Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 31, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

THE REGULATION PRESIDENT....I really do have a houseguest, and we're about to go out shopping. We've got cigars to buy, humidors to ogle over, memory cards to snap up for our loved ones, chili burgers to eat, and a New Year's party to shop for.

But while I'm gone go ahead and read this New York Times article about George Bush's religious experience concerning government regulation and impending elections. I don't imagine this was the reaction David Sanger intended, but I just ended up snickering through the whole thing:

With mad cow disease suddenly dominating every cable channel and front page, Mr. Bush and a small clutch of his aides staring out at the cattle grazing his ranch knew they had to appear to be taking action.

Indeed. Keeping up appearances is so important in an election year, isn't it? It seems to have rather the same effect on Karl Rove that a firing squad has on ordinary people.

And now I'm off. The economy beckons.

Kevin Drum 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A REQUEST....Can somebody please give this post of Glenn's the attention it deserves? I've got a houseguest this week and I just don't have the time. Or the energy.

Although I do wonder what he means when he says "It's not clear that they even deserve to keep what they've got." What, exactly, does he think they have?

Anyway, with this out of the way I confidently await our declaration of war on Belgium in 2004.

Kevin Drum 9:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ZINC AGAIN....I know anecdotal evidence isn't worth much, but here's some anyway. The last time I had a cold I tried zinc tablets for the first time, and to my surprise they actually seemed to work: my cold only lasted about four days instead of the usual week plus.

This time around I tried a zinc nasal spray, which a friend of ours had dropped off earlier for Marian's cold/flu/illness/whatever. Since it was around, I gave it a try and it seems to have worked too: my cold lasted four or five days and was only really bad for one day.

So there you have it: zinc appears to reduce the length of colds, just like they say. Of the two delivery systems, the nasal spray is more convenient, since you just spritz it up your nose every few hours instead of having to suck on a tablet on an hourly basis.

Note: I received no payments of any kind from the zinc tablet or nasal spray industry for this endorsement. I do, however, own millions of dollars worth of highly leveraged zinc futures contracts....

Kevin Drum 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 30, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

VALERIE PLAME UPDATE....John Ashcroft has recused himself from the Valerie Plame investigation and appointed a special prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald of Chicago:

"The attorney general, in an abundance of caution, believed that his recusal was appropriate based on the totality of the circumstances and the facts and evidence developed at this stage of the investigation," [Deputy Attorney General James] Comey said at a news conference in Washington. "I agree with that judgment. And I also agree that he made it at the appropriate time, the appropriate point in this investigation."

That's interesting. The decision was based on the "facts and evidence developed at this stage of the investigation." I wonder what those facts and evidence are?

Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 3:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MINIMUM WAGE....Nathan Newman is praising Howard Dean for proposing an increase in the minimum wage to $7 per hour. Me too. This is one of the most important things we could do to help the working poor, who have seen the minimum wage fall by a third over the past three decades.

And for those who insist that raising the minimum wage would cause massive economic dislocation, I'd like to point out that Congress doubled the minimum wage in 1950 with no ill effects, and raised it to about $8/hour in present-day terms in 1968, again with no ill effects. What's more, with a few exceptions, most minimum wage jobs are in service industries, not manufacturing jobs that are susceptible to being sent overseas. Raising the minimum wage would help a lot of people at a pretty small cost. We should do it.

And should we index the minimum wage to inflation? Of course. But I'll renew an even better idea I proposed a year ago: index it to congressional salaries. Assuming a normal 2000-hour work year, congressmen make about $75/hour right now. How about simply making the minimum wage equal to 10% of that? Congress can then increase their own salaries anytime they want, but only if they're willing to help out the working poor at the same time. Seems fair to me.

Kevin Drum 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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IN PRAISE OF COMPLEXITY....Marc Schmitt suggests that complex, screwy legislation such as No Child Left Behind and the recent Medicare bill is part of a semi-deliberate policy by the White House. After all, what happens when it finally becomes clear to people just how bad these bills are?

When the backlash comes, against Medicare, No Child Left Behind, or even these tax policies, most people assume that the backlash will have to hurt Republicans, since they were in charge when all these provisions were passed. But as long as Democrats/liberals don't figure out how to talk about these things, as long as they don't have an alternative other than more funding for these flawed programs, they will not be able to capture the backlash. If it becomes a general backlash against government, which seems likely, then there is no reason that Republicans can't use it to bolster their claim as the anti-government party.

In other words, it's just a way of getting people madder and madder at big government, which eventually helps fulfull the wet dreams of people like Grover Norquist.

Maybe, but legislation has been getting increasingly complex for a long time, and it seems to be a bipartisan failing. In fact, one of my political science professors, Morris Fiorina, wrote a book a few decades ago theorizing that there was a cycle that went like this:

  • Congress passes complex legislation.

  • Constituents get confused and irate.

  • Constituents call their local congress critter.

  • Congressional staff gets on the horn with offending agency and clears up the problem.

  • Grateful constituents reelect congressman.

  • Repeat as necessary.

In other words, whether consciously or not, congressmen like complex legislation because it gives them a chance to help out their constituents. This book was written 30 years ago, and I don't know if Fiorina himself still supports this theory, but I've always thought it was pretty clever. Quite the vicious cycle, no?

Kevin Drum 9:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ARMS TO IRAQ....The LA Times has a long story today documenting the flow of arms from numerous countries to Iraq via Syria. The details are new, but as near as I can tell there's nothing really surprising here. The fact that "containment" of Saddam wasn't working very well had been clear for many years, after all, and I imagine that Syria was far from the only conduit.

Kevin Drum 8:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SHORT POSTS....Dan Drezner compares Movable Type to Blogger:

The one downside of MT I've noticed is that I don't bother with quick-link posts probably because, in the back of my mind, it seems ridiculous to create a new web page for a two sentence post. In terms of the linker/thinker divide, MT leads me to fewer of the former.

I have no idea what this might mean.

Kevin Drum 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 29, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

MAD COWS....I've been meaning to write something intelligent about this whole mad cow business, but instead I'm just going to comment on this:

Recalled meat from a Washington state dairy cow infected with mad cow disease has been distributed in eight western states and the U.S. territory of Guam, federal officials said Sunday.

....Consumers apparently have been able to figure out if they and their families ate the recalled beef because grocery store recalls have been quite precise. They have referred to specific grades of lean ground beef on sale in specific stores for about nine days before Christmas.

There are two amazing things here. The first is that the various parts of one single cow have been shipped to eight separate states. The second is that apparently we can track pretty precisely where the parts from that specific cow went. The mind boggles.

Kevin Drum 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DISTRIBUTED SECURITY....My series of dialogs with Armed Liberal is about to come crashing to a halt. He's decided to skip points #4 and #5 and go directly to #6:

Sixth, we're going to develop security mechanisms based on the theory that fine-grained systems that bring information and communications to the existing public safety community, as well as the public at large are better than huge, centralized bureaucratic solutions;

I've been wondering what I would say when he got to this one, since I don't really have any opinions about distributed security systems vs. centralized ones. Basically, my guess is that they both have their place.

So after mulling this over for a week now, I think I'm going to give up. I'm all for beefing up first responders, but aside from that I just don't have anything intelligent to add. But feel free to read his thoughts and come back here to comment!

Kevin Drum 11:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COLLEGE ESSAYS....Chris Mooney has awards for best and worst college essay questions. I have to agree with him that the folks at university #2 (worst question) are going to get exactly what they deserve when they have to read through the enormous pile of dreck they get back.

Like Chris, I also don't remember going through quite so much stress over all this when I applied to college. Of course, I only applied to three places, which seems to be a bare minimum these days among the academically talented, and it was three decades ago. So maybe I've just forgotten.

Kevin Drum 10:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SECRET TRIAL FOR SADDAM?....Via Juan Cole, Iyad Alawi, a member of the Interim Governing Council, talks to the London-based al-Hayat newspaper about the possibility of Saddam's trial being public:

I don't think so. That subject has not been discussed so far. I don't believe so. It will be like any other trial for any other criminal, except that Saddam's crimes have been bewildering, horrifying, and extensive. There is another thing, the possibility that he will mention the names of states and the names of persons to whom he has given bribes and wealth. We don't want him to mention all that on television.

A secret trial? Because we're afraid of what he might say publicly?

I hope Alawi doesn't speak for the rest of the council. Hell, even Hermann Goering got a public trial.

Kevin Drum 9:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 28, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

TAKE THAT, TONY....Is it true that we have found "massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories" in Iraq? Paul Bremer flatly rejects it:

Mr Bremer, interviewed on ITV1's Jonathan Dimbleby Programme...ridiculed the comment.

"I don't know where those words come from, but that is not what [ISG chief] David Kay has said," he told Dimbleby as the interviewer tried to interrupt to tell him the source.

"I have read his reports so I don't know who said that. It sounds like a bit of a red herring to me. It sounds like someone who doesn't agree with the policy sets up a red herring then knocks it down."

Well said. And exactly who was it that was out to undermine the coalition with red herrings like this, anyway?

Why, none other than Tony Blair himself. Oops.

Kevin Drum 5:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOULLESS....As Matt points out, Money magazine's "best places to live" is really nothing more than "places most similar to Money magazine's circulation demographics." Nothing wrong with that, of course, just as there would be nothing wrong with Biker magazine picking the best cities based on the number of motorcycle mechanics per capita.

Anyway, I'm certainly pleased to see that my very own Irvine is #5 on the list for Western cities over 100,000 population, but Matt just lets his jealousy show when he calls it a "soulless exurban sprawl zone." Silly Matt. It's actually a master planned soulless exurban sprawl zone. In other words, that's exactly the way we want it.

Kinda makes you tingly all over, doesn't it? Or is that hives? Still, there are bigger issues afoot: how did Anaheim beat us out for the #2 slot with a measly $52,000 median income? Sure, they have Disneyland, but they also have the wretched California Adventure and it's been literally months since the Angels won the World Series and the Ducks won the Western Conference. What were Money's computers thinking?

(And Anchorage? What's up with that?)

Kevin Drum 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

READER'S DIGEST BLOGGING....Sick today. I tried to blog a bit but couldn't sustain the energy to write an entire post. This post on mad cow disease sounds about right to me, but who cares about cows? Glenn has some stupid/offensive posts up, but others are already doing a good job of skewering them. Ronald Brownstein says Democrats are in trouble because white males don't vote for them, but inexplicably doesn't bother talking about regional breakdowns. How about Southern white males vs. everyone else, Ron? (Besides, we all know that the real action is in the urban/rural divide anyway, right?)

Or if you want to read about Iraq, the LA Times has a good roundup of the "do it right" vs. "do it quick" folks in the administration:

Some in the administration "want to get Iraq right, and that group [needs] a longer time frame," said Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security advisor to former President George H.W. Bush. "At the other extreme, there are some whose goal is to get Iraq off the front pages by August."

....Said one person close to the process: "If we have something that vaguely looks like a government, and we don't have Americans dying every day, that would be a wild success."

Glad to see we're setting our democracy promotion sights so high.

That's it for today. Back tomorrow.

Kevin Drum 10:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 27, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

BILL O'REILLY, CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGIST....If Bill O'Reilly really said what Matt Yglesias says he said, he needs to take a break. A nice, lo-o-o-o-ng break.

Look, evolutionary psychology is controversial for a whole lot of reasons, but if there's one thing it can explain it's the human desire to have sex. And despite what O'Reilly and other bluenoses seem to think, I'm pretty sure that the per capita amount of sex in the world today isn't any larger than it was a thousand years ago, rap music and Britney Spears notwithstanding.

Really, though, who cares what O'Reilly thinks of rap? The real reason for this post is to give me an excuse to reprint this O'Reilly statement from March 18:

Here's, here's the bottom line on this for every American and everybody in the world, nobody knows for sure, all right? We don't know what he has. We think he has 8,500 liters of anthrax. But let's see. But there's a doubt on both sides. And I said on my program, if, if the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it's clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush Administration again, all right? But I'm giving my government the benefit of the doubt.

So, Bill, how's it going? Still giving the Bushies the benefit of the doubt?

Kevin Drum 5:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DAVID BROOKS....I'm willing to give David Brooks a break. Writing a biweekly column is probably harder than it looks, and figuring out something interesting to say on demand is an art that takes time to master.

But still. Four days ago he wrote an entire column suggesting that despite a huge amount of sniping at Howard Dean from the Democratic establishment (remember these memos?), the Dems couldn't really be taken seriously unless they followed George Bush's lead in the 2000 election and started making dark suggestions that he had fathered a bastard mulatto baby.

Today, taking on the persona of the thinking man's Peggy Noonan, he has a conversation with an obscure dead philosopher. His conclusion? The criminal neglect with which the Bush administration treated postwar planning in Iraq is actually a good thing. It's a sign of our "epistemological modesty," a legacy of the founding fathers.

Right. As for me, I'm proud to belong to a party that confines itself to garden variety mudslinging and cheap shots, and I think I'll maintain my faith that especially in a chaotic world it's a good idea to plan ahead instead of simply assuming that we'll be welcomed with open arms.

I guess what I really wonder is whether Brooks actually believes what he wrote in either of these columns. Or was he just hard up for ideas?

Kevin Drum 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MIRACULOUS CAT?....This is just annoying:

Missing cat found in faraway state

The O'Connor family has its own Christmas miracle: Its cat that had been missing for two months was found clear across the country.

That's amazing! How did a cat manage to make its way clear across the country? And in only two months?

He didn't. The O'Connors were shipping their cat from Seattle to Rhode Island when he escaped from the shipping container. He was found two months later in Seattle, right where you'd expect. It's true that by this time he was clear across the country from the O'Connor family, who had driven to Rhode Island, but that doesn't really count as much of a miracle, does it?

Stupid CNN. On the other hand, I can personally attest to one of these miraculous cat stories of my own (sort of). A friend of mine had a cat who got cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy. After several months and several thousand dollars the cat wasn't really improving and one day he disappeared. Apparently he'd gone off to die, which isn't all that unusual.

A year later he started meowing at my friend's door. He was back, completely recovered, and lived happily for another five years. We called him the "wonder cat" after that.

Kevin Drum 9:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 26, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

TOP TEN WORDS....More end-of-the-year pop culture stuff: the top ten words of 2003 (according to YourDictionary.com). Some miscellaneous comments:

  • "Blog" is #2 on the main list. This obviously means that blogging has reached its peak and is slated for oblivion in 2004.

  • "Allision" is #7? I've never even heard of this one.

  • "Celibacy"? Give me a break.

  • "Give it up!" is #2 on the Youthspeak list? Youthspeak? This phrase is at least decades old and in steady use by Vegas emcees, isn't it?

  • Ditto for "tricked out" and "rice rocket." Frankly, any word or phrase that I'm personally familar with and have been for years is a pretty unlikely candidate for an emerging Youthspeak favorite.

  • Is "10X" really moving into widespread use?

At least this one wasn't a quiz, so I didn't get any wrong.

Kevin Drum 5:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WHO SAID IT?....End of the year mania is upon us. Start out by taking the BBC's "Quotes Quiz of 2003."

I managed 5 out of 10, but only by getting lucky on the final three. Until then it looked pretty bleak, despite the fact that #1 is a gimme. And I really should have gotten that pope question right....

Kevin Drum 4:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WINE TASTING....Professor Bainbridge likes to write about wine. Recently he described one particular wine as "Medium-bodied warm and rich dark fruits. A slight eucalyptus note typical of Heitz." Of another he said, "The flavor profile is toasted almonds, caramel, rising bread, strawberries, and a very pinot noir-ish note of black cherries."

I myself have the taste buds of a five-year-old, so my interest in this is strictly intellectual. However, last night I had dinner with one of Marian's cousins, who has recently started up a boutique winery in Arcata (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah, in case this stuff means anything to you), and I asked him about this style of wine description. If you had two or three experts taste the same wine, would they all agree on what the various flavor components were? Or would one of them claim it tasted of peanut butter and elderberries while the other detected hints of shoe polish and rainbow trout?

Assuming I understood correctly not a sure thing he said that different people would detect different flavors. Fine. But if that's the case, why bother describing wines this way? It's not very helpful to tell me about the caramel and rising bread if I'm going to taste something entirely different, is it?

Anyway, the point of this is to throw this question open to the crowd, and especially to Prof Bainbridge the next time he wanders by. Is my cousin-in-law right? And if he is right, then what's the point?

Just curious.

UPDATE: The professor answers here.

Kevin Drum 3:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GAYS IN THE MILITARY....Via Not Geniuses, a new Gallup polls shows 79% support for allowing gays to serve openly in the military. Even better, the figure for 18-29 year olds, the folks who are actually doing the serving, is 91%.

Gay marriage may still be a hot button, but it's really the only gay issue left that is. We're winning the battle on virtually every other front and the social neanderthals know it. Why else would they be acting so panicky these days?

Kevin Drum 12:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING....Two days of catblogging in a row! What a treat!

I got Marian a new digital camera for Christmas, and these were the results. Inkblot spent Christmas morning playing with wrapping paper, while Jasmine assisted me today with the newspaper. She just loves reading the morning paper.

Kevin Drum 11:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LIBYA AND THE BUSH DOCTRINE....A few days ago the Washington Post ran a headline that said, "Libya Vows to Give Up Banned Weapons; Two Decades of Sanctions, Isolation Wore Down Gaddafi." Charles Krauthammer has a few comments:

Yeah, sure. After 18 years of American sanctions, Moammar Kadafi randomly picks Dec. 19, 2003, as the day for his surrender. By amazing coincidence, Kadafi's first message to Britain principal United States war ally and conduit to White House war councils occurs just days before the invasion of Iraq. And his final capitulation to United States-British terms occurs just five days after Saddam Hussein is fished out of a rathole.

....The Democrats seem congenitally incapable of understanding that force has not just the effect of disarming the immediate enemy but a deterrent effect on others similarly situated. Iraq was not attacked randomly. It was attacked as part of a clearly enunciated policy now known as the Bush Doctrine of targeting, by preemptive war if necessary, hostile regimes engaged in terror, or refusing to come clean on WMDs, or both.

Mullah Omar did not get the message and is now hiding in a cave somewhere. Hussein did not get the message and ended up in a hole. Kadafi got the message.

Krauthammer overplays his hand here. Libya really has been making serious overtures to the west for several years, and Krauthammer's additional suggestion that Syria and Hezbollah have quieted down due to the war is laughable. They've been pretty quiet for some time now, and if anything, groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad have intensified their efforts over the past year.

Still, Krauthammer's basic point is worth paying attention to, even if he expresses it with his typical obnoxiousness. Gaddafi himself has admitted that the war influenced his decision, and common sense tells you that a demonstration of force makes future threats of force more credible. Not everybody reacts to that the way Gaddafi did, but some people do, and denying the obvious just makes you look either churlish or naive.

I continue to think that the war could have been handled better, and I continue to think that putting more of our resources into disrupting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan would have generated greater rewards. What's more, some countries Iran comes to mind might very well react to the war by redoubling their efforts to produce a nuclear deterrent, rather than capitulating. The mystifying belief that the most common reaction to loud public threats is to back down is perhaps the great central delusion of conservative thought.

So yes, there are downsides to the Bush Doctrine, lots of them, and that's why I don't support it. But there are also upsides, and Libya's transformation appears to be one of them. Acknowledging that doesn't make you soft on Bush, it just means you're willing to acknowledge the obvious.

Kevin Drum 11:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BAD DAY....Holy cow. According to the news, here's what happened yesterday: An earthquake in Iran (4,000 dead), a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv and an Iraeli airstrike in Gaza (10 dead), a jetliner crash in Benin (90 dead), an explosion in China (191 dead), an earthquake in Panama (1 dead), another guerrilla attack in Iraq (2 soldiers dead), mudslides in California (2 dead, 10 still missing), and a second assassination attempt aginst Pervez Musharraf.

Merry Christmas indeed.

Kevin Drum 10:14 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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AIR FRANCE TERRORISM....So what's the story behind the cancellation of those Air France flights due to terrorist concerns? According to the Telegraph, "American and French officials yesterday traded mutual recriminations" over the failure to catch any terrorists. The implication is that it was French officials who leaked word of the possible plot earlier this week, although I haven't found any news reports that actually confirm this.

The BBC, meanwhile, says that American officials were upset not over the earlier leak, but over the fact that the flights were cancelled "so publicly." That seems odd. You can hardly cancel six separate flights between Paris and Los Angeles on the same airline without explaining why.

And the New York Times explains how it all went down:

According to an account in the French newspaper Le Monde, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell first alerted France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, of the perceived terrorist threat in a phone call on Dec. 21....

The Americans asked France to provide armed guards on several flights bound for the United States that were considered potential targets. Mr. De Villepin held an interministerial meeting Tuesday to discuss the American request, which was subsequently granted, Le Monde reported.

It said that on Wednesday, the American ambassador to France, Howard Leach, notified French authorities that the United States preferred simply canceling the flights in question. The first Air France flight was then canceled that day after a delay. The other flights were canceled later in the day.

The friction between French and American officials over this is disturbing. Crude French bashing aside, the French obviously have a huge personal stake in preventing terrorist attacks on their own airplanes, regardless of where the attacks take place, and their counterterrorism proficiency is every bit as sophisticated as ours. They wouldn't be "chafing" over this simply because it turned out to be unfounded unless they had reason to think it was a poorly planned operation from the beginning.

On the other hand, crude Tom Ridge bashing aside, it's also pretty obvious that American officials wouldn't make a request like this unless they had good reason to think it was serious. So what's going on?

The credibility of American intelligence has already taken a big hit from the Iraq war, and if it turns out the French are right this is going to be another blow. Obviously we'd all rather be safe than sorry, but being wrong too often presents its own problems. Stay tuned for more leaks about this.

Kevin Drum 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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VALERIE PLAME UPDATE....Finally, a bit of news about the investigation into the outing of Valerie Plame:

The Justice Department has added a fourth prosecutor to the team investigating the leak of an undercover CIA officer's identity, while the FBI has said a grand jury may be called to take testimony from administration officials, sources close to the case said.

....Sources said the CIA is angry about the circulation of a still-classified document to conservative news outlets suggesting Plame had a role in arranging her husband's trip to Africa for the CIA. The document, written by a State Department official who works for its Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), describes a meeting at the CIA where the Niger trip by Wilson was discussed, said a senior administration official who has seen it.

CIA officials have challenged the accuracy of the INR document, the official said, because the agency officer identified as talking about Plame's alleged role in arranging Wilson's trip could not have attended the meeting.

The "still classified document" was apparently leaked to Talon News, part of a conservative group called GOP USA. Their interview with Joseph Wilson is here.

So when will the investigation wrap up? According to a "Republican legal source" who has talked to White House officials, "The only fear I've heard expressed is that the investigation will be too slow or too fast and will kick into a visible mode in a way that is poorly timed for the election." Glad to see they're keeping their eyes on the ball.

Kevin Drum 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 25, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

THURSDAY CHRISTMAS CAT BLOGGING....Merry Christmas from Inkblot, who hopes that everyone has a wonderful Christmas and a very happy and prosperous new year! Even dogs!

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December 24, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

NEOCON SINGLEMINDEDNESS....I don't mind admitting that I find Paul Wolfowitz to be one of the most interesting members of the Bush administration. Sure, I disagree with most of what he believes in, but I'd probably get a kick out of having dinner with him.

(As opposed to, say, George Bush, who strikes me as little more than a vacant, backslapping mediocrity a type I've had dinner with all too many times. I just never thought one of them would become president.)

