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Archive for November, 2012

The “Health Insurance is a Corporate Bailout” Fallacy

[ 298 ] November 30, 2012 |

There’s a recent comment that reminds me of a deplorable line of argument I’ve seen repeatedly but don’t I’ve ever addressed:

Nobody has universal healthcare. Not even after it’s fully implemented will it be honestly “universal”.

Obama handed corporations billions of dollars in enforced customers that hopefully will be better than having no healthcare at all.

Creepy how Obama supporters never did the math on how much corporations could be expected to profit from Obama’s plan until there was fear that the Supreme Court might eliminate it.

Suddenly there were pseudo-liberals trying to explain how bad the elimination of Obamacare would be to _corporation’s profitability_.

And yes, that’s closet Republicanism: Corporations profiting from expanded government.

Liberals, true liberals, know that it would have been more efficient and cost-effective to go straight to any of a dozen superior healthcare models that the rest of the industrialized world uses: Namely, telling corporations to go F# themselves.

While stated in crude and extreme form, this became a fairly common routine among leftier-than-thou critics of the ACA (and/or NFIB v. Sebelius.) John Roberts was just “bailing out” the health insurance industry or some such. (The theory that John Roberts is the only Republican in America sensitive to corporate interests is…not plausible, but moving right along.) I understand perfectly well that single-payer would be a superior system, but in the context of American politics, this is beside the point — if you have further complaints, direct them to James Madison.

There are two obvious problems with this argument. First, it proves too much. By the same logic, progressives should oppose food stamps because they’re really just bailouts of Big Food and Big Retail, and the federal government shouldn’t try to help poor people get food with anything but rations provided by state agencies. The fact is, when you get money into the hands of poor people, a lot of it is going to end up in the hands of Wal-Mart or Target or whatever. This is a really bad argument for opposing welfare programs. Second, I don’t think these claims that private health insurance are worthless are remotely credible. Do you have health insurance through your employer? Would you give it up for an increase in wages? I sure wouldn’t. Does anyone really think that health care is no more accessible for middle class people in Massachusetts than it is in Mississippi?

The same fallacies can be seen in Connor Kilpatrick’s assertion that not only does Obama not favor radical means, he doesn’t even favor progressive goals. Apparently, the endpoint progressives should be fighting for isn’t “making healthcare universally accessible” but “sticking it to corporations.” Not only is this exactly the wrong priority, but as long as #2 is your main goal American political institutions mean that #1 is will be permanently off the table unless the South is planning on seceding again.


8 CA Grants Stay Based On Free Exercise Argument That Is Still Terrible

[ 38 ] November 30, 2012 |

I’m not sure how seriously they’re taking the appeal, but it’s still cause for concern. In light of Oregon v. Smith, the argument that the contraceptive mandate violates the First Amendment should be laughed out of court, but in a context in which ad hoc arguments that the PPACA violated the commerce clause could get 5 votes from the Supreme Court all bets are off. And the fact that Scalia wrote Smith guarantees nothing — as NFIB v. Sebelius showed, he’s not going to consider himself bound by his previous holdings in landmark cases or anything.

…a commenter argues that the real argument will be based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I don’t think this actually works, because although RFRA might apply the old Sherbert standard to lower federal officials, it’s not obvious to me that it should be seen as applying to future legislative enactments — it seems to me that the proper course is to assume that the more recent legislation supersedes the older one. But even if we assume that the Sherbert test should apply, the argument is still utterly frivolous. If the RFRA prevents the application of federal law in this case — which concerns a de minimis burden on religious practice, and indeed would result in a substantial net reduction of religious freedom — I’m not sure what significant federal law you can enforce.

Foreign Entanglements: Evaluating the Latest on Gaza

[ 5 ] November 30, 2012 |

On this week’s episode of Foreign Entanglements, Matt speaks with Elizabeth Tsurkov about Operation Pillar of Defense:

My Offer Reflects the Fact That Elections Have Consequences

[ 125 ] November 29, 2012 |

Interesting — after re-election we have a very different Obama that was at least formally willing to give away the store in 2011:

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner presented the House speaker, John A. Boehner, a detailed proposal on Thursday to avert the year-end fiscal crisis with $1.6 trillion in tax increases over 10 years, $50 billion in immediate stimulus spending, home mortgage refinancing and a permanent end to Congressional control over statutory borrowing limits.

The proposal, loaded with Democratic priorities and short on detailed spending cuts, met strong Republican resistance. In exchange for locking in the $1.6 trillion in added revenues, President Obama embraced the goal of finding $400 billion in savings from Medicare and other social programs to be worked out next year, with no guarantees.

