Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kathleen Parker Called President Obama a... What?

Kathleen Parker's not a stupid woman, and she knows the meaning (and double-meaning) of words, so let's not make any mistakes about what she means when she writes,
One may view these episodes as diminishing America's status or as a tolerable annoyance - sort of the way Dobermans view toy poodles. At some point, the big dog reminds the little yapper of his place. Unfortunately, the American commander in chief is a cat in a dog-eat-dog world.
No, she's not referring to Obama in the sense of "cool cat" - it's more of a Tom Jones thing. She's careful enough not to mix her metaphors:
In the midst of such charades, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's emerging Dirty Harry persona is oddly reassuring. Often speaking through nearly clenched teeth, she has become Obama's bad cop.
Is Parker acknowledging Hillary Clinton as one of the "dogs"? No allusion to her "claws coming out"? Clenched teeth, not "bared fangs"? She's not "hissing" at people?

Parker suggests that the world would be better served by the macho bravado of a George W. Bush - one of the worst Presidents in our nation's history, already being relegated to the memory hole by his own party, and whose disastrous policies seem likely to haunt us for at least a generation. Let's review some highlights of how Bush's bravado carried the day:
  • In 2001, Bush declares that he wanted to capture Osama Bin Laden, "dead or alive" - and for eight years we've been rewarded with periodic recordings of Bin Laden taunting Bush and our country.

  • In 2002, Bush declared Iran, North Korea and iraq to be part of an "Axis of Evil" - and both Iran and North Korea responded by continuing their nuclear weapons programs, to the point that North Korea may have successfully tested a nuclear weapon, with Bush ultimately folding on his diplomatic stonewall of both nations.

  • In 2002, Bush backed (and perhaps supported) a coup in Venezuela to topple Hugo Chavez - Chavez remains in power, and thumbed his nose at Bush for the remainder of Bush's presidency.

  • In 2003, Bush launched a war of choice in Iraq, reportedly declaring in relation to Saddam Hussein, "that motherf---er tried to take out my dad" - and, just as he was warned by cooler heads, we're still stuck in Iraq.

  • In 2007, Bush was out of patience with Burma, imposing sanctions - that accomplished nothing.

Oh, but Bush did have his great, glorious moment - when he declared how he had cowed Muammar Gaddafi:
Before September 11th, Libya was spending millions to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Today, because America and our allies sent a clear and easy-to-understand message, the leader of Libya has abandoned his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and America and the world are safer.
He and Tony Blair rewarded Gaddafi with big, wet sloppy kisses (the figurative kind, not that a bit of kissing or hand-holding between a couple of guys can't be macho).

So Obama gives a speech at the UN, and Parker wants to make it Obama's fault that the next speaker up, Muammar Gaddafi, "looks like a renegade from Ringling Bros.", made a ridiculous speech, and has done some outrageous things since Bush decided he was reformed? Did Obama select the speaker line-up, or something? No, wait, "Obama shook hands [with Gaddafi] at a dinner in July". It must have been some sort of weak, cat-like handshake, not the strong "shake, boy" handshake you get from a dog. Shaking hands with a guy Bush claims as a reformed ally in the making? In Parker's eyes, does that make Tony Blair a cat or a poodle?

Meanwhile, Parker tells us that Obama "plans to turn his charms on Burma's military junta" while quoting Obama's head diplomat as stating that the Administration plans to "remain tough and continue sanctions pending credible democratic reforms"... so how is this a "change of policy"? Parker complains of the fact that the Obama Administration recognizes that sanctions have failed, but... you know, that's reality, even if she liked Bush's bravado in imposing sanctions that proved impotent.

The barking of a neutered, toothless dog, straining at the end of its leash? Much more impressive to Parker than anyone who considers facts or tries find rational solutions to problems. Thinking... how cat-like. So what would be a better approach to somebody like Hugo Chavez? What's the big-dawg, manly approach you should adopt toward a pissant who keeps insulting you? According to Parker, it's ignoring him - after all, what better represents the unbridled manliness of passive aggression better than the silent treatment?

And Obama's also to blame for the belligerence of Ahmadinejad (following Bush's aforementioned "successes" in dealing with Iran). It's awful that Ahmadinejad gives nutty, anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying speeches - something he would never have done were big-dawg Bush still in office. And, oh my, he's testing long-range missiles - something he surely would have been afraid to do (well, if we accept Parker's ignorance or prevarication, and pretend that he and not the Supreme Leader controls the military) if Bush were in office.

But we don't need to imagine how Bush would react. Iran did test missiles, so can simply turn to the headlines to find out how a big-dawg deals with such insolence: Bush Turns to Diplomacy to Deter Iran.

Down boy! Down!

Update: Had this occurred when GW was President, would Parker be praising it as the success of his "big-dawg" tactics or calling him a "cat"?
Iran agreed in principle Thursday to ship most of its enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be refined for exclusively peaceful uses, in what Western diplomats called a significant, but interim, measure to ease concerns over its nuclear program.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

This is a Surprise?

Commenting on the various healthcare reform bills, Paul Waldman observes,
Terrific, [people] say - I can't wait for my newfound health security! And when do they get it? A little over three years from now. Because in all the versions of reform now moving through Congress, most of the provisions don't take effect until 2013.
The big surprise would be for a significant promise or policy change to be scheduled to occur before the start of a President's second term.

According To The Media, The President Should Avoid The Media?

It only seems like yesterday that all the President had to do to get gushing media attention was pull on a Superman suit, slap a silly claim on a banner, and get a bunch of firemen or servicemen to stand around him as props while he made a speech. My, how times change. Now, apparently, it's unseemly for a President to want media attention, and even worse for a President to consider his legacy.

First we have Robert Samuelson complaining that the only possible reason President Obama could be pursuing healthcare reform is as a manifestation of "politicians' psychological quest for glory." To prove that Obama is concerned only with himself, Samuelson selectively quotes and comments on statements made by Max Baucus. Funny, last I checked, Obama and Baucus were different people.

Next, we have Howard Fineman complaining that Obama is trying to take control of the message on healthcare reform, and is appearing in the media (of all places) to advance his goals. Following up on a couple months of flagrant lies and misrepresentations about healthcare reform from the political right, Fineman whines,
The president's problem isn't that he is too visible; it's the lack of content in what he says when he keeps showing up on the tube. Obama can seem a mite too impressed with his own aura, as if his presence on the stage is the Answer.
He proceeds with a rather childish, and in my opinion false, claim that Obama's speeches are too "self-referential (even self-reverential)". (Dare I ask, did Fineman ever write about Bob Dole?)

Now we have the astounding Richard Cohen joining the chorus of complaints,
Sooner or later it is going to occur to Barack Obama that he is the president of the United States. As of yet, though, he does not act that way, appearing promiscuously on television and granting interviews like the presidential candidate he no longer is. The election has been held, but the campaign goes on and on.
Whenever a theme like this starts to emerge, I am left wondering if there's a puppet master pulling the strings. Just as when you see a particular theme being circulated in the right-wing media, its timing and consistency, right down to the particular phrase they want to drill into listener's heads, is usually tightly coordinated.

Granted, sometimes the complaint that somebody is in the media "too much" means "He's talking to everybody else but won't return my calls." Sometimes this type of complaint is a thin substitute for the fact that the columnist doesn't agree with the President's goals, but it's a lot easier to write (particularly for somebody like Cohen) than a substantive piece on the underlying policies. And I don't think it takes much to wind Cohen up and cause him to write a thinly-reasoned, mean-spirited column about Obama. As they say, never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity.

Update: The "It's all about me" theme has been picked by Marty Peretz and George Will, who respectively accuse Obama of being a narcissist and on an ego trip. Er... takes one to know one?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Who's Cheering?

The Washington post presents an attack on President Obama and his supporters that is anything but honest:
Mr. Obama Punts . . . And the left cheers as the president embraces what it once decried as a lawless detention scheme.
Note the artful use of the word "lawless" - as in "without a law" - not "unlawful" or "illegal". The unsigned editorial (which fails to identify even a single person who is "cheering" the decision, although if its claims were correct you would expect such cheers to be coming from the likes of Michelle Malkin and Rush Limbaugh) explains,
The Obama administration announced last week that it did not need and would not seek new legislation to govern indefinite detention of some terrorism suspects at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In so doing, the administration has chosen the politically expedient and intellectually dishonest route.
Let's take a look, then, at the analysis offered by one of the most consistent voices on this issue, Glenn Greenwald:
Regardless of what motivated this, and no matter how bad the current detention scheme is, this development is very positive, and should be considered a victory for those who spent the last four months loudly protesting Obama's proposal. Here's why:

A new preventive detention law would have permanently institutionalized that power, almost certainly applying not only to the "war on Terror" but all future conflicts. It would have endowed preventive detention with the legitimizing force of explicit statutory authority, which it currently lacks. It would have caused preventive detention to ascend to the cherished status of official bipartisan consensus -- and thus, for all practical purposes, been placed off limits from meaningful debate -- as not only the Bush administration and the GOP Congress, but also Obama and the Democratic Congress, would have formally embraced it. It would have created new and far more permissive standards for when an individual could be detained without charges and without trials. And it would have forced Constitutional challenges to begin from scratch, ensuring that current detainees would suffer years and years more imprisonment with no due process.

