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Tilting at Windmills

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December 31, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

ON VACATION....I've been on semi-vacation for the past few days, and this weekend I'll be on complete vacation. I'll be back in a few days, but in the meantime, have a great New Year's Eve, watch out for nitwits on the road tonight, and enjoy the floats and football games tomorrow.

Happy New Year!

Kevin Drum 12:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 30, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

AARP WEIGHS IN....Good news: it looks like AARP is planning to fight back against President Bush's Social Security privatization scheme:

AARP, the influential lobby for older Americans, signaled Wednesday for the first time how fervently it would fight President Bush's proposal for private Social Security accounts, saying it would begin a $5 million two-week advertising campaign timed to coincide with the start of the new Congress.

....The full-page advertisements, to appear next week in more than 50 newspapers around the country, say the accounts would cause "Social Insecurity."

"There are places in your retirement planning for risk," the advertisements say, "but Social Security isn't one of them."

One advertisement shows a couple in their 40's looking at the reader. "If we feel like gambling, we'll play the slots," the message says.

I don't know if $5 million will do it, but it's a start.

Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CLOSE VOTES....So how do Republicans feels when they're on the losing end of a close vote? Let's listen in:

Republican Dino Rossi on Wednesday urged his Democratic rival in the closest governor's race in state history to join him in calling for another vote.

"The uncertainty surrounding this election process isn't just bad for you and me it is bad for the entire state," Rossi said, reading from a letter he said he sent to Democrat Christine Gregoire. "People need to know for sure that the next governor actually won the election."

....Rossi made his plea for a revote, which would have to be approved by the state Legislature, during a news conference. "A revote would be the best solution for the people of our state, and would give us a legitimate governorship," his letter said.

That's interesting: I don't recall any Republicans feeling that way about Florida four years ago. Funny how that works.

Kevin Drum 12:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 29, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY vs. IRAQ....In the Boston Globe, Peter Canellos argues that President Bush's campaign to privatize Social Security is disturbingly similar to his campaign to go to war with Iraq:

The link between the current economy and a Social Security deficit that will begin to strike benefits in decades is every bit as speculative and theoretical as the link between Hussein and the war on terrorism in late 2002. But few people in the political mainstream would dismiss the idea out of hand, and arguing that Bush's predictions are a bit too dire seems unnecessary to most Democrats at this stage.

Actually, I'd say that Canellos is both too harsh and too generous toward Bush at the same time.

He's too harsh because every president tries to sell his programs. The fact that Bush is marshalling his forces and trying to sway public opinion in a multi-month campaign is really nothing out of the ordinary. That's how politics works.

But he's too generous when he says the Social Security campaign is "every bit as speculative and theoretical" as the Iraq campaing in 2002. It's actually a lot worse.

Consider: at the time the Iraq lobbying offensive was rolled out, it had been five years since Saddam Hussein had kicked out the UN weapons inspectors and since we knew in 1998 that Saddam had been actively trying to hide weapons programs, it was hardly unrealistic to suspect that he had kept trying since then. Sure, Bush stretched the known intelligence, but in the end it wasn't unreasonable to suspect that Saddam was still up to something and might be closer to success than he had been in 1998.

Now switch to Social Security. Back in 1998 Social Security was at least arguably in trouble. The estimated time before the system became insolvent had shrunk by a decade, and even though we were still 35 years away from that date it seemed as though taking action might be a prudent idea.

But in the subsequent five years, what's happened? Unlike Iraq, where our knowledge of what Saddam was up to got murkier, our knowledge of Social Security's solvency has gotten better. The date of insolvency has been pushed forward 13 years, and even that date is based on unnecessarily pessimistic economic forecasts. In other words, the news about Social Security has gotten far, far better in the past five years, but President Bush is yelling "crisis" even so. It's worse than Iraq.

Still, is it true that "arguing that Bush's predictions are a bit too dire seems unnecessary to most Democrats at this stage"? Unfortunately, probably so. On the other hand, I'm a Democrat, and that's exactly what I'm arguing. You can read my case in the LA Times today.

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LOBBYING REPORT.... PoliticalMoneyLine has just issued its first lobbying report for 2004 and reports that total spending for the first six months of the year was $1.06 billion, an increase of 38% since 2000. Obviously these guys are having no problem keeping up with inflation.

The top ten lobbyists are shown above. Three of them (GE, Freddie Mac, and Philip Morris) appear to be garden variety corporate lobbyists. Among the other seven, though, you'll note the dead absence of anything resembling a liberal cause. In fact, unless I miss my guess, five of the seven are united in whole or part by a single topic: tort reform. No wonder it's at the top of George Bush's agenda this year.

Kevin Drum 12:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 28, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ AND VIETNAM....Battlefield deaths in Iraq are considerably lower than they were in Vietnam, but that's partly because recent medical improvements allow more soldiers with severe wounds to survive, and partly because there are fewer total soldiers in Iraq than in Vietnam. When you control for both these variables, how does Iraq compare?

In Slate, Phil Carter and Owen West do the arithmetic to try to figure out the "intensity" of action in Iraq, and their conclusions are grim. A comparison of two specific battles illustrates what they're talking about:

In the three-week battle for Hue, 147 Marines were killed and 857 wounded. In the twin battles for Fallujah, more than 104 soldiers and Marines have been killed and more than 1,100 wounded....If you factor in the improvements in medical technology alone, then the fight for Fallujah was just as costly (or maybe more so) as that for Hue, as measured by the number of mortal wounds sustained by U.S. troops.

....Military leaders should be mindful of this fact: To send infantrymen on their third rotations to Iraq this spring is akin to assigning a trooper three tours in Vietnam: harsh in 1966 and a total absurdity by 1968.

Critics of the war may use this analysis as one more piece of ammunition to attack the effort; some supporters may continue to refer to casualties as "light," noting that typically tens of thousands of Americans must die in war before domestic support crumbles. Both miss the point. The casualty statistics make clear that our nation is involved in a war whose intensity on the ground matches that of previous American wars. Indeed, the proportional burden on the infantryman is at its highest level since World War I. With next year's budget soon to be drafted, it is time for Washington to finally address their needs accordingly.

In the past, I've felt that comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam made sense only on a political level: like Vietnam, Iraq has been marked by politicians who have misled the public about the reasons for war, by a lack of candor about progress and goals, and by poor planning on the ground. Militarily, however, the two wars seemed quite distinct.

I still think that, but these casualty figures make me wonder. Iraq and Vietnam may be more similar than we think.

Kevin Drum 8:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BIN LADEN SCREWS THE POOCH?....Juan Cole has some good news. He says that Osama bin Laden's latest audiotape helps us more than it helps al-Qaeda:

Bin Laden's intervention in Iraq was hamfisted and clumsy, and will benefit the United States and the Shiites enormously. Most Iraqi Muslims, Sunni or Shiite, dislike the Wahhabi branch of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia, and with which Bin Laden is associated. Nationalistic Iraqis will object to a foreigner interfering in their national affairs.

....Bin Laden as much as declared Grand Ayatollah Sistani an infidel. But Sistani is almost universally loved by the 65% of Iraqis who are Shiites, and is widely respected among many Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, as well. Bin Laden, the Saudi engineer, makes himself look ridiculous trying to give a fatwa against the Grand Ayatollah of Najaf. If anything, to have al-Qaeda menacing the Shiites in this way would tend to strengthen the American-Shiite alliance.

....If Bin Laden had been politically clever, he would have phrased his message in the terms of Iraqi nationalism. By siding with the narrowest sliver of Sunni extremists, he denied himself any real impact....It appears that Bin Laden is so weak now that he is forced to play to his own base, of Saudi and Salafi jihadists, some of whom are volunteer guerrillas in Iraq. They are the only ones in Iraq who would be happy to see this particular videotape.

I hope he's right.

Kevin Drum 11:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SPAM UPDATE....According to AOL, spam is down:

As of November 2004, AOL received an average of 2.2 million complaints daily from its more than 24 million subscribers, down from 11 million complaints in the same period last year.

The daily average number of e-mails blocked by AOL's spam filters fell 50 percent to about 1.2 billion e-mails in late 2004 from a peak of 2.4 billion in 2003.

Attempts made by junk e-mail senders also fell to about 1.6 billion daily, from 2.1 billion last year.

I guess that's good news, although I have to say that I haven't noticed any decrease myself. Just the opposite, in fact.

On another note, can that figure for complaints really be right? If I'm reading it correctly, they're saying that last year AOL received 11 million complaints a day from its 24 million users. So on average, each of their users complained about spam 15 times a month. That's a lot of complaints.