He did propose some upfront cuts in programs like farm price supports, but did not specify an amount or any details. And senior Republican aides familiar with the offer said those initial spending cuts might be outweighed by spending increases, including at least $50 billion in infrastructure spending, mortgage relief, an extension of unemployment insurance and a deferral of automatic cuts to physician reimbursements under Medicare.

This is more like it. Obviously, nothing like this has any chance of being enacted, and nor will it make House Republicans more likely to make a deal.  But it is encouraging for two reasons:

  • It makes it clear that Obama is willing to maximize his leverage by letting the Bush tax cuts expire.  This isn’t the proposal of someone who’s particularly interested in making a deal to avoid “going over the cliff.”   And after the Bush tax cuts have expired Obama’s hand is much stronger.
  • It makes it more likely that the terrible deal he offered in 2011 was based on the idea that any “grand bargain” would help his re-election, rather than an inherent commitment to the underlying principles.   This deal has the right priorities — significant new revenue, needed stimulus spending, and to the extent that “entitlements” are cut this is done correctly:  Social Security not touched, unspecified Medicare cuts that can be progressive because they don’t necessarily entail cuts to services.

Since I’ve been meaning to get to Corey Robin’s question for a while, it’s probably as good a time as any to address it:

Doesn’t Obama have good reasons not only to lead us over the fiscal cliff, but also to keep us there? That is, not negotiate any kind of deal with the Republicans, neither before nor after January 1? Unless you assume Obama doesn’t want cuts to entitlements — which I don’t assume; I believe he’s an austerian of Reactionary Keynesianism — think about what he gets if he allows the sequester to go through: slightly higher tax rates, cuts to entitlements, and cuts to defense. Those seems like classic New Democrat/Clintonite goals.

It seems to me that the question is built around a faulty premise — that is, that the sequester has entitlement cuts.   In fact, the sequester specifically excluded entitlements and focused on discretionary spending.  Social Security and Medicare are specifically excluded from the sequester; the only “entitlement” cuts that would result from going over the fiscal cliff are the cuts to provider payments that would be scheduled to happen anyway.    This is not only important in itself, but is also an important consideration given the assumption that Obama is inherently dying to slash entitlements.  If this was true, it is (to put it mildly) hard to understand why the sequester excluded them.   And, in fact, going over the fiscal cliff makes it less likely that bad entitlement cuts will be enacted.

This isn’t to say that progressives shouldn’t worry.   Until a deal is reached, we should!   This first bid is encouraging, but until there’s an actual deal skepticism and political pressure from the left are very much in order.    However, it is important for progressives not to fall into the Pain Caucus trap of discussing the single program MedicareandSocialSecurity.    Any cut to Social Security benefits — especially a raise in the retirement age, which is the kind of thing that can get traction only because most elites have jobs that are rewarding and physically undemanding — should be fiercely resisted.   Medicare cuts, conversely, can be good or bad depending on the details.   Single payer systems are better in part because they impose “austerity” on providers, drug manufacturers, etc. — this isn’t an inherently bad thing.   As any progressive should recognize, the U.S. spends far, far too much on health care.  If Medicare is cut by paying less to drug companies,that’s good.  If it’s cut by raising the eligibility age, that’s bad (and, since Medicare is more efficient just cost-shifting.)

Tell your statistics to shut up

[ 24 ] November 29, 2012 |

Case Western Reserve Law School Dean Larry Mitchell had an op ed in the Times this morning about why certain unnamed “sensationalist” critics of American legal education are being sensationalistic.

My response is here.


[ 11 ] November 29, 2012 |

In my latest at the Diplomat I call for a more standardized vocabulary of naval affairs:

Navies do a poor job of developing such a nomenclature, in part because they have good reasons to avoid standardized ship designations.  Civilian policymakers don’t like to hear that they’ve devoted a substantial portion of the government treasury to building a buying a light carrier (CVL); they’d prefer to think that they’ve invested state funds in an aircraft carrier comparable to those operated by the United States. On the other hand, the terms “aircraft carrier” and “destroyer” can have idiosyncratic negative political implications, pushing navies to refer to ships as “frigates” or “helicopter destroyers.”

Whatever its other merits, the Washington Naval Treaty and its follow up agreements established an international standard for ship types. By defining the terms battleship, aircraft carrier, heavy cruiser, and light cruiser, the treaty system created a warship typology that allowed relatively easy comparison across states.  Giving the typology legal and normative substance surely created some odd incentives, including aJapanese effort to build fleet carriers of less than 10,000 tons and a multinational “light cruiser” competition involving ships bristling with 6” guns and displacing in excess of 10,000 tons.  Nevertheless, it resulted in a system of de facto standardization, and consequently of defense acquisition transparency.


Keep Raisin’ That Green Lantern!

