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Preview of Coming Attractions

Starting in about 12 hours, I'm going to be guest blogging at an obscure website called Talking Points Memo for a few days while the usual proprietor does . . . well, I actually don't know what he's doing . . . and since I also have a day job writing about politics that's going to leave me stretched a bit thin. So no more political content on this site until Thursday. You'll probably get some basketblogging and if things go well my thoughts on Ireland: 1912-1985.

In the interim, some reader advice would be appreciated. Rilo Kiley is coming to town in the not-too-distant future, so I was checking out some of their tunes. "A Better Son/Daughter" is brilliant, but I'm totally unimpressed by "The Frug," "It's a Hit," and "Teenage Love Song." Are there other, more "Son/Daughter"-esque songs I'm missing, or is this just a band whose sound I don't like very much and who happened to write one awesome track? Relatedly, my colleague Jeff Dubner has propounded a theory that any indie rock done to a march beat is going to be cool. Counterexamples?

April 30, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (57) | TrackBack

Payable Benefits

An otherwise decent Jonathan Weisman article contains this whopper:

Middle-income Americans would be hit as well, although not as hard. Workers earning as little as $35,000 a year would lose a quarter of their promised benefits by 2065, although their benefit under progressive indexing would be 11 percent larger than the check Social Security could afford to issue by then.
"The check Social Security could afford to issue by then" refers to benefits payable under currently projected revenue rather than benefits scheduled under current law. The benefits payable number is a reasonable one to use for some purposes. But it's only fair to compare it to a fully-funded alternative. The modifications Bush has outlined so far only close 50 percent of the Social Security budgetary gap, meaning that Bush Benefits Payable will, likewise, be less than status quo benefits payable. On top of that, the Bush plan involves a large quantity of borrowing to finance the startup of private accounts. Weisman's working with an apples and oranges comparison here.

April 30, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Grassley Wants To Do What?

Chuck Grassley, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, is charged with pushing some kind of Social Security bill through the world's second greatest deliberative body. He's also got some sort of grand plans:

In the face of those divisions, Republican leaders sought to quicken the legislative pace, setting the stage for a frenetic late spring and summer. Representative Bill Thomas, Republican of California and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said his panel would begin weekly hearings on May 12, with the goal of producing legislation in June that "won't just be a Social Security bill," but would deal more broadly with retirement security, including new ways to encourage savings and provisions on long-term care.
He's said things like this before. But what does he mean? The idea of dealing with long-term care could mean two diametrically opposed things. One option is that this means long-term care is putting an intolerable strain on Medicare and Medicaid so we need to find a way to shift costs onto patients. Another option is that this means long-term care is putting an intolerable strain on families so we need to find a way to shift costs onto the government. So which is it? Either way, this is hard to comprehend as legislative strategy. The last thing privatization needs is to get mixed up with additional controversial issues. And if Ed Crane really thinks it'll be easier to privatize after the 2006 midterms he's sorely, sorely mistaken.

April 30, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Darfur Progress

Some positive steps on Darfur seem to be in the works, as the African Union is prepared to launch a stepped up peacekeeping/humanitarian mission as long as the developed world can provide some cash and logistical support. See further commentary from Nadezhda and Justin Logan. I think that's almost certainly a better way to handle this than a Western invasion of some sort or, more likely, doing nothing while humanitarians plead for a Western invasion of some sort. Now if the nations of Africa could just be pursuaded to stop electing Zimbabwe to human rights panels....

April 30, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Oh, The Irony!

If I may be so bold as to hazard a prediction about the future, Social Security isn't going to be privatized. Instead, conservatives will live to rue the day they adopted the privatization gambit rather than the straightforward approach of simply advocating for benefit cuts. The medium-term impact of the privatization push is merely going to be that sometime in the 2009-2013 period the federal government implements some new program aimed at coercing and subsidizing asset ownership on top of a Social Security program that will continue in basically its current form plus some very modest benefit cuts and tax hikes. Similarly, while from the perspective of 2005 Republican intransigence in the face of the 1993 Clinton health care plan looks very smart, from the perspective of 2030 it will be clear that conservatives passed up their best shot at forestalling the emergence of a single-payer system by failing to cut a deal that would have left the USA with a health care system that still involved a fairly role for the private sector. Conservatives aren't the only ones who make mistakes -- if a liberal were to look back at some of the things congressional liberals rejected during the 1970s because they were convinced that there was no need to settle for half measures that liberal will quickly want to find a 70s-vintage liberal legislator and strangle him.