Still, the neocon persuasion itself leaves me pretty cold. The Washington Post profiled Wolfowitz yesterday, and one passage in the article goes a long way toward explaining why I find neocons like Wolfowitz fascinating even while I'm simultaneously shaking my head at their self delusion:

To understand Paul Wolfowitz and the policies he advocates, notes a friend and former colleague, it is important to understand that Wolfowitz believes there is real evil in the world, and that he is confronting it. The lesson that Wolfowitz took away from the Cold War, says Eliot Cohen, who knew him at Johns Hopkins University, where Wolfowitz was a dean before moving to the Pentagon, is "that the world really is a dangerous place, and that you have to do something about it."

Paired with that is his belief that the United States can best respond to totalitarianism by emphasizing freedom and democracy. Wolfowitz possesses "a basic optimism about the potential of human beings for moderation and self-governance, and a belief in the universal appeal of liberty," Cohen says.

There's the basic contradiction all at once: Wolfowitz and the neocons seem to truly believe that they're motivated by an idealistic devotion to democracy, but at the same time they're willfully blind to the fact that their own Cold War history makes a shambles of that supposed devotion.

After all, this is the same group that spent much of the 70s and 80s so intent on interpreting everything as part of a war of civilizations between the West and a resurgent communism that they ignored or in some cases actively encouraged the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. (Remember Afghanistan and Iran-Contra?) The very single-mindedness that neocons are famous for blinded them to the fact that they were contributing to the rise of an even bigger problem, one that had nothing at all to do with communism.

A more expansive approach to the Cold War would almost certainly have worked nearly as well after all, communism was rotting from within and the Soviet Union was never as strong as the neocons insisted it was and might have left room for a more democratically inclined Mideast policy as well. But instead of learning this lesson the neocons have simply shifted their familiar monomania to the very fundamentalism they helped midwife into creation. Even the methods are familiar: proxy wars around the world, domino theories, demonization of the left, and an insistence on huge military buildups. The old hatred of Europe is back too, this time even more virulent than before.

Having failed so spectacularly in the 80s to understand the consequences of a single-minded foreign policy, they are now asking us to give them another chance against a different enemy. But wouldn't it be better, instead, to try a cure that hasn't already been proven worse than the disease?

Kevin Drum 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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IRAQI DEBT UPDATE....Hmmm....wasn't James Baker supposed to be especially close to the Saudis?

Saudi Arabia will not discuss any loan write-offs with Iraqs interim US-appointed government, Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said yesterday.

He said the Kingdom would wait until Iraq had an independent government before looking into the possibility of reducing the debt.

This (debt) has to be discussed with a government with total sovereignty, so... this issue is now premature, the Saudi Press Agency quoted him as saying.

I wonder when Baker is planning to visit Riyadh?

UPDATE: Dan Drezner has a bit more about this.

Kevin Drum 9:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE REDS AND THE RED PLANET....The LA Times has a story today that says 20 of 36 missions to Mars have ended in failure. This sounds pretty miserable, but it turns out that 14 of those failures were from the Soviet space program. NASA has about a two-thirds success rate.

What's really remarkable is that even that statistic is being generous to the Russians. They've had 18 Mars missions, and while 14 have failed completely it turns out that the remaining four have failed almost completely. Not one single Russian mission to Mars has actually gone right.

Kevin Drum 9:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CHRISTMAS TREE WOES....According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 72% of us now use fake trees, up from 51% back in 1991. Tree growers are planning a counteroffensive next year.

The print edition of the Times has a chart that's not on the website, and it shows that the turning point was 1999, after which sales of fake trees took off and sales of real trees plummeted. Perhaps not coincidentally, 1999 was also the year that the Drum household turned to the dark side and bought an artificial tree. We haven't looked back since.

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HOLIDAY SHOPPING UPDATE....So how's business this Christmas? Here's the Washington Post:

"The holiday season is shaping up to be the strongest since 1999," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist for the council. That year, sales for the November-December period grew 5.4 percent. "We've turned the corner."

And here's the Los Angeles Times:

Retail experts still expect 2003 to be the strongest holiday sales season since 1999, but "that's not saying much," said Michael Niemira, chief economist and research director of the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The bizarre part is that it's the same guy in both quotes. Did he tell the Post "We've turned the corner" in a fit of morning giddiness and then turn gloomy later in the day when the Times called him?

Anyway, for what it's worth, both papers agree that retail sales rose 5.7% last week in stores open more than a year. I guess you'll have to decide for yourself whether that's good news.

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WMD HUNT UPDATE....The Guardian reports on another "new" theory about why we haven't found any WMD in Iraq:

The theory, which is doing the rounds in the upper reaches of Whitehall, is the result of an attempt to find what one official source called a "logical reason" why no chemical and biological weapons had been found in Iraq.

According to the theory, Saddam and his senior advisers and commanders were told by lower-ranking Iraqi officers that his forces were equipped with usable chemical and biological weapons.

The officers did not want to tell their superiors that the weapons were either destroyed or no longer usable.

The trouble for Britain was, the theory goes, that MI6's informants were the senior officials close to Saddam - with the result that British intelligence was also hoodwinked.

I stopped keeping track of WMD theories several months ago, but I'm pretty sure there's nothing new about this one. In fact, it bears a strong family resemblance to #3 on this list from last May.

But whether it's old or new, I don't buy it anyway. In order for it to work, every junior officer with access to WMD would have had to play along, and that requires a level of coordination I find unlikely. What's more, every senior officer would have to have fallen for the lie and been too lazy to check it out. Again, that's unlikely.

I agree that the missing WMD is a genuine mystery, but after hearing a dozen wild theories over the past six months I've pretty much fallen back on Occam's Razor and decided that the simplest explanation is the most likely: the WMD was destroyed years ago and the exiles who told us it existed were lying to us because we encouraged them to.

And why was Saddam unwilling to flatly fess up to this? That's the real mystery....

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December 23, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

KERRY LOANS SELF $6 MILLION....Well, I have to give John Kerry credit: he's putting his money where his mouth is. I'm skeptical that it will make the difference, but at least he won't look back and wonder if there was anything more he could have done.

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BUSH AND BLAIR....Yeah, I know, this is from the Sunday Mirror, but it has the ring of truth anyway:

Tony Blair and George Bush's love-in has collapsed over the rebuilding of Iraq.

....According to diplomats, relations between the allies have gone into "deep freeze" since the capture of Saddam Hussein last weekend.

President Bush was incensed that Mr Blair stole Washington's thunder by being the first Western leader to confirm that the former dictator had been arrested by US troops.

Downing Street rushed out Mr Blair's announcement before he had spoken to the American leader early last Sunday, when Mr Bush - six hours behind London - was still in bed.

Whitehall insiders confirmed that Mr Blair's decision was partly out of anger over a US veto on his proposed visit to British troops in Iraq during the Christmas holiday.

....Mr Blair and Mr Bush have had at least three phone conversations during the past seven days which Whitehall officials described as "increasingly terse".

A Downing Street insider said: "Relations between the two are at the lowest ebb since they first met.

"The PM is not happy at having to deal with Britain's European partners who have been left out of the rebuilding contracts. Of course they are still talking - but the diplomatic temperature is in the deep freeze."

(Via Hesiod.)

I think there's a genuinely interesting dynamic at work here: Tony Blair supported the war on Iraq because he genuinely believed in it, but at the same time he also has an internationalist vision that is increasingly at odds with George Bush's. In fact, Blair's internationalism is I think quite close to my own, and his support of the war was something that influenced my views.

But in the end, Blair really is an internationalist. He wanted to get UN support, he was genuinely sorry that he couldn't convince Germany and France to get on board, and now that the war is over he truly wants to rebuild the old alliances. Bush, on the other hand, never really cared about that stuff and still doesn't. His instinct is to act alone.

Back in March I suggested that the Bush-Blair alliance wouldn't hold up forever, mainly because I didn't think that Bush would demonstrate any serious loyalty to Blair for the genuinely brave and risky stand that he took on the war. Blair is too canny a politician to ever publicly break with Bush, I think, but it wouldn't surprise me if their private relationship is getting increasingly testy. In the end, Bush doesn't really care about Blair except insofar as he supports what Bush wants, and there's only just so much of that that Blair can take.

What Blair is learning is that loyalty is a one-way street with George Bush: it's there as long as you support him unreservedly, but step out of line even for an instant and it's gone in a flash. As Fareed Zakaria put it just before the war, "should the guiding philosophy of the worlds leading democracy really be the tough talk of a Chicago mobster?....I can report that with the exception of Britain and Israel, every country the administration has dealt with feels humiliated by it."

And now Britain feels it too. Welcome to Crawford, Tony.

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A SIGH OF RELIEF FROM HOLLAND....Via Atrios comes this statement from the U.S. Embassy in The Hague:

Obviously, we cannot envisage circumstances under which the United States would need to resort to military action against the Netherlands or another ally.

Merry Christmas, Dutch people!

(You'll just have to click the link if you want to find out what prompted our embassy to feel the need to make such a statement.)

UPDATE: Yeah, this is from June 2002. Sorry about that. Still kinda funny, though.

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URL UPDATE....Max Sawicky has moved to a new address:

http://www.maxspeak.org/mt

Update your bookmarks.

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REFUSEDNIK....I missed this while I was out stimulating the economy yesterday, but here's the latest piece of Chistmas cheer from Andrew Sullivan. First he quotes Wesley Clark: "And I would say to the Europeans, I pledge to you as the American president that we'll consult with you first. You get the right of first refusal on the security concerns that we have. We'll bring you in." Then he follows with this:

The right of first refusal. I'm with Clark on consultation and on building the U.S. alliance in Europe. But first refusal? That's tantamount to Howard Dean's view that we should seek the "permission" of the United Nations before military action. Permission?

"Right of first refusal" doesn't mean "permission." It means that if I'm planning to do a deal, I promise to offer the deal to you first. If you refuse it, then I can do the deal with someone else.

In this context, Clark is obviously saying that if we have security issues, we'll consult with Europe first and try to find a solution. We'll go elsewhere only if we can't reach agreement. This is perfectly consistent with the rest of Clark's statement and with everything he's been saying on this subject for over a year.

And this is no innocent mistake on Sullivan's part. If there are readers of this blog who don't understand the meaning of "right of first refusal," that's understandable. But Sullivan has spent his entire life in the publishing industry, where the term is used routinely, and he knows precisely what it means. He's just deliberately trying to twist Clark's words into something they aren't.

Which I suppose isn't a surprise. But what really makes me shake my head about stuff like this is why? If Sullivan truly doesn't like Clark's internationalist vision, there are hundreds of honest ways to criticize it. And if he does like it as he rather unconvincingly says then why bother trying to pretend it's something it isn't?

I don't know. Maybe it's just habit with him.

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December 22, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

ORANGE ALERT....NBC News explains why the terror alert level was raised to orange:

Authorities raised the terrorist threat assessment over the weekend after new intelligence indicated that operatives of Osama bin Ladens al-Qaida terror network, possibly trained and licensed to fly passenger jets, may now be pilots for some foreign airlines, ideally positioning them to carry out suicide attacks, U.S. officials told NBC News on Monday.

....New intelligence indicates that al-Qaida remains intent on attacking large gatherings of people with chemical or biological weapons, official said. They said law enforcement agencies were looking closely at two rural locations one in the East and the other in the Southwest that were believed to be high on the terrorist target list.

Most troubling, the officials said, were indications that al-Qaida may already possess a radiological weapon, or so-called dirty bomb. They did not elaborate.

....CIA Director George Tenet has been pushing for this for two weeks, a third official told NBC News. But Ridge has been resisting, fearing a cry-wolf effect. In the most recent discussion, however, [Attorney General John] Ashcroft went along as well.

I wonder if the folks running al-Qaeda have any idea what will happen to them if they succeed in pulling off another major attack on U.S. soil? Probably not.

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THE VIRGIN MARY vs. THE CC&Rs....Lots of people complain about homeowners associations. You know, the folks who patrol neighborhoods looking for curtains of the wrong color, garage doors of unapproved designs, unmowed front lawns, and other offenses against common decency. But complain is all we ever do. Until now:

Wielding the powerful hammer of homeowners' association bylaws, the residents controlling the neighborhood of an 80-year-old Floridian have ordered her to remove a three-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary from her front yard.

...."This is an abuse of power," Dianne Bambu, Agnes' daughter-in-law, told the Sarasota daily. "The bylaws of a deed-restricted community supersede your right as an American citizen."

Thank God (so to speak). If we can get the Christian right interested in this, maybe we can finally break the power of the almighty homeowners association. And not a moment too soon.

POSTSCRIPT: I got this story from the fine folks at WorldNet Daily, and I note that, as usual, it's a very lightly rewritten version of a story from another source.

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INVADING IRAQ....In an email to Armed Liberal last night I happened to mention that I was disappointed that war supporters had so unanimously managed to ignore the fact that no WMD has been found in Iraq. Before the war you could hardly blink without hearing about Iraq's swimming pools of anthrax and battalions of mobile bio labs, but after the war almost overnight the whole thing was transformed into a humanitarian effort to rid the world of Saddam's rape rooms. And all without even a trace of embarrassment.

It was just an offhand comment, but while I was toddling around buying Christmas presents today I started to wonder about this some more. Have any supporters of the war subsequently changed their mind based on the fact that Saddam didn't, in fact, have any WMD? Offhand I can't think of a single one.

Now, this is OK if you supported the war for other reasons and really didn't consider WMD a deciding factor, but was this the case for every single prominent hawk? Was WMD really not an important issue for a single one of them?

Apparently not. But neither were Saddam's rape rooms, after all, since there are plenty of other dictators in the world with similar ugly habits and nobody is suggesting we invade them. Hell, some of them are even allies.

So what was the real reason? And why did they all every one of them feel the need to make up a cover story?

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WORKPLACE DEATHS....Terrific New York Times story today about workplace deaths and the fact that no one really seems to give a damn about them:

Over a span of two decades, from 1982 to 2002, OSHA investigated 1,242 of these horror stories instances in which the agency itself concluded that workers had died because of their employer's "willful" safety violations. Yet in 93 percent of those cases, OSHA declined to seek prosecution, an eight-month examination of workplace deaths by The New York Times has found.

What is more, having avoided prosecution once, at least 70 employers willfully violated safety laws again, resulting in scores of additional deaths. Even these repeat violators were rarely prosecuted.

So OSHA doesn't prosecute even "willful" safety violations, the EPA seems to have given up on prosecuting violations of environmental laws, the BATF is constrained from seriously prosecuting gun law violations, and of course the IRS auditing division was emasculated years ago and no longer has the manpower to investigate any but a handful of tax cheats. Notice a trend?

Here in the worker's paradise of California, of course, one part of our famously anti-business climate is a state OSHA that acutally does prosecute cases like this: we prosecute nearly a third of "willful" cases, the highest rate in the nation. It must really suck to be a business that willfully endangers its employees in California.

It's a 3-part series: yesterday was a profile of a worker who was killed in a workplace accident, today is stats day, and a case study of California is coming tomorrow. It's all worth reading.

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PAKISTANI PROLIFERATION....As the New York Times and Washington Post report, it now seems clear if there was really any doubt that Pakistan has provided nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran, and Libya. (Although apparently not to Iraq. Go figure.) Supposedly this technology was provided by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the "father of Pakistan's bomb," and was strictly a private deal, but that really doesn't pass the laugh test. This kind of stuff obviously doesn't happen without government knowledge, despite official denials like this one:

A senior Pakistani official said in an interview that "any individual who is found associated with anything suspicious would be under investigation," and promised a sweeping inquiry.

Sweeping. You bet.

The Pakistanis, of course, swear that they've given up on the proliferation business, and perhaps they have. But surely their newly cooperative nature would be a lot more credible if they actually acknowledged their past activities and told us where all that equipment had been shipped to in the 80s and 90s?

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HATING LIBERALS....There's a good case to be made that Bush hatred is misplaced: it really ought to be Tom DeLay hatred. On the other hand, maybe we just shouldn't bother since we seem to be so outmatched in the hatred department anyway:

As Tom DeLay's appearance yesterday on Meet The Press shows, the left still has a long way to go before reaching the rhetorical depths of the GOP leadership. The interview began with DeLay referring to Democrats as "hateful," "moronic," "beyond the pale," "outrageous," "cruel," and "extremist" by way of trying to establish that liberals are excessively negative.

Matt Yglesias spent the weekend teasing us about DeLay's appearance on MTP, but I guess he was saving a full report for the blog that pays his rent. It was worth the wait, though.

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December 21, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

BOTTOM TEN....LA Times media critic David Shaw best known for insanely long, multi-part stories that appear in the paper about two or three times a year has his "10 worst moments in American journalism" list up today. What's frightening about it is that after a year of blogging I've already heard of all of them. Sheesh.

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UNIONIZING DONE RIGHT....Harold Myerson has a case study of the unionization of the Las Vegas hotel industry in this month's The American Prospect that's both informative and readable. You should go read it.

The key to success in Las Vegas has been ceaseless organization, but I'd like to highlight a couple of other things that, although less important, are interesting in their own right. For example, there was this about the union's first deal with a mega-hotel:

To get this deal, the union offered to scrap obsolete work rules that had established 130 job classifications, most of them never even filled. It also used its political clout in Washington to derail a pending Internal Revenue Service plan to withhold the casino winnings of noncitizens, which would have wiped out much of the casinos' high-roller trade....Soon Wynn became the first owner to sign a contract that authorized card-check recognition. The reconstruction of Local 226 had begun.

And this:

When workers apply for employment at the Vegas hotels under contract with Local 226, they go to the union hall for a skill assessment. If they have no experience, or wish to improve their skills, they are referred to the local's Culinary Training Academy. There, they are offered free courses in every nonmanagerial aspect of hotel work. The academy is funded entirely by employers, who in the latest contract with the union agreed to pay 3.5 cents per worker per hour to fund the training, with a curriculum developed jointly by management and labor.

Different unions have different issues, of course, but this strikes me as a genuinely 21st century approach. Focus on wage increases and skills training, cut through outdated work rules that management hates but probably don't provide a lot of benefits to workers, and demonstrate that the union is genuinely beneficial to both its members and in some ways to management as well.

As Myerson points out, unionization can't always protect manufacturing jobs, which can be shipped overseas, but it can and does improve the lives of service workers: Las Vegas hotel workers earn about 40% more than hotel workers in nonunion Reno, for example. Roughly speaking, that means a dishwasher or housekeeper earns about $480 a week instead of $340 a week, which, for many, is the difference between literally having to scrounge every week to make the rent or pay an unexpected doctor bill, and living something close to a middle class life.

In the big picture of the economy this is a small amount of money. In the small picture of people's lives, it's an unparallelled blessing. It's something that you'd think a compasionate conservative could embrace.

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December 20, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

NO MORE WOLFOWITZ?....Robert Novak says that Richard Lugar is the leading candidate for Secretary of State in the second term of a George Bush presidency, and then adds this:

A footnote: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, once thought to be in line for the top job at either State or Defense in the second term, is reported to have lost favor at the White House.

Needless to say, I have no contacts in Washington at all, but even so this seems right to me: Wolfowitz really does seem to be on the outs. But why?

Is it because he's too hawkish? Because he's genuinely committed to this whole democracy thing? Because he isn't politically savvy enough to hide his actual views? Because he's not pro-Israel enough? Because he was too friendly with Ahmed Chalabi and that didn't work out so well? Because he's been wildly wrong about almost everything related to post-war Iraq?

I can think of lots of good reasons. I just wonder which one it really is.

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A PREVIEW OF 2004....Via Brad DeLong, I came across The Decembrist, a blog written by Mark Schmitt, a former speechwriter and policy director for Senator Bill Bradley. He received an email yesterday that he wants to share with us:

I happened to see a Bush '04 fundraising e-mail today, from Ken Mehlman, with the heading "Foreign liberal cash used to defeat President Bush!" Most of it is just further innuendo about the Drudge-generated phony scandal around the website, Canadians for Clark.

But there is also one priceless line in the e-mail:

Wesley Clark, who was in Europe when Saddam Hussein was captured, criticized the President this week...

Wow, what was Mr. Clark doing in Europe, when he's supposed to be an American? Probably judging a Gruyere-tasting contest, or studying up on Swedish land-use planning....

You wouldn't really know that he was helping bring another evil dictator to justice, would you?

Consider that just a tiny little taste of what the 2004 Republican campaign is going to look like.

Anyway, after I read that post I started scrolling down and there was just one good post after another although he's a little more sympathetic to the whole "radical center" idea than I am. If you like policy wonkish stuff, check him out even if he does say that the only blogs he reads are Brad's and Josh Marshall's. Can't fault his taste, really....

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NEWS JUNKIE ALERT....I got some spam last night for a pretty cool site if you're a news junkie. It's called PressDisplay and it displays the print editions of over 160 newspapers worldwide. You can view the front pages free of charge, and you can read the entire front section if you subscribe to their service.

PressDisplay is similar to the Newseum, which also gives you access to front pages of newspapers from around the world, but it loads a lot faster and the user interface is slicker. (Plus you can view the inside pages if you pay for it.)

The selection of papers is pretty good, although the New York Times and all the serious British papers are missing. Presumably more papers will be added over time. It's worth checking out.

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GAY MARRIAGE....The New York Times has a headline up right now that says this:

Strong Support Is Found for Ban on Gay Marriage

After reading through a bunch of gobbledygook the story finally tells us the basic numbers: 55% are in favor of a constitutional amendment, 40% are opposed.

I'm not sure this is really such strong support, though, especially when it comes to a constitutional amendment. It's worth remembering that the Equal Rights Amendment also had public majorities in favor and passed both the House and Senate by margins of over 90%. Based on this, my guess is that a constitutional ban on gay marriage doesn't have much of a chance.

But I'm not sure that really matters anyway. What everyone really seems to care about is not so much whether a gay marriage amendment can actually pass, but whether it will be a good political issue for Republicans in 2004. Sadly, I think it will be. Karl Rove has made it clear that he thinks it's critical to get a big turnout among the conservative Christian base, and this issue is tailor made for that. I suspect that Bush will come out in favor of the amendment, but do it in a "more in sorrow than in anger" kind of way that doesn't hurt him much with swing voters.

Democrats, meanwhile, will once again be forced into a more complicated position: in favor of civil unions but not in favor of gay marriage. Hard to make a bumper sticker out of that. And what's worse and surprising to me is that the New York Times poll found almost exactly the same opposition to civil unions as to gay marriage.

Fasten your seatbelts. Stormy weather ahead.

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CUTTING THE NET....I don't know who David Brooks' source is for this, but here's what he says about President Bush's domestic agenda for a second term:

In his State of the Union address, the president will announce measures to foster job creation. In the meantime, he is talking about what he calls the Ownership Society.

This is a bundle of proposals that treat workers as self-reliant pioneers who rise through several employers and careers. To thrive, these pioneers need survival tools. They need to own their own capital reserves, their own retraining programs, their own pensions and their own health insurance.

Administration officials are talking about giving unemployed workers personal re-employment accounts, which they could spend on training, child care, a car, a move to a place with more jobs, or whatever else they think would benefit them.

President Bush has a proposal to combine and simplify the confusing morass of government savings programs and give individuals greater control over how they want to spend their tax-sheltered savings. Administration officials hope, in a second term, to let individuals control part of their Social Security pensions and perhaps even their medical savings accounts.

Hold on to your wallets, gang, it looks like Bush is planning to take ever more direct aim at unemployment insurance, Social Security, and Medicare. It'll be gussied up with lots of fine talk, and the fine print will be fine indeed, but the end result will almost certainly be to cut back these programs and squeeze ever harder on the hated socal safety net a necessity if we're to hold on to our tax cuts for the rich and our giveaways to big business.

Of course, conservatives will cluck cluck sadly and say that we're overreacting. It's nothing more than a few minor proposals, not really a cutback at all. Why are we liberals always crying wolf over even the most modest kinds of reform?

