Monday, March 29, 2010

Victory Lap

Winning takes talent. To repeat takes character. -- John Wooden

In this week's Sift ... I wanted to move on from health care, but the rest of the world didn't. So this week we focus on the aftermath of a contentious struggle.
  • The Democrats: "Yes We Did!" This week we saw something we haven't seen in a long time: Democrats unapologetic about getting what they wanted. There was a lot of smiling and laughing, and a little wondering why things can't be like this more often.
  • The Republicans: Repeal and Judicial Activism. Now who's counting on unelected judges to legislate from the bench? And Phil Gramm explains the difference between liberal and conservative approaches to health care.
  • Violent Rhetoric and Violent Action. Right-wing anger took a violent turn, though not a deadly one yet. Is it too much to ask Republican leaders to just say no?
  • No Persians Need Apply. The WaPo's slimy criticism of Christiane Amanpour.
  • Short Notes. The Onion achieves universal news parody, but still can't outdo the Texas Board of Education. Scott Brown nominates Rachel Maddow to run against him. Sarah Palin seems not to know who the Founding Fathers are. How I got David Frum fired. And more.

The Democrats: "Yes We Did!"
President Obama is a basketball player, so he knows: When you break the other team's full-court press and get the ball across the half-court line, you don't just sigh in relief and wait for the defense to re-set. No, you take advantage of their gamble by going straight to the basket.

That's what he was doing in Iowa Thursday. (Highlight video here.) The heavy lifting was over and the final piece of the bill would pass Thursday evening. But he didn't let up. Instead, he started making the Republicans pay for their outrageous rhetoric and tactics:
There’s been plenty of fear-mongering, plenty of overheated rhetoric. You turn on the news, you’ll see the same folks are still shouting about there’s going to be an end of the world because this bill passed. (Laughter.) I’m not exaggerating. Leaders of the Republican Party, they called the passage of this bill “Armageddon.” (Laughter.) Armageddon. “End of freedom as we know it.”

So after I signed the bill, I looked around to see if there were any -- (laughter) -- asteroids falling or -- (applause) -- some cracks opening up in the Earth. (Laughter.) It turned out it was a nice day. (Laughter.) Birds were chirping. Folks were strolling down the Mall. People still have their doctors.
That's exactly the right tone. Don't try to trump the other side's ridiculous claims, laugh at them.

We would never have gotten this advantage if the bill hadn't passed. The Republicans could have kept up the nonsense and claimed that they deserved credit for averting Armageddon. Now they're like the preacher who promised his followers the end of the world on a date certain. The date has come and gone, and the world is still here.

The View From the Bleachers blog  and Bob Johnson on Daily Kos continue the mockery.
Will-I-Am's "Yes We Can" video gets updated with a hell-no-you-can't counterpoint from John Boehner.
What would the health-care debate had sounded like if both sides had tried to be reasonable? Probably like this conversation between Joshua Cohen and Brink Lindsey.
Sometimes a news host's ego eclipses the story. In this clip two months ago, Rep. Alan Grayson tells Chris Matthews exactly what is going to happen: The Democrats will pass a health-care bill using reconciliation in the Senate. Matthews not only doesn't believe Grayson, he berates, badgers, and attempts to humiliate him. Matthews accuses him of "pandering to the netroots" -- lying, in other words, telling people like me what we want to hear even though he knows it won't happen.

Remember, this isn't Fox News, this is the supposedly liberal network, MSNBC.

The Republicans: Repeal and Judicial Activism
Friday's Wall Street Journal gave five Republican views of where to go from here. The most interesting is from Phil Gramm, who summed up the difference between Republican and Democratic health-care policy like this:
Any real debate about health-care reform has to be centered on solving the problem of cost. Ultimately, there are only two ways of doing it. The first approach is to have government control costs through some form of rationing. The alternative is to empower families to make their own health-care decisions in a system where costs matter. The fundamental question is about who is going to do the controlling: the family or the government.
This quote is worth examining in some detail, because it really does capture the difference. Look at what's missing: First, to Gramm the problem is entirely cost; access doesn't matter. If people can't get coverage because of, say, pre-existing conditions, that's not Phil Gramm's problem. And meanwhile, during the decades-long struggle to control costs, tens of millions of Americans won't be able to afford coverage, and tens of thousands of them will die unnecessarily every year. But that's not Phil Gramm's problem either.

Now look at his cost-control choices. Both are variations on one idea: Somebody has to go without care. The only questions are who and how. Gramm thinks the who should be the people who have to scramble to meet a budget. He doesn't say that, but think it through: In his "system where costs matter" where else would savings come from?

Economizing on your health-care decisions is not like buying chicken instead of steak. It's more like buying the half-price dented can that might have botulism or eating the stuff in the refrigerator that is a little spoiled but probably still OK. Probably. It's a gamble, in other words. 

So you have a pain somewhere and your doctor says, "Probably it's nothing, but it could be cancer. We should do a test." The test turns out to be expensive. In Phil Gramm's system, if you're rich you get the test, but otherwise you have to think: "Am I going to risk it?" A lot of cash-strapped people will take the risk rather than pay for the test, and some of them will die.

That's how Republicans cut costs: People die, but it's their own decision so it's OK. They gambled and lost. Not my problem. 

That's what it means to "empower families" in "a system where costs matter": We'll push struggling families into gambling with their lives.

Here's the cost-control feature Gramm ignores: The system could be more efficient if the decision-making weren't so atomized. Think about vaccinations. A system-wide approach can wipe out a disease (like we almost did with smallpox and are trying to do with polio). That's a huge cost savings, but it takes a government mandate. 

An even better example is antibiotic-resistant hospital-bourne infections -- a huge problem that costs billions and kills about 19,000 Americans every year. Individuals and families can't do much about it -- my Dad picked up MRSA in a hospital after surgery this summer, and I don't see what we could have done differently. 

Well, there is one thing: We could have sent Dad to Norway for his surgery, because Norway (one of those "socialist" countries whose example is supposed to scare us) has MRSA pretty well whipped. They did it by cutting down the unnecessary use of antibiotics.  Fewer antibiotics in the environment means fewer chances for resistant bacteria to evolve. They don't cure MRSA any better than we do, but they prevent it.

The Dutch also control MRSA using a "search and destroy" strategy that tests everyone who enters a hospital. That, again, is a "socialist" solution: Most MRSA carriers never get sick and have no individual motivation to pay for a test, but you force tests on them anyway. It works.

Did I mention that Norwegians on average live two years longer than Americans? And that they spent $4763 per person on health care in 2007, compared to $7290 in the US? (For the Dutch it's 1.6 years and $3837.) Republican-style individual decision-making can't get you there; it just trades off cost against survival. To improve both you need a system-wide approach. You need to deal with the public health problems, not just the individual health problems.

Republican state attorney generals are filing suit to have the bill declared unconstitutional, because the Constitution does not empower the government to require people to buy private-market products like health insurance. There's really no precedent for such a ruling, but Republicans must be hoping that the conservative judicial activists on the Supreme Court will ignore precedent and rule based on their ideology, as they did in the Citizens United case or Bush v Gore.

