Author Archives: ogenec

Obama, the Economy, and Those Free Trade Agreements

Jobs and the economy are Obama’s Achilles heel.  And he has no one to blame but himself.  Way back in 2009, I tried to warn him:

Actually, I feel like Obama’s the one getting punked. But it’s mostly his doing. Ask the many independents who voted for him. They wanted, and still want, Obama to focus like a laser on the economy. There are encouraging signs that we are beginning to turn this thing around, but we would have been much further along if that had been his primary focus. And if he had taken ownership of the stimulus bill and made sure damn near everything was stimulus and not just Congress’ pet spending projects.

Had he done that, Congressional Dems would have been golden for 2010. He could have used the remainder of his term to push for real healthcare reform. Many previously skeptical folks would have said, hey, this man proved with the economy that he knows how to focus and execute. So let’s give him a shot with healthcare.

That would have set up 2012 beautifully. After which point he could have pushed for major entitlement reform. The kind that addresses structural deficit and puts us back on path to long-term prosperity.

That’s what could have been. Instead, we have reform fatigue. We’re still digesting the economic reforms, and he’s ladling in healthcare. It’s all too much at one time. The result is that he’s going to get some healthcare reform, but it will be weak because there is insufficient political goodwill for anything more. And don’t even talk about entitlement reform.

So my issue with Obama is he has the right instincts for reform. But the way he’s going at about it — everything at once — makes it virtually impossible for his reforms to succeed. I hope I’m wrong.

(From a comment at  But the White House didn’t want to waste a “crisis.”  And so here we are, with Obama waiting for solutions from his Jobs Council.  Problems with this are three fold:

  • You don’t outsource job creation – it’s too important.
  • A 26-person (!) committee is only going to come up with pablum.  Encourage more SBA lending?  Make buildings more energy-efficient?  Streamline the federal permit process?  Heaven save us.
  • Composition of the council.  GE?  Amex? Intel? Citibank?  My goodness.  If you’ve read Clayton Christensen’s many writings on “Market Disruption” – and if you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to remedy that right away – you know that these companies are likely to be the disruptees rather than the disruptors.  Take Intel.  Its relentless focus on its core customers – desktops and workstations requiring high-powered chips – made it oblivious to the threats posed to it manufacturers of low-powered chips used in cell phones and now tablets.  Now Intel has to fight a two-front battle: try to gain a foothold in the low-powered market, AND fend against low-powered chipmakers moving upmarket.  I would have gone in a different direction, looking at companies like Nucor, Hyundai and Xerox (the focus on an article in today’s WSJ showing how it has reinvented itself).  These and other companies have innovation hardwired in their DNA, whereas most of the companies represented on the council strike me as moribund, staid, and completely orthodox.  (Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook is a conspicuous exception.)

But here’s the irony of the thing.  The one silver lining in this crappy economy is the weak dollar.  Sucks for imports and international tourism, but is like the Balm of Gilead for export markets.  More exports means more hiring, right?  So why aren’t we moving on the trade agreements?  Oh right – because organized labor doesn’t like them.  But here’s the problem.  We are not dealing in a binary world any more, where we either do the deal or don’t.  Now we compete with other countries for the same trade benefits.  And while we’ve dithered, other countries have rushed in to complete their own deals with Colombia, South Korea etc.

This state of affairs needs to be corrected, asap.  We don’t need no stinking pablum from a bunch of overpaid titans.  We need to sell our wares, and that means export markets.  So STMFTAA! (That means “Sign the Mut*a Fu*king Trade Agreements Already” – shout out to Dan Savage)  And I don’t want to hear any caterwauling from those liberals who insist that Obama must do something RIGHT NOW about jobs – but shriek like banshees when it comes to signing the free trade agreements.  Their arguments, such as they are, are easily accommodated.  So, as these guys so aptly put it, “it’s time for liberals to stop making excuses and let the deal get done.”

So, Mr. President, if you’re listening – Get ‘Er Done.


Filed under Uncategorized

Why Bill Clinton is Right on Medicare

Written By Ogenec

Another politician falls victim to the “hot mike.”  This time it’s good ol’ Bill.  Caught, as it were, in fragrante delicto with Paul Ryan.  As all good liberals and progressives know, Paul Ryan is the bete noire of all that is decent in the world, because he had the temerity to put forward a plan to reform Medicare.  Democrats ran on that in NY-26, turning a ho-hum special election in a Republican bastion into a referendum on the Ryan plan.  And the Democrat won!  For the first time in a long time, Democrats have Republicans on the run.  Visions of retaking Congress are dancing around in Democrats’ minds.  Hence the dispatch with which Senate Democrats forced a vote on the Ryan plan.  To the Dems’ delight, all the Republicans voted for it except for the self-avowed centrists and Rand Paul (whose beef is that the Ryan plan is insufficiently draconian).  So why, cry Democrats in anguish, would Bill Clinton choose now to play footsie with the enemy?

