passage of Prop. 13 in 1978.

The Jerry Brown you hear is in full backpedal mode, telling voters that the message was received, that government spending is a scourge, that "we must look forward to lean and frugal budgets." Voters sent a message that they want their taxes cut, and the state will oblige. Brown offered a hiring freeze for state workers, proposed a round of budget cuts, and endorsed some kind of automatic limit on spending for the future. He offered a defense of state workers late in the clip, and he asked corporations to pretty-please take the huge windfall they would get by having their property taxes lowered to "invest in the state," but otherwise, it's a full-on co-opting of the Jarvis message.

Now, coming the day after passage of Prop. 13, you can argue that Brown was doing what he had to do. The people really did speak, although they didn't quite know the consequences of the words they were using, and Brown would have a re-election battle within 5 months, and he had to project a message that he "felt the pain" of those out there who voted to save their homes.

The problem is that this statement is directly analogous to the statement of Darrell Steinberg on May 20, 2009, the day after the special election went down in flames. Some would obviously ague that he was in the same position as Brown, and did what he had to do as well. As I said on May 20:

Where is the argument for DEMOCRACY in these statements? Since 1978 that democracy has crumbled and needs to be completely rebuilt. Everyone knows this but refuses to say it out loud. This is why the legislature and the Governor have historically low approval ratings. People are starved for actual leadership and see none. Only democracy will save us. This failed experiment with conservative Two Santa Claus Theories has now become deeply destructive. Because the democrats have provided no leadership and ceded the rhetorical ground, California public opinion holds the contradictory beliefs that the state should not raise taxes and also not cut spending. And if it persists without leadership and advocacy to the contrary, nothing will change.

Not once in those 31 intervening years has an argument been offered that leads proudly instead of placates meekly, that tells people about the future instead of the past, that makes stands on principle instead of trying to do the best with the system we have. That address in 1978 should have been replayed in a loop at every Democratic committee meeting and club event for 31 years, with the inevitable question asked afterward: "Is this a rallying cry? Is this the voice of a party that presumes to be on the side of the people? Is this giving people a vision, a dream, even a goal?"

People understand this in their lizard brains. They can naturally discern the strong and the weak, and gravitate toward the former even if their strength is repulsive. Since 1978, we have had exactly one other Democratic Governor in California, the kind of guy who signs on to amicus briefs with the Cal Chamber of Commerce defending illegal gubernatorial actions, and he was run out of Sacramento by a radical right movement that considered him too much of a hippie.

I have always thought that a strong defense of democracy, of the principles of majority rule, of government as a protector and a defender, would be rewarded in the public square. Instead we muddle through, and people suffer. I have not taken too much note of this "failure of the California dream" concept - for my money, as long as there were millions in poverty, gated communities and invisible barriers stratifying society, a separate California for the poor, the sick, the aged, then that dream was a good tool for marketers but a destructive proposition to tout. And while this has never been more true in our unequal society, it was ever thus. For the dream to be resurrected, it would have to be something fundamentally different. Not a "dream" of suburban sprawl and excess, but a dream of a society that takes care of one another, that seeks to maximize potential, that provides opportunity and allows individual dreams to take root. That can only happen in a flowering democracy reflective of the popular will.

I think leaders are emerging. While I won't be a part of day-to-day writing of the back and forth of California politics, as a citizen of the state I intend not to abandon it but to do whatever I can to involve myself in a movement toward fulfilling that new dream. It's deeply frustrating to analyze the politics of a state surrounded by brick walls to responsible governance at every turn, but paradoxically I think it remains an exciting time to be a progressive in California. The long march continues.

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Radical Republican Steve King

While in retrospect, I think comparing anyone who questions Barack Obama getting a pre-emptive Nobel Peace Prize today to the Taliban or terrorists is a pretty low road, I did appreciate the newfound aggressiveness from the DNC. Maybe they've hired some staffers from the RNC or something. And this latest project seems not only within bounds but a very canny way of painting Republicans with the beyond-the-pale extremist brush.

"Radical Republican Steve King" is repeated five times throughout the 1:15 piece. Surely this treatment will be given to some of the other figures of the GOP. And then GOP challengers will be forced to comment on these Radical Republicans.

You always want to take the lead in defining your opponent, and this campaign certainly does so. The more the GOP is the party of Limbaugh, Beck and Radical Republican Steve King, the more difficult it becomes for independents to embrace them.

Meanwhile, Steve King isn't exactly trimming his sails after the release of this video:

The hate crimes amendment attached to a defense authorization bill is Orwellian and provides protection to "sexual idiosyncrasies," Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) asserted Friday.

King, a conservative Republican lawmaker, also charged that the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, which provided some impetus for hate crimes legislation, was not motivated out of hate against Shepard, who was gay [...]

King said that the hate crimes bill results in a "pedophile protection act," and is meant to create "thought crimes" and protect "sexual idiosyncrasies."

Once a Radical Republican, always a Radical Republican.

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The Inevitable Nobel-As-Club

Helen Thomas today at the White House:

Q Since there's so much talk of war now, will this have an impact and make him seek peace more?

MR. GIBBS: Well, look, Helen, I would point you to what the President said today. Obviously we've got -- the President and his team have worked since the very beginning of our administration to work toward bringing peace to the Middle East.

Q With more war that's going on.

MR. GIBBS: Well, we have these disagreements, you and me, Helen. (Laughter.) But obviously I think -- the President mentioned both his hopes for and work for peace in the Middle East, as well as the commitments that he has as Commander-in-Chief to protect the American people and to prevent the spread of the type of violent extremism that we see in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Q But we're conducting wars there. Is he trying to find a way to peace?

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, Helen, we've done this before. There are people --

Q Don't say we've done this before. I'm asking you a question.

MR. GIBBS: I understand. There are those that sit there in that region of the world and actively are plotting and planning to do America harm.

Q How do you know that? And what are we doing to them?

MR. GIBBS: One, I watch the news. And two, I get that from the intelligence briefings.

I don't know if the President will have any problem sending in more troops after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize - he certainly didn't before - but this meme is absolutely out there. And it really shouldn't be a problem for a President who wants to live up to those promises, though Robert Gibbs was obviously flustered by it.

I don't buy the tradmed argument that the Nobel will somehow hurt Obama, and I don't know if it constrains future events, but it certainly gives himself something to live up to.

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The Economics Of Military Action

Here's something you don't see everyday - a member of Congress asking to fiscally quantify endless war:

“There are some fundamental questions that I would ask of those who are suggesting that we follow a long term counterinsurgency strategy:

1. As an Appropriator I must ask, what will that policy cost and how will we pay for it? We are now in the middle of a fundamental debate over reforming our healthcare system. The President has indicated that it must cost less than $900 billion over ten years and be fully paid for. The Congressional Budget Office has had four committees twisting themselves into knots in order to fit healthcare reform into that limit. CBO is earnestly measuring the cost of each competing healthcare plan. Shouldn’t it be asked to do the same thing with respect to Afghanistan? If we add 40,000 troops and recognize the need for a sustained 10 year or longer commitment, as the architects of this plan tell us we do, the military costs alone would be over $800 billion. And unlike the demands that are being made of the healthcare alternatives that they be deficit neutral, we’ve heard no such demand with respect to Afghanistan. I would ask how much will this entire effort cost, when you add in civilian costs and costs in Pakistan? And how would that impact the budget?

