Fighting Fire with Fire—What is the Point of a Limited Attack on Syria?

I can’t help but wonder what President Obama hopes to accomplish.

Are we taking military action simply to “send a message”?   If so why not use words rather than weapons?

Obama can be a powerful orator. Why not take to the bully pulpit and explain, to the world, the horrors of what is happening in Syria? .

A few days ago, New York Times columnist Charles M . Blow asked a provocative question: “Is America’s moral leadership in the world carved out by the tip of its sword?”

Wouldn’t it be better to demonstrate our “moral leadership” in some other, wiser way?  Can anyone point to an instance where a limited military action brought an end to violence?

Over at the Guardian Michael Cohen insists that we must attack in order to “enforce global norms”—in this case, the rule that the use of chemical weapons is simply beyond the pale. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/29/liberal-case-for-striking-syria  Cohen claims the taboo dates back to World War I.

Has he forgotten about our use of Napalm in Vietnam?  Is he simply too young to remember the photo of a 9-year-old girl, wailing “too hot, too hot,” as she runs down the road, “naked after blobs of sticky napalm melted through her clothes and layers of skin like jellied lava.” http://news.yahoo.com/ap-napalm-girl-photo-vietnam-war-turns-40-210339788.html

Writing for the Atlantic, James Fallows quotes budget-policy expert, Mike Lofgren: “The US has in the recent past violated international norms on aggressive war, torture, rendition of POWs, assassination, use of chemical weapons (phosphorous, napalm, etc.), land mines, ad infinitum.” http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/09/your-labor-day-syria-reader-part-1-stevenson-and-lofgren/279254/
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What the Sequester Means for Health Care, Education and the Exchanges (In-depth Analysis); Will “Looking Stupid” Motivate Legislators to Compromise? Why the GOP Would Rather Cut Defense than Close Loopholes

Before looking at precisely who will be hurt by of government-wide sequester cuts on health and education, it’s worth considering the possibility—however slim—that legislators still might reach a budget agreement that brings an end to these blind, across-the-board blows to government spending.

Earlier this week Senator Mark Warner told Bloomberg News that he places the odds for a bipartisan debt-reduction deal at better than 50-50.

Why the optimism?  

Warner, who isn’t a political naïf (he served as Virginia’s governor from 2002 to 2006), believes that ultimately law-makers will arrive at a compromise because as he puts it: “looking stupid at some point has got to motivate people.” 

Granted, this is Warner’s first term in the Senate. This could mean that he doesn’t yet understand the ways of Washington. On the other hand, the fact that he’s new to the beltway could mean that he’s still able to think clearly.

As he reminded his Congressional colleagues Wednesday morning: “These cuts were set up to be the stupidest way possible. No rational group of folks would allow them to come to pass.”

Warner is right. NO ONE wanted cuts that Republicans have rightly called “mindless and random.”  That was the point of the Sequester deal forged during a 2011 deficit-reduction agreement. Legislators purposefully chose targets that were so unpopular that everyone assumed that neither party would ever let them occur.  Conservatives wouldn’t countenance slashing military funding by 7.9%, Democrats wouldn’t accept deep cuts to social programs that our most vulnerable citizens need.  They would have to find a compromise. Or, at least, that was the theory.

Instead, Democrats and Republicans deadlocked, and now it seems that they have double-dared themselves into an impossible situation. Sequestration will increase unemployment, weaken the economy, and hurt children, seniors and the military. Even the Border Patrol will take a hit.  More public school teachers will lose their jobs.

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Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin and why is he saying such terrible things about health reform?

Today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing entitled: Unaffordable: Impact of Obamacare on Americans’ Health Insurance.  (Always nice to know that our elected representatives are keeping an open mind.)

Prominent on the list of witnesses: “Douglas Holtz-Eakin.” Even before reading his testimony, I knew what Holtz-Eakin would say: young, health Americans should brace for “sticker shock.”  Conservatives like Holtz-Eakin tend to stay on script. However stale the rhetoric, they firmly believe that if you repeat a sound-bite often enough, people will believe it.                                     

                                        Who is Douglas Holtz-Eakin?

If you recognize the name, it’s probably because Holtz-Eakin has become a familiar figure in the mainstream media, quoted in the New York Times, writing Op-eds for Reuters and Politico.com, and appearing, not only on Fox Business News, but on CNN and the PBS’ Newshour.

Alternatively, “Holtz-Eakin” may ring a bell because he served as a member of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), and as Director of Bush’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO.)

