Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Senate Finance Committee members tell the truth.

Yesterday, truth serum was surreptitiously administered to the members of the Senate Finance Committee after they emerged from voting down two public option amendments to their committee's proposed health insurance reform legislation. After receiving his dose, cleverly added to his water glass while he wasn't looking, ranking Republican member Charles Grassley stepped up to the podium and made the case for defeating the public option very clearly: "We cannot allow the American people to have the choice of a publicly-administered insurance plan. The public plan would probably cost less and deliver better service than any private plan. That is the last thing the American people need." Gulping down his shot of truth serum, his colleague Orrin Hatch chimed in, "My friends in the insurance industry say that if private insurance companies have to compete with a public plan, there is no way they will be able to provide their executives with the summer homes and yachts they deserve. These people have been providing valuable services to their shareholders by finding ways to deny coverage to millions of unhealthy Americans. Why should they be deprived of their piece of the American dream?" Senator John Kyl then provided a political perspective: "If we Republicans can just stick together, the Democrats might not be able to pass any bill at all, given all the disagreements among their members. It is absolutely critical that we prevent reform from happening, otherwise Americans might be so grateful to the Democrats for finally establishing the right of all Americans to decent, affordable health insurance that the Republicans will never win an election again."

Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, who was also slipped a dash of truth serum before he spoke, was asked why he and several other Democrats had voted against a public option, even though it is supported by nearly all of their Democratic colleagues, and over 60% of the American people. "Well on the one hand you have the Democratic party, and over 60% of the American people. But on the other hand, look at the millions of dollars of campaign contributions I have personally received from the insurance industry. What have the Democrats or the American people done for me to match that?" Senator Conrad, another of the three Democrats who voted against the Schumer amendment, quickly added: "We don't want people to get the idea that Democrats are able to resolve their differences and govern effectively. That would destroy one of the great traditions of the Democratic Party. Plus, it will be much easier for me to get re-elected if I can stand up and tell my constituents that I helped contribute to continuing gridlock in Washington. I still score points back home by claiming to be anti-government." "Look," said Senator Blanche Lincoln, "this is not about doing what is best for the Democratic Party. It's not even about doing what is best for the American people. This country was founded on good old-fashioned values of self-reliance and independence. That means that I vote according to what is best for Blanche Lincoln. That's the American way."

The gathered reporters thanked the senators for their most informative press conference in some time.

Change of Direction in Afghanistan?

The President is meeting with top advisers to consider how to move forward in Afghanistan, in light of the report of General McChrystal, which said that a new strategy and greater commitment is needed for the mission to succeed there. My question is whether it is possible for the country to have an intelligent debate on Afghanistan policy. My fear is that political divisions will prevent us from seeing the real problems at stake in that region.

One obstacle to an intelligent debate seems to be an inordinate focus on the question of appropriate troop levels. The issue of how many troops are needed to perform a mission seems particularly ill-suited to a political debate by non-experts, and particularly prone to political grand-standing by both sides in the debate.

Another thing that seems to stand in the way of intelligent discussion is our tendency to replay debates over past wars. Both the left and the right see the debate on the Afghanistan conflict as a way to vindicate their prior positions on Vietnam or Iraq; or as a chance to bash each other over prior policy mistakes in Afghanistan itself. While it may have parallels to past conflicts, the unique situation in Afghanistan deserves unbiased study and understanding.

The fact is that the United States, and NATO, have a substantial interest in preventing the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan, unless the Taliban were able to demonstrate that it will play by the rules of the democratic process, and respect the rights of Afghan citizens. We also have an interest in preventing Al Quaeda from having safe havens in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But even apart from our own interests, we should be concerned about the human rights of the people of Afghanistan, who have suffered through decades of civil war, in part fomented by the United States, the Soviet Union and other outside powers. When the great powers last got tired of Afghanistan, the Taliban stepped into the void. Women could then forget about going to school; men could not shave their beards; and people had to bury their radios and televisions in the backyard for the duration. We have a responsibility to try to prevent that from happening again. A new strategy is surely needed in Afghanistan to accomplish these important goals. Whether that requires more troops or not is beyond my expertise. But those who question the military assessment of what is needed should have the burden of proposing alternative strategies that might have a chance of success, and should not simply throw up their hands and suggest that we pull out and leave the Afghans'--and the world's--fate to a group that has shown no respect for people's rights in the past.