As far as constitutionality and the Founders' intent goes, Joe Conason points out that George Washington signed a bill with an individual mandate. The Militia Act of 1792 requires each able-bodied male of military age to 
provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges ...

The overall Republican narrative is that Obama is an extreme left-winger: socialist or even Marxist or totalitarian -- like Stalin or Hitler

Health care has to be shoe-horned into that narrative, because Obamacare is almost entirely built from ideas that Republicans had back in the days when Republicans were sane. Senators old enough to have supported the 1993 Heritage Foundation plan -- Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley and others -- have been spinning wildly to explain why they now think that their old proposal is unconstitutional. Their defense seems to be that nobody worried about the Constitution back in 1993, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Grassley told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell: "I don't think anybody gave it much thought until three or four months ago."

Mitt Romney has the even-harder problem of explaining why his 2006 Massachusetts health plan was good, but the Obama plan (basically just a bigger version of the same thing) is horrible. The difference he points to: His plan was bipartisan. Matt Yglesias responds: Obama's plan would have been bipartisan too if people like Romney had supported it.

I'll just tell you this, if this [health-care bill] passes and it's five years from now and all that stuff gets implemented, I am leaving the country. I'll go to Costa Rica.
Buh-bye Rush. Send us a card. BTW: Costa Rica is a good choice. They have universal health care and they let foreigners buy in cheaply. They also have no armed forces, so you never have to worry about some crazy president starting a war for no reason. You'll love it.
The Congressman who shouted "baby killer" at Bart Stupak has been identified: Republican Randy Neugebauer of Texas. He has apologized to Stupak, but is also raising money based on his outburst.

Violent Rhetoric and Violent Action
Another reason to respond with humor rather than anger is that the anger is already out of hand.

Passage of health-care reform sparked a wave of vandalism against Democrats in Congress: broken windows at several congressional offices, and (a little bit more scary) a cut gas line at a house that right-wingers thought belonged to a Democratic Congressman but actually belonged to his brother. One Missouri Democrat found a coffin outside his home.

Rachel Maddow led with this story two nights in a row. Only in retrospect will we know whether that was prescient or an over-reaction. If this spirals up to an Oklahoma City bombing or a JFK assassination, it was prescient. If occasional vandalism is the extent of it, Rachel (and a few other people on the Left) over-reacted.

Here's what is beyond dispute: 
  • Conservatives like to use violent metaphors in their rhetoric. So Sarah Palin talks about "reloading" and puts up a map with "targeted" congressional districts in crosshairs. (Even the View's Elizabeth Hasselbeck -- inexplicably left off my list of blonde conservative female pundits last week -- described this as "despicable".) Democrats also use fighting metaphors, but usually stay away from more graphic ones involving weapons or military tactics.
  • In this era, right-wing crazies are more violent than left-wing crazies. That hasn't always been true, but it has for a few decades now. If there are left-wing militias groups training for revolution, I haven't seen them. Lefties don't shoot people in churches (not just here, but here), and we aren't making heroes of the people who do. We haven't dive-bombed offices we don't like or shot up museums lately.

What's at issue is the connection between metaphoric violence and physical violence. A recent NYT article minimized the relationship. While admitting the possibility of riling up an occasional "lone wolf", Benedict Carey says:
the psychological distance between talk and action — between fantasizing about even so much as brick heaving and actually doing it — is far larger for a typical, peaceable citizen than many assume. 
Still, Republican leaders haven't just just pooh-poohed the connection, they've leaned towards justifying the violence. Iowa Rep. Steve King, for example, responded to the IRS kamikaze by repeating his criticisms of the IRS. And Scott Brown said, "No one likes paying taxes." John Boehner did say that violence was "unacceptable", but only after sympathizing with the motives of those who threaten:
I know many Americans are angry over this health care bill, and that Washington Democrats just aren't listening
Eric Cantor tried to turn the attack around: He accused Democrats of "fanning the flames" by complaining about the threats against them. And he claimed (falsely, as it turned out, reminding some bloggers of Ashley Todd) that his offices had been targeted too. Democrats offered a vanilla bipartisan civility agreement, which Republican leaders refused to sign.

Digby nails this behavior: It's a wife-beater mindset. Democrats have been "asking for it" by daring to vote for something they believe in and carrying out the platform they ran on. 

It's hard not to connect violence with beliefs that would justify a violent response. Several people have asked me about the Harris online poll with bizarre results. 41% of the Republicans answering the poll say they believe Obama "wants to use an economic collapse or terrorist attack as an excuse to take dictatorial powers." 24% even agree that "He may be the Anti-Christ." I take this with a grain of salt because, as Newsweek points out, the poll design was virtually guaranteed to exaggerate agreement.

No Persians Need Apply
ABC announced that veteran CNN international reporter Christiane Amanpour will be the new host of its Sunday-morning show "This Week", starting in August. She replaces George Stephanopoulos, who has moved on to "Good Morning America".

What makes a good anchor for an interview-and-commentary show is highly subjective, so it's not surprising that people have many reactions to this announcement. But the column WaPo's TV critic Tom Shales wrote has some ugly undercurrents that Glenn Greenwald noticed and brought to the surface. Shales first observes:
Supporters of Israel have more than once charged Amanpour with bias against that country and its policies.
Fair enough, though supporters of anything have a tendency to see accurate reporting as bias against them. But then the next paragraph begins:
Amanpour grew up in Great Britain and Iran. Her family fled Tehran in 1979 at the start of the Islamic revolution, when she was college age. She has steadfastly rejected claims about her objectivity
To understand why Glenn calls this "slimy", flip it around. The job's other major candidate was Jake Tapper. How slimy would it be to raise unsubstantiated questions about a pro-Israel bias and then immediately mention Trapper's ethnic background (Jewish)? 

If somebody wants to argue that Amanpour is anti-Israel, fine: Cite examples. Give evidence. But in America a reporter's ethnicity is not evidence of bias.

Short Notes
The Onion parodies every cable-news story simultaneously in Breaking News: Some Bullshit is Happening Somewhere

It  also demonstrates how hard parodying the Right is these days. Their list of changes to the Texas textbooks doesn't sound any crazier than the real ones. Extra credit question: Is this from the Onion or the real Texas standards?
A recommendation to include country and western music among the nation’s important cultural movements. The popular black genre of hip-hop is being dropped from the same list.

New Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown has been trying to raise funds based on the false rumor that MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (who lives in Massachusetts) is going to run against him -- a rumor he never bothered to check out by calling her. Since her on-air denial, he has not backed off, telling a talk-radio host "Bring her on." (To which Rachel says: "Bring what on?") He also hasn't returned her calls or responded to her invitation to come on her show. Rachel responds:
I guess Scott Brown is going to be one of the politicians who makes stuff up to raise money instead of dealing with real issues.

Since my father-in-law went to a nursing home, my wife has been getting his mail. So I have read Sarah Palin's latest fund-raising letter. It's strikingly vacuous, even for her: She favors "the ideals of our Founding Fathers" but doesn't say what any of them are. She's against "Liberal politicians ... trying to re-write the U.S. Constitution" but doesn't say what part is being rewritten or by whom. She's also against "politicians who want to take away our basic rights" ... whatever they are.

I'm reminded of an Onion article I've linked to before: Area Man Passionate Defender of What He Imagines Constitution To Be.