Kevin Drum 12:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEFINING DECADES....Timothy Noah, writing on the subject of decades, asks "Can we please agree on what era it is we're living in?" It turns out he's trying to figure out if our current decade should be called the "aughts" or not, but I've got a different question along the same lines: how long is a decade?

By my count, the shortest decade of the last century lasted 5 years and the longest lasted 17 years. Here's my highly America-centric rundown:

  • 20s: 1919-1929 (League of Nations vote to stock market crash)

  • 30s: 1929-1941 (Great Depression)

  • 40s: 1941-1946 (WWII)

  • 50s: 1946-1963 (Churchill "Iron Curtain" speech to JFK assassination)

  • 60s: 1964-1973 (Civil Rights Act to end of Vietnam War)

  • 70s: 1973-1980 (1st oil shock/Watergate to 2nd oil shock/Iran hostage crisis)

  • 80s: 1981-1989 (Reagan election to fall of Berlin Wall)

  • 90s: 1990-2001 (Berlin Wall to 9/11)

  • 00s: 2001-

This is all subjective, of course. But when I think of "the 60s," for example, I think of them as starting with Meet the Beatles, the Civil Rights Act, and the Free Speech Movement. The 70s are defined by Watergate and the twin oil shocks.

At least they are to me. Defining decades as actual ten-year periods just seems awfully confining, doesn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 27, 2004
By: Amy Sullivan

AT THE WATERS' EDGE....One of the many articles I read today about the tsunamis in southeast Asia included a description of the waves, and the devastation they caused, as biblical. With the death tolls reaching levels the mind can barely grasp, the disaster does seem to belong to another age. In the midst of our iPod-enhanced lives, it can be easy to forget that despite amazing advances, we are still not able to cure--or even diagnose--many diseases and we cannot prevent--or even, it seems, accurately predict--earthquakes and other natural disasters. Such massive destruction is truly humbling.

Our hearts, thoughts, and prayers go out to those whose lives have been tossed upside-down by the waters. And if you care to send more direct assistance, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have set up a special fund for tsunami victims and Doctors Without Borders is also accepting donations for assistance.

Amy Sullivan 4:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RELIGION IN MOVIES....Is Hollywood anti-God? Not quite. Apparently it's actually anti-anti-God. Gregg Easterbrook provides an example.

Kevin Drum 2:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PARTISAN BLOGOSPHERE....Via Jim Henley comes this observation about the blogosphere from Radley Balko:

The most remarkable thing about blogs and the 2004 campaign was just how ready formerly independent voices on both sides were willing to spew out official campaign talking points, eschew criticism of their own guy, and otherwise fell into line in order to get their man elected.

That doesn't seem very remarkable to me. In fact, I would have found it remarkable if it hadn't happened.

There's a point to be made here about the "independent" blogosphere, too. Namely that it's anything but. In fact, the political blogosphere is far more partisan than any organ of the mainstream media, more partisan than most op-ed pages, and most of the time more partisan than even the overtly political magazines. The blogosphere is about the most partisan and least independent voice this side of talk radio.

Not that there's anything wrong with that....

UPDATE: In comments, much of the discussion revolves around the question of what "independent" means. I take it that Balko is talking more about ideological independence than financial independence, and it's in this sense that I don't think the blogosphere is especially independent.

In fact, I railed about this a few months ago in a post complaining that bloggers seemed all too thrilled to be a cog in the parties' spin machines. More here.

Kevin Drum 2:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 26, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

PROGRESS!....I have spent the last 30 years of my life cutting tags out of shirts because I find shirt tags to be annoyingly itchy. This year, however, I received several shirts for Christmas, and all of them came sans tags. Like the Gap shirt on the right, the size and care information was imprinted directly on the shirt.

Hooray! But why did it take 30 years for this to happen? Was this a market failure, a market research failure, a regulatory failure, or a technological failure? Somebody needs to investigate this for me.

UPDATE: Over at LiveJournal, iocaste posts a Wall Street Journal article that sort of answers my question. Apparently labels really have become scratchier in recent years, and the reason is that less scratchy labels cost four cents instead of two cents. Government regulation also plays a role. However, still no word on why it's taken so long for imprinting to catch on.

Kevin Drum 6:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CONSERVATIVE ECONOMICS....Today I find myself reading Brad DeLong's blog and I am puzzled. He summarizes Martin Feldstein's current thinking about Social Security privatization thusly:

Marty's argument these days is much more likely to be the claim (with which I have a lot of sympathy) that the stock market does a lousy job of mobilizing society's risk-bearing resources. Stocks appear to be priced as though the marginal investor is a rich 62-year old with some clogged arteries and a fifteen-year life expectancy who is not expecting to leave a fortune to his descendants. But if the stock market were working well, the marginal investor would be a 40-year old in his or her peak earning years looking out to retirement spending 40 years in the future--an investor much less averse to risk than the 62-year old.

Turning Social Security into a forced-equity-savings program would, Marty believes, not only produce huge profits for the system but also materially improve the efficiency of U.S. financial markets.

I'll admit that I haven't kept up with recent thinking about the equity premium, and I haven't kept up with the recent thinking of Martin Feldstein either. But even so, here's why I'm puzzled.

The United States is the biggest and most dynamic capitalist country in the world. Likewise, the U.S. stock market is the biggest and most dynamic stock market in the world. It is, in fact, practically a shrine to free market capitalism. And yet Brad would have me believe that conservative economist Martin Feldstein believes that:

  1. The U.S. stock market is the victim of a massive, persistent, and inexplicable market failure,

    and

  2. The best cure for this is an immense government program that forces its citizens to invest in the stock market.

Either conservative economics has taken a turn I'm not aware of, or else Brad is misrepresenting Feldstein's views. But which is it?

Kevin Drum 5:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GETTING IT WRONG....Do we really have to continue reading about George Bush's criminal incompetence for four more years? Apparently so:

The Bush administration is talking to Iraqi leaders about guaranteeing Sunni Arabs a certain number of ministries or high-level jobs in the future Iraqi government if, as is widely predicted, Sunni candidates fail to do well in Iraq's elections.

...."There's some flexibility in approaching this problem," said an administration official. "There's a willingness to play with the end result - not changing the numbers, but maybe guaranteeing that a certain number of seats go to Sunni areas even if their candidates did not receive a certain percentage of the vote."

The idea of altering election results is so sensitive that administration officials who spoke about it did not want their names revealed. Some experts on Iraq say such talk could undercut efforts to drum up support for voting in Sunni areas.

It's the same story over and over and over again, isn't it? By the time the Bushies finally figure something out, it's too late to do anything about it. At this point, if they let the Shiites win all the seats it's a disaster, but if they arbitrarily take away some of their seats and award them to the Sunnis instead, that's a disaster too.

A year ago there were plenty of good proposals that could have avoided the worst of this fiasco. The best of them made use of geographical precincts, like an American congressional election. Under a system like that, there would have been plenty of predominantly Sunni precincts that would have elected Sunni representatives regardless of whether or not turnout was low. It wouldn't have been perfect, but it almost certainly would have been better than the kludge we're ending up with.

Watching these guys in action is truly a remarkable thing. I mean, it only makes sense that I think the Bush administration chooses the wrong course on ideological issues. After all, we're on opposite ends of the partisan spectrum. But what continually astonishes me and yes, I know it shouldn't anymore is their almost supernatural ability to choose the precisely wrong course even on purely operational, nonideological tasks. You'd think they'd occasionally get something right just by chance, wouldn't you?

UPDATE: And speaking of getting it wrong, here's a precis of getting it right from Eric Shinseki, the Army General who got it right before the Iraq war and was of course completely ignored by the Bush admnistration folks who thought they knew better.

Kevin Drum 2:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A PHARMACEUTICAL QUIZ....Question #1: Who wrote this op-ed about how healthcare costs are low for some people but high for others?

For instance, elderly people who use a Medicare discount card and have to pay $1,299 annually for a drug that the Department of Veterans Affairs purchases for $322, according to a comparison by Families USA. Or middle-class families that lose health insurance and have to pay $29,500 for an overnight hospital stay, when Medicaid would have paid only $6,000, according to the Wall Street Journal.

It just doesn't make any sense. And, not surprisingly, the companies with the biggest profits those in the drug industry have been fighting hardest to maintain the status quo.

....A 2001 study by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen found that drug companies' favorite customers paid just a little over half the retail price. This leaves the 67 million Americans without insurance to pay cash, with no rebates, at double the prices paid by the most-favored customers.

Answer: Peter Rost, vice president of marketing at Pfizer.

Question #2: How much longer do you think Peter Rost will remain a vice president of marketing at Pfizer?

UPDATE: According to several commenters, this is far from the first time that Rost has spoken out like this. So maybe his job is safe after all.

