Monday, October 19, 2009


Jacob Weisberg is tired of the "phony debate" over Fox News's bias:
There is no longer any need to get bogged down in this phony debate, which itself constitutes an abuse of the fair-mindedness of the rest of the media. One glance at Fox's Web site or five minutes randomly viewing the channel at any hour of the day demonstrates its all-pervasive political slant. [...] What's most distinctive about the American press is not its freedom but its tradition of independence—that it serves the public interest rather than those of parties, persuasions, or pressure groups. Media independence is a 20th-century innovation that has never fully taken root in Europe or many other countries that do have free press. The Australian-British-continental model of politicized media that Murdoch has implemented at Fox is un-American, so much so that he has little choice but go on denying what he's doing as he does it. For Murdoch, Ailes, and company, "fair and balanced" is a necessary lie. To admit that their coverage is slanted by design would violate the American understanding of the media's role in democracy and our idea of what constitutes journalistic fair play. But it's a demonstrable deceit that no longer deserves equal time.
I don't have much to add to this except to say that it's dead-on, and the whole piece is worth reading. The "Murdoch Model" of openly-biased newspapers was one of the things that bothered me most about English media and political culture. Of course, it's fashionable to claim that such a system is simply more straightforward; that American newspapers are biased, but they're just not open about it.

I think that's an oversimplification. I'm not naive enough to suggest that the major newspapers are completely unbiased, but it is true that most of the time, the professional journalists who work at those newspapers are trying to present a story as accurately as possible. Whatever political slant ends up in the story is usually in spite of, not because of, the journalist's intent. With Fox, it's just the opposite. (Of course, Jon Stewart is all over this.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Nihilism and the HSA Problem

Reihan Salam has a smart, but ultimately misguided, take on the Finance Committee's healthcare bill:
Among Democrats and liberals, there is a belief that Republican opposition to the various Democratic proposals represents a kind of "nihilism," and that because Baucuscare resembles proposals offered by liberal and moderate Republicans in the 1990s, today's opposition is obviously unprincipled if not insane. My sense is that we've learned a great deal about health reform over the intervening period, and that, as Christensen, Grossman, and Hwang have argued, it is disruptive competition that promises substantial improvement in the cost and quality of medical services over time. I'm increasingly convinced that the only way to move in this direction is to create a system of universal catastrophic coverage and universal health savings accounts, as proposed by Martin Feldstein and a number of others. The emerging consensus among congressional Democrats moves us in a very different direction, towards a highly centralized, highly regulated system that will give entrepreneurs very little room to dramatically improve care. With that in mind, I don't think opposition is "nihlistic"; rather, I think it's responsible.
Health Savings Accounts are an interesting approach to the healthcare problem - certainly they would eliminate many of the distortions that currently plague the healthcare market, and removing insurance companies from the process of paying for regular healthcare expenses would drive consumers to make more careful decisions while encouraging competition among doctors and hospitals. Having a third party foot the bill dramatically increases costs. As David Goldhill wrote a few months ago: "Want further evidence of moral hazard? The average insured American and the average uninsured American spend very similar amounts of their own money on health care each year - $654 and $583, respectively. But they spend wildly different amounts of other people's money - $3,809 and $1,103, respectively [...] If it's true that the insurance system leads us to focus on only our direct share of costs - rather than the total cost to society - it's not surprising that insured families and uninsured ones would make similar decisions as to how much of their own money to spend on care, but very different decisions on the total amount to consume."

It's an intriguing idea - but I think it inadequately addresses the problems faced by Americans who are uninsured because of poverty, and who, in an HSA system, wouldn't have enough income to put aside in their accounts to cover expenses short of the universal "catastrophic" coverage proposed by HSA advocates. For them, insurance is key - it lowers costs by pooling risk, so a subsidy to buy insurance would be more useful than a subsidy to directly purchase care. And subsidies - of one kind or another - do seem to be the only answer to the problem: HSA advocates like Goldhill admit that the government would have to provide subsidies to poor Americans so they could meet the minimum contribution requirements for their HSA. But is it realistic to think that the government could provide satisfactory subsidies to a more medically-vulnerable demographic without spending massive amounts of money? Keep in mind, all this would be taking place in a marketplace without the cost-reducing pooling benefits of insurance - and that, in turn, is based on the assumption that it's even possible to remove the insurance middleman from short-of-catastrophic transactions. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker in 2005:
If you are preoccupied with moral hazard, then you want people to pay for care with their own money, and, when you do that, the sick inevitably end up paying more than the healthy [...] "The main effect of putting more of it on the consumer is to reduce the social redistributive element of insurance," the Stanford economist Victor Fuchs says. Health Savings Accounts are not a variant of universal health care. In their governing assumptions, they are the antithesis of universal health care.
If you're like me, and you think universal coverage is the most important component of healthcare reform, this is a big problem. And I don't think that, as far as public policy goes, we are forced to make a choice between universal coverage and a sensible healthcare market that encourages competition and consumer choice (in fact, that's one major reason why I support a public option). That's why Salam is ultimately wrong not only about how "centralized" a post-reform system will be, but about whether or not Republican opposition to this bill is nihilistic.