Beyond that, as a purely practical matter, nothing good -- and plenty of bad -- could come from having Congress write a new detention law. As bad as the Obama administration is on detention issues, the Congress is far worse. Any time the words "Terrorism" or "Al Qaeda" are uttered, they leap to the most extreme and authoritarian measures. Congress is intended to be a check on presidential powers, but each time Terrorism is the issue, the ironic opposite occurs....
In short, Fred Hiatt's editorial board hears the proverbial sound of one hand clapping and interprets it as "cheers". The author pretends he does not understand that the left had concerns about any new law as legitimizing problematic government conduct, and that the reaction to Obama's decision not to continue to pursue the legislation somehow constitutes a hypocritical endorsement of Bush's (their word) lawlessness. This, despite overtly acknowledging that the ACLU had consistently opposed any indefinite detention regime.

An honest editorial might explain what it sees as the elements of a good indefinite detention policy, how the concerns of the left could be addressed within the context of such a law, and why a formal policy would in fact be superior than relying upon existing law and constitutional language, and perhaps even whether the constraint should be on the President's ability to act "lawlessly" rather than positing that we need new legislation to fill every void, real or imagined, in the scope and reach of present federal law.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wow, Google's Fast....

Not so many years back you would put content up on the web, wait for evidence that a search engine had spidered your site, then wait a few months for it to start showing up in search engine results. Google put an end to all that, and has brought us something close to instant gratification....

That post I put up earlier today (on Legal Media Relations) sorta poking fun at a web PR guy and his "authoritarian" web presence? It's presently showing up for "legal media relations" in Google - in the number three spot, behind that guy's principal sites. You heard it here first, folks: The stopped clock is now displayed in five or more first--page, top-10 results (although I'm still not sure what that means).

The lesson of the day: Don't suggest that there's skill involved in ranking for a search phrase for which you have no competition.

Update (Sept. 29): Easy come, easy go. There's apparently still a "freshbot" phenomenon in Google, which makes sense, giving a temporary boost to the newest content its spiders find. I still rank for the phrase "legal media relations", but now on page two of the SERPs.

Update (Oct. 4): Easy go, easy come? I'm back in spot #3 for "legal media relations" in Google.

Afghanistan - Buchanan v Brooks

A few things seem to be consistently absent from the musings of proponents of the continuation or escalation of the war in Afghanistan:
  • Any sense of what the victory would look like - what it would mean to "win";

  • Any sense of how victory would be accomplished, save perhaps by "sending more troops" or "stayling longer"; and

  • Any sense of how much time it would take to achieve even an undefined "victory".

It's pretty easy to make fun of David Brooks for his inconsistency in relation to... everything beyond his apparent conceit that all of the world's problems can be solved militarily. (Come to think of it, you can make fun of that conceit, as well.) It's no surprise that he insists that the war must go on, with a massive escalation of both forces and combat operations.
The record suggests what Gen. Stanley McChrystal clearly understands — that only the full counterinsurgency doctrine offers a chance of success. This is a doctrine, as General McChrystal wrote in his remarkable report, that puts population protection at the center of the Afghanistan mission, that acknowledges that insurgencies can only be defeated when local communities and military forces work together.

To put it concretely, this is a doctrine in which small groups of American men and women are outside the wire in dangerous places in remote valleys, providing security, gathering intelligence, helping to establish courts and building schools and roads.
This is probably correct - that our path to a "victory" that's meaningful to U.S. eyes, we need to commit tens of thousands of new troops, put them in the direct line of fire throughout Afghanistan, and keep them there for... Brooks doesn't say, but probably for a generation or two. There's a peculiarity to the type of argument Brooks offers:
These are the realistic choices for America’s Afghanistan policy — all out or all in, surrender the place to the Taliban or do armed nation-building.
That is, we're repeatedly told how "tremendously unpopular" the Taliban is in Afghanistan, but at the same time that if U.S. forces depart they'll easily regain control of the nation.
Second, the enemy is wildly hated. Only 6 percent of Afghans want a Taliban return, while NATO is viewed with surprising favor. This is not Vietnam or even Iraq.
If Brooks' claim is true, simply arming and offering basic militia training to the masses, backed up with U.S. air power, logistical support, and partnering on more difficult operations, should be enough to keep the Taliban out of power forever. With a reasonably stable central government and a U.S.-backed, U.S. trained national army (even if rather ragtag, let alone what Brooks describes as "a successful institution") it should be even easier. So what's really going on? The most obvious inference is that the Afghan people have a Churchillian view of Taliban rule - that it's the worst form of government except for all the others, or at least the alternatives they're being offered. If that's the case it doesn't bode well either for the success of a counter-insurgency or for the long-term success of the Afghan government.

I'm not sure what approach to Afghanistan could have pleased Pat Buchanan, who isn't a fan of either U.S. military intervention or nation-building. Recall his words at the time:
I completely support what we're doing in Afghanistan, by the way. It's being morally done in a just way. I back the president in what we're doing. But I urge him to be cautious in Phase 2.
What "Phase 2" would have pleased Buchanan? Did he ever take the time to define a scope for an acceptable "Phase 2", or how the goals of "Phase 2" would be accomplished? It seems like he took the easiest of easy paths - embracing the popular invasion of Afghanistan, issuing a nebulous caution about what might happen after a successful invasion, and leaving himself plenty of room to impugn others for making "the wrong decisions" if they didn't achieve the impossible - a quick, easy exit that left a stable, reasonably progressive, pro-western government firmly in control of the nation.

Buchanan does correctly identify the costs of the Brooks-endorsed approach of escalation and counter-insurgency,
If Obama meets some or all of McChrystal’s request, America will stave off defeat in the short term. But the cost will be hundreds and perhaps thousands more U.S. dead, tens of billions more sunk, growing divisions in our country and more innocent Afghan victims. And the surge may simply push a U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover a few years off into the future.
But sometimes Buchanan's message gets muddied by his dislike for President Obama:
This assumes that Afghanistan is unwinnable, that America does not have the perseverance or will to send the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops for the decade needed to crush the Taliban and create a government and army able to stand on their own when we depart.

If, however, Obama comes to believe the cost of “victory” in blood, money and years is not worth it, or the American people, already against the war and adding more troops, will not sustain it, or the war is unwinnable, then we need to look defeat in the face.
In other words, even if we go full-out, put tens our hundreds of thousands of troops into Afghanistan, and do everything McChrystal wants, taking as long as it takes to crush the Taliban and establish a stable Afghan government, it will be Obama's fault. Buchanan offers Obama only one alternative: be weak, withdraw, and jeopardize the security of the nation, and perhaps collapse the U.S. "empire". Seriously:
Russia’s withdrawal of 1988-89 led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. What would a U.S. withdrawal do to the American Empire?
Despite his full support for the decision to get us into this war, and despite seven years of failed war policy under Bush, if Obama can't turn this thing around and quickly and easily "crush the Taliban and create a government and army able to stand on their own when we depart", he's to be personally faulted for whatever happens - and yes, he's to be faulted even if he achieves that goal but with "hundreds and perhaps thousands more U.S. dead, tens of billions more sunk, growing divisions in our country and more innocent Afghan victims". Buchanan's thesis would be more compelling if he were willing to admit that he has never had a coherent notion of how achieve what he now describes as the only acceptable victory, let alone achieve that without a greater investment of blood and money, or anything that might be described as "nation building". So we're left with this:
For America, loss of Afghanistan would poison U.S. politics as did the loss of China and of Vietnam. It would discredit nation-building for decades and ring down the curtain on Wilsonian interventionism for a generation. And it could bring about the defeat of Barack Obama as the liberal who lost the war al-Qaida began on 9-11.
Is it just me, or does that sound like an outcome Buchanan would applaud?

Legal Media Relations

I followed the author of the law firm website marketing article I just discussed to his own site:
Richard Lavinthal's authoritarian Web search appearances stem from decades of public, private and NGO legal media relations for some of the biggest legal cases in America.
Maybe, just maybe, the word he was looking for was "authoritative"?

That relates to the following claim:
If you search Google, Yahoo or Bing, the three top search engines delivering nearly 94% of all U.S. searches. Richard Lavinthal, and his legal PR service, PRforLAW, LLC will be displayed in five or more first--page, top-10 results.
If I search the major search engines for what? If I just keep hammering in random search terms, or assign ten thousand monkeys to the task, I'll eventually find five search phrases for which his site ranks?

He gives one example of his ranking, for the term "legal media relations". Given that there's no appreciable competition or demand for that term, that's not much of a surprise. I rank really well for "demockery in action" - without even trying. (But nobody's searching for that phrase.)

