TIME

Matt Miller’s Truth Campaign

I’ve hesitated writing about my friend Matt Miller’s Congressional campaign in California’s infamous 33rd District on the west side of Los Angeles because, well, he’s a longtime wonk-friend of mine. His candidacy is probably a longshot, although he has been endorsed by the LA Times. He’s an enlightened amateur, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget and a truly creative thinker when it comes to public policy.

And he’s worth your attention because he’s running that rarest of things: a truth campaign. He’s telling the truth about what he believes, no matter how unpopular it is–or worse, in his case: Complicated. He doesn’t fudge his position on the issues–in part because his positions have been elaborated in several (readable) policy books. And in more than a few cases, his proposals are unique, or nearly so. Certainly, they’re not the sort of positions normal politicians are willing to take.

Take Miller’s reaction to today’s report that climate change is already have a profound effect on our weather. He simply went to his library of policy papers and proposed the following: a carbon tax and dividend system. What’s that? Well, there’s been endless discussion about how to discourge people from using carbon-powered energy (at least, among those Democrats and Republicans who are not climate-change deniers). There have been all sorts of complicated things proposed, like a cap and trade system–which I will not explain here–in order to hoodwink the public into thinking they’re not actually being taxed for the carbon they consume.

Miller has taken the simplest possible route. He taxes carbon directly at the source, a gradually increasing system that eventually amounts, after ten years, to $1 per gallon of gas. But he returns the proceeds–the dividend–right back to the public in a monthly check. There have been endless discussions about this idea in wonkdom. Most involve the question of whether to give all the money back to the taxpayers. There are those who want to take some of the proceeds and use them to fund alternate energy sources. Miller takes a more direct free-enterprise route: he assumes that people will find ways to reduce their carbon usage and pocket (or spend) a nice chunk of their monthly dividend checks.

It probably doesn’t take much courage to propose an energy tax on the west side of Los Angeles (although the usual political route for Democrats is to acknowledge we have to do “something” about climate change and not get more complicated than that). In fact, Miller probably has opponents who want a more direct government hand when it comes to climate change–let the government, rather than the market, decide which new energy sources to support. (I should note that Miller’s idea has a quietly progressive aspect to it: poor people who don’t own cars, who–as Jesse Jackson once said–“take the early bus” would be getting the same monthly dividend as Hummer-drivers.)

The point is, Miller’s policies are not off-the-shelf, cookie-cutter plans selected by his policy staff. They are hand-made, fully realized. You may disagree with some of them. On some issues, like education, they fly in the face of your standard Democratic interest groups. But, having been through dozens of long policy discussions with Matt over the past 20 years, I can say this: his policies are what he actually believes.

TIME

American Legion Agrees: Shinseki Should Go

More than a year ago, I wrote a column calling for Retired 4-star General Eric Raymond Shinseki to step aside as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, given the utter mess in that department. James Koutz, the American Legion Commander at the time, led a round of criticism from traditional veterans groups:

“While we do not deny that problems and inefficiencies exist within VA and VA-related activities and programs, placing the blame on Secretary Shinseki is wholly unwarranted and disingenuous.”

Today, the Legion changed course:

“It’s a story of poor oversight and failed leadership,” said American Legion Cmdr. Daniel Dellinger, who also hailed the former Army chief of staff’s decorated military record. “This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.”

And it’s true, Shinseki is an extremely decent and admirable man with a heroic record of military service. But he hasn’t done very well adapting the VA to the information age or to the generation of troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The last straw for the Legion, apparently, was a report that 40 veterans had died waiting for doctor’s apointments while the VA’s Phoenix office lied about wait times–and even had a secret list of veterans waiting as much as 200 days.

It’s nice to have the Legion add to the pressure for genuine reform in VA. I thought they were being “disingenuous” last year. But–as I pointed out in the column–the problem doesn’t end with Shinseki. It extends to the top of the totem pole, to the White House where President Obama, who cares deeply about this generation of veterans–supporting their organizations and quietly visiting the wounded in hospital–just can’t seem to figure out how to reform a system that is a national embarrassment. One 4-star general told me that there are 2 VAs–an inner circle of excellent medical professionals who are devoted to their patients, surrounded by a vast mushy doughnut of public employees who have no incentive to work very hard. The stories of incompetence and insensitivity are endless. The VA may well be the worst bureaucracy in Washington.

