Monday, April 25, 2011

Let’s Take a Hike -
April 24, 2011
Let’s Take a Hike

When I listen to current discussions of the federal budget, the message I hear sounds like this: We’re in crisis! We must take drastic action immediately! And we must keep taxes low, if not actually cut them further!

You have to wonder: If things are that serious, shouldn’t we be raising taxes, not cutting them?

My description of the budget debate is in no way an exaggeration. Consider the Ryan budget proposal, which all the Very Serious People assured us was courageous and important. That proposal begins by warning that “a major debt crisis is inevitable” unless we confront the deficit. It then calls, not for tax increases, but for tax cuts, with taxes on the wealthy falling to their lowest level since 1931.

And because of those large tax cuts, the only way the Ryan proposal can even claim to reduce the deficit is through savage cuts in spending, mainly falling on the poor and vulnerable. (A realistic assessment suggests that the proposal would actually increase the deficit.)

President Obama’s proposal is a lot better. At least it calls for raising taxes on high incomes back to Clinton-era levels. But it preserves the rest of the Bush tax cuts — cuts that were originally sold as a way to dispose of a large budget surplus. And, as a result, it still relies heavily on spending cuts, even as it falls short of actually balancing the budget.

So why isn’t someone offering a proposal reflecting the reality that the Bush tax cuts were a huge mistake, and suggesting that increased revenue play a major role in deficit reduction? Actually, someone is — and I’ll get to that in a moment. First, though, let’s talk about the current state of American taxes.

From the tone of much budget discussion, you might think that we were groaning under crushing, unprecedented levels of taxation. The reality is that effective federal tax rates at every level of income have fallen significantly over the past 30 years, especially at the top. And, over all, U.S. taxes are much lower as a percentage of national income than taxes in most other wealthy nations.

The point is that we aren’t that heavily taxed, either by historical standards or in comparison with other nations. So if you’re truly horrified by the budget deficit, why not propose tax increases as part of the solution?

Wait, there’s more. The core of the Ryan proposal is a plan to privatize and defund Medicare. Yet this would do nothing to reduce the deficit over the next 10 years, which is why all the near-term deficit reduction comes from brutal reductions in aid to the needy and unspecified cuts in discretionary spending. Tax increases, by contrast, can be fast-acting remedies for red ink.

And that’s why the only major budget proposal out there offering a plausible path to balancing the budget is the one that includes significant tax increases: the “People’s Budget” from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which — unlike the Ryan plan, which was just right-wing orthodoxy with an added dose of magical thinking — is genuinely courageous because it calls for shared sacrifice.

True, it increases revenue partly by imposing substantially higher taxes on the wealthy, which is popular everywhere except inside the Beltway. But it also calls for a rise in the Social Security cap, significantly raising taxes on around 6 percent of workers. And, by rescinding many of the Bush tax cuts, not just those affecting top incomes, it would modestly raise taxes even on middle-income families.

All of this, combined with spending cuts mostly focused on defense, is projected to yield a balanced budget by 2021. And the proposal achieves this without dismantling the legacy of the New Deal, which gave us Social Security, and the Great Society, which gave us Medicare and Medicaid.

But if the progressive proposal has all these virtues, why isn’t it getting anywhere near as much attention as the much less serious Ryan proposal? It’s true that it has no chance of becoming law anytime soon. But that’s equally true of the Ryan proposal.

The answer, I’m sorry to say, is the insincerity of many if not most self-proclaimed deficit hawks. To the extent that they care about the deficit at all, it takes second place to their desire to do precisely what the People’s Budget avoids doing, namely, tear up our current social contract, turning the clock back 80 years under the guise of necessity. They don’t want to be told that such a radical turn to the right is not, in fact, necessary.

But, it isn’t, as the progressive budget proposal shows. We do need to bring the deficit down, although we aren’t facing an immediate crisis. How we go about stemming the tide of red ink is, however, a choice — and by making tax increases part of the solution, we can avoid savaging the poor and undermining the security of the middle class.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Where are the 'morality police' when you REALLY need them?

Patients Are Not Consumers -
April 21, 2011
Patients Are Not Consumers

Earlier this week, The Times reported on Congressional backlash against the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a key part of efforts to rein in health care costs. This backlash was predictable; it is also profoundly irresponsible, as I’ll explain in a minute.

But something else struck me as I looked at Republican arguments against the board, which hinge on the notion that what we really need to do, as the House budget proposal put it, is to “make government health care programs more responsive to consumer choice.”

