Archive for ‘Politics’

Labour’s Last Best Hope

By , 17 September, 2009, No Comment

I’m a guest blogger today at one of my favorite sites, Brit political blog Fast Talk Express. The occasion is the one year anniversary and 100th post. (Full disclosure: the Fast Talker is a good friend). In my post I offer up some advice for Labour as it navigates, and looks beyond, the upcoming 2010 elections.


The conventional wisdom on the failure of Blairite Labour is that, in trying to attract centrists on the old political spectrum, it alienated its traditional base and split the party into sectarian feuds. I believe the failure is better seen along the new political spectrum—Blair positioned Labour in the middle of this new axis, trying to retain the old coalition of economic statists and social progresives, while courting simultaneously defense hawks and free-marketeers. The result was just incoherence.

Instead, Labour should wear its roots proudly as the party of institutions, making the offensive, not the defensive economic and social case for big government as well as big defense when needed. It should not abandon social progressives but it should outshine Cameron in his own professed quest to leave the culture wars be. Instead, Labour should fold social issues under the mantle of government institutions, making the economic arguments in favor of expanding rights, for example, and accepting that conservative social institutions–including big business–sometimes have meaningful contributions to make.”

Read the rest of the post here.

Trying to Save Health Care Reform

By , 10 September, 2009, 1 Comment

The speech exceeded expectations. As I’ve argued in earlier posts, there are only two routes to achieving GUARANTEED universal coverage: an individual mandate and an employer mandate, both with subsidies for the poor. There are also only two routes to finance those subsidies: massive regulatory overhaul or economies of scale in a state-supported public insurance system. Any plan that tries to compromise by having a mandate without a finance mechanism won’t be able to achieve universal coverage goals; any plan that doesn’t have a mandate isn’t even trying.

Since the presidential campaign, Obama has promised to achieve the liberal goal of universal coverage while speaking the conservative language of efficiency, positing universal coverage as a possible byproduct. Then, when challenged from the Left, he would try to hedge it by offering universal mandates without a finance mechanism, afraid to commit to either regulatory overhaul or a public option.

That changed last night.

Read More →

Health Care, Revisited

By , 5 September, 2009, 2 Comments

Before the President addresses Congress on Wednesday, I thought it was time to revisit health care reform.

Throughout the town-hall melodrama this summer, I have been struck by the focus, from liberals and conservatives alike, on the politics, rather than the policy merits, of reform. To some degree, that is the legacy of Hillarycare: the Clinton administration went so deep into closed-door policy sessions to actually produce a pretty decent bill, that they forgot to sell their plan politically and alienated all the constituencies they needed to get it passed.

Obama, by contrast, has become so preoccupied by having something—anything—to show for himself by year’s end, that he has tried to float above the policy debate, be all things to all people, and avoid tying himself to any specific proposals. (This is a recurrent problem with Obama’s liberal-tarian decision-making process.)

The result is that the right has been able to destroy all the major bills with surface-level claims about their political or ideological implications rather than engaging with their content.

Read More →

On Ted

By , 27 August, 2009, 3 Comments

Ted Kennedy was hardly my favorite politician. I have always looked askance at the politics of personality epitomized by the Kennedy clan and now, also, by the Obamas. I usually roll my eyes with indifference over sex scandals. I am unswayed by electoral pitches based on personal morality or emotional connection. Most of the Kennedy obits have emphasized–as his positive qualities–his oratory and his personal loyalty; and–as his failings–alcoholism and violence. Some write-ups have been eloquent, some banal, but to me, they felt irrelevant.

What I did respect about Ted Kennedy was his effectiveness.

Read More →

Political Capital

By , 23 July, 2009, No Comment

During the first press conference of his second term, George W. Bush famously said “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” Bush meant that his comfortable victory conferred a mandate to pursue his agenda without worrying too much about concessions to the other side. But Bush’s popularity, which was never as pronounced as he liked to believe, collapsed about a year later and he never got around to spending that capital on any new ventures.

Barack Obama seems to have a similar sense of his own popularity. Because he knows he polls high among voters, 44 believes he can get policy changes through a Congress of members eager to latch on to the Obama-geist without having to get his own hands dirty in negotiations. The result is broad directives to ‘get health care reform done’ while members of Congress are left to the details. Then, when they develop two proposals, one more progressive and one more centrist, the President throws his weight behind the one that seems more popular.

