Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The man who would be king

By Capt. Fogg

President Obama wants to be a king, you know.  We hear that all the time.  He's a tyrant, he appoints Czars to run things, but of course he gets nothing done and plays golf while hordes of armed terrorists cross the borders disguised as children he invited here with his "policies." Never mind that the influx peaked in 2008. 

His policies -- his executive orders -- you know he's issued more of them than any other president and he's trashing the constitution by doing it!

Rand Paul, the man who would be president says his first executive order would be to repeal all previous executive orders, doesn't seem to see that particular order as trashing the constitution or indicating royal presumptions of his own and perhaps because he also asserts that revoking all previous orders would be his only and final order.

Of course the entire premise, that our current executive branch operates primarily by autocratic executive order and in disregard for the "will of the people" (as ignored and filibustered by Congress)  is false.  In fact Obama and his predecessor issued far, far fewer of them than any president in my lifetime.  If the facts don't fit, you're full of shit as Mr. Cochran might have said -- and he would be right.

But Paul's presidential campaign is not about truth or even about Democracy.  It's all about appealing to the irrational and fact-free passions of  the Party and apparently he had to think for a moment about repealing Truman's integration of the military and indeed Lincoln's executive order freeing of the slaves and Eisenhower's desegregation of schools before saying he would repeal and re-instate those which had some saving grace.  One can only imagine the debate about re-instating those three, but I have to wonder about the Napoleonic ego of someone who would repeal all the executive orders of the Washington administration onward and using his own judgement, re-order those he agreed with.  

To the people who cheered and applauded this proclamation without bothering to check any facts or perhaps to those who care little for facts or are able to dismiss them for some metaphysical reasons President Paul is a prospect devoutly to be wished because to those who really would be kings, all that which stands in the way must be done away with, whether true or false, good or bad or disastrous.

(Cross posted at Human Voices)

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11

By  Capt. Fogg

Riding my new bike yesterday, an elderly driver decided that the exit ramp was no longer the place for her and suddenly swerved back into the road  without looking.  It just so happens that's exactly where I was.  I managed to avoid her at some risk of falling, but it happened so fast there was no question of using my horn and she simply continued on her way somewhere at ten under the limit. Why do I mention this?  Because it's 9/11 again, the day of self pity and choreographed mourning and as the fellow on the news this morning said, "I used to feel invincible but now I feel so vulnerable."

Do we need a better example of how erratically, erroneously and stupidly people assess risk?  If we were to make a statistically accurate list ranking the possibility of being harmed by a terrorist attack on any given day, would it be below a list of thousands of possibilities -- tens of thousands -- hundreds of thousands?  But I didn't look over my shoulder in fear and dread getting on the bike on a sunny Wednesday afternoon and I'm not expecting an airplane to crash into my house in rural Florida today either. The chances of getting hurt by some nice old lady just a mile or so from home is almost incalculably larger, yet still small enough that I don't tremble in my steel toe boots thinking about the danger stalking the roads.  Heart attacks, cancer, strokes, a fall in the bathroom, these are all things I legitimately worry about at my age and try to avoid.  Terrorist attacks? Really?  Isn't that an insult to people who wake up every morning in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon? 

But self pity and self absorption are so American.  Beheadings and the other horrors of the day don't count so much unless it's an American head rolling and thousands dead anywhere hardly count in comparison to one possibly unjust American death.

I don't know how much Cola and shoes and Toyotas the obsession of the day will sell on CNN and Fox, but it sells fear by the carload.  It sells so much fear that most of us still haven't noticed that we -- or our congress, that is, signed away the 4th amendment for the great majority of the country, that we began pumping up our police departments with heavy weaponry even in remote places like Wyoming in order to equip them for the hordes of Muslims falling from the sky over the Cheney ranch. It sold domestic surveillance, it sold countless quasi-military weapons. It sold the longest and  most expensive wars in our history. We went to war with an uninvolved country and created so much chaos and so big a power vacuum that Iraq became helpless to keep out Al Qaeda and now ISIS.

