Kennedy Vs. Reagan

Bill MaherAlright folks, this is funny. It is the most recent “New Rules” segment on Real Time with Bill Maher. This one is called “Our Kennedy is Kennedy.” It is a comparison of Kennedy and Reagan, because as Maher correctly notes, Reagan is the Republicans’ Kennedy. But the presentation is done from a liberal perspective and Reagan comes off as pretty bad. While Kennedy was in office, it was the time of, “Ask not what you country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” When Reagan was in office, it was the time, “Greed is good.” Or to be fair, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Because let’s be honest: when the Republicans are in charge, government sure the hell is the problem.

Generally, Maher’s “New Rules” segments are quite insightful. This one really isn’t. It is just funny as hell. There were at least three times when I burst out laughing. That is most especially true of the Judd Nelson joke. I won’t spoil it. But… Poor Judd Nelson! Anyway, enjoy:

The Tea Party Has Always Existed

Obama's Plan: White SlaveryCaptain Fogg over at Human Voices wrote a very compelling contrast between the way the far right treats Obama versus how they treated Kennedy, Remembering the Hero. Even though today Kennedy has an approval rating that tops 90%, while he was in office, he received the same kind over-the-top rhetoric about how he was discarding the Constitution and how he was a traitor.

Let me take it a bit further. Basically, since at least World War II, there has always been about 20% of the population that thinks that the commies are taking control of the nation. That’s not just me, that’s the conclusion of Change They Can’t Believe In.

Ever since 2009, I’ve been amused and outraged that the Tea Party is treated as some legitimate political movement. The mainstream press just loved the idea of middle class people finally organizing. But that’s not what was happening at all! These were the McCarthyites who knew that 81 communists worked in the State Department. These were the Birchers who ranted about the communist plot of water fluoridation[1] in 1960. And of course, these were the people with the “treason” signs on the parade route in Dallas.

I think our country would be a good deal better off if we knew more about John Wilkes Booth. He wasn’t crazy. It was just that in the circles he ran, it was a given that Lincoln was a tyrant. In his mind, he was Brutus in Julius Caesar—not an assassin but a hero of the people.

No one thinks themselves greater patriots than the Tea Party. But they aren’t patriots to the United States. They are patriots to some kind of vague notion of what they think America once was. And most sadly, that usually means an America where only whites had power.

I don’t think most of these people really wanted armed revolt and political assassination. But Captain Fogg is right that these people are sowing it. But whenever there is a tragedy that they helped create—whether it is Dallas or Oklahoma City—they slink away. For a while. When they come back, they don’t slink. They stride proudly back with their signs, “Obama’s Plan: White Slavery!”


[1] This scene from Dr. Strangelove seems like an exaggeration but it isn’t:

Turkey Doesn’t Make You Sleepy

Aaron CarrollAaron Carroll is a health policy expert and a medical school professor and lots more besides. He’s also co-written two very fun books with Rachel Vreeman: Don’t Swallow Your Gum! and Don’t Cross Your Eyes… They’ll Get Stuck That Way!

What I know him from primarily is his writing at The Incidental Economist where he does daily battle with idiot conservatives and intermittent battle with idiot liberals (there isn’t as big a supply of them). For example, on Friday, he wrote, Life Expectancy and Health Care Spending. He provides a graph that shows how most countries conform to a particular trend: the more money they spend on healthcare, the longer their people live. Except for the United States. We spend way more than everyone else and don’t live as long. For example, we live about as long as people do in Chile, but we spend five times as much per person.

Anyway, today, he posted a great video just in time for Thanksgiving: Turkey Doesn’t Make You Sleepy. It is informative and funny and most of all: it will give you something to talk about over Thanksgiving dinner!

I can hardly wait!

Afterword

I just found the following quote from another of his articles, Survival Rates Are Not the Same as Mortality Rates:

Surprisingly, the email I received was about evenly split between people who claimed no one serious ever says “we have the best health care system in the world” and people who claimed “we have the best health care system in the world.” I wish I could somehow get you all to talk to each other.

What I love about this is that I’ve been exposed to that same whiplash. But I think it isn’t two groups. I think they are the same people who make differing claims depending upon their rhetorical needs.

Conservatives Are Never Wonks

Holman JenkinsFor years, I’ve wrestled with the ultimate political question, “Are conservative wonks really that ignorant or are they simply forced to pretend to be because of their ideological necessities?” I think I’ve come down on the side of, “They’re really that ignorant.” In modern America, just following the facts makes one a liberal. Conservatism is an ideology; liberalism no longer is. Thus, the only people left to do the conservative wonkery are ideologues who are not interested in the facts except in as far as they substantiate their ideology.