Here’s my question: How did it become normal, or for that matter even acceptable, to refer to medical patients as “consumers”? The relationship between patient and doctor used to be considered something special, almost sacred. Now politicians and supposed reformers talk about the act of receiving care as if it were no different from a commercial transaction, like buying a car — and their only complaint is that it isn’t commercial enough.

What has gone wrong with us?

About that advisory board: We have to do something about health care costs, which means that we have to find a way to start saying no. In particular, given continuing medical innovation, we can’t maintain a system in which Medicare essentially pays for anything a doctor recommends. And that’s especially true when that blank-check approach is combined with a system that gives doctors and hospitals — who aren’t saints — a strong financial incentive to engage in excessive care.

Hence the advisory board, whose creation was mandated by last year’s health reform. The board, composed of health-care experts, would be given a target rate of growth in Medicare spending. To keep spending at or below this target, the board would submit “fast-track” recommendations for cost control that would go into effect automatically unless overruled by Congress.

Before you start yelling about “rationing” and “death panels,” bear in mind that we’re not talking about limits on what health care you’re allowed to buy with your own (or your insurance company’s) money. We’re talking only about what will be paid for with taxpayers’ money. And the last time I looked at it, the Declaration of Independence didn’t declare that we had the right to life, liberty, and the all-expenses-paid pursuit of happiness.

And the point is that choices must be made; one way or another, government spending on health care must be limited.

Now, what House Republicans propose is that the government simply push the problem of rising health care costs on to seniors; that is, that we replace Medicare with vouchers that can be applied to private insurance, and that we count on seniors and insurance companies to work it out somehow. This, they claim, would be superior to expert review because it would open health care to the wonders of “consumer choice.”

What’s wrong with this idea (aside from the grossly inadequate value of the proposed vouchers)? One answer is that it wouldn’t work. “Consumer-based” medicine has been a bust everywhere it has been tried. To take the most directly relevant example, Medicare Advantage, which was originally called Medicare + Choice, was supposed to save money; it ended up costing substantially more than traditional Medicare. America has the most “consumer-driven” health care system in the advanced world. It also has by far the highest costs yet provides a quality of care no better than far cheaper systems in other countries.

But the fact that Republicans are demanding that we literally stake our health, even our lives, on an already failed approach is only part of what’s wrong here. As I said earlier, there’s something terribly wrong with the whole notion of patients as “consumers” and health care as simply a financial transaction.

Medical care, after all, is an area in which crucial decisions — life and death decisions — must be made. Yet making such decisions intelligently requires a vast amount of specialized knowledge. Furthermore, those decisions often must be made under conditions in which the patient is incapacitated, under severe stress, or needs action immediately, with no time for discussion, let alone comparison shopping.

That’s why we have medical ethics. That’s why doctors have traditionally both been viewed as something special and been expected to behave according to higher standards than the average professional. There’s a reason we have TV series about heroic doctors, while we don’t have TV series about heroic middle managers.

The idea that all this can be reduced to money — that doctors are just “providers” selling services to health care “consumers” — is, well, sickening. And the prevalence of this kind of language is a sign that something has gone very wrong not just with this discussion, but with our society’s values.

Monday, April 18, 2011

When not to be bi-partisan...

Krugman's got it right again!  Why attempt bi-partisanship with a bunch of ideologues.  This isn't about 'common ground'.  There is no such thing with these people.  It's time to force the voter to chose between 'the have's and the have not's'...  The class war has started folks; and it was started by the GOP!

Let’s Not Be Civil -
April 17, 2011
Let’s Not Be Civil

Last week, President Obama offered a spirited defense of his party’s values — in effect, of the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. Immediately thereafter, as always happens when Democrats take a stand, the civility police came out in force. The president, we were told, was being too partisan; he needs to treat his opponents with respect; he should have lunch with them, and work out a consensus.

That’s a bad idea. Equally important, it’s an undemocratic idea.

Let’s review the story so far.

Two weeks ago, House Republicans released their big budget proposal, selling it to credulous pundits as a statement of necessity, not ideology — a document telling America What Must Be Done.

But it was, in fact, a deeply partisan document, which you might have guessed from the opening sentence: “Where the president has failed, House Republicans will lead.” It hyped the danger of deficits, yet even on its own (not at all credible) accounting, spending cuts were used mainly to pay for tax cuts rather than deficit reduction. The transparent and obvious goal was to use deficit fears to impose a vision of small government and low taxes, especially on the wealthy.

So the House budget proposal revealed a yawning gap between the two parties’ priorities. And it revealed a deep difference in views about how the world works.

