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The Rabbi and the Two Pockets

At Tuesday's town forum, Rabbi Spira-Savit, in asking Clinton a question, quoted what turns out to be a Hasidic story of two notes, one in each pocket: "How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?” His question to Hillary elicited a thoughtful answer about balancing ego and humility. It turns out that the rabbi is part of an interfaith clergy group that decided to engage the candidates about moral and spiritual questions. I wonder what they will ask Trump and Cruz. The Forward has an interview with the rabbi.

And speaking of clergy. At the same town-hall forum, there was a clergyman with a Roman collar (could have been Episcopal, but I don't think so). My guess is he was Catholic. He was not applauding when the cameras panned the audience and when Hillary got into her mantra about discrimination against women, workers, minorities, immigrants, and LGBTs [Correction: when Hillary got into her mantra about Planned Parenthood and abortion], he was shaking his head vigorously. I am guessing it was the last in that litany that he might have been objecting to, but since the Forward hasn't interviewed him, it's hard to know.

Finally, last night's debate was robust and got at some heretofore unvoiced issues. Did you notice what they were? The Times's print headline this morning: "Democrats Clash on Money's Role in Bitter Debate"; same story online "Democrats Duel...." Bitter? Not really. Duel? Yes. And a good one.

 

Capitalism Without Tears

Here is a tiny but very interesting article, especially considering its source.

With capitalism,

...profit margins should naturally mean-revert and oscillate. The existence of fat margins should encourage new competitors and pricing cycles that cause those margins to erode; conversely, at the bottom of the cycle, low margins should lead to weaker players exiting the business and giving stronger companies more breathing space. If that cycle doesn't continue, something strange is taking place.  

We can discuss this. Regarding the articles I recently wrote about the Obamacare Co-Ops, one of the problems here may be that there has now been so much monopolization in capitalism that new players can simply not afford the costs of entering the market to compete. And what this would mean, of course, is that the "free market" is both disappearing and incapable of being recovered by anything other than political (as opposed to economic) activity.

On a related note, the head of Goldman Sachs has been watching Bernie Sanders and he doesn't like what he sees.

For many, this will count as a ringing endorsement.

On the subject of a President Hillary Clinton, Mr. Blankfein is coy.

Hillary and Bernie: Come to Jesus Moments

Thomas Mann, calm and coherent observer of our political system and Senior Fellow at Brookings, has a succinct overview of the 2016 election, namely the major difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. Though he's focused on tonight's debate (February 4) between Clinton and Sanders, he directs attention to the radicalization of the Republican party and the need for an electable Democrat. In service of electability, he does not hesitate to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the two Democrats.

"While he caucuses with them in the Senate, Sanders is not a Democrat. His socialist identity, even of the northern European social democratic variety, comes with considerable baggage in an American setting. His views and positions cluster at the liberal extreme in Congress. His rousing call for a “democratic revolution” has a romantic appeal but can be jarring in a country known for its pragmatism, incrementalism, and skepticism of utopias.

"Clinton bears the scars of decades of political attacks and investigations. Years of experience campaigning and governing at the highest levels of government gives her unmatched visibility but familiarity can breed contempt. Public anxiety generated by economic and social dislocation has been channeled by politicians into an inchoate and angry anti-Washington, anti-establishment sentiment that sits uncomfortably with political dynasties."

J.J. Goldberg of the Forward has a brilliant analysis of the Bernie situation: Why Bernie Needs a Come-to-Jesus Moment. (No, it is not a Jews for Jesus ploy.) Why blacks and working-class white might not rally to his candidacy, though for different reasons.

In the Borough of Former Churches

Walk down almost any block in the part of Brooklyn where I live and it’s possible to see a building that once had a religious connection now being used for something else. Arches and spires are obvious indications of former houses of worship, but sometimes a Latin inscription above the lintel or a stone cross on the roof are the only evidence of original purpose. One statistic says twenty Brooklyn churches have been converted into condominiums over the past twenty years, but the scope and pace of redevelopment makes that count seem conservative, or outdated. In the few square blocks around me there are at least five such conversions, of varying degrees of luxury. Some years ago an acquaintance of mine, much bolder than I, confronted a resident leaving one of these buildings. “So how does it feel living in a deconsecrated church?” she demanded. No response was forthcoming—an exhibit of self-restraint, I think now.