Consider healthcare reform. The solution that we finally got with only Democratic votes is a conservative one that depends upon the existing insurance market system. Liberals looked at the available proposals and went with the one they thought they could get passed. Conservatives, on the other hand, start with the idea of everything that healthcare reform cannot be. For example, it could not be a single payer system. And in the end, it could not even be their own conservative plan. We see this over and over again in other areas: first comes ideology and any solutions to problems must pass that hurdle first.

Friday night, Holman Jenkins wrote, The Medicare-for-All Diversion. In it, he boldly takes on the oft repeated (true) claim by liberals that Medicare is better than private insurance because it has far lower administrative overhead. Medicare has 2% overhead costs while private insurance has 20%. Aha, Jenkins notes, “Much of Medicare’s overhead is hidden on the books of other agencies.” Q-E-fucking-D! Except… Not so much.

Austin Frakt at The Incidental Economist provides, Facts on Medicare Administrative Costs. It turns out that, contrary to what every conservative just knows, the government is pretty good at just about everything it does. And that is especially true of accounting. The Treasury Department applies the work that the IRS and HHS does for Medicare to Medicare. In other words, and not to put too fine a point on it: Holman Jenkins is just wrong.

But this isn’t even Jenkins’ main point. He must know deep down that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (That would require research!) So he argues that the reason Medicare is so efficient is because its members are so unhealthy. Really! Get this:

Ask yourself: If the overhead ratio is the right measure of insurer efficiency, which is the least efficient insurer? Answer: The one with the healthiest customers, who consume little or nothing in the way of medical services. An insurer with perfectly healthy customers would spend 100% of revenues on overhead.

So private insurer administration costs are higher because they are keeping their members so healthy. Or something. That might make some sense if he were talking about profits. But he isn’t and health insurance profits are really quite low. It is all that money they spend trying not to pay for care that eats up the money. If insurance companies paid out no money to members because they were all so healthy, administration costs wouldn’t go up, profits would. And, of course, then insurance costs would go down. Blah blah blah. Leave it to a conservative to understand absolutely nothing about how business works.

He ends by making another totally bogus claim that his own column contradicts, “Look, if Medicare had cracked the secret of administering large sectors of the economy more efficiently than the private sector can, we’d be wise to hand the entire economy over to Medicare. We don’t hear too many making this argument.” We actually do have data that shows just that. And the fact that healthcare in the US costs about double what it does in other advanced economies also shows that. But the facts never get in the way of a conservative making an argument against what they see as socialism. It is disingenuous in the extreme for a Wall Street Journal columnist to say that he would follow the facts to the best policy. That just isn’t true. Even if you could convince him of the facts, he would still be against the policy because, “Freedom!”

Afterword

Holman Jenkins is a real charmer. Here, via Gawker, is what he wrote about Stop & Frisk:

Liberals criticize stop-and-frisk because those stopped and frisked and sent to jail under New York’s draconian gun enforcement are disproportionately black and Hispanic. Never mind that those who commit murders and those who are victims of murders are disproportionately black and Hispanic. The thing to notice here is that stop-and-frisk can liberate us from the prevailing political unrealism of the gun-control debate.

Joe Scarborough Is Not Reasonable

Joe ScarboroughAt Slate on Friday, Dave Weigel published an interesting interview with Joe Scarborough, “Eisenhower is Looking Pretty Damn Good”: A Conversation With Joe Scarborough. What fascinates me is that someone like Scarborough can be considered a reasonable or mainstream Republican. The man is as extreme as they come. The only reason he comes off as something other than a full tilt ideologue is that he isn’t in office. As New York Magazine reported, “He supported impeaching Clinton, abolishing the Department of Education, and cutting off AIDS funding for the so-called Ryan White Act.” Yes, that whole liberal conspiracy known as “public education” has to go! And now, like all Republicans, Scarborough just loves Clinton! (He seems as anti-gay as ever, but isn’t willing to come right out and say that gays ought to die for the “sin.”)

What comes through loud and clear in the interview is the disingenuousness of Scarborough. His whole political strategy is to lie in wait. The Republicans should just wait for their chance. When they finally control all branches of the government, they can destroy the New Deal once and for all! Ha ha ha! That’s what he says—he just doesn’t end it with an evil laugh. But Scarborough thinks the time will come. Weigel asks him, “So when do you use the power you have to roll back the New Deal?” And his response is blunt:

The time to push is when you have the monopoly. Republicans didn’t do it.