I guess we'll just have to wait and see, won't we? But keep a sharp eye out. You can cut one string on a net and it will still hold, and then one more, and each cut seems like a small thing. But eventually the net doesn't exist anymore.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias agrees and points specifically to the proposals about expanding tax sheltered savings programs. Most people don't realize this, but it's a longtime goal of conservatives to expand these programs so that rich people can dump more and more money into them free of taxes something that middle class and poor people can't do because they don't really have very much money to dump.

It's all part of a broader plan to cut taxes on dividends, cut taxes on capital gains, and cut taxes on savings. Put it all together and you're cutting taxes on all forms of invested wealth. Add in the decline in corporate tax rates over the years, and before long the only thing being taxed is income from working people. Stir in cutbacks to the social safety net, which rich people really don't need, and you have a conservative paradise.

Remember this the next time a Republican accuses a Democrat of waging class warfare. Remember who started it.

Kevin Drum 10:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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LIBYA'S WMD....Did our invasion of Iraq have anything to do with Libya's decision to come clean on its WMD programs? The timing seems pretty convenient, but on the other hand it's also true that Libya has been slowly changing its ways for nearly a decade now, for reasons that are likely to remain forever inscrutable to everyone except Moammar Gaddafi himself.

But at least two unlikely sources seem to agree that the invasion had an effect. The first is Gaddafi's son, who said, "Libya was under pressure, under threat, sufficient American threat" to enter into negotiations. The second is Hans Blix, of all people, who said he suspected that "Gaddafi could have been scared by what he saw happen in Iraq."

But then there's this:

"Within months after September 11th, we had the Libyans, the Syrians and the Iranians all coming to us saying, 'What can we do [to better relations]?' We didn't really engage any of them, because we decided to do Iraq. We really squandered two years of capital that will make it harder to apply this model to the hard cases like Iran and Syria," said Flynt Leverett, a former Bush administration National Security Council staff member now at the Brookings Institution.

The fact that Libya was apparently serious about negotiating with us certainly makes you wonder if Iran and Syria were equally serious. And it's also hard not to wonder what would have happened with Iraq if we'd been willing to spend a year negotiating with them instead of five rather obviously unserious months.

Food for thought.

Kevin Drum 9:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 19, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

REFERENCE INFLATION....Henry Farrell is unhappy with the state of the art in recommendation writing:

One of Nasi Lemaks former students recently asked a professor at a top US research university for a reference letter, and was told to write a draft of the letter himself, which the professor would then edit and sign. Nasi Lemak did some asking around, and found a surprising number of people who seem to believe that this is acceptable practice.

I'm not very keen on this kind of thing either, but it's pretty common in the business world too. I know a lot of managers who barely even write annual reviews anymore: instead, they ask their people to write a "self-review" that then magically turns into the annual review itself with only cursory editing.

It actually makes a lot of sense to find out what your subordinates think of their own performance, but most of what I've seen goes way beyond that and is really little more than laziness or incompetence. I've always felt that taking the time to write a serious and reasonably comprehensive annual review is a sign of respect to one's subordinates, and foisting it off on them means that either you don't give a damn or else you don't know them well enough to write a genuine review. Either way, I don't like it.

Henry also talks about "reference inflation," the fact that references for potential grad students are all so glowing these days that it's nearly impossible to tell the stars from the grunts. Again, the same is true in the business world, and it's common knowledge that if you call someone for a reference you should be very skeptical if it's anything less than stellar.

Of course, some professors are just very good at writing clever references. My favorite was a reference I got from a professor who ran a summer program in math I attended between my junior and senior year in high school. He had offered to write references for any of us, so even though I actually did pretty poorly in the program I asked him for one. After I got to Caltech I was curious to see what it said, and the key sentence went like this: "Although Kevin did not perform at the level of Mr. X or Miss Y, he is a talented student blah blah blah."

And this was exactly right. Of course, Mr. X and Miss Y were both absolutely brilliant Caltech students who were alumni of his program, so saying that I wasn't at their level was sort of like saying that I didn't play tennis as well as John McEnroe. He was able to (sort of) say that I wasn't exactly a star, but say it in such a way that it didn't hurt me. Thanks Dr. Deaton!

(Or not. In the end, a lousy reference might have been all for the best. Who knows?)

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NICE GUY?....Over at the TNR Primary, Michelle Cottle says this about Wes Clark:

Simultaneously slamming Bush for his little Thanksgiving jaunt to Baghdad and accusing him of not caring about the families of soldiers killed in Iraq, you assert: "He'll go halfway around the world for a photo opportunity, but won't go halfway across town for a funeral." Wow. Talk about a frontal assault. You are basically charging the POTUS with a political venality that trumps even the most basic regard for human suffering. Isn't that going a bit far? While I myself harbor suspicions that W. would sell Brother Jeb's kidneys for a few extra electoral votes, it's risky business to so harshly impugn the fundamental character of a president so widely regarded as a nice guy.

That's going too far? Even though she basically thinks he's right? Are we allowed to say anything nasty about George Bush anymore?

It's true that a lot of people regard Bush as a nice guy. But isn't it the job of the Democratic candidates to try and change that?

Kevin Drum 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING....It's Christmas, and what better way to celebrate than to curl up under the Christmas tree and hope to be given a present?

But wait....who is that cat on the right? He looks like Inkblot, but it's actually Marble, an Inkblot clone owned by dedicated Friday Cat Blogging fan Melissa Chain. Marble has cowlike markings instead of Inkblot's more killer whale-like markings, but otherwise they could be twins and they've both got the same ultra-cute face. Separated at birth?

BONUS PETS: Dog blogging from New York. Just goes to show the dangers of getting a digital camera....

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BAD RAP?....Has Halliburton been overcharging for gasoline that it imported into Iraq? Byron York presents the case for defense today, claiming that not only didn't they overcharge, they actually saved taxpayers over $100 million.

Just thought I'd share. I'm sure we'll be hearing more about this.

Kevin Drum 12:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CLARK HOUSE PARTY UPDATE....I spent last night in Los Angeles at a house party for Wesley Clark hosted by fellow blogger and UCLA professor Mark Kleiman. The draw was the debut of American Son, a video about Clark made by Linda Bloodworth, the same director who made The Man From Hope for Bill Clinton in 1992. Clark's son, Wes Clark Jr., a Hollywood screenwriter, was also there, along with his extremely pregnant wife, Astrid, who is expecting their first son in a couple of weeks.

The video was pretty good although I've never seen The Man From Hope, so I don't have anything to compare it to. But it was an engaging look at a guy who really does believe in "duty, honor, country," and Wes Jr. told me beforehand that it's the real deal. "That really is who he is."

(You can see the video here. It's about 18 minutes long, and Quicktime is required.)

Wes Jr. turned out to be an engaging guy who seemed both overwhelmed by his father's candidacy but also tremendously excited about it. He says he hasn't been getting much screenwriting done lately (surprise!), but he has been attending Clark events around Los Angeles, and although he says he suffers from stagefright he did just fine in front of this group. He seems like a genuinely nice guy.

A conference call with Clark followed the video. Nothing newsworthy, but there was one pretty funny line. Someone asked what he'd look for in a Secretary of Defense and he answered (among other things) "someone who respects his subordinates." Heh heh. Take that, Bill Cohen!

(Trivia question: who is Clark's favorite Secretary of Defense? Answer: William Perry.)

But there was also serious stuff. "George Bush is going to wrap himself in the flag and he's going to try to take that flag away from our party. We can't let him do that." That may be campaign boilerplate, but it's also exactly right, and I think it's one of the things that Clark brings to the table.

As you all know, I think Clark is both the best candidate in the Democratic field and also the one most likely to beat George Bush next November. If you feel the same way, click here and contribute to his campaign. If you don't, watch American Son and see if you change your mind.

Kevin Drum 11:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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INTEL IN IRAQ....The capture of Saddam Hussein may or may not have any immediate impact on the intensity of guerrilla war, but the methods that led to his capture might. Bruce Berkowitz has an op-ed in the New York Times today about why we were able to find Saddam:

Over the past weeks analysts worked alongside the military planners and special operations forces who seized Mr. Hussein. This is a break with the tradition of analysts keeping their distance from the players in the field so they maintain their objectivity.

....Similarly, intelligence workers developed new methods on the fly in their efforts to uncover Mr. Hussein's support network. In trying to depict the links between members of Mr. Hussein's enormous extended family, some analysts used a commercial software package that law-enforcement agents have long used to analyze crime rings. The software helped them visualize non-obvious family relationships, and eventually pinpoint the families in Tikrit who were hiding Mr. Hussein.

I hope this is all true. Saddam's capture may be important as a symbol in any case, but if we're genuinely developing innovative intelligence techniques that improve our counterinsurgency efforts, that's even better news.

Kevin Drum 9:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 18, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

THE AMERICAN DREAM....Paul Krugman writes in The Nation this week on "The Death of Horatio Alger:

Over the past generation upward mobility has fallen drastically. Very few children of the lower class are making their way to even moderate affluence. This goes along with other studies indicating that rags-to-riches stories have become vanishingly rare, and that the correlation between fathers' and sons' incomes has risen in recent decades.

And, as Krugman points out, public policy is helping to exacerbate the problem, not solve it.

I didn't worry too much about income inequality 20 years ago, but today I do not because my values have changed, but because the facts on the ground have changed. Inequality is getting worse, social mobility is declining, and it's all being helped along by very deliberate policy decisions. I wonder how long it will take before even conservatives admit that it's a real problem?

Probably forever. But there's still the ballot box.

Kevin Drum 2:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE CASE FOR WAR....Tim Dunlop provided a timely reminder on Monday of Paul Wolfowitz's Vanity Fair interview from last May. This interview became famous because of Wolfowitz's statement that WMDs were chosen as the argument for going to war "for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy," but that wasn't all he said. He also outlined the full case for invading Iraq:

....there have always been three fundamental concerns. One is weapons of mass destruction, the second is support for terrorism, the third is the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people....The third one by itself, as I think I said earlier, is a reason to help the Iraqis but it's not a reason to put American kids' lives at risk, certainly not on the scale we did it.

That was six months ago, so this is a good time to take another look at his three points:

  • It's pretty clear there were no WMDs. Even David Kay has implicitly admitted as much by cutting back on the search teams and announcing that he plans to leave the Iraq Survey Group within a few weeks.

  • After six months of access to Iraqi archives, it's also pretty clear that Saddam had minimal connections to global terrorism. He supported Palestinian terrorism against Israel and probably had some fleeting contacts with al-Qaeda, but these activities were, if anything, less than those of nearly every other country in the region.

  • And Wolfowitz himself admits that Saddam's brutal treatment of his own people wasn't a good enough reason by itself to start a war.

So what's left? Not much, as George Bush made clear in his interview with Diane Sawyer on Tuesday:

SAWYER: But stated as a hard fact, that there were weapons of mass destruction, as opposed to the possibility that he could move to acquire those weapons still --

BUSH: So whats the difference?

(Smile's gone.)

SAWYER: Well --

BUSH: The possibility that he could acquire weapons. If he were acquire weapons [sic], he would be the danger. Thats the -- thats what Im trying to explain to you.

The possibility that he could acquire weapons. Remember that. For better or worse, that's what's left of the public rationale for going to war.

Was it a good enough reason? Your call. But I wonder how strong the support for war would have been if Bush had said that back in January?

Kevin Drum 2:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ADVERTISE ON CALPUNDIT!....As a firm believer in capitalism and the free market economy and because Henry Copeland kept bugging me I am now accepting advertising here at Calpundit. Click the link if you want to advertise. Or, if you just want to give me an early Christmas present, you can donate via PayPal or Amazon.

All donations will be contributed to the Inkblot & Jasmine Cat Food Fund, dedicated to keeping the Calpundit cats fat and happy for many Friday Catbloggings to come.

Kevin Drum 12:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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PREVENTING 9/11....Were the 9/11 attacks preventable? Glenn Reynolds says yes:

In fact, they might have been prevented, had dropped balls at the FBI (which led to morbid speculation by field agents that Osama had a mole at headquarters) not frustrated the Moussaoui investigation.

But then there's this:

The story linked above is right to heap scorn on Condi Rice's statement that the attacks were unimaginable before they happened. There was plenty of reason to imagine them before they happened. That in itself doesn't mean that they could have, or even should have, been prevented -- I can imagine a lot of things that I couldn't prevent -- but Rice's statement has always struck me as absurd to the point of being insulting.

(Italics mine.)

Can anyone figure out what the hell he's talking about? I'm not even trying to be snarky. I just can't imagine what he might have in mind.

Kevin Drum 10:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FEEL THE LOVE, PART 2....Dan Drezner is now a mush-headed Bush-hating liberal. I knew it would happen eventually.

Welcome to the club, Dan.

Kevin Drum 10:39 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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A TRIAL FOR PADILLA?....An appeals court has ruled that "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla can't be held indefinitely without a trial. Basically, the opinion says that the president has no power to detain American citizens without congressional approval, especially given the fact that Congress specifically banned such detentions in 1971:

....the Non-Detention Act provides: No citizen shall be imprisoned or otherwise detained by the United States except pursuant to an Act of Congress. 18 U.S.C. 4001(a). The District Court held that this language encompasses all detentions of United States citizens.

....Both the sponsor of the Act and its primary opponent repeatedly confirmed that the Act applies to detentions by the President during war and other times of national crisis. The legislative history is replete with references to the detentions of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, detentions that were authorized both by congressional acts and by orders issued pursuant to the Presidents war power. This context convinces us that military detentions were intended to be covered. Finally, the legislative history indicates that Congress understood that exceptions to the Non-Detention Act must specifically authorize detentions.

In other words, the constitution does not authorize military detentions and the Non-Detention Act specifically prohibits them. Therefore, if the president wants authority for military detentions of American citizens caught on U.S. soil, he has to ask Congress for an exemption from the Non-Detention Act, and there's nothing to stop him from doing that. Strict constructionists should heartily approve.

Needless to say, this decision will almost certainly be appealed instead of going to Congress to get the law changed. Stay tuned.

POSTSCRIPT: In case you're curious, the court also took note of national security concerns:

The offenses Padilla is alleged to have committed are heinous crimes severely punishable under the criminal laws. Further, under those laws the Executive has the power to protect national security and the classified information upon which it depends. See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. app. 3. And if the President believes this authority to be insufficient, he can ask Congresswhich has shown its responsivenessto authorize additional powers.

The Justice Department does indeed have many tools at its disposal to prevent exposure of classified information in court, and can certainly ask for more if it thinks they need them.

Kevin Drum 10:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DA DRONES, DA DRONES....Have you ever wondered what our lawmakers hear about in classified intelligence briefings? Do they hear stuff we don't? Is there explosive evidence about Iraq that's too sensitive for the hoi polloi to hear about?

In a word, no. Apparently they hear the same old shit we do:

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Monday the Bush administration last year told him and other senators that Iraq not only had weapons of mass destruction, but they had the means to deliver them to East Coast cities.

Nelson, D-Tallahassee, said about 75 senators got that news during a classified briefing before last October's congressional vote authorizing the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Nelson voted in favor of using military force.

....Nelson said the senators were told Iraq had both biological and chemical weapons, notably anthrax, and it could deliver them to cities along the Eastern seaboard via unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones.

Just in case you've forgotten, the picture above shows the fearsome Iraqi drone in all its glory, duct tape and all. Another triumph of American intelligence.

Kevin Drum 9:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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"PEER" REVIEW....More on the Bush administration's new "peer review" proposals in the Baltimore Sun today:

The peer review process, routinely employed by academic journals and some government agencies, invites knowledgeable scientists to comment on research findings to confirm their credibility. But the administration proposal would expand peer review far beyond current boundaries, critics say.

"It's an incredibly terrible proposal. It will ossify the entire regulatory system. This would stop virtually all environmental and public health regulation," said David Michaels, a professor of occupational and environmental health at George Washington University.

....Critics accuse the OMB of solving a problem that doesn't exist. "They haven't shown that the government produces bad science. Where is the evidence?" asked University of Kansas law professor Sidney Shapiro, an expert on federal regulation.

He and others argue that the Bush plan seems designed to gum up the process of converting scientific knowledge into regulation by trapping legitimate studies in a limbo of time-consuming evaluation.

"You'll create a debating society over the science. That's good if you don't want anything to happen," Shapiro said.

What's really impressive to me is how damn clever the Bushies are on this kind of stuff. Instead of declaring war on environmental regulation by suggesting that industry should be in charge of approving all scientific research, which is obviously an electoral loser, they figure out a way to use an arcane area like peer review to accomplish the same thing. There's a real diabolical genius at work here, that's for sure.

Kevin Drum 9:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 17, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

MEDICARE BLUES....Ruy Tuixeira says seniors aren't very happy with their new prescription drug benefit:

The inks barely dry on the bill and seniors are already tepid to hostile about the bill. According to the Washington Post article, strong pluralities of both seniors (47 percent to 26 percent) and those age fifty-five to sixty-four (46 percent to 32 percent) disapprove of the Medicare changes voted by Congress. The article quotes leading nonpartisan pollster Andrew Kohut as saying: This is a surprisingly tepid reaction to this big legislation.

....Wow. Usually bills like this get a nice honeymoon period where people give the new legislation the benefit of the doubt. Not this one. Maybe thats why the Bush administration is now talking about going to the moon. What theyre doing on earth doesnt seem to be going over too well.

There's no question that this bill is a real dog. And as seniors learn more about what's wrong with it, they're going to get even madder.

If you're interested, Mark Kleiman wrote a good summary of the problems with the bill a few weeks ago. My favorite is the provision that prohibits prohibits! Medicare from trying to negotiate lower prices from drug companies. That's the Republican way to control healthcare costs!

Kevin Drum 9:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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Well, here's a shocker:

A widely publicized Iraqi document that purports to show that September 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta visited Baghdad in the summer of 2001 is probably a fabrication....

U.S. officials and a leading Iraqi document expert tell Newsweek that the document is most likely a forgery part of a thriving new trade in dubious Iraqi documents that has cropped up in the wake of the collapse of Saddam's regime.

....Ironically, even the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi, which has been vocal in claiming ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam's regime, was dismissive of the new Telegraph story. "The memo is clearly nonsense," an INC spokesman told Newsweek.

Contacted by Newsweek, the Sunday Telegraph's Con Coughlin acknowledged that he could not prove the authenticity of the document. He said that while he got the memo about Mohammed Atta and Baghdad from a "senior" member of the Iraqi Governing Council who insisted it was "genuine," he and his newspaper had "no way of verifying it. It's our job as journalists to air these things and see what happens," he said.

Jeez, a fabrication, eh? Didn't see that one coming, did we?

Crikey. Shouldn't even the Telegraph eventually get embarrassed about pulling this stuff? What's next, a copy of Saddam's diary?

Kevin Drum 9:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE MEDIA DISCONNECT....I missed this when it came out, but Tim Rutten of the LA Times had an interesting conversation about media bias with longtime columnist and reporter Russell Baker a few days ago. The problem, Baker suggests, isn't that reporters are biased in the political sense, it's that they're part of a herd of standard issue, middle class, suburbanites:

In Washington, Baker said, that means journalists "who work hard; everybody in Washington works hard. But they lack empathy for the rest of the country. If you've never lacked health insurance and most reporters and editors never have you don't understand what it means for the 43 million Americans who are doing without it, any more than the Congress does."

In the New York Review, Baker wrote: "The accelerating collapse of the American health care system may illustrate how journalism's disconnection from the masses will produce an inert state. If every journalist in the District of Columbia had to have his health insurance canceled as a requirement for practicing journalism in Washington, quite a few might get to know what anger is, and discover that something is catastrophically wrong with the health care system."

Yep. But as healthcare gets more and more expensive, and as companies increasingly cut back, eventually this is going to become an issue too big to ignore. Not tomorrow, and not next year, but soon. Even conservatives will come around eventually if they want to stay in office.

In the meantime, if you want to get a shot of the empathy that Baker says the press corps lacks, may I recommend Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed? It's sort of the 21st century equivalent of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and well worth reading whether you agree with Ehrenreich's politics or not. Plus it's short and readable. Put it on your Christmas list today!

Kevin Drum 9:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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9/11 WAS "NOT SOMETHING THAT HAD TO HAPPEN"....Well, this should be interesting:

For the first time, the chairman of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is saying publicly that 9/11 could have and should have been prevented, reports CBS News Correspondent Randall Pinkston.

"This is a very, very important part of history and we've got to tell it right," said Thomas Kean.

"As you read the report, you're going to have a pretty clear idea what wasn't done and what should have been done," he said. "This was not something that had to happen."

Appointed by the Bush administration, Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, is now pointing fingers inside the administration and laying blame.

"There are people that, if I was doing the job, would certainly not be in the position they were in at that time because they failed. They simply failed," Kean said.

....Kean promises major revelations in public testimony beginning next month from top officials in the FBI, CIA, Defense Department, National Security Agency and, maybe, President Bush and former President Clinton.

So who failed? CIA and FBI are the obvious candidates, but I have a feeling that Condi Rice's head might be on Kean's chopping block too. Just a guess.

In any case, something tells me that we wouldn't be hearing this kind of stuff if Henry Kissinger had remained head of the investigation....

Kevin Drum 5:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DEMOCRATS AND LIBERALS....Amy Sullivan and Jake Rosenfeld, a couple of my favorite bloggers, have an op-ed in Newsday today in which they make the point that Republican claims of a New Deal-like realignment in favor of conservatives are way overblown. They're right, I think, but there's another sense in which Republicans are right, so I'd like to add something to their argument that I think frequently gets overlooked in discussions of political dominance: the difference between "Democrats" and "liberals."

Here's what Amy and Jake say:

While these aren't exactly rosy days for Democrats, the comparison of today's Republican Party to the New Deal coalition is simply absurd. In the 1937-38 Congress, Democrats enjoyed more than a three-to-one advantage in the House of Representatives; today the GOP holds exactly 24 more seats than Democrats....Republicans currently have a three-seat margin in the Senate, a chamber they didn't even control as recently as one year ago.

It's true that Democrats enjoyed a margin of control during the 1930s that Republicans today can only dream of: the peak of Democratic power came after the 1936 election, when Democrats and third parties briefly held a whopping 80 Senate seats and 346 House seats.

But there's a historical gotcha here: 22 of those Senate seats and 102 of the House seats were held by conservative Democrats from the South. So even using the generous assumption that the rest of the Democrats (and independents) were all liberals, which they weren't, the House and Senate broke down approximately like this:

  • Senate: 58 liberals, 38 conservatives

  • House: 244 liberals, 191 conservatives

And this was only for a brief 2-year period. In 1938 the Republicans gained back a substantial number of seats in both the House and Senate.

The fact is that America has been a center-right country for practically its entire history, and by any reasonable measure of "liberal" and "conservative" there has never been more than a modest majority of liberals in Congress, a fact that was masked for many years by Southern loyalty to the Democratic party. FDR and LBJ managed to ramrod a fair amount of liberal legislation through during the two short periods of the 20th century in which liberals held small majorities, but even then it required help FDR did it by taking advantage of the panic brought on by the Depression and LBJ did it by winning some votes from moderate Republicans.

There are a few conclusions to draw from this:

  • In one sense, Republican claims aren't as absurd as they look. It's true that today's Republican majorities are nowhere near the size of the Democratic majorities of the 30s, but today's conservative majority is only a bit smaller than the liberal majority under FDR.

  • In terms of ideology, America has been a 50-50 nation for a long time. Outside events have prompted small swings of the pendulum Watergate in favor of liberals, 9/11 in favor of conservatives but not vast sea changes.

  • Although Congress is hardly the place to find lots of radical lefties, it's also true that there are very few genuinely conservative Democrats left. There may actually be a bigger plurality of solid centrist liberals in Congress today than at any time since World War II.

There's no question that movement conservatism has been making steady gains for the past 20 years, but I suspect the actual size of the change has been less than it seems. After all, just recently popular sentiment forced a conservative congress to expand Medicare, gay rights continues to make strides, and universal healthcare is once again an allowable topic of polite conversation.