In a remarkably candid 2011 interview, Holtz Eakin recalled his tour in the Bush administration:

“Going into the summer of 2001, things were getting worse. . . When we first went in and talked to the President, Glenn [Hubbard] and Larry Lindsey said, ‘Mr. President . . . We’re probably not going to run a surplus on budget.  We’re going to run a deficit.”

Bush’s reply: “We’re not going to run a deficit. If you come in here with a deficit, you’re both fired. Go fix it.’”

We ended up running a budget surplus of one billion dollars,” Holtz-Eakin confided, “driven by gimmicks of remarkable proportions.”
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U.S. Media Loves “Fiscal Cliff” Metaphor; The Economist Recognizes that It’s An Imaginary Line in the Sand

In the U.S., pundits cannot resist the fiscal cliff metaphor: it’s colorful, punchy and easy to understand. It’s just two words long. What’s not to like?

It’s not true.

The metaphor assumes that if Republicans and Democrats fail to reach an agreement on the budget by the end of the year, the U.S. economy falls over a cliff,  crashes, and burns.  The “cliff “metaphor complements the equally imaginative “iceberg metaphor” that some fear-mongers use to portray the deficit. (Think Titanic) 

It’s all a bit more complicated than the metaphors suggest.

What few conservatives mention is that the deficit has already begun to dissolve:  since 2009 the deficit has fallen from 10% of GDP to 7% in the fiscal year that ended on September 30th.  By historic standards this is still enormous, and must be addressed. But  the numbers demonstrate that, over time, we can reduce the deficit without renting the nation’s safety nets.

As for the cliff, there is no precipice—just an imaginary line, drawn in the sand, as Republicans and Democrats play “chicken.”

The Economist understands all of this. The lead story in the most recent issue focuses on the “cliff” and points out that “worries” about what will happen if we go over that precipice are “understandable”  but “overblown.” The “risk of economic catastrophe is minimal.” Any damage would be short-term. 

I don’t always agree with the Economist: the UK publication has its own sometimes eccentric slant on things. But on the whole, it is a thoughtful publication—well-researched and fact-checked.  Moreover, in this case, distance may give the Economist a perspective on the problem that some in the U.S. lack.

                                   Exaggerating the Threat to the Middle-Class      

Yesterday’s New York Times suggests that if we cross that line in the sand, an already beleaguered the middle-class will suffer great hardship, and this “Complicates Democrats’ Stance in Talks.” 

The analysis suggests that Democrats don’t dare just stand back and let Bush’s tax cuts expire– as they will if party leaders don’t reach a settlement by year-end: “Only a small handful of policy voices on the left are making the case for the tax cuts to fully expire. In part, that is because the economy is still growing slowly, and tax increases have the potential to weaken it.” But it is also because “If the two parties fail to come to a deal by Jan. 1, taxes on the average middle-income family would rise about $2,000 over the next year. That would follow a 12-year period in which median inflation-adjusted income dropped 8.9 percent, from $54,932 in 1999 to $50,054 in 2011.”

This assumes that once we miss the January 1 deadline, tax hikes for the middle-class would become permanent—which, of course, is not true. Talk about how much more a family would pay over the course of 2013 falls somewhere between hyperbole and hysteria, ignoring what everyone knows:

If the Bush tax cuts expire, Democrats will presumably simply propose to restore them in January for those [families] earning less than $250,000,” the Economist observes, “daring Republicans to block them.” 
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Obama Wins Round One of Budget Negotiations

CNN is reporting that the “Fiscal cliff deal is down to wrangling over the details.” While others in the media continue to say that talks are stalled, everything I know about both the economics and the politics of the situation tells me that CNN is right.

At 4:30 this afternoon, CNN updated its story: “Both sides agree the wealthy will pay more, so now fiscal cliff  talks come down to how much Republicans can wring out of the White House in return for giving in on taxes.

“To President Barack Obama, it’s all about first locking in additional revenue from raising taxes on high-income owners, an outcome the GOP has long rejected.”

President Obama had made it clear that negotiations over government spending on safety nets such as Medicare wouldn’t begin until Republicans accepted a higher marginal tax rate for individuals earning over $200,000 and couples earning over $250,000.

The president dug in, and, according to CNN, he has won round one.

“Retiring Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio told CNN on Thursday that he sensed a shift in the House GOP approach during a conference meeting the day before.

“A GOP source told CNN that talks between staff members on both sides resumed Thursday for the first time this week, after Obama and Boehner spoke by phone the day before.”

