Saturday, December 5, 2009
No More Compromises (or How Harry Reid Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Tell Joe Lieberman to Go Fuck Himself)
Don't use the existence of the filibuster as an excuse to dodge responsibility for creating subpar legislation. Everyone knows the Democratic caucus has the power to get around the filibuster or end it, so don't expect progressives to cut you slack when you sell us down the river in deference to minority rule. Progressives worked hard to elect President Obama and the very large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. If we don't feel like we're being represented in Washington, we aren't going to work very hard for you in 2010. That's not a threat, any "political scientist" can explain how base motivation works. So fight for us like your job depends on it...because it actually does.
More on the public option here and here and the filibuster here.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Monday, November 9, 2009
This weekend's House vote to pass historic health care reform legislation sends President Obama's central domestic policy priority sailing towards the legislative end zone. In addition, the House passed major energy/environment legislation earlier this year, another major Obama agenda item. Both bills now await consideration on the floor of the United States Senate. As we work to push our Senators to do the right thing on both bills, it would be wise to keep the recent comments offered by Chris Hayes in mind:
The filibuster has become a cancer growing inside the world's greatest deliberative body. What was once a rarely invoked procedural mechanism has metastasized and turned into a de facto supermajority requirement for any legislation. In the 103rd Congress (1993-94) there were forty-six votes on "cloture," the motion to override a filibuster and allow something to be considered on the floor. In the last Congress, the 110th, the first one in which Republicans were in the minority, there were a record 112. Even without the filibuster, our system already has more choke points where legislation can die than almost any other liberal democracy. It's rare for one party to control both houses of Congress and the White House, and to have as solid a majority as the Democrats currently do. But the filibuster confers such power on an obstinate minority that it distorts the relationship between elections and governance in a way that dangerously attenuates democracy itself.
Right wing obstructionists be warned: the progressive movement that elected President Obama and substantial majorities in both national legislative bodies will not be abide the subversion of democracy by an entrenched minority.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Yesterday was a special election. The political world treated it like it was this year's political World Series. But it wasn't. It had serious consequences for the state of New Jersey and the state of Virginia. It had conventional consequences for New York City. It had minor consequences for the United States House of Representatives, which is now slightly but measurably more progressive than it used to be. The election NY-23 may have affected the internal politics of the Republican Party in a serious way. And of course, it had consequences for the gay population of Maine, who have been tragically deprived of some of their human rights.
But that's all. A little drama, a little comedy, a little tragedy. It was not this year's political World Series. This year, the political World Series is not an election. It's what happens with health care. But don't be a spectator. Go and play a little hardball.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Last Friday, President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize as a call to action rather than a reward for prior accomplishments. If you haven't watched his remarks yet, you should. While he takes some measure of credit for his work towards ending the Iraq War, he appears uncomfortable when speaking about Afghanistan. This is a good thing. He realizes the dissonance of accepting a Peace Prize while conducting a war in Afghanistan that many are urging him to escalate. This call to action should inform his decisions moving forward.
It's easy to prattle on about the Nobel Committee's process of selection (Hendrik Hertzberg and Howard Zinn offer the best attempts). Holding the leader of the most powerful nation on earth accountable for the advancement of the cause of peace is much harder. But it is what we must do if we want peace.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
96% of UC service workers qualify for at least one form of public assistance, whether it's food stamps or public housing subsidies. Wages are so low for these workers that many cannot afford to meet their basic family needs. And so they work two or even three jobs. With wages for middle and low-income workers falling in the past decade (otherwise known as the Bush Years) even as the price of energy, housing, education and health care continued to rise, even with two (or three) jobs, it's very tough to make ends meet. Meanwhile, California community colleges pay their service employees an average of twenty-five percent more than the University of California and Mark Yudof takes to the pages of the New York Times magazine to brag about the sacrifice that he takes a $10,000 per month housing stipend instead of living in the millionaire "UC president's mansion" which requires $8 million in renovations an repairs.
Everybody who works for a living should earn a living wage. No one who works a full-time job should be impoverished and unable to support a family. It is simply immoral. And it's unacceptable that the best public university system in the richest state of the richest country in the world perpetuates such immorality.