True reform would require a tiny revolution. The President could ask the Congress to allow him a two-year experiment in lifting the civil service laws that make it practically impossible to fire those clogging the mushy doughnut. That’s a big fight, but a worthy one: There is no creative destruction in government, no accountability–and without accountability, efficiency is nearly impossible. And it might not be a bad thing if the President tried something to change the rather torpid and depressing conversation going on in Washington right now.

 

Correction: the initial version of this article didn’t include General Shinseki’s first name.

 

TIME

Jewish Organization Acts in an Un-Jewish Fashion

Over 5000 years of history, we Jews have demonstrated a remarkable talent for survival, the promulgation of morality and justice, tolerance of others, terrible cuisine and an almost protozoan genius for subdividing ourselves. Thus, there is an organization that is actually called the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations. It has 51 members, some of whom are not all that major–but ok, a diversity of voices, that’s good!

Except not this week. The Conference of Presidents Etc Etc…rejected the attempt of a liberal group called J Street to become a member. The vote was close, but despicable. Indeed, you might wonder what sort of barbarities did J Street commit to be denied entry? After all, there are antique socialist organizations like the Workman’s Circle in the COPOMJAO; there are organizations representing peaceniks, like Americans for Peace Now. J Street must be really extreme, right? Actually, no. It pretty much supports the Obama Administration line on a Middle East peace settlement and nuclear negotiations with Iran. Thereby, it represents a majority of American Jews, who voted for Obama in droves twice.

J Street does not, however, represent the views of AIPAC–the American Israel Public Affairs Committee–the heart of the so-called Israel Lobby. And AIPAC represents the views of Benjamin Netanyahu. It opposes United States foreign policy on the West Bank and the Iran negotiations–not always frontally, but reliably. COPOMJAO has traditionally followed a Likudnik line as well…and it appears that Jewish Neo-Conservatives have gotten a bit touchy about the possibility that a new group like J Street, which actually represents the views of a significant number of Jews, will grow into a real rival to the current out-of-touch Jewish establishment.

This is a decidedly un-Jewish development. Where I come from–the outer boroughs of New York City–Jews were known for, and entertained ourselves by, arguing about everything. Nothing was ever off the table. But I’ve noticed a tendency of the neo-conservative Jews to denigrate those who disagree with their extreme right-wing positions. They bully. They refuse to engage in a serious debate. They have a cult-like devotion to the party line. They call groups like J Street “anti-Israel,” when it’s possible, perhaps even probable, that COPOMJAO’s hard line will compromise Israel’s ability to thrive in the future.

The CPOMJAO rejection will work well for J Street. It will be “good” publicity, especially among those Jews who have been dismayed by those who claim to Judaism’s official leaders in America. COPOMJAO, meanwhile, seems as silly as its name. It needs reform, including a new identity: I would suggest The Jew Crew as a replacement, but that would imply a lack of self-righteousness and openness to diverse opinions that COPOMJAO doesn’t seem to have.

TIME

Sterling and Bundy Are a History Lesson in Racism

Correction appended, April 28

Here’s my favorite part of the Jeremiad that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling allegedly unleashed upon his (former) girlfriend. He was speaking about his players:

I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?

How utterly perfect. Not just in its crude paternalism, but also in its historicity: this is what Southerners imagined the reality of plantation life to be in the honeysuckle nostalgia that overcame the region after the abolition of slavery–and which the rest of the country, especially Hollywood, adopted until reality intervened in the 1960s. As the song goes, I wish I was in the land of Cotton/where old times are not forgotten.* Sterling’s statement was the rhetorical equivalent of finding a perfectly preserved 3000-year-old corpse in a glacier. It was a stinging blast from the past. Conveniently, it came in the same week that seditious rancher Cliven Bundy delivered his own discourse to the New York Times about things he “knew” about the “Negro”:

“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Also perfect. This has been the traditional southern white working class lament since abolition: black folks are a threat to their economic and social status. In the 19th century, the former slaves “took” white jobs (because they worked cheap)–and later, in the 20th century welfare state: they got something for doing nothing. Taken together, Sterling and Bundy are a history lesson. They are confirmation of a ton of brilliantly written sociology about the culture of the South. Both men would fit easily into the archetypes limned by John Dollard in his classic, Caste and Class in a Southern Town–the plantation owner and the vicious overseer. Their rancid nostalgia was brilliantly described by C. Van Woodward in his essay, The Burden of Southern History and, especially in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow.