Update: The language quoted above has been rephrased,
Top search engines Google®, Yahoo®, Bing® or Ask® deliver nearly 99% of all U.S. searches. Richard Lavinthal, at PRforLAW, LLC appears in more first-page, top-10 "organic" results. These are unpaid authoritative links, There are thousands of PR practitioners in agencies of all sizes in the United States who would be pleased to appear in just one top-ten search "hit."
I am still not sure what the first assertion is intended to mean - he appears in more top search resorts than whom? (And if I were to nitpick, a comma is substituted for a period.) But it is otherwise much improved.

Hey Gold Miner - Need a Pick Axe?

Looking over's rss feed, I saw,
Web Sites on the Case

Pervasive Web search tools have opened the door to a valuable new marketing opportunity for law firms: the litigation or case-specific Web site. Unlike a firm's legacy site or blog, these case sites can allow smaller firms to catapult their reputations and compete against Big Law.
I had the instant suspicion that this article would read like an infomercial, pitching the serviced of the author as opposed to the merits (and disadvantages) of a case-specific website. I've commented on this before. In my opinion, law office blogs (and similar microsites) should be part of the main website.

Now don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with looking at the web as a medium for advertising and marketing, just like any other. You can get a ton of PR and marketing benefits from materials you post to a website owned and controlled by somebody else. But if it's going to be your content on your site, most of the time you're better off putting all of your content under one (virtual) roof. From the strategy of building a strong website and strong online reputation, I think the claims in the second paragraph below are just about... entirely incorrect:
The pervasion of Internet search has opened the door to a valuable new marketing opportunity for law firms: the litigation or case-specific Web site. Unlike a law firm's legacy Web site or its blog, case-specific Web sites can allow smaller firms to catapult their reputations and compete against larger practices.

Litigation Web sites should not be confused with conventional Web sites. They must stand apart from firms' legacy sites with unique domain names and IP addresses.
First, a good website has existing links, authority, and reputation. It's in your existing marketing materials. It has existing traffic. When you add content to your existing site you leverage all of its existing resources to the benefit of that new content. If you start a new site, no matter how great it's content, you start from scratch.

Second... a unique IP address? Users don't know anything about the IP address. There are individual IP addresses that host dozens upon dozens of domains. The search engines will only "care" about an IP address if it's suspect - such as being the source of a great deal of spam. If I'm pitching web development services to you and I tell you that, "You need to host your new site on a different IP address", odds are my primary goal - and quite probably my only goal - is to get you to give me the hosting contract.

The following suggestions are more relevant, but do more to highlight the weaknesses of some law practice websites than the benefits of having a separate "case-specific" site:
Best-practice, case-specific sites should embrace the text concept and not be glitzy or highly animated. Splashy colors, clever design elements or professionally produced Flash movies should be limited to the firm's regular Web site.
If your law firm website is highly animated, has audio or video that autoplays when somebody loads the site, has a Flash splash page (even one users can skip) before they see the site's real content, is all-Flash (making it really hard to deep link or open portions of your site in new windows), etc., you have a problem. You were probably sold snake oil by your original web designer, and need to consider if all of that glitz is attracting people and making your site more "sticky" (keeping people on your site longer, and encouraging them to 'convert' by contacting you), or if it's causing some prospective clients to abandon your site before they even know what it's about. And you also need to be concerned that some of your actions (e.g., Flash-based navigation or a spash page of any sort) may be reducing your site's prominence in the major search engines. So to the extent I agree with the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle of web design, and I largely do, I think it applies to all sites.

Adding case-specific material to your website can generate traffic - and it can pay off to be the first (or at least one of the first) websites to address a particular topic or issue. But as far as search engines go, they direct people to the most relevant page of content, not to the top of a site. If somebody enters a search for specific information that brings up your site, it doesn't matter to them whether the site's on your website or on a brand new specialized website - they'll follow the link. If your law firm site has a lot of search engine authority, there's a strong chance that the content you host there will appear above that from any new site. It may also be indexed first, bringing in the desired traffic more quickly.

If your website doesn't have much authority, it may be much better to partner with an authoritative site to host articles or other content that highlight your expertise, and to lead people to your practice or your firm's site through that off-site content. You know, like promoting your PR business by publishing an article on But if you go with an entirely new site for a new practice niche you're leaving a lot more up to chance -and the more you do that (perhaps even the from the very first time) you're not following a good long-term strategy for building both the content on and reputation of your principal website.

No, I won't argue that it will never work, as sometimes a niche site will attract a lot of attention or by good luck happen to come up well particularly for "long tail" search terms (unusual search phrases, usually four-, five-, six-words and longer). I will say that in my experience, both with sites I control and site's I've seen, the odds weigh heavily in favor of putting content on an established, reputable site, and with investing your resources in building a single, solid site to promote your firm.
Case-specific Web sites must avoid overt law firm marketing. It is appropriate to identify the attorneys of record along with their bios, but don't include a form for potential clients to fill out. All-out marketing should remain on the firm's legacy site.
I'll twist that a bit. Many pages that you intend to use to generate new clients will benefit from being primarily informational, presenting you as an expert by virtue of strong content, as opposed to screaming "hire me!" But there's no reason you can't post information in this manner on your primary law firm website (many firms already do exactly that), as opposed to starting a separate site. In terms of a signup form, there are a lot of options you can consider and tailor to your reader. Sometimes it is appropriate to have a "new client signup form" alongside or below an article. Other times you might offer a link to a free download or newsletter offering more information on the subject, so you can start generating a mailing list. (Be careful to get authorization to send additional emails, and I suggest always using a confirmation email with a confirming link that must be clicked before you add somebody to an email newsletter or marketing list). Sometimes you'll want to offer a "share this article" feature allowing readers to easily share a link to the article. There's no "one size fits all" approach, although generally speaking if your purpose is to establish subject matter expertise with a particular page of content your direct client outreach will be more subtle.

The idea of putting all case information, filings and pleadings on the website is interesting, and may at times be beneficial, but for most sites it provides a level of complexity and obscurity that won't interest the average reader. In my opinion, strongly written, easy-to-understand content that a layperson will understand will generate more interest than posting links to the latest motions and briefs filed on a case. That latter approach seems better suited to advocacy sites than to sites intended to promote the lawyers as subject matter experts or to generate new clients. Granted, if the case has media attention, offering up all court documents the moment they're filed may keep reporters coming back to your site as a reference (but that could, again, as easily be done on your own law firm's principal site as on a new website.)

I don't have access to the site's logs, but I take this claim with a grain of salt:
Qui Tam: What law firm wouldn't like 20,000 additional Web site visitors in a year? The three firms that secured a major settlement in a novel federal False Claims Act, qui tam whistleblower case in 2008, have received that much recognition with their case-specific Web site, which went live after the U.S. Department of Justice announced the settlement.
There are sites that offer free metrics for websites. When I look up that site in, I get an apology and am told that they have no profile for the site. When I look up the site in Alexa, I get no indication that it's had any appreciable traffic in the past two years. When I go to the site itself, despite the author of this article cautioning against contact forms, I find that the site is copyrighted by "PRforLAW, LLC" and I am instructed,
Contact PRforLAW, LLC

Use this form or call 215-736-0198.
I guess overt law firm marketing is out, but overt PR firm marketing is a-okay.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Shorter David Broder

To succeed in the job of President you should not do any of the following: master the issues, reject selfishness and ideology, or make sound policy proposals.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Brooks Gets One Right

The Republicans have lived for decades in mortal fear that the Democratic Party would create an effective national healthcare system, true universal medical coverage. Fortunately for them, the Democratic Party is intent upon passing a horribly defective bill that, in what seems to be its most likely form, is likely to be both ineffective and extremely unpopular. David Brooks observes,
Republicans are going to oppose this health care bill. Oppose, oppose, oppose. And I can half understand where they are coming from. The Democratic approach does involve a lot of government control. Moreover, it is very likely that many Congressional districts that are now Democratic will turn Republican as a result of backlash against the bill. It’s hard to ask a party to punch a gift horse in the mouth.
I'm not sure what he means by "a lot of government control", but I do think he's correct that the Baucus bill (even the "new and improved" proposal) is likely to create a significant backlash among people who are forced to buy bad insurance policies or pay a penalty. Whether people get stuck with useless, overpriced insurance, or pay a penalty to avoid having to spend even more on that useless insurance policy, they're going to be angry.

Something that impresses Brooks leaves me unimpressed:
Fourth, Republicans have all along said that the bill should not make our fiscal situation worse. The Congressional Budget Office says the Baucus bill is deficit neutral over the first 10 years and would save money over the next 10. The C.B.O. number may not take into account the various political inevitabilities. Still, that’s pretty darn impressive.
We're back in the mode of trying to create a bill that's "everything to everyone", and thereby undermining every logical goal of true healthcare reform in the name of being "deficit neutral."

The Baucus Debacle

Max Baucus has apparently figured out that his atrocious healthcare reform bill isn't going to work very well, so he's... softening the penalties in a manner that will undermine universality - and make it financially appealing, and often beneficial to pay a penalty instead of paying for worthless insurance.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

If Cohen's Right....

