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Christopher Hayes | The Nation

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Christopher Hayes

Christopher Hayes

Nation editor-at-large and host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes.

Freeze, Like a Deer in Headlights

There's lots of progressive backlash in the blogosphere to the announcement that the president is going to call for a multi-year freeze on "non-security discretionary spending," in the State of the Union.

The anger is totally justified, but I'll let others handle the policy of this. (Short version: it's criminally stupid).

But let me talk about the politics. I'm sure that in the short term it polls well. Most voters don't have a great grasp of what makes up the federal budget and the fact that about two-thirds of what the government does is security and social insurance for the elderly. Thanks to decades of right-wing attacks on Big Government, many people think that most of what the government spends money on are things like food stamps and foreign aid.

That's why this is so inexcusably insidious: because it uses the full power of the bully pulpit to reaffirm and endorse a kind of ignorance that the right-wing has spent years stoking, and in so doing further erodes what little conceptual and rhetorical foundation we have domestically for social democracy. It may be a head fake, the fine print may basically have a lot of loopholes, in which case the policy itself won't be terrible, but again it reinforces the enemy's narrative: that government spends too much on "programs," that defense and "security" spending doesn't count for the deficit and that times of economic misery and widespread unemployment the solution is fiscal austerity.

I wish there was a way to sue for political malpractice, because what we're seeing from the White House and congressional Democrats these last two weeks would make for a depressingly good case.

A Practical Peace Advocate on Obama's Nobel Speech

The Obama speech was about what I expected: on the one hand/on the other hand, I reject false choices, needle-threading "pragmatism." I have to say I find this rhetorical approach increasingly wearying. There always seems to be the implication, hidden between the lines, that only the author of the speech truly understands how complicated the world is. During the race speech, that was appropriate and affecting: there are few people who've experienced race in as much of its full complexity as Barack Obama. But I don't think the same thing holds for war and peace.

The main thrust of the speech was that in a fallen, difficult world, sometimes war is necessary to secure peace. If we want peace, we have to be hard-headed and clear-eyed. Since Obama was positioning himself as a practical advocate of peace, I was curious to hear what David Cortright thought about it.

Cortright is the Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame has been advocating peace since he was in the Army in Vietnam and organized his comrades against the war. He went on to write "Soldiers in Revolt" about that experience and then was a lead organizer in the nuclear freeze movement. In the 1990s he and his colleague George Lopez wrote often and influentially about non-violent alternatives to war and their support for sanctions in Iraq earned them withering criticism from Nation reader who saw the sanctions as a moral abomination. (I wrote about the sanctions here)

In the run-up to the Iraq war, Cortright helped lead Win Without War, conceived of as a"mainstream" alternative to ANSWER and other anti-war groups.

So Cortright's credentials as a pragmatic advocate of peace (whatever, in the final analysis, that means) are pretty impeccable: no starry-eyed, weak-kneed, incorrigible idealist, he! I emailed to ask him for his reaction, and he wrote back right away. "I found the Nobel speech disappointing." He continued: "To use the Nobel dais to justify the use of military force is unseemly. The president's characterization of the historic role of US military power was distorted, and his interpretation of just war theory was incomplete."

His full response follows:

 

The president asserted that US military policy has helped to "underwrite global security." More accurate would be an admission that many of our adventures have created global insecurity. Vietnam, the wars in Central America in the 1980s, the invasion of Iraq, countless interventions by the CIA--these and other actions have sown suffering and insecurity. The US has supported democracy in some settings but very often we have subverted democracy and overthrown legitimately elected democratic regimes, in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973), etc.

 

The president invoked just war principles but showed a shallow understanding of the criteria. The most important principle of just war theory is a presumption against the use of force, a belief that war is almost always unjust and can be justified only under the most dire circumstances and only if strict ethical criteria are satisfied. He mentioned a few of the criteria, without probing them in depth, but did mention the standard of ‘probability of success.' Under that criterion, the war in Afghanistan cannot be judged just, since there is very little probability that the war can be pursued to achieve military victory, however that is defined.

The president's assertions about Afghanistan did not acknowledge the fact that war is an inappropriate means of combating terrorism. The Rand Corporation study of 2008 on how terrorist groups end found that military force was responsible for ending terrorist groups in only 7 per cent of the cases. Political bargaining (43 per cent) and effective law enforcement (40 per cent) were the primary factors accounting for the end of terrorist groups. The military's own counterinsurgency doctrine calls for a campaign that is 80 per cent nonmilitary. The US effort in Afghanistan is the reverse, more than 80 per cent military.

Peace demands responsibility and sacrifice, yes, but it is built primarily through nonmilitary means. The president mentioned some of these, but he failed to mention that US foreign policy systematically undervalues these approaches. In Afghanistan the US is spending far more on military approaches than on development and humanitarian assistance.