Here’s why.  It may be the case that the Ryan plan is a bad idea, on both political and policy grounds.  But that does not negate the fact that Medicare is a serious, and growing, problem.  The NY-26 lesson should not be to abandon efforts to reform Medicare.  Yet that is precisely the lesson Democrats seem intent upon drawing.  They will enjoy a short-term political boost as a result.  But in the medium- to long-term, they — and we — will suffer greatly for the abdication of leadership.

It’s difficult to discern the severity of the problem when one talks about Medicare in abstract terms, as I just have.  So let’s talk numbers.  Fortunately, I have the 2011 Medicare Trustee’s Report, published just this month. It’s a 273-page report, but you don’t have to read all of it. Virtually all the bad news is right up front in the Overview section:

  • The hospital insurance part of Medicare (Part A) is projected to go bankrupt in 13 years (2024).  That’s a full five years earlier than projected last year(!)
  • Part A has not met the Trustees’ test for short-term financial adequacy since 2003.  In 2010, $32.3 billion of trust assets were redeemed to cover the expenditure shortfall.
  • “The difference between Medicare’s total outlays and its ‘dedicated financing sources’ is estimated to reach 45 percent of outlays in fiscal year 2011, the first year of the projection.”  In plain English, Medicare is borrowing from the Federal Government nearly 50% of what it pays out.
  • As dire as the projections detailed above are, the reality is much, much worse.  That’s because the projections assume that the cuts in Medicare spending embodied in current law apply.  But, as everyone should know, the cuts are virtually certain not to apply.  Back in 1997, as part of the Balanced Budget Act, the Clinton White House and Congress agreed on “sustainable growth rate” triggers that would restrict Medicare reimbursements to doctors.  Medicare costs quickly outstripped growth projections in the Act, so the SGR cuts should have kicked in, right?  Well, no.  Each year since 2003, Congress has postponed implementing the cuts, even as the Trust Fund is required to assume that they will come into effect.  The cumulative effect of all the postponements is that in 2012, Medicare reimbursements would have to decline by 29.2% to comply with the Balanced Budget Act.  Never gonna happen.  Which is why the Medicare trustees take a dim view on whether the cost-containment measures contained in the Affordable Care Act will ever materialize.  Given the SGR experience, the Trustees — masters of understatement, they — call the prospect of ACA cost savings “debatable.”
  • If you are not scared by now, this last statistic should leave you slobbering in abject horror: The present value of the Medicare deficit through 2085 is $33.8 TRILLION.  That’s trillion with a T.  And that’s the present value of the deficit, not the aggregate amount in nominal terms.  Moreover, the $33.8 trillion merely represents the difference between Medicare assets and estimated outlays.  In 2085, Medicare assets would be zero.  Lastly, the $33.8 trillion number is based on the same optimistic scenarios discussed above, the same ones the Trustees concede are unlikely to materialize.  As a result, to quote the Trustees again, “actual long-range present values for HI expenditures and SMI expenditures and revenues are likely to exceed the amounts shown in table V.D2 by a substantial margin.”

Ladies and gentlemen, these are the cold, hard, incontrovertible facts.  We need to come up with at least $33.8 trillion in today’s dollars — and probably much more — just to keep Medicare going through 2085.  After which time the Medicare fund will have exactly zip, zero, nada, left.  This is the reality that Bill Clinton is reacting to.  And that is why he is cautioning Democrats not to sacrifice courage on the altar of political expediency.  Yes, the Ryan plan is a bridge too far.  But there is a wide gulf between Ryan’s proposal and doing nothing.  Democrats must do something.  It’s a moral imperative.

The other thing the $33.8 Trillion number points out is that the “solutions” proferred by liberals and progressives are anything but.  A surtax on the rich won’t generate anything near the kind of revenue required.  Sen. Sanders has advocated a 5.4% surtax on incomes above $1 million, which he estimates would generate approximately $50 billion in annual revenue.  That’s a mere pittance, given the enormity of the Medicare deficit.  Plus, it’s unlikely to pass.  Sen. Conrad has proposed a far more modest 3% surtax, which would cut nearly in half the expected revenue.  Most importantly, as James Kwak notes at Baseline Scenario, Medicare taxes already are progressive:

In some abstract sense, I would prefer to raise taxes on the rich instead. But I think we should look other places rather than Medicare to make the tax system more progressive. Medicare, like Social Security, is a progressive system even though its taxes on their own are not. Because everyone gets the same benefit, there’s already a large amount of redistribution going on; in addition, that benefit is worth more to poor people, because they are less likely to have other sources of insurance.

Neither will using Medicare to leverage lower drug prices — in fact, the drug portion of Medicare already is indexed to costs.  Per the Trustee’s report:

The SMI trust fund is adequately financed over the next 10 years and beyond because premium and general revenue income forParts B and D are reset each year to match expected costs.

Which makes the solution rather obvious, no?  Increase the payroll tax to reflect the rise in Medicare spending.  And let’s undertake a real effort to reduce healthcare costs.  And by that I mean real reductions, not artificial measures that don’t address costs at the source, but merely shift the increases in healthcare costs to others.  That’s what Congress tried with the SGR, and that’s why it doesn’t work.  And, as a certain someone predicted in 2009, that’s why the ACA putative cost savings won’t materialize either.