I’ve officially lived just over half my life in what is still called the borough of churches, and, full disclosure, my wife and I even once looked at an apartment cantilevered into the sanctuary of a stately stone structure on what realtors still call “a lovely tree-lined street.” We’d just had our first child; we liked the neighborhood; we didn’t want to move to New Jersey. If the place was overpriced then, there’s no way to describe it now. And anyway, how would it have felt to live in a deconsecrated church?

Conversion and reuse is nothing new, obviously, and it’s not just churches—the structure too expensive to maintain, the lot too valuable to hold onto—that have come to function as something else. Parish schools and rectories, convents and hospitals: these also succumb to prevailing demographic and economic pressures, or, depending on your outlook, are made monetizable. People with ties to the community once defined by such places will naturally feel different about this than those who are seeking a home in a coveted neighborhood with good schools; both see it differently from the developer who’s swooped in to tap the financial exponentialities.

Novelist Colm Tóibín has said it was the very sense of the Irish having disappeared from these streets that helped him render so indelibly the environs of 2009’s Brooklyn (the film version of which was released last year)—that and having made himself a regular at a nearby church's 9 a.m. Sunday Mass. Just over a century ago the immediate neighborhood held the largest single concentration of Italians in the country, but by 1998, in the phrasing of the official history of the local parish, “many had left the railroad apartments of South Brooklyn for the lawns and pitched roofs in Long Island, Staten Island, [and] New Jersey.”

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Furies on the Loose

Phew! Iowa over. On to New Hampshire. The New York Times's opinionized front-page newsish story has this: "Fury Shakes the Iowa Caucus."

All those Iowans at the celebratory campaign events looked pretty cheerful to me. Is that enthusiasim being called "Fury."

In his "virtual tie" speech, Bernie Sanders extended his critique of Establishment econnomics and politics to include the Media. Right on Bernie! 

The more this election is hyped and "furyiezed" by the media—well, the more money the media will make. Readers and viewers, however you get your news, get something resembling Reality TV.

Political junkies like me are grateful for the coverage (so many debates), but how will this turn out, when the furies have to be put back into their concrete box?

Obamacare in Flames - Part Three - The Plague on All Our Houses

The Attacks on both Obamacare in particular and our healthcare system in general are fragmented and hard to talk about in a very systematic manner. People have specific things that they think are great and that they think are terrible. They focus on these to criticize or glorify the whole. I find this infuriating. To fix things, we have to know exactly how things work, and what and what doesn't work well. My response, then, will be broken into parts which I hope will make sense when you put them all together.

The questions are whether Obamacare has been worth it, can it survive, should it be replaced, and what should replace it.  To answer these questions, I think we have to go back to some basic concepts. Hold on. It's going to get ugly.

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The Hillary/Bernie Imaginaries

There is more to elections than the candidate's policies and positions. Nodding off during the last Democratic debate, I had this imaginary: Hillary reminds people of their mothers; if they love/like their mothers, she'll do okay. Bernie reminds people of their grandfathers; and he'll do well with those who admire their grandfathers. 

Another piece of imaginary: why do polls show younger people going for Bernie and older people going for Hillary (this may be giving polls more credence than they deserve).

Peggy Noonan in the WSJ ((1/30/16) speculates that young people have gone through a terrifying economic upheaval (2008 and all that), and they want change; they are not fans of Wall Street, free markets, etc., low taxes and a good business environment. On the other hand, older voters have seen good times come and go and aren't so keen on change that goes by the name of socialism (even democratic socialism). She may be onto something there. Another element in this calculus could be that older voters really did have to cope with change in the 1960s and '70s (Vietnam, Civil Rights, Women's Movement, demonstrations, riots, etc.), and may not be big fans of the kind of change they see Bernie Sanders proposing, even if they sound like good ideas.