When the proposal was released, it was praised as a “wonk-approved” plan that had been run by the experts. But the “experts” in question, it turned out, were at the Heritage Foundation, and few people outside the hard right found their conclusions credible. In the words of the consulting firm Macroeconomic Advisers — which makes its living telling businesses what they need to know, not telling politicians what they want to hear — the Heritage analysis was “both flawed and contrived.” Basically, Heritage went all in on the much-refuted claim that cutting taxes on the wealthy produces miraculous economic results, including a surge in revenue that actually reduces the deficit.

By the way, Heritage is always like this. Whenever there’s something the G.O.P. doesn’t like — say, environmental protection — Heritage can be counted on to produce a report, based on no economic model anyone else recognizes, claiming that this policy would cause huge job losses. Correspondingly, whenever there’s something Republicans want, like tax cuts for the wealthy or for corporations, Heritage can be counted on to claim that this policy would yield immense economic benefits.

The point is that the two parties don’t just live in different moral universes, they also live in different intellectual universes, with Republicans in particular having a stable of supposed experts who reliably endorse whatever they propose.

So when pundits call on the parties to sit down together and talk, the obvious question is, what are they supposed to talk about? Where’s the common ground?

Eventually, of course, America must choose between these differing visions. And we have a way of doing that. It’s called democracy.

Now, Republicans claim that last year’s midterms gave them a mandate for the vision embodied in their budget. But last year the G.O.P. ran against what it called the “massive Medicare cuts” contained in the health reform law. How, then, can the election have provided a mandate for a plan that not only would preserve all of those cuts, but would go on, over time, to dismantle Medicare completely?

For what it’s worth, polls suggest that the public’s priorities are nothing like those embodied in the Republican budget. Large majorities support higher, not lower, taxes on the wealthy. Large majorities — including a majority of Republicans — also oppose major changes to Medicare. Of course, the poll that matters is the one on Election Day. But that’s all the more reason to make the 2012 election a clear choice between visions.

Which brings me to those calls for a bipartisan solution. Sorry to be cynical, but right now “bipartisan” is usually code for assembling some conservative Democrats and ultraconservative Republicans — all of them with close ties to the wealthy, and many who are wealthy themselves — and having them proclaim that low taxes on high incomes and drastic cuts in social insurance are the only possible solution.

This would be a corrupt, undemocratic way to make decisions about the shape of our society even if those involved really were wise men with a deep grasp of the issues. It’s much worse when many of those at the table are the sort of people who solicit and believe the kind of policy analyses that the Heritage Foundation supplies.

So let’s not be civil. Instead, let’s have a frank discussion of our differences. In particular, if Democrats believe that Republicans are talking cruel nonsense, they should say so — and take their case to the voters.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Judgment Day?


by Edmund D. Cohen

Radio evangelist Harold Camping, who predicted that the Second Coming would occur in September 1994, is now positive it will take place on May 21, 2011. Sixteen years ago—in the Winter 1994/95 issue of Free Inquiry—I reported on that earlier apocalyptic date-setting episode (that article is now available on What follows is an update that takes the story from the failure of that doomsday prediction to the “home stretch” phase of its sequel, now in progress.

In 1994, I facetiously observed that Camping had seemed to achieve something that has long eluded secularists and skeptics: he derived a testable proposition from the Bible, and its failure militated toward proving Bible truth claims false. Although he displayed much more confidence in that prediction at the time than he now lets on, he never claimed that it rose to the level of a formal proof. He left himself enough leeway to continue defending the premise after the prediction went bad. I was surprised—as he, himself, must have been—at how mild the backlash was and how readily his supporters allowed him to continue on, as if the 1994 date-setting fiasco had never happened.

This time, Camping emphatically proclaims that the prediction does rise to the level of a proof, Q.E.D. He insists it is impossible for Judgment Day not to occur on May 21, 2011, and that the question is not even worth discussing. Whereas his first date-setting episode was able to expire with a whimper, this one cannot but become a watershed for Camping and his broadcasting empire.

Over the intervening sixteen years, his Family Radio has “increased” to comprise fifty “parent” listener-supported radio stations in the United States, each with its complement of range-extending translators. The network now has a “footprint” comparable to National Public Radio. Camping’s flagship Open Forum call-in show has moved up to the 8:30 to 10:00 p.m. E.D.T. time slot, Monday through Friday. Family Radio has emerged as the preeminent Christian international shortwave broadcaster. The prophecy is on the air in sixty-one regional and local foreign languages. Internet streaming and tract literature further extend the message’s long reach.