But we still feel not only sorry for ourselves, but guilty for not feeling sorry enough.  Eventually 9/11 will go the way of the Alamo, the Maine and Pearl Harbor, but not soon enough for me because as long as we weep and moan and fear to turn our heads lest a fearful beast pursues us, as long as we continue to conduct our petty civil wars,  we won't do a damned thing about the real world and its real troubles.

(Cross posted to Human Voices)

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Saturday, September 06, 2014

Lunatic Soul: "Cold"

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Here's a track off the forthcoming album, its fourth, by Lunatic Soul, Walking on a Flashlight Beam.

Lunatic Soul is the solo project (known for its lack of electric guitars) of Riverside singer and bassist Mariusz Duda (no relation that I'm aware of to Lucas Duda of the New York Mets, currently lighting it up on my fantasy team).

So basically, this is a song off an album by the lead member of a band that is often compared to Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree, being released by my favourite label, Kscope.

It doesn't get much better than that.

Welcome to the world of Polish post-prog.

Enjoy!

Lunatic Soul - Cold (from Walking on a Flashlight Beam) from Kscope on Vimeo.

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Friday, September 05, 2014

Economy does better under Democrats: It’s the policies, stupid!

By Frank Moraes

If you look at economic data even as casually as I do, you cannot have missed noticing that the United States’ economy does better under Democratic presidents than it does under Republican presidents — a lot better. Looking at all the presidents after World War II, the economy grows at about twice the rate under Democrats as it does Republicans. I’ve never thought that much about it. I’ve always figured that it was due to a lot of luck.

Well, I was just over at Mark Thoma’s blog (absolutely essential daily reading if you are at all interested in economics) and he posted a paper by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson, The US Economy Performs Better Under Democratic Presidents. Why? These two Princeton economists look seriously at this question and conclude… Well, they are academics and so it is all very nuanced and complicated. But let me see if I can lay it out for you.

First they looked at both fiscal and monetary policy to see if that explained anything. There was no correlation with fiscal policy (stimulus), and the monetary policy actually favored the Republicans. So the two colossal economic drivers have nothing to do with the fact that Democratic presidents are far better for the economy than Republicans. That’s important to remember.

They next looked at five kinds of economic shocks that might indicate that it is just a matter of luck. The shocks are: oil price; productivity; foreign growth; consumer expectations; and defense spending. When they included all of these, half of the effect was explained. But that doesn’t mean that these things are all random. Oil and military shocks are both affected by government policy. What’s interesting is that consumer confidence goes up during Democratic presidencies. This is a big part of the correlation. The authors ask, “Did [the public] know something economists didn’t?” All I can say is that it wouldn’t be surprising; the economic profession is known for its cluelessness.

But that leaves half the effect of better economic performance under Democratic presidents unexplained. I have an idea: it’s the policies, stupid. Especially over the last four decades, Republicans seem far more interested in enriching their already rich friends than doing what is best for the economy. For example, I’m sure that the Iraq War was terrible for our economy. The economy did grow through the early years of it, but that was what it was already doing. I’m talking opportunity cost here. We could have built roads and bridges and factories; we could have educated more people and done more research; in other words: we could have built our nation’s infrastructure with the money we spent blowing up things in Iraq. I have been very hard on both Presidents Clinton and Obama for their foreign policies. But there is no doubt that as lethal as their policies are, they are not huge economic drags.

Similarly, when Republicans want to stimulate the economy, they generally do it in the most inefficient way possible: they give lots of money to people who already have more money than they can spend. Democrats are much more efficient with programs like the payroll tax holiday and extended unemployment benefits. While Blinder and Watson looked at total fiscal policy, they didn’t look at it’s effectiveness. I suspect if they did, they would find a big effect there as well.

So the bottom line is that Democratic presidents produce better economic growth because they offer better economic policy. The Republican prescription of convincing people to vote for them to “get the darkies” so they can give tax cuts to the rich and start bloody good wars does not lead to a good economy.