Warmongers have had the great luxury in this country of never having to justify their costs. Not just the human costs, but the real financial costs to constant military buildup. The usual retort is that you can't put a price on human lives. If that was the case, there would be no requirement for budget neutrality in health care reform, something that could save as many as 45,000 lives annually - the people who die from a lack of health insurance.

Rep. Obey's full remarks are well worth reading - he makes all the points about the futility of nation-building in a country without a partner in the government, the danger of angering local populations with a heavier occupying footprint, the fantasyland strategy of bringing democracy to Afghanistan, the need for an achievable policy, the potential for the war to crowd out any other Presidential agenda item. But I wanted to highlight this part because it's so alien to the contemporary political debate. It's certainly nothing you'd ever hear coming from the mouths of one of the fiscal scolds. The Pentagon budget, the budget for perpetual war, is inviolable and somehow magic - it doesn't create deficits, it doesn't produce burdens on long-term spending, it is never "at risk of going bankrupt." David Obey at least is trying to change that misimpression.

Some insider leaked the idea that the top-level troop request is actually 60,000, in an effort to make the 40,000 number seem like the middle course. Maybe they can write down on paper how much that would cost. And do it in a ten-year budget window to make sure the costs are inflated as possible.


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Moon, Bitches!

The improbable story that Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize obscured the actually far stranger story that we, um, bombed the moon last night.

NASA crashed a piece of space junk into the moon's south pole this morning to find out if the dark, cold craters there contain water in the form of ice.

The impact of the 2.2-ton empty rocket part kicked up a cloud of dust. Then, a second spacecraft flew down through that dust, checking for water, and sent data and live footage of the crash back to Earth.

NASA broadcast the images on its Web site, but it wasn't as dramatic as some had hoped — just a scene full of gray craters, and the craters slowly got bigger and bigger as the spacecraft seemed to creep toward the moon frame by frame.

I started reading about this on Twitter last night and I thought it was a joke meme. But no, we actually went ahead and bombed the moon.

For science!

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Against Comprehensive Incrementalism

Nancy Pelosi understands that her place is in the home in the health care reform debate is to position her caucus at the left edge of what is possible to get 218 votes. Everything she has been doing recently has moved toward that goal.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not among those praising Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) for bringing his healthcare bill in well under President Barack Obama’s $900 billion limit.

Pelosi (D-Calif.), an advocate of the government-run health insurance option left out of the Senate Finance Committee chairman’s bill, criticized the means by which Baucus kept costs down.

“The savings come off the backs of the middle class,” Pelosi told a closed-door caucus meeting. “This is why we need a strong public option going into conference with the Senate.”

By contrast, Blue Dogs want to "pre-conference" the bill, so they don't have to take a tough vote. That's ridiculous and a corruption of the legislative process. The House reflects to a far greater degree the concerns of the American people; there's absolutely no reason that it cannot stake out its priorities with a vote.

The problem with simply accepting and rubber-stamping the Senate Finance Committee bill is not only that it isn't generous and doesn't cover as many people as needed. The real problem is that it's not going to feel different to the vast majority of people. Maybe that's a virtue, in some respects, but in the sense that health inflation will continue to ascend, costs will still rise, medical bankruptcies will still not be avoided, and the whole thing will be a "comprehensive incrementalism" rather than a sweeping change, I think people might look back and say, "what was the fuss about?" Now, I think Ezra is right here:

Which is only to say that this is not the end. That's true also for the House and HELP bills. All these proposals are major improvements for the uninsured and those left out of the employer-based market. That means they're major improvements for those who are hurting the worst. And in constructing exchanges and beginning the hard work of delivery system reform and creating a system of subsidies and an individual mandate, they're building the foundation of a better health-care system. But as they embark on that project, they're leaving most of our current health-care system virtually untouched, which means most of the systemic problems will remain unsolved.

I think that project can start now, particularly in the area of competition with the insurance industry in the form of a public option. Until we discover that this is all that is possible - and I don't think we're they're yet - Pelosi is absolutely right to engage and strategically position herself at the left edge.

The House still doesn't seem to grasp how to pay for the bill, knowing simply that they don't want to piss off labor with the tax on high-end insurance plans. A tax on "windfall insurance profits" would have a similar effect, however. And a public option that could lower costs would decrease the amount of people hit by the high-end insurance plan tax.

The real danger here is that the comprehensive incrementalism is so incremental that the industry decides the plan doesn't cover enough people, and they start breaking their own promises. This is what's intimated here. While I do subscribe to the "if the health industry hates it, well it must be good" theory, I think there's a real danger of not controlling rising costs because of the thinner risk pool. And that could incentivize insurers to continue their worst practices. More reform is really a cumulative answer to these problems, and we should not stop halfway.

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Really Not Hiding It Anymore

The conservative right treats politics like warfare, warfare like a video game, and actually participating in war with a shrug and a retreat to their gated community.

South Florida Republicans held a weekly meeting at a gun range, shooting at targets including cut-outs of a Muslim holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

The GOP candidate to replace U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz fired at a full-body silhouette with "DWS" written next to its head.

And you wonder why a Democratic President received the Nobel Peace Prize essentially for not being a Republican.

...for more of this in action, see The GOP Speaks. Barking mad.

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Hate Crimes Bill Should Be Just The Beginning

Nobel Prize winner Barack Obama is speaking at a gay rights dinner this weekend. He at least might have some tangible progress to discuss.

The House voted Thursday to make it a federal crime to assault people because of their sexual orientation, significantly expanding the hate crimes law enacted in the days after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968.
With expected passage by the Senate, federal prosecutors will for the first time be able to intervene in cases of violence perpetrated against gays.

Civil rights groups and their Democratic allies have been trying for more than a decade to broaden the reach of hate crimes law. This time it appears they will succeed. The measure is attached to a must-pass $680 billion defense policy bill and President Barack Obama — unlike President George W. Bush — is a strong supporter. The House passed the defense bill 281-146, with 15 Democrats and 131 Republicans in opposition.

"It's a very exciting day for us here in the Capitol," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., saying hate crimes legislation was on her agenda when she first entered Congress 22 years ago.

More from the Speaker's blog. Getting 130 Republicans to vote against a defense bill because of their hatred of the ghey is quite a feat. I guess "support the troops" doesn't mean all that much anymore.

That said, this shouldn't be seen as any kind of great victory for the President in terms of getting right with the gay community. They are angry, and justified in that anger.

If the President wants to live up to his Nobel (I have a feeling this will be a familiar refrain), he would preach tolerance and acceptance through deeds.

