January 2007

Gov. Pawlenty will lead prayer

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Governor Pawlenty Tim will deliver the prayer for world leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast tomorrow (Thurs.) morning at the Washington Hilton. Attendees include President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

I don’t want to preempt his announcement but Al Franken will run for Senate

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Esteemed colleague Rob Hotakainen reports for tomorrow’s paper that Al Franken (pause here for suspense) WILL run for the U.S. Senate in 2008.

On Monday, Franken announced that he was quitting his radio show on Feb. 14, and he told his audience that they’d be the first to know of his decision. But Franken has been working the phones in recent days, telling his political friends he’s ready to declare his candidacy.

The story is based on unnamed sources who have received calls from Franken informing them of his plans.

Over recent years, because of the perception that excessive use of anonymous sources was undermining credibility, journalistic reformers have tried to make a new rule that you at least have to explain why the source requested anonymity. If you watch for their explanations, you’ll see that most of the time the explanation translates to: The source requested anonymity because he knew he wasn’t supposed to be telling us this.

In the Franken story, it’s even a little funnier than that:

The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity, not wanting to pre-empt Franken’s announcement.

Excuse me. If you don’t want to pre-empt Franken’s announcement, have you considered not pre-empting Franken’s announcement?

A reply to D.J.’s post on Bush’s health care idea: What about the other 44 million uninsured Americans?

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Good Wednesday morning Fellow Seekers including my friend and colleague D.J. Tice,

Soon I hope to make it official that Doug will move from being a frequent Big Q guestposter to a partner on the blog. And we hope to experiment with debating each other across the posts. Here’s the first experiment along those lines:

No, I cannot give Pres. Bush much credit for showing leadership for his State of the Union proposal to change the tax treatment of health insurance.

Yes, there are some serious unfairnesses and inefficiencies attached to the system in which most Americans who have health insurance get it as a fringe benefit of their jobs. And yes, the employment-based portion of the health care system feeds on the special tax treatment afforded to health care fringe benefits.

But the employment-based portion of the jury-rigged U.S., health care system is shrinking anyway, as more and employers shift health insurance costs to their workers or don’t offer health care benefits. Of the 47 million uninsured Americans — 16 percent of the population — the biggest chunk live in households in which there is at least one worker with a full-time job.

Many analysts, and not just liberal Bush-haters, are worried that Mr. Bush’s idea of divorcing the special tax treatment from employment, would speed up the decline of the whole tradition of employment-based health insurance without providing anything to take its place.

And yes, I can imagine some corners of the existing health care market — perhaps when elective procedures are being consumed in a non-emergency situation by relatively well-educated patients who have the time and ability to shop for the best health care “buys” — that introducing more free-market logic and pressure into the health industry might help contain costs, although I am not convinced that overconsumption of health care by the “worried well” is a major source of health care’s above-average inflation rate.

So sure, Pres. Bush, look for ways to encourage health care consumers to compare costs and outcomes. Just be realistic about how big a part of the health care problem that will solve.

But a tax deduction? Unless I misunderstand the basics here, this is guaranteed to be more valuable to those with higher incomes than low. By what logic does Mr. Bush propose a deduction? Does he think the problem of health insurance is tougher on the rich than the poor? Does he think health insurers charge higher premiums to rich people than poor people?

Given the way his first-term tax cuts were structured, it’s difficult not to make cynical suppositions about the motives behind this. Doug, can you suggest why this proposal was structured as a deduction instead of a refundable tax credit that would provide the same dollar-value of help in affording health insurance to the working poor and middle-class as to the rich? (Or maybe even get really creative and look for a way to provide more help to those with lower incomes than those with higher.)

The administration itself estimates that Bush’s SOTU tax-change idea, if enacted, might enable three million Americans, who don’t currently have health insurance, to afford it. The number of uninsured (47 million) is at an all-time high. Both the number and the percentage have gone up every year of the Bush presidency.