So Amy and Jake are right: today's swing of the pendulum is one of the normal small shifts, not a conservative revolution. I suspect that with the right leader and a few subtle shifts in rhetoric and emphasis, Democrats and liberals will have another turn at the plate before long.

Kevin Drum 4:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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MERCURY IN THE AIR....Good 'ol Gregg Easterbrook talks about the environment again today:

News organizations continue to misrepresent, bury, or simply disregard George W. Bush's recent action to reduce power-plant pollution....But while ignoring or distorting the essence of Bush's program...the media hammer away on anger regarding the mercury provisions in the decision....The announcement made George W. Bush the first president to impose regulation on this toxic element....This might have won Bush praise from Democrats and pundits; needless to say it didn't.

So W did good on the mercury program, right? Hooray for W!

Um, not exactly. In the usual weird Easterbrook style, this was all a preface to a post explaining why Bush's proposed mercury cap-and-trade program is actually a lousy one. Go figure. But if you ignore the off topic ranting, he gets the argument right, so go read it.

Basically, it's yet another case of ideology trumping reality. Cap-and-trade uses market mechanisms to reduce pollution, so conservatives naturally think it's a good thing and environmentalists usually disagree. But they're both wrong: sometimes it's an effective tool and sometimes it isn't. In the case of mercury it isn't, but the Bush ideologues don't care. It's market based and industry friendly, so it must be the right thing. Who cares if it doesn't actually solve the problem?

Kevin Drum 11:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DRUGS IN DALLAS....Mark Kleiman has a good post today about the Dallas police fake-drug scandal, something I hadn't heard about before:

Dallas police paid their drug informants based on the quantity of drugs seized. So some informants decided to manufacture cases by planting fake "cocaine" -- variously described as the powder used to chalk billiard cues and as ground-up gypsum wallboard -- on about 80 Mexican immigrants.

The police did "field tests," all of which mysteriously registered positive for cocaine, and testified to having witnessed transactions that never happened.

....The public defender's office refused to pay for independent lab testing, and several of the defendants pleaded guilty to avoid 10- and 20- year mandatory sentences.

Read the whole thing, but note especially that last sentence: "several of the defendants pleaded guilty" despite the fact that they were entirely innocent and had been framed. Keep that in mind the next time someone tells you that anyone who pleads guilty must, in fact, actually be guilty.

Kevin Drum 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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LEFTIES, LIBERALS, AND UNIONS....Comrade Max explains the difference between leftists and liberals over at his place. I mostly agree with him, and I am, of course, a liberal, not a leftist, both by his definition and my own. There are, in my view, simply too many parts of leftist orthodoxy that have been tried in various countries and found wanting. They may sound good, but if they don't work, they don't work. Time to move on.

On one subject, though, I'm perhaps more left than liberal, and it's an important one: unions. As Max puts it, "For liberals, labor is just another 'interest group,'" and I think he's right. I'm frequently disheartened by the number of liberals I know who actively dislike unions and think of them as obstructive, militant, and unnecessary. Strikes are usually perceived often unfairly as the union's fault, rather than equally the fault of management intransigence.

The reality, as Max says, is that "Unionization is an anti-poverty program," and while I don't elevate labor to a "central place in social transformation," I do think unions are a vital part of raising people out of poverty and creating both a fairer society and a thriving middle class.

Sure, unions can go too far. So can corporations. So can everyone. But obsessing solely on their weaknesses misses the larger point: the best way to raise people out of poverty is for them to work together to insist on higher wages in the first place, not to pay them starvation wages and then have the government make up the difference in food stamps and earned income credits.

Unfortunately, current federal law is so hostile to unionization activities that the entire movement seems stuck in time. Old unions are still around teachers, government workers, etc. even though they've mostly served their purpose and often seem reduced to a dogged and unpopular insistence that no one ever be fired no matter what the cause. At the same time, desperately needed new unions retail, janitors, service industries are hellishly hard to get organized. So the public view of unions is largely one of coddled workers who make a pretty good living and continue to demand ever more, while the genuinely poor who need unions are shut out.

I don't have any answers for this, unfortunately. Maybe Max can chime in.

Kevin Drum 10:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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HOW ARE WE DOING IN IRAQ?....The price of hand grenades is going up in Baghdad. Shortly after the war they were five for a buck, while today they can set you back as much as $2 or $3 apiece.

In an upcoming article in the Journal of Democracy, Adeed Dawisha suggests that this is good news: it means that arms are harder to get for casual terrorists. On the other hand, $3 is still pretty cheap, and goes a long way toward explaining the precarious security situation in Iraq.

Overall, Dawisha makes a familiar argument: things are better in Iraq than you'd think from reading the daily paper. I'm not sure how convincing I found this, especially given paragraphs like this:

In fact, the most encouraging sign for the long haul is the sheer frequency with which Iraqis are using such key democratic terms as elections, parliament, human rights, press freedom, minority rights, and the like as debates over the countrys future proceed. In the wide-ranging discourse now being heard both publicly and privately in Iraq, the need for an elected legislature and government has become almost a foregone conclusion.

Maybe there's something to this, but everyone says they like elections. It's a lot less clear whether they really do, and I'm not sure how much stock I'd put in superficial things like this. As my guests on Sunday agreed, it's always the second election that's the critical one.

But maybe I'm being unfair. I admit that I was a bit turned off near the beginning of the article when Dawisha tried to make the case that the guerrilla war isn't really all that bad because, after all, most Iraqis don't support the insurgency and "Most of the attacks on coalition forces in fact have occurred in an area that is geographically and demographically narrow." This is special pleading. Of course the guerrillas are only a small part of the population, and it's common knowledge that their activity is mostly limited to the Sunni Triangle around Baghdad. That's hardly good news.

Still, his article makes some good points, even if I don't find it wholly convincing, and he acknowledges the problems and mistakes as well as the successes. If you're interested in an overview of Iraq that tries to get above the usual day-to-day reporting, head on over and read it.

Kevin Drum 9:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SNOWMOBILES....President Bush's attempt to pander to the powerful snowmobile lobby has apparently failed:

On the eve of the opening of snowmobile season at Yellowstone National Park, a federal judge Tuesday ordered the park to scrap a Bush administration plan to expand snowmobile use there and called for a re-imposition of a Clinton-era policy phasing out the machines.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, in a strongly worded 48-page brief, ruled that overturning the Clinton ban, which was never allowed to take effect, was "arbitrary and capricious" and ran contrary to the National Park Service's scientific analysis of the effects on air quality and wildlife.

....In the District of Columbia court ruling, Sullivan wrote that the rationale offered for the policy change was "weak at best" and said that "the decision to overturn the ban was completely politically driven and result oriented."

"Completely politically driven"? Say it ain't so!

But seriously, I have a couple of questions about this:

  • What interest group were they responding to? The Times notes that in public hearings sentiment was 99-1 in favor of banning snowmobiles, and I can't imagine that snowmobile manufacturers have all that much clout. So what was the point?

  • What's wrong with being politically driven? Seriously. Surely the Bush administration is allowed to make politically driven rules if it wants to?

The sad part of this is that it will probably just accelerate the Bush administration's contempt for any science that undermines their preferred policy directions. The EPA's scientists apparently concluded that a snowmobile ban was necessary to protect the park, and the lesson for the Bushies is never to allow scientists to say things like this again, regardless of whether they're true. Just gets in the way, after all. I imagine that political vetting of EPA's scientific studies will be quietly increased after this incident, and not for the first time.

Kevin Drum 8:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 16, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

TOO MUCH MATH?....In case you didn't know, there's a long running debate about the role of math in the field of economics that goes back at least several decades maybe even centuries. I'll confess that I've never really understood it, since it seems obvious that (a) mathematical models are indeed very useful in a discipline systematically concerned with quantities and flows of money, and (b) mathematics can also be badly abused. But both those statements are true of lots of other fields too.

(After all, you can even describe physics without math if you want to Physics for Jocks it's usually called but there's a world of difference between d = at and "the longer something falls the farther it drops." Just ask Neil Armstrong.)

Of course, that's hardly a very profound analysis, is it? So if you'd like to learn a bit more about this go read this essay by Daniel Davies over at Crooked Timber. And be sure to read all the comments too, which include an academic lit-crit smackdown and a discussion of "jargon" vs. "slang." Entertaining stuff.

POSTSCRIPT: And a note to Chun and Ophelia: my mother wrote her masters thesis on the prose and poetry of Stephen Crane, which involved using random number tables to extract words from (duh) some of Stephen Crane's prose and some of his poetry, and then comparing the types of words he used. That was in 1962, so there's your "long-standing tradition of computational stylistics in literary criticism"!

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By: Kevin Drum

FIGHTING TERRORISM....PART 3....Saddam's capture combined with some real life stuff kept me from posting this over the weekend, but here's the topic of part 3 of my 6-part dialog on terrorism with Armed Liberal:

Third, we're going to stop Israel from building new settlements and push them to dismantle existing illegal ones;

AL's expanded version of this is here.

AL is deliberately a bit vague about the details: Which settlements? Dismantle them when? Push how?

Which is probably OK, since this is a subject that's notoriously difficult to discuss without getting bogged down in almost metaphysical detail. However, even granting that the answers to these questions are no more concrete than "some," "sometime," and "somehow," I mostly agree with AL's pragmatic approach:

Israel is stuck with a hostage it doesn't want and can ill afford.

Clearly, this policy of 'civilian occupation' is economically devastating to Israel (which we mask by loaning or granting the necessary funds). I'm hard pressed to believe that it isn't militarily devastating as well, in the context of a terror war (as opposed to a conventional one). The burden of securing this scattering of small towns is immense.

I think this is about right. Regardless of whether Israel had the right to build settlements on occupied territory in the past, keeping them up is simply untenable from a number of viewpoints:

  • As AL points out, it's an economic and military drain.

  • It's also a moral drain: the Palestinian policy of targeting civilians in suicide bombings is certainly morally bankrupt, but that doesn't excuse the converse moral bankruptcy of the proponents of a Greater Israel.

  • It's impossible to maintain in any case. As Nico Pitney puts it:

    Israelis face, as they say, the impossible triangle. Israel can be Jewish and democratic but not include Palestinian land, it can be democratic and have the Palestinian land but fail to be Jewish, or it can be Jewish and have the land but fail to be democratic.

    The second and third options are simply unacceptable to most Israelis, I think, so like it or not that leaves only the first option: giving up the land.

The painful fact is that the settlements no longer serve any legitimate purpose and thanks to inexorable demographic pressures will almost certainly destroy Israel as a Jewish democracy if left intact. They should be given up not because of pressure from the Palestinians, but because it's the only way for Israel to save its soul. (What the Palestinians decide to do with their soul when they get the land back is their problem.)

A deal to give up most of the West Bank and Gaza would hardly make the Middle East a garden spot, but it would help. Israel itself would be more secure, a lightning rod for anti-western sentiment would be removed, and Palestinian attacks would almost certainly begin to subside even if they never die away completely. After all, convincing young men to blow themselves up is one thing when they deal with the mailed fist of Israeli occupation every day, but convincing them to blow themselves up over an abstract concept like the right of return is quite another. If the physical Israeli presence were removed, it would become increasingly difficult for groups like Hamas and Fatah to keep the old time faith.

And the arguments for keeping the settlements? I can't think of any good ones aside from a visceral unwillingness to ever give the Palestinians something they want. This may be understandable, but it is not wise, and I suspect that even Ariel Sharon realizes this in the depths of his heart.

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By: Kevin Drum

POWERPOINT HATERS UNITE!....Microsoft just can't catch a break. Via The Talent Show, apparently PowerPoint is now being blamed for the space shuttle crash:

NASA, the board argued, had become too reliant on presenting complex information via PowerPoint, instead of by means of traditional ink-and-paper technical reports. When NASA engineers assessed possible wing damage during the mission, they presented the findings in a confusing PowerPoint slide -- so crammed with nested bullet points and irregular short forms that it was nearly impossible to untangle. "It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation," the board sternly noted.

That's rough. However, at the risk of offending the legions of PowerPoint haters out there, I'd caution everyone against taking this too far and indulging in dreams of a golden age in which everyone sat down with quill pens and fashioned beautiful, tightly reasoned prose in the business world. Information was presented really badly in the pre-PowerPoint era too. Trust me on this.

As for me, I'm torn. There's no question that PowerPoint can hide a lot of shoddy thinking and often ingrains some bad habits, but on the other hand I'm a PowerPoint guru and would lose some of my competitive advantage if it became less popular. So let me just leave it at this: if you're good at presenting ideas, you'll probably do fine with PowerPoint. If you're not, you won't.

But I will say one thing: PowerPoint is great if you're presenting to a foreign audience that might otherwise miss some of what you say. It's a real boon for us Americans making sales pitches in Asia or Europe.

Oh, and one more thing: Edward Tufte is kind of a cranky guy. I liked his first book, but his subsequent books devolved into a set of really idiosyncratic lectures on How Charts Must Be Drawn. I liked his advice on a broad level, but his obsession with "chart junk" eventually got to the point where there was virtually no chart left. I'd take him with a grain of salt.

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By: Kevin Drum

TREASON....Over at NRO, Jay Nordlinger is unhappy with Wes Clark:

When the story of [Halliburton] overcharging for gas arose, Wesley Clark said the following: that the president is "more concerned about the success of Halliburton than having a success strategy in Iraq."

Now, I'm not nave about politics I know that rhetoric is excessive in campaigns. But even so, shouldn't something like this Clark statement be disqualifying? I mean, how is it possible to take seriously a man who says that Bush is "more concerned about the success of Halliburton than having a success strategy in Iraq"? That amounts to a charge of treason.

Indeed. And here is President Bush on September 23, 2002, speaking about the Democratic controlled Senate:

The Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people.

Has NRO lost all sense of irony? Or does their institutional memory not extend more than a few months?

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By: Kevin Drum

DRAT?....I confess that I'm perplexed by the reaction of the Democratic candidates to the capture of Saddam Hussein. Amy Sullivan says it "could best be described as a collective 'Drat,'" and that seems like a pretty reasonable assessment based on this New York Times roundup of candidate reaction.

But why? Even aside from the fact that it really was unalloyed good news, aren't these folks bright enough to realize that they damn well ought to at least pretend that it was unalloyed good news? Only Dean and Clark struck the right tone which might explain why they're frontrunners and the others aren't and I gather that even Dean sounded a bit grudging in person. (I didn't hear him, I only read the transcript.)

A tin ear for what people want to hear is not a good sign in someone who wants to be president. These guys could have done a lot better, and should have.

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2010 SHOULD BE A HELLUVA YEAR....Do you notice a trend in the following major pieces of George Bush legislation?

  • The Bush tax cuts produced deficits that everyone agrees were a useful short-term stimulus for a stalled economy. However, although the deficits should flatten a bit for the next couple of years, the CBO estimates that they will pick up steam starting in 2007 and will become catastrophic by around 2010. Using real-world estimates (the bottom line of the chart at right), we will begin running a steady $700-800 billion deficit every single year by 2010.

  • The No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001, gradually raises the minimum standards for schools to be deemed successful with "unsuccessful" schools suffering severe consequences. These standards will start to become noticably harsh and unrealistic around 2007 or so, and will eventually require an absurd 100% compliance by 2014.

  • The weird and probably unpopular benefits structure of the Medicare bill just passed does not take effect until 2006. In addition, the much touted "competition" pilot projects which are likely to be very unpopular don't start until 2010.

Compare this to, say, Clinton's proposed health plan, or his welfare reform, which were designed to take effect almost immediately, or a program like AmeriCorps, which started up within months of the enabling legislation.

Now, I know that I'm naturally suspicious of my brethren across the aisle, but doesn't it seem odd that all these major pieces of Bush administration legislation, which Republicans assure us will prove that conservative methods produce real results, don't take effect until George Bush is either safely reelected or out of office entirely? It's almost like they're afraid they won't work. Or that people will hate them. Or something.

I wonder what they're afraid of?

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LOSING THE SOUTH....And then there were none: John Breaux has announced he won't run for reelection, bringing the number of retiring Senate Democrats to five. This is bad, bad news for us Dems.

America has long been a naturally Republican country, but for a hundred years after the Civil War this was balanced by the fact that the South was solidly Democratic but for entirely idiosyncratic reasons, not ideological ones. If the South had voted as Republican as it should have, the Democratic party would have had a small majority perhaps twice in the 20th century and Republicans would have controlled Congress for the other 90 years.

Demographic trends may indeed be moving in the Democrats' direction, but at the same time the Republicanization of the South is still in progress. If it continues to its natural conclusion, 80-90% of the South will shortly be in Republican hands and Democrats will be locked out of the majority in Congress for a long time.

Like it or not, this means that the Democratic party has to appeal to the South. It's possible that a Democrat can win the presidency without the South Al Gore almost did it but Congress is out of reach unless we're at least competitive there. This is one among several reasons that I support Wesley Clark's candidacy: I think he can help us win congressional races in the South. Howard Dean may have had the right idea with his pickups and Confederate flag remark, but Clark is the guy who can actually pull it off.

Kevin Drum 8:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 15, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

BLOG PARTY RECAP....So what do bloggers chat about when they get together? Here's a miscellaneous assortment of stuff from last night's get together with David Adesnik of OxBlog, Pejman Yousefzadeh of Pejmanesque, Robert Tagorda of Priorities & Frivolities, and Mark Kleiman of, um, Mark Kleiman:

  • Is chess getting too deterministic and therefore less interesting at the highest levels? Answer: yes. Solution: play Go instead.

  • Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power really is a classic that ranks right up with Machiavelli, but only if you get a copy of the slender and elegant first edition, not the bloated and execrable second edition.

  • Jimmy Carter deserves a lot of credit for the democracy promotion agenda later adopted by the Reagan administration. The Reaganites didn't want to adopt it at first, but eventually did because too many people in their own party began insisting on it. (But Carter himself never promoted democracy effectively because he was too committed to non-interventionism.)

  • Eugene Volokh is a very good Scrabble player.

  • It's pretty hard to know what's really going on in Iran these days. But if the moderates gain power in the next election it might really mean something.

  • Most lefty bloggers are actually pretty moderate liberals: me, Josh Marshall, Atrios, Matt Yglesias, Jeralyn Merritt, Brad DeLong, etc. (Atrios is a hardnosed partisan, but his politics are actually fairly centrist liberal. Surprise!) Most righty bloggers are actually libertarians, not conservatives.

  • Is France afraid of what Saddam might say during a war crimes trial? The consensus was that everything there is to say has already been said (after all, it's not a secret that France sold him lots of arms). On the other hand, the spotlight of a trial might be something they'd like to avoid.

  • Genealogy is a lot easier for me than it is for someone whose ancestors are all from Iran.

  • If cats get hungry enough, they will eventually come downstairs even if they are extremely skeptical of strangers wandering around their house.

  • No one likes postmodernists. None of us do, anyway.

    Today's pomos strike me as a perfect example of what happens when you take a perfectly respectable idea (different cultures are different, not necessarily inferior or superior) and take it to such an extreme that it loses all grounding in human experience.

  • Clark/Dean or Dean/Clark would be a great ticket. However, it's probable that both men have such large egos that neither one would be willing to serve as the other's veep.

There was lots more, but you get the idea. Sort of like a blog except with real people....

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JAMES BAKER IS COMING TO TOWN....France reacts to the impending visit of James Baker:

Seizing the initiative a day after the announcement of Saddam Hussein's capture, France said today that it would work with other nations to forgive an unspecified portion of Iraq's immense foreign debt.

....Mr. de Villepin's statements came a day before James A. Baker III, a former United States secretary of state, was scheduled to arrive in Paris to ask the French for help in relieving Iraq of its crushing financial obligations....

Damn! I've always heard Baker referred to as the Bush family consigliere, but I guess it's really true. He didn't even have to show up in Paris, he just had to threaten to show up and the French caved in!

On a more serious note, this doesn't strike me as a surprise for several reasons:

  • France has been consistently trying to mend fences since the war ended, although they've been rebuffed pretty thoroughly so far. This is just more of the same.

  • All of Iraq's debtors must know that, politics aside, there's no chance at all that they will ever be repaid. The money just isn't there, and at best they might get pennies on the dollar. Given that reality, why not play nice? There's really no downside.

  • Despite what the American right likes to think, French politicians do not spend every waking moment trying to figure out how to screw the United States. There's no question that preventing total economic, cultural, and military American hegemony over the entire globe is part of their foreign policy, and has been for a while, but they really do have other interests besides and France has shown itself perfectly willing to cooperate with America in the past. (Kosovo and Afghanistan are Exhibits A and B here, and way too many Americans conveniently forget that France and Germany have contributed heavily in both money and troops to the occupation of Afghanistan. They are hardly sworn enemies of Amerika.)

My guess is that France will try to use the debt forgiveness issue as a way of showing leadership in Europe, as a path toward warming its relationship with America a bit, and as a way of gaining some credibility in the Middle East. They could be quite helpful if George Bush is willing to let them be, and it will be interesting to see if Baker has the influence to make that happen.

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SURVIVOR OPEN THREAD....I'm so ashamed. I missed the Survivor finale last night. Instead I hosted a dinner party with real, live people. It was the ultimate in reality entertainment!

However, that doesn't mean the rest of you shouldn't talk about it, so consider this your Survivor open thread. To start everyone off, here's a topic: is Lill the least deserving finalist ever?

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WES CLARK VIDEO....If you're interested in Wesley Clark's candidacy, US 4 Clark is a pretty interesting resource. They've got links to all his major speeches and video clips of his various appearances. Pay 'em a visit if you missed him on TV and want to catch up.

Kevin Drum 9:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TIME FOR YOUR FLU SHOT!....How should you allocate flu vaccine that's in short supply? Henry Farrell blogs today about a clever idea:

Its fairly well established that some individuals are a lot more likely to spread viruses than others; these super spreaders are exceptionally gregarious people, who have a wide and varied circle of friends with whom they share time, conversation, and unpleasant infections.

....If you can vaccinate these individuals, who are the hubs of the network, you can do an awful lot to limit the spread of the disease. The problem is that its often hard to figure out who the hubs are. Cohen, Havlin and ben-Avraham have figured out a very clever way of doing this. You randomly sample the population, and ask each person who you sample to nominate one of their acquaintances. You then vaccinate not the initial person who has been sampled, but instead their acquaintance. Because super spreaders are likely to know far more people than the average member of the population, they will be heavily over-represented among the acquaintances - and thus will be far more likely to be vaccinated.

There's no chance that I would end up being one of these all-powerful "hubs," but let's pretend anyway. What's the mechanism for getting me vaccinated? A letter?

Dear Mr. Drum:

You have been selected by your friends as an especially contagious person. Federal agents will be dropping by tomorrow to vaccinate you. Thank you for your cooperation.

I dunno. Remember all the fuss about flouridated water back in the 60s? Something tells me this plan won't fly anywhere outside the planet Vulcan.

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SADDAM COVERAGE....Well, I'm impressed. This morning's LA Times devoted the entire first 19 pages to the capture of Saddam Hussein, running 17 stories in all. I'm not sure there was really that much to say about it, but it sure goes to show what a major daily can do when it marshals its forces.

And was the coverage any good? Beats me. Who has time to read that much?

Kevin Drum 9:14 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 14, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

AFTER SADDAM....Iraqis seem pretty ecstatic over the capture of Saddam, but there's also this:

"American is very good but we still want salaries," said one man.

Talk about voting your pocketbook!

But it's also a reminder that good news aside, the real work in Iraq is still a long, hard slog. Max Boot, hardly a critic of the war, wonders publicly today whether the Bush "Dream Team" is up to the task.

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SADDAM CAPTURED....He's not looking too good, is he? Sort of like Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa.

