Monday, December 21, 2009

How It Goes

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.
Everybody knows the war is over.
Everybody knows the good guys lost.
Everybody knows the fight was fixed.
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.
That's how it goes.
Everybody knows.
-- Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows
(thanks to Eschaton for reminding me of this song)

In this week's Sift:
  • The Health Care Bill: Is Better than Nothing Enough? Other than Republicans and a handful of liberals, everybody thinks the Senate health-care bill is better than the current system. But liberals are split on whether we'd do better to start over and play hardball this time.
  • The Progressive Predicament. With a Democratic president and big majorities in both houses of Congress, why can't we do more?
  • Because It's Christmas/Solstice/Hannukah/Whatever. Fun holiday-themed stuff I found, plus I discover that I've written more about Christmas than I thought.
  • Short Notes. Ru Paul goes vogue while Sarah Palin stiffs her hairdresser. An example of conservative humor. Video of an undersea volcano. How Creation confused the Sumerians. And Stephen Colbert promotes a balanced doomsday investment portfolio: gold, women, and sheep.
Next week: The Yearly Sift

The Health Care Bill: Is Better than Nothing Enough?
The Senate got past the crucial procedure hurdle on health care: They shut down the Republican filibuster on a party-line vote early this morning, with independents Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman supporting the Democrats. There are few more procedural hurdles, but the 60-vote coalition is expected to hold. A vote on the bill itself is scheduled for Christmas Eve.

Is that the end of it? No, of course not. The Senate bill is different from the one passed by the House, so a conference committee will have to put together a merged bill that will then be voted on in both houses all over again. Liberals will try to get some of the House bill's progressive features (like a public option) into the conference bill, while Senators Nelson and Lieberman (the last two votes to come around in the Senate) warn that any changes to the Senate bill will sink the whole thing.

Victory or Defeat? A little over a week ago, Harry Reid thought he had a put together a compromise that would hold his 60 votes together -- in particular by getting Joe Lieberman's vote. It replaced the public option with an option for 55-64-year-olds to buy into Medicare -- a proposal that Senator Lieberman had publicly supported three months before. Liberals were pretty happy with that, but then Lieberman defected, turning against his own proposal and sending health insurance stocks soaring.

The bill that survives in the Senate has no public option or Medicare buy-in. Federal subsidies are prevented from paying for the part a policy that covers abortion, but abortion-covering policies are allowed to be sold on the state-by-state exchanges -- unless the state passes a law opting out, as some will surely do. On the plus side, a loophole in the previous version of the bill allowed insurance policies to include lifetime limits -- a big reason why so many people with health insurance end up going bankrupt anyway. That loophole has been closed.

The outlines of this compromise have been clear all week, and Democrat voices have been split down the middle about whether such a bill should pass or not. Howard Dean wanted to kill it (but has since backed off a little):
This is essentially the collapse of health care reform in the United States Senate. And, honestly, the best thing to do right now is kill the Senate bill and go back to the House and start the reconciliation process, where you only need 51 votes and it would be a much simpler bill.
Ted Kennedy's widow Vicki wants the bill passed:
Ted often said that we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. He also said that it was better to get half a loaf than no loaf at all, especially with so many lives at stake. ... I humbly ask his colleagues to finish the work of his life, the work of generations, to allow the vote to go forward and to pass health-care reform now. As Ted always said, when it's finally done, the people will wonder what took so long.
The top liberal blogs and columnists were all over the map. Paul Krugman called the bill "an awesome achievement" but also "seriously flawed". Glenn Greenwald was less upbeat:
if progressives always announce that they are willing to accept whatever miniscule benefits are tossed at them (on the ground that it's better than nothing) and unfailingly support Democratic initiatives (on the ground that the GOP is worse), then they will (and should) always be ignored when it comes time to negotiate; nobody takes seriously the demands of those who announce they'll go along with whatever the final outcome is.
And Jane Hamsher was even more direct: "From what we know about the bill, it is worse than passing nothing."