Obamacare in Flames - Part Two - Mama Don't Want No Market Playing 'Round Here

"We can't really subsidize a marketplace that doesn't appear at the moment to be sustaining itself" —Stephen Hemsley, CEO, United Healthcare

It's a commonplace in American business that the difference between a brilliant statement and a stupid one usually depends on who is saying it. When Steve Hemsley asked his C-Suite crew why it looked like United Healthcare would be losing half a billion dollars on Obamacare in two years, I doubt anybody said "Gee, boss. I guess the marketplace must not be sustaining itself." Or if someone did, they're certainly not working there anymore.

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Obamacare in Flames - Part One - The Strange Life and Sudden Death of the Co-Ops

"As the camel falls to its knees, more knives are drawn" —Bedouin Proverb.

Despite the fact that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has significantly reduced the number of uninsured in the United States, it has also failed to live up to its promises and has seen a great number of failures. The number of uninsured is still high, premiums are growing, networks are narrowing, insurers are losing money, and the Co-Ops, set up as a significant innovation of the program, are failing and will continue to fail everywhere.

In this hot election season, this has brought out enemies on the Left and the Right. The Left wants Obamacare dumped and replaced with a single payer system. The Right just wants it dumped.  Both sides attack the program with cherry picked examples that are nonsense and half truths. It's like watching a mud wrestling match where you know you hate one of the wrestlers, but you can't tell them apart anymore.

I am going to post three articles where I try to get to the bottom of what is really happening. I find the sniping on the Right and the Left mostly useless, but also infuriating. The system is broken and Obamacare has revealed all of the cracks. In the first article, I will talk about the Co-Ops and why they had to fail given the structure of the current insurance system. In the second, I will discuss what's going on with market risk and how the big insurance players, despite their massive resources and sophistication, also found themselves sucked into the whirlpool. In the third article I will talk about what we can and can't do about it.

***

The Affordable Care Act contained a provision to establish and fund the creation of 50 statewide non-profit insurance Co-Ops. There were several reasons for this. First, there was the concern that the current commercial insurers would not enter the ACA marketplace in large enough numbers to support millions of newly insured. Second, it was rightly believed that insurance markets in the United States tend to be dominated by one main insurer and the Co-Ops would add badly needed competition. Third, the Co-Ops were a compromise meant to forestall a government run "Medicare" option that might have a potential to move the entire country towards single payer insurance. And last, many people unclear of the concept of not-for-profit and citizen boards of directors in the United States thought that the Co-Ops would be less greedy and more consumer friendly.

Because the funding for this program was prematurely and summarily cut during one of our GOP manufactured budget crises coupled with Red State resistance to the idea itself, only 23 Co-Ops were eventually established. Of these, half have failed outright. Most of the rest are very weak and a significant number of these have been quietly put under some form of direct regulatory control. With the sole exception of the Maine Co-Op, the Co-Op program will fail unless radical measures are taken (which I will outline in article three).

The provision of all that sweet, sweet government money ($1.6 billion) drew into it two kinds of speculators. The first were the normal kind who wanted a crack at The Big Federal Pie. The second consisted of people who wanted the program to succeed for various political and occupational reasons. Most, but not all, were blinded by the fact that the mass establishment of these Co-Ops was probably the riskiest start- up venture in American history. While the insurance risk factors played a part in this (and the risk factors are what people focused on) I will argue that structural factors played a bigger role in creating risk here and I will try to outline these as briefly as I can.

A. Creating a Network

One of the main things that insurance companies do in the United States is obtain discounted rates from providers. These rates and their terms are set by individual private contracts. Insurance companies and providers are always recontracting with each other, hoping to gain an advantage. Any insurance company's contracting staff will be large and well funded with the latest complex modeling software and contract language software. And this will be true of any insurance company that already has a well developed network.

The insurance company will try to get the best terms and steepest discounts and then will aggregate these discounts to find an average discount so that it can begin to design its different benefit packages and price them. (It is also necessary to know in what way its member population uses the providers, but I will discuss this later).