Kevin Drum 1:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 25, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

CHRISTMAS CAT BLOGGING....To all my readers, fellow bloggers, troops overseas, and friends just dropping by, Merry Christmas from Inkblot and the whole gang at the Washington Monthly.

Kevin Drum 2:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 24, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CHRISTMAS TREE BLOGGING....Merry Christmas Eve, everyone! Here's how our cats celebrated:

Frame 1: Hmmm, what's Jasmine looking at?

Frame 2: It's Inkblot, traveling faster than a speeding camera shutter. Run away!

Have a nice weekend, everyone. See you in a couple of days.

Kevin Drum 1:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WORLD'S HARDEST QUIZ....Chris Bertram takes a look at this year's version of the World's Most Difficult Quiz and says, "A first scan leaves me with a single-figure score." I'm impressed! A first scan also left me with a single-figure score, but that single digit was 2 (both in the sports category, oddly) and I'll bet Chris' was higher.

(Actually, a second scan gives me a score of at least 3, and possibly 5 or 6. That's out of 180, mind you. If I went back and really tried, I still doubt that I could break out of single digits.)

OK, after a full scan, I got a firm score of 6 for the following answers:

  • St. Louis

  • Albert Einstein

  • Orson Welles

  • The Chicago Fire

  • Bjorn Borg

  • Roger Bannister

That's 3.3%! Not bad!

Kevin Drum 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 23, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

CAT CLONING....Ah, I see that the first cloned cat has been delivered. Why a cat instead of dog? I suspect that it's probably an easier process. After all, with cats you don't really have to worry much about the quality of the brain, do you?

Still, Lord help me from reactions like this:

"It's morally problematic and a little reprehensible," said David Magnus, co-director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University. "For $50,000, she could have provided homes for a lot of strays."

Animals rights activists complain that new feline production systems aren't needed because thousands of stray cats are euthanized each year for want of homes.

These people clearly take themselves way too seriously.

As for myself, I've been thinking it would be fun to get a clone of Inkblot. You see, he's not exactly the sharpest pencil in the pack, and if there were an Inkblot clone wandering around the house, I figure the original Inkblot would start getting confused about whether he was really himself, or whether the other cat was really him. That could lead to hours of amusement.

But not 50 grand worth of amusement. Not 50 grand of my money, anyway. But if any of my readers want to contribute to this investigation into feline metaphysics, I'll be happy to send you a whisker clipping or something to get the whole cloning process in gear.

Kevin Drum 5:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SIEGE WARFARE....Over at CJR Daily, Paul McLeary cuts through the "war on Christmas" nonsense and gets at the truth:

But wade through the wall-to-wall coverage of the story, and it becomes apparent that there are only a handful of examples -- three, to be exact -- being recycled in article after article. Many of these pieces use the same incidents in almost the same way. Some even hit for the cycle, as USA Today did today, referencing all three stories in one shot.

And there's more! It turns out that one of these three stories is completely untrue and a second one is pretty much untrue. Tell me again about how Christmas is under siege, will you?

I would like to make two points about all this:

  • America is a big country. It contains 300 million people, 50 states, thousands of school districts, cities, and towns, millions of companies, and far too many loudmouths many of them with their own radio and TV shows. In other words, if you're bound and determined to find examples of people doing stupid things, you will always succeed. If one-thousandth of one percent of the population is doing notably stupid things on any given day, that's 3,000 stupid things. You should pay no attention to this kind of "trend" claptrap unless there are (at minimum) dozens of examples, and hundreds would really be better.

  • I'm accustomed to the annual fights over nativity scenes and giant menorahs on public property, but can we please knock off the "Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays" foolishness? Does absolutely everything have to be a political statement these days? In the past, I used these phrases pretty much interchangeably, but this year I suddenly feel self conscious about it. Don't we have bigger and better things to worry about?

Back to you, O'Reilly.

Kevin Drum 2:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ABORTION....I have to confess that I'm bewildered by the big abortion controvery that's apparently brewing in the Democratic party:

The fight is a central theme of the contest to head the Democratic National Committee, particularly between two leading candidates: former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who supports abortion rights, and former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, an abortion foe who argues that the party cannot rebound from its losses in the November election unless it shows more tolerance on one of society's most emotional conflicts.

.....If Roemer were to succeed Terry McAuliffe as Democratic chairman in the Feb. 10 vote, the party long viewed as the guardian of abortion rights would suddenly have two antiabortion advocates at its helm. [Harry] Reid, too, opposes abortion and once voted for a nonbinding resolution opposing Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

This genuinely doesn't make any sense to me:

  • What's Roemer talking about? The Democratic party is no more "intolerant" on this issue than the Republican party just on the opposite side. There aren't any pro-choice folks in the Republican leadership, after all, and if it's lack of tolerance you're after, just look at the humiliating process Arlen Specter had to go through recently just to get a Senate committee chairmanship.

  • I'm usually in favor of more inclusive language, greater sensitivity, etc. etc. But obsessing about the emotional turmoil of getting an abortion just doesn't work. Since we fundamentally believe that there's nothing wrong with pre-viability abortion, shouldn't our job instead be to persuade women that they shouldn't feel emotionally whipsawed if they choose to get an abortion? It's awfully hard to take both sides.

  • There's no issue that doesn't hurt you with at least some voters, but of all the "moral values" issues out there, abortion is one of the few in which the Democratic position is also the majority position. If we feel the need to pander on some culture war issue, why pick this one?

The odd thing is that this is a social issue where I'm more comfortable with policy changes than I am with rhetoric changes. I can live with parental notification, for example, but mainly because I think abortion really should be treated like any other medical procedure. And I don't object to bans on late-term abortions (with appropriate safeguards, of course), but that's perfectly consistent with Roe v. Wade.

Rhetoric, on the other hand, really can't be watered down very much. You either believe in a right to choose or you don't. I don't see how you can tap dance around a core principle like that.

Kevin Drum 1:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FUN WITH ACTUARIES....Here's an interesting little nugget of information about Social Security forecasts for you. As you know, each year the Social Security actuaries produce forecasts of future economic growth, which in turn feed into forecasts of the overall health of the Social Security system. But they don't just produce a single forecast, they produce a range of forecasts.

So out of this range, who is it that decides which forecast makes it into the annual report? It turns out it's not the actuaries, it's the Social Security trustees themselves, who are all political appointees. Isn't that interesting?

Now, I'm not saying that the trustees have a political agenda and might try to keep the forecasts as bleak as possible in order to keep Social Security crisis talk as lively as possible. I'm not saying that at all. I'm just saying....

Kevin Drum 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 22, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

HO HO HO....Let's see. George Bush has reduced Pell grants for low-income college students, cut food aid for global charities, and virtually halted the presidential pardon process.

This is called "compassionate conservatism." Merry Christmas.

Kevin Drum 11:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LIFE IN SANTA-VILLE....It's tough being Santa Claus:

As Christmas becomes more commercialized, so must Santa. As the holiday begins earlier each year, so must its spokesman and standard-bearer. What used to be a three-week gig has become a two-month grind, from the day after Halloween to New Year's. Often you answer to three equally demanding bosses -- the parent, the mall, the photographer -- and one all-powerful overseer, the child, who has come to view Santa as a cross between a birthday party clown and a miracle worker. A hybrid of Bozo and God.

Carl Anderson, a psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Texas, Austin, wrote his dissertation about the effects of Santa on children....

This is where I get off the train. A dissertation on Santa Claus? Enough's enough.

(Just kidding. It's actually a pretty interesting article. Go read it.)

Kevin Drum 11:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOW LONG IN IRAQ?....How long will we be in Iraq? Here's an American view:

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said today that "significant numbers" of U.S. troops would continue fighting in Iraq for at least another year.

"I think that certainly we're going to be there through '05 in significant numbers," Powell told reporters. "I don't know what those numbers will be."

And here's a British view:

Against a backdrop of continuing carnage, The Independent has learned a cross-party group of MPs has returned from Iraq convinced British troops may have to be deployed there for at least another 10 years.

....One senior member of the committee said: "It will take 10 to 15 years at least [before troops can be fully withdrawn]. It is another Cyprus. The Iraqis just cannot cope with the security situation and won't be able to for years."

Powell is obviously lowballing: 10 to 15 years sounds about right to me. After all, NATO continues to keep 20,000 peacekeeping troops in Kosovo, nearly half the number we started with five years ago. What's more, even that reduced number amounts to about one soldier per 100 people, a higher troop concentration than we've ever had in Iraq.

So: 150,000 troops in Iraq for 10-15 years? With losses of 1,000 soldiers a year because that's not enough boots on the ground to do the job? This is the calculus that persuades me we need to figure out a way to pull out of Iraq although I agree with conservatives that doing so would do considerable damage to U.S. prestige.