The letter gets a little confusing when Sarah endorses "a return to the values our Founding Fathers fought and died for" since the Founders are usually considered to be the people who survived the Revolution long enough to write the Constitution or otherwise participate in the early days of the Republic. (As far as I know, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin all died in their beds.) But my confusion comes from over-thinking. This is just evolution at work: Pieces of one buzz-phrase mate with another to produce something new.

Gee, it's like conservatives read the Sift or something. Last week I pointed to David Frum as a conservative who was making sense. Thursday he lost his job as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. (Most complete coverage here.)

Best Frum quote: "Republicans originally thought Fox News worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox."
It's 90 minutes long -- an hour of talk and a half-hour of questions -- so don't get started if you don't have some time, but Rick Perlstein's talk at Vanderbilt last Monday is very insightful and interesting. Perlstein is a historian (author of Nixonland), and he's describing his historical model of how transformational presidents -- FDR, Reagan -- did it. He doesn't think Obama is following that path.
The contrast between today's tea-party Republicans and Republicans from not-so-long-ago came out Saturday on Mike Huckabee's show. Huckabee was trying to get James Baker, Chief of Staff and Secretary of State in the original Bush administration, to condemn Obama's handling of the Israeli settlement issue. Baker refused to run with the Israel-is-always-right ball, and instead gave Huckabee a history lesson.
Another long-term price of the second Bush administration's follies: British lawmakers want to end the "special relationship" that has let the U.S. call the shots in Britain's foreign policy.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Party Like It's 1935

Those newspapers of the nation which most loudly cried dictatorship against me would have been the first to justify the beginnings of dictatorship by somebody else.  -- Franklin Roosevelt
In this week's Sift:
  • Did We Win? President Obama might sign a health-care reform bill as early as tomorrow. The Senate still has some stuff to fix, but reform is going to be a reality. After a yearlong process of argument and compromise, what should we make of the final product? First, don't think of it as a final product.
  • Next Up, Financial Reform. So far, we've done remarkably little to prevent a repeat of the 2008 meltdown. This is going to take more than one Sift to cover, but let's get started.
  • Short Notes. My talk about the Sift. Subway-adapted stray dogs. Jon Stewart does a great Glenn Beck imitation, while Stephen Colbert nominates Beck for pope. Strife on the Right. Why dark matter is a liberal plot. Seven years in Iraq. And more.

Did We Win?
The Senate health care bill passed the House late Sunday night 219-212, with no Republican yes-votes. The process is not completely over, because the House also passed "fixes" to the bill (which the Senate will now consider through the reconciliation process that blocks a filibuster), and both bills must then be signed by President Obama. But this was the key step. Obama's signature is a foregone conclusion, which means that some kind of health reform will now become law. Probably the Senate will follow through on the fixes, and we'll wind up with something close to what Obama put forward a few weeks ago.

Does that mean liberals won?

This debate has been going on for more than a year now. From the outset, the liberal idea of a single-payer system (Medicare for everybody) was off the table, despite the fact that it would almost certainly work better. (France and Germany have single-payer systems. They get better outcomes for half to 2/3rds of the per-person cost we pay.) For much of the year it looked like we might get a public option, a Medicare-like system to compete with private insurance companies, but we didn't.

The details of the bill picked up further conservative compromises along the way (in exchange for no Republican votes) but the outline stayed close to the system Mitt Romney set up in Massachusetts: an expansion of Medicaid to cover more of the working poor, a mandate that everybody else buy private insurance (with the help of sliding-scale government subsidies for much of the working class), and state-by-state exchanges where individuals can buy policies at rates similar to what group policies cost, without lifetime limits on benefits or the possibility that they will be excluded for pre-existing conditions.

A single-payer system might have put health-insurance companies out of business and a public option would have limited their profitability, so they come out well. (The price of UNH stock roughly tracks the upward path of the Dow Jones average over the past year, beating it slightly.) The CBO estimates that 23 million will remain uninsured, about a third of them illegal aliens. Many of the rest would become eligible for Medicare if they became seriously ill.

So did we win?

With all the compromises and might-have-beens, it's easy to lose sight of the Big Picture, but yes, we won. The Right's government-takeover rhetoric was always overblown, but this bill is an important step in establishing the social principle that the health-care system is the government's responsibility. The market will continue to play a major role in health care, but it will be a tool that works within a system defined by the political process, rather than the ultimate definer and implementer of all policy.

That principle is very important looking forward, because the status quo was not sustainable much longer. American health care is half again as expensive as most other wealthy countries', and getting worse. We will have to come up with ways to control costs. In a market-defined system, costs would be controlled by letting poor people die. You can dress it up, but fundamentally that's what it would come down to. In the kind of system the Right wanted, less affluent families would always be tempted to gamble: Maybe that ache means nothing; maybe Susie's cough will go away on its own. Most of the time the gamble would be won, but when it was lost people would die.

Now we're going to have to focus on controlling costs at the system level. That won't be easy, but the other countries get it done and we will too.

It's not a ride-off-into-the-sunset victory. The insurance companies will find ways to abuse this system, and the hard work of controlling costs without killing poor people (or anybody) is still to come. But we're headed in the right direction. Think of all the tinkering Social Security has needed over the decades, and still needs. 1935 was just the beginning, not the end.

It's not nearly as momentous as the passage of Medicare in 1965 and won't fundamentally alter how Americans think about social safety nets. But the passage of Obama's health care reform bill is the biggest thing Congress has done in decades, and has enormous political significance for the future.

On the politics of this bill, David Axelrod sums up my thinking:
This only worked well for the Republican Party if it failed to pass. They wanted to run against a caricature of it rather than the real bill. Now let them tell a child with a pre-existing condition, "We don’t think you should be covered.”
If the bill didn't pass, then Democrats could be portrayed not only as sinister, but ineffective as well. An able villain earns a grudging respect, but a bumbling one deserves only contempt. And the new Obama voters who turned out in 2008 would have learned that the cynics were right -- voting doesn't change things.

Now Obama inherits a frame that benefitted Bush: You may not agree with him, but he has stuck by his beliefs and gotten something started. Now the country needs to make it work.
If the Republicans do make repealing healthcare reform the centerpiece of their 2010 campaign, it won't be the first time they've tried this tactic. Pledging to repeal Social Security is how Alf Landon defeated FDR in 1936 ... in Maine and Vermont. The other 46 states and 523 electoral votes went for Roosevelt.
The final days of the health-care debate brought more of the kinds of deceptions we've been seeing all along. There was, for example, the survey supposedly conducted by the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in which 46% of primary care doctors said that reform might cause them to quit.

Except ... it wasn't the NEJM. The survey was published in a somewhat less prestigious publication: a free newsletter called Recruiting Physicians Today. It was conducted by a medical recruitment firm, which claimed that the survey established the increased need for medical recruitment firms after reform passes. So: a firm you never heard of published a survey in a free newsletter claiming that its services would soon be in high demand. Very newsworthy.

Nonetheless, this falsely-attributed "NEJM survey" was all over Fox News for most of a day.