The Co-Ops started out with no networks at all, no contracting staff or infrastructure, and a mandate as THE state Co-Op to be prepared to cover any member in the entire state.

What most Co-Ops did was to create "instant networks" by using what is called a "rental network." A rental network is a broad, usually multi-state network that has a very shallow discount with a large number of providers. They are usually used in cases where a business (typically a hospital) will want to create a quasi-network for its own employees, where these workers will get a steep discount for using their own hospital and hospital owned doctors, but will also get some sort of small discount should they go somewhere else. Rental networks are not meant to be used as full networks by insurance companies, because their discounts are so small that they can't compete with regular insurance companies with their own sets of contracts.

The Co-Ops plan was to start with the rental network in order to establish an "adequate" network per the state regulatory rules of wherever they were located, and then as quickly as possible, recontract the providers within it with their own more deeply discounted contracts on their own terms. If they did this quickly enough, they would have a network that would cover everyone, but they would also be able to eliminate the main rental contracts with their own competitive ones.

In practice, given the magnitude of the task and the fact that they were literally starting with nothing, they had no idea how long it would really take or what Co-Op contracts would actually be in place when the Co-Ops "went live" and actually started taking on new members. So in their business planning, they worked backwards from what they knew to be the average discount in the state to the average discount of the rental network. From this they created a fairy tale business plan and sent this to the regulators for approval. No one at either end of this chain believed the plan, which is why the Co-Ops were expected to lose money for the first one to three years of their existence until they could get a real network together. The vast majority of Co-Ops lost money in the first two years, even those that did not fail, because (in part) they simply could not build the network they needed. They had no market clout and their contracting infrastructure was mostly immature.  

B. Building an Infrastructure

Modern health insurance companies have massive expensive IT infrastructures. It is commonly said in the insurance business that insurance companies are now basically IT companies with insurance companies attached to them.

The core of the infrastructure is the claims payment system. This system has to be able to adjudicate electronically all claims per all the various separate provider contracts that an insurance company has. The claims system also has to be integrated with the member enrollment system, the billing and payment system, the banking system, the accounting system, the hospital contracting system, and the member services system. All of these are separate things. The work of the large insurance companies is to have all of these systems "in house" and seamlessly integrated with each other. For the Co-Ops, all of these separate systems had to be rented from separate vendors. It was the integration of these systems, which were generally not designed to be integrated, that was usually done in house. For many of the Co-Ops, some of the systems weren't even designed to do what the Co-Ops needed them to do, either in their basic functioning or in the volume of transactions that were required. And in some cases, multiple versions of a system were needed. For example, there were cases where a Co-Op needed one enrollment system for individual members and another for employer group members.  Both needed to be integrated with the rest of the system. Against this, the Co-Ops generally had inadequate staffs and had to rely on consultants who themselves were often inadequate, although terribly expensive.

To add to this, the Federal government was building its own enrollment and claims system from scratch (the latter not to pay claims but to do member level claims risk calculations) and required the Co-Ops and anyone else participating in Obamacare to able to integrate with their systems.

As you can imagine, there were massive, expensive, service affecting integration problems within the Co-Ops, within the government (which hit the news), and between the Co-Ops and the government. The Co-Ops did not figure these costs in their start up planning, and why should they have? No one had ever done this before.

