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

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Nexus Of Drug War Failure And War War Failure

In Afghanistan, we may be adding troops to an already chaotic situation with little chance of them being able to dislodge the Pashtun insurgency from their isolated villages, but we do seem to be trying some new things. A vow to curtail civilian airstrikes can't hurt if implemented effectively (although almost all the airstrikes that have yielded civilian casualties have been mistakes anyway, so how will this help?), and now this positive step:

The United States announced a new drug policy Saturday for opium-rich Afghanistan, saying it was phasing out funding for eradication efforts and using the money for drug interdiction and alternate crop programs instead.

The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, told The Associated Press that eradication programs weren't working and were only driving farmers into the hands of the Taliban.

"Eradication is a waste of money," Holbrooke said on the sidelines of a Group of Eight foreign ministers' meeting on Afghanistan, where he said it had been warmly received, particularly by the United Nations [...]

In a report released earlier this week, the U.N. drug office said opium cultivation had dropped by 19 percent last year, but was still concentrated in three southern provinces where the Taliban insurgency is strongest.

Holbrooke said the previous U.S. policy, which focused on eradication programs, hadn't reduced "by one dollar" the amount of money the Taliban earned off opium cultivation and production.

"It might destroy some acreage," Holbrooke said. "But it just helped the Taliban."

Exactly. It increased their share of the market, and didn't cut into their profits at all. I don't know that interdiction works all that well either, but the focus on alternate crops is interesting. If we can give the subsistence farmers in Afghanistan another way to survive, we can at least develop the country in such a way that doesn't fatten the wallets of the insurgency. In the end, we can extricate ourselves from Afghanistan faster using pomegranates than using guns and bombs.

I still question the troop increase, but this is a smart move. the way, can we admit now that eradication doesn't work in Latin America, either, and stop that as well?

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Shoehorning In Immigration Reform?

Unlike health care and climate change, there have always been a handful of Republicans willing to deal on immigration reform. One of them was George W. Bush, although his sympathies arguably lied with the corporations who wanted that steady stream of cheap labor to keep flowing. And much of the work has already been done to lay the groundwork for a deal. So while many are skeptical, I wouldn't be surprised to see an immigration bill come together late in the session this year. The President met with Congressional leaders on the issue this week, and delivered remarks expressing the difficulties but also the opportunities in immigration reform. It won't be long in the health care debate before we start hearing about giving "free health care to illegal immigrants." Same with education. The same with practically every issue on Congress' plate, meaning that striking a deal on immigration would short-circuit the hijacking of other debates by xenophobes.

I agree with Markos, this can get done this session. The Senate wants to do it, the President wants to do it, and Republicans are completely forked by their need to bolster their credibility among the fast-growing Hispanic voter population.

Among Republicans, that level of support is larger than the overall -- 89-11. It seems they realize that these undocumented immigrants aren't going anywhere, so they like the idea of giving them legal status as long as they're punished for breaking the law and required to make restitution. Seems fair enough.

Republicans, playing to that 11 percent, will fight reform. Not only do they have the Pat Buchanans in their camp suffering from unbridled bigotry, but they have to consider the political ramifications of legalizing 10-15 million undocumented immigrants on their electoral prospects. The GOP's rabid anti-Latino sentiment (now being seen in their handling of the Sotomayor nomination) has been noted by Latinos, and their support for the Republican Party is hemorrhaging as a result. Republicans, already at a deep electoral deficit, can ill afford to dig themselves an even deeper hole in states like Arizona, New Mexico, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada.

Yet they're stuck in a no-win situation. Oppose comprehensive immigration reform, and lose even more of the meager support they have left among Latinos. Support it, piss off their nativist base, watch Obama get all the credit, and add net millions of new Democratic voters to the rolls.

The GOP's saving grace would be getting a guest worker program to the legislation, allowing for several hundred thousand indentured servants to be imported into the country on an annual basis. That would still anger their nativist base, but it would greatly please their big-business patrons. Yet the guest worker program angers organized labor for obvious (and justified) reasons. When hearing talk of "unresolved issues", tops among them is this guest worker program. And the big question is whether Reid has the votes without the guest worker program, or whether passage would require that compromise.

That will be the giant bone of contention, but other than that, I don't see much of an argument. The nativist base doesn't have a filibuster-worthy minority in the Senate. The sloth of Congress and the other high-profile issues on the docket could slow this down, but it could just as easily come together very quickly and pass without much delay.

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Preventive Detention Floated

John Cole said to prepare for an anti-Obama shit fit based on this news, but isn't it a pro-civil liberties shit fit? A pro-habeas corpus shit fit? A pro-due process shit fit? A pro-hundreds of years of Western-style criminal justice shit fir?

Obama administration officials, fearing a battle with Congress that could stall plans to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, are crafting language for an executive order that would reassert presidential authority to incarcerate terrorism suspects indefinitely, according to three senior government officials with knowledge of White House deliberations.

Such an order would embrace claims by former president George W. Bush that certain people can be detained without trial for long periods under the laws of war. Obama advisers are concerned that an order, which would bypass Congress, could place the president on weaker footing before the courts and anger key supporters, the officials said.

After months of internal debate over how to close the military facility in Cuba, White House officials are increasingly worried that reaching quick agreement with Congress on a new detention system may be impossible. Several officials said there is concern in the White House that the administration may not be able to close the prison by the president's January deadline.

It's important to note that an unnamed White House official denies the existence of a draft order, and in the story spokesman Ben LaBolt does the same. But if you believe the general overview of the piece, we're about to see a little over 100 prisoners, with insufficient evidence to be tried but suspicions that they would "return to the battlefield," as it were, if released, will be held indefinitely in a prison, whether it's Guantanamo or not, until such time as they are fit to release, at the end of the so-called war on terror, I suppose.

The Administration is still working from this theory that the only problem with Guantanamo is its symbology and not its reality, that the indefinite detention of prisoners, their torture and abuse, etc., constituted the outrage of the world, not its location.

The other kind of astonishing thing with this idea is that the courts have ALREADY found it unconstitutional. Hamdan v. Rumsfeld pretty much put it to rest. In fact, the attorney for Salim Hamdan in that case was President Obama's own Deputy Solicitor General, Neal Katyal.

If this were sent out as a trial balloon to gauge reaction, hopefully the White House staff will take a click over to TPM:

But it doesn't sound like those groups are pysched about the news, exactly. Shane Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights told TPMmuckraker via email:

Prolonged imprisonment without trial is exactly the Guantanamo system that the President promised to shut down. Whatever form it takes - from Congress or the President's pen - it is anathema to the basic principles of American law and the courts will find it unconstitutional.

Kadidal continued:

Another thing that's odd about this is the idea that this detention authority would somehow be more transient if it were authorized through executive order (which can be reversed at the stroke of the president's pen) rather than a statute (which could sit on the books indefinitely). If the last eight years have taught us anything, it's that executive abuses, left to continue unchecked for many years, have a tendency to congeal into precedent.

In fact, this executive abuse is being carried out to cover up the previous executive abuse, which doesn't excuse Obama for this illegal action, but just shows how untrammeled executive power can just snowball. Indeed, in at least one Guantanamo case, it can be argued that preventive detention will be employed to cover up the torture of one of the potential witnesses in the trial.

Glennzilla notes something even more horrific about this:

There has now emerged a very clear -- and very disturbing -- pattern whereby Obama is willing to use legal mechanisms and recognize the authority of other branches only if he's assured that he'll get the outcome he wants. If he can't get what he wants from those processes, he'll just assert Bush-like unilateral powers to bypass those processes and do what he wants anyway [...]

That, for instance, is the precise pattern that's driving his suppression of torture photos. Two federal courts ordered the President to release the photos under the 40-year-old Freedom of Information Act. Not wanting to abide by that decision, the White House (using Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman) tried to pressure Congress to enact new legislation vesting the administration with the power to override FOIA. When House progressives blocked that bill, the White House assured Lieberman and Graham that Obama would simply use an Executive Order to decree the photos "classified" (when they are plainly nothing of the sort) and thus block their release anyway.