So Bill is right on Medicare.  There are any number of compelling reasons for Democrats not to demagogue this issue.  33.8 trillion on them, as it happens.


Filed under Economy, News, Obama Administration, Politics, Pres. Barack Obama

Tip O’Neill is Right

Posted by: ogenec

In the wake of last night’s contests, Washington is involved in its favorite parlor game: declaring winners and losers. Politico says the activists won. And, sure, that argument has superficial appeal: Rand Paul prevailed over McConnell’s hand-picked candidate; Blanche Lincoln is in a dogfight; and, perhaps most telling, Sestak beat Specter like a drum. Much to the chagrin of the White House.

But isn’t the real lesson — so far, little remarked upon — that “all politics is local”? To my mind, the famous Tip O’Neill statement was never more true than yesterday. Sestak beating Specter had, I think, more to do with reflexive aversion to the White House imposing Specter on the local electorate as if from on high. Even from my far-removed perch, it struck me as quite arrogant for Washington insiders to decree who the local representative should be, especially when the hand-picked candidate is not a Democrat, but a Republican seeking shelter from the Tea Party maelstrom. In that sense, the WH took a well-deserved loss. They should learn from it: Nobody appreciates having their mind made up for them by the party apparatchik.

But, elsewhere in PA, Mark Critz won the special election for Jack Murtha’s seat. And he’s no activist darling: he’s opposed to the Obama agenda, would have voted against health care, and is anti-choice. Hardly the poster boy for progressives. And yet, he won.   That is further proof to me of the “Big Tent” theory: Democrats win, and will retain their majority, when they elect Dems who represent the cultural make-up of their districts.  Whether they adhere to notions of progressive orthodoxy is, frankly, irrelevant.

So I applaud Sestak.  But I also applaud Critz, despite the fact that his views are so different from mine.  And I hope Blanche Lincoln pulls it out in AK.  The Republicans are on a party purification bender, but  I see no reason for Democrats to join them in that foolhardy endeavor.  Especially when wins like Critz’s portend that the rumors of the Dems’ death in November are, like Mark Twain’s, greatly exaggerated.


Filed under News, Politics, Pres. Barack Obama, Republicans

Why We Reform by Paul Krugman

Posted by: ogenec

Op-ed by Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman, New York Times

Paul Krugman, New York Times

NYT~One way or another, the fate of health care reform is going to be decided in the next few days. If House Democratic leaders find 216 votes, reform will almost immediately become the law of the land. If they don’t, reform may well be put off for many years — possibly a decade or more.

So this seems like a good time to revisit the reasons we need this reform, imperfect as it is.

As it happens, Reuters published an investigative report this week that powerfully illustrates the vileness of our current system. The report concerns the insurer Fortis, now part of Assurant Health, which turns out to have had a systematic policy of revoking its clients’ policies when they got sick. In particular, according to the Reuters report, it targeted every single policyholder who contracted H.I.V., looking for any excuse, no matter how flimsy, for cancellation. In the case that brought all this to light, Assurant Health used an obviously misdated handwritten note by a nurse, who wrote “2001” instead of “2002,” to claim that the infection was a pre-existing condition that the client had failed to declare, and revoked his policy.

This was illegal, and the company must have known it: the South Carolina Supreme Court, after upholding a decision granting large damages to the wronged policyholder, concluded that the company had been systematically concealing its actions when withdrawing coverage, not just in this case, but across the board.

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Filed under Economics, Health Care Reform, Uncategorized

44-D’s Best Music of 2009

Blogpost by: Ogenec

Never, ever on schedule, but always on time.” – Nas


Hey y’all, Happy New Year!  I’ve been promising the list for some time, and I’ve been slacking.  Especially in the wake of AG’s most excellent best books list.  But like Kanye, “you should be honored by my lateness.”  🙂  What follows is a highly personal take on the best music of 2009.    The profusion in the quality and quantity of recorded music is mind-blowing.  And I especially love to be turned on to new stuff.  So I’m hoping you guys will chip in with your own suggestions.   Here we go.

Noisettes, Wild Young Hearts:  I’d never even heard of the Noisettes before Summer 09. But I heard their song “Atticus” at a store somewhere and went in furious search of the group.  Even though rock is not my genre, this is probably my favorite disc of the year.  Of course, calling this is a rock album is a serious disservice.  Most commentators call it a hybrid mesh of rock, blues, disco, and old school r&b.  They’re probably right, but it just sounds like the future to me.  The lead singer is DOPE, and I can’t wait to catch their live show.  Favorite cut: Atticus.

Mos Def, The Ecstatic:  He’s baaaack!!  Mos has floundered a little bit since his magnificent opus, Black on Both Sides.   I get it — he’s been distracted by his acting career (and weird appearances on Bill Maher).  And I liked The New Danger more than most folks.  But this is that classic Mos that we know and love.  Favorite cut: Auditorium.  Also love the remake of Roses with Georgia Anne Muldrow.


Q-Tip, Kamaal The Abstract: The genuises at Q-Tip’s record label have to explain why they shelved this album for more than eight years.  I think it’s even better than last year’s The Renaissance.  Another hybrid album, this time with elements of r&b, soul, rock, and jazz.  Sounds like future Prince or Stevie Wonder.  Favorite cut: Do You Dig U?