So yes, I thank the president for calling attention to problems with the way the tax code incentivizes employment-based health insurance. But no, if he wants to repair his health care legacy, I would urge him back to the drawing board.

Guestposter D.J. Tice: Bush’s new health care idea highlights some Big health-care Questions

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

President Bush’s new health care proposal shows symptoms of being interesting and maybe even important, if only for what can be learned about the big question of health care by understanding the issues it raises.

Unveiled in last week’s State of the Union message, Bush’s idea is to give Americans a handsome standard income tax deduction for health insurance premium costs. They would get the same standard deduction ($15,000/family; $7,500/individual) as long as they had insurance, whether they purchased it through their employers or on their own, and regardless of its cost or their incomes. But any employer-paid premium above the deductible amount would be taxed.

Predictably, since this is a Bush plan, it earns generally high praise from conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation. Here:

and here:

More notably, the plan gets good marks — though with plenty of regrets that Bush lacks the political capital to achieve anything with it — from the Economist of London.

But now for an almost disorienting surprise. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in a brief statement from its executive director Robert Greenstein, also has a kind word to say for Bush’s idea.

“On the subject of health insurance, by contrast,” Greenstein writes, “the President has shown leadership in placing the tax treatment of employer-based coverage on the table as part of health care reform.”

Yes, that’s what it says. He’s shown “leadership.”

To be sure, Greenstein goes on to signal that CPBB sees serious problems with Bush’s approach (a fuller discussion of those objections will be welcome).

Even so, this is a notable outbreak of civilities across the ideological divide.

It suggests that at least by confronting the flaws in America’s subsidized employment-based health insurance system, Bush has engaged an issue that many people who think about economics, liberal or conservative, believe to be of real importance.

There are enough varied flaws in that system to concern both liberals and conservatives. They’re likely to emphasize different ones.

A liberal critic might focus on problems like these:

· An unlimited tax exclusion for health care fringe benefits is a large tax shelter and subsidy for the affluent, which becomes more valuable the higher one’s tax rate.
· This uncapped subsidy for the haves is in some degree financed by discriminating against workers who have to buy insurance on their own, and generally receive no tax benefit.
· The system makes health insurance a virtual by-product of employment, restricting its “portability.”

Conservatives, for their part, mostly lament the way this lavish but discriminatory subsidy system interferes with market discipline in health care. By ensuring that most health care consumers are unaware of the real costs not only of health care services but even of the insurance through which they receive them, the system, conservatives, believe, encourages over-consumption and eliminates incentives for price competition. One result is even higher prices for those who lack the subsidy.

The Bush plan, or something like it, would be a first step toward leveling the field between those with generous employer-paid health insurance benefits and those without, helping some of the uninsured better afford coverage.

It would also make health insurance costs more visible and tangible, probably inspiring many to shop for less costly alternatives, which in turn would inspire the market to provide them.

Health Care may be the ultimate Big Question in our era — big both in significance and complexity. Any discussion of changing the employment-based health insurance system is alarming to many. That’s partly because there is comfort in not having to fully face health care costs and decisions, and partly because workers and unions fear losing benefits they have won through decades of hard negotiations and sacrifices on other fronts (wages, say).

What’s more, market discipline and cost conscious consumers will do little to resolve what may be the biggest problem in health care – the vast expenses incurred in end-of-life care. Nor will it do much to allow the very poor or the very sick to obtain insurance.

But is it possible that the issue Bush has raised – the vast tax subsidy for employer-paid health insurance – deserves, as CBPP says, to be “on the table as part of health care reform”?

Here, by the way, is a provocative free market perspective on the problems with American health care - the problem of confusing “insulation” with “insurance” — by Cato Institute scholar Arnold Kling.

How much has Iraq damaged U.S. world standing?

Monday, January 29th, 2007

Good Monday morning Fellow Seekers,

In December, Guestposter Doug Tice and 150-some commenters kicked around the question of how Pres. Bush will be viewed by future historians.

