Health-care reform passage, preliminary reaction

How do I feel about health-care reform?  Better than if it had not passed, but not very enthusiastic, in the end.  I found this interview by Doug Henwood (March 25, 2010) of a single-payer advocate, Steffie Woolhandler, rather convincing on the question of cost-containment, and for months I had been hearing Robert Scheer say that costs have been skyrocketing in Massachusetts.  (Henwood’s interview of Tom Athanasiou concerning global warming, in the same broadcast, is also excellent.)

On the other hand, my sense is that Americans generally do not want to confront the cost problem, or the explicit rationing that will result if and when the cost problem is addressed more explicitly.

I will have to read the John Cassidy articles in “The New Yorker,” to which we subscribe, referred to by Ross Douthat.  These articles apparently argue that the legislation will likely cause health-care costs to escalate.

My overall sense is that the legislation will do some good for the class of additional Medicaid recipients it creates.  Mainly, I am pleased about the legislative victory for Obama and the reversal of the sense that his would be a failed, and one-term presidency.  It is important that the first black president not be perceived as a failure, or as extremely weak.

I came to believe that financial reform was more important than health-care reform, both on its merits and politically.  Obama ceded too much ground to the Republicans and the new populism represented in part by the Tea Party movement by the way in which the bank bailouts were handled.  I agree completely with Robert Scheer on this point.

I am fundamentally ambivalent.  Part of me wants Obama to be more resolutely progressive/liberal than he has been, and perhaps more so than he actually is, and part of me thinks that this would be politically impossible, regardless of what Obama’s core beliefs are.  One part of the country, the Democratic part, seems to be much more rational than the other part.

I just don’t see how the economic calculations of individual actors can possibly combine, by themselves, to do much to solve the problems of health-care, education,  or global warming.  It’s not that I love government bureaucracy.  No one could possibly love government bureaucracy.  But I don’t love corporate bureaucracy either.  If the proponents of markets would spend some time talking about the problems of  bureaucracy per se, rather than about the problems of government, they would be far more credible.  And it is difficult to see how the profit motive, which is what distinguishes private from public bureaucracy, can really be consistent with providing good and affordable health care for nearly everyone.  The debate that occurred tended not to address this question, but, regrettably, the debate is far from over.


Doug Henwood, often indispensable

Everyone should listen to this edition of Doug Henwood’s “Behind the News” (March 13, 2010).

First, you will hear one of the best interviews I have heard about the financial crisis.  The first interviewee is a woman who has written a new book about the financial crisis, and who blogs at Naked Capitalism, under the pseudonym of Yves Smith.  She had experience in investment banking on Wall Street in the 1980’s and now works as a financial consultant.  Everything she says rings true to me.

The second interview is with economist Robert Poland and is also quite good.

America’s relations with Israel

My friend Chris asked via email whether I think that Hillary Clinton’s recent 43-minute phone call to Netanyahu, in which the latter was apparently rebuked for the embarrassing authorization of over 600 new housing units for Israelis in East Jerusalem, represents an important turn in US-Israel relations.  My answer is that I doubt it.  My suspicion is that what the Obama Administration was most upset about were the optics and timing of the authorization, coinciding as it did with Biden’s visit to Israel.  There is as yet no evidence that Obama is prepared to stand up to America’s Israel lobby, and, until that happens, nothing is likely to alter Israel’s intransigence or apparent intention to annex ever more territory in Jerusalem and on the West Bank.

I remain puzzled about what advantages the US derives from its “strategic alliance” with Israel.  This is the question raised by the intervention of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt into the debate about America’s relations with Israel.  Robert Wright missed a golden opportunity to address this question while talking to prominent neo-con David Frum recently on bloggingheadstv.…7:49&out=40:36

I am as puzzled by Wright’s failure to address the Realpolitik of America’s relations with Israel as I am by the question of what the calculations actually are which lead America to support Israel so unfailingly, once one leaves the outsized influence of the Israel lobby to one side.