Here’s the problem: that proposal will cost a lot more and work a lot less well. And if last night’s press conference showed anything, it was that people are starting to realize that and ask sharper questions (Chuck Todd wanted to know just how many Americans would still be out in the cold after this law passes, Jack Tapper wanted to know what types of care rationing we should prepare for; neither reporter got a straight answer).

But once the President has anointed the progressive bill as “the” proposal, its failure means the failure of health care reform altogether, since no one remembers/wants to go back and recover the centrist alternative. That is my great worry—that this bill will collapse in negotiations sometime later this summer or early fall and Democrats will find that the whole health care issue becomes tainted for them for another decade.

Commentators noted that Obama places all the blame for holding up the bill on Republicans and none on centrist Democrats, who are actually the block on reform right now. Why? Perhaps because the Republicans have no alternative bill, so blaming them is easy. Accepting the battle with the centrist Democrats would require Obama to defend not just the idea of health care reform—he’s good with ideas—but also the specifics of his plan against the specifics of theirs. No amount of political capital can help him there.

David Cameron’s Favorite Journalists

By , 10 July, 2009, 2 Comments

British newspapers have long had a reputation for poor news judgment, but for the last few months, they have really made the cliché come true. Firstly, there’s the way papers on both left and right jumped on to a witch hunt over parliamentary expenses, playing right into David Cameron’s hand as he worked to convince voters that only Labour ministers were abusing their expense accounts. In reality, there was abuse on both sides, but no massive fraud as was sometimes claimed by politicians.

Secondly, there’s the way the News of the World has started paying hackers to get access to the personal voicemails of public figures it wants to expose. This is especially intriguing since one of David Cameron’s cronies, Andy Coulson, is the News’ ex-editor. After Cameron condemned the News’ behavior (“It’s wrong for newspapers to breach people’s privacy with no justification”) but insisted he had forgiven Coulson, lefty commentators jumped on him as a hypocrite who only stands by journos running exposes on his opponents in good times.

This particular critique falls flat because it equates the journalism in the expenses scandal with that of the News. The Guardian, Telegraph and other papers who made a big deal about expenses were following standard journalistic practice by getting access to public documents about public sector agency finances. They made an error of judgment in choosing to publish that information instead of devoting that space to other more important stories, but once they settled on this story, their process was still one of basic newsgathering. By contrast, the News used illegal means to gain access to private-sector information about non-public finances and published that. EVEN WHERE the stories it was obtained for were of real importance, this is a violation of basic newsgathering norms, as well as of the law. Both incidents should be condemned, but not for the same reasons.

I have no special love for David Cameron, as readers of this blog will know, but I think his critics are letting their hatred of Toryism overwhelm their logic.

Me.gov: Blogging the Personal Democracy Forum

By , 30 June, 2009, No Comment

I’ve spent part of the last two days at the annual conference of the Personal Democracy Forum, attending a few panels and talks about how technology is changing politics and where new online media and news models fit into that new political universe. A few selected highlights:

Read More →

How to Handle Health Care

By , 20 June, 2009, 7 Comments

Here’s how insurance works. You sign up for a plan, and based on how likely to be sick you are, you get a quote for your monthly premium. If a particular insurer has a roster of clients who are 90% sick folk and 10% healthy folk, the base premiums they use will be higher than if the balance were 50-50, because they will need to pay out more funds to cover their clients and need more revenue from premiums to do it. But the people who have an incentive to buy health insurance are A. old or B. sick, precisely the demographics that drive premiums up. Now factor in that we have two insurance companies that are state-run, Medicare and Medicaid, populated ENTIRELY by the elderly and ill. The cost to the taxpayer of maintaining those is even higher.

Meanwhile young people elect not to buy insurance because they are cavalier about their health; by the time they want coverage, they are old or sick, so the cost of a plan is high. Some of them wind up being poor enough that Medicaid covers them, but that only adds to high cost and inefficiency of Medicaid as an insurance plan populated only by the most expensive clients. (Proposals to make Medicaid open to all would only make this worse.) Some of them wind up being wealthy enough that they can pay the high premiums of the private insurers. The rest are our 50 million uninsured.