I rather doubt that Saddam was really guiding the insurgency, so his capture probably won't change that too much. But you never know: even if he isn't the brains behind it, he's certainly a symbol. At a minimum, there are a lot of people in Iraq who are breathing a sigh of relief that at least he won't be returning, and that's got to help.

I wonder if now we'll figure out what the real story is on the WMD? I suspect not: his story is probably going to be that there never was any and we just weren't willing to believe him. So it will stay a mystery for a while longer.

I'll confess that I'm a little surprised that apparently we don't know what we're going to do with him. The only realistic choices at this point are an American military tribunal or turning him over to the Iraqis, and I suspect it will be the latter. But in either case, why is it that we didn't figure this out months ago? Odd.

Kevin Drum 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 13, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

JOHN LOTT UPDATE....John Lott bashing never gets old, does it? Krauthammer really needs to come up with a name for whatever disease he has.

Instead, we'll make do with Tim Lambert, who finishes up his most recent series on Lott by documenting (a) more anonymous reviews of his own books, and (b) how Lott praises other gun researchers publicly and then trashes them anonymously.

Seems to me that Tim deserves a nomination for Best Single Issue Blog over at the Koufax Awards. Hell, he deserves to win! Who else has given us so much sheer pleasure this year?

UPDATE: I see that for Best Group Blog someone nominated "John Lott dining alone." Heh heh.

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By: Kevin Drum

PLUCKY?....Andrew Sullivan today:

The plucky Spanish and Poles stick to their guns and help derail a new constitution for the EU. Good news for the U.S....the chances of a real unraveling are not as low as they once were. Here's hoping.

Why is this good news for the U.S.? Has it gotten to the point where anything that causes pain for Europe is good news for us?

I'm a moderate skeptic of the euro and the expanded EU myself, but this very real sense of treating Europe as a flat-out enemy complete with undisguised eagerness for their unraveling is simply juvenile. Disagreeing about the invasion of Iraq does not make them terrorist sympathizers and it does not make them enemies. It just means they disagreed with us about invading Iraq, as did most of the rest of the world and a pretty sizable portion of the American population as well.

And is Spain no longer part of Old Europe? When did that happen?

UPDATE: By the way, although it's not obvious from either Sullivan or the New York Times article unless you keep reading what's really surprising is that the EU states actually agreed on nearly everything in the proposed constitution, something I wouldn't have put money on a few months ago. The only issue left on the table is voting shares, and while that's a pretty important point of disagreement I still suspect that everyone will settle down and find a compromise next year. Andy will be crushed, I suppose.

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EASTERBROOK AND THE ENVIRONMENT....Gregg Easterbrook is complaining yet again about the media's unfair coverage of George Bush's environmental record:

The latest example of the media standing on its head regarding George W. Bush's environmental policies is the treatment accorded the White House announcement, last week, that Bush would impose a substantial reduction in emissions from Midwestern power plants. Did you even know this happened? Of course not, because news organizations either buried the story or twisted it to make it sound negative.

....The proper placement for this story was page one--where the anti-Bush environmental stories always run--and the proper headline was, BUSH ORDERS DRAMATIC POLLUTION REDUCTION. But you didn't see that, did you?

Maybe he's right, maybe he's wrong. Unfortunately, Easterbrook has proven himself so unreliable on this subject that his opinion is practically worthless. Here's an op-ed he wrote for the LA Times back in October:

Bush has implemented three major new environmental reforms for which he has received zero credit. He ordered that diesel fuel be reformulated to reduce its inherent pollution content over the howls of his natural constituency, Big Oil. He ordered that new diesel trucks and buses meet significantly stricter emissions standards over the howls of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, in whose Illinois district sits an enormous diesel-engine factory. Third, he imposed new emissions standards on a range of previously unregulated machines construction vehicles, outboard motors, all-terrain vehicles and others.

What Easterbrook doesn't mention is that of these three "major new environmental reforms," the first two were implemented by the Clinton administration. All Bush did was decide not to overturn them. And the third reform is still in draft stage and has been since April. There's no telling how the final regulations will turn out. Those are rather serious omissions from his piece, don't you think?

And there's more. As Easterbrook says, the fact that pollution has been decreasing steadily for the past 30 years is good news, but it has nothing at all to do with Bush's record, which includes loosening the new source rules for power plants, support for ANWR drilling, weaker enforcement of existing regulations, a proposed cap-and-trade scheme for mercury emissions, and no action whatsoever on greenhouse gases. Some of these positions may be defensible, but they are hardly pro-environment and it's the worst kind of special pleading to pretend they are.

I don't know what axe Easterbrook has to grind here, but whatever it is I recommend not accepting anything he says on environmental issues without checking it out yourself first. He's not necessarily wrong every time, but he's definitely untrustworthy.

Kevin Drum 10:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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MISSILES FOR MUAMMAR....Remember those North Korean missiles that we intercepted on the high seas a year ago? We asked Spain to stop a suspect ship for us, which they did, and then after dithering for a while we announced that the missiles were for our good friends in Yemen and let the ship go on its way.

It seemed odd at the time and embarrassing for the Spanish government but then it dropped off the radar screen. Today, however, Asia Times, quoting the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, suggests there was more to the story:

The handover was preceded by a telephone conversation between US Vice President Dick Cheney and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. When that conversation was made public, the White House justified the move by calling Yemen a friendly nation.

....The NATO sources cited in El Mundo said that at the time the shipment was intercepted, the United States was secretly negotiating the possibility that Libya would accept Saddam Hussein, then still president of Iraq, in exile. And Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who played the role of go-between during the Gulf War in 1991 by assisting in Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, had hopes of gaining access to the weapons.

"Gaddafi wanted the missiles and Yemen acted as intermediary. In the context of gestures with Libya, it was decided to look the other way, given that there was no international regulation that impeded it," said the newspaper, citing sources from the Pentagon.

You know, I sure wish that I had the moral clarity of the warhawks. It must be a beautiful thing.

Kevin Drum 9:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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POLITICAL SMEARS....I'm less worried than a lot of people about the Democratic candidates taking potshots at each other. After all, this happens in every election cycle, people always warn that it does nothing except weaken the entire party (whichever party it happens to be), and in the end it rarely seems to matter much. Carter, Reagan, and Clinton all had bruising primary battles and won, and I'm sure this year's candidate will survive the primaries as well.

Still, enough's enough: linking Howard Dean to Osama bin Laden isn't criticism, it's political porn. I hope every Democratic candidate loudly and unequivocally denounces this kind of crap and makes it clear that it has no place in the campaign. Today would be a good time to start, and I hope my candidate, Wes Clark, is the first out of the gate.

Kevin Drum 9:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 12, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

RHETORICAL QUESTION....What does it say about our country when it's big news that the president says a war contractor will have to pay back any overcharges? What else would he say?

No, don't answer that....

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FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING....What are they looking at? Beats me. What are cats ever looking at?

BONUS CATS: Here's a CAT user manual: "CATs will self-recharge. This takes 20 hours in a 24-hour cycle." Yeah, it's mostly just a long geek joke. And here's some old cat humor from the Annals of Improbable Research.

And I guess I'm just way behind the curve on this, but did you know that President Bush has a cat? Hell, I didn't even know he had a second dog I've only heard of Barney. Anyway, he does, and here's the official White House photo.

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December 11, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

SURVIVOR UPDATE....I missed the final credits of Survivor tonight, but did Burton really have the gall to castigate Lil for breaking their alliance mere minutes after he himself had tried to vote her out? Sheesh.

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BUDGET COMPROMISE....It looks like Arnold got the compromise he was looking for after all:

Schwarzenegger had sought a cap to rein in lawmakers he characterized as "overspending addicts" during his campaign to oust his Democratic predecessor, former Gov. Gray Davis. Originally, Schwarzenegger had sought to limit annual state spending to $72 billion a 16% cut from the current level and allow that level to rise or fall each year based on a formula tied to population and per capita income.

....The compromise they struck would ban the Legislature from borrowing money to balance the state budget. Such a constitutional requirement would force lawmakers to adjust spending each year to match revenues. But the deal would allow them to increase spending in years when the state's coffers were flush.

The agreement would also create a reserve fund to help balance the budget in tough economic times. The reserve would be started by diverting 1% of state revenue into a special pool starting in 2006. The percentage would rise to 2% in 2007 and 3% by 2008, where it would stay until the pool totaled 5% of the budget, or $8 billion, whichever was greater.

Good for him. It may not be everything he wanted, but this is the kind of compromise we need if we're going to get anything done around here.

And since I knocked the LA Times the other day for their lousy coverage of the budget negotiations, let me say that this time I thought their story was the most comprehensive of the bunch that I saw. Good for them too.

Kevin Drum 10:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SOFTWARE PATENTS....The Washington Post has a good article today about the problems surrounding software patents. The hook for the story is a company called Acacia, which owns a patent that (allegedly) covers a technology used to stream audio and video over the internet, an area that is intensely complex. The "patent pools" for technologies like MPEG-2 and MPEG-4, for example, contain hundreds of separate patents.

Read the whole thing if you're interested, but here's the specific part that has long been one of my biggest pet peeves about software patents:

Acacia's patents lay dormant for 10 years, until the original company was bought out by some of its minority investors. Management is now making it one of many companies specializing in the business of generating money from patents, rather than using them to develop products directly.

I happen to think that patents on "fundamental" software technologies are way too easy to get in any case, but the real problem here is that of letting a broad patent sit dormant for a long time while other people use it, either knowingly or not. After there's a critical mass, and the users can't easily switch to something else, the patent holder sues. Unisys pulled this same trick over the underlying technology for the GIF image format.

It strikes me that patent law should resemble trademark law in this respect: if you don't defend your patent, you lose it. Companies that adopt technology need to have a reasonable way of knowing whether the technology is patented and what the patent holder's licensing terms are, and they need to know this before they invest heavily in the technology. Anything else is fundamentally unfair.

Frankly, I wouldn't mind seeing patent law almost completely scrapped in the software world. The majority of software patents aren't really innovative at all, they're just one way out of dozens of accomplishing something. Until we get the broad overhaul that we need, though, I'd like to see a rule that requires a company to act immediately if it knows (or reasonably should know) that its patent is being violated. If it doesn't, the patent should be void.

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CONVERSATIONS....First conversation, Blockbuster, 3:13 PM:

CLERK: That's due back Saturday at noon.

ME: But it says it's due on noon of the third day. Saturday is only two days away.

CLERK: Yeah, that's how some people count.

ME: ?

CLERK: Well, technically you could have rented this any time today. [Blockbuster opens at 10 AM --ed] So today counts as the first day and Saturday is the third day.

ME: That's not the way I usually count.

CLERK: No, some people count differently. But we're not trying to make it confusing.

Second conversation, fish counter at Gelson's, 3:25 PM:

ME: What's Scotch salmon? How is it different from Atlantic salmon?

CLERK: It comes from Scotland.

ME: Oh.

At least I didn't ask him where the Chilean sea bass comes from.

Kevin Drum 5:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BUSH AND DEMOCRACY....Over at Tacitus, Democritus asks a question:

The administration's note of disapproval on the upcoming Taiwan referendum and subsequent trade agreements with China struck me as decidedly odd. I thought that for sure that issue would be a no-brainer, on pure ideology: we would be supporting the Taiwanese, a democracy that is standing in the shadow of the last megalithic communist nation....

With our current talks with China regarding Taiwan, if we are truly interested in bringing democracy to those who want it, then why haven't we been applying that standard across the board, and stand with those opposed to communist tyranny?

I'm intruding on Matt Yglesias' turf here, but assuming this question to be sincere, here's the answer: neither George Bush nor any other American president, with the possible and partial exception of Jimmy Carter, has ever been especially concerned with democracy in foreign countries. Yes, Bush talks about it a lot, but it's just talk. Let's roll the tape:

Taiwan? Deserving of little more than random bitch slaps if we feel like it might buy us some help from China over trade deficits and North Korea.

Saudi Arabia? Our finest friends in the world. Why, we fought a whole war so that we could remove our troops from their soil.

Pakistan? Their military dictatorship is a good thing as long as they help us out with the Taliban occasionally.

Uzbekistan? Why make trouble over boiling people to death as long as we're allowed to set up a military base or two?

I could go on, but you get the point.

Now, there's nothing necessarily wrong with these positions. I'm not a big league Saudi basher myself, China is a major power that needs to be dealt with realistically, and sometimes the fight on terror is going to make for strange bedfellows in central Asia. Still, it's pretty tiresome to hear conservatives endlessly extolling George Bush's commitment to democracy when it's clear from his actions that he has no such commitment at all, not even in Iraq.

As I've said before, I don't mind the speeches. They sound pretty and they might even do some good. Just don't take them seriously, OK?

Kevin Drum 4:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SHARPTON AND DEAN....Could Al Sharpton be 2004's Ralph Nader? Marc Levitt thinks he might be mad enough to try and sabotage a Howard Dean candidacy.

Just one more reason to dislike Sharpton, I suppose. However, my guess is that Dean will figure out a way to get back on Sharpton's good side. He seems to be pretty good at that stuff when he puts his mind to it.

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KOUFAX AWARDS....'Tis the season for blog awards, and the venerable (i.e., one year old) Koufax Awards are now taking nominations for best lefty blogs.

I'm bitter over the fact that there is no award for Best Catblogging, which I think I'd have a pretty good chance of winning, but we all know that angry liberals are an unsightly bunch, so I'm going to let bygones be bygones. I can't speak for Inkblot though, who is fully capable of running away and hiding under the bed if he disapproves of you....

UPDATE: Hey, I see that someone nominated Friday Cat Blogging for best series! It's certainly the longest running series, anyway.

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PEACE IN OUR TIME....A "former high-level Democratic executive branch appointee" talks about James Baker's appointment over at Talking Points Memo:

Only the naive can think his mission special part-time job (so conflicts of interest will not need to be disclosed), with plane, staff, and direct report to President is about renegotiating Iraqs debt obligations, as if he were restructuring a companys balance sheet....If Iraq could be liquidated, it would be. But instead the proprietors need to abandon it.

Finding a way to separate Bush and the United States from Iraq is this latest, and hardest, of the Baker rescue missions.

....Baker knows as does presumably the vigilant Rove who has perhaps arranged this supplanting of Rumsfeld, Powell, Bremer, and Rice what it will take to get this Administration out of Iraq. Baker has to pull off a trifecta: (1) involve Europeans (and perhaps Indians) in an indefinitely long occupation of a country they did not want invaded, (2) bring in enough non-American troops to create an appearance of stability by next summer, and (3) enable President Bush to announce with a straight face at the Republican Convention next September that progress will permit him to withdraw virtually all American troops soon after his second inauguration.

I'm still not completely sold that this is really what's happening where are those European troops going to come from? but I admit there's some awfully good evidence that this is the case, and my skepticism is definitely weakening. Read the whole post for more.

But you know what the real pisser is? He'll probably get away with it. The warhawks will duly criticize the pullout, but then they'll shrug and decide that Bush is a good and decent man with his heart in the right place anyway and we certainly can't afford a Democrat in the White House no matter how many times Bush has screwed us over. Besides, we could have done a lot better if only all those liberals hadn't spent so much time carping during the past year.

And the rest of the country will shrug right along. Hey, he tried, and Saddam is gone, isn't he? It's peace in our time, and who can vote against that?

Mission accomplished.

Kevin Drum 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DEMONSTRATIONS IN BAGHDAD....Conservative bloggers are up in arms: there was an anti-terrorist demonstration in Baghdad yesterday that attracted about 10,000 people but the U.S. press said almost nothing about it. Here's Instapundit:

Had these demonstrators been marching on the other side, this would have been a big story instead of the closest thing to a non-story. So why isn't it a big story when it's good news? Because they want us to lose?

I got a couple of emails about this too, so I got curious. Did anyone cover it?

This isn't exhaustive, but after a few minutes of checking the answer is no. The New York Times, LA Times, and Washington Post had nothing (or next to nothing). But neither did the conservative Washington Times. The Guardian didn't report it, but neither did the conservative Telegraph. Among Mideastern newspapers, it was almost universally ignored too: I found a front page link in the Bahrain Tribune and a picture but no story in the Jordan Times, but nothing else. Even Iraq Today doesn't have anything up yet. Ditto for the Israeli papers and the Asian papers.

In other words, as near as I can tell, this just isn't big news. CNN and Fox covered it briefly because demonstrations make for good TV images, but aside from that neither liberal nor conservative news outlets cared much. This isn't any kind of anti-war bias, it's just news judgment: there was lots of other news yesterday, some of it Iraq related, that was more important.

Hawks have been working themselves into a lather trying desperately to find good news out of Iraq, but I've got news for them: it's just not going to work. Sure there's some good news, but the fact is that the bad news is overwhelming it these days. Things just aren't going well, and burying your head in the sand and chanting "liberal media bias" isn't going to change that.

Wake up, folks.

Kevin Drum 9:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 10, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

OH YES, THE GROWNUPS ARE TRULY IN CHARGE....Right hand, meet left hand:

President Bush found himself in the awkward position on Wednesday of calling the leaders of France, Germany and Russia to ask them to forgive Iraq's debts, just a day after the Pentagon excluded those countries and others from $18 billion in American-financed Iraqi reconstruction projects.

White House officials were fuming about the timing and the tone of the Pentagon's directive, even while conceding that they had approved the Pentagon policy of limiting contracts to 63 countries that have given the United States political or military aid in Iraq.

Which theory does this support?

(a) The White House is completely clueless
(b) You reap what you sow
(c) James Baker is going to have a tough time straightening out this crew
(d) All of the above

I think I'll go with (d).

Kevin Drum 9:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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YOUR $18 BILLION AT WORK....Coals to Newcastle? Refrigerators to eskimos? Gasoline to Iraq?

I know, I know, Iraq's infrastructure is busted and it actually makes sense that we have to import gasoline into the country. Fine. But how much should it cost? Here's a couple of data points:

Iraqi's state oil company, SOMO, pays 96 cents a gallon to bring in gas, which includes the cost of gasoline and transportation costs....

The Pentagon's Defense Energy Support Center pays $1.08 to $1.19 per gallon for the gas it imports from Kuwait, Congressional aides said. That includes the price of the gas and its transportation costs.

OK, so the Iraqis can do it for 96 cents, and the army can do it for about $1.08. So how much can our friends at Halliburton do it for?

A breakdown of fuel costs, contained in Army Corps documents recently provided to Democratic Congressional investigators and shared with The New York Times, shows that Halliburton is charging $2.64 for a gallon of fuel it imports from Kuwait and $1.24 per gallon for fuel from Turkey.

....The government's accounting shows that Halliburton paid its Kuwait subcontractor $1.17 a gallon, when it was selling for 71 cents a gallon wholesale in the Middle East.

In addition, Halliburton is paying $1.21 a gallon to transport the fuel an estimated 400 miles from Kuwait to Iraq, the documents show.

Add in a 26 cent markup which one expert says is a profit margin that any oil services company in the world would "salivate" over and you get $2.64.

Why so much? The Halliburton flacks say their costs are high because it's really dangerous to import gasoline into Iraq right now, trucks get shot up, drivers are injured, yadda yadda yadda.

Fine, I'll buy that. But surely SOMO's trucks and the army's trucks are getting shot up too? Yep: "The gasoline transported by SOMO and by Halliburton's subcontractor are delivered to the same depots in Iraq and often use the same military escorts."

So why the difference? Can you spell "war profiteering"?

(Thanks to Unfogged for pointing me to this story.)

Kevin Drum 8:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE FUN NEVER ENDS....Yet more John Lott sock puppetry from Tim Lambert. This is part 2 of 4....

Kevin Drum 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMACY....I haven't said anything yet about Paul Wolfowitz's recent directive that prevents French, German, and Russian companies from bidding on Iraqi reconstruction projects. After all, it's hardly unexpected from the "teach 'em a lesson" crew running the country right now, most of whom seem to think that loud threats constitute an effective foreign policy. And hell, we all know that W is a guy who can hold a grudge.

But here's a chain of thought for you anyway:

  • I imagine that even without any directive on this, the vast bulk of the reconstruction money would have gone to American firms. Only a small amount would have gone to France, Germany, and Russia.

  • How small? My guess is that even a country the size of France couldn't expect more than one or two percent of the total business, perhaps a few hundred million dollars in all. Does anyone really think that Jacques Chirac is going to change his foreign policy based on losing a few hundred million dollars in business for France? (Or that some future partner will change theirs based on the hope of getting a few tens of millions?) It's not even a drop in the economic bucket.

  • But if even that's too much, surely there are ways of quietly ensuring that nothing of substance goes to countries we don't want to do business with, aren't there?

In other words, this directive will have virtually no real effect at all and was designed solely to deliver a big public "fuck you" to these countries. Question: does this ever work? TR said "speak softly and carry a big stick," and there's a reason for the first part of that advice. If you want someone to back down, you need to give them a face saving way of doing it.

Bottom line: what the hell was the point of this? It's not likely to make any substantive difference, it's not likely to change anyone's behavior, and it makes us look bitter and nasty for no good reason.

But that's really it, isn't it? The Bushies like being bitter and nasty even if there's no point. Nixon felt the same way, I think, but at least he was smart enough to try and hide it.

UPDATE: As Robert Tagorda and a few other people have pointed out, this policy is also likely to increase the cost of the reconstruction since less competition generally produces higher prices. More damaging, perhaps, is that there might be specific areas where the best products or services come from a non-coalition country possibly even the only viable product for a particular need. In that case, we either have to make do with second best or else embarrass ourselves by twisting the rules to allow the banned product.

UPDATE 2: Canada is complaining that this policy is unfair since they've already contributed $190 million to the rebuilding effort: "To exclude Canadians just because they are Canadians would be unacceptable if they accept funds from Canadian taxpayers for the reconstruction of Iraq."

That sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Kevin Drum 4:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SPUTTERING RAGE....I had a thought over lunch about Howard Dean. You know how conservatives keep telling us that incoherent anger is an electoral loser? After all, upon mature reflection they now realize that Clinton hatred didn't get them anywhere, and we ought to learn from their experience.

(Actually, I still haven't figured out how it was a loser for them, but we'll leave that for another day.)

Anyway, as near as I can tell there's no candidate that brings out sputtering rage in conservatives more than Howard Dean. So if they're really right, then nominating Dean is a good thing because it will put our opponents back into sputtering rage mode and guarantee us victory! Hooray!

(Of course, there's still that whole problem of whether sputtering rage is really a loser. But I said I'd leave that for another day, didn't I?)

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GETTING ANGRY OVER CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM....Professor Bainbridge is distressed that two Supreme Court justices appointed by Republicans have upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform "monstrosity." His solution? We must be sure to vote for a Republican in 2004. In fact, we should vote for the very Republican who signed this bill into law.

Well, he's not a professor of logic, so I guess that's OK. But although I'm mostly just poking fun here, there's a part of his complaint about this ruling that really does strike me as peculiar:

Despite my disagreements with many of President Bush's policies - both foreign and domestic - making sure that he is re-elected just became Job 1.

I can sort of understand the "liberal hawk" syndrome, where otherwise progressive folks decide that toughness against terrorism is so vital that they jettison their dislike for Bush and throw their vote to him regardless. But doing that over a campaign finance reform bill?

I've never met a single issue voter whose single issue was campaign finance reform. Now I have.

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THIRD PARTY TORTURE....Maher Arar, the guy that we shipped off to Syria to be tortured, tells his side of the story in the Los Angeles Times today:

My ordeal began on the afternoon of Sept. 26, 2002, when my flight back from a family vacation in Tunisia stopped over in New York and American immigration officials pulled me aside to answer a few questions. At first it was only an inconvenience thorough airport security, post 9/11-style. But my questioners persisted. And when someone waved a copy of the 1997 lease for my Ottawa apartment, I was shocked and confused. What was going on here? Who gave them the lease and what was its significance to them? For the first time, I began to realize that the questioning was not simply routine.