Little appears to have changed with Camping himself. At age eighty-nine—thirteen years senior to Larry King—he skillfully fills at least two hours of airtime each weekday and manages his broadcast empire as he has done for fifty-two years. His process in arriving at the May 21, 2011, prophecy is a direct extension of his earlier work. That makes his contention that this prediction rests on formal proof, whereas the earlier one did not, mystifying. In all other respects, however, his hermeneutic has changed profoundly.

Intricate and ingenious though they are, it is not useful to delve too deeply into the voluminous chronological calculations behind the Judgment Day predictions. The first time around, Camping had arrived at May 21, 1988, as the day when the church age ended and the final tribulation began. Because 1994 was the first jubilee year after that, Camping focused on it as the likely year for Judgment Day. Dates with Old Testament ceremonial significance during that year—especially in September—became possible alternatives.

Because twenty-three years—8,400 days—is the longer of the two possible durations for the tribulation, Camping scrutinized May 21, 2011(which falls on a Saturday—the seventh day, the last day of the week) as a promising alternative after the 1994 dates had come and gone. He had mentioned 2011 in passing as a possible alternative year as far back as in his book 1994?, published in 1992. The most interesting of the number-of-years connections that fall into place around 2011 is the exactly 7,000 years since 4990 b.c.e., the year he had previously ascertained for Noah’s flood: God gave Noah seven days’ notice of the flood, and “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Camping also sets great store by a complex calculation involving the symbolism of the numbers 3, 5, 10, 17, and 23 and the scientifically respectable value of 365.2422 days in a year, to produce 722,500 days: the exact number of days from April 1, 33 c.e.—Crucifixion day—to May 21, 2011.

After the Rapture takes place on that day, Earth will supposedly continue as an apocalyptic killing field, still peopled by the surviving unsaved, for 153 days. On the “last day”—October 21, 2011 (a Friday)—the present universe is to be incinerated and supplanted by new heavens and a new Earth.

Teaching that the church age ended on May 21,1988, inevitably puts Camping at odds with the rest of the fundamentalist Christian church establishment. From his radio pulpit, Camping thunders that all organized churches have been under Satan’s rule from that day forward. He exhorts true believers to quit them. True believers acquire an urgent, sacred duty to join with Camping, warning the world of the oncoming apocalypse. Failure to see the “truth” in the prophecy calls into question whether or not an individual is saved. Camping strenuously resists the obvious implication that only followers of his will qualify to be raptured. (He estimates the number of the saved to be approximately one out of seventy of the people who have ever lived.) He often talks about the teachers and believers who have arrived at the May 21 prediction independently of him. Inconveniently for him, there happen to be no such persons.

During the forty-eight years, give or take, when Camping was not engaged in a date-setting episode and just taught the Bible, he did so with commendable objectivity. He debunked interpretations that perceived the Bible to be about social justice on Earth, meeting the physical needs of the poor, prosperity, happiness, bodily healing, taking over government, and the like. At Camping’s hands, the bleakness and severity of the Bible’s core message of sin and stratified salvation came across intact and undiluted. It replicated what receiving biblical counseling from John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Bunyan, or Cotton Mather must have been like.

Like all Christian fundamentalists in the 1960s and 1970s, Camping reflected Francis Schaeffer’s aspiration to see a generation of fundamentalist Christian intellectuals arise who would develop a biblical Weltanschauung—a biblical “worldview”—that could subsume all valid human knowledge. Camping presented a plausible appearance of carrying that aspiration forward. Hardly anyone else did more than pay lip service to it or recite it as a future good intention.

It seems as though Camping wore himself out with that laborious, doomed effort. Isolated from anyone who could be regarded as his peer, he has transmuted into a wholesale revisionist, downplaying and even discarding large hunks of his own previous Calvinist doctrine. His study of the Bible, for all its continuing detailed finesse, has devolved into figuring out how to massage the language so as to allow the conclusions he wishes to reach. Whereas he used to attempt to synthesize all that the Bible has to say—declarative content as well as allegorical, figurative as well as literal—into a unified whole, Camping has now opted for a more limited, piecemeal, minimalist approach. He now reads the descriptive content found in the Bible’s prophetic visions, parables, and even the poetry as pertaining exclusively to the salvation plan. Having so long stood out as a commentator who refrained from projecting his own character onto his teaching, Camping has now replaced much of the Bible’s angry, menacing, sadomasochistic lore with his own benign, kindly, American-bred impulses.