Cliven Bundy has an added vestigial overlay: He and his armed seditionists are as old as the Republic. Their libertarian Scots-Irish sensibility was described brilliantly by David Hackett Fischer in his history of colonial America, Albion’s Seed. They opposed federalism from the start: From 1791 to 1794, they staged the Whiskey Rebellion against the administration of George Washington, which wanted to tax the home brew they made from their excess crops. Washington himself had to lead a federal force (composed of state militias) to subdue the rebels, who disbanded quietly.

There are those who will argue: Well, of course. Nothing has changed. White folks are just getting scared, as their majority dwindles, and blurting out the things they always thought. There is, no doubt, some truth to that. America’s form of slavery was particularly brutal and has yet to be completely expunged from the psyches of either blacks or whites. (Dollard’s book, written in 1957, is particularly good on this).

But, as baldly loathsome as the Sterling and Bundy statements are, there is no question that this country has seen a sea change in race relations over the past half-century. You can walk along Main Street of any southern town during lunch hour and find blacks and whites sharing a meal, a joke, an embrace. You can watch any NBA playoff game and watch African-American players in a glorious variety of pigments, including a rising minority who are clearly biracial. Those trends will continue; there will be ugliness and misunderstanding as we inch along toward the ideal of a fully Mongrelized, and thereby strengthened, America. But they are unstoppable.

*Just listened to Bob Dylan’s version of “Dixie,” which manages to be both nostalgic and lacerating.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the city in which the Clippers now reside.

TIME Medicare

The Return of Mediscare

In Arkansas, Democrats dust off an old tactic in order to retain control of the U.S. Senate

Tom Cotton is your basic republican red-state fantasy candidate. He is 36 years old, a former Army captain who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and a graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law. He is a member of the House running for the U.S. Senate from Arkansas. His opponent is an unflashy Democratic moderate, Mark Pryor, who spent the first months of the campaign barraged by an estimated $2 million in Obamascare ads provided by Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ super PAC. Not surprisingly, Cotton has been leading–and is one of the reasons the Republicans may retake the Senate in 2014. Or maybe not: the polls suddenly turned around in March, and Pryor is now narrowly ahead. What happened?

Meet Linda … who joins Harry and Louise, and dozens of other average Americans–some real, some conjured–in the long, sordid history of political ads designed to scare the bejeezus out of other average Americans over health care. Linda appears to be real. She’s from Little Rock. She’s been married to the same lucky fellow for 37 years, and they have two “great” kids. We know this because a black-and-white family photo is shown prominently at the beginning of the ad. Then we see Linda, who seems to be in her 50s, with tightly curled gray hair and glasses, sitting in her breakfast nook gazing at her Apple computer. Retirement is just around the corner, she says. “That’s why I was so concerned when I read”–and here she seems to be reading off her computer–“that Tom Cotton voted to turn Medicare into a voucher system” that would allow insurance companies to “increase rates, cut benefits and cost seniors thousands more each year.”

It’s a brilliant ad, classic Mediscare. The fact that Linda seems to be reading the horrific news about Cotton off her computer lends a subtle authority to the information. Is it accurate? Well, yes and no. Cotton and 218 of his colleagues in the House did indeed vote for the Paul Ryan budget, which would slash costs by moving to a privatized “premium support”–or voucher–system of health care delivery for senior citizens. Is that a bad idea? Probably not. In fact, a more generous version already exists in the form of Medicare Advantage, the private-sector Medicare alternative that seems to be going great guns in the Obamacare era: an estimated 30% of seniors have signed up, an increase of 38% in recent years. The brute force of competition (plus some federal subsidies that both parties want to diminish) has allowed increased benefits like gym memberships and free medication. The fact that many of these plans are based within systems where doctors are paid salaries makes it potentially more cost-effective than classic fee-for-service Medicare. It would be very valuable to have a serious conversation about this. Pryor is a fiscal conservative. He’s said that all programs (including Medicare, presumably) should be on the table. He could be part of the solution, rather than hiding behind traditional Democratic battlements.

