Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Level of Reality in DC

Ezra on what passes for reality in Washington.
There's a political consultant I know who likes to illustrate the cynicism and dysfunction of our political system with an anecdote from his days as a congressional staffer. He was sitting behind his boss during a hearing when one of the other members -- a well-respected member, no less -- turned to them and gestured at the witness, who was earnestly presenting her case. "Can you believe that?" He laughed. "She thinks this is all on the level!"
Sometimes, I think the biggest analytical mistake I make in my writing is pretending too much of this stuff is on the level. My impulse, when presented with an argument about the cost and deficit impact of the Affordable Care Act, is to launch into a long explanation of why the numbers add up, or at least add up given what we know now. But perhaps it would be better to just show this graph:
That graphs shows the 10-year cost, and the total deficit impact, of a couple of different pieces of legislation. First, the extension of the Bush tax cuts that Republicans supported last year. It would've cost $4 trillion over 10 years, and not a dime would've been offset. So it would've also cost the deficit $4 trillion over 10 years. Then the tax deal that we actually passed, which cost $850 billion and charged it to the country's credit card. Then the 2003 Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, which is the last major health-care law the Republicans passed. It was projected to cost $394.8 billion over 10 years, and Republicans managed to offset 0.5 billion of that.

Then there's the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It's projected to cost $938 billion over 10 years. But the final legislation included $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and tax increases. So it actually cuts the deficit in the first 10 years. And in case you think that's a trick, CBO projects that it'll cut the deficit by even more than that in the second 10 years. So it's fiscally responsible and getting more so. Indeed, there's not another major law passed in last 10 years that did close to as much to pay for itself. You can be skeptical about certain provisions, or want to see the bill do more, and still admit that.

And yet I turn on C-SPAN or open the paper and watch the legislation's opponents -- most all of whom voted for or supported one of the other bills on that graph -- say things like "repeal is the logical first step toward restoring fiscal sanity."

It's just not on the level.

Repeal is Easy, Reality is Hard

Ezra on the Republican House and its vote to repeal health-care reform.
As expected, House Republicans have voted to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Three Democrats voted with them, which is substantially less than the 13 currently serving Democrats who voted against the bill in the first place, and many less than prominent Republicans had been predicting. On health-care reform, the two parties are moving further apart rather than closer together.
What's not as expected, however, is that the GOP gave up on "repeal and replace" so early. Throughout the election, that was their message. If you look at their press language, it's still their message. Being on the side of the status quo is, according to the pollsters, a bad place to be. But that's where they are. They voted for repeal despite offering nothing in the way of replacement, save for the vague intention to have some committees come up with some ideas at some future date. Barry Goldwater might have wanted the GOP to offer a choice, not an echo, but Speaker Boehner saw more upside in a shout than a choice.

There's a reason for that: Opposition is easy, governing is hard. You have to get your members to agree on a single piece of legislation. You have to make the tough tradeoffs that are the hallmark of governance. You have to explain how you'll do things, rather than merely what you want done. You have to own the popular parts and defend the unpopular parts.

Democrats did that for health care. They fought ugly fights in their own party over the public option, the financing of the legislation, the levels of coverage in the bill, the way abortion would be treated in the exchanges. They made some easy decisions, like banning discrimination based on preexisting conditions, and some hard ones, like adding an individual mandate to the bill, and paying for it through Medicare cuts rather than a tax on the wealthy. And in the end, they managed to pass their law through the House and through the Senate. They governed. They sought to move the country forward.

Boehner's GOP, in deciding against offering the promised replacement for the Affordable Care Act, ducked the hard work and highest responsibilities of governance. Maybe, in the coming months, they'll do better than that. Maybe their committees will report out serious alternatives and they'll be brought to the floor of the House. But this isn't the first time health-care policy has come up in Washington. If the GOP had wanted to offer a plan of their own, there are plenty they could've taken off the shelf. If they'd needed more time, well, there was no hurry. But they didn't take more time, or dust off an existing piece of legislation. Backwards was good enough.

Today's vote was a statement, not a policy. Like the public option and cap-and-trade, both of which also passed the House, it will die in the Senate. But unlike the public option and cap-and-trade, it doesn't tell Americans much about how the Republicans would address the nation's toughest problems After the vote total was announced, you could hear some members of the GOP clapping and cheering. And fair enough: They have a win to be happy about. But not one to be proud of.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

MUSIC: Top CDs of 2010

As the sales of CDs continue to decline, music and the music industry continue to shift inexorably away from the concept of albums (much less the concept album). The search for new music now runs from online forums to videos to ad placements (no mention of radio!), making it nearly impossible for new bands to get noticed. So my 2010 list is bereft of new bands, though a new band, the London Souls, rocked my world without a CD release. A few of the names below are newish, but all the music is terrific....presenting 15 keepers from 2010.