...John Aravosis has similar thoughts.

...Jon Stewart had a good bit on DADT this week.

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That Missing Republican Grace

After Obama's speech, I just saw Larry Kudlow saying "I don't feel like slamming him, he's the President of the United States, he just won the Nobel Peace Prize, fine, good on him." Charles Boustany (R-LA) basically said the same thing. UPDATE: McCain, too.

That's probably the best the right can do with this. The reflexive anti-Americanism, by contrast, is really abhorrent. Republicans, like sharks, only know how to move forward against their adversaries.

On the brief remarks themselves, Obama was in a pretty tight spot, he knows this honor is premature, he said this honor is premature, but he knows that this can potentially stimulate the world - and more important, this sclerotic nation - to action, if used right. So he accepted the award "as a call to action on the challenges of 21st century." Hopefully, he recognizes that it's a call to action to him as well.

...Alan Grayson looks like a damn prophet.

"If the President had a BLT yesterday, the Republicans would try to ban bacon."

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Nobel Committee Behavioral Economics

Robert Naiman hits on a theme:

But anyone who thinks this award is unprecedented hasn't been paying attention.

The Nobel Committee gave South African Bishop Desmond Tutu the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his leadership of efforts to abolish apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid wasn't fully abolished in South Africa until 1994. The committee could have waited until after apartheid was abolished to say, "Well done!" But the point of the award was to help bring down apartheid by strengthening Bishop Tutu's efforts. In particular, everyone knew that it was going to be much harder for the apartheid regime to crack down on Tutu after the Nobel Committee wrapped him in its protective cloak of world praise.

That's what the Nobel Committee is trying to do for Obama now. It's giving an award to encourage the change in world relations that Obama has promised, and to try to help shield Obama against his domestic adversaries. The committee is well aware that history is contingent and that Obama might fail. It knows very well that the same country that elected Obama also gave the world George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

Indeed, the chairman of the Nobel Committee said today that they wanted to “enhance Obama’s diplomatic efforts so far rather than reward him for events in the future.” At a time when the President is trying to figure out what to do in Afghanistan, and has reached conclusions that are far more minimalist than the hawks would have wanted, maybe the Nobel Committee is trying to "nudge" him in the right direction?

As it reviews its Afghanistan policy for the second time this year, the Obama administration has concluded that the Taliban cannot be eliminated as a political or military movement, regardless of how many combat forces are sent into battle.

That's just not something the previous Administration would have concluded.

I hope the nudge works. Sincerely.

...And as for the most important actor in the outcome of this award? George W. Bush isn't releasing a statement. Class act. Actually, I wouldn't either if I were him. "Congratulations on being recognized as the repudiation of everything I did!"

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Did They Not See The SNL Sketch?

The Nobel Peace Prize? Really? Really. Um, really? Srsly? OK. No, wait, really?

President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday

Say that again.

President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday

I'm going to have to ask for it one more time.

President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in a stunning decision designed to encourage his initiatives to reduce nuclear arms, ease tensions with the Muslim world and stress diplomacy and cooperation rather than unilateralism.

Nobel observers were shocked by the unexpected choice so early in the Obama presidency, which began less than two weeks before the Feb. 1 nomination deadline.

OK. I've digested it.

Important to note that the President didn't go to Oslo to ask for this. He didn't have a team of lobbyists swirling around Norway. In fact, they seem as taken by surprise as anyone else.

FWIW, I think putting the United States on a path of diplomacy and multilateralism HAS made the world a more peaceful place. I think calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons IS noble. I think engaging the Muslim world WILL yield rewards. Cheneyist foreign policy was so damaging to the global equilibrium that anything contrasting it necessarily is a marked improvement.

That said, this is just weird. Not so weird that you have to be a malingerer about it like Richard Cohen or a concern troll like Mickey Kaus or a straight-up attack dog like the entire Republican Party. But weird, nonetheless.

I think Spencer Ackerman has as good a take as I've seen.

But turning it down would be a slap in the face to an international community that is showing, in the most generous way possible, that it wants the U.S. back as a leading component of the global order. The issue is not Barack Obama. It’s what the president represents internationally: a symbol of an America that is willing, once again, to drive the international system forward, together, toward the humane positive-sum goals of peace and disarmament. The fact that Obama hasn’t gotten the planet there misses the point entirely. It’s that he’s beginning, slowly, to take the world again down the path.

Still weird, but that's the closest interpretation I can manage. This is basically a real gift, and Obama can choose to use it on the journey toward global peace, or he can reject through in his actions. Maybe the enormity of the prize and the willingness to follow through on the mission will keep him from stumbling off the path.

...Wow, the DNC hits back HARD.

"The Republican Party has thrown in its lot with the terrorists - the Taliban and Hamas this morning - in criticizing the President for receiving the Nobel Peace prize," DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse told POLITICO. "Republicans cheered when America failed to land the Olympics and now they are criticizing the President of the United States for receiving the Nobel Peace prize - an award he did not seek but that is nonetheless an honor in which every American can take great pride - unless of course you are the Republican Party.

"The 2009 version of the Republican Party has no boundaries, has no shame and has proved that they will put politics above patriotism at every turn. It's no wonder only 20 percent of Americans admit to being Republicans anymore - it's an embarrassing label to claim," Woodhouse said.

The Grayson effect has really stiffened the spines out in Washington.

...I think what this says about the world is that yes, the Bush era was really that bad. Josh Marshall and Steve Benen have more.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

We Don't Even Have A Partner To Receive Aid

As a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of war go down, the Administration and Congress has talked of a "civilian surge" in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, providing more non-military and development aid to both countries. This was realized in the Kerry-Lugar bill, which gave $7.5 billion in aid over 5 years to Pakistan. It was one of Joe Biden's old bills that they repurposed, and would give an opportunity for the US to help Pakistanis out of grinding poverty and achieve some goodwill with them.

And Pakistan went apeshit:

The Obama administration's strategy for bolstering Pakistan's civilian government was shaken Wednesday when political opposition and military leaders there sharply criticized a new U.S. assistance plan as interfering with the country's sovereignty.

Although President Obama has praised the $7.5 billion, five-year aid program -- approved by Congress last week -- Pakistani officials have objected to provisions that require U.S. monitoring of everything from how they spend the money to the way the military promotes senior officers.

Their criticism threatens to complicate the administration's efforts in the region, where Pakistan's assistance is seen as crucial to the war in Afghanistan.

"Obviously, it demonstrates we've still got work to do," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said of the Pakistani criticism.

Kerry and Lugar tried to push back by calling out some myths being put forward by the Pakistanis. For example:

MYTH: The $7.5 billion (Rs. 62, 500 crores) authorized by the bill comes with strings attached for the people of Pakistan.

FACT: There are no conditions on Pakistan attached to these funds.