....To this day, unnamed American officials continue to allege that I have ties to Al Qaeda, although I have not seen the details and I have not been charged with a crime.

....My arguments were useless. Soon I was in a small private jet, chained and panic-stricken; then in a succession of cars in Jordan and Syria, blindfolded and beaten repeatedly; and finally placed in that shallow grave.

I describe my cell in Syria as a grave because it was just 3 feet wide, 6 feet long, 7 feet high and unlit. While I was there I sometimes felt on the verge of death after beatings with a black electrical cable about two inches thick. They mostly aimed for my palms but sometimes missed and hit my wrists. Other times, I was left alone in a special "waiting room" within earshot of others' screams. At the end of the day, they would tell me that tomorrow would be worse. In those 10 1/2 months I lost about 40 pounds. I never saw, but only heard, the agony of my fellow prisoners.

I am sympathetic to the fact that we will sometimes make mistakes and arrest the wrong people. I am not sympathetic to the fact that we refuse to back up serious accusations with evidence. And I'm decidedly not sympathetic to the fact that we ship people off to brutal dictatorships to be tortured.

The war on terror does not require us to behave like animals. After all, if we descend to their level, what's the point of the fight? The government owes both Arar and Canada an explanation for what happened here.

Kevin Drum 12:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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GORE AND DEAN....Dan Drezner has some reasonable thoughts about Al Gore's endorsement of Howard Dean yesterday. Dean's fundraising prowess is hardly noteworthy at this point, but Dan's suggestion that Gore's endorsement has pissed off the other candidates so much that it's less likely they'll drop out of the race is intriguing.

I also agree that Dean has, in a variety of ways, turned out to be a surprisingly gifted pure politician. Unbeknownst to most of us, he's been playing a lot of different angles over the past year and that's starting to pay off. Even his famously awkward phrasing often turns out to be a pretty good way of getting attention and driving the debate without actually being awkward enough to do him any real damage.

And while I'm on the subject, I think the almost absurdly conspiratorial beltway theorizing about Gore's endorsement has really missed the point. Keep in mind two things: the vast majority of people have barely even heard of Howard Dean yet, and the vast majority of people don't know any Democrats except Gore and the Clintons.

What's more, unlike the beltway crowd, out in the real world most Democrats don't even know much about Gore except that he's the guy they voted for in 2000 and he got screwed in Florida. They like him, and his endorsement is more powerful than anyone's but Bill Clinton's. For a lot of people Gore's endorsement is the first glimpse they've really had of Howard Dean, and in that sense it means a lot.

UPDATE: This is not to suggest that there isn't a backstory to Gore's endorsement, of course, nor that he hasn't been promised some kind of position in a future Dean administration. I just think it's worth putting that stuff aside sometimes and taking a look at how this appears to ordinary folks who aren't political junkies.

Kevin Drum 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ARNOLD'S LIES....A friend called yesterday to complain that there had been insufficient Arnold bashing on the blog. After all, this is Calpundit, isn't it?

Fine, let's just get this out of the way, then: is Arnold the most brazen liar in the history of politics, or what? I say this without a lot of malice, since I genuinely sympathize with the almost impossible job he's taken on. But still, enough's enough.

As the LA Times reports today, Arnold was on CNN yesterday and suggested that he might suspend Proposition 98, an initiative that guarantees a certain minimum level of school funding. To anyone who wasn't in California during the campaign it's hard to get across the depth of the deceit this demonstrates. Here was his TV ad on the subject of education:

Question: Will you have to cut education?

Schwarzenegger: No. We can fix this mess without hurting the schools. For me, children come first. Always have, always will.

I'm telling you, this ad ran a dozen times a night on every station in the state. He said over and over that education wouldn't be touched and that he supported Proposition 98. It was a cornerstone of his campaign. But less than a month after being sworn in he casually proposes gutting Prop 98 and then sends out his chief flack to make weasel noises about what the meaning of "cut" is. It's really unbelievable.

In the same interview, Arnold also backed off his promise to make sure local communities get back the money they lost when he reduced the vehicle license fee. And he's backed off his promise to investigate the groping charges.

This is a joke. He knew perfectly well exactly how bad the state's finances were when he made these promises, and he made them anyway. He knew he couldn't keep these promises without tax increases, and he made them anyway. And everyone believed that he had some magic plan that defied the laws of economics and lined up to vote for him.

And now he's just tossing those promises overboard without so much as an apology. It's revolting.

Kevin Drum 9:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NEDRA PICKLER....Last night, when I was reading about this peculiar "fact checking" AP dispatch by Nedra Pickler, in which she rather awkwardly tried to show that pretty much all the Democrats were lying in last night's debate, I felt a small disturbance in the force. Hadn't I run into her before?

Sure enough, she's the spondylolysis gal! Woodward and Bernstein call your office.

Kevin Drum 8:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 9, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ'S DEBT....I'm a little puzzled by Josh Marshall's endorsement of this view of the James Baker appointment by Newsweek's Richard Wolffe:

In previous administrations, Treasury was considered important enough (and competent enough) to deal with international issues such as foreign debt. Along with the diplomats at State, and with a little help from the White House, Treasury dealt effectively with a series of major financial crises.

....Either the president feels that Powell, Snow and the rest of his cabinet are incapable of dealing with Iraqs debts. Or the president is giving Baker a far broader role in resolving Iraqs future. Both explanations are deeply unsettling for his much-vaunted foreign policy team and for the rest of the world. When Baker travels to European and regional capitals, the worlds leaders will think that Bakernot Powell, Donald Rumsfeld or Condoleezza Ricehas the influence with the president to get things done in Iraq.

It's true that the Treasury Department has to be involved in debt renegotiation on a technical level, but even so is Baker's appointment really that mysterious? We haven't had much success renegotiating Iraq's foreign debt so far, and Bush may have simply decided that it needed full-time high level attention, something that no cabinet official can afford to give it.

What's more, this isn't financial crisis management, it's negotiation. A huge part of Iraq's debt is held by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and Baker obviously has personal ties to those governments that are unbeatable. He might very well be able to pressure them into making a deal that no one else could.

Bill Clinton used Jimmy Carter to help broker a deal with North Korea and Richard Holbrooke to broker one in Bosnia. Nobody suggested this meant that his foreign policy team was incompetent. Now George Bush is calling on an elder statesman of his own to broker a deal of a different kind. So why the conspiracy theories?

All in all, Baker's appointment seems pretty easy to understand. He's a very high level guy, he can spend full time on this issue, he knows all the players and has considerable influence with them, and he has Bush's ear. I guess I might be missing something big here, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Kevin Drum 8:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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IS GROVER NORQUIST CONSORTING WITH TERRORISTS?....FrontPage magazine is not normally the place you go to read denunciations of fellow conservatives for being insufficiently patriotic, but today's an exception, with David Horowitz taking the pulpit to introduce a long article accusing movement conservative capo Grover Norquist of being in league with terrorists. Is it true?

This stuff has been making the rounds for a while, and today's article by Frank Gaffney is the longest and most detailed yet. Unfortunately, the article is so poorly written that it's almost impossible to follow, and the gist of it seems to be that Norquist is associated with people who are associated with organizations that are associated with radical Islamists. That's a pretty long chain of association.

As near as I can tell, the key groups here are the American Muslim Council (AMC) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), with supporting roles played by several organizations that are funded by the Saudi government. So the question is: are these organizations moderate mainstream Muslim groups, as they claim, or are they apologists for terrorism and fronts for Saudi Wahhabism? And does Norquist's Islamic Institute actually have a strong relationship with any of them?

We're hardly going to resolve those longstanding questions here, but my initial take is that Gaffney's article is fairly weak. Still, I could be wrong, and Norquist certainly strikes me as the kind of loony fanatic who might very well overlook a sympathy for recreational terrorism in his colleagues as long as they supported lower taxes. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 8:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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MY NAME IS JOHN LOTT, AND I'M A SOCK PUPPET ADDICT....It now appears that John Lott isn't just corrupt, he's also stupid. Apparently after "Mary Rosh" was outed as Lott's sock puppet earlier this year, and after Lott admitted "I should not have done it," he kept on doing it anyway under a different name. Crikey, John, when are you going to learn that tech weenies are really good at tracking down aliases on the internet?

Needless to say, this latest bit of Christmas cheer comes from tech-weenie-in-chief Tim Lambert, and I am assured by a reliable source Tim that there's much, much more fun to come. I, for one, can't wait.

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DEAN ON TERRORISM....Would Howard Dean be tough on terrorism? Matt Yglesias says yes:

Watch Dean give a speech and he definitely seems like the kind of guy who would have no problem blowing all kinds of shit up in response to a terrorist attack.

No, this is not serious analysis. I just thought it was a funny line.

Kevin Drum 12:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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I JUST LOVE CALIFORNIA....News flash: Arnold calls off investigation on himself. "There was very little point to the investigation," said his spokesman.

Well, duh....

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ABSOLUTELY FINAL BCS UPDATE....So we all know that LSU edged out USC for the #2 spot in the BCS. We also know that six of the seven computers that are part of the BCS formula ranked LSU ahead of USC, and the margin was so close that if even one of those computers had switched its ranking then USC would have come out ahead.

Today, though, Chris Dufresne of the LA Times digs deeper and answers the real question for stat heads: how close were the computer rankings? Not just #2 vs. #3, but the actual numerical scores computed internally by the computer programs. Here's the answer for four of the computers:

LSU Score

USC Score

Colley Matrix

.88160

.87636

Peter Wolfe

7.032

6.789

Seattle Times

.776

.760

Richard Billingsley

300.683

300.567

Talk about your game of inches. Colley Matrix had LSU ahead by .4% and Billingsley had LSU ahead by .04%. Ouch.

So in the end the whole thing turned on a single game: Notre Dame vs. Syracuse. If Notre Dame had won, Colley Matrix would have ended up ranking USC slightly higher than LSU. The same is likely true if Hawaii had beaten Boise State.

Of course, if USC had come out on top, LSU fans could do the same number crunching and be equally aggrieved. But I'm not an LSU fan, am I?

Kevin Drum 9:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 8, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

VEEPS....I've always had the odd thought that presidential candidates ought to choose a running mate early in the election cycle. It would give them twice the campaigning power and could shore up some of their weaknesses early on. They'd campaign as a pair for an entire year rather than just for a few months, and once the convention was over they could pick their top few cabinet officers too and put 'em all together into one big campaign team. By the time they won the election they could really hit the ground running.

Sure, this might not really be feasible. Maybe nobody would want to join up so early, and it also might cut off support from lots of people who are hoping for these positions after the election. But what the hell. It's a thought.

So anyway, since Howard Dean is in the news tonight, let's play a Howard Dean parlor game: who should his vice president be if he wins the nomination? (No, not Gore. Don't be ridiculous.) Among the current presidential candidates, Clark is the obvious choice, followed by Edwards. Outside of that group, how about Bill Richardson?

Any other ideas?

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DOES NORTH KOREA HAVE NUKES?....Jeebus, not again:

The Bush administration has asserted in recent months that North Korea possesses one or two nuclear bombs and is rapidly developing the means to make more....But the administration's assessment rests on meager fresh evidence and limited, sometimes dated, intelligence, according to current and former U.S. and foreign officials.

....Independent experts and some U.S. officials also are skeptical of administration claims that North Korea is within months of manufacturing material for more weapons at a secret uranium-enrichment plant

...."We assess that North Korea has produced one or two simple fission-type nuclear weapons and has validated the designs without conducting yield-producing nuclear tests," the CIA said.

....To some, the wording of the CIA report shouted political considerations, not proof.

" 'We assess' means they concluded based upon a judgment of North Korean intent and capabilities," said Robert Gallucci, the Clinton administration's top negotiator with the North. "Those are political judgments."

The story goes on to says that our intelligence on North Korea is so poor that we literally don't know anything about them. They're certainly trying to build a nuclear capability, but we really don't know if they have one.

I'm well aware of the claim that we simply can't afford to take chances on this stuff anymore. But that's beside the point: if we don't know for sure what their capabilities are, but believe that we need to take action anyway, that's what we ought to say. If we're proven wrong again on a firm claim that a foreign country has WMD capability, we're screwed. No one will ever believe us again.

Kevin Drum 8:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BROKEN WINDOWS....Mark Kleiman explains the "broken windows" style of policing today. It turns out there's an A version and a B version, which I didn't know. Or perhaps it's really an A rationale and a B rationale, since they both lead to the same style of policing.

Anyway, since A is the only rationale I've ever heard, and it turns out that it's not really the compelling one, I thought his post was interesting. You can read it here.

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FIGHTING TERRORISM....PART 2....Continuing my slow motion dialog on terrorism with Armed Liberal, here's part 2 of his 6-part plan:

Second, we're too dependent on ME oil. We're going to do something about it, both by pushing conservation, expanding alternative energy, and expanding exploration. We're going to build the damn windmills off of Cape Cod;

Now, I basically favor this kind of thing for lots of reasons unrelated to terrorism, but I'll try to ignore that and just focus on the terror-related topics here. AL's expanded post is here not the director's cut, thank goodness, but still pretty meaty so go read it and then I'll make some assorted comments.

Instead of a long essay, I'm just going to present a few bullet points on the specific topics that I think are most important in AL's argument, as well as a couple of things I think he left out:

  • First, I think AL is mistaken to suggest that "our current exposure to Islamist boycott...is not today critical." He does this by noting that less than 10% of America's total energy comes from Middle Eastern oil, which is correct but fundamentally misses the point.

    There are two problems with this. The first is that you can't just talk about energy in bulk. We have lots of things, notably cars, that run on oil and simply can't be realistically switched over to other forms of energy anytime in the near future. You really do have to talk about oil, not just about generic energy, and about 20% of our oil comes from the Middle East.

    An even bigger problem, though, is restricting "us" to the United States. Our vulnerability lies less in our direct requirement for Mideast oil than in the fact that the entire world relies on cheap oil to keep its economy humming and cheap oil comes from the Middle East. As the California energy crisis a few years ago showed, it takes only a small shortfall to produce a big price increase, and the OPEC nations, if they chose to cut off oil supplies, have way more than enough leverage to cause oil prices to double or triple. Kept up for any length of time this would likely cause the worst depression since World War II and this is neither a joke nor silly conspiracy mongering. A major cutoff of Mideast oil would have massive repercussions, and no matter how Green you are I can guarantee that you wouldn't like the results.

    I've read several people recently trying to downplay the importance of Mideast oil, but it's a mug's game. For better or worse, the world runs on cheap oil and any serious energy policy has to address that.

  • Having said all that, it's worth pointing out that times have changed in the past 20 years. Mideast countries today are as addicted to our money as we are to their oil, and it's unlikely that they could sustain a boycott similar to those of 1973 and 1979. A massive terrorist strike that shut down a big part of the Persian Gulf's oil production might be a serious threat I can't say myself whether it is or isn't but I suspect that a boycott isn't.

  • AL's argument about the fragility of our tightly integrated energy network strikes me as only partially convincing. Yes, pipelines are vulnerable to an attack, but so are airports, chemical plants, office buildings, and so forth. I'm not sure that our energy network is any more vulnerable or more centrally controlled than lots of other things.

    Still, that's scant comfort, so while I might not be quite as concerned about this as AL is, we would probably be wise to spend more money and pay more attention to this stuff. Unfortunately, it's a certainty that at least part of the answer would involve considerable government regulation of the affected industries, and war on terror or no, this just doesn't seem to be something that the Bush administration is ideologically willing to do.

  • Although I'm not sure that dispersed generation of energy is really feasible on a large scale, conservation certainly is, and I agree with AL that if we really want to cut down on oil use we should do things like extending CAFE standards to SUVs and taxing gasoline more heavily. And if we were really serious we'd be funding massive technology programs to develop alternate energy sources instead of pouring billions of dollars into ethanol.

    But that's the problem: the Bush administration isn't serious. Contrary to what some lefties think, a secure supply of oil is a perfectly legitimate concern for the U.S. government, but contrary to what Dick Cheney and the warhawks seem to think, so are conservation and development of alternate energy sources.

    If the Bush administration truly believed that 9/11 had changed everything and if they truly believed that energy independence was a critical part of the war on terrorism they'd be willing to embrace some distasteful ideas and jettison some of their old ideologies. After all, in the past we could just say that the free market would take care of this stuff eventually, but if we're really fighting a war then we need to fight a war. Right?

    Instead, what we got two years after 9/11 was an energy bill stuffed with politics-as-usual horsetrading: ethanol credits for farmers, subsidies to oil and gas firms, and tax breaks for everyone under the sun. Effect on national security: approximately zero.

In the end, energy policy is one of the reasons I don't trust Bush on fighting terrorism: he obviously doesn't think national security is more important than paying off corporate donors and playing political games. So here's the litmus test for hawks: if you think that after 9/11 liberals need to accept the need for a more aggressive military posture to fight terrorism, fine. But you need to be more willing to accept things like green energy ideas, serious conservation programs, and gas taxes, even if these are things you'd normally oppose.

If you aren't, then you're not serious.

Kevin Drum 7:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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GORE ENDORSING DEAN....So it looks like Al Gore is going to endorse Howard Dean. I wish I could figure out something to say about this, but nothing comes to mind. Obviously it's good news for Dean, it gives him the backing of a well-known DLC Democrat, and it shows once again that Dean has been working a lot of angles in his campaign.

Beyond that, I dunno. Consider this an open thread to discuss the whole thing.

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THE SUBJECT THAT REFUSES TO DIE....It seems to be nearly unanimous now: the BCS sucks. Even people with no particular love for USC and no axe to grind against the BCS agree that any system that produced this year's result has to go.

The weird thing, of course, is that everyone and I mean everyone agrees that a playoff is the only sane method to determine a national champion, but at the same time everyone yeah, everyone also agrees that a playoff is impossible thanks to the unenlightened self-interest of the various big time football programs.

So what. Here's my plan anyway:

  • Forget the 8-team playoff concept that everyone always seems to propose. Make it a 4-team playoff instead, with the current BCS formula determining the teams. Play the two semifinal games on New Year's and the final a week later.

  • Why only four teams? The more teams you have the hairier the rankings and the pairings get, and I can't remember a year in which anyone seriously thought that a team outside the top four was a serious title contender. So let's walk before we run: four teams and one week of games.

  • Only three bowl games are needed for this, so either one of the current BCS bowls gets booted or else one of them sits out the playoffs each year and hosts an ordinary bowl game. As a consolation, maybe the bowl that sits out gets first pick of teams outside the top four.

  • As for splitting the money, I can't believe there's no way to make this work. There's got to be some formula that more or less replicates the current system, isn't there?

There you have it: simple, short, fair, and mercenary. And if the NCAA refuses to do it, maybe we can enlist Arnold to threaten a referendum unless they agree to the plan!

Kevin Drum 3:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CHINA POLICY....Yesterday:

The Bush administration has agreed with South Korea and Japan to a broadly worded set of principles to end North Korea's nuclear program.

....The statement is being sent to China's leaders on Monday, the officials said, in hopes that Beijing will pass it on this week to Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader.

Today:

The Bush administration stepped into the growing tensions between China and Taiwan today by clearly warning Taiwan against holding a referendum that could fuel the island's independence movement.

....Today's statements, which build on a series of signals the administration has been sending for the past week, will be broadly interpreted as a warning to Taiwan that Washington not only opposes independence, but even political discussion or a referendum about the subject.

Think there's any relationship here?

Kevin Drum 2:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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URL UPDATE....Priorities & Frivolities has moved to a new address:

http://www.tagorda.com

And Ralph Luker has joined forces with a bunch of eminent historians to start a new group blog, Cliopatria:

http://www.hnn.us/articles/1829.html

Update your bookmarks.

Kevin Drum 10:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE GENEVA ACCORDS....The Cornerites are arguing about the Geneva Accords. Rich Lowry thinks they're fine:

I dont see how its the obligation of every citizen living in a free society to support the policy of its elected government. In fact, the beauty of free societies is that citizens can engage in PR stunts to pressure their governments to adapt policies more to their liking. Which is exactly what Beilin has done. You can disagree with the substance of it, as [Charles] Krauthammer does powerfully, but it seems a perfectly legitimate exercise . . .

Jonah Goldberg thinks he's nuts:

Rich - I'm really kind of amazed you think there's nothing wrong with private citizens negotiating a radically different foreign policy, especially during what amounts to a time of war. If Cynthia McKinney, Noam Chomsky and Ed Asner got together and tried to hammer out an agreement with the Taliban after 9/11 would you consider that "completely legitimate"?

Gotta go with Lowry on this one. Nobody's negotiating with either the Taliban or Arafat here, it's private citizens on both sides (which also makes Logan Act comparisons moot). In fact, as Lowry points out, this is nothing more than a publicity stunt designed to pressure their respective governments, and if that's not allowed because Israel is at war, then it's just never allowed. After all, Israel has been in "what amounts to a time of war" for 50 years and I don't think anyone expects it to stop anytime soon.

This has nothing to do with the substance of the Accords, of course. But I don't see anything either wrong, illegal, unpatriotic, or treasonous about the process. It's just good old political free speech.

Kevin Drum 9:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CONSERVATIVE LYSENKOISM....The growing conservative assault on scientific results that don't support their preferred ideologies has become a common topic recently, and today Chris Mooney reports on an obscure new regulation that's poised to have an outsized impact on scientific research in America.

The Data Quality Act, inserted quietly into an appropriations bill by a Republican lawmaker near the end of the Clinton administration, contains what appears to be a benign requirement: government funded studies should be peer reviewed only by independent scientists. The problem is that "independent" means scientists who are not also funded by the government, and as Anthony Robbins writes in the Boston Globe:

To grasp the implications of this radical departure, one must recognize that in the United States there are effectively two pots of money that support science: one from government and one from industry. (A much smaller contribution comes from charitable foundations.) If one excludes scientists supported by the government, including most scientists based at universities, the remaining pool of reviewers will be largely from industry -- corporate political supporters of George W. Bush.

The net result of the DQA is to reduce the influence of academic scientists and increase the influence of industry-backed scientists under the Alice in Wonderland notion that academic scientists are somehow less trustworthy. In plain English, scientists who work for tobacco companies ought to be the ones to review cigarette research and scientists who work for chemical companies ought to be the ones to pass judgment on environmental research.

Lovely. Chris has more.

UPDATE: For those who don't click through to read Chris' post, I've added a few words to clear up the origin of this act. It was drafted by industry interests and inserted into a massive spending bill by a Republican lawmaker. It was not a Clinton administration initiative, and at the time it passed it's likely that no one really realized the impact of the new rules.

Kevin Drum 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 7, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

NORTH KOREA UPDATE....Apparently there's some movement on North Korea:

The Bush administration has agreed with South Korea and Japan to a broadly worded set of principles to end North Korea's nuclear program, calling for a "coordinated" set of steps in which five nations would offer the North a security guarantee as it begins a verifiable disassembly of its nuclear facilities, according to administration and Asian officials.

This sounds like good news, although, as usual, the devil is in the details. It might not go anywhere.

Once again, though, I'm left with a couple of questions:

  • If we're willing to make this deal now, why weren't we willing to make this deal a year ago?

  • How will conservatives manage to spin this as something different from what Democrats have been proposing for the past year? Trading a security agreement for verifiable disarmament sure sounds like what we've been suggesting all along, but I'm sure there's some subtle difference related to George Bush's toughminded adherence to principle that we liberals are blind to.

I suppose someone will set me straight soon enough.

Kevin Drum 8:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CAN'T TELL THE PLAYERS WITHOUT A PROGRAM....Confused about neocons vs. realists vs. imperialists vs. national greatness conservatives? State vs. Defense vs. Vice President? Wolfowitz vs. Cheney vs. Rumsfeld? Garner vs. Bremer?