People are starting to wake up to the evidence that the President has basically carried on a good deal of the same abuses of the Bush regime, and this attempt to engage in preventive detention is perhaps the worst example. The idea that the Administration cannot change certain prisoners because we cannot be assured ahead of time that they will win a conviction sets the standard of law completely on its head. As Bob Herbert notes:

Americans should recoil as one against the idea of preventive detention , imprisoning people indefinitely, for years and perhaps for life, without charge and without giving them an opportunity to demonstrate their innocence. And yet we’ve embraced it, asserting that there are people who are far too dangerous to even think about releasing but who cannot be put on trial because we have no real evidence that they have committed any crime, or because we’ve tortured them and therefore the evidence would not be admissible, or whatever. President Obama is O.K. with this (he calls it "prolonged detention"), but he wants to make sure it is carried out -- here comes the oxymoron -- fairly and nonabusively. Proof of guilt? In 21st-century America, there is no longer any need for such annoyances. Human rights? Ha-ha. That’s a good one.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Friday Random Ten

Worked for a good bit of the day on something we'll be rolling out soon that accounted for my somewhat spotty posting this week. I'll be deeper in the game next week. Pretty sure I don't have any Michael Jackson on this iPod, although if I did, it would be "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "Blame It On The Boogie." Off The Wall is just a great funk/disco/R&B record.

Closet Romantic - Damon Albarn
Trying To Pull Myself Away - Glen Hansard
In Spite Of Me - Morphine
Tokyo Moon - Windmill
City Of Motors - Soul Coughing
My Pervert Doppleganger - Momus
Beef Jerky - Cibo Matto
The Debt Collector - Blur
Bigmouth Strikes Again - The Smiths
Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle - Nirvana

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The Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act narrowly passed today by a vote of 219-212. Roll call here. Eight Republicans voted for it, 44 Democrats voted against.

Anyone who understands the dynamic of the House being to the left of the Senate knows that this bill, already compromised beyond belief, has little chance of being strengthened in the upper chamber, regardless of what enviro groups are saying. To wit:

But Pelosi and Waxman’s work is far from over. The Waxman-Markey bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

Despite a push from Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to follow the House’s lead, most of the Senate’s climate change work has thus far been conducted by Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

Bingaman’s bill lacks a cap-and-trade provision, focuses more on increased domestic production, and generally goes in a wholly different direction than the Waxman-Markey bill.

So we'll probably have to rely on that conference committee again. I'm not seeing that likely to work, given these thin numbers in the House.

I think the chances of final passage on something like this bill are still only 30-70. The Senate will be a rough, rough road.

...more at the Speaker's blog.

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The Urgency Of Health Care Reform For California

The Department of Health and Human Services released a report on the current state of health care in California, and the numbers are striking. It also can help us understand a bit about our budget woes.

19% of all Californians are uninsured, and of those, 71% are in families with at least one full-time worker. Employer-based coverage has dipped to just 54%, meaning the rest have to either go to the individual insurance market, qualify for a public coverage plan like Medicare or Medicaid, or go without. The top two insurance providers in California account for 44% of the health insurance market, and such a duopoly make it easy to just jack up rates year over year. The average family premium has increased 114 percent since 2000. And this causes families to drop coverage due to a lack of affordability. This nugget appears in the report:

"California businesses and families shoulder a hidden health tax of roughly $1,400 per year on premiums as a direct result of subsidizing the costs of the uninsured."

But one other entity suffers from that hidden tax: the state budget. Health care spending by the state has increased well above the CPI, and Medicare and Medi-Cal spending have ballooned because the cost of health care has ballooned. Growing ranks of the uninsured and unemployed increase the numbers eligible for coverage under state programs, and one political party, at least, would rather offer those services instead of watching people die in the street. We hear at the federal level that health reform is entitlement reform; that's just as true at the state level, as bending the cost curve will put state budgets in a better position for the future.

All of this adds up to create a sense of urgency in doing something about overhauling the broken health care system this year. This could have been the narrative that Dianne Feinstein brought forward in public statements, not hand-wringing about the difficulty of getting something done in Washington.

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Congress Sides With The Military-Industrial Complex


Lawmakers defy veto threat on F-22 fighter

Congress on Thursday moved forward with plans to build more Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter jets, disregarding a veto threat from the Obama administration.

Lawmakers also moved to authorize the funding for an alternative engine for the Joint Strike Fighter F-35.

Congress is setting the stage for a showdown over the 2010 defense authorization bill with the administration and in particular Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as the Office of Management and Budget issued a statement outlining the veto threat Wednesday over both issues.

Gates proposed the cuts earlier this year as part of an effort that he said would better spend taxpayer dollars on military priorities. He has said he’s confident the Air Force will have enough F-22s.

Lawmakers pushing to save the programs say the F-22 and second engine for the F-35 are vital to national security.

They also argue eliminating the F-22 program would kill off jobs during a brutal recession.

I hope even the lawmakers saying that first line aren't dumb enough to believe it.

As for the "weaponized Keynesianism" of the second, keep in mind that these are the same people who constantly bite their nails about the budget deficit, who claim that government never created a job, or that a spending bill is not a stimulus bill. Not to mention the fact - a fact I don't even like - that the total military budget will expand this year, as funding for the F-22 and the needless new engine for the F-35 will shift into other military priorities, ones that also create jobs. My preference would be to shift all this military spending into something creative instead of destructive, but without being able to close out these projects when they outlive their usefulness, we just create a monster. This country spends nearly as much on our military than the rest of the world combined, and far too much of that leaks into the pockets of contractors who build things that go unused, or gets put toward projects which quadruple in cost from projection to completion. The money is wildly inefficient, comparatively speaking, and this entire notion of military spending as sacrosanct makes it impossible to fund the rest of government without the fiscal scolds carping about deficits.

To segue into a separate point, there will be a conference committee on this, and so the White House certainly has the ability to use that tool, which the Republican majority used time and again, to take this funding which the Pentagon did not seek out of the bill. Practically every bill that passed through Congress from 1994-2006 got scrubbed of anything remotely progressive and sent back to each chamber with a nice big "take it or leave it" Post-It Note on the front. Many think that this is the way a decent health care reform bill can be pushed through the Congress, and that this is all part of the 31-dimensional chess the White House is playing. While they've already offered the veto threat on the military spending, and that might come about, it's important to look at the past experience with conference committees and this Administration. The short answer is: they don't like to use them and are more concerned about their personal schedule. The credit card reform bill can be instructive here.

In the Senate vote for that legislation, Tom Coburn added a supposed poison pill amendment allowing concealed weapons in public parks. The Senate passed the bill, and the House had already passed a version without that amendment. But rather than go to a conference committee, the House just up and passed the Senate's bill, with the guns in parks amendment, Obama signed it, and now we all can take our snub-noses to Yosemite. The official reason given was that the President wanted a bill on his desk by Memorial Day.

And they did exactly the same thing with the war supplemental. Many people had problems with provisions like the IMF loans or cash for clunkers, which certainly could have been fixed if anyone cared to do so. But the White House wanted it to move quickly, and so the Senate passed the House's bill.

I should note that at the end of Ezra's post today comes this:

(The President) wants to sign a bill in October.

I'm happy to believe that the White House has a secret strategy to fix the health care bill in conference, but recent history shows that they are far more interested in scheduling than these fixes. Maybe if they really, really care about a certain provision, it will get excised or included. But none of us actually know what those concerns truly are.

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The Last Froomkin

Here's his final column for the Washington Post, a neat summary of his major themes throughout five-plus years. Obviously the WaPo has more important avenues for their money, like dressing up Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza like fops. So we'll have to enjoy Froomkin elsewhere. Check this site for archives and an update as to where he'll go next.

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Waxman-Markey Showdown Today

The key for me on the Waxman-Markey energy and climate bill, which may or may not pass the House today (actually, my money's on pass), was always whether or not it gets the ball rolling on renewables, efficiency and emission reduction. I don't think we'll ever have the sufficient political will to do what's necessary based on the science - there are just too many variables and regional obstacles - and so we'll need to adapt and innovate our way out of this mess. Time Magazine has a pretty good pieceon those political obstacles.