Even war enthusiasts ought to agree that you either fight a war to win or you don't fight at all, and the Bush administration has made it clear they're not willing to take the political risk needed to increase troop strength enough to put down the insurgency and stabilize Iraq, a step that everyone agrees is a precondition for democracy. Don Rumsfeld won't do it because he wants to prove he was right all along about using a small, light force, and George Bush won't do it because George Bush never changes his mind ever.

"Staying the course" is the worst possible strategy we can follow in Iraq. We either need to commit enough troops to get the job done or we need to pull out. Since the Bush administration isn't willing to do the former, the only option left is the latter. We should no longer be asking American soldiers to pay the price for Don Rumsfeld's vanity and George Bush's stubbornness

Kevin Drum 11:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CULTURAL COMPETITION....Fareed Zakaria writes today about the slow, almost imperceptible emergence of voices of reform in the Arab world:

Interestingly, these voices are mainly being heard from the Persian Gulf, which has now become the center of reform in the Arab world. Dubai is far ahead of all others in terms of economic openness and efficiency. But Qatar and Bahrain are moving in the same direction with radical plans.

....Indeed, despite the stirrings in Egypt, what is most likely is an increasing divide in the Arab world between the small, nimble states on the peripherythe gulf states, Jordan, Moroccoand the slumbering giants.

Although many in the region would be dismayed by this division, it is a healthy development. Pan-Arabism, which was never more than hot air anyway, has been one of the ideologies that has kept Arabs from modernizing. Competition will force each state to focus on its own future. And as some succeed, others will follow, and regional trade and tourismcurrently abysmally lowwill expand.

If this is true, it's probably both good news and bad. The good news is that it's arguable that this kind of intra-cultural competition was responsible for the emergence of Europe as the most powerful force in the world in the 16th century and after. The bad news is that this competition took a very long time and included a lot of very bloody wars.

Can something that took Europe 500 years and millions of dead be compressed into a single more-or-less peaceful century in the Middle East? Hmmm....

Kevin Drum 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE BATTLE BEGINS....From Reuters:

President Bush will spearhead an election-style public relations campaign early next year to try to convince Americans that Social Security is in urgent need of change but will keep dollar and cent details deliberately vague, analysts and officials say.

With Bush's political capital riding on a successful overhaul of the popular retirement program, the White House and its allies plan to bombard the public with presidential speeches, television and radio ads, newspaper op-ed articles and grass-roots rallies between now and early 2005.

"It's going to be a battle royal, very much like an election campaign but over an issue rather than a candidate," said Stephen Moore, executive director of Club for Growth, a Republican group that hopes to spend $15 million on a media campaign backing the White House.

I sure hope someone on our side is planning to spend $15 million on this. Op-eds and grass-roots rallies would be nice too.

Kevin Drum 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE PUBLIC AND THE WAR....A Washington Post poll reports today that support for President Bush's handling of the Iraq war has dropped precipitously. David Adesnik wonders why?

I have to admit I'm somewhat puzzled by the numbers. Why were the American public so much more confident [in] Bush on election day? The media have generally presented the post-election battle in Fallujah as victory for our side....Steve Sturm's take on all of this is that America supported the first Iraq war (to get rid of Saddam's WMDs) but not the second (to promote democracy in Iraq).

I really don't think you have to look very far for the explanation. Take a look at the chart below, which shows the number of people who think the Iraq war was "worth fighting" ever since the end of major combat operations last May. There are the usual spikes here and there, but basically it's a pretty straight line. The longer the war goes on inconclusively, the less support it has.

This shouldn't be much of a surprise either. The eggheads in the blogosphere might have dozens of explanations for why they think the war was a good idea, but the average joe supported it because he wanted to kick someone's ass after 9/11, and Saddam's ass seemed like a pretty good one to kick. So now that Saddam is gone, why are we still there and why are those ungrateful Iraqis still giving us trouble?

What's more, there are no WMDs, no al-Qaeda camps, and no democracy. But there is a continuing insurgency, frequent terror attacks, the same old Islamic infighting, American soldiers getting killed and wounded by the thousands, and no real hope that it's going to get any better even though the administration keeps suggesting that the next operation will settle things down for sure. At this point, though, the only operation left is the January election, and when the attacks keep coming even after the elections are over as they surely will American disgust with the whole war effort will undoubtedly jump up again.

Conservatives seem to think that Americans like wars. They don't. They like winning wars. As it becomes ever clearer that Bush doesn't have a winning strategy in Iraq, support continues to drop. It's pretty easy to understand.


Kevin Drum 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE RIGHT NATION?....I guess I might as well step up to the plate and confess to Reihan Salam that I don't understand about half of what he writes. Then again, I never understood Ulysses, either, so maybe it's my fault. Still, I think I understand what he's saying in this post: that Social Security is fundamentally a bad idea, and if he had his druthers we'd get rid of it.

I imagine a lot of conservatives agree with him, but those with actual constituencies can't admit this in public because Social Security is a popular program. In fact, liberal programs and policies in general are pretty popular. Conversely, as Reihan admits earlier in his post, conservatism is actually "deeply unpopular" surprisingly so considering that conservatives own every branch of the government:

This is why conservative politicians are often forced to use deception to advance conservative policy proposals. Take tax cuts, the heart and soul of President Bushs meager domestic policy. When Bush first came to office, tax cuts were not a particularly high priority for the public. Neverthless, Bush pressed ahead, and the size and distribution of the tax cuts he proposed were, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have argued, radically at odds with majority views. Crafted language does the work that ought to be done by argument and persuasion.

I dont agree with Hacker and Pierson on much, but Im a partisan of majoritarian democracy (part of why I dislike activist judges of all persuasions) and I find this unsettling. Had the administration paid heed to public opinion, not out of slavish deference but out of respect, we wouldve seen a different tax cut, and, with any luck, a sustainable popular majority for conservatism. (McCain, incidentally, couldve pulled it off, but you already knew that.)

Aside from the bit about McCain, this is exactly right. Conservatives should be much more concerned than they are at the fact that even now they're unable to win a straight-up argument for so many of their policies. And liberals should be more heartened.

More on this subject here.

Kevin Drum 1:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 21, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY NEWS....This news is modestly encouraging. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll asked people what they thought about the health of Social Security:

The number of people who think we have a Social Security "crisis" is down considerably, and the number of people who think it has "minor problems" which is probably the most accurate choice here is up. That huge tranche of people who continue to think Social Security has major problems is still worrisome, of course, but hardly unexpected after years of doom-mongering from both parties. Obviously we still have a lot of work cut out for us in the public education department, but at least the trends are in the right direction.

Kevin Drum 6:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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METABLOGICAL QUESTION....Professor Bainbridge asks:

Would the way I teach my classes change if I knew that one or more students were routinely blogging about the class?

Ah, but would the student change the way he blogs if he knew Professor Bainbridge were reading it? And what then would Bainbridge do? This is a potentially vicious circle....

(Yeah, yeah, it's a slow day. So sue me. The Christmas spirit is fast overtaking us here at PA galactic headquarters.)

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9/11 AND FOREIGN STUDENTS....It's easy to get Chicken Little-ish about this kind of stuff, but these statistics about the decline of foreigners applying for graduate studies at U.S. universities are kind of scary:

Foreign applications to American graduate schools declined 28 percent this year. Actual foreign graduate student enrollments dropped 6 percent. Enrollments of all foreign students, in undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral programs, fell for the first time in three decades in an annual census released this fall. Meanwhile, university enrollments have been surging in England, Germany and other countries.

....Some 28 percent fewer Indian students applied to attend American graduate schools this fall than last year, according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools. This matched the overall decline for all foreign students.

I suspect that a lot of Americans have no idea just how dependent we are on foreigners to fill our graduate schools, especially in technical areas. Without Indian immigrants, for example, Silicon Valley would practically be a ghost town and the dotcom boom would have been stillborn. The biotech industry would be devastated. Engineering schools would be depopulated.

If we're lucky, this recent drop is a temporary reaction to 9/11. At the same time, though, the absolute decline in the number of native born Americans who are interested in graduate work in the sciences is kind of scary. One of these days we're going to have start pulling our own weight again. The rest of the world isn't going to be willing to subsidize us forever.

Kevin Drum 1:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SHOULD EVERYONE GO TO COLLEGE?....David Adesnik ponders the value of higher education today and asks: why not send everyone to college?

I'm not going to get into the middle of this, especially after a long conversation with my mother just yesterday about the problems of inner city high schools, but here's something to chew on anyway. It turns out there's already a representative subset of American high school graduates who all go to college: NCAA scholarship athletes. Within a small margin of error, this group is scholastically average, is forced to go to classes for (at least) four years to maintain eligibility, has their tuition completely paid for, and gets loads of special tutoring and other assistance.