Some may object to paying all UC employees a living wage because of the current budget crisis in the state of California that has put a squeeze on public education. Of course, I do not presume to view this issue in isolation. A living wage for UC service workers goes along with the fight to restore democracy to California so that we can properly fund public education in this state once again. In addition, if you look at the salaries for the administrative/executive staff of the University of California, the disparities are massive whether or not you take the budget cuts into account.
For those who would object to a living wage for UC service workers and everyone else who works for a living on the basis of a free market type of argument, I would remind you that in this country we structure our markets morally and have done so for a very long time. Child labor is illegal because it is exploitation. Slavery was outlawed long ago. You can't physically abuse your employees, nor can you sexually harass them. By the same moral logic, we should not permit poverty wages. We can do better in the United States of America.
Hat tip to Marika Goodrich for bringing www.facingpovertyatUC.org to my attention.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Ryan Lizza Should Spend Less Time Humping Larry Summers' Leg and More Time Asking Hard Questions About Obama's Economic Policy
I do want to try to clear up some fuzzy thinking about economic policy that appeared in New Yorker and that Nikhil Dixit over at the Cal Dems blog seemed to commend in his post:
Yes, unemployment is rising, but that doesn’t mean the stimulus is a failure. It wasn’t designed to stop job loss altogether. Rather, it was designed as a backstop. Don’t ask what unemployment is now, ask what it would have been without the stimulus (FYI, most economists estimate it’s boosted GDP ~3%)
This comment was in reference to Lizza's description of a White House memo that argued that Obama's recovery plan "should not be used to fill the entire output gap; rather, it was 'an insurance package against catastrophic failure.'" I'm sorry, but I'm pretty sure that's a completely hollow argument. In an ideal world, why would we not want to stop job losses as much as possible? Why would not want to fill the output gap completely? The output gap represents the difference between what the economy should be like if there had been no financial crisis and what the economy actually is doing because of the financial crisis. What is the virtue of doing much less than we are capable of doing to fix the economy?
A chart might help explain why we need more than a backstop against continued economic malaise:
We are bleeding jobs. We lost nearly three hundred thousand jobs in September while the Bureau of Labor Statistics revised their estimates of job losses earlier this upward by several hundred thousand. The Recovery Act passed earlier this year stops job losses and creates new jobs every day. But it is not nearly enough. It is not nearly enough. We have the obligation to do more to stop the suffering caused by skyrocketing unemployment and rejuvenate the economy as quickly as we can. If we don't, we face many years of a weak job market, with the Congressional Budget Office estimating that unemployment will be higher in 2012 (above seven percent) than at almost any time in the Clinton or Bush years. That's a grim look at the near future, and it will take real leadership to avert it.
(And no, I don't dispute the assertion that Larry Summers is very smart.)
Thursday, October 1, 2009
...but we are the only state held hostage by minority rule that refuses to consider any measure to raise some revenue in order to close the budget gap and thereby prevent teachers from being laid off, health services from being cut, criminals from being released early and parks from closing (as well as myriad other problems associated with drastically cutting spending in the midst of a recession). I bring this up, of course, because last night the news from Michigan indicated that their state government was going to shut down because of a failure to come to an agreement on a budget. But within hours, state lawmakers had gotten their act together (sort of):
The interim budget avoided state worker layoffs and office closures. It also delayed some tough financial decisions in a state facing a $3 billion shortfall while struggling with the nation's highest unemployment rate, a shrinking auto industry, a high home foreclosure rate and an economy that soured long before the national recession.
With the stopgap signed by Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, lawmakers have 30 days to put a permanent budget in place. The interim budget was adopted less than two hours into Michigan's second partial government shutdown in three fiscal years — implemented after lawmakers failed to agree on a permanent budget before midnight Wednesday. Michigan's 2007 shutdown lasted four hours.