 

 

More Deficit Idiocy: Politico Edition

The discussion about deficits and debt in Washington is so colossally stupid and disingenuous that even engaging it makes me despair. But today's Politico so expertly packages together every conceivable Beltway Establishment inanity about "spending" and "deficits" into one glib little piece of analysis that I can't help myself. (Well, I could help myself but was bullied over Twitter into writing about it here.)

There's one big maddening conceptual error at the heart of this piece (whether committed in good faith or bad I can't say) which is to confuse relatively substantial pieces of domestic legislation with a spending "binge." See, a government, like any organization, institution, or firm has expenditures and revenues. Miraculously, it can increase its expenditures, without increasing its deficit, if it also increases its revenues. This is called "deficit neutral" and it's what the current health care bill, in all its incarnations, is. It is what the cap and trade bill will also be. Now consider this paragraph. 

For starters, the White House has not dropped plans for an aggressive global warming bill early next year that will be loaded with new spending on green technology and jobs – that would be paid for with tax increases. Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf says the White House focus on deficit reduction could easily kill the cap-and-trade effort. "I think this means cap-and-trade has to go to the backburner," he said.

 It's an absolute and total non sequitur! The White House is pushing ahead with it's plans for a bill that won't increase the deficit. And Elmendorf says that a focus on deficit reduction means that this deficit neutral bill just won't fly. Huh?

Now cap and trade should actually be more than revenue neutral, it should raise revenue. (Indeed, that's the central attack on the bill, that it's a tax, ie, a revenue raiser) But in order to get the thing passed we'll have to pay out so many bribes to so many industries, it won't represent much of a net benefit to government coffers.

You may object to government doing the things it's doing. You may think the working poor should just suck it up when they get sick, or that we should subject Bangladesh to a horrific future in which it is plunged into the sea, but you can't say that the motivation for your objection is accounting.

This disingenuousness drives me bonkers, particularly since, as I and others have noted ad nauseum, military spending is simply never considered a relevant part of the balance sheet. (It's mentioned once in passing in the Politico article)

I raised this point in my feature about Blue Dogs. Blue Dogs really like to call themselves "fiscally conservative" but they're not: they're just conservative. In fact, one of their major agenda items is permanent repeal of the estate tax, which would enlarge the debt, and they generally oppose the public option, which would reduce the cost of the health care bill. And of course they all vote for every last defense bill that comes their way. Ask Parker Griffith of Alabama, who recently voted against health care, what he thinks about cutting spending for the military installation in Huntsville.

Fiscal conservatism and deficit concern is nearly always code speak in Washington for something else: sometimes it's class warfare, or just a cheap partisan attack. Most often, when someone in Washington says they're concerned about the deficit, what they're really saying is "I would like to make sure we have a government that focuses maximally on blowing people up."

The Public Option Lives! Big Victory for Progressives

Harry Reid just announced that he'll include a public option (with a provision that allows individual states to opt out of it) in the version of the health care bill he brings to the floor of the senate. This is a huge (though still partial) victory for progressives. Over the weekend there was a flurry of reporting over whether Reid would include the opt-out provision, or the "trigger" provision favored by Olympia Snowe, which would not create a public option unless and until some time in the future when health insurance costs had not diminished. The fact of the matter is, as David Sirota wrote here, the trigger is simply a way to kill the public option. Had Reid included it in the floor bill, progressives would have had to muster 60 votes to pass an amendment to strip the trigger out and replace it with the opt-out language. There's no way they would have been able to do that.

But with the opt-out public option included in the unamended floor-bill, opponents of the public option will now have to get 60 votes to pass their own amendment killing it, and they don't have those votes either. This means that the opt-out public option will almost certainly be in the final bill that comes up for a vote in the full senate. That's huge, since the house will also have a public option (an even stronger one, without the opt-out provision).

Reid is essentially calling the bluff of recalcitrant senators like Nelson, Lincoln and Landrieu, because the only way they can defeat the public option now is to join a Republican filibuster, something that I think Reid is gambling they won't do.

As I said on Maddow on Friday night, if you can't get members of your own party not to filibuster your single most important domestic policy priority, it's hard to understand why you even have a party to begin with.

Rural Health Care, the Public Option and the Opt Out Compromise

The latest health care legislative compromise being floated is one in which states would be allowed to opt out of offering a public option. Chris Bowers lists the problems with the proposal here. Ezra's more sanguine.

I suppose if someone put a gun to my head and the options were no public option or an opt-out compromise, I'd opt for the latter. (I should point out we're not at the gun-at-the-head stage yet). But it's also important to point out just how perverse the results of this compromise would be.