(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Louisiana judge exposes his ignorance (and bigotry) in upholding state's same-sex marriage ban

By Michael J.W. Stickings

With most of the country moving in a progressive direction on same-sex marriage, you knew you could count on a retrograde place like Louisiana to strike a blow for good-ol'-fashioned stupidity, bigotry, and medievalism:

People who think gay Americans do not deserve the same rights as straight Americans finally have something to celebrate.

After a disastrous losing streak in the federal courts — every single federal court to consider the question after the Supreme Court struck down the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013 has sided against marriage discrimination — Team Anti-Gay finally found a single court in Louisiana that was willing to stand up for the the principle that same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry. Judge Martin Feldman, a Reagan appointee to the federal trial bench, has now written the only federal court decision in the country holding that gay couples are not entitled to the same rights as straight couples.

Oh, but it took some of the usual right-wing ignorance to make it happen:

Political operatives seeking to cast aspersions on Feldman's approach to gay rights will find a lot to work with in his opinion. At one point, he describes being gay as one of several "lifestyle choices" a person can make. At another point in his opinion, he compares same-sex marriage to marriage between "aunt and niece," "aunt and nephew," or "father and child." He also likens marriage equality to polygamous marriages.

And on and on. ThinkProgress goes on to pick apart what turns out to be a remarkably unlearned opinion, an opinion obviously rooted not in an appreciation for the law, nor in an understanding of the issue at hand, but in the judge's own biases, an opinion that screams right-wing judicial activism. It's bigotry with respect to gay rights, but also astonishing ignorance with respect to the law, as well as to the basic elements of judicial review.

But this guy's a Republican. What else did you expect?

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The crisis of the new order

By Richard K. Barry

I am currently reading Arthur M. Schlesinger's 1957 book The Crisis of the Old Order: 1919-1933. It's not really important why. I just am.

On page 68 of the Houghton Mifflin edition I came across this commentary on factors that led to the stock market crash of 1929:
In time it would appear that even the leaders of business could not decipher the intricate financial structures they were erecting. But for the moment everyone understood that there was an endless source of money and power, a roulette wheel at which no one lost. More and more the nation's passions centred on the feverish trading in the narrow streets at the lower tip of Manhattan Island.

Unless one is particularly dense, it's difficult not to think of 2008 and the subprime mortgage crisis, derivatives, etc.

Closer to today, however, I recall reading a piece in Forbes Magazine back in April which discussed Warren Buffett's current thinking. 

Robert Lenzner wrote:
Warren Buffett is well known for his famous warning about derivatives as “weapons of mass destruction.” Well, recently he went much further with Forbes Magazine, flatly prognosticating someday (he doesn’t known when) a massive financial “discontinuity,” which the dictionary refers to as an “ending, expiration, halt, lapse, a shutdown, a stoppage,” that could very well be worse than 2008. What terribly worries him is that he simply doesn’t understand the massive derivatives position on the balance sheet of J.P. MorganChase .” Like many other financial experts Buffett can’t really figure out the financial health of JPM’s derivatives. It is impossible for anyone to divine the extent that JPM is profiting or losing money or the risks entailed in the identity of counterparties, the quality of the collateral used, and the amount of leverage employed.

Yes, well...

(Cross-posted at Culturolio.)

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Hard to be a pacifist

By Mustang Bobby

After hearing about another execution of an American journalist held hostage by ISIS, the visceral reaction comes easily.  Even the most even-tempered and non-violent soul finds the gorge rising in their throat and the simple solutions easily form in the mind: "Find them, kill them, and make sure they know who did it and why."

We have the forces; we have the means and the power to hunt down these wretched fanatics and grind them to powder.  There is no place on the planet they can hide.  We got bin Laden, so why can't we marshal all the secret weapons and black ops teams like the ones we see on TV?  Why isn't a bullet between the eyes the way to do it?

Because it's what they want.  It is what they are counting on.  To ISIS and al-Qaeda, life is expendable and replaceable.  One more dead leader to them means they replace him with another; one more drone attack by us furthers their cause and draws new men to their cause.  We have been taking out their leaders since before we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and still they grow.  We took out the most hunted man in the world and that hasn't stopped them from replacing him.