C. Building a Staff

The Co-Ops had several staffing problems right from the beginning. The first was the acquisition of qualified management.  Co-Ops were, by definition, start up companies and risky ones at that. The best executives and managers in the insurance industry could tell how risky they were, if only by listening to their own senior managers panicking about Obamacare. Not many people were willing to leave safe well developed jobs late in their careers to join a Co-Op at any price. This was not only true of the executives but also the middle managers. And even those seasoned executives and managers who did come over had little experience starting an insurance company from scratch. Nor did they have the "turnaround" experience they would need to fix the inevitable mistakes. And there was another problem with capital. While the Co-Ops were relatively well funded, with a Federal capital development fund that was separate from the claims guarantee fund, the manager found problems with how to spend the money. Aside from the fact that at the beginning there did not exist such things as purchasing departments, which meant that that the Co-Ops (having to build up quickly) were screwed by almost everyone they did business with, they had trouble figuring out how to staff up. They couldn't take their time, which caused hiring standards to slip. But they also didn't know if they should staff up quickly against the possibility of small enrollments (and therefore risk spending to much right off the bat) or staff up slowly against the possibility of high enrollments and therefore risk being understaffed and having basic service issues). What usually happened was the worst of all worlds. They didn't anticipate the integration problems, so they didn't staff for them. They tried to forestall permanent staffing, so they outsourced a lot of things they should have taken in-house right away. In some cases, especially in the second year of Obamacare, their membership increased dramatically over the course of a month or two and they found themselves very understaffed against the volume of membership. The IT integration problems, the staffing quality and quantity problems, the in-sourcing of activities and the inevitable initial mistakes all had to be addressed in "real time" as the Co-Ops were providing health services to actual people. And they had to do this while painting rosy pictures to the Boards of Directors (who being appointed from the membership often had no idea how insurance companies worked to begin with) and regulators who were often hostile towards them.

The impossibility (there, I've said it) of constructing an adequate and competitive provider network in the face of major insurance companies, creating a fully integrated claims, enrollment, and financial structure, and a well trained, well organized experienced staff made working conditions at the Co-Ops stressful as they lurched from one catastrophe into another. The level headed leaders who actually thrive in this kind of environment turned out to be rare. So the lights began to go out to a chorus of "I told you so" from politically motivated groups who had their own reasons to want the Co-Ops to fail.

But what about the major established insurance companies with solid networks, infrastructures, and stable well trained staffs? When they entered the Obamacare market, what happened to them?

Here the question of risk enters the picture. With the Co-Ops' basic structural problems, we can look at the questions of pure insurance risk as the coup de grace. But how did the sophisticated risk experts at places like Blue Cross and United Healthcare manage to also shoot themselves in the face?

 

 

Why Ted Cruz is Dangerous: Econ Edition

It’s obvious that our presidential campaigns too often focus on non-substantive issues. It is amazing that so little attention is paid to the explicit tax plans offered by the candidates, particularly the Republican candidates, since if they were to be elected, they would presumably have some chance of actually passing something.

In this regard, there is no doubt that Ted Cruz is an exceptional candidate. The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation has excellent and detailed account for all of the major Republican contenders' plans. And all of them amount largely to the same thing: a flat or two-tiered income tax rate, significant changes in corporate and capital taxation, a larger initial exemption, and (of course) abolition of the estate tax. There are minor differences, of course. But the Tax Foundation agrees on one thing: they’d all add massively to the deficit. For example, they estimate Donald Trump’s tax plan would cut revenues by over $10 trillion – yes, that’s over a $1 trillion deficit every year.

All of them, that is, except Ted Cruz’s. Cruz’s plan, with the generous assumptions about economic growth that the Tax Foundation gives to all the plans, only reduce revenues by $768 billion over 10 years. And yet at the center of Cruz’s proposal is a flat 10 percent income tax, abolishing all deductions except charity and home mortgage interest, and providing for an expansion of the exemption and child tax credits. Thus, Cruz is prepared to campaign on a 10-percent flat tax, and to promise that he is not going to explode the deficit doing it.

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Sanity Caucus Dominates Republican Debate

I didn't make it home for the whole Republican debate last night, but the parts I watched showed that it was a blessing that Donald Trump did not show up. I will vote for NONE of them, but I thought Bush, Kasich, and Paul (alphabetical order) showed a level of intellegence and seriousness not previouly seen among the Repub debaters. Here's a link to the Fox Recap, but you can probably find the whole thing still running on Fox. Megyn Kelly did something weird to her hair, but not to worry.

Is Bernie Sanders Anti-Immigrant?