So Scarborough’s “reasonableness” comes from the fact that he understands you can’t roll back decades of settled legislation while the Democrats are in power. His problem with Bush is not that he was a fool and a bad president, but that when he had the chance, he didn’t destroy our liberal state.

There are two problems here. First, Bush tried to do that. He tried to privatize Social Security. And our older citizens were having none of it. So Scarborough seems to be calling for the Republicans to take control of the government, pass really unpopular laws, and then never again win an election for a couple of generations. He’s pitching fantasy here. The Republicans can’t “roll back” Social Security and Medicare because these programs are hugely popular among the most reliably conservative demographic groups: the elderly. So the Republicans can roll back programs for the poor all they want, but it would be suicide to do so to programs for their base.

Scarborough talks about how Bush was a “big government Republican.” But Reagan, who Scarborough so loves, was also a big government Republican. Scarborough is pushing an old lie that is just untenable today—namely, that the Republican Party is in favor of small government. As Dean Baker put it, “In other words, the most obvious story here is not that conservatives are opposed to public goods. Rather they are opposed to public goods that could have the effect of less income being redistributed upward.” So I bristle whenever I hear such nonsense.

If he were being honest, Scarborough would admit what he means: he likes popular Republicans of the past. The rest is just apologetics. When Eisenhower was in power, it wasn’t the time to roll back Social Security. When Reagan was in power, it wasn’t time to roll back Social Security and Medicare. In fact, Reagan helped to make Social Security stronger! But when Bush was in power, it was the right time. And when President Christie has a Republican controlled Congress, it will be time. Scarborough’s world view seems to be divided into nostalgia (“Weren’t old Republicans grand!”) and fantasy (“Soon seniors can go back to eating cat food like they’re supposed to!”).

With all this in mind, I have a new definition of a “reasonable” Republican:

rea·son·able Re·pub·li·can  noun  \ˈrēz-nə-bəl \ri-ˈpə-bli-kən\, ˈrē-zən-ə-bəl\ \ri-ˈpə-bli-kən\

A Republican who now regrets having voted to impeach President Clinton.

Origin: sometime after 19 December 1998. Generally considered an oxymoron. Used by mainstream press to distinguish extremist Republicans they like from extremist Republicans they don’t.

“But it doesn’t work that way if all Republicans are saying unreasonable things, then it’s a distortion—indeed, a form of bias—to insist that there must be reasonable Republicans.”Paul Krugman

With that understanding, go ahead an call Joe Scarborough a reasonable Republican.

GOP Silence on Good Obamacare News

John BoehnerOn Friday, Brian Beutler wrote a much discussed article with a great headline, Whoops! Obamacare Turns Out to be Great Deal Personally for Boehner. For obvious political reasons, John Boehner decided to buy insurance on the ACA exchanges. And he blogged about the experience. As you might expect, he had difficulties. According to him, he spent four hours fighting with the system. But less than an hour after he complained online about the process, he succeeded.

Certainly, that kind of frustration is not acceptable. But what’s more important is that Boehner would only have mentioned bad things that happened. If the whole process took 15 minutes, he simply would have said nothing. So the question is, “What did John Boehner not say?” I’m sure that’s the question that Beutler asked himself before writing his article. Because one thing immediately comes to mind: he didn’t mention that his his premiums went up. I wonder why.

Beutler went onto the exchange and entered John Boehner’s information. And he found, “The cheapest policy for a 64-year-old is a high-deductible, bronze-plated BlueCross BlueShield plan with a $372.14 premium.” That’s actually an amazing deal from what I know about health insurance for people about to retire. Beutler writes, “Just under 2 percent of Boehner’s income. Not bad for a man on the cusp of his golden years!” The most Boehner might pay is 5.5% of his income for a gold plated plan. But he could get a zero deductible plan for just $699.86 a month—3.7% of his income.

I can well imagine that when Boehner came up with his plan to sign up with Obamacare, he had visions of ranting about sticker shock. That wasn’t a reasonable expectation. The only people likely to see their premiums go up are young healthy affluent people. Boehner is certainly affluent—he didn’t get any subsidies. But he isn’t young and he is smoker with some kind of preexisting condition that turns the skin orange. But I suspect he really did think he would face sticker shock. In the right wing echo chamber, Obamacare is making everyone pay more for health insurance—at least those who can actually get the system to work.