The $7.5 billion (Rs. 62,500 crore) authorized is all for non-military aid. These funds are unconditioned— they are a pledge of U.S. friendship to the Pakistani people. There are strict measures of financial accountability on these funds that Congress is imposing on the U.S. executive branch—not the Pakistani government, to make sure the money is being spent properly and for the purposes intended. Such accountability measures have been welcomed by Pakistani commentators to ensure that funds meant for schools, roads and clinics actually reach the Pakistani people and are not wasted.

MYTH: The bill impinges on Pakistan’s sovereignty.

FACT: Nothing in the bill threatens Pakistani sovereignty. Period.

This bill is an extended hand of friendship, from the people of America to the people of Pakistan. It will fund schools, roads, energy infrastructure, and medical clinics. Even when Americans are going through a deep recession and tough economic times, the United States is pledging $7.5 billion (Rs. 62,500 crore) as a long-term commitment to Pakistan. Those seeking to undermine this partnership, to advance their own narrow partisan or institutional agendas, are doing a serious disservice to the people of the United States and of Pakistan.

But this isn't going to be good enough. The real problem here is that the Pakistani people HATE the Americans, and any effort to infringe on their sovereignty will be met with this kind of anger, whether true or false. There are many in Pakistan who would probably want to be left alone rather than be given aid as a fig leaf for the destruction and death in the region. And disapproval of this package probably equals popular support across much of the country. In particular, the Pakistani army is angered by this, I would guess because so much of it is non-military aid, and they control a lot of the economy there. And remember, the Pakistani army and Pakistani intelligence is intimately linked to insurgent forces of the kind who may have blown up the Indian Embassy in Kabul, just like they did a year ago.

If we can't give money to Pakistan without an international incident, it says quite a lot about our prospects for controlling outcomes in the region.

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Power Begets Power

Marcy Wheeler has the gory details of today's markup for the renewal of the Patriot Act. Basically, the Obama Administration and friendly Democrats in Congress - mainly DiFi and Pat Leahy - have used the Mohammed Zazi investigation to reauthorize provisions of the Patriot Act, some of which have never been used, some of which represent deep intrusions into our civil liberties.

So the Obama administration has its first allegedly big Terrorism case, and they can hardly contain themselves as they exploit it to justify a continuation of the very Patriot Act and FISA powers which Democrats (and, in the case of FISA, Obama himself) long claimed to oppose. Indeed, key Obama ally Dianne Feinstein has worked diligently in the Senate not just to block Patriot Act reforms, but to make the law even worse, and has repeatedly cited the Zazi case to justify that.

Absolutely none of the methods used in the Zazi investigation would have commenced without Zazi being tied directly to Al Qaeda. But Feinstein and the White House doesn't want to have this burden of proof. They want the ability to engage in fishing expeditions, to use roving wiretaps or "sneak and peek" searches or the use of business records without having to prove that the subject is suspected of terrorist activity. It's pretty clear that this is leading toward tracking the records of anyone who bought large quantities of hydrogen peroxide. So look out, women who dye their hair and like to stock up!

This has come in conjunction with major pronouncements by Administration officials about how very dangerous the Zazi case was and how it proves that law enforcement needs these tools. I rebutted that earlier - they need tools, but not OPEN-ENDED ones. It also makes a mockery of Administration boasts that they're not politicizing terror - the juxtaposition of these press events and the Patriot Act markup is pretty obvious.

But that's apparently what they're getting. Russ Feingold is upset. Only him, Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter (!) managed to vote against the final bill from the perspective of civil liberties.

Before I get into the specific provisions that concern me, I want to say how disappointed I was in the debate in the committee. Today particularly, I started to feel as if too many members of the committee from both parties are willing to accept uncritically whatever the executive branch says about even the most reasonable proposed changes in the law. Of course we should consider the perspective of the FBI and the Justice Department. Keeping Americans safe is everyone’s priority. But we also need to consider a full range of perspectives and come to our own conclusions about how best to protect the American people and preserve their freedoms. Protecting the rights of innocent people should be a part of that equation. It's not the Prosecutors’ Committee; it's the Judiciary Committee. And whether the executive branch powers are overbroad is something we have to decide. The only people we should be deferring to are the American people, as we try to protect them from terrorism without infringing on their freedoms [...]

Specifically, the bill reported out of the Committee today on an 11-8 vote (five Republicans and only three Democrats voted No) fell short in a few key areas. Perhaps the most important was the failure to include the reasonable 3-part standard for issuing a FISA business records order under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. This standard was in a bill unanimously reported by the Committee, under Republican control, in 2005, and it was in Sen. Leahy’s original bill this year. Last week, Senator Durbin offered an amendment to put the standard back in the bill. It would have ensured that these secret authorities can only be directed at individuals who have some connection to terrorism or espionage. The standard is broad and flexible, but it places some limits on this otherwise very sweeping authority. Unfortunately, Senator Durbin’s amendment failed. When it did, I hoped the Committee would instead consider at least adopting that same standard for issuing National Security Letters, which are not approved by any court, and which were seriously abused by the FBI. Today, that, too, was rejected.

The bill that passed out of committee did include some positive changes. I was pleased my amendment to reform invasive "sneak and peek" searches was included, as well as my amendment to require the executive branch to issue minimization procedures for NSLs. But these improvements did not make up for the bill’s shortcomings, and I was unable to support it on the final vote.

I only wish that Julian Sanchez could make another rebuttal video and we'd be done with this, but Fox News is hardly the problem. We've morphed pretty solidly into a surveillance state, a factor of being a state at permanent war.

I tend to side with Anonymous Liberal that at least Obama isn't asserting the divine right to break the law just by dint of being the unitary executive. That theory is on the dustbin of history, I hope. But if he's gathering the same powers, that's a distinction without a difference.

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CA-03: Gary Davis Appears To Be Out

I got the same email that Randy Bayne did:

All indications are that Gary Davis is dropping his bid for the 3rd Congressional District and switching to another run for Elk Grove City Council. Just a few minutes ago, I was alerted that his Facebook page had changed, and just after that was forwarded a copy of a newsletter from Gary Davis – Elk Grove City Council announcing his run for the council. The logo was even the same as his congressional campaign logo — changed to Elk Grove City Council — of course.

Davis had trouble keeping up with the other two candidates, Bill Slaton and Ami Bera, in fundraising. With Q3 just ending, obviously it wasn't happening for him, so he cut his losses.

Bera, a doctor who challenged incumbent Dan Lungren directly at a town hall meeting in August, has raised the most cash so far, but Slaton entered the race just a few weeks before last quarter's deadline, so we'll see.

While CQ Politics lists the CA-03 race as leans Republican, Lungren has not been offered help by national Republicans in their next campaign arm fundraiser. Only Mary Bono Mack of CA-45 figures in that fundraiser. That's probably more a function of Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet outraising Bono Mack last quarter - she needs the help more than Lungren in the money chase. But overall, I'd still mark CA-03 as a top target seat in 2010, with CA-45 next on the list. And Democrats know this.