One can only hope that he and Obama become fast friends.

Telling somebody what seems obviously true, "Dude, don't do it, you'll only embarrass yourself, and you'll hurt your party" is now defenestration? Is Cohen channeling Homer Simpson, or something?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Rehabilitating Bush

Boy, Ross Douthat must have a serious man crush to take on this task. "The Self-Correcting Presidency"? Douthat opens with a litany of Bush's failures - let's see which of them were corrected by Bush:
On every indicator, Americans lost ground during the Bush era. The median income slumped. The poverty rate increased. The percentage of Americans without health insurance rose.
That would be... none of the above. So where does Douthat find evidence of "self-correction"?
America has had its share of disastrous chief executives. But few have gone as far as Bush did in trying to repair their worst mistakes. Those mistakes were the Iraq war — both the decision to invade and the conduct of the occupation — and the irrational exuberance that stoked the housing bubble. The repairs were the surge, undertaken at a time when the political class was ready to abandon Iraq to the furies, and last fall’s unprecedented economic bailout.
Let's take those one at a time.

The Iraq war.... I know Dothat took Bill Kristol's spot at the Times, so maybe this column recycles a draft Kristol threw away before his contract expired? Or maybe one of Kristol's old columns, barely starting to yellow at the corners, that somehow ended up under a printer or left in a forgotten file folder? ("Never mind the facts you see before you - Bush will be vindicated!") Before you ask, "But isn't that the sort of analysis that makes you wonder why the Times hired Kristol in the first place, let alone why it took them so long to send him packing," well... it's now a pattern, isn't it.

When we say "the surge worked", we mean that the the deaths of members of the U.S. military have declined, that an escalating civil war has been pushed back, and that there's room for political progress. It's undisputed, save perhaps on right-wing radio, that the surge is not a solution and its benefits cannot be sustained indefinitely in the absence of political progress.

Douthat's providing a less complete version of what Peter Beinart attempted in January, attempting to recast the surge (and history) as a vindication of Bush. (I responded to Beinart's arguments here.) Revisiting Bush's own standards for when we'll know the surge to be a success, as stated almost three years ago:
A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations. Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities. So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.

To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis. To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs. To empower local leaders, Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year. And to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's political life, the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution.
Well, they did eventually hold provincial elections, and have made progress on taking responsibility for their own security, but the rest? The surge can only be defined as a success if we throw out Bush's own standards by which its success was to be measured.

Douthat also suggests that Bush had a choice between action and inaction - as if the Congress would have sat idly by while the conditions in Iraq continued to deteriorate. Bush's options were to fold or go "all in", and he chose the latter. That served to stabilize the situation in Iraq, at further detriment to the mission in Afghanistan, but has not resulted in anything that can reasonably be described as "success". The surge, and the related strategic changes that preceded it, have been crucial to opening a window of opportunity, but Bush when it came to taking advantage of that window Bush again proved himself a failure. The hard part was left to his successor. Contrary to Douthat's thesis, this was not Bush repairing his mistakes - the surge was a patch job that has, fortunately, held up longer than expected but can't hold forever. Also, we're well past the point where we can deny that "the surge" was anything short of an escalation. So when Douthat elaborates,
On foreign policy, Bush looks a lot like Lyndon Johnson - but only if Johnson, after years of unsuccessful escalation, had bequeathed Richard Nixon a new strategy that enabled U.S. troops to withdraw from Vietnam with their honor largely intact.
A distinction without a difference, as ironically highlighted by Douthat's choice of words - should we call the Iraq withdrawal "Peace with Honor"?

I think Douthat's actually a bit hard on Bush, blaming the housing bubble on him. Sure, he encouraged it. Sure, Bush's claimed "economic successes" were predicated upon spending enabled by the housing bubble, and claimed economic growth and growth in productivity were predicated upon the excesses of the financial industry. But the foundation for that bubble was already in place. Sure, a better President might have declared that a time of war is not a time for tax cuts and profligate spending, imposing fiscal discipline and trying to keep the budget deficit under control - and those steps likely would have arrested the bubble even with continued disregard of the economic Cassandras who saw it coming.

And yes, the response to the collapse of the financial industry - a response that likely did prevent a much worse global economic catastrophe or depression - was started in Bush's watch. So we should be looking for Douthat to write an editorial defending this year's massive deficits as the inevitable result of Bush's policy, not something that should be blamed on the Obama Administration, right? And castigating those who criticize Obama for being too soft on the financial industry, or too fast and loose with bailout funds, right?

But seriously, Douthat shouldn't elide Bush's eight years of fiscal imprudence - financial recklessness - from the picture. We probably would still be hearing the same critiques had Bush followed a more sensible budgetary policy and had we nonetheless ended up with a similar financial crisis, but the cry, "we can't afford it", has a lot more resonance in the wake of Bush's multi-trillion dollar run-up of the deficit.

As Douthat admits, neither the surge nor the financial industry bailout were formulated by Bush. As with the surge, the financial industry bailout seems born of desperation, not careful policy considerations. Going to Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke and saying, "Here's a blank check - fix this" isn't something that's particularly worthy of praise. Like the surge, it was a Hail Mary.

But maybe it makes sense that Douthat is most impressed by Bush's Hail Mary's. After all, Douthat's arguing that those are the moves for which another president might "get canonized".

Douthat next tries to rationalize away some of Bush's other remarkable failures:
In reality, many of the Bush-era ventures that look worst in hindsight were either popular with the public at the time or blessed by the elite consensus. Voters liked the budget-busting tax cuts and entitlement expansions. The Iraq war’s cheering section included prominent Democrats and scores of liberal pundits. And save for a few prescient souls, everybody - right and left, on Wall Street and Main Street - was happy to board the real-estate express and ride it off an economic cliff.
Blessed by an "elite consensus"? Does Douthat mean Bush, Cheney, and the elites of the "Club for Growth"?

Passing legislation that's popular with voters generally doesn't make you a good President. As Bush demonstrates, sometimes its part and parcel of why you're a bad President. Had he passed a literal "chicken in every pot, car in every garage" bill, it likely would have been popular with voters - that doesn't mean it's good policy, even if its popular and thus difficult for politicians to vote against.

Further, Bush wasn't honest in his policy formation. The arguments he made in favor of his tax cuts were situational and self-serving. "The economy's strong - tax cuts will sustain this!" "The economy's faltering - tax cuts will restore it!" "We're in a recession - tax cuts will fix this!" On top of that he shrouded his true intention - massive tax cuts for the wealthy - in a modest tax cut for the middle class. Anybody who pointed out the irresponsibility and top-heavy nature of the tax cuts risked being branded as engaging in "class warfare" or fighting against the American value that people should be able to keep the fruits of their successes.

Douthat also pulls a bait-and-switch, conflating the argument that, "This policy is not entirely wrong, and may even be a good idea, but it's implementation is horrible," with full-throated support. The Medicare prescription drug benefit, for example, was a poorly executed piece of legislation. (To its credit, though,Max Baucus might have come up with something even worse.) It was unnecessarily expensive, unnecessarily confusing, unnecessarily involved private health insurers, stupidly prevented government negotiation over drug prices, and imposed a "donut hole" in its coverage likely to prevent the seniors who most needed the bill from being able to fully benefit from it. Liking or understanding the need for the concept is different from supporting the actual legislation.

Bush had such overwhelming bipartisan support for the Iraq war that he did what? He went before Congress and the American people and said, "I know I have legislation that I think allows me to invade Iraq, but others say it's less clear. I want to be honest and direct, and to observe the separation of powers, and thus call upon Congress to explicitly authorize war on Iraq through a formal declaration of war." No, following a series of what can most charitably be called deceptions, he proceeded based upon the authority he claimed from the existing legislation. Hardly a profile in courage.

With his success and entry into the punditocracy, perhaps Douthat truly believes that everybody in the country bought more house than they could afford, mortgaged themselves to the hilt, and rode "the real-estate express ... off an economic cliff". But no. Some of us did not do that. And you know what? Those of us who didn't have been asked to pick up the pieces - pay for the pieces - of the battered, shattered economy. When Douthat tries to put me in the category apparently shared by himself and his peers, an expression comes to mind.... Oh, it's on the tip of my tongue. Two words, the second is "you", the first is.... Um, well, moving on.
Bush-era bipartisanship did produce some defensible legislation (No Child Left Behind, for instance). But more often, it produced travesties like the failed attempt at “comprehensive” immigration reform, lobbyist feeding frenzies like the 2005 energy bill, and boondoggles like the Department of Homeland Security.
Yeah, bipartisanship. It was Bush's own party that killed immigration reform. I don't personally see the Cheney-led energy industry free-for-all as being "bipartisan". The Department of Homeland Security? Bipartisan in the sense that you coopt a proposal from across the aisle that you originally rejected, implement it badly, and call it a day? "No Child Left Behind" is arguably bipartisan, but its deficiencies and funding shortfalls have been obvious from its inception. To the extent that it's only "defensible", its perhaps best attributed to Bush's satisfaction with an inadequate status quo or his failure of leadership.