The flaws. The basic analysis I gave you in September still holds: The various pieces of reform interlock in ways that defy a piecemeal approach. Everybody (except the insurance companies) wants to do away with exclusions for pre-existing conditions. But it you only do that, then you create a hole in the system: Healthy people can go without insurance, with the assurance that they can get coverage later if they develop a major health problem. With healthy people's money out of the system, premiums for everyone else would skyrocket, causing even more people to opt out of the system, until eventually only people with major health problems would seek insurance at all, and they would pay outrageous prices for it. You've made things worse, not better.

So if you get rid of pre-existing conditions, you need some kind of mandate that forces (or strongly influences) healthy people to get insurance. (Massachusetts already has a mandate. Ezra Klein interviews its main implementor.) Once you've done that, though, you've put the health insurance companies back in the driver's seat, because consumers have lost the option to say no. Even if the companies that sell insurance in your state offer only crappy policies at high prices, the law says you have to buy one anyway or pay a penalty. Under those circumstances, why should the industry offer anything but crappy policies at high prices? You've made things worse.

So now you need something that keeps insurance companies in check: Market competition might do it if it really existed -- right now it doesn't in much of the country -- and if the insurance companies couldn't just merge or collude (the problem with Republican proposals). Or the government could step in either with tight regulations or by offering a public option that competes with private insurance.

The main complaint of the kill-bill liberals is that the Senate bill doesn't do enough to control the insurance companies. (Dean called it "a bigger bailout for the insurance industry than AIG.") With no public option, there's no guarantee that the new state-by-state health insurance exchanges will foster enough competition to protect consumers. Although, as Josh Marshall pointed out, the public option as it stood a week or two ago was already so chopped-down that it wouldn't have accomplished much:
if you are worried about mandates now (and I think that's a very legitimate worry) you should have been worried about them with a Public Option too.
Probably more important, in the long run, is that the bill forces insurance companies to spend at least 85% of premiums to pay for health care.

What is "reconciliation"? At times it sounded like the kill-bill folks would be happier with the status quo. But (Jane Hamsher aside), their real point was that Democrats could start the process over, play hardball, and get a better result. (Al Franken does a good job explaining why this bill is better than the status quo.) There are basically two arrows that Democrats left in their quiver: They could have threatened a "nuclear option" of doing away with Senate filibusters altogether. When the Republicans were in the majority in 2005, they used such a threat to get Democrats to back down on filibusters of President Bush's judicial nominees.

The second filibuster-breaking option is reconciliation, the majority-rule process Republicans used to pass Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. The Wikipedia article on reconciliation explains the arcane rules of reconciliation pretty well. (Something I didn't know: the reason the Bush tax cuts phase out is that otherwise reconciliation wouldn't have applied to them.) Nate Silver explains how those rules would apply specifically to health-care reform.

As Nate points out, reconciliation has a bizarre aspect in this case: The popular parts of health-care reform violate the rules, but the controversial parts (like the public option) satisfy them. The bill would have to be cut in two, setting up a Game of Chicken: 41 senators could still scuttle health-care reform, but only by filibustering the part that got rid of pre-existing conditions. You'd like to think they wouldn't do that, but if they did we'd all be screwed. Reconciliation would be a very big bet on the general public-spiritedness of the Republicans and Joe Lieberman.

Democrats suck at Chicken, and the media always blames them for any bad results that come from it. We discovered this in 2007 when Bush vetoed the appropriation bill for his own wars, claiming that the Democrats had put too many strings on the money. The media blamed Democrats (not Bush) for endangering our troops, and the Democrats backed down, giving Bush the no-strings appropriation he wanted.

We'll discuss why things break that way in the next article.

After last week's deal broke down, liberal anger expressed itself in a stream of anti-Lieberman ridicule. DailyKos' Cheers and Jeers column published the lyrics to "Lieberman", which is sung to the tune of "Silver Bells". And there's a hilarious sock-puppet version of Democratic senators trying to negotiate with Lieberman.

Did you hear the one where Al Franken shuts down Joe Lieberman's speech? If you didn't, don't worry about it, because the whole story was bogus.