[ 111 ] November 29, 2012 |

In a further refinement of the power attributed to the BULLY PULPIT, we are informed by Ben smith that the president’s ability to send emails to his supporters is not merely a powerful tool, it is his most powerful tool.   Surely, John Boehner is quaking in his boots about the prospect that a weapon of this power might be unleashed.    And if Bill Clinton’s masterful job getting major health care legislation passed proves anything, it’s that going public is far, far better than meaningless “congressional negotiations.”

Just Sayin’

[ 129 ] November 29, 2012 |

Mr. Beck — I can perfectly understand your goal to be perceived as pissing off liberals — it’s a good living in your position.  However, your latest submission must be rejected, because the only people who are, er, pissed off about “Piss Christ” at this late date are conservative pundits who have reached a Grade A, or “Roger Kimball,” level of laziness.   Liberals have never cared about this long-dead fake controversy, so the tit for tat doesn’t really work.  (I’ll grant, though, that if the beer that was meant to stand in for your urine is Coors Light, that will probably be as close to wit as you’ll ever get, and it would actually be a greater indignity to the Obama figure than actual piss.) Better luck next time!

Navel Gazing

[ 103 ] November 28, 2012 |

An update, a question, and a prompt walked into a blog…

First, I have updated the LGM “Who Are We?” page to include (in one convenient place!) much of what’s available on the sidebars and on the drop down menus. A link to this page also shows up at the top of the mobile site, for your convenience. Over time we’ll make additional updates, including hopefully providing bios for the rest of the contributors (nudge nudge).

Second, Erik and I have given some thought to starting a weekly or semi-weekly podcast.  Is there any interest in this, and if so is there any format or subjects that people would specifically like to have covered? Along similar lines, would there be any interest in something like a monthly Google Hangout with elements of the LGM collective? And while we’re at it, are there any other features that readers would like to see?

Finally, let me be clear; if you don’t buy something from the LGM store this holiday season, you’ll never forgive yourself.  Your family will never forgive you.  Whatever God or gods you worship will hold you in contempt.  It’s just that important; I already have my new hat.  On the other hand, if you’d prefer to express your gratitude directly rather than through the medium of overpriced stuff, just donate (button is on the near right sidebar). If you feel a deep personal connection with one of the authors of LGM and want to make that connection manifest in material objects, we can also make that happen; take a look at the Who Are We page or the drop down menus for links to Amazon Wishlists.

Two More Obama/Lincoln Points

[ 88 ] November 28, 2012 |

A couple follow-ups to my post about Lincoln and Obama are in order, given the comments.   First, Corey Robin makes a good point:

Scott, you refer to “people who think that Barack Obama is precisely comparable to Abraham Lincoln and the PPACA precisely comparable to the 13th Amendment.” And you say, “Granted, I don’t believe these people exist (and this includes, I’m guessing, Speilberg and Kushner.)” Kushner has in fact made exactly those comparisons. Twice. Here on the Colbert Report (start 2:00):–2
And here on the Chris Hayes show:

I agree that Kushner brought up the comparison in the general sense.   What I meant by “precise equivalent” is that I don’t read Kushner as saying that Obama has had the same historical impact as Lincoln or that the PPACA has the same impact on American history as emancipation.   I read Kushner and Speilberg as merely saying that Lincoln, like Obama, was a moderate and a pragmatist.  On this point, Kushner and Speilberg are clearly correct and Kilpatrick is clearly wrong.   It’s also perfectly accurate to point out that even the Civil War amendments represented compromises in which Republican moderates generally got more than radical Republicans.   As described ,to the extent that I object to Kushner/Speilberg my objections would be the same as Robin’s — they seem to downplay the extent to which the unique conditions that allowed moderate pragmatism to have radical effects  was created by the actions of the slaves themselves.   But Kilpatrick specifically rejects this critique.

Now, precisely because 1861 was such an unusual context I don’t think Kushner’s comparison of Lincoln and Obama is very useful.  Because changes that involve killing hundreds of thousands of people don’t provide a meaningful template for progressive change in ordinary political times, I don’t think a positive comparison is much more instructive than a negative comparison.   Compare Obama to Clinton, Carter, LBJ, FDR — fine, but Lincoln isn’t going to be particularly helpful.   But while the comparison is problematic I don’t think Kushner is saying that the PPACA is just as radical as emancipation.