(White House photo)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

No Impact Man

Last night I heard Colin Beavan at the LA Public Library promoting his book No Impact Man. I had already seen the documentary recording the year he and his family spent trying to reduce their impact on the environment to zero, by radically changing their consumption and lifestyle habits. What makes the documentary so enjoyable is the character of his wife, who is somewhat skeptical of the whole project, and who provides most of the dramatic tension and comedy in the film. Colin comes off as a more earnest character who is sincerely trying to confront the dilemma of how one little person can save the planet.

The part of Beavan's talk most relevant to the themes of this blog was his discussion of whether we can best bring about change by demanding that the government solve these problems for us, or by making the needed changes ourselves. Ultimately, he seems to have concluded that we need to do both. It might seem absurd to expect that we can save the environment just by individually deciding to drive less, eat locally, or reduce consumption. Clearly, we need much more massive re-engineering of our transportation systems, energy generating systems, agriculture, and a lot of other structural issues, if we want to live more sustainably. On the other hand, there is obviously a lot that individuals can do simply by making different choices in their own lives. Beavan's point is that making these adjustments, in his case very drastic ones, might in addition to helping the planet, also help people enjoy their lives more. In his case, he noticed benefits to his family's health, and to the quality of time they spent together. His own sense of well-being also improved, because he felt he was actually doing something about problems that were troubling him.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The "New York Post" tells the truth.

Imagine the surprise of New Yorkers as they received thousands of copies of a fake New York Post, presenting a lot of scary information about the effects of global warming. Unlike the fake New York Times distributed last year by the same pranksters (the Yes Men), everything in the fake New York Post was supposed to be absolutely true.

I saw these guys at South by Southwest earlier this year, introducing their new film which is due out in theatres soon, and they are really clever and interesting. Someone in the audience asked them if they ever got sued, and they said no, but they would welcome it, because it would only draw more attention to their pranks.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

מה טבו אהליך יעקב, משכנותיך ישראל.

Every year the government of Iran holds a gigantic rally to condemn Israel. This year the organizers of the rally were surprised by the thousands of anti-government protesters who flooded the streets, the largest demonstrations since the series of demonstrations that followed Iran's questionable elections in June. As reported in the Los Angeles Times:

Some opposition protesters came by subway, nervously moving out into the streets and hiding green ribbons in their pockets as they walked past phalanxes of helmeted riot police and hard-line pro-government Basiji militiamen.

They chanted quietly at first, nervous among the many government supporters headed toward Friday prayers, where the sermon was delivered by an acolyte of Ahmadinejad after the relatively moderate Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was barred from speaking.

Eventually, their murmurs gave way to boisterous choruses, as they realized that they were among thousands of protesters.

The story goes on to report that while the government spokesmen attempted to incite the crowd into chanting anti-Israel slogans, the protesters were more interested in chanting slogans of support for their opposition candidate Mousavi. One gentleman in the crowd is quoted as saying, "We are unable to make ends meet as the prices go up and up. Who cares about Israel? 'Down with Israel' does not make jobs for our youths or grow our money."

I read this hopeful story just before heading to temple Saturday morning for Rosh Hashanah services. The opening prayer, Ma Tovu (the first line of which is the title of this post, which translates as "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!"), held striking parallels this year with events in Iran, and made me realize that many things have not changed in the Middle East for thousands of years. This prayer comes from a story in the Book of Numbers in which the King of Moab hires Balaam to curse the Israelites in the hope that this curse will help him defeat his enemies. Balaam is instead so struck by the beauty of the Israelites' encampment that he blesses them instead, forming the basis for the prayer that continues to be read to this day.

It would be too much to expect that the crowd in Tehran that Ahmadinejad hoped to whip up into a frenzy of cursing Israel would instead decide to bless Israel, but it is encouraging that much of the crowd was a lot less interested in blaming Israel for Iran's problems, and instead wants to put the blame where it belongs.

(photo from New York Times)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Reality-based defense

President Obama's decision to scrap a planned missile defense system that was to be constructed in the Czech Republic and Poland represents another triumph of fact-based decision-making. As an article in Foreign Policy points out, the proposed missile defense system represented a shield "that did not work against a threat that did not exist." Instead the US and NATO will consider deploying much cheaper and more effective interceptors against the actual threat of short range missiles from Iran.