(My comment, which I didn’t post at the time: We’ll know when “history” tells us. And then “history” will revise its thinking many times. That’s how it works. It’s hard enough to read the minds of the people around us, without trying to get into the minds of some who haven’t been born yet and will have access to information we lack. But as long as we know that can’t know, the game of guessing what the present will like to the future is fine with me.)

Many are ready to conclude that Bush will go down as the — or one of the — worst presidents ever. (My previous comment doesn’t mean I rule this out, just that we can’t know yet.)

To truly compete for this ignominy, a president should not only damage the nation during his term, but inflict long-term harm to important national interests in ways that persist after the inflictor-in-chief leaves. Franklin Pierece and James Buchanan, the last two president before the Civil War, generally appear on lists of worst presidents because they are perceived as having rendered the Civil War less evitable (yes, this is a word), even though the war started on Abe Lincoln’s watch.

What is the case against Bush for long-term damage? One important element is probably the decline in popularity, credibility and support for the U.S. in the world. A U.S. president cannot be a slave to international public opinion. But a nation with the global leadership ambitions of ours cannot dismiss the importance of its standing with the purported global followership.

That President Bush’s actions, especially in Iraq, have damaged U.S. standing is clear. The latest evidence comes in the form of a massive poll of 26,000 people in 25 countries in all parts of the world conducted by the Washington-based Program in International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) for the BBC.

Almost three-fourths of the non-U.S. respondents disapproved of the U.S. role in Iraq (not really so different from the view in the U.S.). But the ultimate question was whether respondents felt that the overall influence of the United States in the world is positive or negative.

In 18 of the 25 countries, more people said “negative” than “positive.” In the total sample (not counting the U.S.), it was 50 percent negative, 31 percent positive. In the U.S., it was 57 percent positive, 28 percent negative.

The generally negative view of the U.S. role in the world held across most regions and continents with the curious exception of sub-Saharan Africa. On a country-by-country basis, the highest negative ratings came from Germany (74 percent negative), Turkey (69), France (69) and Argentina (64). (All of these, note, are considered U.S. allies.)

The highest positive ratings were in the Philippines (73 percent), Nigeria (72) and Kenya (70). The only other one in which approvers outnumbered disapprovers by a statistically significant margin was Poland (38-24, with a large portion answering “depends/neither”). India and Hungary were evenly divided. (The country-by-country numbers, and other questions in the survey are here.)

And things are getting worse

In the 18 countries where same question was asked last year and the year before, the “negative” rating was up from 46 to 52 percent; the “positive” rating was down more sharply, from 40 to 29 percent. In the U.S., the “positive influence” group declined from 71 percent in 2005 to 57 percent in 2007.

It’s also possible that in their haste to blame everything on President Bush, some Bush critics have created a mythical pre-Bush golden age, when the world loved and trusted America. I’m always suspicious that a certain amount of golden-age-ism helps some folks reach the conclusions they prefer. Surely, there have long been pockets (or more) of America-hating, Yankee-go-home, America-the-great-satan-ism across the decades and across the continents.

So I called Clay Ramsay, research director of the PIPA program that worked on the poll and asked him for polling going back further that would indicate the background level of anti-Americanism, so we could really consider whether things have gotten much worse under Bush.

Ramsay (who is currently an honorary Minnesotan on account of a son attending Macalester) said the falloff on global affection and trust in America over recent years appears quite significant, not since the election of Bush, but since the start of the Iraq war.

The Pew Global Attitudes Survey found that in 2001 (before the 9/11 attacks) and in the summer of 2002 (before the Iraq war) the percentage of Germans who had a favorble opinion of the United States was in the upper 70s, then fell to 38 percent when the same question was asked in February 2004. In France, it fell from two readings in the low 60s (pre-Shock-and-Awe) to 37 percent in Feb. ’04. In Britain, presumably America’s best friend in Europe, the favorable option was 83 percent in 2001, 75 percent in 2002 and 58 percent in 2004.

