Monthly Archives: December 2009

Challenges of managing our post-crisis world. Martin Wolf, FT

Useless airport security. Jeffrey Goldberg interviews Bruce Schneier, The Atlantic

Afghanistan: what could work. Rory Stewart, NYRB

Living with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Tony Judt, NYRB

Spooked by Islamists. Nick Cohen, Standpoint

A reader’s guide to Thatcherism. Nick Cohen, Standpoint

Lebowski studies. Dwight Garner, NYT. Ties the list together.

Paul Krugman takes me to task for my column offering qualified praise of Obama’s first year. The main criticism I make of Obama in the piece is that he failed to bridge the partisan divide in US politics, and I say that this was partly because he decided early on not to try. Previously, Krugman has not expressed much interest in bridging the divide, but now says the spirit of no compromise was all on the Republican side. Look at health care, he says: this is essentially a Republican plan (cf Massachusetts), and not one Republican has voted for it. What else were the Democrats supposed to do?

Alas, the kind of content-free centrism Crook shows here is all too common. Recent op-eds by William Daley and, of course, David Broder urge Democrats to “move to the center” without saying anything — anything at all — about what that would mean in terms of actual changes in their policy ideas…

[W]hat could Obama and the Democrats have done to reach out? As far as I can tell, the centrists believe that Obama must have done something wrong, because otherwise Republicans would have been more cooperative. But, you know, there’s another interpretation: that what’s really enraging the Republicans is the fact that there’s a Democrat in the White House.

And there’s nothing Obama can do about that.

Well, of course that’s what upsets Republicans. (Remember how Democrats felt about George W. Bush?) But I don’t understand the jibe about content-free centrism. I support this healthcare plan because of its content. That’s content-rich centrism.

Krugman supports the bill as well, even though he regards it as an essentially Republican measure. Interesting for once (off the top of my head I cannot think of another instance) to see him express the view that Republican ideas are not wrong by definition. That’s a breakthrough. If it keeps up, he might soon be judging issues on the merits. What his admirers will make of that, I shudder to think.

Obama is being bitterly criticised for the lapses that preceded the attempted bombing, and for his administration’s bungling response. But George W. Bush didn’t receive this kind of criticism over the shoebomber affair in December 2001, Democrats point out. Republicans are playing politics, and a double standard is at work, say Obama’s defenders.

Eight years ago, a terrorist bomber’s attempt to blow up a transatlantic airliner was thwarted by a group of passengers, an incident that revealed some gaping holes in airline security just a few months after the attacks of Sept. 11. But it was six days before President George W. Bush, then on vacation, made any public remarks about the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid, and there were virtually no complaints from the press or any opposition Democrats that his response was sluggish or inadequate.

That stands in sharp contrast to the withering criticism President Barack Obama has received from Republicans and some in the press for his reaction to Friday’s incident on a Northwest Airlines flight heading for Detroit.

Well of course Republicans are playing politics–which is deplorable, and something that Democrats would never do. But in my circle–I mix with all kinds–it isn’t just Republicans who were incredulous at the still-growing catalogue of errors, and awe-struck by Janet Napolitano’s initial view that the system had worked.

The first Napolitano statement is surely the main reason why everybody is piling on more this time. (Her subsequent clarification didn’t help much either: no point in saying you were quoted out of context when you obviously weren’t.) Another difference is that we found out much faster than in the Richard Reid case just how many mistakes were made. And a third thing is the elapsed time: after eight years of enduring the misery of supposedly improved airport security, we read that (a) a man like Abdulmutallab can still walk on to a plane, and (b) that the response will be to take away all blankets and reading material for the last hour of future flights.

Maureen Dowd–not a Republican, so far as I know–summed up this feeling very well.

If we can’t catch a Nigerian with a powerful explosive powder in his oddly feminine-looking underpants and a syringe full of acid, a man whose own father had alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, a traveler whose ticket was paid for in cash and who didn’t check bags, whose visa renewal had been denied by the British, who had studied Arabic in Al Qaeda sanctuary Yemen, whose name was on a counterterrorism watch list, who can we catch?

We are headed toward the moment when screeners will watch watch-listers sashay through while we have to come to the airport in hospital gowns, flapping open in the back.

I wonder if it was a good idea to mention that flapping gown thing. Napolitano might be reading.

Many Americans – conservatives, liberals and centrists – are dismayed by Barack Obama’s first year. Republicans call Mr Obama a tax and spend liberal. Progressives say he surrendered to corporate interests, and his foreign policy is a continuation of George W. Bush by other means. Independents feel let down because Mr Obama said he would bridge the partisan divide and unite the country. Except for uniting left and right in disappointment, he failed.

Partly, Mr Obama is paying the price of his fabulous campaign. Coming from nowhere, he overthrew his party’s plans (Hillary Clinton), enthused the Democratic base and amazed the country. In temperament – cool, intellectual, self-assured – he was exactly what voters wanted after Mr Bush. Ideologically, he presented himself as all things to all men. Hopes for his presidency reached impossible heights. Disenchantment was inevitable and disenchantment is what the polls now show.