Another fraud was the Democratic strategy memo that Republicans tried to make an issue of. This C-SPAN exchange is classic, as Rep. Weiner of New York calls out the Republican representative who just referred to the memo on the floor of the House. No one seems to know where this purported memo came from or who wrote it, but that didn't stop Politico and other news outlets from publishing it. And once they have, of course, the Republican leadership can blame the press for any misinformation.

One of the more interesting stories in the closing days of the health-care debate has been the struggle between single-issue anti-abortion Catholics and Catholics who recall Matthew 25:31-46. ("I was sick and you looked after me.") 

On March 11, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement to be inserted into church bulletins. It denounced "those who insist on reversing widely supported policies against federal funding of abortion and plans which include abortion" and asked Catholics to call their representatives in Congress. USCCB president Cardinal Francis George followed up on Monday with this judgment:
the flaws [of the bill] are so fundamental that they vitiate the good that the bill intends to promote. 
In a rare move, the leaders of religious orders representing 59,000 American nuns undercut the bishops in a letter sent to members of Congress. It lists the virtues of the bill, and says:
despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions.
The head of the Association for Catholic Hospitals (also a nun) has come out for the bill too. I'm not sure how Catholics are reacting, but from the outside the bishops look like old bachelors for whom female health is a theological abstraction.

One thing you have to give the anti-health-care protestors, they stayed classy. Here they yell racial and sexual insults at congressmen, and here they humiliate a man with Parkinson's. But why should they show more restraint than members of Congress, one of whom yelled "baby killer!" at Bart Stupak on the floor of the House after Stupak's last-minute abortion compromise.

That's the point missing from all the Bush-critics-were-crazy-too articles: Leading Democrats were embarrassed by the more extreme Bush critics (like the Bush-knew-about-9-11 conspiracy theorists) and did their best to distance themselves. But elected Republicans won't distance themselves from the crazies, and many urge them on. And the supposedly liberal media never fanned the flames of craziness the way Fox News does now.
Speaking of the Stupak compromise, it appears to be a face-saving way to resolve a trumped-up non-issue. The nuns were right: The health-care bill never provided the federal funds for elective abortion that critics claimed. So an executive order re-iterating that no federal funds will go for elective abortions has no real consequences.
Salon's Alex Koppelman nominates a Michelle Bachman - Steve King article on Politico for worst op-ed ever. The lowest of its many low moments is when it feeds the bizarre keep-government-away-from-my-Medicare notion:
Obamacare cuts a half-trillion dollars in health care for seniors to lay the foundation for socialized medicine.
This isn't some confused protester with a sign; this is two members of Congress purporting to defend Medicare against socialized medicine. In writing.

I'm often asked if I find any reasonable conservatives to listen to. Well, David Frum is making a lot of sense:
Some [Republican] leaders were trapped [on health care]. They were trapped by voices in the media that revved the Republican base into a frenzy that made dealing impossible. I mean, you can’t negotiate with Adolf Hitler, and if the President is Adolf Hitler, then obviously you can’t negotiate with him.

Next Up: Financial Reform
The health-care debate has taken up all the airtime, but there's also that little question of how not to repeat 2008's financial meltdown. Up until now I've been negligent in covering this topic, mostly because I haven't found good articles to link to.

I promise to do better. Let's start by framing the problem that re-regulation needs to solve: De-regulation was always a little bit of a myth, because everyone knew that if things got bad enough the government would have to step in, as it ultimately did. So we had the worst of both worlds: A fictitious free market continued as long as times were good, but the taxpayers were left holding the bag when times turned bad. 

I find this metaphor useful: Imagine a gambler with a bagful of somebody else's chips. If he wins he keeps the winnings, but if he loses they weren't his chips anyway. That's the situation that the big Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs were in. So naturally they made big risky bets, and when those bets paid off they took home a lot of money. When the bets went bad, the government bailed them out.

It would be satisfying to send people to jail for this. But that's probably impossible, because there's no meta-law against taking advantage of laws that Congress has rigged in your favor. There's not even a law against asking Congress to rig laws in your favor in exchange for your support, as long as the quid-pro-quos aren't too explicit. So the best we can reasonably hope for is to write a better set of laws this time and have somebody actually enforce them. That may even be more than we can reasonably hope for.

The basic idea of re-regulation ought to be this: The bigger a financial institution gets, the more regulated it is, and the fewer risks it is allowed to take. If an institution is truly too big to fail, it should be also be too big to take risks.

Bankers wouldn't like to be limited like that, and so they'd be motivated to split companies up when they got close to regulatory limits.

After some Googling around and other stuff that passes for research, it looks like the best online source for keeping track of this stuff is a blog called Naked Capitalism. In this post, for example, guest blogger Frank Partnoy examines the examiner's report on the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and concludes:
The Valuation section is 500 pages of utterly terrifying reading. It shows that, even eighteen months after Lehman’s collapse, no one – not the bankruptcy examiner, not Lehman’s internal valuation experts, not Ernst and Young, and certainly not the regulators – could figure out what many of Lehman’s assets and liabilities were worth. ... When the examiner compared Lehman’s marks on these lower tranches to more reliable valuation estimates, it found that “the prices estimated for the C and D tranches of Ceago securities are approximately one‐thirtieth of the price reported by Lehman. (pages 560-61) One thirtieth? These valuations weren’t even close.

Jon Stewart gives a pretty good explanation of how the meltdown happened. And of course there's always the classic Bird and Fortune routine from the early stages of the real estate bubble.
Lawrence Lessig attends a conference on re-regulation and concludes that everyone (except Elizabeth Warren) is still in denial about the real problem: the way our political system is financed.
as expert after expert demonstrated, practically every one of the design flaws that led to the collapse of the past few years remains essentially unchanged within our financial system still. ... Wall Street continues unchanged because the Congress that would change it is already shuttling to Wall Street fundraisers. Both parties are already pandering to this power, so they can ... fund the next cycle of campaigns.

Short Notes
The text of my talk about this blog, Sifting the News, is online now.

In Moscow, the stray dogs have learned how to use the subway. I know it sounds like the start of a joke, but would ABC News lie about something like that?

Conservative blogger Debbie Schlussel turned on Sean Hannity this week, charging that his fund-raising for Freedom Alliance (a charity that is supposed to benefit wounded veterans and the children of soldiers killed in combat)  is "a huge scam". David Frum was one of the few conservatives that didn't either ignore the story or reflexively jump to Hannity's defense, but now his FrumForum says there's nothing to it either.

No surprise, given some of the outlandish things Schlussel has said about liberals. But if conservatives are going to start eating their own, I'll happily pull up a chair and pop some corn.

And I know I shouldn't be criticizing female bloggers and pundits based on their appearance, but is there a factory somewhere that churns out conservative blondes? There's Schlussel, Ann Coulter, Megan Kelly, Laura Ingraham, Liz CheneyGretchen Carlson, and I could probably go on. Did Michelle Malkin have to get a waver or was she grandmothered in?
Jon Stewart was great the other time he did a Glenn Beck impersonation, but Thursday night was the best yet. 

And let's not overlook Stephen Colbert's response to Beck's attack on "social justice" churches. He interviews Jesuit Father Jim Martin, and asks the question we all wonder about: "If I help the poor, what's in it for me?" Colbert also asks Father Martin to speculate on Beck as a future pope, noting that "he seems so comfortable telling Catholics what to do."
We all know that they crash-test cars, but I'd never thought about crash-testing a helicopter.