Here, in slightly edited form (edited primarily to remove things specific to the forum, but also to add the value of Israeli intelligence to the US), is what I had to say about this discussion in the bloggingheadstv forums.

“Frum contends that the reason the US should not pressure Israel to concede more to the Palestinians than the relative strength of military forces of Israel v. Palestinians would dictate is that the US has nothing to gain from the application of such pressure. But wait. A lof of people think that the US has much to gain in the Mideast from getting this dispute off the table, more or less. What advantage does the US get from the status quo, or from having Israel as an ally? The most I can come up with is the military advantage of the use of Israel’s air bases and air capability in a future resource war, coupled with intelligence sharing. Frum asserts that such advantages exist, he does not say what they are, and Wright did not press him on this. But that’s a terrible oversight by Wright. The whole point of the Mearsheimer-Walt point of view is that `the strategic alliance’ between the US and Israel is probably no longer in the US interest. Instead of engaging the Realpolitik question, Wright allows the discussion to divagate into the muddy waters of legality, morality, and history of the conflict.

On the question of what happens to the West Bank in the absence of a mediated two-state solution in the near term, it seems to me that a two-state outcome is de facto still more likely than one state, one ends up with two-state by default, that the international community says enough is enough, they prevent wholesale genocide on the West Bank, they cannot disarm Israel, they create a Palestinian state, and so on. In a showdown between Israel’s nuclear capacity and that of the rest of the world, Israel will back down, that’s my bet. It’s just two-state deferred, the only salient point being that the US could never broker a deal because it was prevented by domestic politics from doing so. And the only thing standing in the way of this `inevitable’ outcome, which strikes me as more inevitable than one state, is that there could well be a serious military cataclysm that precedes the solution imposed by the exhausted international community.”

Evan Bayh says that a constitutional amendment may be necessary

in order to correct the corrosive effect of private money upon political campaigns.

I also have to agree with Thomas Friedman in his column of today, although I am not generally an admirer of his.

“Indeed, to lead now is to trim, to fire or to downsize services, programs or personnel. We’ve gone from the age of government handouts to the age of citizen givebacks, from the age of companions fly free to the age of paying for each bag….While it would certainly help if the president voiced a more compelling narrative, I am under no illusion that this alone would solve all his problems and ours. It comes back to us: We have to demand the truth from our politicians and be ready to accept it ourselves. We simply do not have another presidency to waste. There are no more fat years to eat through. If Obama fails, we all fail.”

Leon Wieseltier v Andrew Sullivan, a Jewish layman’s reaction

I have been introduced to a public row between Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan by a conversation between Matthew Yglesias and Glenn Loury on bloggingheadstv:

The venomous article directed at Sullivan by Wieseltier is here:

Here is my reaction to the article, which I have also posted in the bloggingheadstv online forums, in a very slightly different version.

I guess there are two substantive claims in it that strike me as odd. The first is that there is no such thing as Jewish fundamentalism. Maybe Wieseltier is right about this, I certainly don’t know, but he could only be right if what he means is that there is such a thing as Christian fundamentalism, or Islamic fundamentalism, and we know what they are, and Jewish claims to the Holy Land based upon biblical mandates are categorically different from these things. But since he does not bother to define what he means by fundamentalism, how are we supposed to judge the merits of his distinction? To me, and I will confess complete ignorance about what he’s referring to, it sounds like he’s dancing on the head of a pin. But then, that’s what Talmudists do, so I’m told. What this part of the piece reads like to me is simply an injunction: the goyim had better stay out of this dispute, unless they know as much about Judaism as I do. But the problem is, that’s impossible, because what the goy has to know is the internalized suffering of the post-Shoah Jew. Even Sullivan’s knowledge of minority status, via his homosexuality, is insufficient to convey the requisite understanding. Speaking as a Jew, I find it difficult to believe that Wieseltier can make good on his distinction between fundamentalism and the radical faith of certain Jewish settlers, but, as I say, I don’t even really know what he’s talking about. This whole part of the piece reminds me awfully much of Christopher Hitchens in his worst moments.