We are seeing the consequences of being goaded into war.  We are seeing the result of generations of exploitation and lorded-over exceptionalism and self-styled supremacy.  The attacks against the West are not because we are not Muslim; they attack people of their own faith.  They are using religion as a facade in the same way a bigot uses the bible to justify racism, homophobia, and misogyny, and they allow their visceral hatred of those that bullied them to control their actions as well.  Their only hope is that we will respond in kind.  And we have.

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Some thoughts on prejudice

By Capt. Fogg

Well, if you told me you were drowning
I would not lend a hand
I've seen your face before my friend
But I don't know if you know who I am
Well, I was there and I saw what you did
I saw it with my own two eyes
So you can wipe off that grin,
I know where you've been
It's all been a pack of lies


-Phil Collins-

What is an observation without a frame of reference? We like to think we can observe facts and make rational deductions, but we can't. Anyone with training in psychology as it pertains to law enforcement is likely to tell you that eye witness accounts of the same occurrence will vary markedly and it's been clearly demonstrated that observers concentrating on one thing will be completely unaware of important people and objects in their direct view.

When I read about an unarmed African American "child" kneeling with his hands up being shot multiple times, I was truly irate, I was ready to write off reports of his just having perpetrated a class B felony and his having charged a policeman who had ordered him to stop as racism. It fits with my habitual beliefs about the police and racism. I may well have been totally wrong and it may not be the first time, but if it turns out that the 6 foot 4 200 pound "Child" did in fact charge the officer, things might just be other than I was primed to believe.

You might relate it to the halo effect: the tendency to have a view of people and things because of, in this case, his being a member of a traditionally disadvantaged class We do after all read about all sorts of injustice based on race and racism seems to explain a lot. But sometimes, of course we're wrong. Sometimes we fail to see things through the eyes of people who run stores and gas stations in "bad" areas whose lives are in danger every day. Is it too easy for me to condemn it from the safety of my gated community and the comfort of my air conditioned office? It depends on your viewpoint, your frame of reference, the things you associate with other things because your human and you have a memory.


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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Robert Stein (1924-2014)

By Michael J.W. Stickings

(I apologize for the lateness of this post. I was away on vacation for a while and not doing much writing. So I am coming belatedly to this sad event.)

Last month, Robert Stein, author of the blog Connecting the Dots and guest contributor here at The Reaction, died at the age of 90. Bob led an amazing life as an editor, publisher, media critic, and journalism teacher. (Go to his site and have a look at the wonderful photo album his family posted, including photos of Bob with celebrities and politicians, as well as more domestic moments.) My own relationship with Bob was limited to e-mails and our joint interest in political blogging, but even in our limited interaction over the years I could tell he was a warm, kind, generous, extremely intelligent, and truly remarkable man.

He was blogging up until the end of March, and the last guest post of his here was one that meant a great deal to me, "The View from 90." You see, unlike so many of those who write about politics, Bob was not full of vitriol. He had some strong views, and he expressed them, but he was not out to cause harm, not out to score political points, and in many of his posts what came through most clearly, and most elegantly, was his desire to share his experiences with us, his readers, experiences from a long life well lived, having seen and having learned so much, having acquired a perspective – and, indeed, the wisdom – that far exceeds the morass of our day-to-day political arena. And as one of his readers, and as an acquaintance, I did learn a great deal from him, and there was just so much to admire in what he had to say about the world around him, and about the incredible things he had done and seen.

I wish I could pick out 20 or 30 or 50 or 100 posts of his that you should read, and you should go have a look through his archives, but I'll single out one more, which also appeared here, "A Life in Black and White," about race in America, from July of last year. What struck me then, and what lingers still when I think about Bob, is the hope for a better future that shines so brightly through everything he was ever writing about, that gave his writing so much life and that seemed to define his outlook on the world. (Another great post that stood out for me was "A Day That Lives in Infamy and Me," from last December, about World War II.)

As he wrote at the end of "The View from 90": "As I blew out a blast furnace of birthday candles on this weekend of ominous headlines, I was silently repeating Dr. Pangloss' mantra, that with a little courage – and some luck – we may all soon be living again in "the best of all possible worlds."