Democrats will say, Oh, come on. It’s about time we started playing hardball again. The Republicans strolled into a tornado by voting–symbolically, since it never had a chance of passage–for the Ryan budget. The Koch brothers have spent gazillions putting sketchy Obamascare ads on the air, including one starring Jerry, an Arkansas truck driver who “lost” his health coverage because of Obamacare, although maybe he didn’t, because the Arkansas insurance commissioner put a two-year delay on that ruling and now Jerry is “confused” by all these newfangled government machinations. This was one of the less toxic Koch ads–and “Jerry” has been smoked by “Linda” in the court of public opinion.

Of course, next month there could be a killer Obamascare ad starring “Arnie,” an Arkansas druggist whose health care premiums have skyrocketed. And later we may get to know “Marge,” who survived breast cancer because Obamacare saved her health insurance. We could go back and forth, Obamascare vs. Mediscare, all the way until November. It’s happened before. It’s worked before. But is it what you really want this election to be about? Isn’t it precisely the sort of campaign that turns people off politics? Don’t we have more important things to talk about? “I think the Republicans will still win the House and Senate,” says Steve Schmidt, a GOP consultant. “But when you have no real governing agenda, it becomes very easy to get caught up in entitlement issues.”

That is true for Democrats as well. They are proud of their demographics, especially the favor bestowed on them by younger voters. But younger voters may decide they don’t like paying for an unreformed Medicare system as we baby boomers live on and on and on. Those who live by the anecdote can die by the anecdote.

TIME Health Care

Obamacare Disaster!

I just love it when I see neoconservatives pushing story angles like this one:

a new study from Express Scripts, the large pharmacy benefits-managing company, reveals something else that ought to depress those liberals throwing victory parties for the success of the misnamed Affordable Care Act: those signing up for ObamaCare appear to be older, sicker, and more dependent on expensive, specialty drugs than the average person covered by employer-based health insurance.

Two points:

1. This study, no doubt accurate, comes from a pharmacy-benefits company. And yes, of course, Obamacare has signed up a lot of people with dire medical conditions who will be filing a lot of expensive prescriptions. That’s the point of the exercise. But this study says absolutely nothing about the number of young people who signed up–if they signed up–who don’t have expensive prescriptions to fill. That’s the point of universal coverage: the healthy young help pay for the unhealthy elderly. This is a moral and civic duty. The young and healthy someday will be old and less healthy. (We don’t yet have any reliable indications of how many young people showed up.)

2. What sort of twisted mind could believe that taking care of the “older, sicker and more dependent” on expensive drugs is not a good thing? I’ve never bought that all this would cost less–though real reform of fee-for-service medicine would certainly help some. I’m in favor of universal coverage as a communitarian proposition: it is a social responsibility that we have. In most cases, these are hardworking people–those who don’t work get healthcare through Medicaid. I’d rather see my taxes go to helping those who are suffering than to subsidizing hedge-fund traders who pay Romney taxes.

But I wonder about all those salivating over Obamacare failures, real or imagined: Do they ever consider the actual human beings involved, the sum of human suffering diminished–or are they just interested in the political calculus? (Don’t worry, folks: I think I know the answer.)

TIME politics

Why Obama Hit Pause

An Iran deal may be possible. Getting Israelis and Palestinians to make peace may not be

We know what a reasonable middle East peace would look like. In December 2000, Bill Clinton laid out the formula. There would be a return to the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed-upon land swaps so that the bulk–perhaps 80%–of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands could become part of Israel. Jerusalem would be the capital of both countries. An international commission would control the religious sites in Jerusalem’s Old City. Palestinian refugees would have the right to return to Palestine but not to Israel. Israel’s sovereignty and security as a Jewish state would be accepted by the Arabs.

There have been other iterations of a framework agreement in the past 14 years, but they’re all based on Clinton’s plan, as Clinton’s was on previous plans. For those who actually want to see a Middle East peace negotiated, this is the consensus solution. In principle, it is favored by a majority of the Israeli and Palestinian publics and by the Saudis and the Arab League. In practice, who knows? The Israelis are always litigious about the details; the Palestinians always walk away at the last minute. But leading American strategists like Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski have said the way to negotiate the impasse is for the U.S. to present an updated version of the framework and allow international pressure to push the Israelis and the Palestinians toward peace.