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All It Took Was A Handshake

This is kind of all Mark Sanford needs at this point, another example of him being above the law:

The trooper pulls the guy over, the driver says "that's the Governor," the trooper says "That's not a good reason to be speeding," he walks over to the vehicle, the Governor shakes his hand, and that's it.

People in South Carolina, including most Republicans, already think he's abused his office for personal gain. And now this.

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The Senate Progressive Block

Jason Rosenbaum has the news on that secret letter I was talking about yesterday that Senate Democrats were pushing, demanding that Harry Reid include a public option in the bill that comes to the floor. We now have the letter, and it calls for a "robust, Medicare-like" public option, which is right where the House Progressives have drawn the line. The letter has 30 signatures:

Sherrod Brown (D-OH) John D. Rockefeller (D-WV)
Russell D. Feingold (D-WI) Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT)
Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI) Tom Udall (D-NM)
Kristen E. Gillibrand (D-NY) Roland W. Burris (D-IL)
Ron Wyden (D-OR) Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
Barbara Boxer (D-CA) Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
Michael F. Bennet (D-CO) Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
Jack Reed (D-RI) Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD)
Al Franken (D-MN) Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-PA)
Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD) Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI)
Edward E. Kaufman (D-DE) Arlen Specter (D-PA)
Maria Cantwell (D-WA) Robert Menendez (D-NJ)
Bernard Sanders (I-VT) John F. Kerry (D-MA)
Herb Kohl (D-WI) Paul Kirk (D-MA)

Some VERY interesting names on this list. Michael Bennet. DiFi (!). Arlen Specter. Newest Democrat and former pharma lobbyist Paul Kirk. Ron Wyden.

To be sure, nobody here is saying that they won't vote for a bill without a public option in it. But these would be the main possibilities for such a strategy. And you would only need 11 of these 30 to pull that off. And really, you would only need one, if you're tying it to a 60-vote filibuster-proof hurdle.

Despite the rumors and compromises being floated, it is NOT a given that Harry Reid puts a public option in the merged bill. This show of support by fully 1/2 of the caucus - and with public option supporters who voted it out of committees not on this list, the real number is higher - is very important to reaching that goal.

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Everyone Loves An Opt-Out

Here we have yet another compromise on the public option that sets moderates in Washington stirring. The "opt-out" national public option, which would offer states a chance to eliminate it for their own jurisdiction, is gaining support on Capitol Hill. Chuck Schumer says it's being "very seriously considered". Max Baucus says through an aide he would consider supporting it. Howard Dean said he'd support it if he were a Senator. Richard Kirsch from HCAN says it's better than triggers, co-ops and opt-ins, which is faint praise but praise nonetheless.

I think there's some good and bad to it. We don't know what the opt-out would look like - a referendum? Gubernatorial veto? Federal waiver? A policy bill with a hurdle in state legislatures? Tied to funding? - and how easy it could be surmounted, as well as how easily gamed by special interests. Insurance companies are spending $1 million a day to beat the public option in Congress, you don't need that much to beat it in the states. Would this have a chilling effect on all federal legislation, with every big bill subsequently requiring a state opt-out, balkanizing the country? Or would every red state Governor bluff at opting out, and then, after seeing the numbers for how this would really help people, grudgingly accept it? We also don't know what kind of public option this would bring into being. Would it be Chuck Schumer's weak conception with no tie to Medicare bargaining rates? Or a robust public option with Medicare + 5% rates and Medicare's provider network? I think Nancy Pelosi is doing something very smart by scoring both versions just so the fiscal conservatives can choke on the numbers.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will submit multiple versions of the House's healthcare bill for cost estimates, she announced on Thursday.

The first proposal will include a "robust public option," which would tie doctor reimbursement rates to that of Medicare plus five percent. The remaining two drafts submitted for the Congressional Budget Office's consideration would include a public option based on "the negotiated rates that some in our caucus have supported and which was passed by the Energy and Commerce Committee," the speaker explained during Thursday's press briefing.

"And then we'll see back from the CBO what the scoring is on all of that," Pelosi said. "And, of course, we have promised not a dime to the deficit. This is our promise. We will not take a bill to the floor, the president will not sign a bill that adds a dime to the deficit."

We already know that the CBO considers the robust version to save $85 billion more than the weak version, so this will just cement that even more.

All the while, House Progressives, which have formed a block requiring a straight national public option with no opt-out and ties to Medicare rates, continue to say they won't compromise, won't blink, and claims that they have the votes they need to pass their plan in the House, although some have questioned the numbers.

I think the strategy should be maximalist - pass the best of what you can in the House, and the best of what you can in the Senate, so that when the two bills are merged, you at least are dealing with the best possible from both chambers. A merger, for example, could see a Medicare-tied public option with the opt-out clause.

However, the nagging feeling is that nobody wants to stop the public option, or at least nobody wants to be responsible for it. In that case, shouldn't the plan for supporters be to say to them, "We dare you to kill this"?

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Nice Admission

Paul Ryan (R-WI), on Republican efforts on health care:

FRANK: I just want to ask Paul one question. … When did you figure that out? Because apparently for the 12 years that the Republicans were in control — eight of which had a Republican president — that hadn’t occurred to you. So I’m glad you now understand that. Can you tell me at what moment the revelation occurred?

RYAN: First of all, I introduced on this subject about six years ago.

FRANK: You had control of the Congress. Why didn’t the Republican Congress fix it?

RYAN: I will have a moment of bipartisan agreement. We should have fixed this under our watch and I’m frustrated we didn’t.

The simple answer is that Republicans have no interest in policy. They have an interest in power and profit-taking. That's pretty much it.

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Taxing High-End Insurance Plans

Democrats are getting a lot of pressure from unions to eliminate the one provision that would corrode, or at least stop privileging, the inefficient employer-based health care system we have for the majority of this country:

As Democratic leaders prepare to bring healthcare legislation before the full House and Senate for votes this month, they soon must decide who will be taxed to pay for expanding coverage -- the wealthy or the insurance companies.

Legislation emerging from the House would slap a surtax on upper-income people. But many Democrats, especially in the Senate, fear the political fallout over voting to raise anyone's income taxes.

The most prominent Senate bill would impose a tax on insurance companies that provide expensive policies, sometimes dubbed "Cadillac" plans. But labor unions -- a powerful force within the Democratic Party -- bitterly oppose the idea, saying the tax would be passed on to workers in the form of higher premiums or shrunken benefits.

This would have been mitigated greatly by passing the Employee Free Choice Act first, because now it looks like Democrats are just dumping on labor unions. They need to pass EFCA very soon.

But let's be clear what the tax on insurers would do. It would only affect 10% of all insurance plans, and a lower percentage of those are union plans. And it's the only way to take in revenue for health care that extends beyond the cost of health inflation. I don't think the excise tax is entirely well-designed - it isn't adjusted by region based on cost-of-living, and without indexing it will quickly affect the average plan - but the House bill financing is not at all well-designed. It's just a budget-buster, with the effects past the budget window to hide them. That's a recipe for getting the bill dismantled in the future.