Drake, So Far Gone: Okay, this is a bit of a cheat.  The mixtape, which I’m still geeking over, came out in 2008.  But he re-released certain of the mixtape cuts on CD and itunes in 2009, so it qualifies.  As a bonus, the re-release contains an unreleased track “Fear,” which is bananas.  Hottest kid in the rap game right now, and with good reason.  Favorite cut: Fear.  Shout-out to DJ Khalil.

Lee Fields, My World: I gotta thank the good people of HBO’s Entourage for this one.  When I heard “Ladies” during the credits of one of the episodes, I lost my sh*t.  I had to cop the album.  Gutbucket soul, set to the sweetest harmonies you’ve ever heard.  And hey — I detect a little of the hip-hop influence as well.  Looks like the old school is learning from the new school, not just vice-versa.  I am a big fan of the ’60s renaissance in music.  If you love Amy Whitehouse, Joss Stone etc., check this OG out.  While you’re at it, check out Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings too.  Favorite cut: Ladies.

Rafael Saadiq, The Way I See It: I’m sticking with the retro soul angle here.  I’ve been down with Ray-Ray since Tony Toni Tone.  This is his masterpiece.  Again, if you like the Motown doo-wop sound, you’ve gotta check this out.  And while you’re at it, get the Live from the Artist’s Den DVD.  It’s fantastic.  Favorite cut: 100 Yard Dash.

Fela, The Best of the Black President: “Eh-heh, let us get down.  Into another underground spiritual game….”  I have to show some love to the greatest Nigerian musician of all time.  If you want to know the meaning of “underground spiritual game,” you need to check out Fela!, the best show on Broadway.  This album will hold you over until you can.  It’s a compilation of Fela’s most popular cuts.  Note, however, that these are mostly edits: many of Fela’s songs run 20-30 minutes long, and you owe it to yourself to listen to the unedited versions.  Still, an excellent way to get familiar with the genius that is Fela.  Favorite cut: Water No Get Enemy.

Robert Glasper, Double Booked: And now we segue from Afrobeat to jazz (actually, less of a transition than you might think).  Robert Glasper is my favorite jazz pianist right now.  He’s just so melodic.  He’s also incredible live — the missus and I saw him last year at the Kennedy Center.  He can play everything from straight-ahead to fusion to soul jazz to hip-hop.  And here, he does.  The first half is an acoustic trio setting; the second, “The Experiment,” a fusion exercise with Bilal and Mos Def making vocal appearances.  Wonderful stuff.  Favorite cut: No Worries.

Roy Hargrove, Emergence: A little more jazz.  I’ve loved this guy ever since I saw him play in St. Louis many moons ago.  Like Glasper, Hargrove does all variety of jazz, soul and hip-hop-inflected music.  Indeed, my favorite album of his is Crisol, a Latin jazz homage.  Here, Hargrove goes big band.  I’m not generally a fan of the big band genre, but I love this.  Especially the treatment of Mambo for Roy from the Crisol album.  Favorite cut: Mambo for Roy.

Maxwell, Blacksummersnight: Maxwell returns.  He’s lost the neo-soul affectations of his first few albums, and is in full-on grown man mode.  I love it, and you will too.  The harmonies, the live instrumentation, the trumpets, it’s all so gorgeous.  And if you missed his North American tour, you missed the best concert of the year.  Period.  Favorite cut: Bad Habits.

Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Devil’s Halo: I think of this album as sort of a bookend to Bitter.  I liked Bitter, but found it to be a little dark for me.  This is dark too, but it’s not so depressing.  Just deep, slow, and sensual.  You know, kinda like Me’Shell herself.  Favorite cut: Love You Down (wonderful remake of the Ready for the World song).


The Dream, Love vs Money: I don’t listen to a lot of commercial radio.  Obviously.  🙂  It’s virtually all dreck to me.  But I love me some The-Dream.  I don’t think there’s anyone else in R&B working at his level.  He’s behind most of the hits you’ve danced to, from Rihanna’s Umbrella to Beyonce’s Single Ladies.  But he saved the best for himself on this album.  The-Dream is the future of R&B.  Favorite cut: Fancy.

Major Lazer, Guns Don’t Kill People, Lazers Do: I don’t even know how to classify this one.  Reggae meets rock meets electronica?  Dancehall meets punk?  I heard someone call it “electro reggae.”  Let’s go with that.  This album, from MIA’s producers Diplo and Switch, rocks HARD.  Just get it already.  Favorite cut: What U Like(WARNING: This is a VERY explicit and raunchy song.   Not for delicate ears!!!)

Raekwon, Only Built for Cuban Linx 2: The second installment of the Wu-Gambino crime-soaked masterpiece.  This is for all you who claim not to like gangsta rap.  Indulge your id and have a little fun with this one.  It’s not real, any more than playing Grand Theft Auto or watching Scarface is.  But it’s an escapist treat. Amazon says “Blazing tracks…delivered with Raekwon’s melodic flows and street oriented delivery.”  Werd.  Favorite track: We Will Rob You.