When Bernie Sanders released the details of his “Medicare for All” single-payer healthcare proposal ahead of the Democratic debate last week, the plan was widely panned by journalists and pundits as an unserious, pie-in-the-sky idea that could never possibly see the light of day. But it was perhaps even more audacious than many of its critics realized: in contrast to the Affordable Care Act, whose drafters deliberately excluded undocumented immigrants from being eligible for coverage in order to avoid stepping into an even bigger political minefield than the one they were already in, Sanders’ policy advisor Warren Gunnels confirmed to reporters that the senator envisions an expanded Medicare being open to at least some of those living in the country illegally.

This is almost certainly one of the boldest pro-immigrant positions espoused by a major party candidate in recent history. A casual observer might reasonably infer from his willingness to take such a stand that Sanders must be the clear favorite of those who lobby on behalf of immigrant rights. Yet throughout the campaign, he has been dogged by criticism of his immigration recordfrom the left.

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George Rutler and David Bowie

When I think of New York priest Fr. George Rutler, three things come to mind. First, he is impressively erudite with an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge. Second, his previous church—Church of our Savior—is by far the most beautiful church in New York, and I believe he deserves some credit for that. And third, he is a holdover from an alliance between an influential circle of American Catholics and the arch-liberals of the Reagan era—a “deal with devil” that went disastrously wrong, causing Catholic intellectuals to cheerlead both the Iraq war and economic policies antithetical to Catholic social teaching.

But I digress. What prompts me to write this post is Rutler’s sniffling disgust that the Vatican had some nice things to say about David Bowie upon his death. Rutler was having none if it, even though he admits that he had never even heard of Bowie before this. But this kind of music does not find favor with a self-described aesthete who prefers Mozart and Chopin to Jackson and Bowie. (By the way, didn’t Alasdair MacIntyre list “aesthete” as one of the signature professions of an emotivist culture? And aren’t there shades of Mill’s version of higher-order utilitarianism here?).

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Of Kettles and Pots MORE

In a world where charges, counter-charges, and uber-charges of anti-Semitism are rife, there is one place where the charge would be ridiculous--Israel. Think again.

The U.S. Ambassador, Dan Shapiro was attacked as a "little Jew boy," by a former advisor to PM Netanyahu. Shapiro speaking at a recent conference referred to the different legal systems that apply in the West Bank: for settlers, Israeli civil law; for Palestinians, Israeli military law. That characterization, while true, is forbidden to be mentioned. Shapiro may be the first U.S. ambassador to say so publicly, but he is not the first to say it.

But maybe calling Shapiro, "Jew boy," isn't anti-Semitic, maybe it's just anti-American, or anti-Obama, or....whatever.

The Forward has the story and reports "The criticism heaped on Shapiro was not dissimilar to that aimed at Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, who last week called for an independent investigation into Israel’s efforts to quell a surge in violence, saying that in some cases Palestinian assailants were being killed 'extrajudicially.'"

Netanyahu’s energy minister called Wallstrom “anti-Semitic, whether consciously or not,” and the prime minister did not back away from that characterisation, saying of Wallstrom’s suggestion: “it’s outrageous, it’s immoral and it’s stupid.” 

UPDATE: Without mentioning the insult to Shapiro, this NYTimes editorial defends his remarks concerning the different legal treatment of Israelis and Palestinians. "The criticism of Mr. Shapiro, a vigorous advocate for Israel, was unusually personal and unfair. He correctly identified a serious problem. Since 1967, there has been a dual legal system in the West Bank in which Palestinians are subject to military courts, where, experts say, they are almost always convicted. Israeli settlers fall under the Israeli civilian judicial system, with its greater rights and protections. The disparity is likely to become more acute if Israelis abandon the two-state solution in favor of a single state, as some in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet desire."

The State of the Union's Anxiety

On the night of September 11, 2001, I got a phone call from a relative who’d seen IRA bombings in London, which she recounted in talking to me about what had happened in New York and Washington earlier that day. Not that these were comparable, she said, but terrorism was an unfortunate reality and that people in places likely to be targeted should be watchful, not scared. I agreed in principle but, with smoke hanging over my neighborhood and rumors still rampant, fear was tough to put aside.