Two things. First, the Michigan State Senate has a Republican majority. So it actually makes sense to some extent that they are having this problem. Republicans believe that the only way to respond to recession-caused deficits is to cut spending drastically even though this will make the recession much worse, especially for the most vulnerable people in our society (children, seniors, and the disabled). But if they control part of a state legislature, it follows naturally that they would use their democratic power to work hard to follow this belief even in a budget crisis. In California, there are large Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature. But because of minority rule imposed by Proposition 13, we don't live in a democracy. And the tiny number of intransigent Republicans still in legislative office can use their disproportionate power to hold the state hostage on the brink of collapse.
Second, Michigan's economy is based on selling cars that nobody wants. By contrast, California's economy is based on selling food, planes, entertainment and high technology that everybody wants. California does have major economic problems related to the housing bubble and particularly over the long term because we don't invest in high quality K-12 public education. But the point is that we are not (or shouldn't be) in as deep of a hole as Michigan. We can pull ourselves out of this. But that won't happen unless we restore democracy to California in next fall's elections.
I know, it's hard to believe. But contrary to what you may have presumed from constantly hearing about the hijinks of Glenn Beck, Michael Steele and Michelle "I only stopped ranting against the US Census after a census worker was murdered for doing his job in Kentucky" Bachmann, there are still serious conservatives out there making smart, intellectually honest arguments. They've just been completely marginalized. But Tyler Cowen describes one of the most disturbing trends in our polity as skillfully as any progressive:
FOR years now, many businesses and individuals in the United States have been relying on the power of government, rather than competition in the marketplace, to increase their wealth...Lately the surviving major banks have reported brisk profits, yet in large part this reflects astute politicking and lobbying rather than commercial skill. Much of the competition was cleaned out by bank failures and consolidation, so giants like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan had an easier time getting back to profits. The Federal Reserve has been lending to banks at near-zero interest rates while paying higher interest on the reserves the banks hold at the Fed....
...finance and health care are two separate issues, of course, but in both cases we’re making the common mistake of digging in durable political protections for special interest groups. One disturbing portent came over the summer when it was reported that the Obama administration had promised deals to doctors and to pharmaceutical companies under the condition that they publicly support health care reform.
As Cowen points out, Robert Reich has been doing excellent work tracking these frustrating and secretive special interest side deals. And of course it would be unfair to lay all the blame for the process difficulties of health care reform on the shoulders of the Obama Administration. The US Senate is now a completely dysfunctional and antidemocratic institution that needs to be radically reformed or outright abolished as far as I'm concerned.
But for the first nine months of his presidency at least, Barack Obama seems to have found that taking on the special interests was more useful as campaign rhetoric than it is as a governing strategy. That's quite disheartening for the idealistic among us. And yesterday's vote on the public plan in the Senate Finance Commitee demonstrated that Max Baucus and Kent Conrad are willing to use a more pernicious mutation of the tautological argument deployed by Rahm Emanuel last week on Charlie Rose to oppose a policy that is great for most Americans but very bad for Big Pharma and the health insurance lobby.
But I'm not a cynic yet. Nancy Pelosi, for one, appears ready to kick some ass. And that could be a very good thing.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I am ecstatic at this news. It shows that the White House is realistic about its approach to the Middle East but more importantly it demonstrates that there are people in the Obama Administration who are seriously opposed to an indefinite occupation of the Middle East on the basis of muddily defined national interests. I find it refreshing to see that the mainstream foreign policy establishment in Washington seems to have learned some lessons from making the terrible mistake of going along with the faith-based imperialism initiated by the Bush Administration just over six years ago. The neocons dug us into a very deep hole when they got a chance to run the country. General McChrystal and Admiral Mike Mullen have determined that the best strategy moving forward is to keep digging. Fortunately, more thoughtful leaders have begun to consider that it's time to start figuring out how to get out of the hole.
I want to single out that other old political star and US Senator from the state of Massachusetts for praise:
In an interview, Senator Kerry, who met with Admiral Mullen last week, said that he had not made up his mind about the troop buildup, but that in Vietnam, “the underlying assumptions were flawed, and the number of troops weren’t going to make a difference.”
The fraudulent elections in Afghanistan that apparently "reelected" the US-backed corruption hound Hamid Karzai should recall chilling memories of the illegitimate governments propped up by the US in South Vietnam. Senator Kerry is exactly right to pay close attention to the underlying assumptions of this proposal to escalate our involvement in a violent quagmire.