President Obama went on Fox News Wednesday, and was treated with an unprecedented level of disrespect by interviewer Bret Baier, who persistently interrupted and talked over him. Media Matters compares Baier's Obama interview with his Bush interview, where he asked such stinging questions as "What are you reading now?"

I'm sure you already knew that evolution and global warming are hoaxes put out by the evil liberal scientific community, but I'll bet they slipped dark matter right past you. Have no fear, the Conservapedia (the conservative movement's answer to the hopelessly liberal Wikipedia) is on the case. It has noted that a new set of experiments "may disprove liberal claims that 'dark matter' comprises 25% of the universe."

Steven Andrew is puzzled by how dark matter became a liberal/conservative thing, writing:
I'm aware of no split in the cosmology community on Dark Matter vs. [Modified Newtonian Dynamics] that falls neatly across a progressive-conservative axis (Probably because there isn't one). 
But that's because he hasn't read the Conservapedia article on dark matter. Without dark matter, you see, there are cosmological conundrums that require the direct intervention of God. So dark matter is just one more pitiful attempt by liberal scientists to hide the holes in their godless universe.

Either that, or it's a government takeover of 25% of the universe.

Brave New Films commemorates the 7th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
The NYT public editor reviews its coverage of the ACORN-pimp video, finds a number of failings in the Times' coverage (all damaging to ACORN), and then concludes:
It remains a fascinating story. To conservatives, Acorn is virtually a criminal organization that was guilty of extensive voter registration fraud in 2008. To its supporters, Acorn is a community service organization that has helped millions of disadvantaged Americans by organizing to confront powerful institutions like banks and developers.
If only our universe contained "facts" that could be ascertained by "reporters". Then newspapers could spread knowledge rather than just repeat opinions from both sides.
John King's new show on CNN starts tonight. It will include Erick Erickson, the editor of the conservative blog RedState. This was supposed to be a "straight news show" about which King has commented:
I think what is troubling in part of our business is you have people on news shows who start the conversation with a bias.
Erickson, who has twittered that Supreme Court Justice David Souter is a "goat-fucking child molestor" and characterized Michelle Obama as a "marxist harpy" should fit right in with that no-bias agenda.
Conservatives think it's unpatriotic to agree with a foreign country in a dispute with the U.S. government -- unless there's a Democratic administration and the country is Israel.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Siding With the Oppressor

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.
In this week's Sift:
  • Is Justice a Christian Value? Glenn Beck thinks not. Jim Wallis is trying to call him to account.
  • "Under God" Yet Again. Michael Newdow's first suit against the Pledge of Allegiance made it to the Supreme Court, where it got thrown out for procedural reasons. Now he's back.
  • Richistan. Do the rich really live in another country? Robert Frank and Paul Krugman show us the new Gilded Age from two different angles.
  • Short Notes. A corporation announces that it is running for Congress. What corporate personhood might do to human personhood. The Cheney government in exile. Two creative ideas for avoiding gender discrimination. Bye-bye James Dobson. Why don't Republican sex scandals stick? Plainfield, NH takes a plain stand on same-sex marriage. Bachman keeps calling for revolution. Lack of health insurance really does kill people. You still suck at Photoshop. And more.

Is Justice a Christian Value?
Glenn Beck and the don't-call-me-liberal evangelical leader Jim Wallis (author of God's Politics) are having a throw-down. It started with Beck urging his listeners to leave churches that preach "social justice" because those are codes words used by the Communists and Nazis.

Wallis responded with a blog post saying:
Beck says Christians should leave their social justice churches, so I say Christians should leave Glenn Beck. I don’t know if Beck is just strange, just trying to be controversial, or just trying to make money. But in any case, what he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show.
Jerry Falwell Jr. (president of Liberty University, which was founded by his father, the late Jerry Falwell) came in on Beck's side. In a great piece of anachronism, Falwell said that Jesus wasn't interested in politics:
Jesus taught that we should give to the poor and support widows, but he never said that we should elect a government that would take money from our neighbor's hand and give it to the poor.
Of course, if Jesus had talked about elections, no one would have known what he was talking about, because King Herod and Pontius Pilate didn't hold elections. So it makes just as much sense to claim that Jesus did call for electing such a government, but the disciples were too confused to write it down.

Wallis wants to debate the issue on Beck's show. Using my amazing prophetic powers, I foresee that this is not going to happen.
In another week or two I'm going to review Jeff Sharlet's The Family, which highlights this very issue. Everybody agrees that Jesus preached obedience to certain ethical principles. But there are two different ways to view this. Jim Wallis' branch of Christianity pictures the virtue as lying in the ethical principles, while Glenn Beck's branch pictures the virtue as lying in the obedience.

The two conflict when you start to talk about re-making the social and economic order in accordance with Christian ethical principles, because in order to do that, you have to disobey the current Powers That Be.

Full disclosure: I've already taken a position on this issue. I think there is a fundamental injustice at the root of our property system, and that individual charity is not sufficient to fix it. What's more, Beck's hero Thomas Paine agrees with me -- as I explained at Chapel Hill last fall in a sermon called Who Owns the World?

"Under God", Yet Again
Michael Newdow is back with another suit against including under God in the Pledge of Allegiance. His previous suit reached the Supreme Court in 2002, only to be dismissed on procedural grounds that didn't touch the underlying issue of whether the current Pledge violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Friday, his new suit lost on the appellate level, after having won at the district level. Probably the whole thing is headed for the Supremes again.

I wasn't surprised that Newdow lost 2-1, but I was disappointed in the reasoning of the majority opinion
The Pledge of Allegiance serves to unite our vast nation through the proud recitation of some of the ideals upon which our Republic was founded and for which we continue to strive: one Nation under God—the Founding Fathers’ belief that the people of this nation are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights

... The Pledge reflects many beliefs held by the Founding Fathers of this country—the same men who authored the Establishment Clause—including the belief that it is the people who should and do hold the power, not the government. They believed that the people derive their most important rights, not from the government, but from God:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The Declaration of Independence, 1 U.S.C. § XLIII (1776) (emphasis added).

The Founders did not see these two ideas— that individuals possessed certain God-given rights which no government can take away, and that we do not want our nation to establish a religion—as being in conflict.
The majority wants to consider the Pledge recitation as a whole, and not the specific phrase under God, which was added to the Pledge by Congress in 1954. (In God we trust became the national motto two years later, though it had appeared on money as early as the Civil War.) As a whole, the majority opinion sees the recitation as having a patriotic purpose, not a religious one. And they imply that finding for Newdow and removing under God from the Pledge would somehow infringe the rights of believers.
this case presents a familiar dilemma in our pluralistic society—how to balance conflicting interests when one group wants to do something for patriotic reasons that another groups finds offensive to its religious (or atheistic) beliefs.
I could imagine a reasonable defense of under God, but this isn't it. This is more of a Texas-Education-Commission position than something I would expect from an appellate court. The original Pledge, without under God, is just as patriotic as the current Pledge. So the majority is really claiming that Congress can insert bits of religious ritual into patriotic observances, as long as the overall character remains patriotic.