If Nancy Pelosi gets her way by the end of the week, the U.S. House of Representatives will have passed landmark global-warming legislation. But you might not know it from the near unanimously bad reviews so many different interested parties are giving it. Groups as disparate as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Farm Bureau, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers have expressed either strong concerns or outright opposition to the bill.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Global warming has long been a Democratic priority — and with House Speaker Pelosi and President Barack Obama behind it, many didn't think Democrats would have had such a hard time reaching a consensus on legislation. But getting enough rural and moderate Democrats to sign on was no easy task; the final (some would say watered down) deal is a hard-won, middle-of-the-road bill that is still likely to lose Democratic votes from both the right and the left, though it may gain some moderate Republicans.

Al Gore thinks this bill does provide a decent start and sets the table for the Copenhagen talks in December; others disagree. There are warnings that the bill would allow companies to move overseas for their fuel, expanding our trade deficit and cutting jobs. There's just as reasonable a theory that the renewable and efficiency targets in the bill would create lots of jobs here in America, manufacturing jobs in parts and supplies for the new energy economy.

It really is a toss-up to me. The President has done some really bad environmental things in the courts, but he appears to genuinely want this bill to pass. I think Digby gets the politics right - a loss here in the House would mean nothing more for a couple years, and would stall the momentum for the more progressive elements of the Obama agenda. Regardless of what passes today, the fight goes on for those who want to see the planet protected and a new economy bloom.

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Engagement With Syria

Here's something else that blew right by me a couple days ago - the US will send an ambassador back to Syria after a four-year absence.

Syria is an interesting case, the "swing vote" in the Muslim world, if you will. They have allied themselves with Iran on occasion, and certainly have meddled in Lebanon. But they've also shown a willingness to reach out toward the West. President Bashar al-Assad is a somewhat more liberal figure than his father, although he still cracks down on dissent and has been linked to the death of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. But this return to the region reflects the President's general belief in engaging all countries to find areas of agreement. A unilateral pullout did not serve us well.

The loss of U.S. diplomatic leverage in the region -- because of opposition among many Arabs to the Iraq war and a perceived U.S. favoritism toward Israel -- has left a vacuum in recent years filled in large part by Iran. The decision to return the ambassador to Syria, senior administration officials said, represents the restoration of a sustained U.S. diplomatic presence in a secular Arab country central to many U.S. interests in the region.

"It did not make any sense to us not to be able to speak with an authoritative voice in Damascus," the senior administration official said. "It was our assessment that total disengagement has not served our interests."

If there were a legitimate partner for peace in Israel right now, this engagement would probably bear immediate fruit, as Syria and Israel were discussing a peace agreement over the Golan Heights as recently as late 2007. But as Iran implodes and instability potentially spreads, tipping Syria closer to the West, or even removing the standoffishness, changes the balance of power and will help lower the temperature of the US-Muslim relationship.

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The Health Care Endgame

Clearly, Democrats and the White House are advocating strongly for a public health insurance option, as the only way to truly lower costs, both to the federal budget and for consumers. The polls show that the American people generally agree - they may have concerns about cost and quality, but they support competition and choices. And the ABC poll cited above arguably skewed the public option question the most of any; opinion appears to skew in favor of a public option. Republicans have called it a deal breaker.

There are a million rumors flying around about this Senator and that. And there are plenty of process stories about whether Democrats should have pre-compromised reform by taking single payer off the table (which normally I would agree with, but this is the most plausible rebuttal to that scenario that I've ever seen - basically that such a strategy could have arrived DOA at the Capitol, and doomed reform because there's no assurance of a deal at the end of the road). And there's going to be more outright lying from those on the right who basically want nothing to be done.

At the end of the day, this sounds right to me as an endgame:

The stimulus was a huge and important accomplishment. If you had told liberals in 2007 that they were going to pass an $800 billion dollar spending bill that made good on decades of promises about infrastructure rebuilding and comparative effectiveness research and train construction and broadband internet and green energy, they would have laughed at you.

But by the time the bill actually wound its way through Congress, most liberals were frustrated by the outcome: A few Senate moderates had lopped $100 billion in spending off of the total and done so for no apparent reason. Top economists said that the legislation, though helpful, would not be enough to close the output gap and should thus be larger. The stimulus was a historic legislative accomplishment that nevertheless left liberals frustrated because they made concessions they didn't see any reason to make and ended up with a bill that they knew would not fully solve the problem.

That, I'd bet, is how health reform will close out as well. We will spend a trillion or a bit more covering the un- and underinsured. We will regulate a fairer and more decent insurance market into existence. We will expand Medicaid and build out subsidies to at least 300 percent of poverty and create health insurance exchanges. We will fund all this through sharply progressive taxes. We may even have a public plan. In 2006, it would have been a great deal. But as the legislation winds its way through the Senate, there will be unpleasant compromises, and unconscionable omissions, and the constant knowledge that though this is progress, it is not sufficient, and the people who stand in the way of a better bill are frequently incoherent or disingenuous. And that will be terribly frustrating for supports of the effort. The result will probably be a historic win when compared to the status quo, but I doubt it's going to feel like that for supporters of the initiative.

That's playing out as we speak. The Senate Finance Committee is trimming the subsidies to make health care affordable, reducing their availability to families at 300% of poverty instead of 400%. But they are NOT the only game in town. We have a solid House bill with a decent public option, which will reduce costs when factored in to the CBO score. We have the ability to keep insurers honest. We can implement a number of provisions to change the incentives for doctors to ring up more treatment instead of effective treatment. And we have allies like, amazingly enough, Jay Rockefeller:

Rockefeller estimates at least 100 million Americans face major problems paying for health care today.

"We can't count on insurance companies. They are just maximizing their profits. They are sticking it to consumers.

"I am all for letting insurance companies compete. But I want them to compete in a system that offers real health-care insurance. I call it a public plan," Rockefeller said [...]

On Thursday, Rockefeller admitted he expects little bipartisan support.

"There is a very small chance any Republicans will vote for this health-care plan. They were against Medicare and Medicaid [created in the 1960s]. They voted against children's health insurance.

"We have a moral choice. This is a classic case of the good guys versus the bad guys. I know it is not political for me to say that," Rockefeller added.

"But do you want to be non-partisan and get nothing? Or do you want to be partisan and end up with a good health- care plan? That is the choice."

In other words, we have a chance to reverse the dynamic, where bipartisanship is favored above everything and the policies are calibrated to the one holdout conservative, and instead have a dynamic where a public plan becomes the key for garnering support from enough Democrats to pass. We can keep pushing from the outside to ensure that dynamic holds.

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Anschutz' Folly

Well this couldn't have happened to a nicer billionaire.

A tragedy for his family and a heartbreak to his fans, Michael Jackson's death also represents a blow to the L.A. concert promoter that staked its reputation on and sunk tens of millions of dollars into a lavish comeback that will never happen.

AEG Live billed "This Is It," the sold-out concert series that was to have opened July 13 in London, as the most expensive and technologically advanced arena show ever. It had invested more than $20 million to mount a production that was to have included up to 22 sets, elaborate light shows and high-wire acts. The company, which owns the Staples Center among many other venues, had also set aside 50 nights at its coveted European showplace, the O2 Arena.

With Jackson's death, AEG will have to refund the $85 million worth of tickets that were sold. Gone are the company's expected profits -- an estimated $115 million, according to Billboard -- as well as plans for a global three-year tour that the company had predicted would gross $450 million.

"They are taking a big hit," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of concert-tracking publication Pollstar.

AEG is run by Phillip Anschutz, a right-wing Colorado oil baron who's trying to become the next Rupert Murdoch with his Examiner series of newspapers. I'm not going to weep for him losing $115 million.

The downside is that California probably loses out on a healthy chunk of tax receipts. Good thing we don't need them.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Deep Thought

Happiest man in America right now? Mark Sanford.

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Name That Lobbyist

This is a heck of an interesting project by NPR - during the markup of the health care reform bill in the Senate on June 17, one of their photographers snapped a picture of everyone in the audience. 99.9% of the time the cameras point in the other direction, at the lawmakers. This one points in arguably the right direction, at the lobbyists and stakeholders who will be just as responsible, if not more so, for the final shape of the bill. And they've asked people to help them identify the faces in the picture. So far there are a number of named lobbyists whose firms have earned millions from health care industry clients over the past year.