Red, rural states would almost all probably opt out and yet it's rural America that needs the public option the most. As the Center for Community Change points out in a new report [PDF] people who live in rural areas are a) more likely to be underinsured, because fewer people receive insurance from their employers and b) live in markets where there is essentially no competition. In Alabama one health insurance company has 90% market share, in South Dakota, it's two companies. It's under these circumstances where the public option is most needed. In fact, I was talking about this issue with a health care wonk (who works for the government and so can't go on record) and she went so far as to put it this way:

 

My point is that the public option is probably valuable in this debate, but not for the people fighting for it--precisely for the people not fighting for it. This is important for rural areas where there is little or no managed care in the health insurance exchange (since the public option would be offered within the exchange anyway).

 

Would be nice if folks like Kent Conrad, Ben Nelson and Max Baucus could be made to understand this.

Wade Rathke Speaks Out

This comes from Nation DC intern Eric Naing:

Just a few weeks ago, a book talk by ACORN founder Wade Rathke wouldn't have drawn much press attention, but the organization's recent notoriety as a conservative boogeyman has thrust Rathke back in the spotlight.

At an event on Tuesday to promote his book Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families, Rathke drew the attention of major media outlets ranging from The Washington Post to National Review. Notably, a reporter from biggovernment.com, the Web site that brought us the infamous pimp and prostitute videos, was there with a cameraman to get another bite at the proverbial, um, ACORN.

Rathke, who resigned as ACORN's chief organizer last year after news that his brother embezzled nearly $1 million from the organization surfaced, chose not to criticize the current leadership of ACORN but acknowledged that the group "didn't do right."

When pushed about his decision not to fully disclose his brother's actions, Rathke said his brother was reprimanded, he stepped down and the money had been paid back. He also defended his secrecy saying the group worried the news would be "weaponized" to hurt ACORN."

Any misstep within the organization might become a threat to its very survival," he said. "That's what's happening now."

Rahke believes much of the vitriol aimed at ACORN stems from opposition to the group's mission to give a voice to lower income people (the pimp in the original video admits his stunt was motivated by his anger over ACORN's attempt to help a foreclosed-on homeowner break into her own house) and he worries that mission is being jeopardized by "a rising neo-McCarthyism" coming from the right."

After the election, ACORN announced it wasn't going to register voters in the future. Now it's announced that it's not going to help people who are poor do taxes. Now it's announcing it's not going to help people buy houses," said Rathke. "Those are huge voids."

Rohrabacher to Iraqis: Be More Grateful!

This dispatch comes from brand new crack DC intern Eric Naing

The House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight met today to discuss issues of sovereignty and stability in Iraq ranging from the country's longstanding financial obligation to neighboring Kuwait to its even longer-standing issues with the Kurdish people. But Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) seemed mostly interested in berating the Iraqis for their lack of gratitude 

At the hearing, Saleh al Mutlaq and former Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, both members of Iraq's Council of Representatives, spoke about Iraq's future and the importance of the country's upcoming elections. 

Mutlaq called for a "moral and responsible" withdrawal of U.S. troops saying that the invasion of his country was "irresponsible." 

Worried that violence and intimidation from Iraq's ruling party could distort the outcome of the January election, Allawi stressed the need for election monitoring from institutions such as the United Nations, the Arab League and other NGOs along with the United States. 

Then Rohrabacher opened his mouth. 

"I have never heard one word of gratitude from the Iraqi people about the 4,300 Americans who lost their lives," he exclaimed. 

"We went to Iraq to try and free your people and now we're being blamed for sectarian violence," he said. "Don't blame us because that type of bloodlust exists in your society." 

A defiant Mutlaq responded, "You were the ones who pushed your troops. We did not invite you." 

It was at this point that an exasperated Rohrabacher threw up his hands and stormed out of the room. 

It was only in the aftermath of Rohrabacher's tantrum that Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA) quietly stated that weapons of mass destruction, and not Iraqi freedom, were the reason the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Does Joe Wilson Believe the President Was Actually Lying?

First of all: I'm back! Somewhere in the Bible it decrees that blogs must be left fallow in August, which explains my absence.

Like everyone else I watched the speech last night. (Quick review: deft explanation of the policy, a few unnecessary political concessions, extremely aggravating lefty-bashing, and genuinely fantastic inspirational finish). And like everyone else I've been following the Joe Wilson "You Lie!" flap.

Now here's what I think is most fascinating about the incident: It's pretty clear to me that Wilson's outburst wasn't calculated grandstanding but a genuine moment of rage and frustration. Just look at the photo. That's a genuinely pissed off dude.