Filed under Culture, Entertainment, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Latin, Music, Pop, Pop Culture, R & B, Rock & Roll, Uncategorized

On Obama’s War in Afghanistan: — More Loans, Fewer Drones

blogpost by Ogenec

I am looking forward to hearing Obama’s speech tonight. I do hope, however, that we don’t get the kind of speech he is so adept at giving: the one where he impresses us with his mastery of nuance and ability to understand all sides of a multi-faceted issue. At this point, even his detractors are prepared to concede him that point. The question is not his capacity for reflection, but his capacity for conviction. If he believes the war is worth fighting, he must convince us of that. More to the point, he must convince us we need to sacrifice for the effort. If, however, he does not believe this war is worth fighting in the long term, then he must also convince us of that.

And here I’ll digress to state my own opinion. I think that the term “war” is not the right one, and it just distorts the analysis to look at it from that perspective. We are not at “war” with Afghanistan. But we should do whatever it takes to deny the Taliban and Al Qaeda sanctuary. Not just because of Af-Pak, although Pakistan is tremendously important: ISI, nukes, Kashmir, and all that. In my own opinion, the problem is what a time series would show: that Islamic fundamentalism is spreading and metastizing, from the Middle East into Asia, Europe, and even sub-Saharan Africa. It will take a concerted, global effort to reverse this trend, and it behooves all countries to get involved, and to stop playing geo-political games with the issue.  Russia is learning that lesson the hard way.   They imagined that they could use Iran as a pawn in their geopolitical chess match with the  United States.   But the recent terrorist attack in Russia demonstrates the limits of that strategy: Russia can make nice with the Iranian theocrats all it wants, but that will not deter the fundamentalists from their vision of a Caliphate that spans Asia, Europe and Africa. By whatever means necessary.

Similarly, pacifists, progressives, liberals (or whatever they want to call themselves) should recognize the limits of their strategy.  Repudiating Bush’s silly pre-emptive war doctrine does not mean that we should end the effort in Afghanistan, and “just bring the troops home.”  Again, that view severely misapprehends the existential nature of the threat. That said, I do agree that there is something to the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle” argument: that by intervening militarily in Afghanistan, we perpetuate the disaffection that leads to the very fundamentalism we are trying to prevent.  I get that.  But that does not mean we abandon the endeavor: it means that we transform it. We should not make the mistake with Karzai that Bush made with Musharraf, and prop up a corrupt administration with divided loyalties. Rather, we should help the local populace with economic alternatives: more micro loans, less drones, to coin a phrase. So the focus on troop numbers misses the point in my view. The question is, what is the purpose of the troops? This is what I want to hear from Obama tonight. Tell me that the troops are a means to an end, not the end in and of themselves.

And, while you’re at it, tell me how we are going to pay for it. Make this a national call to action, and Americans will be happy to do their share. But you’ve gotta make the case.  My vote: WaPo’s prescription of a gasoline tax.

Related discussion:
Tom Ricks C-span interview: What’s next in Afghanistan? 12/1/2009

Vodpod videos no longer available.


Filed under Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Military, Opinions, Pakistan, Russia, Uncategorized, United States

The Party’s Not Over

blogpost by Ogenec

All the bloviating about the impact of last Tuesday reminds me of Teddy Riley’s line from “Groove Me“: “The party’s not over.  It. Ain’t. Over. ”  Holla if you know if what I’m talking about.  Anyway, for those of you who missed the cultural reference, what I mean is this: the elections do not necessarily portend doom and gloom in 2010.  But they are harbingers, and we would be unwise to disregard them.

I have always believed that Obama made a serious mistake taking on healthcare as soon as he did.  Don’t get me wrong.  I believe that universal health care is a moral obligation.  It is obscene that the United States, virtually alone among industrialized countries, does not provide health care to all of its citizenry.  So no need to sell me on the necessity of health care reform; I get it.

My point pertains not to necessity, but to politics and governing strategy.  Obama won last fall by stitching together an impressive coalition of progressives, moderates and Democrat-leaning independents.  Each segment of the coalition had interests that did not necessarily coincide with the others’, which I’ll discuss in a bit.  But they were all united in the desire that a Democratic administration could pull us out of the economic chasm into which Bush’s profligacy and supply-side tropes had pushed us.  It’s the economy, stupid.  Always has been.

Given the reality of his mandate, and the fragile ties binding his coalition, I expected Obama to focus like a laser on the economy.  Alas, he has not.  He has taken his eyes of the ball by devoting so much time and energy to the healthcare debate, which has sucked all the oxygen out of the room.    And when he has focused on the economy, his initiatives have in a perverse way played into the caricatures conservatives have painted of him.  So Uncle Sam now owns most of Wall Street.  Uncle Sam owns all of Detroit, except for the one automaker actually making money.  And Uncle Sam is getting ready to involve itself in the business of healthcare.   Each can be justified on the merits.  But, collectively, they scare the bejesus out of moderates and independents.  Hannity, Limbaugh and Beck begin to sound halfway sane when they call Obama a socialist.  Of course he’s not a socialist.  But he sure seems to be dead set on a whole lotta government takeover of private enterprise, however good his intentions might be.