Why can’t these consumers bid down the cost of private sector insurance? Once reason is that regulatory oddities prevent them from voting with their wallets–if I, a New York resident, see a plan in California that suits me better (maybe it covers more of what I want and less of what I don’t), I should be able to buy it, sending a signal to New York area firms that they should lower their prices to compete. The HMOs have successfully lobbied state and federal governments to prevent that from happening. Certainly lifting such odd regulations would bring private sector costs down, but it wouldn’t solve the tax-dollar-drain that is Medicare/Medicaid, nor would it guarantee costs falling enough to insure everyone.

Why are the costs of insuring the sick so high anyway? Other countries–most of the EU–pay for ALL their citizens out of tax money and still spend less than we do. One reason is that they make sure their state-run insurers don’t cover the silly things some of our private ones do (Viagra) and that they do cover smart preventative care (testing people with the right risk factors for chronic diseases like diabetes, then following through with them on diet and exercise). Granted, preventative care can be done wrong or wastefully, but this is more a matter of improving medical education than one of insurance pricing.

Another reason is that they ration care by buying just one brand of everything in bulk: you don’t get to choose between Prozac and Zoloft. Getting rid of coverage for discretionary things like Viagra and improving preventative care would be smart things to steal from them. Getting rid of drug diversity probably isn’t, because our population is larger and more diverse than theirs and the effectiveness of these drugs has a lot to do with genes. So copying the European model wholesale (ie going for single-payer) is a bad idea.

Moreover, we need a robust drug development sector in this country because it’s one of the few areas where America can still lead innovation and create jobs. Manufacturing is dying, IT is migrating, clean-tech is light-years away from maturity and services (hoteliers, accountants) can only take you so far. We have to make stuff, and this is one thing we’re still relatively good at. So economically, crippling pharma by going for single-payer doesn’t make much sense.

Here’s a better system:

Read More →

Tweeting in Tehran

By , 16 June, 2009, No Comment

The fascinating thing about the media wars is that all sides see reality as supporting their cause. Take the election/protest story coming out of Iran this week. New media activists are overjoyed to see Twitter playing such a key role in mobilizing people and getting words and images from the protests out to the rest of the world. But, as a BBC reporter pointed out to me this week, the protesters are most concerned with making sure their efforts get on big outfits like the Beeb.


Here’s an obvious question no one is asking: how many new media startups actually HAVE staff reporters out there covering this? As far as I can tell, zero. Yet instead of admitting that they don’t have the institutional strength required to operate in places like Tehran, the bloggers are harping on the MSM for THEIR lack of coverage. It’s been thin, admittedly, but so far the outfits doing seriously awesome work on this–the NYTimes and the Atlantic–are seriously mainstream, despite Andrew Sullivan’s attempts to cast himself as an upstart. Sullivan, to his credit, has backed down from his rage.

Unfortunately, as Megan McArdle admits, the further we go into the media apocalypse, the harder it will get for even big institutions to support foreign bureaus. Increasingly, “there are too few journalists in too few places to cover a big story like this.” If we can’t be on the ground to cover stories like this, haven’t we failed at our most essential mission?

Another One Bites the Dust

By , 5 June, 2009, 1 Comment

It is technically premature to call Gordon Brown a dust-biter, but the dismal results from yesterday’s local elections suggest Labour’s days are numbered. Indeed, David Cameron made a good point, for once noting that everyone gathered around their tellies looking for election results couldn’t even get them because the only news story was the flood of cabinet resignations and calls for Brown’s ouster. So far, Brown is hiding behind the loyalty of Darling and Mandelson, but I don’t think it will carry him past mid-summer, if that.

I’ll leave the horse race analysis of how the coup will unfold and who will replace Brown to others, but there’s one point relevant to the paradigm shifts Cappuccino follows. The nail in the coffin for Labour seems to have been the populist uproar over MP’s expenses and the rhetorical space that created for other anti-institutionalist arguments including the Tory rants against European integration and government welfare programs.

The election results thus support my longstanding belief that the real divide in society is between individualists and institutionalists and my hunch that institutionalists are losing that battle so badly and on so many fronts (from the referendum on Europe to Obama’s “new politics” to the collapse of organized media) that we might not rise to fight again.