John Kerry seemed intent on doing that too. But his version of the framework has never been announced–and the chance of the two parties’ producing their own mutually agreed-upon outline evaporated long ago, if it ever existed in the first place. Kerry deserves credit for the energy he’s put into the process, but there has been a tinge of desperation to his efforts over the past months–a reminder of the wobbly garrulousness that has damaged President Obama’s foreign policy since he took office. Kerry raised the loathsome possibility of releasing Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. citizen who spied for Israel, in order to cajole the Israelis into continuing the talks. Then, in congressional testimony on April 8, he weirdly blamed the Israelis for the impasse because of their insistence on building 700 new apartments in an East Jerusalem neighborhood, Gilo, that everyone assumes will be part of Israel if the borders are redrawn. There has been, as with Syria last summer, a melted cheesiness to his public statements when the heat is on.

Why hasn’t Kerry published a framework for the talks as promised? In my interviews with current and former diplomats, a prevailing theme emerged: a reiteration of the Clinton framework would activate the Sheldon Adelson neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, plus many Christian evangelicals who see the annexation of the West Bank territories as biblical prophesy, and this is a fight that Obama doesn’t particularly want at this point. Why not? The President may want to keep his powder dry, in part to keep Jewish voters on the reservation in the 2014 midterms but also because another, more promising fight is looming with the neoconservatives–over the Iran nuclear talks.

Indeed, the Iran talks seem to be going as well as the Middle East talks are going poorly. That’s why you haven’t read much about them in recent weeks. There are still major issues to overcome, but Western negotiators have been impressed by the Iranians’ seriousness and unwillingness to use extraneous events–like the U.S.-Russian tiff over Ukraine–to try to delay the talks or split the U.N. alliance. It is not inconceivable that a deal limiting Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and a strict regimen of international inspections will be completed by the end of the year … although, once again, the Administration won’t want it to be finished until after the midterm elections.

The Middle East peace talks continue to chug along, at the request of the Israelis and Palestinians, even after Kerry declared them moribund. It turns out that neither side wants to abandon the illusion of progress–and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular, may be keeping his powder dry for the Iran fight as well. But the paralyzed talks have now become another reminder of the Administration’s perceived weakness in foreign policy. Iran may well prove to be the President’s ultimate test–not just the political test of maneuvering a treaty through a Congress heavily influenced by the Israel lobby but also the diplomatic test of dealing with a complicated, opaque Iran, where the reactionary forces will want to reassert their authority if the treaty is successfully negotiated. A remarkable achievement may be within Obama’s grasp, but he and his Secretary of State are going to have to prove more solid, subtle and dependable policy implementers than they have in the past.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

TIME politics

Obamacare: Mend it, Don’t End it

The Affordable Care Act has problems. But the GOP campaign to junk it is now finished

The endless, blindingly obtuse debate about the Affordable Care Act–also known as Obamacare–has been almost entirely about politics, not substance. There are two reasons for this. We haven’t had much real substance to go on. And politics is a lot easier for us wizards of the media to report and opine upon. The abysmal debut of the HealthCare.gov website is a lot easier to comprehend–government can’t tie its own shoelaces–than the heroic efforts to bring the site back to life. The people who “lost” their insurance because of new coverage requirements are more famous than those who were able to get better, cheaper coverage through the new government health care markets. (Actually, they’re many of the same people.) The fact that 7.1 million people signed up for insurance is more important than who they actually are: Were they uninsured in the past? Will they pay their bills? Will they get the care they’re paying for? Will the system be able to handle all the new traffic?

But we have now turned a corner. the system is up and running. It has 7.1 million customers (plus 4.5 million more in the expanded Medicaid program). The word of mouth seems to be … not bad: a recent ABC News–Washington Post poll actually had more Americans in favor of Obamacare than opposed to it, by an overpowering 49% to 48%. Those numbers may well improve over time as the public learns that the program isn’t the socialist cataclysm that Republicans predicted. It may even happen by November. It is not impossible that Americans will be pleased that a significant social injustice has been rectified: the hardworking poor finally have health care protection, just as the indigent on Medicaid have had. Indeed, there is one political thing that we know for sure: the Republicans have lost this debate substantively. The law won’t be repealed. “There is no off switch,” says Professor John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania, who is studying the system from the bottom up in 35 states. “There are financial obligations to the people who have signed up [and receive subsidies from the government]. There are 50 different stories here. The program is different in every state. That makes it difficult to formulate a national policy response,” whether it be repeal or sweeping reform.