In other words, surpluses in the early years make up for deficits in the later years. But since time doesn’t actually stop when the CBO ten-year scoring window expires, what you’re left with is legislation that worsens the long-run fiscal outlook. That’s not really so awful since it basically just means that you’ll need to change the law sometime in the next ten years, and the law will definitely be changed in the next ten years anyway. But I’d say it’s definitely worse than the more robust form of deficit neutrality given by a bill that includes a revenue source which grows over time in line with costs.

To be clear, I think they should impose the surtax TOO, and use that money to expand the subsidies in the exchange. But the real goal here should be getting employers out of the business of providing health care, or at least into the regulated exchange. Taxing high-end plans does this, and does it in a mostly progressive way.

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Blackmail Acknowledged

As Brian Leubitz covers (see, they don't need me!), Arnold Schwarzenegger has threatened to veto every bill in the last legislative session if he doesn't get what he wants on water. The leadership is working toward a solution, but still remain far apart. They haven't figured this out for 30 years, but Arnold needs a solution in 30 hours or an entire year's worth of work gets vetoed for no reason.

I just want to add to the chorus of how appalling this is. We're talking about legislative blackmail.

And incredibly, Arnold has an ally in palace courtier George Skelton:

It's ugly. But it's an available political tool that the governor would be derelict not to use when an issue as critical as water is at stake.

This isn't about some narrow scheme important only to a narrow interest. Nor is it merely about a governor's pet project -- other than his legacy-building, which should be encouraged as long as it helps the state. It's about finally resolving an acute, decades-old problem that is worsening and affects practically all Californians.

Here's another old white man with health insurance who could give a crap if women get maternity care in their health insurance plans, to just pick one bill at random. Or who could care less if people who have insurance get dropped from it when they want to use it, to pick another. George Skelton would actively make the lives of Californians worse because he thinks it's sporting to see the Governor "use his power." That the power is illegal is of no consequence.

Then there's this whopper:

These and other arguments -- such as details of a new governing system for the delta -- have raged for years. Schwarzenegger apparently doesn't much care what the Legislature decides. He just wants it to compromise and send him a bill.

Yeah, he doesn't care at all. He actually invented the Latino Water Coalition, the fake-grassroots group pushing all the Republican solutions in water negotiations, but he's really just an innocent bystander. An innocent bystander who would destroy women's health and allow insurance companies to kill people for profit and a host of other things, all with an asshole like George Skelton cheering him on.

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Grayson's Victory

CNN interviewed me about Alan Grayson and his health care speech:

"What happened was his floor speech and the fact that he didn't back down set a new standard for how Democrats deal with Republican hissy fits," said David Dayen, a liberal blogger who often writes on the Daily Kos Web site. "He's been a hero to Democrats since his term started, but now he's a hero on health care."

To be sure, Grayson already had shown he was a different kind of freshman congressman before the "die quickly" speech, having forcefully taken Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to task in what was an instant YouTube moment at a House Committee hearing less than a month into the job.

He also held up a vote on global warming legislation until he secured a $50 million hurricane research center in his district -- a move more characteristic of the chamber's longtime lawmakers. And he's won liberal support for his steadfast support of ACORN, even as many Democrats voted to defund the community organizing group, and for his forceful anti-war stance.

But it was the late-night diatribe last week -- presumably seen by no more than a few dozen C-SPAN viewers before going viral -- that netted Grayson more than $500,000 from 5,000 donors around the country. It's also garnered a media tour worthy of a national celebrity peddling a tell-all book, appearing on a bevy of cable and national news programs to amplify his attacks on Republicans.

The writer goes on to add the concern trolling from Republicans that Grayson's honesty won't play in his swing district. That seems to miss the point that Grayson has pretty much always been an outspoken leader, and it didn't just start up during that health care speech. This is the ad that won him election in that swing district.

That's not a meek, mushy message. You can find 10 Democrats to touch war profiteering, maybe. It's an issue that can open a politician up to "you don't support our troops" or "you don't want to protect America" or any number of attack. And he carried this to victory, because it was a truthful message and a populist one.

Grayson won, by the way. The Republicans smelled blood in the water, ramped up their hissy fit, and then had to back down. They did so because they knew it wouldn't be successful. Alan Grayson backed up his words. And so they had nothing. The boasts of how they're going to beat him in November are also just words. They have nothing for that either, not even a candidate.

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The (Not So) Symbolic Middle Finger From The Insurance Industry

Here's a nice detail from an LA Times story about Hilda Sarkysian:

Surrounded by supporters, Hilda Sarkisyan marched into Cigna Corp.’s Philadelphia headquarters on a chilly fall day, 10 months after the company refused to pay for a liver transplant for her daughter.

"You guys killed my daughter," the diminutive San Fernando Valley real estate agent declared at the lobby security desk. "I want an apology."

What she got was something quite different.

Cigna employees, looking down into the atrium lobby from a balcony above, began heckling her, she said, with one of them giving her "the finger."

There's video of this confrontation. Check it around 3:40:

Sadly, this exchange is the only ledge on which the Sarkysians can hang a wrongful death lawsuit on CIGNA. A judge threw out the case on the basis of a 1987 ruling from the Supreme Court as well as ERISA (the Employee Retirement Income Security Act), which bars individuals from holding insurers of employer-paid health care plans responsible for their coverage decisions, but they can claim that the finger incident caused them "emotional distress." Even Hilda Sarkysian calls this absurd: "They kill a beautiful 17-year-old girl, and I get to go after them for a finger? That's sick."

But of course, the insurance industry sticks their proverbial middle finger up at the country every day, with plans that cost more every year for the same coverage, companies that rescind policies when patients want to use them, and byzantine rules that they use to get out of providing care. The only surprise about this gesture is that it's not one of the health insurer's corporate logos.

...Five more people were arrested at CIGNA HQ yesterday. I wonder how many of them were flipped the bird.

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And This Is The Bill With The Smooth Sailing

Barron YoungSmith (I'll admit to the name irking me) reports on President Obama's student loan reform, one of the most no-brainer bills of all time, but one which has been stymied for decades by business interests wanting to cash their corporate welfare checks:

Last month, taking cues from Obama, the House of Representatives passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which would alter the way the government funds Pell Grants and other student loans. Under the current system, the government gives banks huge subsidies to encourage them to lend to students. Effectively, this means the government is bribing banks to extend student loans by handing them money and letting them cream huge profits off the top. It is a vast waste of taxpayer money, since Uncle Sam could accomplish exactly the same thing by cutting out the middleman and lending directly to students [...]

The next hurdle is the Senate, where Tom Harkin's HELP Committee plans to introduce a student loan bill as soon as it's cleared some *ahem* backlog on health care reform. It looks as if Harkin's committee will introduce a bill that, like the House version, hews very closely to President Obama's proposals as well. And, since the bill is moving through the notorious budget reconciliation process instead of the normal legislative track--a decision made by Obama's allies who want to increase the likelihood of passage--it will pass through no other committees, save the quiescent Budget Committee, and it will not face the threat of a filibuster.