If we have any Washingtonian readers, help NPR ferret out these names by emailing to dollarpolitics-at-npr-dot-org or on the ubiquitous Twitter @DollarPolitics. We have an odd system in this country where the people who often write our bills are anonymous while the people who take their orders are well-known. We should maybe reverse that process and add some accountability into the mix at the same time.

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Done In By His Own Rhetoric

Paul Krugman puts into words something I've been feeling the past few days.

Back in March, when I was lamenting the inadequate size of the Obama stimulus, I made this prediction:

Republicans are now firmly committed to the view that we should do nothing to respond to the economic crisis, except cut taxes — which they always want to do regardless of circumstances. If Mr. Obama comes back for a second round of stimulus, they’ll respond not by being helpful, but by claiming that his policies have failed [...]

It’s only June, but Republicans are already claiming that the Obama economic plan has failed. (Yes, that’s insane — hardly any of the money has flowed to the economy yet — but this was predictable.) Meanwhile, unemployment is already above 9 percent. And the green shoots are looking browner by the week, especially on the jobs front: new claims for unemployment insurance are stubbornly running at more than 600,000 a week, far above the 350,000 or so that would be consistent with a stable unemployment rate.

We really do need a bigger stimulus. But it’s going to be hard slogging.

Pointedly, when asked at his last press conference if we need a second stimulus, Obama said "Not yet."

My worry comes from the fact that Obama and his White House take every opportunity to sell the great economic benefits of the Recovery Act, how it creates a new era by investing in the policies we need to return to economic growth, etc. And yet they knew that the stimulus was kneecapped in the Senate and turned into a worthwhile but inadequate effort to deal with an historic shortfall in economic activity. It was always going to be hard to reconcile that disconnect between continuing bad times and this laudatory language used to describe a stimulus that has barely begun to reach the ground. But that tightrope is starting to fray at the edges.

Barely half of Americans are now confident that President Obama's $787 billion stimulus measure will boost the economy, and the rapid rise in optimism about the state of the nation that followed the 2008 election has abated, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Overall, 52 percent now say the stimulus package has succeeded or will succeed in restoring the economy, compared with 59 percent two months ago. The falloff in confidence has been sharpest in the hard-hit Midwest, where fewer than half now see the government spending as succeeding. In April, six in 10 Midwesterners said the federal program had worked or would do so.

This was inevitable. With the global economy tracking the Great Depression (more charts on that) but the financial elites eager to get back to the hard work of accountability-free pillaging of the middle class, a credibility gap between the "green shoots" public statements and reality was bound to emerge. And if oil shoots back up to triple digits, the resulting squeeze in consumer spending could devastate growth even more.

This presents a vexing problem. Obama needs a national economic rebound and would probably support a new stimulus if he thought events warranted one, but he's hemmed in by his own rhetoric about the first stimulus.

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Stalemate Sounds About Right

I got to listen to a talk about Afghanistan the other day from Anand Ghopal, a writer for the Christian Science Monitor, and soon, the Wall Street Journal. He offered a really detailed, comprehensive take about the challenges we face in Afghanistan, clearing up some misconceptions about the country. The Taliban, he said, cannot take over the country. They are confined to their ethnic Pashtun base, which represents maybe 40% of the population. The other ethnicities, perhaps because of lingering effects of past civil wars and repression, still hate the Taliban and want the American presence. However, the Americans have little ability to successfully remove the Taliban insurgency from those Pashtun areas, because they are deeply embedded there. It's basically a stalemate, and only a political reconciliation can resolve it. In the meantime, airstrikes and house raids make the US less and less welcomed in the region. And then there's the sticky problem of Pakistan, fighting the indigenous Taliban presence in their own country while continuing to offer aid and comfort to the Afghan Taliban. Ghopal had much, much more, but I think the word "mess" came to mind several times during the talk.

And that shines through in recent coverage of the war. The British launched a major offensive against Taliban forces, using just 350 troops and an enormous amount of air superiority. This is the precise OPPOSITE of what escalation would facilitate - and end to relying on airstrikes. As a result people just left the area and melted away. There was nothing left to hit, except the IEDs that the insurgents laid for the incoming troops. We actually got Kyrgyzstan to reverse their decision to deny air basing rights to US troops, albeit with higher rent (read: bribes), but the very fact that we continue to rely on air bases to resolve this conflict shows the dichotomy between trying to win hearts and minds while dropping bombs on the heads of villagers. In Pakistan, this is more intense, as a drone attack killed 60 mourners at a funeral for a Pakistani Taliban leader, in an effort to strike at Baitullah Mehsud, who earlier killed a key rival and the kind of moderate Taliban with whom a settlement could be reached. Clearly other rivals to Mehsud will be scared off from siding with the West after this incident.

Through all of this, the question of why we continue in Afghanistan persists. The country is desperately poor and we've exhausted practically all of our goodwill by the Bush Administration failing to follow through on any of their promises to the people. The country has never known a central government and shouldn't be expected to suddenly sprout a durable one. And the question of "denying safe havens to Al Qaeda" seems to me to be moot, considering that the current insurgency does not have the same radical view of Islam as the previous Taliban, and even Gen. Petraeus has acknowledged that Al Qaeda holds no footprint in the country. Today 138 House members called for an exit strategy in Afghanistan, and while they lost the vote as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill, I have a feeling that those numbers will grow.

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CA Mess: Senate Rejects Assembly Call For A Timeout

I guess this is good news under the standard of cracks in the armor, but it amounted basically to nothing. The Assembly, on a bipartisan basis, passed a stopgap measure designed specifically to keep the IOUs from going out next week. The measure would cut some education programs and defer other payments, for a total of about $5 billion. The Governor, who's beyond reason or responsibility at this point, threatened to veto becuase it did not constitute a "full solution." And then the Senate, led by "Zed" Hollingsworth, just said no and the legislature adjounred. FWIW, here were some of the plans:

Among the costs lawmakers would defer are $2.2 billion owed to schools, $700 million for the University of California system, $290 million owed the California State University system and $163 million for community colleges. Nearly $290 million in payments to transportation programs would also be delayed.

The Assembly package also would take $350 million from local redevelopment agencies to help balance the budget. An earlier attempt to take those funds was blocked in court, but lawmakers have rewritten the proposal in an attempt to avert legal problems.

The lawmakers also would also borrow $360 million in lottery funds, which legislative staffers say would be legal even though voters in May rejected a proposal to borrow substantially more from the lottery.

It's remarkable how almost everything on the May ballot has been dredged up again, despite the mandate against doing so.

Once again, I see no endgame.

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Who We Are As A Society

Regardless of whether TMZ got it or some other outlet, Michael Jackson is dead. And apparently the mass of humanity over at UCLA Medical Center is growing as we speak. Heart attack, it sounds like. I'm hearing the helicopters even from out here in Venice. Twitter has basically almost blown up.

Just so you know.

"Off The Wall" was a great album.

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Looking Beyond Waxman-Markey, Because Looking At It Is Too Ugly

By now you probably know that the Waxman-Markey climate bill will hit the floor of the House tomorrow. This has become almost a stealth issue in America, which is astounding. The President stressed his support of the bill at his press conference Tuesday and nobody asked a question about it. Today he's whipping support publicly and calling lawmakers privately, accusing Republicans of spreading misinformation and casting the bill as a "jobs bill," always a good maneuver in an age of double-digit unemployment. Yet it's not a front-and-center issue in most people's minds. An ABC poll showed support of the bill if it raised electric rates by $10 a month, and opposition if it raised them $25 a month.

And yet this is a world-historical vote, which seeks to address one of the foundational issues of our time - the fact that a runaway climate has the potential to make large sections of the world uninhabitable, cause mass death, and require disruptive adaptation costing in the trillions of dollars. So $15 a month swings support one way or the other? And nobody, not even the President, can get it on the front page?