Douthat manages to damn Bush with the faintest of praise:
By contrast, Bush’s best initiatives often lacked a constituency outside the White House: His AIDS-in-Africa program; his insistence, vindicated by subsequent scientific breakthroughs, on seeking alternatives to embryo-destroying research; his failed second-term proposals for Social Security and tax reform.
First, that's utter nonsense. There are huge factions outside of the White House that favor a wide array of tax reform and Social Security reform proposals. And it's hardly to Bush's credit that his propose Social Security "reform" was in fact a plan for its destruction. True reform, he could have passed. As for the "tax reform" to which Douthat links, its a set of proposals from a commission. I don't recall that Bush ever personally endorsed those recommendations, let alone pushed for their implementation. Looking at the report,
The Panel’s options use different designs that represent a range of policy choices to simplify the tax code, remove impediments to saving and investment, and broaden the tax base. The first option, the Simplified Income Tax Plan, is a streamlined version of our current tax system that would reduce the size and costs of the tax code. The second option, the Growth and Investment Tax Plan, would take our tax system in a new direction by reducing the tax burden on saving and investment to boost economic growth without fundamentally changing how the tax burden is distributed. It would move our tax system closer to a consumption tax and impose a reduced flat rate tax on capital income received by individuals.
Does Douthat manage to keep a straight face when he argues that this is one of Bush's "best initiatives"? (I recognize that the report contends that 60-70% of people earning more than $200,000 per year would face tax increases, but the two proposed tax schemes seem designed to be avoided by the wealthy - and moreso by the ultra-wealthy (for whom no projected tax revenues are described.) Or perhaps Douthat's arguing that Bush's best policies were the ones he never even tried to get off the ground, given his reverse Midas touch?

Bush's AIDS-in-Africa program and his stance against stem cell research please Douthat, who is a dogmatic adherent of Catholic doctrine on birth control and abortion. Even then, despite its huge flaws, Douthat might be right about the AIDS-in-Africa program - something that probably didn't actually lack a constituency, as such, but certainly didn't have a constituency in Bush's own party. It's a shame that Bush insisted upon limiting family planning counseling, and advanced a childish, counter-productive "abstinence only" education model in place of sound medical guidance, but you do have to give him credit for providing significant funding for treatment programs. But there has been no scientific vindication of Bush's myopic hamstringing of stem cell research, or the delays in research programs that resulted from his myopia. But these defects directly pandered to Douthat's constituency, hence Douthat's ear-to-ear smile.

Despite Douthat's gentle attempts to reinvent his record, it's unlikely that Bush will ever be viewed as having "become a good president" by virtue of his efforts to extricate the country from his own messes. Douthat does make one point that few will dispute:
This is not a blueprint that future presidents will want to follow.
Understatement of the year?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Health Care Reform

One of the biggest problems with healthcare reform is the insistence that it must take the form of a single bill, and that bill must be "everything to everyone." That is, the bill must:
  • Bring about universal or near-universal coverage;

  • Limit the abuses of the insurance industry; and

  • Maintain or reduce present levels of healthcare expenditure;

The Washington Post adds a fourth demand,
  • Malpractice reform,

despite there being no evidence that malpractice reform will advance any of the three other goals of reform - and plenty that it will not. (I've written quite a bit about the fiscal reality of "malpractice reform".)

It's not the worst unsigned editorial the Post has ever run, but Fred Hiatt is out to maintain the editorial board's reputation as a gang that can't shoot straight. At least half the time they time they don't know the target, don't actually want to hit it, or both. The editorial praises the atrociously deficient Max Baucus "reform" bill, while at best hinting at its most significant deficiencies: its deliberate underfunding of insurance costs for the uninsured working class, and its deliberate failure to provide any mechanism to pressure insurance companies to bring down insurance costs for people who don't have the good fortune to participate in employer-sponsored group plans. The Bacus bill bends over backwards to make sure that co-ops would be hamstrung and useless. I could cynically ask, how much did the insurance industry pay him (or promise to pay him) - except given the extent to which he kowtows is it truly cynical to ask?

A few years ago, I was paying for insurance through COBRA, continuing my wife's coverage through a full service Blue Cross/Blue Shield group plan. Over the course of eighteen months the price went from "really high" to "extraordinary", inspiring me to check out what I could get from other sources. Even through supposed "group rates" available through some professional organizations of which I'm a member, I couldn't find anything that came close to the group plan's benefits. In fact, the typical plan offered vastly less coverage, very high copays and deductibles, and... came at a similar cost. The only way I could "save" money would have been by using a catastrophic policy and covering "routine" medical expenses out-of-pocket, but given the health problems my family was experiencing at the time that would have been worthless. So I kept on paying under COBRA until my wife found a government job where... she became eligible for a Blue Cross/Blue Shield group plan that wasn't quite as good as her former plan, but was nonetheless very good - and, once again, offered at a group rate that was vastly below the "group" plans available to me as a self-insured individual.

The Baucus plan, quite deliberately, changes none of that. In that same position, I would have been offered only one other option - the co-op option Baucus has deliberately sabotaged, the overpriced "group" plan, or the useless "catastrophic care" plan. Had I faced a mandate at the time, but been ineligible for COBRA, I would have found the absolute cheapest catastrophic insurance plan that met the terms of the mandate, and been very angry at the government for making me waste my money on a useless POS of an insurance policy. The right-wing should be celebrating Baucus's crappy bill - in its present for, it stands to make their angry supporters even angrier.

Not surprisingly, given his obeisance to corporate interests, Hiatt's editorial page doesn't express any concern for the quality of health insurance that will be available to individuals. It does mention cost:
Asking families earning $66,000 a year to devote 13 percent of their income to insurance premiums - and more once deductibles and co-payments are involved - is asking them to assume a heavy lift.
They have a gift for understatement. A head of household with a $66,000 income takes home about $52,000. After the cost of housing, one or two cars, food, clothes... it's unlikely that the family has a great deal of wiggle room in its budget. Asking them to devote more like 16-17% of their take-home pay to an insurance plan - even more, to an overpriced insurance plan... and "more once deductibles and co-payments are involved" - is going to push a lot of families into foreclosure or bankruptcy. What a solution - rather than having your medical bankruptcy after you get sick (and your insurance proves inadequate), Baucus will force you into a preemptive medical bankruptcy! What's not to love?

I recognize why the disingenuous cowards, Jack Kingston and Darrell Issa, are afraid to put their (or is it our) money where their mouths are, and introduce an option allowing individuals to buy into the current federal insurance plan. (Maybe Kingston wrote a bill, but accidentally left it somewhere with his flag pin, never to be found?) But why doesn't Baucus have the cajones to add that option? (Or are we back to that "bought and paid for by the insurance industry" thing?) Conversely, if he thinks his watered-down co-ops are worth the paper their written on, why not require that federal employees obtain their coverage through co-ops? Including, of course, Senators? No, as you know, when a self-serving Senator is involved (and you rarely find another kind) sauce for the goose is never sauce for the gander - if he did that he would either have to fix the myriad defects in his co-op proposal or face hurricane-force blowback.

Top it off with this:
In addition, the proposal's version of an employer mandate - a so-called "free rider" provision that would penalize employers not offering insurance only if their employees obtained government subsidies - could have the perverse effect of discouraging employers from hiring workers from low-income families.
Are we sure Baucus hasn't changed parties? Given his apparent eagerness to cause the uninsured working and middle class to hate the Democratic Party, I'd swear he has his eyes on Michael Steele's job....

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Obama's Just Like Bush", Round... I've Lost Track.

David Brooks serves up an oblivious "Obama's just like Bush" argument,
The idea is that free labor is the essence of Americanism. Hard-working ordinary people, who create wealth in material ways, are the moral backbone of the country. In this free, capitalist nation, people should be held responsible for their own output. Money should not be redistributed to those who do not work, and it should not be sucked off by condescending, manipulative elites.
I guess here the distinction is supposed to be that Bush's redistribution was to the idle rich (is there any group in this country better described as "condescending, manipulative elites" than the top 1% of the country that most benefited from Bush's economic policies and tax cuts?), whereas Obama's proposed health insurance scheme would benefit the poor. Except that people who don't work can already avail themselves of Medicaid, Bush massively expanded Medicare benefits to people without regard to whether or not they work, and many of the "hard-working ordinary people, who create wealth in material ways" would benefit from a good healthcare reform bill. (The Republicans know this - that's why they're fighting so hard to defeat meaningful reform.) So by this measure, Obama should be more popular with the "hard-working ordinary people, who create wealth in material ways" than was Bush, right? Yeah, right.
Barack Obama leads a government of the highly educated. His movement includes urban politicians, academics, Hollywood donors and information-age professionals. In his first few months, he has fused federal power with Wall Street, the auto industry, the health care industries and the energy sector.
The "MBA President", delegating to a team of experts, wasn't leading a government of the highly educated? His "movement" didn't include urban politicians, academics and celebrities? He didn't fuse federal power with Wall Street, the auto industry, the health care industries and the energy sector? Has Brooks even heard of Dick Cheney? Forgive me for asking, David, but what alternate universe do you live in?
Given all of this, it was guaranteed that he would spark a populist backlash, regardless of his skin color. And it was guaranteed that this backlash would be ill mannered, conspiratorial and over the top - since these movements always are, whether they were led by Huey Long, Father Coughlin or anybody else.
Lets accept that for most of Obama's critics race isn't a factor. (Let's admit that for a small number it is, most certainly, a factor, but that the larger movement would be directed at any Democratic President.) Why is it that these same people didn't rise up in protest against Bush?