So how do they do? Answer that question, and I think you've pretty much answered David's question.

Kevin Drum 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SLATE ACQUIRED....The Washington Post Co. is buying Slate. This isn't unexpected, but I felt a slight chill at this statement:

Ann McDaniel, a Post Co. vice president, said: "Our goal is not to in any way change Slate. We think it's important that it keep its personality."

This kind of statement following an acquisition is usually a prelude to massive changes and/or complete destruction of the acquired property. I hope this will be the exception that proves the rule.

Kevin Drum 12:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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HAPPY SOLSTICE DAY!....The winter solstice arrives at 7:42 AM (EST) today. Hooray! Starting tomorrow, the days get longer once again....

....in the northern hemisphere anyway. Yeah, yeah. I guess I'm just a northern hemisphere chauvinist.

Kevin Drum 7:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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REPUBLICANS AND NATIONAL SECURITY....Now here's a funny thing. Over at MoJo, Brad Plumer chastises lefties for being AWOL on national security since the election:

Liberals and Democrats especially have said nary a word about the future of the military lately. John Kerry may have been the first to suggest expanding our active-duty forces, but no one's said anything since. So the Democrats not only have fed the perception that they make national security proposals only when they need to look "tough" on the campaign trail, but they've also absented themselves entirely from an important debate.

And Matt Yglesias agrees:

To make people take your stances on these things seriously, you need to maintain them with a reasonable degree of consistency. Right now, the Democrats seem to be going through one of their periodic episodes where they abandon the field on national security and hope that the GOP will destroy itself in an orgy of self-immolation. It could happen, but relying on the moderate Republicans to stand up for themselves in the final analysis has never been a good plan. Better to join the battle.

I don't really disagree with this. Dems don't talk about national security much unless they're forced to, and it's a problem.

But the reason this struck as an odd complaint right now was that just last night I was reading through various news articles about the upcoming legislative session, and here's what the Republican agenda appears to be: privatizing Social Security, enacting tort reform, restricting immigration, getting started on tax reform, and cutting the Pentagon budget. As near as I can tell, with the election over and the intelligence bill successfully neutered and shoved under the carpet, Republicans have as good as forgotten that the war on terror even exists anymore.

So sure, maybe Democrats should speak up more about this stuff, but Republicans seem to have lost interest themselves now that it's no longer a winning campaign issue. Funny how that works.

Kevin Drum 12:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 20, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

THE SOCIAL SECURITY GROUND WAR....A couple of thoughts on both the reality and the perception of Social Security.

Today, both Garance Franke-Ruta (here) and Ezra Klein (here) suggest that a campaign to convince people that Social Security is not in crisis is bound to fail. Their argument is that politicians of all stripes have been telling us for decades that Social Security is doomed, and that message is now so deeply entrenched in popular culture that it's just not reasonable to think that we can change public opinion on this in the space of the next few months.

This point is well taken. I've got a couple of responses.

First, there's the factual response, which Brad DeLong puts well:

Fifteen years ago I would have said that we had a (long-run) Social Security crisis, and ten years ago I said that we had a (long-run) Social Security crisis: we were still in the age of diminished expectations the age of the productivity slowdown in which productivity growth was slow and there was no certainty that it would accelerate.

But between ten and five years ago there came the new economy boom, and the accompanying acceleration of productivity growth. Five years ago I said that there was a Medicare crisis but no Social Security crisis: the projected surplus in the general fund was enough to more than cover the Social Security (although not the Medicare) deficit. Today I would say that we have a Bush-caused general fund crisis, and a Medicare crisis. But Social Security crisis? That has melted away.

This is exactly right. Even as recently as five years ago, Bill Clinton was arguably correct to make Social Security a major issue in his 1998 State of the Union address. It's true that the date of insolvency was still more than 30 years off, but it's also true that the date had stayed steady for the previous five years. It was reasonable to suppose that we were getting closer to insolvency every year.

But it no longer is. Since that speech, the date of insolvency has moved out 13 years, and it's almost a certainty that it's going to continue moving out as long as we avoid a major, long-lasting recession. In other words, something that seemed like a reasonable concern in 1998 no longer is. It's a problem that's at least 40 years away and quite possibly more than a century away.

However, as both Garance and Ezra point out, factual arguments will only get you so far. For the broad public you also need emotional and political arguments. Is it possible to make them?

I think it is. Although the first step is to convince opinion makers that the facts have changed in the past decade, the second step is to construct a more, um, practical campaign. It would include arguments like this:

  1. Politicians lie all the time, and now they're lying about Social Security being in trouble. What is it they're really after?

  2. Wall Street tycoons are being cagey about this, but the truth is that they can't wait to get their hands on your retirement money. Management fees is what this is really all about, isn't it?

  3. Today your retirement benefits are guaranteed. With private accounts you're taking on a big risk. What happens if you turn 65 right after a stock market crash?

  4. Take a look at Chile. Take a look at Argentina. They tried private accounts and look how their retirees are doing.

You get the idea. Facts and figures work on some people, but populist arguments are how you win the ground war. The question is, who's going to take on the job of getting down and dirty with this stuff?

Kevin Drum 11:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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TORTURE UPDATE....Here's the latest on the torture of prisoners in Iraq and Cuba:

According to FBI officials, the Bush order approved interrogation tactics that include "sleep deprivation and stress positions," as well as "loud music, interrogators yelling at subjects and prisoners with hoods on their heads."

What's that, you say? This doesn't sound all that horrible? Keep reading:

In a June "Urgent Report" to the FBI director from the Sacramento field office, for example, a supervising special agent described abuses such as "strangulation, beatings, placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees' ear openings and unauthorized interrogations."

....In June, for instance, an agent from the Washington field office reported that an Abu Ghraib detainee was "cuffed" and placed into a position the military called "The Scorpion" hold. Then, according to what the prisoner told the FBI, he was doused with cold water, dropped onto barbed wire, dragged by his feet and punched in the stomach.

....Another agent reported this past August that while in Cuba he often saw detainees chained hand and foot in a fetal position on the floor "with no chair, food or water."

"Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left for 18-24 hours or more," the agent wrote.

Sometimes, he reported, the room was chilled to where a "barefooted detainee was shaking with cold." Other times, the air-conditioning was turned off and the temperature in the unventilated room rose to well over 100 degrees.

We're really setting a good example in the war of civilizations, aren't we? I mean, are these guys trying to help Osama's recruiting efforts, or what?

Kevin Drum 8:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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RATING THE RATERS....How do you respond to telephone surveys that follow up on a service call if the service call didn't really fix your problem? The phone surveyers, working off a script, usually want to know if the people you dealt with were "helpful, knowledgable and courteous," or some such thing, usually on a scale of one to ten.

But what if they were nice guys and tried their best, but didn't solve the problem? Or perhaps it's just too early to tell for sure if the problem is really fixed? This doesn't fit their script, which seems uninterested in the question of actual results.

So on a scale of one to ten, what do you tell them? My answer today was "3," but needless to say I'm not entirely satisfied with that answer.

Kevin Drum 7:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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AFFIRMATIVE ACTION....In the LA Times today, UCLA law professor Richard Sander summarizes his now-famous research suggesting that aggressive affirmative action programs actually hurt black law students:

The other traditional justification for racial preferences by law schools was that they would increase the number of black lawyers. But over the years the pool of black applicants has become much larger and much more qualified. More than 85% of blacks admitted to law schools today would still get into some law school if preferences disappeared albeit generally a lower-prestige school.

The modest pool-expanding effects of law school preferences may well be more than canceled out now by the greater attrition caused by the mismatch effect. My research suggests that in a race-blind system, the proportion of black law students graduating and passing the bar on their first attempt would rise from 45% to at least 65%, and the number of new, certified black lawyers each year would rise about 7%.

In other words, Sander's contention is that in the absence of affirmative action, fewer blacks would be admitted to law school, but overall more blacks would graduate and more blacks would pass the bar exam. (For more details on his research, you can read this series of posts that Sander guest-posted on the Volokh Conspiracy last month. For an alternate view, the Times has a rebuttal to Sander's article from Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu here.)

Liu's rebuttal makes the point that there's more to poor black performance in law school than just academic mismatch: the university experience is different for blacks, anxiety is higher, and racial discrimination still exists points that Sander acknowledges. Still, his basic results can't be dismissed easily, and I suspect Sander is right to suggest that the answer is not to eliminate affirmative action, but only to curb programs that are too zealous in granting preferences, especially at the top schools. Specifically, he estimates that cutting preferences by half would eliminate three-quarters of the attrition problems he identifies, a proposal that he calls the "4% solution."