April 30, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (58) | TrackBack

The China "Threat"

Via Brad Plumer, an article where John Mearsheimer outlines the threat of US-China conflict in the future. The Mearsheimer article is worth quoting, because it contains what I consider a rebuttal of its own thesis:

China cannot rise peacefully, and if it continues its dramatic economic growth over the next few decades, the United States and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war. Most of China’s neighbors, including India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Russia, and Vietnam, will likely join with the United States to contain China’s power.
And there you have it. We're supposed to be worried not that the Chinese economy will grow fast enough to challenge American power, but that it will grow fast enough to challenge the combined power of the United States, Japan, India, South Korea, Singapore, Russia, and Vietnam. Right now, China has a GDP of $1.8 trillion. India, South Korea, Singapore, Russia, and Vietnam combine for $2.39 trillion. Japan is at $4.8 trillion. The United States stands at $12.4 trillion (source). How fast is China supposed to grow, exactly, so that it's going to be challenging this coalition? Obviously, the US can't devote as large a proportion of its resources to power-projection in East Asia as China can. But the Asian-only members of the anti-China coalition have four times the resources of China. You might also want to consider the matter of Taiwan, the Phillipines, and a bit more distantly Australia and New Zealand. If China ever made a serious play for regional domination it would be ridiculously easy for the US to support a counter-coalition. The only way to seriously curb American influence in East Asia would be for China to develop a cordial, cooperative relationship with other regional powers like Japan and India. But if China's in a position to be having cordial, cooperative relations with its neighbors, then there's very little to worry about.

Far and away the thing to worry about here is that the United States will adopt some nutty irrational policy driven by sensationalist journalism, defense contractors' demands for ever-higher procurement budgets, and labor unions' willingness to stoke any old anti-China sentiment they can find to try and build political support for measures designed to change their jobs.

April 29, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (60) | TrackBack

The Tables Turn

Hoho . . . the Pacers play a basketball game but it's Antoine Walker who gets suspended, which should make game four and, consequently, the series an uphill struggle for the Celtics. The notion that hiring P.J. Carlisimo to coach the Knicks will somehow turn that situation around is quite absurd. Now needless to say, it's not really a job any coach could do well. Nevertheless, I'd love to see Phil Jackson give it a try to put his skills to the test in a context where he doesn't have Shaq & Kobe or Jordan & Pippin to do the playing. Nobody would be expecting him to win a championship, or even field a team good enough to momentarily delude any fans into thinking there's a vague shot at a championship, but a great coach ought to be able to improve even a talent-deprived squad. Of course if Jackson's smart he'll pass up the opportunity to put his skills to the test and just park himself in Cleveland to look on, smiling, as LeBron grows up.

April 29, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Conference Kills

We've seen an awful lot of dubious antics go down in conference committees since 2001, but my colleague Mark Goldberg reports that this game is about to sink to some thrilling new lows:

If so, this post-Powell policy is placing the administration on a collision course with Congress. Last week, the Senate unanimously passed the Darfur Accountability Act as part of the Iraq-Afghanistan emergency supplemental appropriations bill. Led by Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas and Democrat John Corzine of New Jersey, the act appropriates $90 million in U.S. aid for Darfur and establishes targeted U.S. sanctions against the Sudanese regime, accelerates assistance to expand the size and mandate of the African Union mission in Darfur, expands the United Nations Mission in Sudan to include the protection of civilians in Darfur, establishes a no-fly zone over Darfur, and calls for a presidential envoy to Sudan.

The Darfur Accountability Act is now with the House, and Republican leaders there -- no doubt under pressure from an evangelical movement that has been aiding civilians in Southern Sudan since the outbreak of a civil war nearly 20 years ago -- are similarly joining with Democrats to push for a more robust humanitarian response to the unfolding genocide in Western Sudan. In a recent meeting with Sudanese dissidents on Capitol Hill, Congressman Tom Tancredo, a conservative Colorado Republican who first visited Sudan in 2001, discussed the urgency of passing the bill. “Pressure is the only thing that Khartoum will respond to,” Tancredo said. “The only time they will act is when they think they are on the precipice.”

Yet in an April 25 letter from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis obtained by the Prospect, the administration signaled its desire to strike the Darfur Accountability Act from the supplemental. Couching its reservations in a suggestion that the act may impede a separate peace accord reached between Khartoum and the rebels in south Sudan, the administration is now leaning on its congressional allies to scuttle the bill. "We are hearing that House Republicans will try to pull it out of conference," a well-placed congressional source told the Prospect.

Sweet, sweet genocide. Meanwhile, here's another one for the Middle East democracy promotion hypocrisy files.

April 29, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

A Crisis Of Faith?