Keep in mind that the bill, as currently constructed, is not even sufficient to the task. The energy efficiency aspects of the bill are sound - so sound that this EPA analysis, stating that Waxman-Markey would result in less renewable energy than in a status quo ante environment, is mainly because the efficiency targets are so strong that they would significantly reduce the amount of electricity required. But the other part of that reflects the inadequacies of the bill:

The bill also won’t sufficiently drive up the price of dirty fossil fuels to encourage a big switch to renewables, the analysis says. (Here’s how that sounds in untranslated EPA-speak: “Allowances prices are not high enough to drive a significant amount of additional low or zero-carbon energy . . . in the shorter term.”)

Enviro groups, which have misplayed this debate dramatically, don't want to upset the precarious balance that has allowed the bill to progress this far by strengthening it with amendments. And so we're stuck with a bill that has an insufficient carbon emissions cap, gives away scads of allowances to polluters and farm interests, maintains the ethanol scam, does too little on the renewable energy standard, doesn't invest enough in clean sources of energy and fails to advance the ball to a significant degree. Ed Markey says that this is the political reality of getting a bill like this to pass. And at Grist, Dave Roberts tries to look on the bright side:

Anyway, on odd-numbered days, I think I’ve reached a fragile zen detente with the whole process. Mainly, I’ve been trying to focus on a different question: will there be an energy revolution? After all, the American Clean Energy and Security Act is not the only shot for Obama to make good on his campaign promises on energy. Nor is the legislation our last chance to tackle the climate crisis. No bill can carry that kind of weight, not at this moment, with this Congress. America is at the tail end of an era of cheap energy and heedless economic growth. Waxman-Markey is just the struggle to get an extremely hidebound, backward-looking set of political institutions to acknowledge that the old order is collapsing. Building a new order is something else entirely.

The question is, what’s going to happen after the bill is passed? An energy revolution will require a combination of social, technological, business, legal, regulatory, and legislative changes. Federal legislation can’t do all the lifting. Conversely, other changes can compensate somewhat for a weak (at least at the outset) federal framework. What will ultimately make the difference is not the specific mechanics of the bill but the, ahem, Sweep of History. (And who better to capture the Sweep of History than Some Blogger?)

I am reasonably optimistic, despite the flaws in Waxman-Markey, that history is on our side, and that the arguments happening today in Congress will soon be seen as peculiar and archaic.

Read the whole thing.

That's a good way of denying the present, by painting a rosy, hopeful outlook for the future. And his analysis isn't far wrong. But it does nothing for the political realty today. And that reality shows that climate change is just not yet a "touch and feel" issue for enough Americans to make a dent in the political debate. And that we have a better chance finding disruptive technologies that blow the clean energy space wide open than waiting for some Congressman who has a coal mine in his district to come around to realize the scope of the problem. I hope Roberts is right about the future, because I'm not sure the politics will advance too much from the present.

...I agree that this is a good way of looking at it:

As we see a lot of big, landmark style bills coming to the floor in the coming months and stress out over whether they are "good" or "bad," failure or success, and instead look at legislating over the longer term as a process of constantly pushing toward better policy. Obviously, congress' institutional structure -- it's very hard to pass anything substantial or with any kind of speed -- creates an incentive geared towards achieving huge breakthroughs, since you may only get this chance -- and this majority -- once...But there's no law saying that Barack Obama and the rest of the Democrats can't take another bite at the health care apple -- or energy, or financial regulations, or whatever -- after the mid-terms or, hell, as soon as the first bill passes.

One quibble, which I will explore in my next post.

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Joe Sestak Will Beat Arlen Specter In The 2010 PA Primary

There, I've said it. I'm not above making some predictions. And this one is based in some reality, for once! The fact is that Arlen Specter's standing with voters in Pennsylvania has slipped significantly a year out from any primary. His job approval rating is down to 34%, and among Democrats, only 43% believe he deserves re-election. In a head-to-head matchup, Specter only garners 33% against Sestak, who has 13%, with a whopping 48% undecided.

These are much better numbers than, for example, Ned Lamont had at a similar time, nearly a year out from his primary against Joe Lieberman. And the trends in terms of key stakeholders are moving Sestak's way as well. This Open Left piece is hilarious:

At first glance, Joe Sestak reiterating that he is a co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act while speaking at a United Steelworkers conference doesn't seem like much of a news story. As the title of this post implies, however, there is something that made it very interesting...

The catch is that Senator Arlen Specter did not speak at this event. In fact, he was disinvited.

Here is the full story, courtesy of an email exchange with Jim Savage, who is President of a Steelworkers local here in Philadelphia:

"The Senator [Arlen Specter] was invited & confirmed as the keynote speaker."

"There was quite an uproar when we found out. He was uninvited because of the rank-and-file reaction."

"Also, it's worth noting that the Senator was none too happy about it."

At that point, Sestak was then invited. Before he spoke, he was "introduced to the delegates as "our next Senator" to a rousing ovation."

The general sentiment toward Specter was "fuck'm."

I have to say, talking to local union leaders is a lot more fun than talking with communications staff.

Sestak keeps dipping his toe in the water and intimating that he'll get in the race. At some point he'll have to go ahead with a full-fledged announcement. But if, as appears likely, he does run, I think he'll win. I've certainly been wrong before, but then again, so has Larry Sabato....

...and by the way, this is exactly why Specter came out today in favor of the public option for health care reform. He will not be a problem in this fight, unlike what would have been the case if Sestak shied away from running.

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Mousavi's Long Game

Mir Hossein Mousavi has not given up the fight in Iran.

Iran protest leader Mir Hossein Mousavi says he holds those behind alleged "rigged" elections responsible for bloodshed during recent protests.

In a defiant statement on his website, he called for future protests to be in a way which would not "create tension."

He complained of "complete" restrictions on his access to people and a crackdown on his media group.

A BBC correspondent in Tehran says the statement is a direct challenge to Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

It's important to recognize that the 1979 Iranian revolution began in 1978. And Mousavi was among the revolutionaries who brought that about. He, and Rafsanjani and some of the other reformists, have played the long game before.

Meanwhile, the regime continued their crackdown yesterday, detaining hundreds of protestors, including possible Mousavi's wife. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, silent in this uprising for the most part, lashed out at President Obama and compared him to George Bush for daring to question his authority or legitimacy.

As usual, Nico Pitney has the best coverage.

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What're You In For? Adultery?

The fact that Mark Sanford's adultery may be criminal under South Carolina law isn't a black mark on Sanford, but on SOUTH CAROLINA. While as Governor, Sanford probably should have known the relevant statute, I cannot believe that adultery would be punishable by fine or imprisonment. That's kind of appalling, yet unsurprising in a "The Ten Commandments should be the basis of our legal system" kind of way.

Of slightly more importance is the report that some of Sanford's trips to Argentina were taxpayer-funded. That does strike me as serious, although there's no specific causality that's been revealed yet.

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Multiple Progressive Assaults On DiFi's Health Care Wavering

The past couple days on Calitics, we've had Jason Rosenbaum detail grassroots efforts over Dianne Feinstein's confusing comments about and reticence to sign on to comprehensive health care reform. First he highlighted Health Care for America Now's petition urging Feinstein to get on board with health care reform. Then he deconstructed Feinstein's official statement on health care, which was unsatisfactory.

Feinstein is an important part of this debate. She doesn't sit on any of the relevant committees, but she has cachet in Washington, and with real health care reform coming down to just a handful of votes, her views will be crucial to the debate going forward. At a time when 85 percent of respondents to a Field Poll support a public health insurance option to compete with private industry, Feinstein must not be allowed to ignore the will of her constituents, as she did in her vote to authorize the war in Iraq.

Fortunately, practically every progressive organization in the state and even the country is hammering Feinstein for her naysaying, and demanding that she stay true to the principles she laid out, including controlling costs, expanding coverage and stopping the bad practices of the insurance industry, by endorsing a public health insurance option as part of any reform package. In addition to Health Care For America Now, MoveOn created an ad and drove phone calls to Feinstein's office. Today CREDO Mobile joined the fray with a petition asking her to support the public plan, and the return receipt after you sign offers a one-click retweet of a Twitter message to spread the word, which is innovative. The Courage Campaign also has a letter calling on DiFi to stand with the President and support a public option. Courage Campaign also offers one-click forwarding of the message to Twitter, Facebook and MySpace (MySpace still exists?).