These changes in tack revolutionize his views about life after death. Because Camping professes agnosticism regarding knowing any more about that subject than the Bible’s sparse declarative statements reveal, he discards eternal punishment altogether. “Eternal fire,” he argues, refers to fire that incinerates totally and finally, not fire that goes on burning forever. Otherwise, tourists would be able to visit eternal fires still smoldering at the sites of Sodom and Gomorrah. He makes the “death” that is declared to be the “wages of sin” out to be merely that—never again having conscious existence. Sometimes a death is just a death.

Camping now resolves the tension between scriptures stating that who will become saved was determined “before the foundation of the world” and ones that apparently leave it to be determined during the believer’s lifetime plainly in favor of the former—so much so that he now sees the Crucifixion and Resurrection as pantomimic demonstrations carried out for the sake of the biblical narrative, not redemptive events taking place in real time.

All that makes for a Judgment Day scenario weirdly unlike previous ones: in a worldwide earthquake, all the graves spring open, ejecting the remains of all the people who have ever died. The unsaved dead never resume conscious existence. Nothing resembling a judicial proceeding need take place on Judgment Day because everything has literally been decided forever. The worst that Judgment Day holds for the deceased unsaved is desecration of their remains, because they have become forever mercifully unaware. (Romans 14:10–12 and 2Corinthians 5:10 are scriptures Camping must massage particularly heavily in order to harmonize them with this scenario.)

The saved, both living and dead, are caught up in the Rapture. They receive their new, glorified bodies at that point. (Their condition during the 153 days before the new heavens and Earth are ready goes unexplained.) The living unsaved are left behind, in a world crippled by the earthquake catastrophe and the sudden disappearance of all the living saved. Camping speculates that few on Earth are likely to survive the first few days of that tumult.

To their credit, Christian fundamentalists by and large have not bought into the May 21 belief. It has barely penetrated beyond Camping’s personal following. The larger fundamentalist Christian community ignores it, preferring to regard it as irrelevant. So—what is this extravagant fable really about? Why is Camping doing this? Why now? Is there a payday in it for anyone? Could Camping be a fundamentalist-Christian Max Bialystock, with hidden motives for guiding his Family Radio empire to suffer a surefire flop?

Camping admits that even Family Radio’s staff is divided on the May 21 question. (That staff recently decided against publishing a 2011 Family Radio pocket calendar after discussing the ramifications of publishing one ending on May 21 or October 21.) The prophecy is so facially preposterous that anyone damaged by relying upon it will have little prospect of convincing a court that the reliance was reasonable. Around the world, unassuming people in poorer countries and speaking only local languages are hearing the prophecy of the world’s 2011 doom broadcast from the exalted U.S.A. That is hardly calculated to increase America’s prestige—much less that of the Christian gospel—in their eyes. No media evangelism pitch could possibly give its public less reason to contribute than this one does. It has no donor exploitation angle. Following the money leads nowhere. This is a story about madness, not venality. The answers, if any, are psychological.

My clearest recurring impression of Camping is his deep, un­spoken longing that his way of life—wandering obsessively in circles in the Bible’s semantic wilderness—will be concluded, finished, ruled out for succeeding generations. In 1994, I speculated that he unconsciously desired to trigger a scandal to discourage others from squandering their lives enmeshed in the futility of Bible-belief in the way he had. No one would have expected Family Radio’s listenership to prove so long-suffering that it would simply disregard the episode and continue on blithely as if nothing had happened. Perhaps that constituency has something to teach the rest of us about tolerance for eccentricity. Long live freedom of speech!

By declaring certainty and approving a publicity campaign (with billboards, print-media advertising, missionary junkets, and touring RV caravans), Camping has raised the stakes. It is as if he were deliberately tweaking the noses of the rest of the fundamentalist Christian establishment and the public, seeking to goad us all to react.

Such a motive would also explain Camping’s uncharacteristic foray into gay-bashing. Over all these years, he has never been given to “hot button” rhetoric. His current tract, Gay Pride: Planned by God as a Sign of the End is, however, a full-throated piece of hate literature. It was published under Camping’s name, even though comparably short Family Radio tracts are usually unattributed. It is nothing but an attention-getting stunt in terrible taste. I see it as Camping’s version of Springtime for Hitler. How much more outrageous must Camping become in order to provoke an outcry?