Hence, the results of this past Tuesday’s contests.  When you compare VA and NJ with NY-23, it becomes apparent to me that moderates and independents bolted because of their disquiet over Obama’s spending.  To some extent, they buy the Keynesian argument that the economic crisis is best solved by even more government spending in the short-term.  But there is a limit to their willingness to play along.  So, to my mind, Obama’s initial health-care reforms should have been a bit more modest.  First, he should have asked Congress to pass a simple law proscribing the rescission and “pre-existing condition” practices of insurers.  Then, for the remainder of his term, he should have implemented robust financial reforms and had Congress pass targeted stimulus spending.  More cash for clunkers, and less pork-laden stuff like the stimulus bill.   In his second term, once economy has turned around, he could then turn to reforming health care and other entitlements, which would put the United States on a glide path to long-term solvency and prosperity.  Moderates and independents would give him this mandate, as his first term would have assuaged their fears of fiscal indiscipline.  Voila!  Everybody gets their cookies.

But Obama did not pursue this strategy.  One, I might add, urged by several eminences grise.   Instead, he chose not to “waste a crisis” but to try to resolve all of these problems — healthcare, economy, environment, etc. — at once.  Now that’s he’s embarked upon this path, I think it’s too late to return to my “sequencing” idea.  In the immortal words of Macbeth:

I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.

In other words, he cannot simply drop health care like a hot potato.  He has to see this thing through to completion.  But how?  Everybody is drawing different conclusions from these elections.  Progressives insists that it means Obama has to push harder for their desired reforms, or they won’t show up at the polls.  Moderates and independents insist that they won’t show up if Obama does not tack to the center, post-haste.

Let me humbly suggest that both are right.  Progressives are the base of the Democratic Party, and always will be.  However, getting progressives on board is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.  To put a Democratic candidate over the top, he or she must win over independents.  Thus, in VA and NJ, Republicans won by winning over independents.  In NY 23, the moderates and independents went to the Democrat, and he won.  So my takeaway is that neither progressives nor moderates can go it alone: they each need other.

How might progressives and moderates make common cause?  By talking to each other.  Beneath the blood-curdling yells, progressives are actually asking some salient questions, and it behooves moderates to listen closely.  Questions like:

  • Why is the White House AWOL on gay marriage?  It costs little political capital to weigh in, even as most concede these issues are best resolved on a local basis.  And it’s the right thing to do.  The WH has an army of volunteers at its disposal.  Get ’em involved.
  •   Why the fiscal focus on healthcare, when the war efforts aren’t subject to the same scrutiny?
  • Speaking of which, however right or just the war might be, what do we realistically think we can accomplish in Afghanistan?

Similarly, moderates and independents make valid points of their own.  If competition is the rationale for the public option, is it not better — and more consistent with America’s free-market principles — to remove impediments to competition among private insurers, rather than create another government entity?  Or this — are you prepared to live with the consequences of a withdrawal from Afghanistan?  How else would you suggest we fight for the minds and hearts of the local populace, without whose active participation (or apathy) terrorist operations cannot take root?

Other issues abound, on both sides.  It’s no disservice to either to say that.  The disservice is ours, however, if we cannot figure out a way to come together on these issues.  I have always maintained that ideology can often get in the way of solutions.  It’s important that we not become so fixated on particular policy approaches that we forget the larger goal of improving the lot of the American people.  

Let’s keep the party going.


Filed under Democrats, Economics, Economy, Partisan Politics, Politics, Uncategorized

The Public Option Shibboleth, or Act 2 of: HealthCare: A Diatribe

blogpost by Ogenec

Dear Readers, between DJ Hero and other pursuits, I have been delinquent in writing this piece. My bad.  And I’m kinda cheating. I’d promised that Part 2 of my diatribe would address the Baucus bill, while Part 3 would address the public option. However, in light of the passage of time and developments under way in Congress, it makes sense to flip that around. Accordingly, I’ll talk about the public option now, and in Part III whatever bill emerges from conference.
So, here we go:

“The Defining Moment”, today’s OpEd by Paul Krugman is a good place to start. GeoT sent it to me today, with the comment that Krugman was talking to me and the rest of the public option holdouts: time to be reasonable, in otherwords. GeoT was just kidding; he knows I’m the epitome of reasonableness 🙂 But his point is well-taken; in many ways, it’s time to put up or shut up. Instead of being negative about the public option, perhaps we should be more constructive and say what we affirmatively are for, rather than against.

I will do that in a bit, but let me clear up a misconception. I rail against a public option not because I’m opposed to the concept, but because I think proponents both overstate and understate its impact. The real issue is health care reform, which the public option in and of itself does not address.

Let me demonstrate what I mean.  Most proponents claim that the public option will (a) provide competition to insurers, which will in turn (b) help to hold health care costs down, all without (c) morphing into a single-payer plan.  I think that’s pure bunk.  As presently envisaged, the public option will not do (a) or (b); it’s not sufficiently robust.  If, however, you do make it sufficiently robust to fix (a) or (b), the public option will lead, ineluctably, to a single-payer system.