The Medicare-like public insurance plan included in the bill that has passed four out of five congressional committees and the health care agenda that President Obama campaigned on last fall fits the ideal health insurance plan I described in the previous paragraph exactly. That’s what the public option actually is. It doesn’t discriminate because of preexisting conditions, it doesn’t allow insurance company bureaucrats get between you and your doctor and it’s always going to be there when you need it. Because it isn’t based on profit, there is no reason for it to deny you care when you get sick. And it would actually reduce the federal budget deficit by billions of dollars each year.
This is the argument that the White House and Congressional Democrats should have been making for the last six months. Instead, they broke the health care reform plan that they proposed into little pieces that don’t make sense on their own. They confused ordinary folks by talking about ten different things in isolation instead of one thing that almost anyone could support. If they had argued for the ideal health insurance plan that provides security and peace of mind for individuals and families alike, they would have naturally made Jacob Hacker’s great idea for a Medicare-like public plan that would compete with private insurance into the centerpiece of health care reform. And this argument would have been far less confusing and far more successful.
In addition, they used a term (‘public option’) that only wonks could love to describe the best idea in their reform proposal. Whether they had called it the American health plan that guarantees care for all Americans as George Lakoff has proposed or Health Plan USA as Senator Chuck Schumer suggested back in May or Medicare Part E (the ‘e’ stands for ‘everyone’) as Mark Kleiman recently mused, nearly any of the alternative names I’ve heard would have been better than ‘public option.’ As a term, public option doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t even sound like it has anything to do with health care or insurance. If you asked most of the people you know who voted for Barack Obama but who aren’t also political junkies what the ‘public option’ is, they probably couldn’t tell you. What’s more, if you explained the public option to them and then asked them about the public option again in a few weeks, they probably won’t remember what it is.
Medicare Part E for everyone explains itself. An American health plan or Health Plan USA are practically impervious to effective political attacks and they accurately describe the simple but easy to support nature of what the so-called ‘public option’ actually is. And while it’s too late to fix this problem now, we can learn from it. From this moment forward, banish the term “two-thirds rule” from your vocabulary. Call it “minority rule” or anything that conveys what it actually means rather than some code that only wonks and political junkies can understand.
Finally, I want to note that a health care reform plan that doesn’t include a Medicare-like insurance plan (NOT a ‘co-op’) to compete with private insurance plans might still make life better and health care more secure more hundreds of millions of Americans. I am fully aware that I am lucky to have the luxury of secure health insurance right now and so I can think about this in relatively abstract terms. But while health care reform without something along the lines of Medicare Part E for everyone may still be able to make the health care system in this country a lot better, it will also signal two things. First, Democrats in Washington still do not know how to talk about policy in a comprehensible way. Second, Democrats in Washington (including those in the White House) are beholden to the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies to a degree that should be disturbing to anyone who put time and money into electing them last fall.
Monday, September 28, 2009
The headline read “World's Wealthy Pay a Price In Crisis.” I blinked and rubbed my eyes in disbelief. The richest people in America were richer in 2007 than at any time since the 1920s. Similar statistics showed the same story around the world. Many economists and policy analysts further believed that the rich were the only people seeing real income gains from growth across the entire economy for many years before the recession. Since the recession began, I understand that the rich became slightly poorer than before. Instead of being unimaginably wealthy, they are now only obscenely wealthy. But the US government bailed out the banks last fall, offering the greatest protection in a time of crisis to some of the richest people in the world. And already Wall Street financial firms are paying their executives as much or more than before the crash.
The Post’s article is about all the trouble the wealthy elite are having during the recession. The value of their stocks has dropped, the businesses they own may face more regulation in the wake of the largest financial crisis in eighty years, and worst of all they may have to pay more taxes in coming years. Life is so tough for millionaires these days that governments are even starting to investigate their widespread tax evasion by cracking down on offshore tax shelters and Swiss bank accounts.