I hope so, Bob. I really hope so. Rest in peace.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Obama's cautious pragmatism is the best approach for dealing with Syria and ISIS

By Michael J.W. Stickings

There's a lot of talk today, the Friday before a long weekend, about President Obama's remark that "we don't have a strategy yet" regarding ISIS and the deteriorating situation in Syria and Iraq. The remark has identified as a "gaffe" by the press, Republicans jumped all over it (because they'll do or say anything to score political points at the president's expense), and the White House has gone into damage-control mode (because of course).

Now, to be sure, it was an inartful way of explaining the situation. The president was clearly talking about what to do about ISIS, not broadly about the region, but that hardly came across clearly. But it makes sense not to know quite what to do at this point. It's easy to be an armchair militarist like John McCain or Bill Kristol, much harder to the one who has to make the tough decisions, decisions that will result in significant loss of life, particularly when there are no clear answers to a problem that in and of itself is difficult to understand. How far do you go in dealing militarily with ISIS? Do you put troops on the ground? Do you rely solely on airstrikes, or on airstrikes with support for allies on the ground? But, then, who are those allies? ISIS is at war with Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime, but that regime is hardly an American ally. Does the U.S. really want to get into yet another protracted war in Iraq, one with no clear outcomes? And what would airstrikes against ISIS accomplish anyway, particularly without clear allies on the ground?

And so on, and so on.

At a time like this, as most times, caution is a virtue, and President Obama's cautiousness, which very much defines who he is and how he governs, stands in stark, pragmatic contrast to the "bomb bomb bomb" recklessness of Republicans. Besides, it's not like the president has been soft on America's enemies -- just consider the extra-judicial drone war that he has been waging against various threats throughout the Middle East. Indeed, as Peter Beinart writes at The Atlantic, and I think he's right on this, President Obama is both a hawk and a dove, or neither, or somewhere in between: 

So was Obama more dovish than Clinton or more hawkish? The answer is both. On the one hand, Obama has shown a deep reluctance to use military force to try to solve Middle Eastern problems that don't directly threaten American lives. He's proved more open to a diplomatic compromise over Iran's nuclear program than many on Capitol Hill because he’s more reticent about going to war with Tehran. He's been reluctant to arm Syria's rebels or bomb Basher al-Assad because he doesn't want to get sucked into that country's civil war. After initially giving David Petraeus and company the yellow light to pursue an expanded counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, he's wound down America's ground war against the Taliban. Even on Libya, he proved more reluctant to intervene than the leaders of Britain and France.

On the other hand, he's proven ferocious about using military force to kill suspected terrorists. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, he's basically adopted the policy Joe Biden proposed at the start of his administration: Don't focus on fighting the Taliban on the ground, since they don't really threaten the United States. Just bomb the hell out al-Qaeda from the air. Compared with George W. Bush, he's dramatically expanded drone strikes, even though they're unilateral, legally dubious, and morally disturbing. And, as promised, he sent special forces to kill Osama bin Laden without Pakistan's permission, even though his vice president and secretary of defense feared the risks were too high. When it comes to the Middle East, in other words, Obama is neither a dove nor a hawk. He's a fierce minimalist.

A minimalist. A cautious pragmatist, I'd say. And therein lies his strategy for dealing with the region, with ISIS, and with other such problems facing the United States, and indeed his strategy for dealing with pretty much everything. It's not good enough for Republicans, but, then, nothing he does is ever good enough for Republicans. And it's not really good enough for the media either, because it's not a clear, simplistic strategy, or, rather, not a clear, simplistic worldview. In contrast to the "bomb first, think later, if ever" approach preferred by McCain, Kristol, and their ilk, as well as to the "America as global hegemon" worldview espoused by Kristol and his neocon ilk and embraced by the likes of Dick Cheney, President Obama's approach is really the only approach that makes sense, and that could actually produce positive, lasting results, given the crazy state of the world today, given the challenges the country faces, given the complexities of the problems in places like Iraq and Syria.