Let’s take these one at a time.  First, the notion that the public option will provide competition.   Not under the current plan, it won’t:  The scale of the program is too small.  As presently constituted, the CBO projects that only 6 million people would enroll in the public plan.  How does such a limited plan introduce competition?  How does it break away from the employer-based model?  Answer: it doesn’t.

Well, then, what about holding health care costs down?  That part is a double-fail.  No real competition means no downward pressure on health care costs.  But it’s even worse than that — CBO projects that premiums for the public plan will exceed what folks in private plans are paying:

[A] public plan paying negotiated rates would attract a broad network of providers but would typically have premiums that are somewhat higher than the average premiums for the private plans in the exchanges. The rates the public plan pays to providers would, on average, probably be comparable to the rates paid by private insurers participating in the exchanges. The public plan would have lower administrative costs than those private plans but would probably engage in less management of utilization by its enrollees and attract a less healthy pool of enrollees.

So let’s recap.  The public option now under consideration would not provide sufficient competition to insurers; health care costs would not go down; and premiums for those in the public plan would go up.  What’s not to like?  This kind of a public option would not present the threat identified in (c) above.  It’s so neutered as to foreclose any risk that it is a stalking horse for a single-payer system.

Most progressives agree with this assessment.  And, say they, that’s precisely the problem: we need the “robust” option.  One that is open to everyone ab initio (or shortly after inception), and that pegs reimbursement to Medicare, or Medicare plus 5%.   Here’s the problem with that approach.  It busts the budget, imposes negative externalities on insureds in private plans and the uninsured, all of which ensure a slow death for private insurance.  It busts the budget because as the number of people covered under the public option increases, so does the cost.  A greater expansion takes the bill well over the $900 billion threshold Obama has set.  And even that threshold is suspect, as both the House and Senate versions of the plan rely on Medicare-related savings that are unlikely to be realized.   As proof, just recall the recent debates over the COLA adjustment and staving off the long-planned cuts in Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors.  The likelihood that Congress will display fortitude it heretofore has never possessed to reduce Medicare reimbursements when push comes to shove is virtually nil.

Meanwhile, much has been made of the savings that will accrue to the government (and, hence, the taxpayers) if reimbursement rates are tied to Medicare.  But very few have asked the question, from whom do those savings come?  And the answer is clear: from the same people who unwittingly subsidize Medicare — those in private insurance and the uninsured. That then leads to the next problem — single-payer through the backdoor.   Fred Hiatt explains these inter-related problems quite cogently:

[I]f, as seems likeliest — and as House legislation mandates — the plan uses government power to demand lower prices from hospitals and drug companies, those providers may lower quality or seek to make up the difference from private payers. Private companies would have to raise their rates, so more people would choose the public plan, so private rates would rise further — and we could end up with only the public option and no competition at all. Single-payer national health insurance may be the best outcome, but we should get there after an honest debate, not through the back door.

Robert Samuelson also makes the same point: 

[A] favored public plan would probably doom today’s private insurance. Although some congressional proposals limit enrollment eligibility in the public plan, pressures to liberalize would be overwhelming. Why should only some under-65 Americans enjoy lower premiums? … Private insurance might become a specialty product. …Many would say: Whoopee! Get rid of the sinister insurers. Bring on a single-payer system. But if that’s the agenda, why not debate it directly?

So there’s the nub of the matter.  Either the public option will be so limited as to be neutered and of no significance in providing competition to health insurers.  Or it will be so robust as to kill off private insurance.  The economic equivalent of the Northern snakehead fish, and we get single-payer by default.  But if the latter outcome is what we prefer, let’s have the guts to say so openly and directly.  Let’s not do by indirection what we suspect we can’t accomplish with an honest and frank debate.

Click for details

This is why I’ve been cool to the idea of a public option.   The public option, in and of itself, does not address the real problem – the escalation in the cost of healthcare delivery.  Even if you stripped out the administrative inefficiency of the balkanized health insurance system, you are still left with unsustainable increases in healthcare costs.  And the public option does nothing to address that.  Which is the reason Medicare – touted as the model for the public option – is itself going bankrupt.  To my mind, the underlying issue of increasing costs is far more important.  So the focus on public option rather misses the point: it is the equivalent of addressing the symptom and not the disease.  I want a system that addresses the underlying issues of escalating health-care costs.  I think Wyden-Bennett does; I think the Baucus bill did; and I think Dole-Daschle does as well.  In Part 3, I will expound more fulsomely on this, and analyze the merged bill from this perspective.  I know you can’t wait 🙂


Filed under Democrats, Economy, Health, Republicans, Uncategorized

DJ Hero

posted by Ogenec


GrandMaster Flash

A slight break from my navel-gazings on matters of serious import 🙂  A couple of years ago, my young cousins turned me on to Guitar Hero.  I played it at their house and caught a serious jones for the game.  I’ve played most of the Guitar Hero iterations, albeit mostly on the Medium level (in my defense, I’m a busy professional with two young kids).  It’s been loads of fun, and a great way for folks to interact when they come over.  Most of all, it’s turned me on to some music I’d never really checked out before, like Paramore and The Mars Volta.