Best 5:
The Besnard LakesThe Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night – The third album and second to make my list by the Montreal band headed by a husband and wife tandem mixes psychedelic atmospherics with indie drive.
The Black AngelsPhosphene Dream – Another third release and second to make my list, out of Austin, named after a Velvet Underground song, they blend rock roots and indie flair with psychedelic highlights.
The BluetonesA New Athens – 14 years after its first release, a favorite at the time, this London band tops the list with this sublime Britpop-survivor collection.
Dead ConfederateSugar – Grunge meets alt-country in Athens, GA and a brilliant disc is the result.
MidlakeThe Courage of Others – A band from Denton, TX that defies description, building from jazz roots, melding gorgeous harmonies, keys, guitars, even 2 flutes to create a remarkable sound that shimmers and glistens.

Next 5:
Black MountainWilderness Heart – Vancouver guitar virtuoso Stephen McBean presents another great set of music.
Blitzen TrapperDestroyer of the Void – Ethereal, light, beautiful folk rock.
Roky EricksonTrue Love Cast Out Evil – Roky Erickson led the seminal psych-rock band 13th Floor Elevators, then spent years in mental hospitals and seclusion. This disc consists of songs written years ago and brought beautifully to life with Will Sheff and Okkervil River
Manic Street PreachersPostcards From a Young Man – A perennial favorite, the Welsh alt-punk band has survived and thrived thru 10 albums.
Neil YoungLe Noise – Neil just goes on and on. Daniel Lanois produced this solo effort that showcases the breadth of sound that one guitarist can produce.

Another 5:
Against Me!White Crosses – Their first and only major label release may have alienated some of their punk base, but is a solid set of music by a terrific band.
Arcade FireThe Suburbs – Much hyped third release by the Montreal collective that continues to explore dark and light in all its musical configurations.
Jesca HoopHunting My Dress – Once nanny to Tom Waits children, this singer-songwriter uses her expressive voice to wondrous effect.
Plants and AnimalsLa La Land – Post-classic rock from Montreal that takes indie rock back to its roots.
SpoonTransference – Another fine collection by the veteran indie band from Austin.

And a special mention to Bruce Springsteen for the reissue, The Promise: Darkness at the Edge of Town Story, which includes unreleased songs and live performances in a superb box set.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Deficit Dilly-Dallying

Sully eviscerates new House Budget Committee head and Republican wunderkind Paul Ryan, who summarized his plan to cut the deficit in a recent radio interview saying:
"We're gonna be reducing all domestic discretionary spending. I can't tell you by what amount and which program, but all of it is going to be going down, and the aggregate amount will be back to 2008 levels before the spending binge occurred."
Before the spending binge occurred? You mean to say that the eight years of George "Deficits Don't Matter" Bush did not include spending binges? You mean to say that emergency spending for the worst downturn since the 1930s was seriously in doubt under any president of either party?

What Ryan is doing is pretty obvious. He is trying to frame fiscal irresponsibility as somehow solely about 2008 - 2010. He's lying about the Republican past and the recession. He has no serious plans to cut entitlements now (anyone only focusing on discretionary spending is a demonstrable fraud), no plans to cut defense, no plans to raise any taxes. And he has thrown away a chance to become a real fiscal conservative in Washington, able actually to tackle the problem rather than exploit it for partisan purposes.

He is the problem with Republicanism today, not its solution. If the debt is such a threat, why do you refuse to tackle it seriously now? Why reduce yourself to the tiniest sliver of the smallest part of the discretionary spending budget ... when you could claim a serious mandate to end the debt for good? Why, after the last campaign, are the Republicans still unserious about cutting spending?

Because they're frauds.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Paying As You Go

As the GOP takes control of the House, with empty promises of deficit cutting to come, Ezra looks back on one aspect of the health-care debate - its cost.
During the Bush administration, Democrats made a big deal of the Republicans' tendency to pass big initiatives without paying for them. The tax cuts, for instance, went right onto the deficit. So too did the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit. The Democrats promised that they'd be more responsible. They'd pay for their big projects.
When health-care reform came around, they made good. They cut $500 billion from Medicare, handing conservatives a potent attack line. They introduced a tax on high-value health insurance plans, infuriating their union supporters. They didn't just pay for the bill: They overpaid for the bill, packing it with enough spending cuts and revenue increases to cut the deficit by more than $100 billion in the first 10 years, and then used the momentum of the bill to get liberals to sign off on cost controls, like an independent board designed to control Medicare's costs, that they'd have never countenanced in normal times.

So what do the conservatives who style themselves fiscally responsible say about this effort? "Democrats knew that passing the health-care bill would make it harder to balance the budget, because we used up the easiest, most obvious tax increases and spending cuts on expanding health care coverage," writes Megan McArdle. Democrats "spent budget offsets needed to address our long-term spending problem" complains Keith Hennessey. Points for creativity, at least: You need to work hard to make the very act of finding ways to pay for your spending seem like a calculated plan to increase the deficit.

McArdle says Democrats "knew" what they were doing here, but having spoken to a couple of them, I assure her they didn't: They actually thought that doing the fiscally responsible thing and passing more-than-fully offset legislation that also included an array of attempts to cut health-care spending over the long term would be considered, well, fiscally responsible. Fools!