Which doesn’t mean the Affordable Care Act doesn’t need reform. It is a slovenly piece of legislation that will need constant modification and in some cases structural overhaul. The very notion that there are 50 stories here demonstrates a glaring inefficiency. There should be four or five regional exchanges–they should be supermarkets, not corner stores, providing greater economies of scale. There ought to be (as six moderate Democratic Senators proposed) a wider variety of insurance options, including plans with lower premiums and higher deductibles. There should be fewer mandated coverages: if the Jones family believes it receives all the mental-health counseling it needs through its church, it shouldn’t be required to pay for mental-health coverage. Businesses that currently provide health coverage for their employees in the private market, especially moderate-size companies, should be free to shop for better deals in the health care exchanges. The President has been open to negotiation on most of the above, as well as conservative evergreens like medical-malpractice reform.

A recent Kaiser family foundation poll shows that 59% of Americans want to see this program improved, not repealed–another reason the Republicans have lost this debate. There are legitimate arguments against government expansion, but the Republicans haven’t been making them. Instead they’ve resorted to fear tactics (remember “death panels”), demagoguery (socialism!), concocted bad-news stories and irrelevant bean-counting. One reason the 7.1 million people signing up became such a big deal is that Republicans made it a litmus test. Given public disgust with the noxious atmosphere in Washington, you might expect that the GOP would be ripe for a reset on this issue. They could argue, We’re gonna reform this thing, make it an efficient free-enterprise model for the world. After all, the bone structure of Obamacare–the exchanges, the individual mandate–came out of the conservative Heritage Foundation 25 years ago.

But no. John Boehner and other GOP leaders sent a reflexive message to the 7.1 million enrollees: they’re still against it, no retreat, no surrender. That makes political sense in a dull, conventional-wisdom way. Current polls have them winning the House and perhaps the Senate in November. But what happens if Obamacare brings better coverage to millions of Americans between now and then? What happens if the good-news stories start outplaying the bad? Politics is never static, especially seven months from Election Day.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

TIME Media

The Charge of the Neo-Conservative Light Brigade

Bill Kristol cries Obama Retreat! yet again.

Kiev is ablaze. Syria is a killing field. The Iranian mullahs aren’t giving up their nuclear weapons capability, and other regimes in the Middle East are preparing to acquire their own. Al Qaeda is making gains and is probably stronger than ever. China and Russia throw their weight around, while our allies shudder and squabble.

Ah yes, Bill Kristol has taken another look at the world and found it messy. But his messiness is messy. Kiev is ablaze because Russia can’t really throw its weight around anymore. Iran is engaged in serious nuclear negotiations for the first time and has taken verifiable steps to get rid of its weapons-grade uranium. Al Qaeda is no longer the centralized threat it once was, thanks to the Obama Administration’s use of drones and special operations forces. China’s stability is heavily dependent on the long-term success of the United States. Putin’s blowhard Russia is a paper tiger. And for once, in Syria, we have forced Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons without attacking yet another Islamic country (even if the President’s steps toward that goal were, shall we say, shaky and unconvincing).

The neo-conservative world view was already out-of-date in 2001, when George W. Bush adopted it. Dick Cheney, who is still raging in the darkness, thought the radical Islamist threat came from nation-states like Iraq. It didn’t. Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton and saw the world in an oily way: the threat to American national security was from hostile control of hydrocarbons. It wasn’t. These days, actual nation-states–like Iran, for instance–have far too much at stake to go to war, given the lethality of the weaponry. (Iran, having taken 1 million casualties–an estimated 10% from chemical wmds– in its disastrously stupid war against Iraq in the 1980s, has a better sense than most countries of the brutality of modern warfare.)

It seems abundantly clear now that the most appropriate response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks would have been a limited, special operations effort to clear Afghanistan (and Pakistan) of Al Qaeda’s central leadership, then to remain vigilant against bad actors–as the Obama Administration has done. Obama’s policy in the region has not been retreat. It has been sanity and, in its use of drones and special forces, far more effective than Bush’s extravagantly wasteful war effort. The idea that the United States is “responsible” for keeping the peace in a region of maps misdrawn by colonial powers is staggeringly arrogant. It is up to the modern-day Babylonians to decide what their country will be–and up to the Kurds to decide whether they’ll have a country of their own. The “Who Lost Iraq” argument even more foolish than “Who Lost China?” was 65 years ago. It is a neo-colonial hangover. It is time for the people in the region–with our diplomatic and humanitarian assistance, if requested–to decide what the actual countries are. Such things are never easy and, sadly, they are often bloody. But they are also inevitable. (This is also true for that other British colonial mapmaking disaster: South Asia, including Afghanistan.)