Ramsay also referred me to a recent PIPA study (the relevant passage is on page 7 of this link) in which respondents in many nations were asked whether they worried that U.S. could militarily threaten their country. The figures were astronomical in many countries: 96 percent in Morocco, 80 percent in Indonesia, 71 in Pakistan and 65 in Turkey, which is a NATO member.

The inference here is that, by pre-emptively invading Iraq against the wishes of most of the world, on a rationale that turned out to be mostly false, citizens of many countries said to themselves: The Americans do not accept any limitations on whom they might attack or why. So how confident can I be that they won’t decide to put my nation on the hit list?

There’s more where this came from but I’d better head this post for the barn. I asked Ramsay how to square all this talk with the fairly obvious fact that America has been accused countless times in the pre-Bush, pre-Iraq decades of arrogance, imperialism, war crimes, economic exploitation, etc. What’s different now?

His reply, based on the myriad data he has seen on the ups and downs of international public opinion (this is a close paraphrase based on my interview notes) went like this:

My conclusion is that as long as the United States is seen adhering the values it proclaims and projects, then it really does quite well in world public opinion. What’s we’ve seen in the last few years is a growing belief that the U.S. is taking an a la carte attitude toward its own values, observing them when convenient, abandoning them when inconvenient.

The feeling is that the United States set up a system that had some rules, regarding respect for international law, regarding self-determination and respect for the sovereignty other nations, regarding respect for human rights and the way prisoners should be treated. And that it has adopted a new mode in which it regards itself as not bound by the rules and able to discriminate on a case-by-case basis.

It’s true that there always those who saw the U.S.that way. But as best I can gauge, in the 1990s that critique was just not a majority thing. Many people may have seen the U.S. as hypocritical in one or another the values that it espouses. But when a majority of people in many countries add up those thoughts and feelings and come to a conclusion that on an overall basis the impact of the U.S. on the world is more negative than positive, that’s something different and something new.

These are just poll numbers. Once Iraq leaves the headlines or Bush leaves the White House, perhaps global attitudes toward the U.S. will snap back. That’s something we will know better in a few years, if a similar survey is taken. If the decline in global regard for the U.S. persists, and if it gets in the way of future presidents exercising international leadership, and if those future historians conclude that the Bush/Iraq event was the turning point, it will be part of the long-term indictment of Bush’s tenure.

What think?

Is the bottom falling out for the “surge?”

Friday, January 26th, 2007

According to Jim VandeHei in the hot new website Politico, more than 70 senators are talking against the idea of more troops in private meetings.

The White House is scrambling to avoid an embarrasing (but non-binding) vote in the Senate that would demonstrate that Bush’s escalation is rapidly losing support in the newly shrunken Republican caucus.
If there are more than 70 senators against it, that would require at least 20 of the 49 Senate Republicans.

You’ll note there are no named sources for this information. But VandeHei is a very plugged-in Washington hand who recently jumped from the Washington Post to co-lead Politico.

Why haven’t we been attacked since 9/11?

Friday, January 26th, 2007

Good Friday Morning Fellow Seekers,

Bush defenders frequently bring up the absence of a major attack on U.S. soil by Al Qaida or allied groups since Sept. 11, 2001 as evidence that President Bush must be doing something right.

Bush detractors do not accept this logic.

I have some problems with the logic, especially if it is supposed to be one of the benefits to America of the war in Iraq. It seems logically possible, even likely, that the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan was a blow to Al Qaida’s ability to mount such an operation.

But since Al Qaida had no significant presence in Iraq before 2001, it doesn’t seem logical to me that the overthrow of Saddam, or the occupation of Iraq by U.S. troops, would be a major impediment to Al Qaida attacking on U.S. soil. So, if you are in the category of those who believe that the war in Iraq has helped keep America safe from a terrorist attack, please explain how this works.