Of course, the usual gang of neo-cons are outraged, as reported by TPM. Interestingly, however, none of them contend that the Bush-planned missile-defense system would have been efficacious in any way. Max Boot even admits that the thing probably wouldn't work, but thinks we should have built it anyway just for show. No doubt this faith-based defense community will continue to portray President Obama's and Defense Secretary Gates's decision as caving in to the Russians, and demonstrating America's weakness. In reality, however, it will demonstrate that America finally has some common sense.

Chutzpah

Previously I thought the definition of "chutzpah" is when you murder both of your parents, and then throw yourself on the mercy of the court at sentencing time, on the ground that you are an orphan. But now I have a new definition. Chutzpah is when you stage a march on Washington protesting expanded government powers, in which many of your supporters are quoted as saying they have no use for government at all. Then you write a letter to the Washington Metro complaining that they did not provide adequate train service over the weekend to accommodate the crowds. This is what Representative Kevin Brady did this week. In his letter, Brady complained that these protesters "were frustrated and disappointed that our nation’s capital did not make a great effort to simply provide a basic level of transit for them."

You have to wonder. Are these marchers willing to pay higher taxes to support all the overtime and infrastructure costs that would be needed to add more trains on weekends when large crowds are expected? Why were these marchers taking the subway in the first place? As non-believers in government, you would expect them to be taking private cars, or taxis, or for the most self-reliant among them, to power themselves by foot. But I guess they are entitled, since they paid for the subway like the rest of us, to ride it and complain about it like the rest of us.

This is truly a great country that allows its citizens to complain that expanded government services constitute socialism and complain at the very same time that these services should be expanded even further.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Doctors favor public option.

Times have changed from the 1960's when doctors overwhelmingly opposed Medicare and Medicaid. A new poll reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that over 60% of doctors favor some sort of public option, and another 10% favor a single payer system, for a total of nearly three quarters of physicians polled who would just as soon have the government pay people's medical bills rather than have to deal with private insurance companies. This is somewhat surprising, given how much doctors complain about Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates.

So who is left that actually prefers dealing with the complexity of private insurance companies? Maybe 40% of the public, who are either satisfied with the current system, or who have bought into the political or ideological arguments against change. Oh yes, and the private insurance companies themselves, who have funded the opposition. But doctors, the one group that people might expect to oppose reform based on their own financial interests, cannot be counted upon any longer as opponents of the drive to simplify our Rube Goldberg-designed system of health insurance.

I'm still not suggesting that the public option should necessarily be a do-or-die issue for proponents of reform. There are a lot of other important things that need to be fixed in our health care system, and adding a public option is not the only way to fix those problems. The debate over the public option has also drawn attention away from other worthwhile reforms. It is still worth pointing out, though, that opposition to the public option seems a lot stronger in Congress than it is among the public at large, or among the medical profession. So you have to wonder whose interests these opponents are protecting.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Nixonland

I just finished reading Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein, a political history of the period from 1965 to 1972, which tries to explain how the country traveled in a few years from the landslide election of Lyndon Johnson to the landslide re-election of Richard Nixon. I lived through this period as a highly impressionable teenager. Even though Perlstein is too young to remember these tumultuous times, he does a good job capturing their flavor. His thesis is that Nixon was essentially responsible for dividing the United States into the "red" and "blue" America that we have been living with ever since. In designing the "Southern strategy," in appealing to many Americans' fears of the urban riots and student protests of the period, in creating the term "Silent Majority," and in treating his political opponents as enemies to be crushed by all available legal and illegal means, Nixon did a great deal to polarize politics in this country. In many ways, we are still living in Nixonland, as excessive partisanship and the demonization of opposing views has only gotten worse since the Nixon presidency.

Perlstein's book also reminded me how strong are the forces of backlash. Almost immediately after the triumph of civil rights and Great Society programs like Medicare, the backlash began, prompted in part by the perceived excesses of those movements. Nixon rose to power on that backlash, and managed to stay in power, despite having prolonged an unpopular war, by governing in some ways as a moderate but continuing to play to the country's fears, until he brought himself down by his own abuses of power.