Brooks loves a certain romanticized "red state" America, with its fictionalized Applebee's restaurants, and all that. He loves "hard-working ordinary people, who create wealth in material ways", even though he's not one of them and probably wouldn't last five minutes in one of their jobs. (Er... I'm not sure that he loves those "hard-working ordinary people, who create wealth in material ways" who work union jobs, make useless things like automobiles, and tend to vote for Democrats, although I'm sure that, given the opportunity, he could find some way to explain how they're "different".) But his simplistic sociology doesn't hold water. He's either wrong about the people he claims to be describing, wrong about their motivation, or both. (And it's probably both.)

Wait, You Mean... Losing a Parent is a Bad Thing?

It's all so confusing. First, relying upon the best social data he can muster, David Brooks tells us,
[Sonia Sotomayor's] father died when she was 9, leaving one such gap [in her relationships]. (It is amazing how many people who suffer parental loss between the ages of 9 and 13 go on to become astounding high achievers.)
(Usual challenge: Okay, David... how many?) But then Michael Gerson insists,
[T]he fatherless are some of the most disadvantaged, betrayed people in our society, prone to delinquency, poverty and academic failure.
I can almost imagine a debate between Gerson and Brooks over whether having your parent die is better for you than divorce, or whether divorcing parents should also aim for the "age 9 through 13" sweet spot. Fortunately I am able to stop myself.

Gerson's imagining "the good old days" when people engaged in "courtship", married for life, and raised kids in intact marriages. I suspect, though, he would be just as happy with the other "good old days" when marriages were arranged and divorces were available only to the wealthy and influential.

While it's interesting to see the overlap in "thinking" style between Brooks (with his "hasty generalization") and Gerson (with his trust in a shallow conventional wisdom that suits his argument), life isn't that simple. Many children of divorce (or whose parents never marry) do "just fine, thank you very much," and don't need Gerson's condescension. Some kids of divorced parents, for economic reasons, end up living in a less safe, higher crime neighborhood, attending more dangerous, lower quality schools, and having less supervision after school. For others, the roots of bad behavior may lie in what comes before a parent pulls them out of a drunken, drug-addicted or violent household. Some unfortunate kids experience both. Yet Gerson can't see past the parents' break-up.

When possible, I do think that kids are better off being raised in a healthy two-parent household. When that's not possible, either because the household is physically or psychologically dangerous, kids are better off when the non-custodial parent pays adequate, timely child support.

Shifting subjects a bit, Gerson tells us that
the average age at which people marry has grown later; it is now about 26 for women, 28 for men.
He later contends,
Divorce rates trend downward until leveling off in the early 20s. But people who marry after 27 tend to have less happy marriages - perhaps because partners are set in their ways or have unrealistically high standards. The marital sweet spot seems to be in the early to mid-20s.
So... everything would be better if we could just convince the average guy to marry one year earlier? Seriously, do you think that the statistics for divorce based on age at the time of marriage might be skewed by second (and subsequent) marriages, that are well-documented to have higher rates of divorce?
Teen marriage is generally a bad idea, with much higher rates of divorce. Romeo and Juliet were, in fact, young fools.
I realize Gerson's trying to be amusing, but his quip highlights how he yearns for the "Ozzie and Harriet" version of the good old days, whether or not it actually existed, as opposed to what occurred through much of human history. Juliet had been promised to another man. She was getting married, even if not to Romeo.

In an alternate version of Romeo and Juliet, they hate each other but their parents decide that their marriage will be a useful way to mend the rift between the families and bring together their wealth, power and influence, and so it is done. As they live in Fourteenth Century Italy, divorce is not an option. But Romeo doesn't mind so much because marriage to Juliet is his duty... and, consistent with his station in life, he has a mistress or two on the side. And the children turn out okay because, as their parents remain married, they have a consistent caregiver in the form of their... nurse. Ah, the good old days.


The Atlantic 50 claims to list "the most influential commentators in the nation". It's a fascinating list, not merely due to the inclusion of many mediocre commentators, but by the way it highlights how the columnists of a handful of prominent publications almost automatically gain "influence". The definition of "influence" is a bit scary,
A survey of more than 250 Washington insiders – members of Congress, national media figures, and political insiders – in which respondents rank-ordered the commentators who most influence their own thinking.
Well, it's not the definition that's so scary, but the implications of "members of Congress, national media figures, and political insiders" admitting that they follow the lead of the likes of Rush Limbaugh. But then, they rank Paul Krugman #1, and if his thinking is influencing Congress and the media these days you would hardly know it from current policy proposals and their associated media coverage. And to their credit, the triumvirate of former Bush speechwriters didn't rank.

And boy, what a handicap it is these days to be a white male.

Cheated Out of Escheats

FIve state attorney generals object to the Google Books settlement, on behalf of their... citizens:
The issue that irks the states is that when the rights holders can't be located, the [nonprofit] Books Rights Registry would keep the proceeds on their behalf while they continue the search for those individuals or groups. Laws in the states objecting to the deal require the state treasurer to be the one who accepts an unclaimed payment on behalf of its citizens, according to a copy of the brief submitted by Missouri's Chris Koster.
Because, you know, that could turn out to be a big pot of money.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Say What?

At the American Conservatives' weblog, Scott McConnell shares some thoughts on race:
It’s as unfair as anything that happens in politics, but there it is. There’s a kind of perfect internet storm now, between the Serena Williams outburst, the Kanye West outburst, and the wilding episode posted on the top of Drudge today.
Let's pause for a second there. My last recollection of the term "wilding" being used in this sense dates back to 1989, and an assault on a jogger in Central Park.
According to a police investigation, the culprits were gangs of teenagers who would assault strangers as part of an activity that became known as "wilding." New York City detectives said the word was used by the suspects themselves to describe their actions to police. This account has been disputed by other journalists, who say that it originated in a police detective's misunderstanding of the suspects' use of the phrase "doing the wild thing", lyrics from Tone Lōc's hit song "Wild Thing". April 19 was known to have been a night when such a gang attack occurred, in which the suspects had entered the park in Harlem with over 30 acquaintances. The group had indeed assaulted many park-goers.
I don't recall this term ever being used to describe the behavior of white kids, no matter how outrageous. Do you? Whatever the intention, it's use in a context such as this fits with a racist sensibility that minority youths are somehow feral and predatory.
Just as Obama surely benefited from the desire of many whites to elect a black president...
I've heard that before, but exactly who are these "many whites" who had a desire to vote for Obama merely because he was black? Can I have a name or two? Will I be able to count every such person in the country on one (perhaps zero) hands? As I see it, that's a right-wing canard that seeks to cast aspersions on Obama's supporters, or at least a subset of them, and to diminish Obama's accomplishment at the polls.
... so he will be harmed by widely circulated media images of blacks that reinforce negative stereotypes.
That's quite a leap. Even assuming the initial premise is correct, how does the conclusion follow?
  1. Obama benefited from the desire of many whites to elect a black president.
  2. ?????
  3. Therefore he will be harmed by widely circulated media images of blacks that reinforce negative stereotypes.
There's not even a hint of logic in McConnell's assertion.
Serena and West are of course very rich and talented—but gentlemanly or ladylike or gracious they surely are not.
So what? John McEnroe was a boorish clod on the tennis court - not just in one angry outburst, but time and time again. How did that reflect on President Reagan? Mel Gibson went on a drunken, anti-Semitic rant. How did that reflect on President Bush?
The wilding image is what every white parent who sends his child to an integrated school or lives in an integrated neighborhood most fears.
This "wilding" incident was a fist fight on a school bus that may turn out to be run-of-the-mill bullying instead of a racial incident. Find me a town in America where there has never been a fight on a school bus. Find me a middle or high school in America were kids of any race haven't cheered on a fight. Find me a school, anywhere, where there's never been a problem with bullying. (I didn't think so.) Now find me another such incident that was described as a "wilding". (Was this a "wilding"?)