Game over? Not quite. In a testament to the sway that student lenders exercise over the Senate, it's not clear that Democrats have the 51 votes necessary to pass the bill in its current form. Ben Nelson, the staunch friend of lending companies, is against it--as are Blanche Lincoln, Mark Begich, Jeff Bingaman, and Tom Udall. And Senators Bob Casey, Arlen Specter, Bill Nelson, Mark Warner, Jim Webb, and Mary Landrieu are all said to be wavering because their states contain student loan companies. Many are searching for a way to keep lending companies involved in the process--an anguished Senator Casey even held a field congressional hearing in Philadephia this week, hoping to clarify his thoughts on the issue--and they'll be tempted to back some of the numerous pro-lender amendments that will be offered once the bill is open for floor debate. (Even in the House, Democrats couldn't prevent a mass revolt until they watered down the legislation by exempting existing state-based non-profit lenders from subsidy cuts.)

(Seriously, what the fuck, Tom Udall? I expect this from a lot of the others, but you?)

It's insane that there would be eleven lawmakers who call themselves Democrats opposed to something this obvious. It's a pure bank subsidy with no reason to exist whatsoever. There's no argument to be made other than "let's give the banks we bailed out even more free taxpayer money." And yet, I count eleven Senators up there wavering, despite the fact that this bill would create the largest benefit to students in history and cement Democratic gains among young people, while saving the government money. With college costs rising we're not even going to have a higher education system in this country, at least not one for anyone but the super-rich, if we don't accomplish this. Even this bill, which would expand Pell Grants with all the savings from no longer subsidizing banks to make student loans, would fall short of keeping pace with costs (although they would index an increase to inflation).

Really, if we can't do this, Congress might as well pack it in and go home for a couple years to do some soul-searching.

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The Last Tycoon's Luck Runs Out?

I've been obsessed with Silvio Berlusconi ever since I read "The Sack of Rome" by Alexander Stille. It's incredible that someone so corrupt, so obviously a thief, so clearly in politics to enrich himself and save himself from personal harm, was able to become Prime Minister, and do so entirely on the back of his own media empire and public relations effort. In the book, Stille details that Berlusconi basically entered politics to ensure that he not lose his business or suffer from prosecution for his past illegal actions. He immediately set to work on having his puppets in Parliament pass laws to that effect. A huge blow to those efforts occurred yesterday, as the pillar of his protective bubble - an immunity law for himself - was ruled unconstitutional by Italy's top court.

Italy was cast back into political turmoil tonight when the country's constitutional court threw out a law passed by Silvio Berlusconi's government that gave him immunity from prosecution for as long as he remained prime minister.

The majority decision represented a severe blow for Berlusconi, who was already struggling to contain the damage from a lurid sex and drugs scandal in which he is accused of using the services of prostitutes.

With some of Berlusconi's associates claiming that the judges of the country's top court had joined a plot to remove him, there was also a clear risk that Italy could be plunged into a constitutional crisis.

In a statement, the prime minister dampened speculation of an early election. He said the decision had not in any way altered his "will to carry on" in government.

He said: "I cannot but respect the response from the constitutional court." But he appeared to foreshadow an attempt to bring the court under tighter political control when he said that "this system, and above all the way in which the members of the court are chosen, risks upsetting over time the correct balance between the powers of the state".

Fabrizio Cicchitto, the leader of Berlusconi's party in the lower house of parliament, blamed the outcome on a "process of politicisation of the court which is joining the line of attack against prime minister Berlusconi".

This is what they always do when the law breathes down their necks. They cry politicization, just as they did with the magistrates in Milan who were closing in on Berlusconi. In that case, it worked, and this may as well. In a way, he's already won. Italy has a law that you cannot be jailed if you are over the age of 70. Berlusconi delayed the tax evasion case against him long enough to hit that milestone.

The BBC has more. Berlusconi's reign is fascinating and depressing.

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FL-Sen: The Crist-Rubio Race Is A Race

Charlie Crist will have more money to spend in his primary race against right-winger Marco Rubio, but Rubio will have the funds necessary to compete. If he didn't raise $1 million dollars last quarter, I'd say he was done. But having the minimal amount necessary to get his message out, combined with all the grassroots energy (Howie Klein has been following this obsessively) tells me that he has a chance. Not a good chance - name ID will maybe be enough to swamp him - but a chance, especially given that all Govenors are endangered species right now, given the state of the economy. I don't think Charlie Crist is a slam dunk for the nomination.

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The Narrowness Of The Afghan Debate

The White House, a day after stating that the only part of Afghanistan war policy off the table is ending it, is throwing up a trial balloon that they will pull back on their nation-building project there:

President Obama’s national security team is moving to reframe its war strategy by emphasizing the campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan while arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States, officials said Wednesday.

As Mr. Obama met with advisers for three hours to discuss Pakistan, the White House said he had not decided whether to approve a proposed troop buildup in Afghanistan. But the shift in thinking, outlined by senior administration officials on Wednesday, suggests that the president has been presented with an approach that would not require all of the additional troops that his commanding general in the region has requested.

It remains unclear whether everyone in Mr. Obama’s war cabinet fully accepts this view. While Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has argued for months against increasing troops in Afghanistan because Pakistan was the greater priority, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have both warned that the Taliban remain linked to Al Qaeda and would give their fighters havens again if the Taliban regained control of all or large parts of Afghanistan, making it a mistake to think of them as separate problems [...]

The White House appears to be trying to prepare the ground to counter that by focusing attention on recent successes against Qaeda cells in Pakistan. The approach described by administration officials on Wednesday amounted to an alternative to the analysis presented by General McChrystal. If, as the White House has asserted in recent weeks, it has improved the ability of the United States to reduce the threat from Al Qaeda, then the war in Afghanistan is less central to American security.

I'm glad that there's at least some pushback on the silly "safe havens" theory, which if allowed to predominate would lead us down a road of endless escalation. So scaling back the mission from one that is simply unachievable to a more achievable one makes sense. The counter-insurgency cult is quite dangerous. The best you can say about it is that it keeps warmongers away from an anti-China defense buildup.

Joking aside, it’s worth keeping in mind when you see arguments about counterinsurgency that there are really two different debates happening. One is the debate inside the military and the defense policy establishment which is really a debate about COIN versus non-COIN military activity. Another is a debate about that pertains to the larger question of the strategic and budgetary priorities of the United States. In my experience COIN enthusiasts tend to have the better of the limited argument about the relative allocation of military resources, but generally decline to engage in a serious way with the larger question of national priorities. In other words, a debate that ranges from “we should fight a series of small wars against Muslims” to “we should prepare for a big war against China” is really seen as “lively” rather than incredibly cramped and narrow.