Would it work? Nobody knows for sure. Stay tuned for more.

Kevin Drum 7:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BUSH AND SOCIAL SECURITY....Over at Tapped, Sam Rosenfeld provides a play-by-play of George Bush's responses to questions about Social Security at today's press conference:

The president got a tad petulant when fielding questions on Social Security. His emphatic response to any and all queries about his position on the subject was an indignant, righteous refusal to answer: Youre not going to get me to negotiate with myself, he repeatedly told the perplexed reporters. I know what youre trying to get me to do. Youre trying to get me to answer Why this, why that, to take positions dont bother to ask me. Rather than merely dodge the questions, Bush seemed intent on staking out an explicit, principled position in favor of dodging the question.

That's our president! A man of principle in all things.

Kevin Drum 3:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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IRAQ THE MODEL....I missed a chance to meet the blogging brothers who run Iraq The Model last week, but I've been following their progress around the blogosphere and around America with interest. That makes this post from Ali, the brother who stayed in Iraq while Omar and Mohammed toured the U.S., all the more disturbing:

My stand regarding America has never changed. I still love America and feel grateful to all those who helped us get our freedom and are still helping us establishing democracy in our country. But it's the act of some Americans that made me feel I'm on the wrong side here. I will expose these people in public very soon and I won't lack the mean to do this, but I won't do it here as this is not my blog.

I wonder what that's all about?

Kevin Drum 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NO NEED TO WORRY ABOUT GODWIN'S LAW ON THIS POST....Andrew Stuttaford (here) and Jacob Sullum (here) both agree that the government has no right to promote public health. Today's argument is a new one, though: Hitler promoted public health, and we don't want to be like Hitler, do we?

(Sullum hastens to add that he is "not suggesting that everyone who hates smoking is just like Hitler." Whew! But Stuttaford doesn't seem to be so sure.)

And a note to Stuttaford: places like California that ban smoking in public places don't really do it because we care about the health of smokers. We do it because we care about the health and comfort of everyone else. Big difference.

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WINNING FRIENDS AND INFLUENCING PEOPLE....So what does India think of George Bush's America? Tim Dunlop says that a congressional delegation visiting India got an earful recently:

They spoke to a lot of Indian government people and the message from them was very clear, and in a nutshell it was this: We don't much care about America. He said they were very polite but almost indifferent. Maybe matter-of-fact is a better description. The conversation went something like this:

We consider ourselves as in competition with China for leadership in the new century. That's our focus and frankly, you have made it very difficult for us to deal with you. We find your approach to international affairs ridiculous. The invasion of Iraq was insane. You've encouraged the very things you say you were trying to fix terrorism and instability. Your attitude to Iran is ridiculous. You need to engage with Iran. We are. We are bemused by your hypocrisy. You lecture the world about dealing with dictators and you deal with Pakistan. We are very sorry for your losses from the 9/11 terror attacks. Welcome to our world. You threaten us with sanctions for not signing the non-proliferation treaty, but you continue to be nuclear armed and to investigate new weapons. You expect us to neglect our own security because you want us to. We don't care about sanctions.

George Bush: he's a uniter, not a divider.

Kevin Drum 12:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 19, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

SEASON'S MEMINGS....A few days ago Bill O'Reilly was yammering on about how he was sticking up for Christmas but nobody else was. Why doesn't Peter Jennings stick for Christmas, he asked, why doesn't Dan Rather stick up for Christmas....and....and....well, that's about it. I didn't have any idea what he was talking about, so I shrugged my shoulders and went about my business.

But now a week has passed, and I think I get it. It's all about "Merry Christmas," isn't it? I've now read at least a dozen assorted articles and op-eds about the horror the horror! of "Happy Holidays" being used as a seasonal greeting instead of "Merry Christmas." Here's a typical example from yesterday's LA Times:

Conservative Americans feel ready to push back against "the secularists or the humanists or the elitists" who dominate popular culture, said the Rev. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, which is based in Raleigh.

"It's a cultural war. We are in the thick of it," Creech said. "It's not so much an attack on us. It's an attack on Christ."

...."There's one group of people who get bullied all the time, and that's Christians," [Pastor Patrick Wooden] said. "I know what it is like to be bullied. It is apartheid in reverse the majority is being bullied by the minority."

Apartheid in reverse! Hell, why not just compare the plight of besieged, persecuted Christians in America to the Holocaust and be done with it?

But that's not what bugs me. I guess I'm used to the bizarre persecution complex of the American Christian right. No, what I want to know is this: how do they spread these memes so damn fast? I mean, liberals are just barely starting to get a smidgen of attention for the proposition that Social Security isn't really in serious trouble a meme that has the advantage of actually being true while the "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas" meme has exploded onto front pages around the country (and the world!) in a matter of days.

Don't believe me? A quick Nexis search shows that in just this weekend alone the MC vs. HH issue has been written up in the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Herald, the Akron Beacon Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, the London Telegraph, the Tallahassee Democrat, the Arizona Republic, Newsday, the Winnipeg Sun, the Christian Science Monitor, CNN, and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. And that's not counting letters to the editors, jokes, or stuff I missed because I only read the Nexis summary instead of the entire article.

How do they do it? How do they get everyone to pay attention to this nonsense?

And most of all, how do we copy them?

Kevin Drum 6:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NO MORE WHINING?....Let me be the first liberal blogger to thank Time magazine for naming George Bush its Person of the Year for 2004. Ever since 9/11 conservatives have been in a snit because Time has failed to name Bush its Person of the Year for four consecutive years, and maybe this will finally shut them up.

Until next year, of course, when I suppose they'll start up again. Sigh.

Kevin Drum 12:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE VIRTUE OF BOOKS....I was all ready to be annoyed yet again by an op-ed decrying Google's project to digitize the holdings of several major research libraries (see here for Friday's outrage), but instead the LA Times pleasantly surprised me today with an excellent, nuanced piece that not only hits the right tone, but also discusses all the relevant issues both pro and con that Friday's piece missed completely. (Although I do wish that writers who rightly praise the serendipitous virtues of browsing open stacks also acknowledged the frequently greater serendipity involved in Googling. It's one of the great joys of the internet.)

I also loved this line about the value of actual paperbound books:

There are only two reasons for buying a book, after all. Either we intend to read it, in which case most of us find a printed version preferable, or we don't intend to read it, in which case a printed version is absolutely essential.

So true, so true....

Kevin Drum 12:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BOOK THREAD....I was sick yesterday and didn't post, but since someone suggested this in the comments to Friday's book post, here's an open thread on the topic of books. Specifically, if you could recommend only one book to the world, what would it be? This is not a "desert island" question, where you're picking a book for yourself, it's the single book you would most highly recommend to, say, the entire readership of this blog.

Sans explanation, since I'm still feeling a little woozy, I'll kick things off with The Power Broker, Robert Caro's spellbinding, Pulitzer-winning biography of New York's Robert Moses. If you're only going to read one book from my bookshelf, that's it.

What's yours?

Kevin Drum 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 17, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

HOLIDAY BOOKS....MY TURN....Jeez, all those holiday book recommendations from other bloggers, but I forgot to offer any of my own. So here are a few semi-timely picks from my bookshelf.

Charlie Wilson's War, by George Crile

This is a terrific book on too many levels to count. On a substantive level, it's a terrific account of the covert U.S. war in Afghanistan in the 80s and how the Reagan team really wasn't all that interested in it. On a storytelling level, it's a fascinating look at how things in Washington (and the rest of the world) really work. And on a personal level, it's a riveting portrait of the eccentric cast of characters who made it all happen. It's the kind of mile-a-minute book that's hard to put down once you start.

Taxing Ourselves, by Joel Slemrod and Jon Bakija

OK, this is a book about tax policy and that means there's a limit to just how fascinating it can be. On the other hand, it's relatively short, it covers a lot of ground, it's surprisingly brightly written considering the subject matter, and it's a great, fairminded primer on what can and can't be done in the realm of taxes. If you want to understand the ins and outs of taxation, this book is about the best starting place I know.

Twins, by Lawrence Wright

What makes us who we are? Nature or nurture, genes or environment? Both, of course, and if you're only going to read one book on the subject you could do worse than Twins, a brief, elegantly written essay about how twins are alike and how they aren't, and what they tell us about ourselves.

Need more recommendations? Here's a list of my favorites that I put together a few years ago.