The key to the whole ungainly story could lie in Camping’s stance toward natural science. In recent years, the terminology of formal, numerical proof has cropped up more and more in his parlance. It is easy to detect the frustrated quantitative scientist behind all that fastidious analysis of biblical chronology. How much more satisfying could he have found a life devoted to investigating something real? What a productive natural scientist this man—with his meticulous attention to detail, facility with numbers, and capacity for hard work—might have become had he been influenced toward higher academic aspirations in his youth. He has never really seemed to relish science-versus-religion polemics. He “protests too much” when he lambastes and caricatures scientists. Sometimes on Open Forum, he perfunctorily re­cites stock “intelligent design” talking points. What sour grapes. Could that be what is really amiss in his life without his even being aware? These date-setting episodes are all about what happens when a brilliant person’s urge to be creative and original is repressed. It crops out self-destructively.

Camping is poised to succeed in bringing a high-profile media crucifixion upon himself. Most likely, he will find himself hastily trying to walk the prophecy back at the moment of truth. He has done that before. He might even be able to ease things back to status quo ante a second time. He can always appoint his own hundredth birthday as the next scheduled apocalypse. For him to face up to his obligation—incurred on precisely his own terms—to concede that he has unwittingly adduced evidence of the falsity of Bible truth claims is doubtless too much to hope for. We might as well enjoy the show.

Edmund D. Cohen is the author of The Mind of the Bible-Believer (Prometheus Books, 1988). He has been a frequent contributor to Free Inquiry for twenty-five years.

Who’s Serious Now? -
April 14, 2011
Who’s Serious Now?

Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, sounds upset. And you can see why: President Obama, to the great relief of progressives, has called his bluff.

Last week, Mr. Ryan unveiled his budget proposal, and the initial reaction of much of the punditocracy was best summed up (sarcastically) by the blogger John Cole: “The plan is bold! It is serious! It took courage! It re-frames the debate! The ball is in Obama’s court! Very wonky! It is a game-changer! Did I mention it is serious?”

Then people who actually understand budget numbers went to work, and it became clear that the proposal wasn’t serious at all. In fact, it was a sick joke. The only real things in it were savage cuts in aid to the needy and the uninsured, huge tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and Medicare privatization. All the alleged cost savings were pure fantasy.

On Wednesday, as I said, the president called Mr. Ryan’s bluff: after offering a spirited (and reassuring) defense of social insurance, he declared, “There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.” Actually, the Ryan plan calls for $2.9 trillion in tax cuts, but who’s counting?

And then Mr. Obama laid out a budget plan that really is serious.

The president’s proposal isn’t perfect, by a long shot. My own view is that while the spending controls on Medicare he proposed are exactly the right way to go, he’s probably expecting too much payoff in the near term. And over the longer run, I believe that we’ll need modestly higher taxes on the middle class as well as the rich to pay for the kind of society we want. But the vision was right, and the numbers were far more credible than anything in the Ryan sales pitch.

And the hissy fit — I mean, criticism — the Obama plan provoked from Mr. Ryan was deeply revealing, as the man who proposes using budget deficits as an excuse to cut taxes on the rich accused the president of being “partisan.” Mr. Ryan also accused the president of being “dramatically inaccurate” — this from someone whose plan included a $200 billion error in its calculation of interest costs and appears to have made an even bigger error on Medicaid costs. He didn’t say what the inaccuracies were.

And now for something completely wonkish: Can we talk, briefly, about politicians talking about drugs?

For the contrast between Mr. Ryan last week and Mr. Obama on Wednesday wasn’t just about visions of society. There was also a difference in visions of how the world works. And nowhere was that clearer than in the issue of how Medicare should pay for drugs.

Mr. Obama declared, “We will cut spending on prescription drugs by using Medicare’s purchasing power to drive greater efficiency.” Meanwhile, Mr. Ryan held up the existing Medicare drug benefit — a program run through private insurance companies, under legislation that specifically prohibits Medicare from using its bargaining power — as an example of the efficiencies that could be gained from privatizing the whole system.

Mr. Obama has it right. Medicare Part D has been less expensive than expected, at least so far, but that’s because overall prescription drug spending has fallen short of expectations, largely thanks to a dearth of new drugs and the growing use of generics. The right way to assess Part D is by comparing it with programs where the government is allowed to use its purchasing power. And such comparisons suggest that if there’s any magic in privatization, it’s the magical way it makes drug companies richer and taxpayers poorer. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs pays about 40 percent less for drugs than the private plans in Part D.

Did I mention that Medicare Advantage, which closely resembles the privatized system that Republicans want to impose on all seniors, currently costs taxpayers 12 percent more per recipient than traditional Medicare?

But back to the president’s speech. His plan isn’t about to become law; neither is Mr. Ryan’s. And given the hysterical Republican reaction, it doesn’t look likely that we’ll see negotiations trying to narrow the difference. That’s a good thing because Mr. Obama’s plan already relies more on spending cuts than it should, and moving it significantly in the G.O.P.’s direction would produce something unworkable and unacceptable.