A Two-Step Approach

It is not clear whether negotiations over so-called “entitlements” will be concluded before the end of the year. But CNN, reports

“All signs point toward a two-step approach sought by newly re-elected Obama — an initial agreement that would extend lower tax rates for income up to $250,000 for families, while letting rates return to higher levels from the Clinton era on income above that threshold.”  That agreement on taxes will be signed and sealed before the end of the year.

“Even conservatives such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal acknowledge the obvious — taxes on the wealthy are going up despite opposition by Republicans.

“‘Whatever deal is reached is going to contain elements that are detrimental to our economy,’ Jindal wrote Thursday in an opinion piece published by Politico. ‘Elections have consequences, and the country is going to feel those consequences soon.’”

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The Nation is Divided, Not between Whites and Minorities, But between the Past and the Future

Women, minorities, and young people re-elected President Obama. 

Pundits have pointed out that the president won only 39 percent of the vote among whites—down from 43 percent four years ago. But exit polls reveal that among women, Obama enjoyed an 11 percent advantage. “Fifty-five percent of women chose Obama,” Blooomberg observes —and clearly, this group included many white women. Sixty percent of voters ages 18 to 24 favored Obama—again, many were white voters. Among Latinos, the fastest growing demographic in the U.S., Obama won with a 44-point advantage. Romney secured just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, down from the 31 percent who voted for the Republican candidate four years ago. Ninety-three percent of  African-Americans voted for the president, along with 73% of Asians (who now make up 3% of the electorate.)  And in the rust belt, Obama appealed to enough of the Democratic Party’s old blue-collar base  (which is largely white) to carry that section of the country.

Romney captured just two groups:  Americans over 65 and white men.  Romney’s cohort is made up of the people who ran this country in the 1980s. In a word, his supporters represent the past. Obama won among the young people, Latinos and women who will shape this nation’s future. They will be our leaders.  We have reached an inflection point in our history.

                                             Women in the Senate

 When Massachusetts elected Elizabeth Warren this was the first time that the Commonwealth sent a woman to the Senate. Thanks to last night’s election a record number of women will be serving in the U.S. Senate. There are currently 17. While two are retiring, at least four more have won — Democrats Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Warren in Massachusetts, Mazie Hirono in Hawaii, and Republican Deb Fischer in Nebraska.  Claire McCaskill of Missouri, once considered the party’s most vulnerable Senator, held off a challenge by her Republican challenger, U.S. Representative Todd Akin (one of two Republicans who learned that during an election it is never a good idea to talk about rape) 

This is not to say that, going forward white men will not also be in positions of power. But in the future, a more mosaic leadership will reflect a new majority.  As Ross Douthat observed in today’s New York Times: “conservatives must face reality: The age of Reagan is officially over, and the Obama majority is the only majority we have.  (It is worth noting that Douthat describes himself as a conservative, though less “starry-eyed” than George Will.) 

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The Future of Health Reform May Turn on Senate Races

Below, the introduction to a post that I published earlier today on Healthinsurance.org

While all eyes focus on the presidential race, the ultimate fate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could depend on the Senate contests in the states.

Even if Mitt Romney were elected, he alone could not overturn major provisions of healthcare reform. Only Congress can pass the legislation needed to change the ACA.

Republicans are expected to maintain control of the House, but if Democrats hold the Senate, they will be able to block House bills aimed at eviscerating “Obamacare.”

Republicans are expected to maintain control of the House, but if Democrats hold the Senate, they will be able to block House bills aimed at eviscerating “Obamacare.”

What is At Stake

If Republicans take the Senate, the two chambers could pass legislation that would:

  • eliminate the premium subsidies designed to make health insurance affordable for middle-income and low-income families
  • bring an end to Medicaid expansion, and
  • rescind the individual mandate that everyone buy insurance or pay a tax.

Under “budget reconciliation,” Republicans would need only a simple majority to pass such legislation. In the Senate, 51 votes would do it. Today, Republicans hold 47 seats.

Razor-sharp margins in many states make it impossible to predict outcomes. Polls only give us a blurry snapshot of one moment in time – and in states like Arizona, candidates have been trading leads from week to week.

Much will depend on the demographics of who turns out to vote.

What Could Happen: Three Scenarios . . .

To read the rest of this post please go to HealthInsurance.org

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The Democratic National Convention, 1980 and 2012: Turning Points in American History

I originally published this post on HealthInsurance.org (www.healthinsurance.org) Check there for other posts on the election–just click on “Blog” at the top of the page.

Ted Kennedy’s speech at the 1980 Democratic convention still echoes in my mind. It remains the finest, most inspiring political oration that I have ever heard. Kennedy was speaking from a position of defeat. He had just lost the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter.