It’s interesting to see how Boehner’s stunt has played in the media. When he first announced that he couldn’t sign up, the conservative media were all over it. Twitchy, for example, published Rep. John Boehner Unsuccessfully Attempts to Enroll in Obamacare. Although even by the time it published the article, it was no longer accurate. But since then, the conservative media have lost interest. Again: the echo chamber. Their readers hear that Boehner can’t sign up and they hear nothing more—not even that it took Boehner a long time to sign up.

The reason I was even looking at the coverage of this is that I thought that John Boehner might release a statement. If Beutler was even partly wrong, he would have said something like, “I’m not going to talk about my personal finances, but I did not get a great deal through Obamacare.” But we didn’t even get this kind of non-denial denial. So I feel very comfortable thinking that Boehner actually did get sticker shock, “I am shocked that my premiums are so low through Obamacare!” But you won’t hear him talk about it. When there is good news about Obamacare, no conservative will dare talk about it.

Update (24 November 2013 7:37 pm)

According to Politico, John Boehner’s Premiums Spike Under Obamacare. I smell a rat. According to the article, “So, he’ll pay more next year for himself than he paid this year for both himself and his wife.” First, that sounds like it comes direct from Boehner’s office and not an actual journalist. Second, given that the Boehners get their insurance through their employers, wasn’t the actual cost they were paying higher than their own contributions? That is: what about the employer’s contribution? Third, by opting out of employer insurance, are they throwing themselves into a high risk pool—namely the “old and smoking” pool? I wonder about it and I will watch closely to see what is reported tomorrow by people who understand all this stuff a lot better than I do.

Spinoza and Pantheism

Baruch SpinozaThe great Ukrainian painter Marie Bashkirtseff was born in 1858. She died of tuberculosis at only 25. It is amazing to think what she would have done had she lived a reasonably long life. As it is, she was a master. Check out the link for a few of her works.

The great ragtime composer Scott Joplin might have been born on this day in 1867. For a long time, people thought so. Now they don’t. But no one knows when he was born, so we might as well celebrate his birthday today. Ragtime is one of the most distinctive musical forms ever and no one was greater at it than Joplin. It is like having a whole band on the piano. As a result, playing ragtime is really hard—that left hand has to do a lot of work. Anyway, here is Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” played by Joplin himself (on a piano roll anyway):

One of the greatest basketball players ever, Oscar Robertson is 75 today. He was a hero to me when I was a kid. But I was really disappointed to hear him talk about the movie Hoosiers. Robertson was a sophomore on the losing team and I guess he took particular offense to it. He noted that the team was not all black. But he was wrong to say that was how the film portrayed the team, because it didn’t. What’s more, on the commentary for the film, the writers discuss how because of Robertson, the Hickory (Milan in real life) team would never have been able to beat the team the next year. Robertson alone was that great—as a high school junior. It’s not that I don’t understand, it’s just unfortunate that he even talks about it. He’s one of the greatest basketball players ever, for Christ’s sake!

Other birthdays: Spanish painter Juan Martinez de Jauregui y Aguilar (1583); novelist Laurence Sterne (1713); children’s writer Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849); painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864); architect Walter Burley Griffin (1876); ridiculous writer Dale Carnegie (1888); famed conservative bigot William F Buckley Jr (1925); the original Ringo, Pete Best (72); the great bass player Donald “Duck” Dunn (1941); actor Billy Connolly (71); serial killer Ted Bundy (1946); and actor Thierry Lhermitte (61).

The day, however, belongs to the great philosopher Baruch Spinoza who was born on this day in 1632. What can I possibly say about Spinoza that will not trivialize him? He was in many ways the father of the Enlightenment thinkers who would come after him. But what is most important to me is his writing and thinking on religious matters. Spinoza argued for pantheism—the idea that all of the universe is a manifistation of God, or parts anyway. But not in the simplistic way that people tend to think about it, “We are all one, dude!” In my discussions with theists, I’m usually struck by how tightly they hold to Descartes’ idea that the body and the soul are different. Spinoza countered this by arguing that physics and metaphysics must be one and the same. The problem, from my perspective, is that we are parochial. So we cannot “see” God any more than we can see our eyes. Of course, regardless of how you define pantheism, from a traditional standpoint, it becomes atheism. If everything is God then nothing is. One thing is certain, such a God does not love us. Spinoza understood that.

Happy birthday Baruch Spinoza!