Kevin Drum 9:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SOCIAL SECURITY AND ME....Matt Yglesias makes an important point about Social Security framing today:

I'm not sure the older liberals who run the show quite understand how overwhelmingly important it is to keep the "there is no crisis" message front and center in the Social Security debate. Most of the young people I know -- including myself until very recently -- have been taken in by a decades-long effort on behalf of privatizers into believing that Social Security is in "crisis," and that if we do nothing the system will "go bankrupt" before we retire, meaning that the system will somehow collapse and we won't get any benefits.

This is true, and I used to be one of these people too. As a well-informed citizen, I knew that Social Security was unsustainable, that life expectancies were increasing, that fewer workers would be supporting more retirees in the future, and in general, that the program was facing a demographic timebomb that would cause it to go bankrupt within a couple of decades.

This was back in the mid-90s, and for some reason I took an interest in finding out more. So I wrote off for a copy of the trustees report, read up on tax policy and demographic projections, pored through various analyses, and to my surprise learned that the problem was either (a) fairly modest and quite solvable or (b) not a problem at all.

Social Security is going to get more expensive over time, but it's not going to keep getting more expensive forever. Starting in about a decade costs will go up, but then, after about 20 years, they'll flatten out. And the size of the increase, from about 4% of GDP to 6% of GDP, just isn't a crisis. What's more, when you start to study the trustees' projections, you realize that even their "intermediate" projection is pretty conservative. It's quite possible that if we leave the system completely alone it will be fine. And even if it's not, there's plenty of time to make the small tweaks necessary to keep it properly funded.

In other words, after actually studying the issue, I changed my opinion almost 180 degrees. Nothing is going bankrupt, benefits will continue to be paid forever, and future funding problems are both modest in size and not that hard to deal with.

Unfortunately, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and now George Bush, each for their own reasons, have found it politically convenient to use Social Security as a useful bogeyman for scaring the public. The difference is that, unlike me back in 1995, they all know better. It's too bad they couldn't have figured out some real problems to focus on instead.

Kevin Drum 2:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOGLE AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT....Every once in a while I hear an idea so blindingly, mind-numbingly blinkered that I want to find the person responsible and just beat the tar out of him. And no, for once I'm not talking about Social Security privatization.

The LA Times features an op-ed today by one Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association. His subject is Google's widely praised initiative to scan and digitize an enormous number of books from the libraries at Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, and others.

Gorman starts with a reasonable, if pedestrian, observation: information is not knowledge. Reading bits and pieces of books out of context is not the same thing as acquiring scholarly appreciation of a subject area. In fact, uncritically browsing through Google hits in a subject you're unfamiliar with can be positively misleading if you're not careful about who and what you read.

Which is all fine. It's slightly nannyish advice, to be sure be sure to eat your vegetables when you use Google! but it's basically sound. Unfortunately, Gorman then proceeds to drive straight over a cliff and explode in a cataclysmic fireball of ignorance and contempt:

I am all in favor of digitizing books that concentrate on delivering information, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias and gazetteers, as opposed to knowledge....I believe, however, that massive databases of digitized whole books, especially scholarly books, are expensive exercises in futility based on the staggering notion that, for the first time in history, one form of communication (electronic) will supplant and obliterate all previous forms.

....This latest version of Google hype will no doubt join taking personal commuter helicopters to work and carrying the Library of Congress in a briefcase on microfilm as "back to the future" failures, for the simple reason that they were solutions in search of a problem.

How can a scholar possibly have such a narrow mind and a scholar of books, no less? Suggesting that Google should limit itself to reference books and leave everything else alone bespeaks a paucity of both spirit and vision that's staggering. And what's sadder still, it appears to be based on the defensive and Luddite notion that Google intends to put libraries and librarians out of business. I wonder if Gorman's 15th century forebears opposed the spread of the printing press on similar grounds?

I have no idea whether Google's initiative will eventually be successful. But I do know that digitizing and indexing vast stores of knowledge will be a boon to scholars on dozens of levels, as well as a source of knowledge and fascination to the rest of us.

Will we all read entire books online? Or print them out? Probably not. But when I use a brick-and-mortar library I don't always do that either. I browse. I peek into books. I take notes from chapters here and there. A digitized library allows me to do the same thing, but with vastly greater scope and vastly greater focus.

I wonder if there's still time for the ALA to un-elect Mr. Gorman as its upcoming president? He's an embarrassment to their profession.

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TAX CUT JIHADISM....Jon Chait on conservative economist Martin Feldstein: "Imagine if one man had designed the Titanic and the Hindenburg, and then was put in charge of the space program."

Sadly, we don't have to imagine. It's happening before our very eyes.

Kevin Drum 11:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WASHINGTON MONTHLY BLING....A gift subscription to the Washington Monthly really does make a great gift. Click here to order a subscription or three.

But wait there's more! How about Washington Monthly swag? Naturally, my favorite is the Inkblot & Jasmine mousepad, a bargain at $11.99, but there's plenty of other stuff too. They're great ways to impress your liberal friends and annoy your conservative ones.

Click here to see the whole shop.

Kevin Drum 12:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PRIVATIZATION AROUND THE WORLD....A few days ago I mentioned that Chile and Sweden hadn't had great luck with Social Security privatization. Today Paul Krugman picks up the baton and runs another lap with it. It's not a pretty story.

Kevin Drum 12:14 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 16, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

TAX CUTS AND DEFICITS....This isn't the biggest issue in the world at the moment, but it's worth taking a second to talk about the federal deficit. Specifically, about why nobody seems to be all that upset about it.

There are several reasons for this, but one of them is a sort of bipartisan conspiracy of silence about Ronald Reagan. Dick Cheney famously said that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter," and regardless of whether he actually said this or not (he denies it), it represents a fairly hardy piece of folk wisdom. After all, Reagan slashed taxes and we eventually grew our way out of the deficits he created, right? So why can't Bush do the same?

The answer, of course, is that Reagan didn't grow his way out of the deficits caused by his 1981 tax cut. As the chart on the right shows (adapted from this Treasury report), he raised taxes twice in 1982, and then raised them again in 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1987. But even with those seven tax increases and several years of strong growth, he still didn't get rid of his deficit.

It took an eighth tax hike from George Bush Sr. in 1989, a ninth in 1990, a tenth from Bill Clinton in 1993, and then another economic boom to erase the deficit. Sure, a strong economy helped, but without all those tax increases the deficit would never have disappeared.

So why don't more people understand this? I think it's because no one wants them to. Republicans don't like to talk about this because it ruins the conservative foundational myth of Reagan the tax cutter as well as the policy myth of tax cuts as the engine of economic growth. They prefer to preserve the mythology.

Democrats, for their part, like to portray Reagan as an inflexible and simpleminded ideologue, and admitting that he raised taxes several times doesn't fit their myth. What's more, they're scared silly about even mentioning tax increases these days. So they don't.

The end result is that very few voters understand that the Reagan deficit eventually went away only after ten major tax increases that were cumulatively bigger than the famous 1981 tax cut. And because people don't understand that, they figure that maybe Bush can grow his way out of the deficits he's created. After all, Reagan did it.

Right?

Kevin Drum 11:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MERRY CHRISTMAS!....Attention wingers: the following story is for you.

I went to the grocery story today, and when I got to the front of the line I asked the cashier if they had any stamps. Holiday stamps, that is, since tonight is Christmas card addressing night.

"No, we used to have them, but we sent them back because people complained."

Huh?

"We just get whatever the post office sends us, and they sent us some regular stamps and some Christmas stamps. We ran out of the regular stamps and only had the holiday stamps left, and people got mad because that's all we had. So we sent them back."

They got mad?

"Yeah, because not everyone celebrates Christmas, you know, and the post office only has Christmas stamps this year."

(Actually, this isn't true. The USPS has Christmas stamps, Kwanzaa stamps, Hanukkah stamps, EID stamps, and Lunar New Year stamps. But I guess my local market only got the Christmas stamps.)

So now you don't have any stamps at all?

"Yeah, sorry."

Kevin Drum 6:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE....Is it possible for a parade of supposedly serious people to present arguments for why Social Security privatization is a bad idea but then, one after another, conclude their remarks with endorsements of Social Security privatization? Yes it is, if these people are handpicked by George Bush to agree with him at his carefully stage managed economic summit:

  • Panelist #1: Economic growth over the next 50 years will probably be high enough to keep Social Security solvent, but Social Security privatization is a good idea anyway.

  • Panelist #2: Big deficits are actually our biggest problem at the moment, but we should spend a couple trillion dollars on Social Security privatization anyway.

  • Panelist #3: Medicare is a much bigger and scarier problem than Social Security, but privatizing Social Security is important anyway.

If you want the full length version, Noam Scheiber has the grim but amusing details.