Perhaps policymakers are coming to their senses about COIN, but not about the overall need to disengage from pointless wars. But they should. New liberal hero Alan Grayson, who's been saying this stuff for a while, effectively articulated the alternative the other day:

"I think that the aid program is a fig leaf trying to make congress and the American people feel better about the war and about killing. I think that diplomacy in the areas of fig leaf to try to make the American people think that there is some constructive alternative to the war when the war itself is destructive and not constructive [...]

If we wanted to rethink Afghanistan in our image, we’d have to destroy the north to save it, and I don’t think the American people are ever going to do that to anybody. So I think that the underline premise is simply wrong.

I’ve been to 175 countries all around the world including Afghanistan, including every country in that region, and what I’ve seen everywhere I go is that there are some commonalities everywhere you go, everywhere you go people want to fall in love. It’s an interesting thing. Everywhere you go, people love children. Everywhere, they love children. Everywhere you go, there’s a taboo against violence. Every single place you go. And everywhere you go, people want to be left alone. And that’s the best foreign policy of all. Just to leave people alone."

President Obama is holding a troop request in his hands and deciding between a big escalation or a small escalation. Nowhere is there a strategy for no escalation, to shut it down, in the words of Charlie Wilson, the original American interventionist in Afghanistan.

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Stating The Obvious

I'm very pleased that Debbie Stabenow and Debbie Wasserman Schultz called out the sexism of the GOP yesterday.

The call targeted Republican gubernatorial candidates Chris Christie in New Jersey and Bob McDonnell in Viriginia, as well as Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Republicans in general.

"I think we have an outdated view, an extreme view, a lack of understanding of what women's lives are like today and the role of women in America," Stabenow said. She wouldn't, however, use the word "sexist."

The lawmakers cited Republicans' opposition to health care reform as evidence, since women are usually in charge of their families' health care, and are disproportionately hurt by current health insurance policy.

But they also called out the NRCC's statement yesterday about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, specifically that Gen. Stanley McChrystal "should put her in her place." That, said Wasserman-Schultz, is evidence of "a total lack of respect for women."

"It's perhaps understandable they wouldn't understand the needs of women," she added, saying 80 percent of House Republicans are men. (Although no one said "sexism" on the call, Wasserman-Schultz appeared on MSNBC soon after and said the NRCC comment "shows the shocking sexism in the Republican party today.)

Stabenow, who recently got into a tussle with her Finance Committee colleague Kyl, said she was shocked by the Republicans' attitude toward things like requiring insurers to cover basic maternity care.

"One of the most shocking things of the Senate Finance Committee markup was the extent to which my Republican colleagues weren't even aware of what they were saying that was so offensive to women," she said. Maternity care "is not a frill. This is not an extra for the majority of Americans who happen to be women."

In fact, it's Chris Christie's position on women's health issues, particularly mammograms, that is killing him in New Jersey. My sister-in-law, who lives in NJ, just finished her breast cancer treatments, and under Christie her health plan wouldn't have had to cover the early detection procedure that caught the tumor. Why should he care, as a white man? He doesn't need a mammogram or a papsmear.

Wasserman Schultz went further with her criticism on MSNBC:

"I think the place for a woman is at the top of the House of Representatives," said Wasserman Schultz.

"It's evidence they long for the days when a woman's place was in the kitchen. Now a woman is third in line for the presidency... But it's not surprising, coming from a party that's 80 percent male and 100 percent white," she added, referring to the composition of the House GOP conference.

We are a terrible country when it comes to female political representation, and the crap they have to go through probably enters into that. You have one political party that feels no compunction against acting like it's 1952 and women in politics are their secretaries. And that has a real-world effect on women's health and women's pay issues, among other things. Wasserman Schultz is absolutely right to push back on this.

As I was saying. When you have sexual harrassers like Bill O'Reilly leering at you every day, why would you want to deal with that? And I know he's talking to Michele Bachmann, who's in another stratosphere and clearly doesn't care, but this is the approach of the old boy's network. It's kind of sickening.

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"Major Power Brokers On The Left"

Last night, Rachel Maddow tells me broke some news.

We can report exclusively tonight that two major power brokers on the left have told MSNBC that they are encouraging a Senate strategy now in which the leadership would revoke chairmanships and other leadership positions from any Democrat who sides with a Republican filibuster to block a vote on health reform. Regardless of how individual senators would vote ultimately on the bill, committee chairmen or subcommittee chairmen who allowed Republicans to force a 60-vote requirement for passing health care...under this type of strategy would be in danger of losing their chairmanships.

I don't know what that means. "Two power brokers on the left"? Who? Senators? Fundraisers? People who want health reform? I'm encouraging this, am I one of the power brokers? If it's Senators, this isn't really news, as Tom Harkin said this about Max Baucus back in July, even before the vote. Jay Rockefeller has intimated it as well, with respect to having a vote on leadership and chairmanships instead of using seniority. And with Rockefeller and Baucus not even speaking to each other before this critical vote, I'm assuming that hasn't changed.

Mind you, I'd LOVE for this to be the strategy. It wouldn't take effect until 2011, and I don't know if it can filter down to subcommittees - Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu don't chair any committee, for example - but it's one of the tools in the shed for the Senate caucus leadership. I hope they use it. This report doesn't convince me they will, however.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

And I'll Miss You Most Of All, Scarecrow

You can read my weepy, tear-stained goodbyes to Hullabaloo and Calitics. And now, you're probably wondering what that's all about...

Well, I've accepted a position with Firedoglake running a new site over there that will be called FDL News. The site has not yet gone live bit will come into being in the next couple weeks; in the meantime I'll be posting on the main site over there, starting next Monday (today was kind of a preview). It's an opportunity to do a mix of breaking news, analysis and some original reporting. Firedoglake has some fine bloggers in their stable and I'm excited about the opportunity.

What does that mean for this site, a labor of love for the past five - count 'em, five - years? Well, the large majority of my material will be produced at FDL News. I'm going to keep this site live for a variety of reasons, mostly to keep the archives open. Maybe I'll post some personal insight or two every now and again. But for the most part, "the balcony is closed," as Gene Siskel liked to say.

I'm a little torn up about this. I built this thing from nothing into... only slightly more than nothing. I've written over TWELVE THOUSAND posts here. It will be profoundly odd starting next week to have that not happening anymore. Profoundly odd. I started this out as a hobby, it became an obsession and has now progressed into a career. And it all started right here.

But I'll now have a much higher profile and a better depository for stories that would otherwise drift into the ether. It's going to be a huge challenge and in order to be able to meet the task, I have to focus.

As I said, I start Monday. I'll dim the lights here starting Friday - the weekend will be entirely taken up with moving. I will really miss this scruffy old place.

Thanks to everyone who ever came across this site. It's ridiculous that anyone would spend more than a minute reading what I have to say. It's even more ridiculous that more people will do it from this point on. You've all been great. Knowing me D-Day knowing you readers A-ha!

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