Health care reform is the make-or-break issue of this year, and Dianne Feinstein needs to hear from every one of her constituents about it.

(In addition, Firedoglake is whipping the public option in the House, with the goal of finding 40 Democrats who will commit to opposing any bill that DOESN'T have a strong public option contained in it. Presuming that all Republicans will vote against any health care reform, this would have the effect of changing the incentives in Congress, currently tilted toward what the most conservative elements of the Democratic coalition would accept, and move them instead toward what the liberal base of the coalition will demand in exchange for their vote. There are lots of California Democratic House members on their list, so head over and get to the phones!)

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Ending Prison Rape

Being sentenced to prison is supposed to be the punishment. People who commit crimes should not be subject to another crime, the crime of rape, as a consequence of their incarceration. It's brutal, cruel and wrong. Too often, corrections facilities look the other way at this practice, thinking wrongly that it maintains order among their populations. I'm heartened that a commission has offered concrete steps for corrections officials to reduce and eventually eliminate prison rape.

The number of rapes committed by detention staff members and other inmates remains a subject of intense scrutiny. A 2007 survey of state and federal prisoners estimated that 60,500 inmates had been abused the previous year. But experts say that the stigma of sexual assault often leads to underreporting of incidents and denial by many of the victims.

Too often, the report says, sexual abuse of prisoners is viewed as a source of jokes rather than a problem with destructive implications for public health, crime rates and successful reentry of prisoners into the community.

"If you have a zero-tolerance policy on prison rape and it is known from the highest ranks that this will not be tolerated and there will be consequences for it, that goes a long way in sending a message," said U.S District Judge Reggie B. Walton, the commission chairman. "Just because people have committed crimes and are in prison, that doesn't mean that part of their punishment is being sexually abused while in detention."

These recommendations from the panel go to the Attorney General, who has a year to create national standards. Our jails are a mess, and reducing the brutal crime of rape will start us down the road of rehabilitating them.

And I'm pleased to have an ally in Eli Lehrer of the National Review. There's no reason for prison rape to ever be a partisan issue.

The federal report’s conclusions — a zero-tolerance policy, more direct monitoring, and the like — almost are all common sense. State, local, and federal governments should take immediate legislative and administrative action to implement nearly everything in the report. (Most of the practices are already commonplace in the federal and better-run state systems.) Although giving trial lawyers more business rarely makes sense, Congress may also want to reconsider laws that make it very difficult for prisoners to sue prison authorities absent concrete evidence of physical harm. It’s quite possible that many legitimate prison-rape claims get thrown out of court under current laws. And prison rape needs to stop.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but what the guy from the Competitive Enterprise Institute said.

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Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

The health insurance industry maximizes their profits by delivering as little care as they can legally get away with, or for that matter, illegally.

Health insurers have forced consumers to pay billions of dollars in medical bills that the insurers themselves should have paid, according to a report released yesterday by the staff of the Senate Commerce Committee.

The report was part of a multi-pronged assault on the credibility of private insurers by Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). It came at a time when Rockefeller, President Obama and others are seeking to offer a public alternative to private health plans as part of broad health-care reform legislation. Health insurers are doing everything they can to block the public option.

At a committee hearing yesterday, three health-care specialists testified that insurers go to great lengths to avoid responsibility for sick people, use deliberately incomprehensible documents to mislead consumers about their benefits, and sell "junk" policies that do not cover needed care. Rockefeller said he was exploring "why consumers get such a raw deal from their insurance companies."

The star witness at the hearing was a former public relations executive for major health insurers whose testimony boiled down to this: Don't trust the insurers.

Wendell Potter is the name of the star witness, a former VP for corporate communications at insurance giant Cigna. His testimony was devastating, as he offered a step-by-step tour into how the insurance industry works to increase their profits. This is the system that Republicans and conservative Democrats want to hold a monopoly over your health care, in a forced market where you have to sign up with them.

What drove Potter from the health insurance business was, well, the health insurance business. The industry, Potter says, is driven by "two key figures: earnings per share and the medical-loss ratio, or medical-benefit ratio, as the industry now terms it. That is the ratio between what the company actually pays out in claims and what it has left over to cover sales, marketing, underwriting and other administrative expenses and, of course, profits."

Think about that term for a moment: The industry literally has a term for how much money it "loses" paying for health care.

The best way to drive down "medical-loss," explains Potter, is to stop insuring unhealthy people. You won't, after all, have to spend very much of a healthy person's dollar on medical care because he or she won't need much medical care. And the insurance industry accomplishes this through two main policies. "One is policy rescission," says Potter. "They look carefully to see if a sick policyholder may have omitted a minor illness, a pre-existing condition, when applying for coverage, and then they use that as justification to cancel the policy, even if the enrollee has never missed a premium payment." [...]

Potter also emphasized the practice known as "purging." This is where insurers rid themselves of unprofitable accounts by slapping them with "intentionally unrealistic rate increases." One famous example came when Cigna decided to drive the Entertainment Industry Group Insurance Trust in California and New Jersey off of its books. It hit them with a rate increase that would have left some family plans costing more than $44,000 a year, and it gave them three months to come up with the cash.

The insurers simply follow the profit motive. Under the current system, there is no profit in offering people care, only denying them it. And so competition in the marketplace, or more to the point competition on Wall Street to increase share price (because most insurance markets in this country are limited), depends on coming up with new and exciting ways to either deny care or off-load costs onto customers. Like this ingenious little bit, from the WaPo article:

Many Americans pay higher premiums for the freedom to go outside an insurer's network of doctors and hospitals. When they do, insurers typically pay a percentage of what they call the "usual and customary" rates for the services. How insurers determine the usual rates had long been opaque to consumers and difficult if not impossible for them to challenge.

As it turns out, insurers typically used numbers from Ingenix, a wholly owned subsidiary of the big insurer UnitedHealth Group. Ingenix had an incentive to produce benchmarks that low-balled usual and customary rates and shifted costs from insurers to their customers, the report said.

Ingenix got its data from the same insurers that bought its benchmark information, the report said. Insurers that contributed information to Ingenix often "scrubbed" their data to remove high charges, and Ingenix further manipulated the numbers, removing valid high charges from its calculations, the report said.

Cuomo found that insurers under-reimbursed New York consumers by up to 28 percent, the report said. A dozen insurers have reached settlements agreeing to change their practices; UnitedHealth agreed to the largest payment, $50 million, to help a nonprofit organization set up a new database to replace Ingenix.

I'm convinced that polls showing large numbers of people happy with their health insurance stems from the fact that most people at any given moment don't have occasion to use it. When they do, the horror stories roll in.

These insurance industry groups claim that a public insurance option would dismantle their business. The goal of it would actually be to reverse those incentives. With millions of new customers entering the market, the profits have the potential to soar. But with a public option in competition, as long as there are strong regulations available so insurers cannot cherry-pick the healthy, suddenly they would have to compete on offering the best price or the highest quality plan. The arguments that government can deliver insurance with lower administrative costs, better economies of scale, etc. would be a feature and not a bug, and I don't think the public will react unfavorably to better-quality coverage at a lower price.

The last time that Congress featured the truth about the insurance companies, it went uncovered in the major media. Democrats and especially the President have the ability and the imperative to turn the spotlight on the industry and their practices, and the goal of reversing the incentives in a better fashion for businesses large and small, government and consumers.

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Changing Standards On Stop-Gap Solutions

The President could end the discharges of gay and lesbian servicemen under the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy today. He could sign out an executive order essentially putting a moratorium on those discharges, or he could even just issue a change in implementation to the policy at the Defense Department. 77 members of Congress signed a letter to this effect this week, and yet the President maintains that the issue must be tackled legislatively.

The White House has responded to an inquiry from The Advocate about a letter sent from 77 House members Monday urging President Barack Obama to take immediate action to stop the investigations of "don't ask, don't tell" violations.

"President Obama remains committed to a legislative repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which he believes will provide a durable and lasting solution to this issue. He welcomes the commitment of these members to seeing Congress take action," read the statement.