But the thing is: Obama wasn't lying. Illegal immigrants are explicitly barred from the provisions of the legislation.

Here's what I find fascinating. There's been a ton of viral emails floating around the right-wing making the claim that the bill covers illegal immigrants, and talk radio has been whipping up the fervor as well. Wilson clearly thinks that is, indeed, the case. But he's a sitting member of Congress! One would imagine he gets his information about pending legislation from reading it itself or being briefed by his staff, not from viral emails in his inbox.

But that sums up the House GOP caucus. By and large it's made up of absolute and total wingnuts, people who are in ideology disposition and even function much more like talk show hosts or RedState commenters than they are legislators.

Your Questions About Health Care Reform Answered

Ok, so there's been a lot of misinformation about proposals to reform the health insurance industry and provide (near) universal coverage. Understandable! It's complicated stuff. Herewith, I'll try to answer some questions

1) Is it true that all of the bills currently proposed would end the practice of "rescission," whereby health insurance providers refuse to treat customers who've paid their premiums simply because they've become ill?

No! That's a common misunderstanding. Actually, all of the bills would ban incisions, that is, they would legally bar surgeons from performing surgery until a panel of twelve gay illegal immigrant government bureaucrats unanimously signed off on the procedure.

2) Is it true that health care reform would ban insurers from refusing to insure people because of pre-existing conditions?

Wrong again. To get rid of health inequality, the bills actually mandate that every American be given a pre-existing condition. A National Illness Commission, with academics appointed from Harvard, Reed College and Berkeley, will evaluate each citizen, and based on their demographic profile, choose their malady. Each disease or syndrome is scored on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most severe. White christian men will receive pre-existing conditions of 8 or higher. Black people, "wise latinas," and ACORN members will be exempted.

3) I heard the proposals currently under consideration provide seniors with option of free counseling sessions under Medicare, where they can discuss a living will and end-of-life care.

That's a huge misconception. The bills require all senior citizens (who are non union members) be euthanized on their 70th birthday. Under section 278(c)ii all last rites will be performed by Jeremiah Wright using a Q'uran.

4) I've heard the bills being proposed would require insurers to provide preventative care, like mammograms, free of charge.

No, but all lactating mothers will be forced to breast-feed poor children.

5) Will the current bills plug the "donut hole" in the Medicare prescription drug benefit so seniors don't have to pay exorbitant out of pocket expenses for their medication?

Absolutely not. The legislation will ban donuts.

 

Healthcare Disinformation: A Case Study

Ezra Klein links to some interesting polling today that shows a (slim) plurality saying Obama's health care reform proposals are a "bad idea," but a strong majority supporting the actual content of the bill when "when the interviewer read an accurate, neutrally phrased description of the main features of the plan."

The reason for the difference, of course, is the tremendous amount of lies, distortions and misinformation being thrown up by opponents of reform, the most extreme of which would be funny if they weren't so macabre: the government is going kill off the elderly! They'll mandate you give up your organs when you turn 67! You'll have to pay for gay married couples' abortions!

I recently got to see first-hand how this happens. A few weeks ago I was on Al Jazeera English debating health care reform with a conservative named Josh Trevino. Josh was a nice enough guy, genuine and polite, if extremely conservative. We went back and forth about the degree to which the current system is broken, whether healthcare is a right, and why it is that the US spends so much more per capita on healthcare than any other industrialized nation. When I noted that this year the US will spends more than 17% of GDP on healthcare, Josh shot back with a pretty amazing statistic. He said that, sure we spend a lot on healthcare, but 5.6% of GDP, or a third of all healthcare spending, is spent on pharmaceutical research. That's way more than any other country he said, and in fact, our research dollars find the drugs the rest of the world uses. If you take away all that high-minded spending on research, then US healthcare costs are totally in line with the rest of the world.

At the time I heard this I was surprised I'd never encountered the stat before. It certainly didn't sound right: one out of every twenty dollars in the US economy is spent on drug research? So I tweeted Josh and asked for a citation. To his great credit, Josh went looking and realized he'd made an error. Actually, biomedical research accounts for 5.6% of all healthcare spending. That means it's less than 1% of GDP. Josh was off by a factor of six.

Now, Josh made the error in good faith and he had the integrity to fess up and post a correction on his blog. And we were talking on Al Jazeera which, ahem, doesn't exactly have a wide domestic audience. But it goes to show just how easy it is for misinformation, particularly about a technical and complicated subject like healthcare, to get out to the public. Presumably I could just go on TV and start saying that Republicans want to raise the Medicare eligibility age to 85 or that health care premiums will go up 30-fold in the next year, and however many readers there at conservative blogs that call me out for my falsehoods, it will be a tiny fraction of the TV audience that saw me utter it in the first place.

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