I canvassed and leafletted for the McGovern campaign in 1972, when I was a college freshman, and was proud to have done so. Yet reading this book brought back painful reminders that the Democrats' presidential defeat that year was caused in large part by the Democrats' own fractiousness and infighting. The revolutionary spirit of the times, the protests, the violence, the sex and drugs and rejection of respectable society, was all probably counter-productive politically. All of this chaos frightened the silent majority, and turned them toward a figure who was in many ways more lawless and more violent, and certainly more ruthless, than his political opponents.

We are seeing the forces of reactionary backlash gathering steam again, in the form of conservative marches on Washington, raucous town hall protesters, and angry conservative talk radio and tv hosts. Even though candidate and now President Obama has made efforts to move beyond polarizing politics, he cannot seem to escape these forces. This time, however, the silent majority seems to support a more liberal consensus position, and the noisy, disruptive and violent forces mainly come from the right. One hopes that the extremism of the tea party protestors proves as counter-productive for their cause as the worst excesses of the civil rights and student protests of the 1960's were for theirs. Trying to keep these voices of hate and fear at bay will continue to be one of the most important challenges of his presidency.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thank you Joe Wilson.

My guess is that the most helpful boost to the cause of health care reform that happened during the President's speech last night, was South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson's shocking outburst: "You lie!" By the standards of the British House of Commons, this kind of heckling would not have been even worthy of comment. But by American standards of decorum, especially during rare appearances at joint sessions of Congress, this kind of disruption simply isn't done. Congressman Wilson, to his credit, immediately recognized the inappropriateness of his comments and apologized shortly after the speech.

The damage had already been done, however. The damage that was done was not to the President but to the cause of those opposed to health care reform legislation. While I'm sure there were a few, maybe even quite a few, people watching the speech, who jumped up and cheered when a Congressman called the President a liar, I bet most people were probably shocked by the incident and thought it went too far. And what that does is highlight the inappropriateness of the tone of the town hall protesters, and the negative tone of the Republican opponents in general. Joe Wilson tarred all of the opponents of health care reform with the brush of being angry, rude and disruptive people. Most people do not like such excessive displays of disorder. Most people find rudeness offensive. Most people get nervous when debate turns ugly or potentially violent. Most people instinctively turn against the person who commits an unacceptable breach of decorum on an occasion as sacred as a president's address to a joint session of Congress. Most people don't like it when a Congressman calls the President of the United States a liar. One of the reasons that this country elected, and then re-elected Richard Nixon, was because of a strong backlash against disruptive protesters. And that is why Congressman Wilson probably did more than anyone to advance the cause of passing health care reform, because he undoubtedly caused a lot of people in the middle (the people to whom the President's speech was mainly addressed) to support what the president was saying, and to turn against the negativists and the rabble-rousers.

Correction: I read in Andrew Sullivan's blog that even in the British House of Commons, members are not allowed to call the speaker a liar. So perhaps Joe Wilson would have been going too far even in the raucous British Parliament.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

How to Talk to People



Although this video has already been widely circulated, I can't help posting it, because it is so charming. Here is our newest senator demonstrating how to treat people of opposing views with patience and respect. Who would have thought that a former comedian could give lessons to a lot of more experienced politicians about how to talk to people, and how to listen? Let's hope Senator Franken doesn't lose these qualities.

But if anyone doesn't think the video above is charming, they can't fail to be impressed with another of Al Franken's many talents:

Monday, September 7, 2009

We don't need no education!

Parents should by all means keep their kids out of school tomorrow to prevent them from having to listen to this. No kid should have to hear the president tell them to study hard and stay in school. Kids will learn much more by staying home tomorrow.

Presumably they will learn that it is not important to study hard and stay in school. That way when these stay-at-home kids get older, and they watch their friends who followed the president's socialist indoctrination by studying hard and doing well in school, get into good colleges, and get good jobs, while they get passed over, they can accumulate the same kinds of resentments that their parents obviously have. And of course that will be Barack Obama's fault entirely.

Whatever you do, parents, don't listen to that Laura Bush, who must have taken a heavy dose of socialist Kool-Aid herself. She actually believes that it's "really important for everyone to respect the president of the United States." What a radical idea.