Daft Punk

But even as I mastered the art of being a virtual axeslinger, some part of me felt unfulfilled.  I’m a hip-hop head, and wasn’t really into much of the music.  I love Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and some of the better rock/rap hybrids like Linkin Park, but I’m not really checking for Metallica or Ozzy Ozbourne.   What’s a guy like me to do?

Well, it appears I’m not alone.  For the legions of its fans raised on the mother’s milk of rap, the Guitar Hero franchise has unleashed DJ Hero.  I bought it last night and spent a few hours playing with it (I know, when I should have been working on the Public Option piece).   In my opinion, this is the best Hero game yet.  The simulation of being an actual DJ is incredible, with the cross-fading, the scratching, and the freestyle music drops.

But I’m most impressed with the music.   It’s off the meter (pun intended).  The songs on their own are great, but the mixes are phenomenal (and completely unexpected).  When you think about it, it’s not such a surprise given the stellar DJs who contributed to the setlist: DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Grandmaster Flash etc.  One of the things I admire most about the hip-hop genre is how it takes two or more distinct songs (or snippets) and mixes them together to create something altogether new.  Like when De La Soul mixed the bass line from Slave’s “Just A Touch of Love” and the guitar line from Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” for “Keeping the Faith” from De La Soul is Dead, their dark masterpiece.  That’s the original boom-bap that I love, not the misogynistic, materialist crap you hear blaring on the radio.  That mess ain’t hip-hop.

DJ Hero is pure, unadulterated hip-hop.  And trust me — even if you aren’t a fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to check it out.  You will be addicted.  I had to drag my wife — no hip-hop afficionado, she — away from the turntable last night.  She was having such a blast on the 1s and 2s!!

So hie over to dj hero and check out the game. And read the reviews — they’re stellar.  Bottom line folks: play it — you’ll love it. And this is a subject for another time, but the Playstation 3 rocks!! It’s the Swiss Army knife of home entertainment.

Okay, now back to our regularly-scheduled programming…



Filed under Media and Entertainment, Music, Pop Culture, Video/YouTube, Videogames

Democrats Behaving Badly

(44diaries welcomes Ogenec to our family of contributors!)
posted by Ogenic

Is the Right, well, right?  If you, dear reader, are a Democrat, then you probably just shouted “hell no!!!”  or words of similar effect.  And yet, there are disturbing portents that Democrats wish to ape Republicans in a number of ways.   First, you hear many Democrats mumble under their breath that they wish Obama were more like Bush when it comes to forcing his agenda through Congress, damn the consequences. The problem, they complain, is that nobody “fears” Obama.  Dear God.  Haven’t we learned the consequences of a government that uses fear as its primary motivational tool???

Second, Democrats are proving to be just as vengeful as Republicans.  Remember how Democrats — correctly — rose up in arms when Republicans refused to be requited by Obama’s apology in the
Gates incident?
  We denounced their antics for what they were — less about actual contrition and forgiveness, and more about keeping an explosive and divisive issue festering.  Well, Democrats are pulling the same trick with Joe Wilson.  I’ll stipulate that the man is a disgrace.   But he apologized and Obama accepted his apology.   Why, then, the push to censure him on the House floor, or exact some other form of retribution?

The reason, of course, is that it is not about punishing him for some breach of decorum.  It is about partisanship: firing up the base, and fundraising.   Which is great.  Except it is a double-edged sword.  Sure, Joe Wilson’s opponent has raked in a million dollars since The Outburst.  But umm, newsflash — so has Joe Wilson.  In this perpetual game of partisanship, neither side wins.  Meanwhile, lost in all of this petty bickering are the people, whose real concerns go unattended to.  As the African proverb so eloquently puts it, “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”  (The quick-witted among you should resist the urge to point out that, technically speaking, I’m complaining about a fight between an elephant and a donkey.  The point still holds.)

I didn’t just vote for Obama because I thought he had the right ideas.  I voted for him because he promised to try to bring an end to the increasing bitterness and rancor in today’s politics.  Sure, six months in, Republicans have shown little interest in joining Obama to forge a bipartisan path.  So now what?  If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?  I would argue that Obama’s task is made harder, not easier, when we resort to these kinds of tactics.  Because if Obama cannot get his team to play nice(r), then there is absolutely no reason for the other side to give an inch.

And the weird thing is, I’m starting to think that many Democrats like it that way.  Enough with this rapprochement, they seem to be saying.  This is a war, and you shoot ’em dead between the eyes.  You don’t make nice with the enemy.  And you make sure they fear you, literally quake with terror when your name is mentioned.  That, they say with a stern visage, is how you win in Washington.

I have two pieces of advice for such folks.   Go read Animal Farm, because you strike me as Democrats of the “Four legs good, two legs better” variety.  Also read this from Michael Kinsley:
“Free Joe Wilson Enough With the Phony Umbrage”

Moral: the way Democrats advance their agenda is just as important as the substance of their agenda, if not more so.


Filed under Change, Democrats, Editorial, Partisan Politics, Politics, Republicans