Of course, an executive order or implementation order could be the first step to such a lasting solution. The President could offer legislative language as he secures the stoppage of implementation, form a blue-ribbon panel to study repeal, and then get the legislative and military machinery working together so that everything is ready for passage. He could have done that on day one. And yet he hasn't. As John Aravosis notes, the President hasn't been such a slave to precedent when it comes to certain immigration laws.

It's another immigration law that unfairly deports the foreign-born spouses of Americans who die in the first years of their marriage. The Obama administration is going to defer enforcement of that law until Congress can fix it in a few years.

Then why not defer enforcement of the HIV ban? Why not defer the deportation of the foreign-born partners of gay Americans? Why not defer enforcement of Don't Ask Don't Tell with a stop-loss order? Why not defer filing anti-gay briefs in support of DOMA? We've been told that in each case it's because "it's the law, and there's nothing President Obama can do when a law tells him what to do." And, Obama also adds that it would be inappropriate to order a stop-gap solution now, short of a full legislation fix. Same thing for health benefits for same-sex couples who federal employees. Remember, they said DOMA prevents that.

If the White House was just straight about this from the beginning, if they didn't come up with these unsatisfactory explanations, if they offered a real effort on gay civil rights in the first year, if they didn't rile up the community with a DOMA brief characterized by many as offensive, they would not see a pillar of the Democratic Party in open revolt right now. They had the "gays in the military" disaster they sought to avoid - only from the left. Bad job all around.

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Walking The Appalachian Trail And Trampling On The Voices Of Freedom

Roger L. Simon gives us the reductio ad adsurbum of warblogging:

Nevertheless, Mark Sanford’s out-of-control Father’s Day jaunt to Buenos Aires is particularly ill-timed, not just because of the obvious disrespect to his wife, children, friends, citizens of his state, political party, etc.

Reason: IRAN.

At this moment, the eyes of this country should be fixed on the horrific events coming from that company and the struggle for freedom against all odds by many of its brave citizens. They need our support more than anything.

I hope you're listening, politicians, stop everything in your personal lives or you'll make the protestors cry. For that matter, sure, we could debate fundamental health care reform, but how will that carry on the spirit of Neda?

I think even Andrew Sullivan would be embarrassed by this.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

You're Allowed To Do That?

Banks received TARP money in exchange for agreements with the federal government to offer back dividends, among other things. And now, some banks are flat-out not paying them anymore.

At least three small, cash-strapped banks have stopped paying the U.S. government dividends that they owe because they got $315.4 million in capital infusions under the Troubled Asset Relief Program [...]

Treasury spokeswoman Meg Reilly said Monday that "a number of banks" that got taxpayer-funded capital under TARP are no longer paying dividends to the government. "Treasury respects the contractual rights of [TARP recipients] to make decisions about dividend distributions, and that banks are best positioned to decide how to manage their own capital base."

The moves are a sign of the deepening misery for large swaths of the U.S. banking industry, suffering under bad loans and the recession even as large firms such as J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. rebound from the crisis, including by repaying their TARP funds last week.

Remember that whole "sanctity of contracts" that the United States cannot abrogate, during the AIG bonus debate? I guess that's no longer operative.

Yves Smith writes:

Plenty of folks, including yours truly, were skeptical of Treasury's claim, made often with a straight face. that the government was exercising care on who got TARP funding (as in it was not just handing out dough willy-nilly, but did have an eye to getting taxpayer dough back). That of course presupposes that the banks getting the money were just a little bit bad off, as opposed to in Serious Trouble (belied by the aggregate size of the effort) [...]

Given that there are no formal penalties for suspending TARP dividends, save a negative reaction in the markets, which would affect stock prices and borrowing rates, there consequences of missing payments may be de minimus. While three small banks missing payments is in theory no biggie, the action does point up the disconnect between the PR of TARP (protect the taxpayer) and practice (protect the banks). Even if the result of pressure to bolster capital levels, this precedent may encourage others to follow.

OK, if you still think the banks are solvent, let's just for one day pull the plug on all the special vehicles that the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department and the FDIC have been offering these firms, and watch the entire financial system absolutely melt. What this means for the future is that we're propping up a sick system, just as Japan did in the 1990s, and their experience shows a lost decade with little or no economic growth, because the money dumped into the black hole of the banking system does nothing for the larger economy. That's why we're going to see 10 percent unemployment soon, that's why the so-called "real" economy is cause for such concern, and that's why those of us hearing about these "green shoots" are not impressed.

And I have to agree with Atrios- what exactly is recovering in this recovery if everyone is broke and out of work and the numbers for everything except Government Goldman Sachs bonuses are down? I understand that unemployment is a lagging indicator, so please don’t spam the comments with that (it is an insight so trite it ranks up there with “correlation does not equal causation.” Thanks. I had intro to stats as an undergrad, too.).

And I’m being serious. What exactly are we basing these claims of green shoots and recovery on other than pixie dust?

The root cause of this is the dysfunctional financial system, and that system is not being fixed. So the public suffers the consequences.

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Dems Get Cloture On Harold Koh

About damn time. There was literally no reason not to confirm him. Republicans are threatening to take all 30 hours of floor time to "debate" his confirmation. Obstructionist whiners.

Dawn Johnsen's next.

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The Search For An Endgame

So the Senate Republicans voted en masse against $11 billion in cuts as part of the budget proposal put forward by the Democrats today. Lou Correa and Leland Yee voted no as well, and the final vote was 22-16. Technically, I believe the bill could go to the Assembly, and after passage to the Governor, but Arnold has vowed a veto, so that's probably out. Meanwhile, California will start to use the reserve fund to pay bills for the next week or so, and failing a solution after that, will resort to IOUs, which basically was the deal back in February as well. Yes, the Democratic proposal has its share of gimmickry, but no more than the Governor's own plan, and considering the Yacht Party refuses to write a plan, ALL OF THEIRS is gimmickry, as is their entire ideology. But the Yacht Party smells blood in the water, the Democrats have pulled their tax proposals off the table, and the future is incredibly uncertain.

I cannot disagree with Greg Lucas' analysis.

Examining the Senate’s budgetary actions of June 24 from a political rather than a policy perspective, the majority party Democrats may not have achieved their objectives [...]

Judging from the remarks of Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, the intent of the exercise was to illustrate that Democrats are unwilling to cut as deeply into social programs as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and to portray Republican lawmakers as obstructionist or hypocritical or both for not backing the cuts embraced by Democrats.

“Democrats are asking Republicans to vote for billions of dollars in cuts and apparently your answer today is ‘no,’ Steinberg said. “Why won’t you cut? Why won’t you cut?” [...]

In a purely political sense, the “bad” vote is the one cast by Democrats, ostensibly champions of public education, who – if the February budget they backed is included – have chosen to reduce state support of schools by more than $12 billion over a two-year period.

Republicans can portray their “no” vote as a refusal to cut nearly $5 billion more from public schools.

Perhaps a more effective illustration of support for what Democrats call the safety net would be to bring several of the GOP governor’s more draconian proposals to a vote.

It seems unlikely Schwarzenegger’s call to eliminate California’s welfare program would garner the votes necessary for passage. Nor would the governor’s proposal to end state grants to lower-income high school students to help them attend college.

After rejecting those and possibly other gubernatorial proposals then a vote on the more modest – more humane – measure with $11 billion in cuts might more satisfactorily frame the issue.

I would argue that making these "symbolic" votes doesn't do a ton of good unless you're willing to use them in the context of the 2010 campaign (and I don't remember votes coming into play in key districts in 2008) or in a coordinated and widespread media campaign immediately. To the latter point, we don't have any such media in California. It's a good argument in search of a broadcaster, and that goes for Lucas' alternative solution.

The real problem is that Democrats don't appear to have an endgame strategy, and haven't for years. The words "two-thirds majority" hasn't exited anyone's lips in quite a while. This is a process problem, and only a process solution will suffice, and teachable moments like these have been wasted for 30 years.