I don't see how anyone can argue with Judge Stephen Reinhardt's dissent:
Were the majority to engage seriously with the history of the Pledge, it would be compelled to recognize beyond any doubt that the words “under God” were inserted with the explicit and deliberate intention of endorsing a particular religious belief, of compelling nonadherents to that belief to pronounce the belief publicly or be labeled un-American, and of instilling the particular religious view in America’s youth through daily indoctrination in the public schools.
Here's my question: Does under God serve any purpose other than rubbing atheists' and polytheists' noses in the dirt? Having mindlessly recited the Pledge many times while growing up, I doubt it changes any child's theology. And if you doubt that it does rub noses in the dirt, try saying the Pledge with other phases, like under the gods or under Goddess or under no God.

To take that thought experiment one step further, picture this: It's 100 A.D. and Christianity is just starting to take off. So the Emperor Trajan decrees that all children must start their day by reciting a pledge that Rome is "one Empire, under the gods". If you're a Christian, do you let your children say it?

I recently finished the book Richistan by Robert Frank. Frank is the WSJ's reporter on the lifestyles of the rich and famous, who have become such a closed and cut-off society that Frank regards them as a country unto themselves (hence the title). The book is from 2007, so pre-crash and a little out of date. But it's a quick read and a lot of fun.

I bring it up because it makes a nice pair with Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal, also from 2007. They report the same story from two different angles. The story is that vast American fortunes were built during the Gilded Age (late 19th century), but then the New Deal changed government policies in a way that discouraged the creation of new fortunes and diminished the ones that already existed. In the 60s and 70s, the rich were largely Old Money and demoralized -- it wasn't cool to flaunt your wealth. But policies changed with Ronald Reagan, and a new Gilded Age started. Inequality grew, new fortunes were made, and the rich are now ascendent again -- you can't be too rich or too ostentatious about flaunting it.

Krugman tells this story from a macro-economic view, with graphs and statistics. Frank gives you the ground-level view, interviewing rich people and showing how the culture of Richistan has changed in the last few decades. But it's the same story.

Short Notes
Yesterday I gave a talk about how and why I do the Sift, and I promised people a link to a text version. Preparing the text has turned out to take more time than I have, given that I'm putting out the Sift today, so that link will have to wait until next week.

In a great response to the Supreme Court's corporate-personhood decision in the Citizens United case, Murray Hill, Inc. has announced that it is running for Congress: "Now that democracy is truly for sale, Murray Hill is offering top dollar."

I look at corporate personhood from a more spiritual perspective in my latest UU World column. I pull back and look at what the long-term increase in corporate power has been doing to us as people. I find it not quite infantilizing, but certainly toddlerizing:
As corporations’ power to shape our society increases, I expect to see my toddlerization increase as well. The portion of my life in which I am expected, encouraged, or even allowed to act like an adult will continue to shrink—slowly, perhaps even invisibly, on a day-to-day basis. But decade-to-decade, how will it change me? Generation-to-generation, how will it change the human race? 

The Texas Education Board marches on, approving new fundamentalist-conservative standards in social studies.

Tired of men staring at your chest instead of looking you in the eye? Try this.
Or, if you believe that being a woman is holding you back in your web-based business ... just take a man's name. Who's going to know?
It's been a while since I've linked to an episode of You Suck at Photoshop. Donny explains the Vanishing Point tool, because we all need to vanish sometimes.
Every now and then David Brooks does more than repeat conservative talking points:
Obama is four clicks to my left on most issues. He is inadequate on the greatest moral challenge of our day: the $9.7 trillion in new debt being created this decade. He has misread the country, imagining a hunger for federal activism that doesn’t exist. But he is still the most realistic and reasonable major player in Washington.

New York magazine has a profile of "The Cheney Government in Exile" -- including Liz Cheney's political prospects.

Polls are turning in the Democrats' direction on health care.
Tom Toles comments on passing health care reform by majority vote.
In the wake of Eric Massa's resignation, Matt Yglesias wonders why John Ensign is still in office.  And Steve Benen examines the larger point that Republican sex scandals don't stick.

It's not just scandals, it's family values in general: Rhetoric replaces behavior. It's hard to imagine, say, a Democrat with multiple divorces being discussed as a viable presidential candidate, as Newt Gingrich is and Rudi Giuliani was last time around. And you'll never convince Palin fans that she wasn't persecuted, but it's just unimaginable that an little-known Democratic VP candidate could have survived the revelation of an unmarried pregnant teen-age daughter.

It looks like we won't have James Dobson to kick around any more.
Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to balance the budget by slowly throttling Medicare (while cutting rich people's taxes and raising everybody else's) may have one other problem: It doesn't balance the budget.
It's an article of faith among the anti-gay-marriage crowd that the New Hampshire legislature overstepped itself by allowing same-sex marriage in this state. They're sure the people don't want it, so they started a movement called "Let New Hampshire Vote" to get local town meetings to pass a warrant saying:
The citizens of New Hampshire should be allowed to vote on an amendment to the New Hampshire Constitution that defines "marriage".
Well, that article came up in the small town of Plainfield, but it got amended so that instead Plainfield will write a letter to the governor and legislature
commending them for passing and signing into law legislation affirming marriage equality for all New Hampshire residents.
The commendation passed 185-40. The people of Plainfield have spoken.
Rep. Michele Bachman says that passing health care reform through the reconciliation process (which is already of mis-statement of the Democrats' plan, as I explained two weeks ago) is "illegitimate" and says "We don't have to follow a bill that isn't law." Because, as we all know, government-mandated health care is the end of freedom in America. If we sit still for it, we'll become one of those communist dictatorships like Canada.
Speaking of Canada, Sarah Palin reveals that when she was a girl, her family used to cross the border to get health care in Canada. No wonder she's so opposed to "socialism", having seen it close-up like that.
Johann Hari in the Nation writes a strong indictment of mainstream environmental groups. Quoting Christine MacDonald, author of Green, Inc.:
Not only do the largest conservation groups take money from companies deeply implicated in environmental crimes; they have become something like satellite PR offices for the corporations that support them.

 A recent article in Atlantic suggested that insuring the uninsured might not save lives. Harvard Professor J. Michael Williams looks at a more complete body of evidence and concludes this about the number of lives that universal health care could save each year:
A rigorous body of research tells us the answer is many, probably thousands if not tens of thousands.

Slate reviews Diane Ravitch's book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. I get the impression of an author who would love to have an ax to grind, but can't find one that's convincing to her. (I may have to read this book.)