Salam is right to note that if you think an idea will be bad policy, it is responsible to oppose it. But think of the nature of Republican opposition and its likely consequences. Leading Democrats from President Obama down have all repeatedly stated that they want a bipartisan bill, but at the end of the day they'll pass healthcare reform with or without Republican input. There have been minor substantive ideas from Republicans (namely, tort reform), but overall, the Republican "contribution" to this debate has been scaremongering and demagoguery led by the likes of Sarah Palin and Betsy McCaughey - with their ridiculous lies about death panels, euthanasia, abortion, socialism, etc. Republicans had their chance to make real contributions to healthcare reform. They had the opportunity to ensure that the final bill, even if they found it objectionable, would at least be mitigated by some conservative provisions. But they never took that opportunity. For the most part, they've been content to sit on the sidelines and throw spitballs. Since the passage of healthcare is nearly guaranteed, they are being profoundly irresponsible, and yes, nihilistic, if they refuse to try and positively change something that they believe will be disastrous.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Other Reactions

The reasonable, moderate, sober punditry meme developed in record time yesterday morning: by 9 AM EST, there seemed to be a "consensus" among people who determine what the consensus is that well, the only respectable thing to do now is turn it down. When that didn't happen, the respectable reaction became well, certainly this is nice and all, but it's a mixed blessing; let's see how we can turn this into a negative story. Hence the absurd NYT headline "For Presidency in Search of Success, Nobel Adds a Twist" and TNR's takeaway, "Obama's Nobel: Mixed Blessing At Best."

Since you can read those pieces anywhere today (or just turn on your TV), I thought I'd highlight the assessments of people whose opinions aren't affected by their need to have a respectable reputation among the commentariat.

From the comments of readers of that TNR piece:
"Mr. Crowley et al.: You are all completely nuts. You can refuse a Nobel Prize if you want to express contempt for those who award it, or those who have received it, but to do so for the kind of cockeyed political reasons mentioned above is just totally self-defeating. And I think he has accomplished more internationally, Afghanistan aside, than a lot of people want to realize. The speech to the Arab world, his work with G20 and at the U.N., the decision on the nuclear shield, and maybe even the Iran negotiations have all made an impression on the world if not on TNR bloggers."

"All of these hideous attacks on this great honor to our President are the pinnacle of self indulgent, preening, arm chair nobody-ism. To a person, the attacks have made me sick, there's not a single decent point in any of them. If anyone deserves a Nobel, it is our brave President."
Ben Cohen at the Daily Banter:
America became a feared and despised state under the rule of the Bush Administration. The brazen disregard for global opinion, the trampling of international law, and the overt environmental destruction were hallmarks of a Presidency determined to project American power at all costs. With one election, the world forgave, and almost forgot the tragic Bush years as a young black President who spoke of hope rather than hatred, and cooperation rather than force swept into power.

This monumental shift cannot and must not be underestimated.

Steve Clemons:

...the Nobel Committee's decision to make Obama the only sitting U.S. president since Woodrow Wilson to receive the Nobel Peace Prize shows the committee's clear-headed assessment that Obama's "unclenched fist" approach to dealing with the world's most thuggish leaders has had a constructive, systemic impact on the world's expectations of itself. [...] What is brilliant about Obama and why he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize is that he is a global leader who clearly saw the gains that could be made in changing "the optics" of the global order, upgrading the level of respect between the United States and other nations, making a point of listening to other leaders.

Obama saw that before the world could move to a more stable and better global equilibrium, it had to believe it could -- and this is what Obama has done in ways that no other leader has in memory.

Josh Marshall calls it an "odd award," an assessment with which I'm inclined to agree, but makes a crucial point:
But the unmistakable message of the award is one of the consequences of a period in which the most powerful country in the world, the 'hyper-power' as the French have it, became the focus of destabilization and in real if limited ways lawlessness. A harsh judgment, yes. But a dark period. And Obama has begun, if fitfully and very imperfectly to many of his supporters, to steer the ship of state in a different direction. If that seems like a meager accomplishment to many of the usual Washington types it's a profound reflection of their own enablement of the Bush era and how compromised they are by it, how much they perpetuated the belief that it was 'normal history' rather than dark aberration.
Lindsay Beyerstein at Obsidian Wings:

Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a parallel dimension where everything is inverted. Accepting the Nobel Prize makes you look bad? It's narcissistic to accept prizes from other people?

I am gobsmacked that some Democrats want the president to turn down the prize for his own good. What message would that send to the rest of the world? Something along the lines of 'Thanks, guys, but I'm really all about war'?

Of course the Republicans are going to freak out. Our guy wins a Nobel Peace Prize after 9 months in office, primarily for tinkering with the worst excesses of the wars their guy started. That's humiliating. Humiliated Republicans lash out, news at eleven.