What happened over the past two weeks, then, was more about staking out positions than about enacting policies. On one side you had a combination of mean-spiritedness and fantasy; on the other you had a reaffirmation of American compassion and community, coupled with fairly realistic numbers. Which would you choose?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Where is the candidate we supported?

Where is the President indeed?  This is not the guy I and many others so enthusiastically supported!  This guy is more interested in his image as 'conciliatory' than in actually doing the right thing for the country.  I'm going to find it increasingly difficult to support his re-election, and that's pretty sad.  I'm beginning to believe the only way we'll see any REAL improvement in this country is to allow the Republicans to completely have their way, and trash the country so thoroughly that even the most ardent supports of the right will be blessed with the outcome of the GOP's policies, forced to realize that their short sighted policies have destroyed what we are trying to force on the rest of the world; our vision of Democracy...

Obama Is Missing -
April 10, 2011
The President Is Missing

What have they done with President Obama? What happened to the inspirational figure his supporters thought they elected? Who is this bland, timid guy who doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular?

I realize that with hostile Republicans controlling the House, there’s not much Mr. Obama can get done in the way of concrete policy. Arguably, all he has left is the bully pulpit. But he isn’t even using that — or, rather, he’s using it to reinforce his enemies’ narrative.

His remarks after last week’s budget deal were a case in point.

Maybe that terrible deal, in which Republicans ended up getting more than their opening bid, was the best he could achieve — although it looks from here as if the president’s idea of how to bargain is to start by negotiating with himself, making pre-emptive concessions, then pursue a second round of negotiation with the G.O.P., leading to further concessions.

And bear in mind that this was just the first of several chances for Republicans to hold the budget hostage and threaten a government shutdown; by caving in so completely on the first round, Mr. Obama set a baseline for even bigger concessions over the next few months.

But let’s give the president the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that $38 billion in spending cuts — and a much larger cut relative to his own budget proposals — was the best deal available. Even so, did Mr. Obama have to celebrate his defeat? Did he have to praise Congress for enacting “the largest annual spending cut in our history,” as if shortsighted budget cuts in the face of high unemployment — cuts that will slow growth and increase unemployment — are actually a good idea?

Among other things, the latest budget deal more than wipes out any positive economic effects of the big prize Mr. Obama supposedly won from last December’s deal, a temporary extension of his 2009 tax cuts for working Americans. And the price of that deal, let’s remember, was a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts, at an immediate cost of $363 billion, and a potential cost that’s much larger — because it’s now looking increasingly likely that those irresponsible tax cuts will be made permanent.

More broadly, Mr. Obama is conspicuously failing to mount any kind of challenge to the philosophy now dominating Washington discussion — a philosophy that says the poor must accept big cuts in Medicaid and food stamps; the middle class must accept big cuts in Medicare (actually a dismantling of the whole program); and corporations and the rich must accept big cuts in the taxes they have to pay. Shared sacrifice!

I’m not exaggerating. The House budget proposal that was unveiled last week — and was praised as “bold” and “serious” by all of Washington’s Very Serious People — includes savage cuts in Medicaid and other programs that help the neediest, which would among other things deprive 34 million Americans of health insurance. It includes a plan to privatize and defund Medicare that would leave many if not most seniors unable to afford health care. And it includes a plan to sharply cut taxes on corporations and to bring the tax rate on high earners down to its lowest level since 1931.

The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center puts the revenue loss from these tax cuts at $2.9 trillion over the next decade. House Republicans claim that the tax cuts can be made “revenue neutral” by “broadening the tax base” — that is, by closing loopholes and ending exemptions. But you’d need to close a lot of loopholes to close a $3 trillion gap; for example, even completely eliminating one of the biggest exemptions, the mortgage interest deduction, wouldn’t come close. And G.O.P. leaders have not, of course, called for anything that drastic. I haven’t seen them name any significant exemptions they would end.

You might have expected the president’s team not just to reject this proposal, but to see it as a big fat political target. But while the G.O.P. proposal has drawn fire from a number of Democrats — including a harsh condemnation from Senator Max Baucus, a centrist who has often worked with Republicans — the White House response was a statement from the press secretary expressing mild disapproval.

What’s going on here? Despite the ferocious opposition he has faced since the day he took office, Mr. Obama is clearly still clinging to his vision of himself as a figure who can transcend America’s partisan differences. And his political strategists seem to believe that he can win re-election by positioning himself as being conciliatory and reasonable, by always being willing to compromise.