Monday, March 8, 2010


I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five [people] that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department. -- Senator Joseph McCarthy, 9 February 1950

So who did President Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder hire? Nine lawyers who represented or advocated for terrorist detainees. Who are these government officials? Eric Holder will only name two. Why the secrecy behind the other seven? Whose values do they share? Tell Eric Holder: Americans have a right to know the identity of the Al Qaeda 7. -- from "Who Are the Al Qaeda Seven?" video by Liz Cheney's "Keep America Safe", 2 March 2010

In this week's Sift:
  • The Party that George Built. Conservative writer Jonathan Rauch uncovers the original source of today's Republican message: Not Ronald Reagan or even Barry Goldwater, but George Wallace. (Except that "racism ... is marginal in today's GOP." Thanks for clearing that up, Jonathan.)
  • The Power of One Senator. Jim Bunning blocking an important piece of legislation is just the latest example of how much power a lone senator can wield. How does that work exactly?
  • Health Care and Public Opinion. Republicans are shocked that President Obama would continue pushing a bill that polls badly. But ignoring the polls was a virtue when Bush was president. Or, as Dick Cheney summed it up: "So?"
  • Changing the Tone. Those who say Obama hasn't changed the tone in Washington have forgotten what the old tone was. Liz Cheney reminds them.
  • Short Notes. Breaking news from Tom Friedman: Intel execs want tax breaks and subsidies. Obama gets a midnight visit from all the SNL presidents. National Grammar Day. Creationists join up with global-warming deniers. Stephen Colbert pimps up an interview with Sean Hannity. Same-sex marriage is legal in two more North American capitals. And more.

The Party That George Built
An important article in the National Journal discusses George W., the guy nobody talks about any more, the one who made the Republican Party what it is today. No, not George W. Bush -- George Wallace. 

In It's George Wallace's GOP Now, conservative Jonathan Rauch cuts "the history of the modern Republican Party" down to one sentence:
Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller got into an argument and George Wallace won.
What disturbs Rauch is that Wallace was not a conservative at all, but rather a "right-wing populist". He describes Wallace as exploiting "a deep sense of grievance" against "elites", but notes that
What Wallace did not do was frame a coherent program or governing philosophy.
He cites parallels between Wallace's rhetoric and Sarah Palin's, while noting that Palin is typical of today's GOP. 
like Wallace and his supporters 40 years ago, today's conservative populists are long on anger and short on coherence. For Wallace, small-government rhetoric was a trope, not a workable agenda. The same is true of his Republican heirs today, who insist that spending cuts alone, without tax increases, will restore fiscal balance but who have not proposed anywhere near enough spending cuts, primarily because they can't.
Two comments: First, this rhetoric works because most voters have a very distorted idea of what the government spends money on. Angry tea-partiers would happily cut foreign aid to countries that hate us, bureaucrats who do nothing all day, social services to illegal aliens, grants that support blasphemous art exhibits, welfare for able-bodied men too lazy to work, and all those $500 screwdrivers at the Pentagon. They've convinced themselves that stuff like that adds up to about half the budget.

Second, the ideas in Rauch's article are all cribbed (without attribution) from Ron Perlstein's Nixonland, which I reviewed a year ago. The real significance of Rauch's article is to launder Perlstein's liberal insights for use in conservative conversations.

A big piece of that laundering is to dismiss the racism that figures prominently in Perlstein's analysis. Getting racism out of the discussion is so important that Rauch does in it the second paragraph: "racism ... is marginal in today's GOP." This style of laundering was summarized by conservative strategist Lee Atwater in a 1981 interview with Bob Herbert:
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff.
Today's conservative says "English only" or "illegal immigrant" or "Obama's a Muslim" or "Where's his birth certificate?" or reserves the word terrorist for Muslims, preferably swarthy ones. But they don't say "spick" or "nigger" or "camel jockey" in public, and they don't stand up and yell "Segregation forever!" like Wallace did, so they're not racists or any other kind of bigot. (Among themselves, though, they still think racism is funny. Still.)

Seriously, if you're building your appeal on the fears and resentments of whites -- and make no mistake about it, the Tea Party rallies are almost entirely white -- you have to be blind not to see that a lot of those fears and resentments concern race.

Matt Yglesias critiques Rauch, saying that right-wing populism's place in the conservative movement is not some new trend.
When the prejudices of the sociocultural minority clash with the interests of economic elites, as they do on immigration, then we see splits inside the movement. But ordinarily business conservatism and right-wing populism work together extremely comfortably and always have.

Politico got its hands on a slide show prepared for Republican National Committee fund-raisers. On the Motivations to Give slide, #1 on the list is "fear". Another slide asks: "What can you sell when you do not have the White House, the Senate, or the House ... ? Save the country from trending toward Socialism!" Politico comments:
Manipulating donors with crude caricatures and playing on their fears is hardly unique to Republicans or to the RNC – Democrats raised millions off George W. Bush in similar terms – but rarely is it practiced in such cartoonish terms.
My reaction: It's a real shame that the RNC can't "sell ... the White House" any more.

The best response I saw was from WaPo's Kevin Huffman. (Maybe that's why he won the "America's Next Great Pundit" contest.) He offers the RNC genuinely constructive advice that is so obvious as to become satire:
[I]n the context of donor targets that are visceral, reactionary and motivated by fear, it makes sense to portray your opponents as scary, cartoonish radicals. Nonetheless, my suggestion, based on some grainy footage I saw recently of Ronald Reagan, is to consider a more optimistic frame. This might be off the wall, but hear me out: What if the RNC developed a couple of serious policy initiatives and then messaged them as concrete reasons for people to support you? I'd be happy to look at any ideas, if that'd be helpful.
Rachel Maddow's response to the RNC slides was pretty funny too. The whole idea that portraying Harry Reid as Scooby Doo is scary ... well, that's scary in a different way. Or, as Rachel put it in her teaser for this segment, "Roo?"

North Carolina Republican Rep. Sue Myrick faced her Muslim constituents last week and answered questions about why she wrote a positive foreword for a Muslim-bashing book, describing its author as "a great American". Like the Republicans who aren't racists, Myrick isn't anti-Muslim. She's just against (as the book's subtitle puts it) "the secret underworld that's conspiring to Islamize America." In the past she has raised suspicion about the Middle Easterners "who run all the convenience stores across the country." But she can't be a racist because, as she notes, "I've got Arab friends."

The Power of One Senator
In Terry Prachett's Discworld novels, he describes the semi-benevolent dictatorship of his capital city as a one-man one-vote system: "The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote." 

Sometimes the Senate seems that way, like last week when Senator Jim Bunning single-handed delayed a bill to extend certain emergency economic measures. Tuesday, Bunning backed down and the bill passed by a wide margin (78-19) -- but not before 100,000 Americans saw their unemployment benefits interrupted, 2000 workers had to stop working on transportation projects, and doctors temporarily faced a 21% drop in Medicare reimbursements. (The WSJ editorial page loved this bit of obstruction, calling it Jim Bunning's Finest Hour.)

If you're like me, you heard the what of the story, but you're still a little fuzzy on the how. How can one senator stop something that 78 other senators want to vote for? Ditto for the holds Senator Shelby put on about 70 Obama nominees who still had not been approved by the Senate. How did he do that? (Shelby also backed down on February 9, and 27 nominees got confirmed by unanimous consent on February 11. Other confirmations have trickled in since, usually by wide margins.)

Filibusters may not make a lot of sense from a democracy standpoint, but at least I understand the rules: The Senate can keep debating a bill until 60 senators support a resolution calling for an immediate vote. So any 41 senators can keep a bill in the Never-Never-Land of endless debate. But one senator? How does one senator get so much power?