I've been reading Andrew Sullivan's indictment of contemporary American conservatism (which he's decided to term "the conservatism of faith") and the ensuing replies with some interest. On one level, obviously, Sullivan's arguments position him as to some extent "on my side" so I'd like to be able to embrace his argument. But really wading through the whole thing it seems to me that the entire debate -- and Sullivan's way of approaching it as much as his antagonists' -- is just a symptom of what's really gone wrong with American conservatism: Its near-total detachment from actual policy discussions. Sullivan seems to think that the best way to think about, say, Health Savings Accounts is to ponder whether or not such advocacy of such accounts counts as a conservative position, or to wonder what sort of conservative one would have to be to support HSAs and then wonder whether or not that sounds like the kind of conservative you want to be.

There are certain issues that really should be thought about in this way, but conservative intellectuals of various strikes seem to have taken to applying the procedure willy-nilly in wildly inappropriate contexts. The set of tax and regulatory rules the administration wants to implement around Health Savings Accounts are a quintessentially dull, wonky matter. You need to look at what these changes actually amount to and what the consequences of implementing them are going to be. Whether or not a policy that will serve the wealthy, the healthy, and the young well at the expense of rendering employment-based insurance unworkable and screw over the sick, the poor, and the middle aged should be labeled "conservative" or not has very little to do with anything. A political movement that wants to govern the country needs to involve people who are interested in the business of government and governance and who, therefore, have some understanding of what it is they're doing. A bunch of hazy goals, vague notions, and quotations from the philosophers of yore doesn't cut it. Principles, philosophy, religious precepts, and -- shudder -- ideology are good to have and important in many ways. But a willingness to slog through policy debates is really vital.

UPDATE: To give another example of a different sort of reformist conservative who often seems trapped in the same policy void, here's Reihan Salam reacting to last night's Social Security talk:

As for "voluntary personal savings accounts," Bush never committed himself to a "carve-out." Perhaps he's backing away from that design principle in favor of something along DeLongian lines. That would represent progress. Note that I remain a partisan of the Kotlikoff plan, but half a loaf is better than none.
This is all over the map. The president did so remain committed to carve outs, he just didn't use the word. But even if he hadn't remained committed, Brad's idea for private accounts doesn't bear any resemblance to the sort of thing the President is talking about. Nor is it anything like Kotlikoff's Social Security plan. Nor does the Kotlikoff Plan really have much of anything in common with the Pozen Plan. Pozen doesn't stand in a "half of loaf" kind of relationship to Kotlikoff -- they're just totally different things that happen to involve the words "private accounts" and to have been proposed by men who think Social Security's in crisis.

April 29, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Outliers and Paternalism

I have this pet theory that since taking over the LA Times editorial section Michael Kinsley has implemented a plan of only publishing the least-persuasive conservative writers he can find as a clever, covert means of discrediting the right. Certainly, today's totally inane David Gelertner column seems to bolster that theory. Gelertner's "arguments" are too silly to be worth rebutting in particular, but it's worth saying something about the general question here. Gelertner seems to be objecting to any sort of paternalistic regulation whatsoever. He does so not on principled libertarian grounds (i.e., "paternalism is always wrong because people should be free") but on the grounds that any paternalistic policy can only be justified on the grounds that people in general are too dumb to make decisions for themselves and that this is empirically false.

So let's consider an example. Lets say one of my libertarian friends were to propose the total deregulation of heroin. This not only means heroin users and dealers won't be thrown in jail. There will be no more heroin dealers. Instead, you'll buy heroin at your local supermarket and it will come in pretty packages. It'll be sold by Heroin, Inc. and Smackcorp and they'll advertise during children's television shows, sporing events, popular sitcoms, in magazines and on billboards, etc., etc., etc. Most people -- liberal or conservative -- would think this is a pretty bad idea. Why? Well, because it would lead to a lot more heroin addiction. And heroin addiction is bad. But is the point here that "people" are too stupid to avoid heroin addiction? Of course not. No matter what kind of stupid policy we adopted most people still wouldn't take heroin, and some people who tried heroin would avoid becoming addicts.

At the same time, even with heroin being illegal and everything, some people still become heroin addicts even though it's obviously a bad idea to become addicted to heroin. The more you deregulate heroin sales, the more people will become addicted. If you totally deregulated heroin marketing, you'd get a lot more heroin addiction, even though most people would still be addiction-free. Paternalism usually works like this. You're concerned about outliers. It's a big country. Even if only 15 percent of the population were to do something silly, that would still be over 30 million people -- more than enough to worry about.

April 29, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (111) | TrackBack