Seriously, this could have been a satire of how the Post’s editors are completely out of touch with reality. Has no one told the editors of this major newspaper that 15 million Americans (or nearly ten percent of the adult workforce) are jobless and struggling? In what universe would you interpret the group of people who did better than anyone else before a crisis, suffered less than anyone else during the crisis and are already doing far better than anyone else after the crisis as the group of people who “pa[id] a price” for that crisis? What kind of “price” does the Post think the wealthy on Wall Street would have “paid” had the federal government attempted to save the financial system in a way that didn’t directly transfer money from taxpayers to high-income bankers?
Americans have lost $6 trillion in housing wealth. Granted, some of those Americans are among the wealthy that the Post is so quick to defend. But most are middle class Americans who are now underwater on their mortgages. I don’t know about you, but I would prefer to see the value drop on my second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth homes than to owe more money on the only home I have than the house is actually worth.
The people who are really paying a price for this financial crisis and resultant recession are ordinary people who work hard, play by the rules and don’t bitch about their tax bill to reporters for major newspapers. They have lost their jobs, their homes and in many cases, their dreams of retiring with dignity. The Washington Post has a responsibility to keep this in mind when they write stories about who wins and loses in major recessions.
Some may argue that it would be more polite to ignore his ignoble past serving the worst president in US history in order to eulogize him for his more positive contributions. But that would mean sweeping aside his more recent work spreading lies and disseminating distortions for another terrible president in order to promote yet another needless war that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
I would always prefer to be charitable towards the recently deceased, but this is a man who did not seem to feel much remorse for his role in manipulating language in service of an ideology of deception and destruction.
But even as the wheels of progress have begun to move the country forward, a growing chorus on the right have begun to challenge the president’s ambitious agenda as bad for American business and therefore bad for the American consumer. Setting legal limits on the allowable amounts of climate change pollution seems to attract controversy despite its firm grounding in the longstanding tradition of using regulation to preserve public goods. The public has long supported – by large margins – regulating the dangerous byproducts produced by the burning of fossil fuels in order to protect public health. Carbon dioxide is simply the latest pollutant that we now know clearly causes detrimental problems for society.
The Clean Air Act sets limits and imposes additional costs on energy production. The price of energy might well drop if we abolish the laws that currently regulate air pollution. One could argue that it would be good for American business and American consumers. But the quality of our air would surely drop substantially causing higher rates of asthma in children and countless other serious costs to the public.
Currently, coal companies receive a huge implicit subsidy because the public accepts all the costs and responsibilities related to the massive carbon emissions of coal power plants. Instead of allowing the biggest carbon emitters to force us to pay for the consequences of their pollution, we must set a reasonable price on carbon that will make low carbon energy technology a lucrative investment. Fortunately, this policy is not as painful as many try to make it sound. It will spur innovation that will create new jobs and significantly strengthen our economy over the long term. It is exactly the change we need this year and it’s the change the American people voted for last fall.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
In the growing debate over President Obama's health care plan, insurance companies have made very clear their opposition to the provision of the option of an afforable public health insurance plan to every American. This opposition is based entirely on the insurance industry's fear that a viable public insurance option will cut into the potential future profits of the industry.
From the beginning of the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama has argued that every American has right to an affordable health insurance plan that will be there when it's needed. The not-for-profit, Medicare-like public insurance plan included in the House health care bill and the Senate HELP Committee bill fulfill this goal. But this is not an abstract, philosophical policy stance. Including such a public plan is key to preventing future cartel-like behavior among private health insurers. This is because the pricing inside the health insurance exchange that lies at the heart of the proposed reforms will rely on insurer bidding on the price of converage. If private insurers decide to collectively bid 20 percent higher than necessary in order to expand profits for shareholders and executive, that will cost the American people hundreds of billions in higher premiums and wasted taxpayer dollars.
A viable public health insurance option will keep the insurance industry honest and including such an option in health care reform is a no-lose bargain for the American people. If a public insurance option proves inefficient or undesirable, individuals will be able to choose from a variety of private plans. If a public plan is effective, it will keep costs low and quality high across the marketplace. And when President Obama signs a health care reform bill that includes the choice of robust public insurance option for Americans, it will be proof that the grip of the special interests over our Congress is loosening and Washington is really changing.