On the other hand, if you are in the category of those who believe that’s Bush’s policies have not helped protect America, what is your theory for why there has been no major attack on the U.S. for five and a half years?

John Kerry won’t run for prez in 2008

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

Kerry isn’t running in ’08. Do you care?

Like everyone else, I assume it didn’t matter whether he ran or not. He wasn’t going anywhere. He’s got the big L-for-Loser on his forehead from last time. And we all remember how he was for it before he was against it, and how we didn’t like his wife’s accent, and how dorky he looked on that windsurfer sailboard, and how annoying his stentorian tone sounded after we’d heard it incessantly for nine months. And then there was the recent botched joke that the punditocracy informed us at the time sealed the deal.

I’m not a pundit, but I play one on TV. So, on the occasion of Kerry’s farewell and as a lesson in humility mostly for those who think they know what will happen next, consider the following few reminiscences:

At precisely this point in the 2004 cycle (meaning almost two full years before the election), Karen Tumulty of Time wrote a piece about Kerry headlined: “A Front Runner Already?” At that point, Howard Dean was a joke. The piece summarized Kerry thusly:

Democratic insiders are nearly unanimous in praising Kerry for his intelligence, his thoughtful manner and the forward-thinking positions he has taken on issues from foreign policy to the environment. They say he can fill the party’s gaping need for someone who can speak cogently on national security. Kerry’s credential as a decorated Vietnam veteran not only makes a useful contrast to President Bush but also adds some ballast to the surefire applause line he drops into every speech about Iraq: “The United States should never go to war because we want to; the United States should go to war because we have to.”

Kerry actually announced in September of 2003. Everything had changed. Dean was no joke. The Washington Post wrote that Kerry announcement was an attempt to:

pump new life into a campaign overwhelmed by the soaring antiwar candidacy of former Vertmont Gov. Howard Dean.

By December 2003 (bear in mind, that means no delegates had yet been selected), the pundits were struggling to restrain themselves from declaring Dean the nominee. Polls not only showed Dean’s internet-and-college-kid-fueled campaign 20 points ahead of the field in Iowa, but in New Hampshire, where Kerry supposedly had quasi-favorite-son status, one December poll had it Dean 45, Kerry 13, Gen. Wesley Clark 11, and everyone else in single digits.

By the night of the Iowa caucuses, Dean had tanked. I was down there, racing from candidate-event to candidate-event. You could feel the air leaving the room at the Dean events, but I’ve never really figured out what caused it.

I do know that Kerry had the best two weeks of his political life. Somehow, this guy whom we all think of as a dull, wooden speaker (because he usually is) had people bouncing off the walls. Although John Edwards finished a surprisingly strong second, Kerry beat Dean by 38 to 18 percent. (By the way, if your friends continue to say that Dean lost because he screamed, please remind them that the scream occurred after he had already collapsed in Iowa.)

Suddenly, post-Iowa and New Hampshire, Kerry was the unstoppable one, the electable one. He won every northern primary and plenty of southern ones. He led Bush in the polls after the Dem. convention.

Then Republicans and their allies took the bark off of him, piece by piece. The general election was close all the way. On election day, those of us who heard the early exit poll numbers assumed Bush had no chance. It came down to one close state, Ohio. (I know some of you think that one was stolen.)

But Kerry lost. And now he wears the big L on his forehead. It’s true that there have been second chances in U.S. political history. Nixon won on his second try. (I know there are those who believe the first one, 1960, was stolen.) I don’t even assume that Kerry is done forever in presidential politics.

My gut tells me he is. But if there’s any point to this long ramble, it’s a cautionary note about believing either your gut or the conventional wisdom.

Now we are heading into a new cycle, with about 112 candidates. The pundits have declared three front-runners in each party field (in case you don’t know, it’s Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards on one side; John McCain, Rudolph Giuiliani and Mitt Romney on the other). But there are huge, deep benches on both sides of lesser-knowns and lesser-endorsed candidates, waiting to jump into the game if one of the starters falters.