Measured against what different groups of voters thought he had promised – everything they desired – the administration’s performance looks poor. Measured against what voters were entitled to expect, it looks much better.

The remainder of this article can be read here.

Senate Passes Health Care Overhaul Bill.

The Senate voted Thursday to reinvent the nation’s health care system, passing a bill to guarantee access to health insurance for tens of millions of Americans… The 60-to-39 party-line vote… brings Democrats a step closer to a goal they have pursued for decades.

I’m signing off until Tuesday the 29th. A merry Christmas to one and all.

Harry Reid turns insurance into a public utility. Richard Epstein, WSJ

Can Congress tie its own hands? Eric Posner, Volokh Conspiracy. (Via Marginal Revolution)

Healthcare reform is no done deal. John Heilemann, New York

Votes for sale in the Senate. Michael Gerson, RCP

Peter Suderman at Reason says that “the major provisions of ObamaCare have already been tried. And they don’t look good.” New York combined guaranteed issue and community rating in 1993, and destroyed the individual insurance market.

New York’s reforms haven’t worked out very well, according to a 2009 Manhattan Institute study by Stephen T. Parente, a professor of finance at the University of Minnesota, and Tarren Bragdon, CEO of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. In 1994 just under 752,000 individuals were enrolled in individual insurance plans, about 4.7 percent of the nonelderly population. This put New York roughly in line with the rest of the U.S. Today that figure has dropped to just 0.2 percent. By contrast, between 1994 and 2007 the total number of people insured in the individual market across the U.S. rose from 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent.

The decline in the number of people enrolled in individual insurance plans, the authors say, is “attributable largely to a steep increase in premiums” because of the state’s regulations. Parente and Bragdon estimate that repealing guaranteed issue and community rating could reduce the price of individual coverage by 42 percent.

This is something for progressive opponents of the individual mandate to bear in mind. You need the mandate to counter the adverse selection which gave those results.

Suderman, an opponent of the proposed national reform, points out that Massachusetts, which has a mandate, has seen premiums rise too. In this post, he doesn’t go into whether the cost-control experiments that the Senate bill proposes, and which Massachusetts didn’t try, are likely to work. CBO notwithstanding, I’m betting that healthcare reform along Senate lines will indeed raise premiums and the budget deficit–but will also point up methods for bending the curve with subsequent initiatives and maybe further legislation. Right now, I believe, that’s the best that can be done–and good enough. But the individual mandate needs to be watched: dropping it, or riddling it with loopholes, really does threaten the whole enterprise.

Time for a climate change plan B. Nigel Lawson, WSJ

What Copenhagen showed us about the future. Leslie Gelb, Daily Beast

The battle for Tora Bora. Peter Bergen, TNR

The familiar road to failure in Afghanistan. Rodric Braithwaite, FT

Courts no place to write detention policy. Ben Wittes and Jack Goldsmith, Brookings

Rereading my column on healthcare from yesterday, I was unfair to one strand of progressive opposition to the Senate healthcare bill. The left has two main arguments. The first is that private insurance companies are such scoundrels that anything which puts business their way must be bad. On this view, the public option is the indispensable wedge that will eventually get private enterprise out of the business altogether. The second argument, to which progressives’ attention has turned lately, concentrates on the mandate. This creates an obligation on government, they say, to ensure that good-quality affordable insurance is available. They say the Senate bill fails on this score. Again, the public option is the remedy, but the larger point is that the mandate is immoral if it forces people to buy “junk” insurance.

I think the first argument, which opposes private health insurance on principle, is wrong. Yes, healthcare faces special problems: unregulated private enterprise won’t do. But if competition in pursuit of profit is fundamentally wrong, as many progressives seem to think, you should not stop at healthcare. (Well, to be fair, many progressives don’t stop there.) This platform is stupid politics as well. Deluded as they may be, Americans believe in competition and profits. Private health insurance is popular with the people who have it, as Obama recognised when he promised at the outset that nothing would change for those who were content with their existing arrangements. Progressives should come to terms with properly regulated private health insurance. It works fine in other countries.

The second argument, though, is right. The mandate does have to be part of a social contract that makes insurance available and affordable. The Senate bill should certainly be criticised if it fails to pay sufficiently generous subsidies, or regulates the product carelessly (allowing companies to force bad policies on to their new captive market). That is a necessary debate about the right subject.

Does the Senate bill meet the obligation to provide adequate, affordable insurance? I think it does. I give its subsidies and regulations pretty good marks. (See Jonathan Cohn at TNR.) Of course I can understand why progressives aren’t satisfied–but I cannot understand how so many of them can see this bill as worse than nothing. That remains a mystery. No doubt the bill can be further improved. Any new system, once in place, will be continually tweaked in any case. Looking ahead, the mandate is good politics. It does create an obligation, and governments will not be able to shirk it.

Dismal outcome at Copenhagen fiasco. Editorial comment, FT

Obama as climate-change villian. Jeff Sachs, Project Syndicate. (Thanks, Greg Mankiw)

Ten reasons to kill the health care bill. Jane Hamsher, Firedoglake

Don’t kill the bill. Jonathan Cohn, TNR

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

Clive Crook’s blog: A guide

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