James Fallows dispels a lot of
myths about the filibuster.

I really don't understand Olympia Snowe. Democrats went to great lengths to try to win her vote, and various versions of the bill had the public-option trigger that she said she supported. But at no point did she do what a person negotiating in good faith does: make a definite offer. She always had some suggestion that would make the bill more to her liking, but she never promised, "I'll vote for it if ..." We come out of this process still not knowing what SnoweCare would look like.

The statement she released Sunday to explain her anti-health-care vote complained about the "artificial and arbitrary deadline of completing the bill by Christmas that is shortchanging the process." We can only speculate how much time Snowe's ideal process would take. The House passed its version of the bill November 7. President Obama's original goal was a bill by the end of August. Health care plans were widely discussed in the 2008 elections -- Ezra Klein points out how close this plan is to what Obama campaigned on -- and President Truman proposed the first national health care plan in 1945. If not now, when?

Republicans played no constructive role in this process. They still refuse to recognize that the uninsured or under-insured are a problem. They eventually did present a health-care proposal, but the Congressional Budget Office's analysis concluded that it would accomplish virtually nothing: The number of uninsured would continue to increase, from 50 million in 2010 to 52 million in 2019. (The Republicans' summary of their plan in fact makes no claim about helping the uninsured, who aren't a problem.) Their plan would make it harder for an insurance company to cancel your policy because you got sick, but do nothing to help people with pre-existing conditions.

One of the more bizarre anti-health-care arguments came from Chuck Norris, who writes a syndicated column. (Liberals get tarred with being the party of Hollywood, but notice that whenever the conservatives get a movie star -- Reagan, Schwarzenegger -- they showcase him. Outspoken liberals like George Clooney and Sean Penn don't have columns.) Norris writes:

What would have happened if Mother Mary had been covered by Obamacare? What if that young, poor and uninsured teenage woman had been provided the federal funds (via Obamacare) and facilities (via Planned Parenthood, etc.) to avoid the ridicule, ostracizing, persecution and possible stoning because of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy?
Does Norris really believe that if Mary had just had the money she would have forgotten that visit from the Archangel Gabriel and aborted Jesus? I wonder how Catholics are reacting to this implied slur against the Mother of God. So far my "Chuck Norris" search on is coming up with no comment. Catholic League President Bill Donohue is so quick to jump on any liberal statement that he thinks abuses Catholic symbols or concepts, so surely he'll be all over this. Won't he?

In fact, he's not reacting. Because Donohue's outrage is not religious at all; he fakes it for partisan political purposes. Norris is a conservative, so Donohue (and other Catholic conservatives who use religion to mask politics) has no reason to gin up phony indignation against him.

The Progressive Predicament
Watching the ever-shrinking reform of the health-care system has made a number of progressives ask some bigger, harder questions. Thomas Shaller wonders why
the bar to clear for public support seems to be asymmetrically higher for progressive agenda items than conservative agenda items. ... the political reality that less support is needed, say, to pass a tax cut for rich people or start a war than is needed to expand health care coverage or raise the minimum wage
And John Aravosis asks:
how was George Bush so effective in passing legislation during his presidency when he never had more than 55 Republicans in the Senate?

DailyKos' thereisnospoon says outright that Obama and the Democrats in Congress sold us out on health care and financial reform, and delivers this wake-up slap-in-the-face:
He hasn't done this because he's a bad guy. In fact, he's a great guy. I think he's doing pretty much the best job he can. He's sold you out because he's not afraid of you. And really, if I may be so bold, he shouldn't be afraid of you. You don't know who really runs the show, and you're far too fickle and manipulable to count on.
S/he (I'm not sure) laughs at the idea that Democrats could elect a president and 60 senators and then expect that they will go off and work our will. It's more difficult than that.
The Right has built vast networks of think tanks, newspapers, periodicals, cable news channels, and political advocacy organizations to spread their finely tuned, well-honed messages. Their politicians may fail them, and their actual policies may be deeply unpopular, but their message machine nearly always works its magic to get them what they want, even when Democrats are in power.