So just bear in mind, the crowd that is now telling us who can win and who can’t are the same guys who told us that John Kerry couldn’t lose, then couldn’t win, then couldn’t lose. p.s. He lost. Until next time. If there is one.

The least-qualified president in history

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers of Wisdom, Truth and Historical Surprises,

Every president, other than Abraham Lincoln, had pre-presidential experience in one of the following jobs: Senator, governor, general, cabinet member, vice president.

Lincoln’s pre-presidential experience in public office consisted of one term in the U.S. House, several terms in the Illinois Legislature and a brief tenure as postmaster of New Salem, Ill. He was also an unsuccessful merchant, a successful lawyer and a twice unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate.

The block quote above, by the way, is touch of self-plagiarism. I lifted it from a 1999 piece that I’ve rescued from the archives and posted here. It’s chock-full of charming details about the correlation between a long resumé and success in the White House. Short version, there isn’t much.

The list of worst presidents includes of those with terrific pre-presidential resumés (James Buchanan, possibly the worst president, served 10 years in the U.S. House, 10 in the U.S. Senate, four as secretary of state and represented the United States in Britain and Russia before winning the White House in 1856. More examples in the linked piece.)

Why bring this up now?

Obviously, it’s prompted, at least in part, by the fact that one of the early murmurs against Barack Obama for Prez is that as a first-term U.S. senator he lacks experience. I’m hold no brief for Obama’s upstart candidacy. But ever since I did the research for that piece, the basic facts come to mind whenever the argument of inexperience is used against a presidential candidacy.

As evidence that my argument is not actuated by personal Obamomania, the piece in question was written when the presidential candidate under attack for a lack of experience was George W. Bush. The opponent then attacking him was Orrin Hatch, who suggested that his own 23 years of experience in the Senate was a more appropriate training ground then Bush’s then five-year tenure as Texas governor.

As a matter of history, my piece points out, no long-tenured senator has ever become president. The record-holder in that statistic is Lyndon Johnson, who was in the Senate for 12 years.

This year’s field includes three long-tenured senators: Christopher Dodd (26 years at present), Joe Biden (24 years) and John McCain 20). Hillary Clinton tips the scales at six years and counting. John Edwards at six (and not counting). Obama at two.

Follow-up: Coleman votes against Dems’ war resolution, DFL continues to falsely accuse him of concealing his position

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 12-9 (mostly along party lines) to express their disapproval of more troops for Iraq. Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman voted against the resolution, repeating his contention that he opposes more troops in Baghdad, because the sitaution there is a sectarian civil war, but favors reinforcements for the Marines in Anbar Province, where Coleman says the fighting is mostly against Sunni insurgents and foreign fighters. Sen. Joe Biden, one of the sponsors of the resolution, challenged Coleman’s contention that the fighting in Anbar is going relatively well.

Before the vote, Coleman tried to substitute language closer to his position, specifically making a distinction between Anbar and Baghdad, but that idea was shot down, 17-4. For a fuller discussion of Coleman’s Iraq position, this is my effort from last week.

The DFL put out a press release denouncing Coleman’s vote. (I can’t find it online to link to it. I received it by email.)

“There is no longer any doubt: Senator Norm Coleman supports escalating the war in Iraq,” Minnesota DFL Chair Brian Melendez said in the press release.

Notwithstanding the Big Question’s “Is That a Fact” piece of last week, the DFL press releases continue to push the line that because some news media overstated the Baghdad-no, Anbar-yes nature of Coleman’s position on new troops for Iraq this is evidence that Coleman is trying to conceal his position, even though his statements have been consistent.

“Senator Coleman has pretended long enough. Now let’s correct the record and tell Minnesotans the truth,” Melendez said. “Senator Coleman supports escalating the war in Iraq.”

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