And what exactly is it that every parent supposedly fears from school integration? That instead of getting into fist fights with or being bullied by children of the same race, the other person involved might be a minority? Seriously - I'm a parent and I have a right to be told why I supposedly fear integrated neighborhoods and schools.
It is the precisely the kind of thing that doomed David Dinkins’ mayoralty in 1993, though no New York politician was a greater gentleman.
Being held responsible for the bad behavior of African American criminals, because he happened to share their race?
Obama is obviously not anything like Serena, or Kanye West, or the thugs on the bus.
Except, as McConnell points out as the essential thesis of his post, for his race. Which is it - President Obama's nothing like them, so it's racist to hold their conduct against him because of his race, or even though he's nothing like them a race-based "guilt by association" argument can be automatically raised in relation to any bad behavior by any African American of any age?
But they have more power to bring down his presidency than all the Joe Wilsons and Glenn Becks and teabaggers in the world.
I guess it's the latter.
For those who (I count myself) supported Obama and have hopes that he will be able to carry out at least part of his agenda, it’s a bitter recognition.
I'm still at a loss. Is McConnnell deploring racism, or is he saying it's understandable and somehow alright, even though it may interfere with the President's ability to do his job?
But I’d be very surprised if the stories linked above didn’t have a negative impact on our president’s popularity.
So, basically, McConnell's on the same page as Maureen Dowd?

Monday, September 14, 2009

"But There's No Case!"

In an argument that is usually presented as a thinly-reasoned avoidance of the issues, the Washington Post argues that no suit should be permitted against John Ashcroft for his role in the detention and mistreatment of Abdullah al-Kidd because "there was no legal precedent available to Mr. Ashcroft that would have warned against such aggressive use of the material witness statute". While the existence of prior judicial guidance should be considered in borderline cases, I reject the Post's notion that anything a government actor does is presumptively in good faith unless there's existing case law explicitly prohibiting the conduct. (It's like strip-searching a child to look for an ibuprofen tablet - if nobody tells you it's a stupid thing to do, how are you ever going to figure it out for yourself, right?)

Had Ashcroft personally shot al-Kidd in the head, would even the Post find the lack of case law stating that the material witness statute didn't prohibit execution of witnesses to justify granting him immunity? Seriously, what's wrong with asking our nation's highest political leaders to apply common sense, or traditional interpretations of either the statute or the concept of "material witness"? What's wrong with observing that nothing in John Ashcroft's treatment of al-Kidd is consistent with the purpose of detaining a material witness, and asking him to explain why we should believe that he had even the slightest good faith belief that his actions were allowed under that statute?

Taxing Soft Drinks

The New York Times endorses a tax on soft drinks to... magically affect current obesity rates. And I recognize the argument that such a tax could generate revenue. But I have yet to see anybody offer any evidence that it would actually affect obesity. For example,
  • Is the consumption of soft drinks higher or lower in states with deposit laws?

  • Is the consumption of soft drinks higher or lower in states that already tax them, such as in states that charge sales tax on soft drinks , or in Arkansas with its excise tax on soft drinks?

  • Is there any evidence that overweight people, particularly overweight young people, drink more soft drinks than their peers?

Might it be more constructive to expand physical education in schools, and perhaps also nutrition education, rather than trying to blame a particular type of beverage for the manner in which we, as a society, have chosen to keep our kids sedentary and behind desks for the rest of the school day? Or by using pop machines in schools to subsidize school budgets?

Also, given that a lot of the soft drinks young people buy are purchased by the can or bottle out of machines - the most expensive way to buy soft drinks - why should we believe that a tax will appreciably affect their willingness to pay a premium for soft drinks? As much as they might want to do so, I have not seen that any vending machine company has successfully convinced a school to pull out its water fountains.

Finally, given that it's in no small part our nation's substantial subsidies for corn that allow the production of inexpensive sugary drinks and fast food, might it not make more sense to increase the cost of the end-product not by introducing a new tax, but by reducing or eliminating the corn subsidy?

Clinton's First Term

Ross Douthat shares the opinion that the Democratic Party's losses in Clinton's first midterm election didn't follow from lies, distortions and misrepresentations about his healthcare reform plan, but instead flowed from lies, distortions and misrepresentations about his crime bill:
Instead, the crime bill became a lightning rod for populist outrage. The price tag made it seem fiscally irresponsible. (Back then, $30 billion was real money.) The billions it lavished on crime prevention — like the infamous funding of “midnight basketball” — looked liked ineffective welfare spending. The gun-control provisions felt like liberalism-as-usual.

“Every day that the Republicans delayed the bill,” Luntz remembers, “the public learned more about it — and the more they learned, the angrier they got.”

That’s exactly what’s been happening now. The health care push has opened up arguments about abortion, euthanasia and illegal immigration that the Democrats would rather avoid. At the same time, it’s become the vessel for a year’s worth of anxieties about bailouts, deficits and Beltway incompetence.
But alas, Douthat doesn't see a new Newt Gingrich on the horizon to transform the manufactured outrage over a sensible reform bill into electoral victory for the Republicans.

Samuelson's False "Balance"

Although supposedly addressing a lack of candor in the healthcare debate, Robert Samuelson's latest is itself less than honest. The NonSequitur takes Samuelson to task for personifiying (what I would describe as) the Bush-era Republican brand of "conservatism" - if the program they support will run the deficit through the roof, "that budget consequences should occupy a minor spot in our debates"; otherwise they're whine, cry, rend their clothes and wring their hands, deploring that with even a dime of new spending we're destined to go bankrupt.

Samuelson argues that President Obama's not being sufficiently candid because he's arguing that we can have expanded health coverage, generally maintain the current system, and also reduce costs. The NonSequitur kicks that argument out from under him:
Baring the fictional–yes fictional–scenario where you get to chose your own doctor and your own care (your insurance company does so long as you "qualify," which means so long as you don't get sick), every other industrialized democracy in the world has solved this problem. They get more than we do for half of the cost. That's just true folks. As Obama has argued over and over, one problem we suffer from here in our capitalist paradise is a lack of competition in health insurance. There is simply no incentive to deliver it cheaper. So you can have all three indeed. We should have all three. If we can't get all three, we will suck.
Okay, it's more than half the cost, but certainly every other nation in the industrialized world had established that you can have universal or near-universal coverage, a system where people can choose their own healthcare provider and get the care they need, and where the cost per capita is substantially less than in the U.S. - all while achieving, on the whole, better outcomes. If the Republicans and Blue Dogs in Congress prevent that from happening here, that's their fault, not Obama's. After all, when Samuelson says,
Americans generally want three things from their health-care system. First, they think that everyone has a moral right to needed care; that suggests universal insurance. Second, they want choice; they want to select their doctors -- and want doctors to determine treatment. Finally, people want costs controlled; health care shouldn't consume all private compensation or taxes.
he's effectively conceding that in an honest debate Americans would prefer the Canadian system to our own.

But there's more to Samuelson's editorial that should be addressed. The first is the false equivalence between what he describes as "frighten[ing] Americans into believing that it will harm them in ways that it won't" - that is to say, engaging in fear tactics and lying about reforms - with not showing proper candor by accepting Samuelson's pessimistic opinion over what has been proved to work in every other industrialized nation. Perhaps Samuelson should be showing some candor, as it's the healthcare industry and political right who are intent on frustrating the most cost-limiting reforms. I doubt that Samuelson is truly confused as to why Obama gave an aspirational speech, rather than a pessimistic drone about political realities dictated by insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies, and the Members of Congress they own.

Another aspect to Samuelson's artifice about the three things we "want" is that he's truly concerned that "we can have any two, but not all three." He lacks the candor to admit that the three things we want (universality, choice, and cost control) can be addressed independently of another, and lacks the honesty to directly admit that the only factor he cares about (this time around) is cost. When Samuelson says "We refuse to face unavoidable - and unpleasant - choices", after all, he's already conceded that the only choice we actually have to make is whether or not healthcare reform justifies increasing the deficit.

It's due in no small part to opinion leaders like Samuelson that it's necessary to try to address all of those concerns in a single package, rather than taking a good look at each on its own, evaluating the costs and public policy aspects independently. It would be better, and would likely lead to better policy, if the various concerns about the healthcare system could be addressed independently - for example, looking at the true cost of implementing universal insurance coverage and evaluating whether or not it's worth the investment - rather than forcing everything to be wrapped into an oversized, arguably revenue-neutral or budgetarily constrained behemoth.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"That's Not My Job"

In a rather contrived expression of umbrage, the chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, Max Stier, complains that the President referred to government bureaucrats in his recent speech, apparently because he was supposed to call them "cool"? (Goverment 'cools'?) Never mind that Obama's use of the term was correct.
On Wednesday, you told Congress and the American people, "I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need."
Stier apparently believes that as bureaucrats have given that term a bad name, they should now be called something else.

First, it's silly to pretend that the President's comment was intended to insult government workers. His intent was obvious: He was responding to a consistent attack from the right on his healthcare reforms, that "government bureaucrats" would dictate people's choice of doctor, ration their care, and form death panels that would... do whatever the nut job Palin types imagined that "death panels" would do. A while back, opponents of healthcare reform put together a video that supposedly illustrated how a government healthcare system would work (never mind that single payer systems require a minimum of paperwork for patients), imagining the requirement of processing a blizzard of forms through a bureaucratic maze. Obama was correct to point out that such a system should be unacceptable if coming from either the public or private sector.