And yet Kristol and Charles Krauthammer–dubbed the “Bomber Boys” by George W. Bush–and dinosaurs like Cheney and John McCain insist on seeing the future of warfare in the now-distant past. There are national security threats, to be sure. Cyberwarfare is a real threat. Terrorism remains a real threat, which is why a sensibly modified version of the NSA’s data-mining operation is a necessity. There is the need for a nuclear deterrent. But it sometimes seems as if the neo-conservative minority still wants to arm itself against the possibility of tank battles on the plains of central Europe and fleet-sized sea battles in the South China Sea. This sort of view is dangerously myopic, reactionary in the truest sense of the word.

The future of warfare–and with it, the future of diplomacy–is changing at warp speed, along with the future of everything else. We should be doing everything we can to remain ahead of that curve, even it means spending a lot of money. Protecting the nation’s security remains the government’s top priority. But the time for spending money on tanks and vast divisions of infantry has passed as surely as the need to raise catapults and horse-cavalry. Kristol’s “retreat” argument is disingenuous–he is, as ever, the ultra-conservative tactician, trying to score political points without engaging in the substantive argument about national security necessary at this hinge of history. It will be interesting to see if his persistent illogic will remain dominant in the increasingly isolationist Republican Party.

TIME Health Care

Obamacare: Economic Boon?

President Barack Obama at the White House on February 12, 2014.
President Barack Obama at the White House on February 12, 2014. Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

Duncan Black makes an argument that liberals haven’t emphasized nearly enough about the Affordable Care Act: that it could well be a shot in the arm for the economy.

It is, in truth, a conservative argument–a freedom argument. I’ve always loved the logic of it. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people with clever ideas for starting businesses who are trapped in their current jobs because of the need to provide health insurance for their families. These are the potential Wright brothers, the middle managers who see a better, more efficient way to process a product, the tinkerers who come up with a new valve, the designers who come up with a snazzzy new pattern.

The ad hoc employer-based American health care system has been an impediment to such people, especially for those who have family members with pre-existing conditions. And that’s why I immediately dismissed, out of hand, the CBO report that said 2 million jobs would be “lost” under Obamacare (the CBO meant, of course, that an estimated 2 million people would choose to leave their jobs). The problem is, there is no way to anticipate or calculate the number of jobs that will be created by newly liberated entrepreneurs–what if there’s a FedEx or a Sam Adams in the mix?

And so, it is good to know that there is mildly happy news today on the Obamacare front–1.1 million new signups in February, including a healthy number of young people. The overall fate of the law remains unclear, of course. As Michael Shear and Reed Abelson report in the Times:

[I]ndustry experts and insurance officials say that the reality is murkier than either party wants to admit, and that the numbers at the heart of the national political debate are largely meaningless outside Washington’s overheated environment. The determination about whether the law works from an economic standpoint will not be clear for years, when individual insurance companies are finally able to tell whether their expectations about the health of their customers — and the premiums they set for coverage — were accurate.

The good news is that if the law is imperfect, as it undoubtedly will be in some aspects, it can be modified. Other countries have managed to provide national health insurance--and not neceessarily socialized medicine–without too much of a fuss. In the end, I hope that we’ll eventually move to a system like the Wyden-Bennett proposal, which would entirely remove the health insurance burden from American corporations, allowing them to compete in the global market on the same basis as companies in other advanced economies do. Conservatives call this sort of system “premium support”–vouchers to buy health insurance are given (by the government) according to need; liberals call this system…single-payer. There will be an argument about how generous the benefits will be, but that’s a benign necessity–democracy needs to work such things out in public view.

We are, perhaps, light years away from the adjustments that will create a more perfect health insurance system. The Affordable Care Act is a nice place to start. I wish it had been implemented better; I hope it will be modified and simplified. Most of all, I hope that saner heads will prevail, that the nonsense passing for talking points (especially from the wingers) will abate and things like this piece of unprocessed inanity will have no place in the public debate.

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