And yet this was a full-hearted, rousing speech delivered by a man who realized that in the battle ahead, the issues at stake were far, far more important than his own loss. Intuitively, he knew that the country had reached a turning point. (You can listen to the speech at The  History Place.

At that moment, Conservatives were ready to launch a revolution, and they would succeed. In November, Ronald Reagan won the White House, and his administration would set the tone for much of the next 30 years. Tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, a campaign to privatize both Social Security and Medicare. Health care reform would be off the table for many years.

Kennedy saw the danger ahead and addressed it: “My fellow Democrats and my fellow Americans, I have come here tonight, not to argue as a candidate but to affirm a cause. I’m asking you–to renew the commitment of the Democratic Party to economic justice.

“I am asking you to renew our commitment to a fair and lasting prosperity that can put America back to work.” Then, as now, unemployment was a pressing issue. In April of 1980, the unemployment rate jumped to 6.9%; in May it hit 7.5%.  “Let us pledge that employment will be the first priority of our economic policy,” Kennedy declared. “We will not compromise on the issue of jobs.”

Universal Coverage “The Passion of My Life”

Kennedy understood that “we cannot have a fair prosperity in isolation from a fair society. So,” he declared, “I will continue to stand for a national health insurance.”

“We must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real control over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family’s health shall never depend on the size of a family’s wealth.”

Kennedy had witnessed what economic inequality can mean when a child is sick.  Many years later he recalled “One of the searing memories in my life was being in a children’s hospital in Boston, where my son had lost his leg to cancer. He was under a regime that was going to take three days of treatment, every three weeks, for two years …
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As the Republicans Take Tampa, Consider What a GOP Victory Would Mean for Women’s Health

For decades, Republicans have opposed abortion. This, we know, and so it comes as no surprise that Mitt Romney, the Party’s presidential candidate, has called “Roe vs. Wade“ one of the darkest moments in Supreme Court history.” 

But what some call the “war against women” is escalating.  This year, the Republican platform calls for a constitutional amendment that would make abortion illegal.

In 1976, the GOP blueprint acknowledged that “the question of abortion is one of the most difficult and controversial of our time,” and the Party called for “a continuance of the public dialogue on abortion,” which it called a “moral and personal issue.”  Just eight years ago, the preamble to the Republican platform declared: “we respect and accept that members of our party have deeply held and sometimes differing views.”  But today, there is no such language in a platform that calls for “a human life amendment to the Constitution,” and declares that “abortion is detrimental to women’s health and well-being.”

Meanwhile Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Ohio all have passed legislation outlawing abortion after 20 weeks, even though, as the Center for American Progress’  Emillie Openchowski points out “complications are sometimes discovered after this point in a pregnancy that could cause serious harm to the woman. In those states, a woman would be forced to continue the pregnancy, no matter the risk to her health.”  This is frightening.

While Republicans parade women across their Tampa stage– and avoid talking about what they have quietly embedded in the Party platform–it seems a good time to consider what a Republican victory would mean for women’s health.

Turning Back the Clock: Contraception 

Susan Faludi’s Pulitzer-prize winning 1991 book, Backlash, is subtitled: “The Undeclared War Against American Women.” Twenty-one years later, it seems the war is out in the open . As a recent New York Times editorial observes:  “Having won on abortion, social conservatives are turning to birth control.”

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Urologists Threaten the Autonomy of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force

Over at HealthNewsReview.org  Gary Schwitzer has published a disturbing piece that looks at American Urological Association support for a bll that would make “significant changes to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.”

The guest post is written by Dr.Richard Hoffman, who is both one of HealthNewsReivew’s reviewers, and an editor at the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation a group that promotes “shared decision making.”   The Foundation, which was co-founded by Dr.Jack Wennber, the father of the Dartmouth Reserach,uses medical evidence to produce outstanding videos, pamphlets and web-based programs that help patients understand the potential risks and benefits of  elective surgeries and tests..  (I have written about “shared decision making” in past posts ). 

Below, an excerpt from Hoffman’s piece:

“Last week, the Supreme Court largely upheld the Affordable Care Act. Two weeks ago, legislation (H.R. 5998) was introduced that threatens the autonomy of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

“The legislation proposes to mandate a more transparent process for guideline development, a greater role for specialists and advocacy groups, and eliminating the Department of Health and Human Services’ secretarial discretion to withhold Medicare funding for interventions that lack convincing evidence for benefit The legislation, which comes on the heels of the Task Force’s controversial D rating against prostate cancer screening, is strongly supported by several prominent urological associations. 

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