President Obama’s response to Americans’ worry over terrorism—which by some reports is higher now than it has been since the weeks following 9/11—is portrayed on the right as singularly out of touch and insensitive, and even among some supporters as something less than adequate. The issue is getting specific attention in the run-up to his State of the Union address tonight (the last SOTU of his presidency), with some wondering whether he will use the occasion to challenge notions of his perceived indifference to anxieties and concerns over terrorism. But if he does, how should he do it?

The New York Times today explains the difficulty a president faces in appealing to reason, noting what Obama most likely won’t say: that “Americans are more likely to die in a car crash, drown in a bathtub or be struck by lightning than be killed by a terrorist” and that the “Islamic State does not pose an existential threat to the United States.” And there is no way he could say that “a certain number of relatively low-level terrorist attacks may be inevitable” and that Americans may have to adapt to it, as Israelis have, or as my relative said that night in 2001, Londoners had.

It would be good, though, if the president was able to say these things, and more.

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Be Afraid!! Really, Really Afraid!!

While the country is wandering in a miasma of fear over terrorists attacks by ISIS or Al Qaeda or...Russia! David Brooks suggests something we should really be afraid of--Ted Cruz. He refers to his speeches as "pagan brutalism." Wow, David. Far out. "Cruz manufactures an atmosphere of menace in which there is no room for compassion, for moderation, for anything but dismantling and counterattack.... Cruz’s programmatic agenda, to the extent that it exists in his speeches, is to destroy things: destroy the I.R.S., crush the “jackals” of the E.P.A., end funding for Planned Parenthood, reverse Obama’s executive orders, make the desert glow in Syria, destroy the Iran nuclear accord."

There are costs to "fearmon[d]gering," and Paul Pillar lays them out. "The rhetoric exacerbates mass misperception of the seriousness of whatever is the rhetoric’s focus, with a loss of any accurate sense of proportion. Much of the speeches and the advertising would lead one to believe that the superpower that is the United States is existentially threatened by a foreign group such as ISIS, when in fact that is nowhere near the case. The loss of proportion discourages sober consideration of the trade-offs inevitably involved in national security policy and encourages exaggerated swings of the pendulum in which fearful Americans accept compromises to their liberty and privacy...  More at LobLog.

The Migrant Crisis & Europe's Christian Leaders

The two most important leaders in Europe advocating for more humane policies towards immigrants are Pope Francis and German chancellor Angela Merkel. They are Christians trying to make a case, on the basis of the Gospel, for a more welcoming old continent. But their message is now more unpopular than ever.

In Germany, the position taken by Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor and an unapologetically public Christian, is politically under attack in the wake of the violent assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Among those who recently joined calls for her resignation because of her generous immigration policies is The New York Times’s Ross Douthat, who not only said that “Merkel must go,” but also called for closed borders and “an orderly deportation process for able-bodied young men.”

Pope Francis’s message on refugees—a message he repeated and defended in a speech to the diplomatic corps on Monday—is similarly unpopular. Four months after his Angelus prayer of September 6, when he called on European parishes and religious communities to offer shelter to migrant families, it is not clear how many European Catholics responded to his appeal, but the impression is that the number is not high. This reveals some of the complexities of the relationship between the pontificate of Francis and the ecclesial-political status quo in the West, and especially in Europe. The church of Francis is not anti-political, nor irredeemably disenchanted by the gap between the Christian utopia and the real world. Pope Francis is trying to address the inconsistencies between the Gospel and the institutional Church: the Church must behave less like a pillar of the Western political establishment and more like a Christian community.

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Faith in Innovation, but Works?

The trouble with justified optimism is that it’s sometimes accompanied by the foolish kind. Many acknowledge the accomplishments of the Paris climate summit in December—getting close to 200 hundred nations to agree on a basic if nonbinding framework for combatting climate change is no small feat—but also note the significant challenges that remain. Yet with all the necessary reminders and caveats come excited pronouncements on the unnamed innovations that will save the planet from ourselves, and expressions of faith in their inevitability.