But if you ask me, I’d say that the nation wants — and more important, the nation needs — a president who believes in something, and is willing to take a stand. And that’s not what we’re seeing.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Once again I made the mistake of reading the letters to the editor. It's always a disappointment to have confirmed what I had suspected about someone. Why people are willing to expose their ignorance so publicly is always beyond me.

Sent from my iPhone

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Climate Deniers are at it again

The Truth About Climate Change, Still Inconvenient -
April 3, 2011
The Truth, Still Inconvenient

So the joke begins like this: An economist, a lawyer and a professor of marketing walk into a room. What’s the punch line? They were three of the five “expert witnesses” Republicans called for last week’s Congressional hearing on climate science.

But the joke actually ended up being on the Republicans, when one of the two actual scientists they invited to testify went off script.

Prof. Richard Muller of Berkeley, a physicist who has gotten into the climate skeptic game, has been leading the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, an effort partially financed by none other than the Koch foundation. And climate deniers — who claim that researchers at NASA and other groups analyzing climate trends have massaged and distorted the data — had been hoping that the Berkeley project would conclude that global warming is a myth.

Instead, however, Professor Muller reported that his group’s preliminary results find a global warming trend “very similar to that reported by the prior groups.”

The deniers’ response was both predictable and revealing; more on that shortly. But first, let’s talk a bit more about that list of witnesses, which raised the same question I and others have had about a number of committee hearings held since the G.O.P. retook control of the House — namely, where do they find these people?

My favorite, still, was Ron Paul’s first hearing on monetary policy, in which the lead witness was someone best known for writing a book denouncing Abraham Lincoln as a “horrific tyrant” — and for advocating a new secessionist movement as the appropriate response to the “new American fascialistic state.”

The ringers (i.e., nonscientists) at last week’s hearing weren’t of quite the same caliber, but their prepared testimony still had some memorable moments. One was the lawyer’s declaration that the E.P.A. can’t declare that greenhouse gas emissions are a health threat, because these emissions have been rising for a century, but public health has improved over the same period. I am not making this up.

Oh, and the marketing professor, in providing a list of past cases of “analogies to the alarm over dangerous manmade global warming” — presumably intended to show why we should ignore the worriers — included problems such as acid rain and the ozone hole that have been contained precisely thanks to environmental regulation.

But back to Professor Muller. His climate-skeptic credentials are pretty strong: he has denounced both Al Gore and my colleague Tom Friedman as “exaggerators,” and he has participated in a number of attacks on climate research, including the witch hunt over innocuous e-mails from British climate researchers. Not surprisingly, then, climate deniers had high hopes that his new project would support their case.

You can guess what happened when those hopes were dashed.

Just a few weeks ago Anthony Watts, who runs a prominent climate denialist Web site, praised the Berkeley project and piously declared himself “prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.” But never mind: once he knew that Professor Muller was going to present those preliminary results, Mr. Watts dismissed the hearing as “post normal science political theater.” And one of the regular contributors on his site dismissed Professor Muller as “a man driven by a very serious agenda.”

Of course, it’s actually the climate deniers who have the agenda, and nobody who’s been following this discussion believed for a moment that they would accept a result confirming global warming. But it’s worth stepping back for a moment and thinking not just about the science here, but about the morality.

For years now, large numbers of prominent scientists have been warning, with increasing urgency, that if we continue with business as usual, the results will be very bad, perhaps catastrophic. They could be wrong. But if you’re going to assert that they are in fact wrong, you have a moral responsibility to approach the topic with high seriousness and an open mind. After all, if the scientists are right, you’ll be doing a great deal of damage.

But what we had, instead of high seriousness, was a farce: a supposedly crucial hearing stacked with people who had no business being there and instant ostracism for a climate skeptic who was actually willing to change his mind in the face of evidence. As I said, no surprise: as Upton Sinclair pointed out long ago, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

But it’s terrifying to realize that this kind of cynical careerism — for that’s what it is — has probably ensured that we won’t do anything about climate change until catastrophe is already upon us.

So on second thought, I was wrong when I said that the joke was on the G.O.P.; actually, the joke is on the human race. 

Saturday, April 2, 2011


Philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his wonderful essay, On Bullshit...
"What is the difference between bullshit and lies? Bullshitting often entails lying, of course, but Frankfurt shows that they are not the same. When a person is merely lying, he must still keep the truth in view. He must at least give the appearance of intellectual honesty. The bullshitter knows no such constraints. He takes no notice of the truth, or of the reasonable expectations others might have about it. The bullshitter just keeps talking."