Me too, but Juan Cole takes a stab at trying to figure out how all these different groups affected our Iraq policy and it's worth a read. I especially think it's worth noting the difference between the true neocons like Wolfowitz and the mere fellow travelers like Cheney and Rumsfeld.

There's no telling if this is how things really played out, but it does a good job of laying out the various players and trying to make some sense out of how they interacted. It's a short piece, so check it out.

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MORE BCS TOMFOOLERY....So the smart money was right: 87% of the human coaches and 97% of the human writers think the best college football team in the country is either USC or LSU, but Oklahoma will end up playing in the national championship game anyway. With barely even a sigh of complaint we have finally resigned ourselves to doing the bidding of our computer masters, just as decades of science fiction novels have warned us.

But here's my real theory: the BCS gang has deliberately (but secretly!) designed a system to produce the most bizarre results possible. After all, controversy is good! They want buzz, not a #1 choice that no one can argue with. That's boring.

Once you look at this from the point of view of entertainment, not sports, it all starts to make sense, doesn't it? Glad to help.

And USC is going to kick Michigan's butt.

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THE PROBLEM WITH KERRY....I think Matt Yglesias has the right take on John Kerry. Or, more accurately, I guess I should say that Matt's take is the same as mine.

(But wouldn't it be nice if the second always implied the first?)

I hate to say this about Kerry, since he's obviously a good guy and a good Democrat and does more for liberal causes in a day than I have in my life, but still. He just seems too calculated. I don't know for sure if he really is more calculated than other politicians, but he seems that way and that's a death sentence.

All the recent Kerry musing in the blogosphere has been prompted by Eric Alterman's Friday column, written after a long chat with Kerry in Al Franken's living room. After hearing Kerry's explanation for his war vote, Alterman says, "It worked for me. But of course, Ive now spent four hours with the guy and liked him to begin with."

But the problem is that if you spend a bunch of one-on-one time with practically any presidential candidate you're likely to come away impressed. Hell, if I spent a few hours with George Bush I'd probably come away liking the guy no matter how much I swore beforhand that I wouldn't. You just don't get to that level in politics without at least some level of personal charisma.

But Kerry can't spend four hours with every voter in America, and the ones who only see snippets of him on TV don't seem to warm to him. It's unfair, and perhaps it speaks poorly of our political priorities, but there you have it. The next president of the United States just isn't going to be John Kerry.

UPDATE: By the way, here's another Kerry quote from Alterman's column: "He said he felt betrayed by George Bush, whom he had believed, had not yet made up his mind to go to war when the vote was taken."

As someone who put some level of trust in George Bush's postwar plans, only to change my mind a few months later, I guess I hardly have any standing to complain about this. But I will anyway: what was Kerry smoking? Did he really believe that Bush wasn't serious about ousting Saddam Hussein from the very start? I never doubted that for a second, and I frankly have a hard time believing that Kerry ever doubted it either. But if he did, it shows a disturbing lack of personal insight in someone who should have known better.

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OFFICE SPACE....I saw The Cooler the other day. It was OK, but to my surprise one of the actors was Ron Livingston, famous for his starring role in Office Space, one of my favorite dumb comedies of all time.

It's not that Livingston was especially great in The Cooler, just that seeing him reminded me of Office Space, and that was worth it all by itself. Maybe I'll stick it in the DVD today to console myself after the BCS show.

And if you haven't seen it yourself, go rent it. Or buy it. Or put it on your Christmas list. Or something. Just figure out a way to watch it, OK?

Kevin Drum 11:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DEFICIT THINKING....Nothing in particular has prompted this, but is there any chance that conservatives can knock off the crap about how the only way to get rid of the deficit is to "grow our way out of it, just like Reagan did"?

I'm getting really sick of hearing this nonsense. We didn't grow our way out of Reagan's tax cut, we taxed our way out of it. Shortly after slashing rates on high incomes Reagan raised taxes a bunch on the middle class, Bush Sr. followed with a tax increase of his own, and Clinton raised taxes yet again. That, combined with a strong economy and some spending restraint, got rid of the deficit. Let's quit pretending otherwise.

Whether this particular piece of sophistry is a lie or a mistake depends on whether the speaker is too ignorant to know better or not, but either way I suppose it's better than this remarkable opinion from the Weekly Standard's David Gelernter:

Worrying about the long-term consequences of [the deficit] is like worrying about the long-term consequences of spitting into the Atlantic. Yes, there are consequences, but ultimately they depend on all sorts of things that have yet to happen, and we are in no position to calculate them. I am not opposed to long-term economic planning; it's just that history makes clear that there is no such thing.

The frightening thing is that I suspect Gelernter speaks for a lot of Republicans these days. Long term planning? Bah. It's for wimps. Let's just stick our heads in the sand and get reelected instead.

Kevin Drum 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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STEPPING UP TO THE PLATE....The other day I mentioned that Republicans don't seem to have the courage of their convictions when it comes to talking about their signature ideas during an election year. And indeed they don't:

Some [Republicans] are warning the White House that even talking about Social Security could be politically damaging to vulnerable incumbents and undercut gains the party made among 65-and-older voters by passing the Medicare bill.

"I hope Bush doesn't utter one word about it," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "There may be a few conservatives in our party who support [Social Security reform], but the vast majority would say, 'Please do not talk about it.' "

...."They should stop talking about Social Security reform and start talking nonstop about Medicare," said a senior House Republican aide who has been planning strategy with the White House. "We made it clear to them we don't like it. We're not taking it up. Dead as a doornail."

You know, the Democratic candidates have all been forthright about both their various versions of universal healthcare as well as their proposal that they be funded by rescinding the Bush tax cuts. This is probably political suicide, but at least they're willing to stand up for what they believe in and let the voters decide.

Republicans, on the other hand, seem to want nothing more than to make sure voters don't understand what they really stand for. Margaret Thatcher would be proud, wouldn't she?

Kevin Drum 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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GOVERNING BY INITIATIVE....This isn't really a surprise, but it's bad news anyway. Having failed to get his way with the legislature after five whole days of negotiation, Arnold is planning to simply ignore them and govern by initiative instead:

[His] campaign would take to the ballot possibly more than a half-dozen measures sponsored by Schwarzenegger and various groups aligned with him. Included would be a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget and spending cap, and a package of changes in the state's workers compensation system, according to a Schwarzenegger adviser.

The governor may also promote constitutional amendments making government more open and restricting fund-raising during the budget season; an initiative to change how the state draws legislative and congressional district boundaries, a gambling measure and a referendum on health care.

It's true that the California legislature is pretty dysfunctional, but the California electorate is, if anything, even more dysfunctional. California is already hogtied by way too much day-to-day operating stuff that's mandated by the constitution, and the last thing we need is to make this the default method of governing just because Arnold is pissed off that the legislature hasn't passed his entire wishlist completely intact within his first three weeks.

But I guess there's a bright side: if Arnold really does manage to get all these initiatives on the ballot it might finally bring on a serious case of referendum fatigue among the electorate. Who knows: maybe we'd vote down the lot of 'em and send a message that we're tired of amending the constitution for every pet project that comes down the pike. That might actually make this whole charade worth it.

Kevin Drum 8:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 6, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

DECONSTRUCTING GEORGE BUSH....In my adult lifetime there have been presidents I like and presidents I dislike, but I've always felt that at least I understood what they wanted. I may have disagreed with Reagan, for example, but I always figured that I understood what his goals were. Same for Carter, Bush I, and Clinton. They said they were in favor of various things, and they pretty much were.

But George Bush is different. It's not that just that I dislike him there are plenty of politicians I dislike but that I can't figure out what motivates him or what he really wants. His actions don't match his words, he says things that don't make sense, and he seems to be an almost purely political animal. Is he deliberately trying to mask his real intentions, or is there some kind of weird disconnect somewhere in his soul? I just don't know what to make of him.

So I'm glad to see that Molly Ivins, who knows him a helluva lot better than me, also has a hard time figuring him out. Still, she takes a crack at it this month in Mother Jones. First, an anecdote:

There was a telling episode in 1999 when the Department of Agriculture came out with its annual statistics on hunger, showing that once again Texas was near the top. Texas is a perennial leader in hunger because we have 43 counties in South Texas (and some in East Texas) that are like Third World countries. If our border region were a state, it would be first in poverty, first in the percentage of schoolchildren living in poverty, first in the percentage of adults without a high school diploma, 51st in income per capita, and so on.

When the 1999 hunger stats were announced, Bush threw a tantrum. He thought it was some malign Clinton plot to make his state look bad because he was running for president. "I saw the report that children in Texas are going hungry. Where?" he demanded. "No children are going to go hungry in this state. You'd think the governor would have heard if there are pockets of hunger in Texas." You would, wouldn't you? That is the point at which ignorance becomes inexcusable. In five years, Bush had never spent time with people in the colonias, South Texas' shantytowns; he had never been to a session with Valley Interfaith, a consortium of border churches and schools and the best community organization in the state. There is no excuse for a governor to be unaware of this huge reality of Texas.

See what I mean? What the hell can you make of something like this?

So what manner of monster is behind these outrages? I have known George W. Bush slightly since we were both in high school, and I studied him closely as governor. He is neither mean nor stupid. What we have here is a man shaped by three intertwining strands of Texas culture, combined with huge blinkers of class. The three Texas themes are religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo. They all play well politically with certain constituencies.

And I like this little passage about Bush's hometown:

In fact, people in Midland are real nice folks: I can't prove that with statistics, but I know West Texas and it's just a fact. Open, friendly, no side to 'em. The problem is, they're way isolated out there and way limited too. You can have dinner at the Petroleum Club anytime with a bunch of them and you'll come away saying, "Damn, those are nice people. Sure glad they don't run the world."

Read the whole thing to get an interesting little portrait that rings true to me. I agree with Ivins that Bush's religiosity and his anti-intellectualism are genuine but his macho act isn't and that in a lot of ways his problem isn't deception so much as self-deception. I don't think it explains everything, but it's a start.

Kevin Drum 9:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FOOTBALL UP-UPDATE....Hoo boy. So USC wins big and LSU wins big, but then Oklahoma gets its butt kicked. Nobody was expecting that, so what happens now?

It's probably hopeless to even speculate, but my guess is that it ends up USC #1, LSU #2, and Oklahoma #3. Still, I've been wrong about this BCS stuff at least as often as I've been right, so who knows? It's all up to the mysterious computers now.....

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WHODUNNIT?....Hmmm.....

Remember Nick Smith, the Republican congressman whose arm was twisted nearly out of its socket over his vote on the Medicare bill? Robert Novak reported that he had been offered $100,000 for his son's campaign if he voted yes, but since then Smith has tried to back off a bit on that charge. Today, however, Slate published the transcript of an interview Smith gave to WKZO radio on December 1:

They threatenedhere's what they did. They started out by offering the carrot, and they know what's important to every member, and what's important to me is my family and my kids. And I've sure limited [I think that ought to be "term limited" --ed] myself, and so Bradley my son is running for office and so the first offer was to give him $100,000-plus for his campaign and endorsement by national leadership. And I said No, I'm gonna stick to my guns on what I think is right for the constituents in my district. And so what they did then is come forth with sort of the stick, and they said, Well, if you don't change your votethis was about 4 a.m. Saturday mornthen some of us are going to work to make sure your son doesn't get to Congress.

That's clear enough, isn't it? And not just $100,000, but also an "endorsement by national leadership." There aren't too many people who could credibly offer that who aren't themselves part of the party leadership.

I hope someone manages to ask Smith about this under oath. Either he's lying or else someone deserves to go to jail. I'd like to know which.

Kevin Drum 6:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FOOTBALL UPDATE....Well, 52-28 ought to be enough to get us to the Sugar Bowl, but better safe than sorry. So for the next few hours I'm Georgia's biggest fan. Go Bulldogs!

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HOW ARE WE DOING IN IRAQ?....There are two subjects that an awful lot of people seem to evaluate based almost solely on whether they like George Bush: (a) the strength of the economy and (b) our success in Iraq. If you like Bush, then the economy is great and Iraq is improving. If you don't, we're still in a recession and Iraq is doomed. Needless to say, opinions like these are barely worth the pixels they're displayed with.

The Economist, however, is both a supporter of George Bush and a supporter of the war in Iraq, which makes this headline pretty disturbing:

Doomed, or still recoverable?

Iraq is on the edge. It is unclear, for America and its Iraqi allies, whether success or failure beckons. But progress towards peace and prosperity is still feasible, just

Their best case is that maybe we're not completely screwed? Sheesh. This is not to say that the Economist has any special handle on the truth, of course, but even their enthusiasm for the war hasn't been enough to keep them from getting steadily more pessimistic over the past few months.

Me too. I was skeptical a couple of months ago, before all the awful November attacks, and it's hard not to be even more skeptical now. My sense these days is that facts on the ground are so grim that even the administration's traditional supporters are having a hard time pretending that everything is going great. Operation Push Back (remember that?) is just a dim and embarrassing memory, and stories like this one about the sheltered existence of CPA workers inside the "Green Zone" don't help either:

Venturing from the protection of the Green Zone is not just a chore, it's a feat. Forms must be filled out explaining the reason for the outing, requesting transportation and a protective detail. Some trips must be rescheduled three or four times, with recent trips to visit children at an orphanage, to speak at a women's center and repair a water treatment plant postponed because of security concerns.

...."The Americans are behind the walls in the palace. They have difficulty knowing what's going on. I call it the 'green area syndrome,' " said Frank Dall, project director for District-based Creative Associates International Inc., which is assisting the U.S. Agency for International Development with education reform and is housed outside the zone.

It's hard to believe that much of anything is going well when you can't even walk the streets without a heavily armed escort.

Of course, I can always just go read Andrew Sullivan if I want the happy talk version of events. I'm glad to see that he's not caving in to the gloom-mongering.

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SPENDING CAPS....Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal for a constitutional cap on spending increases failed last night, and as usual the LA Times story about it provides no clue about why it failed. Go ahead and read the story yourself and see if you can figure out what the real sticking point was between the Democratic and Republican proposals.

Luckily, the internet allows me to read other newspapers, and apparently the primary point of disagreement was actually pretty simple:

[Communications chief Rob] Stutzman said the biggest obstacle to closing a deal was that Republicans wanted the cap to be based on general operating fund spending of $72 billion a year. Democrats wanted a higher base, $83 billion. Actual spending last year was about $78 billion.

There were some other issues too, but the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Sacramento Bee all seem to agree that the baseline for the spending cap was the biggest point of contention.

This is really starting to piss me off. Why is it that the LA Times, with three separate reporters contributing to their story, can't manage to spend a few paragraphs explaining in plain English what the points of disagreement were? Instead, the story is just an enormous mess that explains nothing except that a bunch of people in Sacramento are unhappy with some other people. Who edits this stuff?

Liberal bias? Conservative bias? Forget it. I think the LA Times Sacramento bureau has an incompetence bias. They insist on writing political stories as soap operas instead of spending some time telling us what's really at stake and what's really going on. They need to knock it off.

Kevin Drum 10:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 5, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

FRIEND OR FOE?....Via Jeanne d'Arc:

"The president has no more solemn obligation than to protect the safety of the people of the United States. We will reserve the right to act unilaterally in very rare cases."

The quote came from this article. But before you click the link, a short quiz:

  • Who do you think said this?

  • What terrorist-supporting country was it aimed at?

Hint: they both start with C.

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TAKE THAT, CBS....Reagan on the dime? Give me a break. At least they waited until FDR was dead before they put him on the dime.

Anyway, I think it would be more appropriate to create a billion dollar bill and put Reagan on that. It's fitting in so many different ways.

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FASCISTS....I just headed over to Matt Yglesias' site and found a bunch of interesting stuff:

  • I'm a fascist. How did they find out?

  • There's a blog contest going on and you can vote for me here. Oddly, though, I'm not listed in the "Best Fascist Blog" category, although I suppose if I were really a fascist I'd have no need for all this voting folderol anyway.

  • Jonathan Chait is also a fascist. Pretty good writer, too.

  • Even Paul Wolfowitz is a bit of a fascist under that tough neocon exterior. Oddly enough, I agree with Matt on this: I don't like Wolfowitz much, but in a lot of ways I find him more consistent and more sympathetic than most of the other administration hawks. I guess that's not saying much, though.

Oh, and Matt is a fascist too.

Kevin Drum 3:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE INTERNET AND POLITICS....Over at The Blogging of the President, they're asking a question: "the Internet and Politics, what does it mean?" I'm not sure, really, but I've been pondering institutional power lately and have some tangential thoughts.

One of the things that movement conservatives have done well over the past few decades is to find new sources of political power beyond the familiar array of interest groups farmers, big business, labor, etc. that both Democrats and Republicans have courted assiduously for decades.

The first of these was think tanks, which, beginning in the early-70s with the Heritage Foundation and followed by Cato, NCPA, a resurgent AEI, and others, became overtly ideological and remarkably successful at shaping public discourse. In the 80s conservatives latched onto judges, which, with the exception of FDR's ill-fated court packing scheme, had not previously been viewed by either side as a serious source of political power. The Warren Court may have been famously liberal, but it wasn't the result of a deliberate effort something that changed under Reagan, as conservatives realized that what could happen by accident could also happen on purpose.

In the early 90s, following the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, conservatives began building a talk radio empire, and most recently they've begun targeting lobbyists, insisting that K-Street lobbying firms that want to do business in Washington need to hire reliable Republicans. All of these institutions think tanks, courts, talk radio, and lobbyists have become sources of political power because movement conservatives were smart enough to realize they could be.

So what's next? The internet? Two liberal organizations, the Howard Dean campaign and MoveOn, have led the way in showing how the internet can be used as a genuine political force, not merely as a source of news or a pretty face on an already existing organization. Conservatives are behind the curve on this.

The challenge for liberals, I think, is how to build this into an institutional advantage that lasts. Judges, for example, were a fleeting advantage for Republicans because it took only a few years for Democrats to figure out what was going on and fight back. Think tanks, talk radio, and lobbyists are a more enduring advantage because it takes time to build them. Peculiarly, even after 30 years, liberals still haven't really created a large-scale, overtly ideological think tank to compete with Heritage (although CAP is a recent effort to start one), and talk radio and K Street will take years if ever to match.

The internet, unfortunately, is a hard source of institutional power to leverage because it's so obvious. If conservatives are slightly behind the curve now, they're well aware of the internet's power and are hardly likely to sit back and let it become a liberal playground.

So: the Internet and Politics, what does it mean? I'm not sure I know, but I do think that the internet has the potential to become a source of institutional power that so far is largely untapped. It's ours for the taking, too, but only if we rather quickly figure out a way to build a clever and nonobvious structural advantage that can't be matched simply by applying a bit of money and some technology to the problem. It's the nature of the infrastructure, and which liberal groups own it, that will determine whether the internet becomes a true source of political power or merely a more efficient form of direct mail.

Any thoughts?

POSTSCRIPT: I should add that the first time I ever encountered the idea of finding an entirely new source of political power and then bludgeoning people with it was in Robert Caro's terrific biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. If you have any interest in power and politics and you haven't read this book, you should. Ask for it for Christmas! The phrase "bond covenants" will never seem the same again.

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FRIDAY DOG BLOGGING....As a good liberal, I believe in giving everyone a fair shake. Dogs, for example. And just as conservatives have suspected all along, "fair shake" means that cats get 51 weeks out of the year and dogs get one.

But quit your griping, because this is the week! My sister-in-law was over last weekend and her dogs are the stars of the show today. On the left is Wookie and on the right is Missy. In dog years, they are both about a hundred years old.

BONUS ANIMALS: And as long as we're ignoring cats this week, check out Sunday Chicken Blogging over at Calblog. Justene reports that the chicks are safe from her cats because when they start chirping the cats run over to the window to look outside. After all, that's usually where the birds are!

(Yeah, it's true: the cluelessness of the average housecat is astounding. It's a good thing they're so cute....)

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TRAMPLED?....Unlike The Corner, I think Wal-Mart ought to be getting a worse rap than it does. But while they may be guilty of many things, encouraging shoppers to trample people apparently isn't one of them. WKMG reports:

A woman reported "trampled" last Friday by Wal-Mart shoppers desperate for $29.87 DVD players has a long history of claiming injuries from Wal-Marts and other businesses where she worked or shopped.

....An investigation by WKMG-Local 6 reveals [Patricia] Vanlester has filed 16 previous claims of injuries at Wal-Mart stores and other places she has shopped or worked, according to Wal-Mart, court files and state records. Her sister, who accompanied her Friday on the visit to Wal-Mart, has also filed a prior injury claim against Wal-Mart, with Vanlester as her witness, a company spokeswoman said yesterday.

I wonder who tipped them off to this? Perhaps a large retailer based in Bentonville?

Well, who knows. But my favorite quote comes from the sister:

Ellzey said in an earlier interview that Wal-Mart should have foreseen the danger of unleashing shoppers on a huge bargain at 6 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving. "For several years, every time they do this, people get trampled," she said last week, adding, "I'm panicked. I'm afraid to go into any stores, especially Wal-Mart."

Um, if this happens every year, and she's panicked and afraid to go into a Wal-Mart, then what was she doing there this year? Hoping things would be different?

Kevin Drum 10:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ECONOMIC UPDATE....Crikey, what to think about the economy? Beats me.

GDP growth was spectacular in the third quarter, which is good. Unemployment is down a tick, which is good.

On the other hand, job growth is still anemic, holiday shopping figures so far are OK but nothing to write home about, and the Fed apparently has no intention of raising interest rates anytime soon, which means they must be less than convinced that the recovery is about to take off.

What's more, the dollar has plummeted against the euro recently, our trade deficit is still growing, and the bond market seems unimpressed with estimates of future growth.

And then there's productivity. What the hell to make of that? I'm keenly aware that I'm not qualified to have an opinion on this, but productivity growth of over 9% is unreal. There's just something wrong with that number.

With negative real interest rates and a $500 billion deficit you'd sure as hell think the economy ought to be picking up steam by now. And I hope it is. But there's something mightly peculiar about this recovery and I'm still nervous about it. I think I'll remain on the fence for a while.

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TO THE MOON?....Space.com, via MSNBC, on George Bush's plans for the space program:

Despite widespread speculation that a major presidential announcement on space is at hand, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters Thursday that President Bush has no plans to make any policy announcement about the U.S. space program in the near future.

The Washington Post, via MSNBC, on George Bush's plans for the space program:

President Bushs aides are considering a new lunar exploration program and other unifying national goals, including a campaign to promote longevity or fight childhood illness or hunger, as they sift ideas for a fresh agenda for the final year of his term, administration officials said yesterday.

So which is it?

What's weird, in a way, is that all of the "big ideas" in the second story have such a retro 60s feel to them: going to the moon, finding a cure for cancer, funding hunger programs, and universal child healthcare. Some of them though definitely not a lunar version of aerospace corporate welfare are worthy goals, but they sound more like Great Society programs than 21st century Republican programs.

For all their talk about being the "party of ideas" these days, when it comes time to actually find an idea Republicans grab one from LBJ's workpile. It's sort of a tacit admission that all the genuine Republican ideas are way too unpopular to push during an election year.

Kevin Drum 9:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 4, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

BAD INTEL....Apparently the U.S. and Britain aren't the only countries whose pre-war intelligence about Iraq sucked:

A former senior Israeli military intelligence official asserted today that the nation's spy agencies were a "full partner" to the United States and Britain in producing flawed prewar assessments of Iraq's ability to mount attacks with weapons of mass destruction.

....The Israeli intelligence agencies, [Shlomo] Brom said, "badly overestimated the Iraqi threat to Israel and reinforced the American and British belief that the weapons existed."

Brom attributed the failure to professional lapses and misreading of important data, coupled with what he called a "one-dimensional perception" of Hussein by Israel's intelligence-gathering bodies.