In addition, a commenter has asked me to elaborate on my argument that “I’m not sure when the litmus test for being a Real Leftist became having a view of American political institutions that makes the complacent pluralists of the 50s look like Gramsci.”   What I’m referring to is the increasingly familiar argument that Democratic “spinelessness” is the primary variable explaining why the development of the American welfare state lags behind other liberal democracies.   On this view, there are no real institutional barriers to progressive change that the unfettered will of Democratic presidents couldn’t solve if they just wanted to, and because of this we can infer that they don’t want to.  Kilpatrick’s sneering about how Obama “dives for cover whenever Ben Nelson sneezes” is a classic illustration: the implication is that having to deal with conservative Senate Democrats is a choice Obama is making, and if he were a Real Man of Manly Will he could just raise the green lantern and make them do his bidding.

The main problems with this line of reasoning are that 1)it’s wrong and 2)whatever it is, it’s not any kind of left analysis.   Left analysis doesn’t ignore structural barriers.   The brute fact about American politics is that legislative enactments require passing an unusual number of veto points, and the malapportionment of the Senate means that having people like Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh as the pivot votes, amazingly enough, counts as an unusually favorable context.   For this reason, progressive reform, in the relatively rare cases where it’s even possible, requires buying off entrenched interests.  The Lincoln administration was a half-exception to these rules of American politics because of the context of the Civil War, not because Lincoln was a radical or a man of extraordinary will.   And even so, the Civil War amendments were all compromised, and partly as a result of this even the emancipation of slaves by forces did not prevent the confederate states from forestalling democracy for another century.    The idea that Obama could be Lincoln, or more than Lincoln, if he just wanted to is an unproductive fantasy that also rests on an inherently reactionary, bad-civics-textbook conception of American government.

No, Lincoln did not have a “secret plan” to liquidate slavery

[ 44 ] November 28, 2012 |

It’s probably not worth adding to Scott’s corrective observations on Connor Kilpatrick’s Jacobin post, but since I’m currently working on a manuscript about Lincoln in American fiction, I’m more or less helplessly drawn to the ways that Lincoln has been appropriated by historians as well as novelists and filmmakers for every conceivable political aim. As Donald Fehrenbacher once explained, “in the whole gamut of American politics, no reactionary is so blind, no revolutionary is so militant, no misfit so freakish that he cannot find a place in Abraham’s bosom.” So, for example, Thomas Dixon — author of the novels that inspired Griffith’s Birth of a Nation — wrote a hilariously unreadable novel asserting (in the 50th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation, no less) that Lincoln was a lifelong white supremacist who would have either deported or segregated free blacks had he not been unwisely murdered. Kilpatrick’s regard for Lincoln, by comparison, is drawn from an extensive body of historical and imaginative literature arching back to the 1930s Popular Front that posed Lincoln as an instrument of class warfare — liquidating, as Kilpatrick notes, an enormous proportion of the nation’s wealth and presiding over the greatest social revolution in American history. (The “Red Lincoln” historiography survives today, in affectionate as well as neo-confederate varieties. Dixon’s white supremacist Lincoln has substantially less cultural vitality these days, at least so far as I’m able to tell.)

In any event, the “true” or “real” Lincoln is an elusive thing; he had, as one of his biographers noted, an “essential ambiguity” that makes him perpetually available for reinterpretation. So when someone insists, as Kilpatrick does, that Lincoln had a “secret plan” to abolish slavery when he entered the office in 1861, we have to wonder how he arrives at such a precise understanding of Lincoln’s motives. Kilpatrick quotes Lincoln as vowing that “the powder in this bombshell will keep dry and when the fuse is lit, I intend to have them [the South] touch it off themselves,” destroying slavery in the process.

The problem with this interpretation, of course, is the context for Lincoln’s words.

Read more…

Game of Thrones: Swords! Swords! Swords! in “Baelor”

[ 16 ] November 28, 2012 |

Earlier in the quarter, I introduced my students to the anything-that’s-longer-than-it-is-wide mode of psychoanalytic criticism. Not very sophisticated, I know, but it helps explain the historical context of certain rhetorical tropes.* Given that this class is based on Game of Thrones, the discussion inevitably landed on the subject of swords as phallic symbols, and I noted that while there’s nothing necessary or natural about that connection, it is one of long-standing and therefore might have influenced how George R.R. Martin employed them in his narrative. Which the students took to mean “SWORDS EQUAL PENISES,” a not altogether unfortunate development given how the Arya and Needle string undermines conventional gender assumptions. It did, however, make teaching the ninth episode, “Baelor,” a little difficult. The episode opens with Lord Commander Mormont gifting a sword, Longclaw, meant for his son, Jorah Mormont, to Jon Snow. Snow proceeds down the stairs and is immediately accosted by his Wall-fellows:

Game of thrones - baelor00006

Keeping in mind what my students think swords equal, consider the eyeline match in this shot. Not explicit enough? Fine:

Game of thrones - baelor00007

That man seems a little too excited to see Jon’s sword.

Game of thrones - baelor00010

They all seem a little too excited to see Jon’s sword.

Read more…

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