That's partly because the American political Right never quits and never gives up. They know that organization is the key to their success, and they don't trust politicians to do their work for them. Democrats, on the other hand, get disappointed and quit when our politicians don't pan out the way we wanted. That's why we lose.
Until liberals have an equivalent level of organization, s/he claims, our agenda will always fall by the wayside.

OpenLeft's Paul Rosenberg pulls a bunch of this together, and then makes some very good observations about structural problems in the American political system.
We are the only advanced industrial nation with a pronounced and persistent class skew to our rates of voter participation-a skew that persistently under-represents progressive views, and like any feature of the political system that has endured this long, there is nothing accidental, incidental, casual, or individual about this.

Sure it's specific individuals who are not voting, but their non-participation is
not fundamentally a result of individual choice. They are responding rationally to the fact that their votes don't make a difference, that politicians don't listen to people like them, and that paying attention to politics only gets their hopes up in order to dash them--an extra helping of bitter disappointment that they really don't need in their lives.
He proposes an agenda to change the nature of the political process: election reform, strengthening unions, immigration reform so that we no longer have a non-voting underclass, and so on. Democrats pay lip service to this stuff, but haven't put any real muscle behind it.

I'll add this: It all comes down to the difference between corporations and people. Corporations are rich, they're totally amoral, they never take their eyes off the ball, and they don't get discouraged. People aren't like that. So a political movement that looks out for people is disadvantaged when it faces a political movement that looks out for corporations. This doesn't mean that people can't win, but they've got to face their disadvantages squarely.

Because It's Christmas/Solstice/Hannukah/Whatever
A chorus of silent monks does the Hallelujah Chorus with cue cards. (And this has nothing to do with Christmas, but having found the Amazing Acts blog, I had to show you the Grocery Store Musical.)

The Guerrilla Handbell Strikeforce gives a Salvation Army bell-ringer some unexpected support.

I linked to this last year, but it deserves to be an annual: Straight No Chaser's version of the 12 Days of Christmas. (If you also like their playing-it-straight Carol of the Bells, you should buy their album.)

A former Disney special effects guy does Christmas Light Hero, sort of Guitar Hero in Christmas lights. But I still like the classic 2005 Christmas Lights Gone Wild.

Here are some science tricks to amaze your friends with at the Christmas Party.

I have a Christmas column out today at UU World: Christmas Nostalgia for the Family We Never Were. I'm not generally negative about Christmas, but here I take a look at one of its stranger aspects: The way we get nostalgic for a way of life most of us have never actually experienced. It's not just that you can't go home again, it's that home never was that way. What can you do with that?

Looking back, I'm a little surprised to realize just how much holiday writing I've done over the years: Midwinter, a short story about an ancient Solstice, Carol at Christmas, one of my Mike DeSalvo stories, a poem titled Christmas, and comic fiction I wrote for UU World last year: The Ghosts of a Unitarian Christmas.

Short Notes
Video worth watching: a deep sea volcano erupting.

People say conservatives have no sense of humor, but it's not true. Their humor is like the guys in junior high who would trip somebody and then laugh at them. If you can stand it, check out the "Feliz Navidad" parody "Illegals in My Yard."

The best parody of Sarah Palin's book is Ru Paul's Going Vogue.

Another great Sarah Palin story. But I think this one calls for a generous interpretation: She didn't intend to stiff the hairdresser, paying just fell through the cracks. It makes me wonder, though: How much stuff will fall through the cracks when she starts running a national campaign?

Last week I linked to Jon Stewart's exposure of the incestuous relationship between Glenn Beck and the gold companies that advertise on his show. Well, now Stephen Colbert has extended that critique to the whole conservative talkshow universe, and has decided to get into the act himself. He cuts to an ad where John Slattery (Roger Sterling from Mad Men) explains the three parts of a balanced doomsday portfolio: gold, women, and sheep -- because in addition to food and wool they provide warm companionship if someone steals your women.

The Onion counts down the
top ten stories of the past 4.5 billion years. My favorite: Sumerians look on in confusion as God creates world.

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