The mainstream media has been almost totally remiss in covering how this works, but fortunately David Waldman explained it all on DailyKos nearly two years ago, when Senator Coburn had holds on 100 bills. The key is timing. Long-term, one senator can't prevent the Senate from doing what 60+ senators want, but the machinery for working around a hold takes about a week and is a big headache for the majority leader (who is supposed to keep the Senate's business running smoothly). So if a bill is coming down to the wire and requires immediate action (as the Bunning bill did), one senator can guarantee that the Senate will miss the deadline. 

Here's the main idea: The Senate's formal rules are unbelievably cumbersome, but most of the time they're not used. Instead, other than the major votes on contentious issues, most Senate business gets done by unanimous consent. Essentially, the majority leader suggests to the Senate: "If nobody objects, let's just skip all the rigamarole and cut to the chase." Usually nobody does object, because (as I explained last week) the Senate traditionally has worked by gentlemen's agreement rather than according to its formal rules.

hold happens when a senator informs the majority leader that s/he plans not to go along with unanimous consent on some piece of business. The senator could have a legitimate reason. For example, maybe the majority leader has made a mistake by treating this item as routine business, because some serious issue is lurking under the surface. Or maybe there is no hidden issue, everybody knows exactly what's going on, and the senator is just being a jerk -- as Bunning, Shelby, and (to a lesser extent) Coburn all were. Then the majority leader has to decide whether it's worth his (and the Senate's) time to blast through the hold via the official procedures. Often it isn't.

None of this is in the Constitution, which says only: "Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings." Early on, the Senate set up its rules to give each senator a lot of consideration, with a corresponding gentlemen's agreement that senators would use their individual power responsibly. That unwritten agreement was enforced by the small size and clubbishness of the Senate. (Originally there were only 26 senators. By contrast, a single committee in today's House of Representatives might be twice that size.) Every senator had a one-on-one relationship with every other senator, and they all understood that it was a bad idea to annoy the other club members for no good reason.

Senate rules have been amended at various times since, but the basic idea -- individual power exercised under a gentlemen's agreement of good behavior -- has stuck. Sadly, that's all breaking down now, and has been for decades. Eventually the rules are going to have to change, because more and more senators don't care about their relationships with other senators and enjoy the attention they can get by being jerks. (Bunning hasn't had this much publicity since he pitched a perfect game in 1964.) Changing the rules is hard, though, because it means that individual senators of both parties are going to have to yield some of their power to the Senate leadership. They are understandably reluctant to do that, especially since they know that this could all work if senators would just behave themselves.

Health Care and Public Opinion
As the Democrats move towards final passage of health-care reform, Republican objections are getting more shrill. I find it particularly odd how horrified they are that Democrats might ignore polls (especially this one by Fox News) showing that a majority of the public doesn't want the bill passed. This constitutes "ramming" the bill "down the throats" of the American public.

When they were in power, Republicans thought that ignoring polls was a virtue. In March of 2008, when ABC's interviewer pointed out to Dick Cheney that the American public overwhelming thought the Iraq War was not worth fighting, Cheney famously replied: "So?" During the 2000 campaign, Bush said:
I really don't care what the polls and focus groups say. What I care about is doing what I think is right.
In those days that was considered Leadership, and Republicans cheered it as courageous and principled. But when President Obama does it, it's "a defiant 'screw you' to the nation."

I'm with Nate Silver on this. I think the public does oppose the bill, but they do so because they think it raises the deficit, is a government takeover of health care, funds abortion, and creates death panels that will pull the plug on your grandmother -- all of which are false.

Here's the thing about getting people not to do stuff by lying about it: If you succeed, you're never caught in the lie. If I tell you that Sesame Street is a nasty, violent, horrible show, and as a result you never watch it -- then you'll never find out that I lied to you. 

That's what happened to the Clinton health care program. Republicans and the insurance industry told amazing lies about it, and they paid no price for those lies because the public avoided the experience that would have proved them wrong. To this day, what the public remembers about Hillarycare are the false reasons why they didn't like it.

If health-care reform doesn't pass this time, the same thing will happen -- and in November the voters will punish all the Democrats who voted for those horrible death panels. But if it does pass, then media coverage will swing from the he-said/she-said stories about funding abortion to stories about what the bill actually will do. People will find out how the bill affects them, and most of them will like it.

And that's why the Republicans are getting so shrill.

Senator Byrd, widely considered the Senate's foremost expert on its own history and procedures, explains why the plan to use reconciliation in health-care reform passes muster.

Check out Jon Stewart's take on the health-care debate and its coverage.

Changing the Tone
President Obama's pledge to "change the tone in Washington" is usually interpreted as a commitment to bipartisanship, and then judged to be a broken promise: Either Obama was naive to think he could work with Republicans, or he hasn't tried hard enough. 

That framing only works, though, if you forget what the tone was during the Bush administration, when critics of Bush policies routinely had their patriotism questioned. Obama really has changed that tone: He treats Republicans like loyal Americans, even when they won't compromise with him.

If you want to remember what the old Bush-Cheney days were like, check out this new ad by Liz Cheney, in which Justice Department lawyers who previously represented detainees in Guantanamo are referred to as "the Al Qaeda 7" -- an attack that even many conservative blogs say is unfair.

I'm glad the TPM article on this brought up John Adams, who defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre and called it "one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country." That's the true American tradition. Liz and her father can have Joe McCarthy on their team; I'll take John Adams. 

Short Notes
Something struck me wrong about Tom Friedman's column Wednesday, but it took Matt Yglesias to nail it down for me:
it’s really remarkable that we live in a world where talking to the CEO of a large company [and then] reporting that the CEO wants tax breaks and subsidies for his firm counts as serious political commentary. Read today’s Tom Friedman piece and watch in amazement as he doesn’t even consider the possibility that [Intel CEO] Paul Otellini’s ideas might be motivated by anything other than a disinterested concern for the welfare of the American people.

Funny-or-Die assembles all the presidents since Ford (well, their Saturday Night Live equivalents, anyway) to buck up Obama's courage for taking on the banks and re-regulating finance.
Thursday was National Grammar Day, with a music video and everything. That got Kevin Drum talking about the related subject of punctuation, which we take very seriously here in New Hampshire. Punctuation is the only difference between "John Lynch, the governor" and "John! Lynch the governor!"

The last thing I edited out of last week's Sift (to keep the word-count down) was an article about how creationists and global-warming deniers are getting together in one big anti-science coalition. I was just 48 hours ahead of the New York Times, which covered the same subject Wednesday.

This fits very well into the Perlstein-Rauch analysis I was describing above, because both creationism and global-warming denial depend on populist resentment of the scientific "elite" and a corresponding conspiratorial view of how the scientific community works: Scientists look down their noses at ordinary people while they push their own God-denying world-socialism-promoting agenda.

Scientists have a hard time responding to this populist resentment, because they can't honestly claim to respect the people who advocate it. Concerning both evolution and global warming, the anti-science lobby wants to force public schools to "teach the controversy". But from a scientific point of view, both issues are part of the eternal controversy between Knowledge and Ignorance. The whole point of having schools is to help Knowledge win that argument.

Stephen Colbert follows up on the revelation that the ACORN-pimp-advising video was edited by doing an edited interview with Sean Hannity.

Same-sex marriage became legal in two new capitals this week: Washington D.C. and Mexico City. Officials at the National Weather Service report that the sky has not fallen.