No, you don't get that rush of bloodlust that comes with, and underpins, right-wing militarism, and you don't get that sense of purity that comes with pacifism and/or isolationism, nor the perceived, and self-deceiving, moral clarity that comes with any sort of absolutism, but what you do get is a chance of achieving some sort of success in a world where, given the choices available and outcomes likely, success is awfully hard to come by.

Maybe President Obama's "minimalism" won't work in this case, but it's far more preferable than the alternatives, because at least it recognizes that there are no easy solutions and that missteps could lead to catastrophe. As occasionally frustrating as his cautious pragmatism may be, he knows what he's doing, even when the words don't come out as artfully as desired.

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Progressive Music Classics: "This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse" by The Mekons

By Marc McDonald 

(Ed. note: Here's another installment of Marc's ongoing series. For the full series, check out his site. -- MJWS)


Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics, a salute to left-leaning music that champions the cause of working-class people around the world.

The narrative of the Rich & Powerful and the corporate media was simple back in the day. When the Soviet Union died, we were told, socialism died. End of story.

In 1991, it was clearly time to bury Das Kapital in the landfill and embrace capitalism. The End of History, as Francis Fukuyama put it, was upon us.

However, a strange thing happened along the way to socialism's funeral.

First of all, decades of unregulated, brutal, dog-eat-dog "free" markets led to a spectacular growing divide between the classes. The Top One Percent saw its fortunes (and political influence) soar. The Middle Class pretty much died. And the poor grew vastly in number.

Once again, a lot of people started asking the question, "Is capitalism really the best system we can come up with?"

And the ideas of Karl Marx once again began to be debated. In fact, one of the surprise bestsellers of this year was Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty. It was an eye-opening book that basically served to update Marx's observations with current data.

Amazingly, for a relatively dry academic book, Capital soared to the top of the bestseller lists. Even the The Financial Times (hardly a lefty newspaper) had kind words to say about Piketty's book and admitted that he had raised important points.

It's clear that Piketty hit a nerve and raised important points about the failures of unregulated capitalism.

But wait a minute: haven't we already been through this whole debate before? Didn't socialism die back in 1991? Weren't we told that capitalism was the only way forward?

Well, actually no.

As the British band The Mekons pointed out in their classic 1991 song, what was buried with the Soviet Union wasn't the real deal anyway. As The Mekons put it: "This Funeral is For the Wrong Corpse." 

They're queuing up to dance on Socialism's grave,
This is my testimony,
a dinosaur's confession,
but how can something really be dead,
when it hasn't even happened?

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A huge step forward for Obamacare: Pennsylvania's Republican governor embraces Medicaid expansion

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Greg Sargent reports:

In another sign that the politics of Obamacare continue to shift, the Medicaid expansion is now all but certain to come to another big state whose Republican governor had previously resisted it: Pennsylvania.

The federal government has approved Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett's application for the state's own version of the Medicaid expansion, without a handful of the conditions Corbett had hoped to impose, Dem sources tell me.

Corbett just announced that he will accept the expansion that has been offered, perhaps with some last-minute changes — expanding coverage and subsidies to as many as half a million people.

As a Republican, Corbett either opposed Obamacare on principle (however ignorant) or had to pretend to oppose it, or at least thought he did. So even though Pennsylvania is mostly a blue state, it's an extremely positive sign that he has come around.

Yes, the politics of Obamacare continue to shift, as it entrenches itself as the law of the land and proves to be a success. Democrats demand its implementation and overall the electorate is either embracing it or softening, and clearly Corbett realized that he could no longer oppose Medicaid expansion. It's shameless political calculation, no doubt, but it's telling that the calculation is that the pro-Obamacare position is the more desirable one. Don't expect this to happen in hardened red states, at least not anytime soon, but slowly and surely Obamacare is succeeding.

And just take a look at that figure. We're talking about health care coverage expansion to hundreds of thousands of people. That alone is significant, as these are people who need Medicaid and obviously cannot pay for health care otherwise. But what's also significant, let us not forget, is that we're talking not just about Medicaid recipients, but about citizens, about voters, which is what most of them are. And voters will have their voices heard, and those who were against them -- namely, Republicans -- will ultimately face their electoral wrath.

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