You can hear it in the statement of Secretary of State John Kerry after the close of the summit: “It won’t be governments that actually make the decision” about how to tackle climate change, he said—“It will be the genius of the American spirit. It will be business unleashed.” You can hear it in the words of Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, whose city increasingly finds itself endangered by rising sea levels:

“I believe in human innovation,” he said. “If, thirty or forty years ago, I’d told you that you were going to be able to communicate with your friends around the world by looking at your watch or with an iPad or an iPhone, you would think I was out of my mind.” Thirty or forty years from now, he said, “We’re going to have innovative solutions to fight back against sea-level rise that we cannot even imagine today.”

Of course, belief in American ingenuity is as old as belief in American exceptionalism, if not the same thing. But when it comes to climate change, waiting for innovation to come to the rescue amounts to a kind of complacency, the exceptionally American kind that arises from abiding belief in the beneficence of the market.

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Saudi Arabia: How Do We Know What We Know?

The upheaval and uproar over the Saudi behading of a Shiite cleric continues with Iran now claiming that the Saudis have bombed their embassy in Yemen (hard to believe, of course, that it could still be standing....). 

The juxtaposition of two items I read this morning suggest how fraught and complicated matters can get and not just in the Middle East, but right here in DC.

First, this at LobLog: "Washington's Multi-Million-Dollar PR Machine."  Eli Lake analyzes from Federal Records how much and to whom Saudi Arabia pays DC firms for pr help in a vareity of matters such as press releases and supplying Saudi officials for quotes and interviews.

Second, this at the New York Times"Saudis Applaud a Toughter Line," a story by veteran reporter Robert Worth (though he may now be retired). The account reports that there is widespread applause in the Saudi population for the government's finally cracking down on terrorists and other troublemakers. There are quotes from twitter with names, from former dissidents, from newspaper columnists, etc. The account has no dateline suggesting that the story has been written right here in the U.S., perhaps even in DC!  Worth has always seemed a good reporter, and perhaps he is just doing his job. I assume he speaks and reads Arabic, but you have to wonder how many of those well-paid PR firms are doing what they're paid to do...puff Saudi Arabia. In this case, it appears to show a rousing display of public opinion as if this were a democratic society.

Religious Freedom for Me, but for You... UPDATE

The execution by Saudi Arabia of Shia religious leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has set the already fraught ME into a greater uproar if that is possible. The Sheikh may have been a thorn in the side of the Sauds, but his activities hardly seemed to have required execution! even in Saudi Arabia. So you have to ask: Was this a provocation against Iran? We might further ask: if the possibility of an agreement on Syria led Saudia Arabia to stir the pot?

The execution led to the burning of the Saudi embassy in Teheran. Though the Iranian government has critiized the attack and arrested those responsible, Saudia Arabia has cut diplomtaic ties with Iran and been joined by Bahrain, the UAE and Sudan. Here is Amy Goodman at Democracy Now with some of the details and an interview with a man who knew the sheikh and his work. Bruce Reidel  at al Monitor  speculates that the execution of the sheikh and 46 others reflects Saudi concerns about the kingdom's stability. Robin Wright at the New Yorker traces the history of animosity between Iran and Saudia Arabia.

The U.S. imprudently allied with Saudia Arabia in its war in Yemen may find itself further entangled. Condemning the execution of a religious leader might go some way in clarifying exactly how far we think freedom of religion ought to extend and the limits we ask and expect of our nearest and dearest allies.  UPDATE: David Sanger (NYT) explains it all (sort of). More: Does the Administration favor Iran in this fight?  Bloomberg.  HT: Jim Pauwels. Another possible explanation: "A Trap for Washington" at LobLog.  These various analyses are not necessarily in conflict; they do show how complex the situation is and how uncertain the consequences of the Saudi actions.  MORE II, most comprehensive as of 1/5: Charlie Rose: With Phillip Gordon, Vali Nassar, Wendy Sherman, and David Sanger.