Join the club. Was there anyone who had decent intelligence on Iraq over the past decade?

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PRESS BIAS?....HOW ABOUT READER BIAS?....Jacob Levy is complaining that the press is treating a minor matter as....a minor matter. There's just no pleasing some people.

On a serious note, though, Jacob wants to know why the press overreports some "gaffe" stories and underreports others. My guess is that there isn't actually much difference at all: almost all of these kinds of stories are page 37 news. It's just that conservatives notice it more when liberal bashing stories get buried and liberals notice it more when it's conservatives being let off easy. In other words, trying to analyze this as a function of some particular type of press bias is probably hopeless. It's reader bias.

(What's more, an awful lot of the page 1 criticism is reserved for the president, and there's only one of those at a time. So for eight years the big stories were mostly anti-Clinton and now they're mostly anti-Bush. That leaves page 37 for everything else.)

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HOW TO WRITE....Pennywit decides to take me up on my mockery of the five-paragraph format today and gives it a rousing defense. He cheats a bit, actually, by turning it into a defense of the five section essay, but what the hell. He thinks it's "just another structure that a writer can use to organize his thoughts and guide his reader."

Well, maybe. And I'm not exactly a sworn foe of the format since I've only known about it for the past 24 hours. But although I have no problem with mechanical aids to guide young minds, my real problem with the five paragraph format is that it seems so limited: even on its own terms it only applies to a very specific kind of writing. The whole format is geared toward making a persuasive case, and how often does that come up in real life?

Writing a company newsletter? Nope. Technical writing? Nope. A college term paper? Nope. What you did on your summer vacation? Nope. Penning a postcard? Reviewing a book? Writing a status report for your boss? Nope, nope, nope.

On the other hand, if you're writing a newspaper op-ed, a piece of advertising copy, or an argument for a voter pamphlet, I suppose it might come in handy. But how often do any of us do that?

(Or a blog! It would be good for that. Maybe the five paragraph format was just ahead of its time!)

It's a funny thing. People frequently ask me how they can become better writers, and of course there's no easy answer. There just aren't any formulas for it.

But if I had to give one piece of advice well, I wouldn't. I'd give two pieces of advice. The first is to ignore anyone who tells you to write like you talk. This is possibly the worst writing advice ever to gain wide popularity. Honest.

But the second piece of advice the real one is so simple it seems almost silly to even say it: know what you want to say. This doesn't have to take the form of the dreaded outline, it can just be a few words jotted down on a piece of paper. Or it can be entirely in your head. But somewhere, somehow, whether you're persuading, describing, mocking, or whatever, you have to know what you want to say before you try and find the words to say it.

This seems obvious, but it's the source of an awful lot of bad writing. As I learned when I was a technical writer, the reason so many instruction manuals are so hard to follow is that the writer never really understood the material in the first place. Frankly, it's a miracle most tech writing turns out as well as it does.

So: think first, then write. You still have to learn the mechanical skills, of course, but I'd much rather edit someone who knows what he wants to say and just has trouble with grammar and syntax than the other way around. The first you can correct. The second is just hopeless.

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APOSTROPHE WARS....Via Jim Miller, I learn that the surprise Christmas bestseller in Britain is a book on proper punctuation. And not just any punctuation: apparently the main target of the book is misuse of the apostrophe.

Now, I'm all for using apostrophes correctly, but this is just plain wrong:

It is not just isolated nerds who should care about punctuation. Some pedants do let their love for rules get in the way of free-flowing language there is no reason why you shouldn't start a sentence with a conjunction or split an infinitive if the sentence sounds smoother that way.

But there is every reason for using correct punctuation. Punctuation is not, as its enemies would have it, a device for complicating language and flummoxing those who don't understand it. It is quite the opposite: like signposts on a motorway, punctuation makes it easier to plot your way through the highways and byways of the English language.

That may be true for punctuation in general, but it is 100% wrong for the apostrophe, a piece of punctuation that serves no purpose at all. The meaning of a word is never unclear because an apostrophe has been misused, a fact that ought to be self evident since spoken language seems to get along just fine even though it has never evolved a verbal cue to indicate an apostrophe. (As opposed to commas, periods, and paragraphs, for example, which are marked verbally by various kinds of pauses.)

So go ahead and learn to use apostrophes correctly. It will save you from being thought an uneducated boor. But as my mother the English major contends, if it's meaning we're concerned about we could just get rid of it altogether.

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PUTTING FOOTBALL IN ITS PLACE....Speaking of California and frivolousness, though, I'm proud to say that there's at least one thing that Los Angeles has learned ahead of the rest of the country: how to deal with the extortionists who run the National Football League. Answer: don't.

Michael Hiltzik has a good column today about the travails of the city of San Diego, which signed a 25-year deal with the Chargers in 1995 but is now in a fight to keep them a mere eight years later due to loopholes in the contract:

[Chargers spokesman Mark] Fabiani insists that the Chargers are determined to stay in San Diego, but lots of people are suspicious. It probably didn't help that in an April letter to Mayor Dick Murphy asking to renegotiate the lease, Dean Spanos mentioned Los Angeles three times in seven paragraphs.

Still, there is a local theory that this is all bluster, and that the NFL likes keeping the L.A. slot vacant, since the threat of relocation to Southern California has been a useful cudgel to use against other franchise cities foolish enough to resist its demands. Of course, if the Chargers moved to L.A., the league would still have a pretty good weapon in hand. It could always threaten to relocate some mutinous community's franchise to San Diego.

Read the whole thing to get a taste of how the NFL operates. I've never understood how city after city can fall prey to the idea that NFL franchises bring "legitimacy" to a city, or that they pay for themselves, or some other folderol. The collective result is billions of taxpayer dollars that end up lining the pockets of owners and players and do nothing for the community.

Los Angeles has the right idea: if you want to set up shop in Los Angeles you can pay for it yourself. You won't get a dime of public money. Not a dime.

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CLUTTERERS ANONYMOUS?....Just great. The LA Times finally writes a story about someone named Drum and it turns out to be a guy who was almost sent to jail because his house was too full of crap. Sheesh.

And in other California news the Fish and Game Commission has banned the sale of fish that are genetically engineered to glow in the dark. Were they concerned about danger to the environment? Killer plagues? No:

"For me, it becomes a question of values," said Commissioner Sam Schuchat. "Under what circumstances do we want to monkey around with the genome of an organism? It seems OK to me to do it for medical research or, say, to create an improved type of rice that has Vitamin A. But to do it for a pet seems rather frivolous."

Of course it's frivolous. Half the GDP of America goes to frivolous purchases and the proportion is probably higher here in paradise. If the state of California starts banning things because they're frivolous, we're all in very big trouble indeed.

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December 3, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

WHO TO LISTEN TO....James Joyner is at a conference and has this to say:

My general observation, having gone to a lot of these sort of things, is that one usually gets very good insights from ground-level practitioners (diplomats, officers below the grade of colonel, congressional staffers, and the like) and from very high-level decisionmakers (presidents, cabinet secretaries, 4-star flag officers, etc.) but anything uttered by a non-4 star general officer, ambassador, undersecretary, or non-leadership congressman is likely to be exceedingly uninteresting. The best one can hope for from the last group is that they will say nothing in a humorous and charming manner.

I'd never really thought about it before, but that's pretty much true in the business world too. Low level folks are often interesting because they (a) have detailed subject matter knowledge and (b) aren't always savvy enough to realize what they should and shouldn't say in public. They just like to chat. Conversely, top executives have lots of big picture and strategic insight, and they're so savvy that they know exactly what they can and can't talk freely about. And they don't have to worry about getting fired if they make a mistake.

Mid-level folks, on the other hand, have the worst of both worlds. They often don't have the detailed knowledge of the worker bees this isn't a criticism, it's just the nature of the job but also don't have sufficient big picture insight to feel confident that they know what they can and can't talk about. They're savvy enough to know there are things they should keep quiet about, they just aren't always sure what they are. So discretion becomes the better part of valor.

And then there are secretaries, the most valuable resources of all. Sadly, a variety of factors have contributed to thinning their ranks considerably in the modern business environment. The world of executive gossip is the poorer for it.

Kevin Drum 7:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE TEXAS MIRACLE....Texas says they have excellent public schools but they are actually quite bad. They are bad because they have a high dropout rate. They are also bad because their test scores are low. And they are bad because they teach students to write five paragraph essays.

Texas schools have a high dropout rate. They say their dropout rate is low, but they are lying. I blogged about this back in August, and you can click this link to see what I said. Texas schools have a high dropout rate.

Texas schools have low test scores. Their test scores seem high, but this New York Times story shows that they are actually very low. A passing grade on the Texas test is equal to the fifth percentile on a national test. That means you can pass even if you are in the bottom ten percent of students. Texas schools have low test scores.

Texas schools are bad because they teach students to write five paragraph essays. I had never heard of five paragraph essays until today, when Jeanne d'Arc told me about them. I am writing a five paragraph essay right now! Texas schools are bad because they teach students to write five paragraph essays.

In conclusion, Texas schools are bad. They have lots of dropouts, low test scores, and five paragraph essays. Texas schools are bad.

And you should read this Jeanne d'Arc post right now. Mine is a total ripoff although perhaps more authentic because I did not use any contractions. Unless "d'Arc" counts as a contraction, of course.

Damn. That's six paragraphs.

No, seven.

Eight.

Oh hell.....

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MULTILATERALISM....I don't agree with everything Fareed Zakaria writes, but he's consistently interesting and usually worth listening to. To me, he's what Tom Friedman could be if he spent more time actually thinking and less time bouncing off the walls.

At any rate, I agree with Nick Confessore that this Zakaria op-ed in the Washington Post is pretty good. If there's any single thing that I find most perplexing about the Bush administration's foreign policy, it's their inability to see that although multilateralism is indeed messy and hard, it's also vitally necessary. I can understand an instinctive preference for going it alone, but the people surrounding Bush aren't stupid and it's hard to see how they can miss the primary foreign policy lesson of the past century: with firm allies, we win; without them, we don't.

Nick also has some good thoughts about this, so be sure to read his post too.

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AND IT'S ON VIDEOTAPE!....Chris Bertram blogs today about a conundrum for libertarians: how should they feel about the German internet cannibalism trial? It is indeed a perplexing question of political philosophy....

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CAN ONLY BUSH GO TO JERUSALEM?....Sometimes you learn interesting new things reading National Review. No, really. Check out the fan list of the unofficial "Geneva Accord" peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians:

The fact that failed politicians like Jimmy Carter, Sandy Berger, and Yossi Beilin would join them, cheered on by the likes of Thomas Friedman, is no surprise either, but the fact that our deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, is one of the cheerleaders for the Geneva Accord is.

....In loudly voicing his support for the Geneva Accord, Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz is working against the Bush plan and undercutting one of its strongest supporters, his immediate superior, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.

Wolfowitz, huh? That's interesting. But is he really working against the "Bush plan"? Maybe, maybe not:

The administration had not previously embraced the initiative, known as the Geneva Accord, but officials said in recent weeks that the administration had become increasingly frustrated with Sharon....

In a choreographed sequence, the chief negotiators of the agreement -- Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli justice minister and longtime peace negotiator, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, former Palestinian information minister -- will meet with William J. Burns, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and Elliott Abrams, the senior National Security Council official for Israeli-Palestinian issues. Then [Colin] Powell is scheduled to drop by the meeting, U.S. officials said.

Let's see, we've got Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, and Colin Powell all expressing support. That pretty much covers the spectrum of necons, mideast superhawks, and realist internationalists in the administration, doesn't it? And something tells me these guys aren't doing this without the blessing of their boss.

I wonder how far George Bush is willing to take this? I'm actually a big fan of the "only Nixon can go to China" theory, and it's (barely) conceivable that Bush has enough credibility as a pro-Israel hawk that he could put his considerable prestige behind a serious Geneva/Taba-like compromise and make it stick. And hell, even Yasser Arafat is getting old enough that he must be thinking about his place in history these days. You never know what might be going through the old guy's mind.

It probably won't happen, I know. But it's a thought.

Kevin Drum 10:44 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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RALPH REDUX....Ralph Nader, apparently in admiration of Harold Stassen's success at converting a respected political career into a laugh line for late night comics, is thinking of running for president again. But who knows: maybe this is a good thing for the Democrats.

A good thing? Hear me out: can you think of anything more likely to energize the base and turn out Democratic voters than the spectre of Ralph Nader once again handing an election to George Bush? I guess I could, actually, but this would certainly be in the top five.

And given his past remarks it's not like he could credibly endorse a Democratic candidate anyway. So go for it, Ralph. Let your hate consume you and soon you will be a slave to the dark side. We need someone like you to help our fundraising efforts.

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TRIVIALIZING RACE....Ampersand points us to a charming story from the University of Virginia. A few Medical Center workers were chatting about controversial sports team names a few weeks ago and one of them

said something like this: "I can't believe in this day and age that there's a sports team in our nation's capital named the Redskins. That is as derogatory to Indians as having a team called Niggers would be to blacks."

And here's the reaction:

In an e-mail sent to a black faculty e-mail list, History Prof. Julian Bond, national chair of the NAACP, called for the employee to make a public apology and take sensitivity training.

"My first impulse is that this should be a dismissible infraction -- but free speech protections I hold dear tell me that shouldn't be so," Bond wrote, adding that the administration "ought to disavow such language."

You know, I don't get too worked up about student antics at universities. Frankly, if you took a few thousand smart 18-year-olds away from home for the first time and dumped them onto a single campus, I'd be a little worried if they didn't act like idiots.

But Julian Bond is neither 18 years old nor an idiot he's a man with a long and honorable history in the civil rights movement. So here's some poor shlub who specifically makes the point in a casual conversation that the word "nigger" is really offensive, and Bond's first impulse is that this ought to be a firing offense? That doesn't even make sense on its own terms.

Do you suppose Bond ever wonders why conservatives have been so successful at convincing so many people that racism really isn't much of a problem anymore? It's simple: if this is the kind of thing the chairman of the NAACP is spending his time fighting, then the only race problems left in this country really are pretty trivial, aren't they?

Kevin Drum 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 2, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

COATTAILS?....Dave Cullen tells us about some pretty clever fundraising by Howard Dean. Good for him.

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SOLVENT....Atrios points to this paragraph from an AP story about a George Bush fundraising speech:

Not breaking any ground, Bush highlighted the accomplishments of his administration, saying he had eliminated the terror threat from Afghanistan and weapons of mass destruction from Iraq and ensured that Medicare will remain solvent.

Atrios rightly mocks the claim that Bush has eliminated weapons of mass destruction from Iraq, but the second claim is even more astounding.

Bush has ensured that Medicare will remain solvent? How? By adding $400 billion in prescription drug costs without adding any additional funding to a program that's already due to go bust within a decade or two?

Is that George Bush's idea of solvent?

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KNOW WHEN TO FOLD 'EM....One of the signs of a good reporter is knowing when to give up. Sometimes stories just don't pan out.

One of the signs of a bad reporter is writing up a story even after your research shows there's nothing there. Case in point: Timothy Noah's Chatterbox column today in Slate.

Apparently Noah had an idea: why is it that John Kerry's billionaire wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, isn't contributing to his campaign? Does she not trust him? Does she think he'd be a bad president?

Now, there are plenty of good reasons for a candidate to rule out using his or her own money, but even so this might have been an angle worth pursuing. The problem is that after pursuing it Noah discovered that the Kerrys had signed a prenuptial agreement before their marriage, a pretty common option among extremely rich couples. And there's no way for her to invalidate the prenup, either. As Noah concludes, "The only way Heinz Kerry could now give substantial money to Kerry's campaign would be to tear up her pre-nup and kill herself."

So there's a pretty good reason that she's not contributing to Kerry's campaign, right? And therefore no story, right? Wrong. It just requires a bit of pretzel-bending speculation:

This leads us to the inevitable question of whether these circumstances could have been foreseen by Teresa Heinz Kerryif not when she married John Kerry, then anytime prior to his entry into the 2004 presidential race.

....Heinz Kerry must have had some inkling that the day might come when her second husband would need her money. And knowing that, she didn't make it available. That doesn't make her a bad wife. But it does raise a disconcerting question for voters. If Teresa Heinz Kerry won't give John Kerry the keys to the car, why should we?

I'll say it again: sometimes a story just doesn't pan out. It's a bummer, but you just have to move on.

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LIAR'S POKER, IRAQI STYLE....Do the games people play tell us anything about a culture? Beats me. But this article from the Economist is a fascinating little look at a popular game in Iraq:

As an aid to hunting Baathist fugitives, the Pentagon devised a poker deck featuring Saddam Hussein as the ace of spades. But America's sleuths might do better to borrow their methods from Iraq's own favourite parlour game, which is known as mahabis (rhyming with cannabis).

It takes a rather large parlour to stage a proper mahabis match, so the game is often played outdoors, traditionally during the long nights of Ramadan. The object is to find a hidden mahbas, or signet ring. Two teams, each numbering from 50 to 250 and seated in rows, face each other, taking turns to conceal the ring. The team leader, or sheikh, starts an innings by passing in front of his own team. With a blanket covering his hands, he stops in front of each player. When the pass is done, all players remain seated with closed fists in their lap, but only one holds the ring.

The fun begins when the rival sheikh approaches to scour the faces of his opponents. The sheikh can eliminate as many players as he wants, but he has only one chance to pick the exact hand that is holding the mahbas. If he chooses wrongly, his team loses a point and the ring stays with the successfully deceitful team for another round. The first team to lose 20 points loses the whole thing. Simple as the game sounds, the sheikh's task requires skill, cunning, a penetrating knowledge of human nature and immense powers of observation.

Before the war, the government itself ran a national mahabis tournament, with the finals beamed live on state television. Iraq's current troubles have made it hard to arrange such a large-scale event this year, but in Baghdad, at least, rival neighbourhoods still tussle.

At a youth club in the Karada district, local boys face visitors from Dora, across the river. Fadhil Abbas, Karada's burly captain, is all ferocity, nostrils blasting thick shafts of cigarette smoke as he stalks Dora's ranks. You lot, out, he barks, sending off 20 players. A few minutes later he has dismissed all but four, and they have scarcely settled down before Mr Abbas lunges at one of them, so startling him that he cries out as his tormentor triumphantly extracts the ring.

The trick, explains Mr Abbas, is to understand that the eyes which stayed watchful, rather than relaxing, in the instant after he declared that only four players remained were the eyes of the ring-holder. Asked if his talents might be used for hunting down Saddam Hussein, he just grins and shakes his head.

I wonder how often a sheikh guesses right? And what's the time limit? This could be pretty long game if it takes more than few minutes per innings.

Kevin Drum 5:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT ABOUT BLOGGERS?....Via OxBlog, for your amusement, here is Gallup's latest data on which professions are considered most trustworthy:

"Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields: very high, high, average, low, or very low? . . . ."

Profession

High %

Nurses
Medical doctors
Veterinarians
Druggists, pharmacists
Dentists
College teachers
Engineers
Policemen
Clergy
Psychiatrists
Bankers
Chiropractors
State governors
Journalists
Senators
Business executives
Congressmen
Lawyers
Stockbrokers
Advertising practitioners
Insurance salesmen
HMO managers
Car salesmen

83
68
68
67
61
59
59
59
56
38
35
31
26
25
20
18
17
16
15
12
12
9
7

Why do you suppose senators are held in slightly higher esteem than congressmen?

Kevin Drum 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

STIFFING UNCLE SAM....This op-ed from UCLA tax law professor Kirk Stark is brilliant. First, here's the conclusion:

How exactly should the state change its tax structure?....The most effective strategy would be to replace the sales tax with an income tax on high-income individuals.

Some kind of socialistic tax-the-rich scheme? Not at all. Stark recommends this as simply the most efficient way of stiffing the feds and keeping them from siphoning money out of the state. Read the whole thing.

I don't think anyone is going to fall for it, mind you, but you have to give him credit for lateral thinking here.

Kevin Drum 9:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NOW HE GETS IT....Laugh or cry? You make the call:

Having been in office for two weeks, Schwarzenegger said he now appreciates what his predecessors meant when they advised him he would need to make wrenching choices.

...."And now I understand when past governors said to me, 'Arnold, it will be tough decisions you'll have to make that are painful. We all make them.' I understood last week what that meant for the first time. Because I didn't quite understand what that meant. Those are painful decisions, to take money away from people."

I think maybe I'll do a little of both.

Kevin Drum 9:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NEGOTIATE OR CONFRONT?....Clark Kerr, the architect of California's modern system of higher education, died yesterday. Rising student violence on the Berkeley campus prompted Ronald Reagan to fire him in 1967, and Kerr's obituary in the LA Times explains why:

As a former arbitrator who chose to negotiate rather than confront, Kerr was a symbol of weakness to conservatives.

There's a lot of insight packed into that one little sentence.

Kevin Drum 9:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 1, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

THEN AND NOW....Kenneth Pollack, about a year ago:

As Saudi officials explain strenuously in private, they will support a U.S. effort to topple Saddam if it is done "properly"....

But what does handling regime change "properly" mean to the Saudis? In means an invasion and nothing less....As one very senior GCC official put it, "When you are ready to use all of your forces, we will be there for you"....For them, an invasion is the only option that makes sense because it virtually guarantees that Saddam's regime will be overthrown, and it promises to do so quickly.

The Los Angeles Times, today:

Saudi Arabia will withhold the $1 billion in loans and credits that it pledged last month for Iraq's reconstruction until the security situation is stabilized and a sovereign government takes office, U.S. and Saudi officials said.

The Saudi decision is a setback for the Bush administration, which had hoped that the kingdom would set an example for other Arab governments by providing vitally needed aid. At an international donors conference in Madrid in October, Saudi Arabia pledged to give Saudis willing to do business in Iraq $500 million in loans and $500 million in export credits over the next five years.

....U.S. officials say the ambivalence of regional governments reflects in part their fears that shifting U.S. plans for Iraq may produce a weak and divided state, the first Shiite-led Arab state or the most democratic state in the Arab world all unsettling prospects for the region's authoritarian regimes.

Things didn't turn out quite the way Ken thought, did they? Damn perfidious Saudis.

Of course, I left out a couple of sentences from his book:

The Saudis are throroughly disenchanted with the Iraqi opposition, particularly the U.S.-created INC, which they consider feckless, manipulative, and without any support inside Iraq....In addition, the Saudis are concerned that after Saddam, Iraq will be left stable and not fall into chaos or disintegrate. They believe that only an invasion will allow the kind of reconstruction that would ensure that Iraq is not worse after Saddam.

If it weren't for the fact that they run a cowardly, medieval theocracy, you'd almost feel sorry for them. They got the invasion they wanted, but never imagined that we'd be stupid enough to put our hopes in a con man like Ahmed Chalabi and then become so blinded to reality by neocon theology that we would, in fact, let the whole place fall into chaos. To coin a phrase, it's almost literally unbelievable.

Kevin Drum 4:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSY, BUSY, BUSY....The day after Thanksgiving is the busiest shopping day of the year, right? Wrong:

While the Thanksgiving weekend starts the shopping spree, it no longer is the busiest period of the season. The busiest day over the past few years has been the Saturday before Christmas.

I wonder how far back "the past few years" goes? Back when I was running a Radio Shack store I was always perplexed by the "day after Thanksgiving" myth, and that was in the early 80s. Sure, it was a good day, but business picked up even more in the three or four days before Christmas, and I usually found that the day after Christmas was a bigger day too.

Of course, Radio Shack might have had a bit different selling pattern than the rest of the industry, but even so I kinda wonder if the day after Thanksgiving has ever been the busiest shopping day of the year. Or is it just one of those enduring myths?

Kevin Drum 4:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GONE FOR THE DAY....I'll be in lovely El Segundo again today. Blogging will resume later tonight.

Kevin Drum 7:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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