But turning it down would be a slap in the face to an international community that is showing, in the most generous way possible, that it wants the U.S. back as a leading component of the global order. The issue is not Barack Obama. It’s what the president represents internationally: a symbol of an America that is willing, once again, to drive the international system forward, together, toward the humane positive-sum goals of peace and disarmament. The fact that Obama hasn’t gotten the planet there misses the point entirely. It’s that he’s beginning, slowly, to take the world again down the path.
The first commenter on the story at Wonkette:
I thought he won because he blew up the moon and ended the wicked tides that plague the planet, but I notice this morning the moon is still there, so one more massive failure.
I smell a new meme!

Friday, October 9, 2009

President, Nobel Laureate, and All-Around Cool Dude

So, first off, I suppose a congratulations is in order to President Obama.

Of course there will be critics - there always are - but I particularly love a day when a person lambasting the award as proof that "these prizes are political, not governed by the principles of credibility, values and morals" could either be a blogger at The Corner or Khaled Al-Batsh, the leader of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. (It's the latter, in case you were wondering.)

There is a case to be made that this is "premature" - after all, the president has been in office less than nine months, and to put it gently, the world's various problems aren't exactly solved. But I think the point the Nobel Committee was trying to make was that, in a short amount of time, Obama has fundamentally and radically reoriented the American stance toward the world, restoring it to its traditional stance of cooperative leadership. He has devoted significant time, resources, and political capital early on in his presidency to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he has ended torture and other stains on America's human rights record; he has articulated a vision of nuclear disarmament and worked to set the world on that course; he has reached out to the Islamic world in a spirit of respect and peace; and he has subtly but effectively undermined an aggressive Iranian regime without firing a single shot. And he did much of this with the blessing and assistance of the international community, working within traditional international institutions and respecting international norms. Certainly some of the world's embrace of Obama is based on relief at the end of the Bush era - to outsiders, what we call "unilateralism" looks more like a middle finger - but to suggest that this man is not uniquely responsible for major advances in the cause of world peace is unfair and shortsighted.

Lots of people will charge - in fact, I've seen it already - that all he has done is "give a speech or two." "Give a speech, win the Nobel Peace Prize! If I had only known it was that easy!"

This criticism, of course, reflects a staggering amount of ignorance about the significant day-to-day work that presidents and governments do. There is no doubt that Obama and his team have put long hours and no small amount of elbow grease into the nuts and bolts of these issues. Governing is a slow and difficult process.

But more to the point, this criticism misses the obvious reality that public gestures are important. That's how you motivate regular people and pressure governments, and it's how world leaders set the course of international affairs. Barack Obama could have set the course, as his predecessor did, towards unilateralism and unnecessary wars. He could have ignored the issue of nuclear disarmament, waited until the last minute to get serious about Israel/Palestine, denied the reality of global warming and the catastrophic effects it could have on the world, refused to engage in diplomacy with America's enemies, defied international law and human rights by torturing prisoners, and regarded other world leaders as obstacles rather than partners in the pursuit of global peace. That kind of behavior certainly wouldn't have been without precedent.

But he took a different course. He dove right into some of the thorniest problems in the world, all of which demand attention and priority - and none of which can wait. And if we have inched closer to a solution to any of those outrages against peace, it is because of the aspirations and work of this specific person. The world is a very different place today because Barack Obama is President of the United States. I think that's worth recognizing.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How Charming!

Andrew Sullivan highlights Jerry Coyne's dispatch from a major meeting of atheists last weekend:
Dan Dennett talked about interviews with active priests and ministers who are atheists, and also mounted a hilarious attack on theologians like Karen Armstrong, who mouth pious nonsense like, “God is the God behind God.” Dennett calls this kind of language a “deepity”: a statement that has two meanings, one of which is true but superficial, the other which sounds profound but is meaningless. His exemplar of a deepity is the statement “Love is just a word.” True, it’s a word like “cheeseburger,” but the supposed deeper sense is wrong: love is an emotion, a feeling, a condition, and not just a word in the dictionary. He gave several examples of other deepities from academic theologians; when you see these things laid out — ripped from their texts — in a Powerpoint slide, they make you realize how truly fatuous are the lucubrations of people like Armstrong, Eagleton, and Haught. Sarcasm will be the best weapon against this stuff.
The first time I read this, I thought there was no way that's what Coyne meant to say - his words must have been, for lack a better phrase, "ripped from the text." Then I went and read the whole thing in context, which is what you do when you have even a modicum of respect for people with whom you disagree - or for the pursuit of knowledge generally.

But that didn't change anything. Coyne is actually suggesting that "ripping" the words of major writers "from their texts" - something the rest of us call "taking things out of context" - is the best way to engage in debate, rather than a tactic which would get you dismissed from any serious conversation. After all, most people respond positively to sneering contempt and lazy intellectual posturing. I think it's clear that whatever small interest people like this have in changing minds is totally overwhelmed by the pleasure they get from patting each other on the back. (By the way, for those who are interested, I took a more comprehensive look at this issue here.)