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The Beltway Bubble

Just a coda to this "Nico Pitney asked a planted question" nonsense. I've never seen such an overt expression of jealousy in all my life. With the possible exception of Roger Cohen (who's great today, and will probably win a Pulitzer), nobody in America has had the kind of coverage on the Iran story that Nico has had. Certainly not Dana Milbank, who has spent the last few days embarrassing the entire profession of journalism with his foppish, bitchy gossip segment that summarized the Village's belief that politics is a game and they're the sportscasters covering it. So for him to dare to criticize the journalism of anyone else is completely nonsensical.

Asserting that President Obama's June 23 press conference included "prepackaged entertainment," Dana Milbank wrote in his June 24 Washington Post column that Huffington Post national editor Nico Pitney was "a planted questioner" who asked "a preplanned question." Milbank further wrote: "The use of planted questioners is a no-no at presidential news conferences, because it sends a message to the world -- Iran included -- that the American press isn't as free as advertised." But while Milbank noted that "Pitney said the White House" was "not aware of the question's wording," he did not quote or paraphrase the question itself, which Guardian America editor Michael Tomasky described as "an important and tough question that got right to the heart of the matter." The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen called it "a terrific question that the president wasn't anxious to answer," while's Glenn Greenwald referred to it as "one of the toughest questions at the Press Conference."

Andrew Sullivan exposes this dichotomy further, with Nico writing about a fairly important struggle by millions of Iranians, and Milbank gossiping about JibJab videos. Never mind the fact that Milbank is simply lying to make this whole thing appear more insidious; his interest in journalistic integrity doesn't pass the laugh test.

...Ari Melber attacks this from a different angle.

Since Obama was inaugurated, many media critics, citizen journalists and web activists have been calling on him to answer meaningful, unfiltered questions from citizens. After watching the Obama Campaign in action, people saw the potential for deeper, direct engagement between wired citizens and a President who gets new media and believes in transparency [...]

Thus it was likely -- and hardly surprising -- that a citizen question would be posed at a presidential press conference. Given the news, it happened to come from Tehran, not Tennessee.

So the complaints of several Washington reporters are not only odd, but hard to take at face value. It is particularly rich for reporters to protest that the White House told Pitney he might be tapped for a question. Every day, a few top White House correspondents have special access in press briefings, while many reporters are never called on (seating charts are powerful). And many Washington reporters routinely, secretly grant the White House blind quotes and restrictive ground rules in exchange for access. By contrast, Pitney transparently told readers about his dealings with the White House, in real time, on his blog. The public would be better served if all media outlets took that tack, publishing any arrangements, restrictions or ground rules along with every article or interview. (Readers would be interested -- media criticism and scrutiny tends to draw traffic across the spectrum.)

Greenwald, too.

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Moral Superiority

Given the Sanford affair today, for some reason I view this standing ovation for John Ensign in a new context. Again, his personal life is none of my concern, but the same people who stand on a soapbox made out of Bibles really look like ridiculous moralizers right now. Everyone shut up about everyone else's sex life and get your nose out of my bedroom.

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Challenging The Status Quo

I'm going to try and get off Sanford Watch for just a moment, mainly because I'm reading the cringeworthy emails with most of my hand in front of my face. Because, despite the fact that it will get almost no media coverage, this is a pretty important statement from the Administration.

Preparing for a possible showdown with Congress, the White House on Wednesday threatened to veto legislation authorizing a $680 billion military budget if it contains money for jet fighters the Pentagon doesn’t want.

In a statement, the White House Office of Management and Budget said the $369 million that a House committee added to the bill as a downpayment for 12 additional F-22 fighters runs counter to the "collective judgment" of the military’s top leaders.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to end production of the radar-evading F-22 after 187 aircraft have been built. Last week, in a preview of the White House’s veto threat, Gates called the funding boost a "big problem." [...]

Another provision in the House bill the White House strongly objects to adds $603 million for a back-up engine intended for another fighter jet in development called the F-35. The committee says the alternative engine is needed in the event the primary propulsion system has problems that might ground the aircraft.

But the White House says the extra engine isn’t needed and will slow the fielding of the F-35, a single-engine aircraft to be used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

The backstory is that the Defense Department and the White House signed off on these cuts to the military budget, so did the relevant leadership in the armed services, and so did THE MANUFACTURERS OF THE PRODUCTS. At the time I didn't consider it that big a deal, because a lot of this money gets shuttled around to other equipment, and the overall military budget remains unsustainably high, at a time when we're scrounging for funding to give people quality health care. But some parochial politicians, and considering that the F-22 gets supplies from 43 states they're practically ALL parochial when it comes to the war machines, stuck the funding back in, for weapons and equipment that the defense establishment doesn't want.

For the President to offer a veto threat, which to my recollection is the first veto threat of his Presidency, over ending the military-industrial complex gravy train is pretty significant. If we don't take the first step and restore the ability to end weapons systems, then the military budget will just grow and grow. Most politicians already consider it magic and unrelated to any other spending, even while they scold about "runaway budget deficits" in the same breath. The jobs argument attempted here is bogus, "weaponized Keynesianism", as Barney Frank called it. Building bridges and roads and a smart energy grid were the kinds of job-creating engines that all the fiscal scolds considered too expensive during the stimulus fight, but suddenly when defense is on the menu, they're all "jobs, baby, jobs." Those Blue Dogs who scream about budgets can now tell everyone why we can afford a plane that the Air Force doesn't need and the manufacturer doesn't even want to make.

The President's taking a small risk here. I can already hear the resurrection of Zell Miller demagoguing in 2012 about "what are we gonna use, spitballs?" But this represents the setting of a marker, one of the first I can remember, that our military budget is not sustainable, and as a first step we have to be able to wind down Cold War-era weapons systems that are completely inapplicable to the present day. Not many people have allowed themselves to publicly make this argument. So it deserves some credit.

The relevant parts of the statement from the White House OMB below.

The Administration supports House passage of H.R. 2647, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010. The Administration appreciates the House Armed Services Committee's continued strong support of our national defense, including its support for the Department's topline budget requests for both the base budget and for overseas contingency operations.

The Administration appreciates, among other things, the leadership of the Committee in supporting many of the President's initiatives to terminate or reduce programs that have troubled histories, or that failed to demonstrate adequate performance when compared to other programs and activities needed to carry out U.S. national security objectives. In addition, the Administration welcomes the Committee's support for the Secretary of Defense's plan to increase the size of the civilian acquisition workforce and reduce the Department's reliance on contractors for critical acquisition functions. Also, the Administration appreciates that the Committee included authorities that are important to field commanders, such as the Commanders' Emergency Response Program and the authority to reimburse coalition partners.

While there are many areas of agreement with the Committee, the Administration nonetheless has serious concerns with a number of provisions that could constrain the ability of the Armed Forces to carry out their missions, that depart from Secretary Gates' decisions reflected in the President's Fiscal Year 2010 Budget which carefully balanced fiscal constraints, program performance, strategic needs and capabilities, or that raise other issues. The Administration looks forward to working with the Congress to address these concerns, some of which are outlined below, and to refine this legislation to align it more closely with national defense priorities.

F-22 Advance Procurement: The Administration strongly objects to the provisions in the bill authorizing $369 million in advanced procurement funds for F-22s in FY 2011. The collective judgment of the Service Chiefs and Secretaries of the military departments suggests that a final program of record of 187 F-22s is sufficient to meet operational requirements. If the final bill presented to the President contains this provision, the President's senior advisors would recommend a veto.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program: The Administration strongly objects to the addition of $603 million for development and procurement of the alternative engine program, and the requirement for the Department to fund the alternative engine program in future budget requests to the President. These changes will delay the fielding of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) capability and capacity, adversely impacting the Department's overall strike fighter inventory. In addition, the Administration objects to provisions of the bill that mandate an alternative engine program for the JSF. The current engine is performing well with more than 11,000 test hours. Expenditures on a second engine are unnecessary and impede the progress of the overall JSF program. Alleged risks of a fleet-wide grounding due to a single engine are exaggerated. The Air Force currently has several fleets that operate on a single-engine source. The Administration also objects to the limit on the obligation of overall JSF development funding to 75% of the amount authorized until Department of Defense (DOD) has obligated all funds provided in FY 2010 for the alternative engine program. If the final bill presented to the President would seriously disrupt the F-35 program, the President's senior advisors would recommend a veto.

...Lorelei Kelly has more.

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