The second claim Wieseltier makes that strikes me as particularly weak is that Israel’s existence and subsequent occupation of the territories have little to do with Islamic jihadism. I don’t know how he would prove this, but it seems to me that the best, and perhaps only way to find out if he is right is to reach political accommodation between Palestinians and Israelis. Both Sullivan and I would concede, apparently, that jihadism will not vanish upon the establishment of such an accommodation. It might even get worse. I still don’t see how that dire possibility proves much, one way or the other, as regards the effect of the festering sore that is the territories on the overall mental health of Islam.

I happened to read, because of bhtv, Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog recently, and Leiter takes a swipe at Wieseltier. Leiter’s gripe with Wieseltier is that Wieseltier went to Oxford to study philosophy and claims to have been disenchanted with the state of the discipline as he found it at Oxford. Leiter’s take is that analytic philosophy was too difficult and rigorous for Wieseltier. From my point of view, I think there are good reasons to reject the analytic approach in its institutionalized form, although one has to confess that not everyone is cut out to be a pure logician, in the tradition of Frege and Principia Mathematica. But then most analytic philosophy bears only a distant relation to that tradition. I would agree with the proposition that a philosopher should know something about Frege and the Principia, or Peano, even if he is incapable of writing at all originally in that field.

I like Wieseltier’s “look.” Maybe he is a poseur, maybe not. This particular piece is all too reminiscent of the row between Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn.

I also thought this was a good diavlog, and I did not know that Matthew Yglesias is Jewish until now. I’m a bit confused about what Loury’s quandary is regarding the “juxtaposition” between Jewish and Afro-American politics in America. Here is the big difference. The Jews give a lot of money to candidates and to PACS. The Jews receive almost no money that I am aware of from government, at least not qua Jews. There are privately funded Jewish charities that tend to Jews in America. There is very little legislation devoted to the treatment of the Jewish minority. In short, the Jews in America are very well assimilated now, and extraordinarily successful financially. So I don’t see any big mystery here. And please, everyone, I am speaking here descriptively, I’m not casting aspersions on anyone, although I do think, as does Yglesias, apparently, that the role of the organized Jewish community in influencing US policy towards Israel has been far from constructive. And one of the reasons for this is the bullying and hectoring one gets from people like Wieseltier.

More on the ungovernability of the USA

This front-page article in yesterday’s NYT is highly relevant:…idlock.html?em

The reason I think the American political system is broken is its failure to deal with the fundamental fiscal and economic problems facing the nation. That’s the symptom. So what are the causes?

Health care costs are a big part of the problem. This has been known for at least thirty years. I gave an oral report to a business school class about a long essay by Peter Peterson having to do with long-term deficits in Social Security and Medicare in 1982 or so. Now we also have global warming to deal with, as well as large and growing imbalances in the distribution of wealth and income and stagnating wages, and all of this quite apart from the acute financial crisis.

One way of looking at things is that the electorate wants a free lunch and thinks that it is available. So the electorate makes things impossible for elected officials. Another way of looking at things is to say that in a republic things should not work that way, that the elected officials are supposed to be an elite that should look out for the nation and educate the electorate, if it needs educating (and there can be no doubt whatever that it does).

I don’t think one needs much more evidence than the existence of Sarah Palin to prove that the republic is deeply sick. That some people who pretend to be serious (e.g. William Kristol) defend her only serves to make the point more starkly. The only thing worse than the attempt by elitists to plan society rationally is to leave things to the irrational crowd and utter morons like Palin, in the incredibly stupid hope or expectation that no government is better than ill conceived government. The only place where there is a wondrous self-regulating organism of human beings is on Fantasy Island.

Jonathan Chait – the US is ungovernable

…And this from TNR’s Jonathan Chait, on the ungovernability of the United States of America.  This guy Chait is starting to grow on me.