It's interesting that Stier has no words of criticism for the decades the political right has spent pounding "government bureaucrats", or even their framing the context in which Obama had to respond to the popular conception of "government bureaucrats" getting in the way of healthcare. It's almost as if he thinks that the perception arose in a vacuum, and all Obama has to do is say that government is "'cool' and 'competent'" and everybody will believe that it is so.

I wonder, has Mr. Stier ever encountered the following phrase,
... and other duties as assigned by your supervisor.
Why, Mr. Stier, do bureaucracies (the places where people who no longer wish to be called 'bureaucrats' work) find it necessary to include that type of language in pretty much every employee job description? People who read this blog know that I'm not one to join in mindless bashing of unions and bureaucracies, but there's a core truth to the notion of the incompetent bureaucrat with a supervisor who's either resigned to the fact that it's too difficult to fire an underperforming employee or who simply can't be bothered to step in to correct or admonish bad work. I doubt that there's a person in the country who hasn't encountered a power-tripping bureaucrat, an unhelpful bureaucrat, or one who forces you to guess what hoops you must jump through and seems to take pleasure when you get things wrong. Heck, there are individual bureaucrats who will give you all of that and more in a single visit to their desk or counter.

Sure, there are many government workers who have good work ethic, will go the extra mile, and try to give you good customer service. (Often for exactly the same rate of pay as the officious work-avoider at the next desk.) No, it's not fair to tar them with the same brush. But if you go through the wringer with a bad bureaucrat or, let's be honest, if you're an upper level bureaucrat supervising one of them, which sticks out in your mind?

The problems of bureaucracy won't be fixed by fashioning a new name for the people who work within them. You start insisting that people refer to the lazy, incompetent, rude person at a government agency as a "federal government worker", great, but unless something changes in their behavior it won't take many years before that term polls as badly as "federal government bureaucrat." Stier is correct that the question, as asked by Obama, "is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." Rather than fretting about being called a bureaucrat, Stier's energies would be better spent trying to find ways to make government work better. If he does that job well enough, I suspect he'll find that the term "federal government bureaucrat" is perceived much more favorably.

Business Cards for Manly Men

Made with meat and lasers. Seriously.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Newt Gingrich

Sometimes the jokes write themselves.

Shining a Dim Light on Healthcare Reform

David Brooks comes not to praise Obama, but to... damn him with faint praise? I expect that some on the right will claim that Brooks' latest reflects a continuing infatuation with Obama, but I think Brooks' history belies the notion of infatuation. If I were wrong, I would expect Brooks to direct happy sunbeams at Obama, the way he did with so much of Bush's (bad) policy. But instead we get the dim glow of an intellectual nightlight.

Speaking of Obama's promise not to raise the deficit as a "Dime Standard", Brooks opines that it "kills off" the House Bill in favor of a less expensive Senate Bill, and as setting "off a political cascade".
Since the Congressional Budget Office is the universally accepted arbiter in such matters, the Democrats have to produce a bill that the C.B.O. says is deficit-neutral, now and forever. That means there will be a seller’s market for any member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, who has a credible amendment to cut costs. It also means the Democrats will have to scale back coverage and subsidy levels to reach the fiscal targets.
Or maybe it means none of that. I recall when CBO's optimistic projections were being used to sell Bush's tax cuts. What happened when the economy tanked, again? Did Brooks call on Bush to issue a mea culpa and restore prior tax levels? Hardly. This is Brooks applying his usual double standard, albeit in a less obvious manner than Gerson: it's only Democrats who have to keep their promises, and only Democrats who have to strive for fiscal sanity.

Nothing's wrong with advocating fiscal sanity. But in my opinion, if you wish to be taken seriously on the issue, you have to apply the same standard to both parties' tax and spending policies.

What's likely is that the CBO will project an optimistic and pessimistic ten year projection, paving a path for the passage of any bill that (by whatever math is being used) falls somewhere between the two extremes. As so many aspects of healthcare reform aren't quantifiable, tremendous heat may later be directed at the question of whether or not healthcare reform was deficit-neutral, but nobody will be able to provide an accurate, meaningful balance sheet. Also, this year's bill isn't next year's budget. If Congress decides next year to increase subsidies, that doesn't mean that this bill isn't revenue neutral. If it sounds like I'm describing a big game, well, yeah. I'm just surprised Brooks doesn't yet understand (or pretends not to understand) how the game is played.

Brooks continues by describing how Obama has endorsed a "backdoor and indirect version of the cap" on the tax exemption on employer-provided health benefits, and thus in his view has "no principled argument to reject" a direct cap. You know what? If that's what Congress passes, I wouldn't expect Obama to even try to reject the explicit cap. And if the Republicans want to advance a clear-cut tax increase on the middle class in advance of next year's midterm elections, I applaud their courage for being honest about the effect of a cap. So which Republican wants to sign up first?

Brooks provides some standard tropes on tort reform:
Third, the president accepted the principle of tort reform to reduce the costs of defensive medicine. Once again, the specific proposal Obama mentioned is trivial. The important thing was the concession on principle. There are already amendments being drawn up to create separate malpractice courts and to otherwise reform the insane malpractice system. The president is going to have a hard time rejecting these amendments just because they might reduce campaign donations from tort lawyers to the Democratic National Committee.
I keep forgetting the number of states in which evil trial lawyers have successfully battled back tort reform. Is it... zero? Yeah, that sounds about right. Also, Earth to David Brooks, most tort lawyers don't practice in the area of medical malpractice - that's a boutique practice, made even more so by tort reform efforts to date that have massively increased the cost and complexity of litigating a malpractice case.

But more to the point, while it's easy to repeat "tort reform" propaganda about the legal system (the worst sin of which, at least according to this NEJM study, is it's frequent wrongful denial of compensation to genuinely injured plaintiffs), there are a couple of things to consider. First, nobody is really riding the "tort reform" horse at this time. While Brooks is the first to abandon the CBO as a "gold standard" when its findings contradict his platitudes, malpractice spending (including, of course, the bulk of that spending - the cost of the defense against valid claims and of paying the victims of those claims) is less than 2% of healthcare costs.

If Brooks would defer to the CBO's projections on how money much various "reforms" would save, my guess is that most would be revenue-neutral (tort reform, even as sweeping as the near-immunity granted in Texas and Florida) has had no apparent effect on healthcare costs or inflation) to increasing the cost. Even if we assume that "defensive medicine" exists, there is no evidence that even the most sweeping "tort reform" measures will limit its "practice". The CBO has "found no statistically significant difference in per capita health care spending between states with and without limits on malpractice torts".

Further the CBO finds no relationship between so-called "defensive medicine" and healthcare inflation:
Other factors such as defensive medicine (which refers to medical tests or procedures of little or no clinical value that are ordered by physicians primarily to avoid lawsuits) and physician-induced demand (which refers to spending that is brought about at least in part by providers’ desire to augment their own income) do not appear to explain a significant part of the growth in spending, according to published analyses
It's not clear what Brooks envisions in terms of "separate malpractice courts", or how he thinks their creation will affect anything about the present tort system. Like other "tort reform" advocates who bandy about similar ideas (such as "health courts"), the specifics are always lacking.

Brooks next states that, by suggesting that he'll pass a bill that has effective reform even if it does not include a public option, the President has killed off the possibility of a public option. In fact, what he did was make clear that he will sign a healthcare reform bill that does not include a public option, if that's all that the Senate will give him. Sure, some would have preferred that he express that he would veto a bill without a public option (including some on the right who would want to see him set himself up for failure), and it's likely that any sort of public option that gets through would be implemented only if certain triggers are met. But unless Brooks knows of some way that a President's speech could have magically won him a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate to back a pubic option, Obama was acknowledging political reality, not creating it.

Brooks then talks about Presidential support for "game changers" without really being clear on what he has in mind. Brooks takes umbrage at this suggestion,
Since health care represents one-sixth of our economy, I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn't, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch.
The only risible parts of the speech came when Obama said that parts of the system work (they don’t; they’re unsustainable) and when he said he would be the last president to take on health care (we still await a president willing to take on fundamental perversities in the system).
Is Brooks serious? He thinks that there are no parts of the present system that work? I would love to read his series of editorials explaining how he would tear the system down and rebuild something entirely new, while convincing the nation's people, doctors and hospitals to obligingly trust his better judgment. But if anybody's accused Obama of arrogance, following any such series they'll have nothing on Brooks. Seriously, Brooks expected that Obama could go before the nation and state, "All proposals to date are too modest, nothing works, and so we're going to tear down the system," and have any chance of subsequently getting any sort of reform bill passed?

Also, Obama didn't say "he would be the last president to take on health care". He said "I am determined to be the last". If Obama believes he can or will be the last, that's risible. But he was actually describing his level of determination, not his actual expectations. Rhetorical excess? Sure. But hardly what Brooks pretends.

I think it's a fair criticism to state that Obama "has decided to expand the current system, not fix it." But that's because he lives in the real world, and is addressing the political realities of our system of government. Alas, David, sometimes even a capable President cannot make the pie higher.