Kevin Drum 5:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

INTERNET BLUES....My &$!*? internet connection is now back up, but lemme tell you I'm really, really tired of Cox cable, which drops my connection every couple of days, drops it for long periods every month or so, and has telephone tech support people who apparently have only one piece of advice: reboot everything.

Should I switch to DSL? Is it any more reliable? Should I get DSL and cable, so that one or the other is always up? Or should I just shut up and be grateful for what I've got?

Decisions, decisions....

Kevin Drum 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

"CLEAR LIES"...OH, I GET IT. THAT'S HILARIOUS....Kevin's internet connection has gone poof again and we're scrambling to finish our next issue here, so it's going to be light posting today. Our apologies.

In the meantime, since the White House has just announced that it intends to make another run at passing its "Clear Skies" legislation--roundly dismissed by most environmentalists with witty jabs such as "Dirty Skies" or "Clear Lies"--you might be interested in another take on the pollution debate. David Whitman tells the story in the December issue of The Washington Monthly and it's not what you'd expect.

Amy Sullivan 2:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Verbal Class Hero... Driving to a Redskins game awhile back with Matt Cooper, the Time magazine White House correspondent who may be going to prison for refusing to reveal his sources in the Valerie Plame investigation, I finally had a chance to really grill my old friend on why he didn't just give up these White House shmucks, considering some of them have probably broken the law. We went back and forth for quite a while, and by the time we reached FedEx Field, I was convinced that Matt is doing the right thing. And so I heartily agree with what another mutual friend, Steve Waldman of Beliefnet.com, says about Matt here.

Paul Glastris 9:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 15, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

INFLATION AND SOCIAL SECURITY....One of the things that's slowly becoming clear in the Social Security debate is that President Bush's advisors are probably not going to risk what's left of their professional reputations by pretending that private accounts can fix Social Security's future funding shortfall. Instead, they're going to propose benefit cuts in order to balance the books.

As my readers know, I'm not in favor of making any changes to Social Security at the moment. The "funding shortfall" has a strong Chicken Little flavor to it, and even if it turns out to be real there's little reason to try fixing it four decades ahead of time.

Still, the subject is on the table, and it's worth unpacking the specific benefit cut that appears to be everyone's favorite right now: indexing future benefit increases to prices instead of wages. When I first got interested in Social Security many years ago, this initially struck me as a reasonable idea, but it's the kind of thing that looks worse and worse the closer you look at it. So, since we're all going to be hearing a lot more about this over the next few months, it's worth understanding what it means.

The inflation rate that most of us are familiar with is the Consumer Price Index, or CPI, which measures the increase in prices over time. But that's not the only way to measure inflation, and the method used by Social Security is to index benefits according to wage inflation, the average increase in wages over time.

The difference is simple but profound. Think about it this way: what if there were no price inflation at all. Would wages go up anyway?

Answer: sure they would. This is because the economy grows in real terms, and as the economy grows we all get paid more and our standard of living goes up. The whole point of having a growing economy is that it allows everyone to earn more money in real terms and live better lives.

The CPI doesn't take this into account. If your benefits go up only as fast as the CPI, your standard of living is frozen forever no matter how strong the economy is. Consider this: in the past 50 years, thanks to the growth of the American economy, wages have grown about twice as fast as prices and the average Social Security payment has grown to about $900. If we had adopted a price-linked model in 1954, the average payment today would be a meager $450. Bernard Wasow of The Century Foundation, looking back to the birth year of Social Security, puts this into more concrete terms:

What we consider necessities today indoor plumbing, a car, television, air conditioning were unattainable luxuries for a large proportion of the population in 1935. All but the poorest Americans have these "luxuries" today. As late as 1950, more than a third of households lacked complete plumbing and even in 1970, 60 percent of families lacked air conditioning (today that number has been halved).

....It's as if an official in 1935 had said:

"Why does every retiree deserve a flush toilet and a telephone? Half of Americans make do without complete plumbing and less than half have telephones. We do not need to coddle our old people, just ensure them enough income to live adequately. You do not need a flush toilet or a telephone to live adequately in America today."

Switching to a price-indexed model would freeze the living standards of senior citizens forever. Count me out.

BUZZWORD UPDATE: Be careful about tricky terminology too. As Michael Evans points out in the Washington Times, switching to a price-indexed model might not be politically acceptable, but there's always the "stealth solution," which uses terms like "implicit consumption deflator" and "average hourly wage rates." These changes amount to the same thing, however: slashing benefits and leaving seniors behind as our economy grows. Keep your eyes peeled for this stuff.

Kevin Drum 6:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RISING UP....Let me be the first Democrat to answer Jane Galt's challenge to rise up in indignation at the Republicans senselessly persecuting Bernard Kerik over a harmless extramarital affair.

She's quite right. The nanny, the vaguely disreputable mob ties, the prison corruption, the lousy record in Iraq, and the general lack of qualification for the job (aside from his voluble enthusiasm for demonizing Democrats during the campaign, of course) well, that was quite enough. No need to bring sex into the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 5:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MISSILE DEFENSE UPDATE....Another test of missile defense, another failure. Ho hum. But I liked this part:

[The Missile Defense Agency] said the ground-based interceptor "experienced an anomaly shortly before it was to be launched" from the Ronald Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean 16 minutes after the target missile left Alaska.

How appropriate for a missile defense "anomaly" to happen at the Ronald Reagan Test Site. Maybe there is a God after all.

And for the record, they've already had several failures this month. In fact, this was the first time they were even able to conduct the test at all. Too bad the interceptor failed to launch, let alone shoot anything down.

Kevin Drum 1:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

SOMEBODY FOUND SOME MOXIE....Wow. I sat up when I read this in Newsweek: When John Kerry stopped by a meeting of the liberal 527 America Votes two weeks ago, EMILY's List president Ellen Malcolm asked him about the future of the Democratic Party. Kerry "told the group they needed new ways to make people understand they didn't like abortion. Democrats also needed to welcome more pro-life candidates into the party, he said."

Standing up and saying that to the head of the pro-choice group that holds the biggest purse strings for the party takes some guts. (Not as many guts as it would have taken to say it during the election, but these are baby steps.)

What's more, Kerry is right. And before you start spamming me with hate mail, listen up. No one is suggesting that the Democratic Party change its platform or abandon the pro-choice cause or become, as one congresswoman mischaracterized Kerry's advice, "fake Republicans." That would be stupid and, even worse, wrong.

But it's long past time for the Democratic Party to realize that they continue to lose voters who aren't one-issue abortion voters but who feel unwelcome in the party because of their beliefs. Rhetoric that verges on being pro-abortion rankles even pro-choice Democrats like me. (For a nice summary of my thoughts, read this excellent piece by Sarah Blustain.) Parents who are uneasy about parental notification laws don't have rocks in their heads--they have to sign permission slips so the school nurse can give their kids Tylenol and they're not wild about the idea of that same kid getting an abortion without their knowledge. I'm not saying Democrats should back down from protecting girls in extraordinary circumstances who need to get abortions on their own. But they don't need to frame the argument in a way that implies that those who disagree with them are stone-age misogynists.

If Democrats can change the perception that they are pro-abortion, they will finally be free to go on the offensive. A majority of Americans believes that abortion shouldn't be illegal, but also shouldn't be completely unrestricted. These are people who just want to see fewer abortions taking place. Guess what? So do most Democrats--that's just not how they talk about it. A Democratic candidate should never find him- or herself arguing about who believes in a phrase like "the culture of life"; they should debate who actually does more to reduce abortion rates. Over the past few decades, abortion rates have gone up during Republican administrations and down during Democratic ones. Teen pregnancies (and abortions) have plummeted by one-third over the past decade due to a mixture of liberal and conservative policies related to contraception availability and informed abstinence promotion. Democrats have nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to their record of protecting life. But no one is going to listen to them if they're too busy chanting "I'm not sorry".

At the same time, I'd like to have a word with the pro-lifers: I don't ever again want to hear about the supposed muzzling of Governor Casey in 1992 and how that is proof for all of time of Democratic disdain for pro-lifers. Democrats have just elected Harry Reid, staunch pro-lifer, to lead their party in the Senate, for crying out loud. He's so conservative on this issue that he voted against a bipartisan abortion compromise sponsored by Daschle in the 1990s. If that's still not good enough for you, come back to me when Olympia Snowe is elected Republican Leader and then we can talk about which party is more inclusive.

Amy Sullivan 1:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RUMSFELD UNDER FIRE....We all know that John McCain isn't a big fan of Donald Rumsfeld, and Chuck Hagel isn't a surprise either. But Stormin' Norman?

I was angry by the words of the secretary of defense when he laid it all on the Army, as if he, as the secretary of defense, didnt have anything to do with the Army and the Army was over there doing it themselves, screwing up.

Good point. Plus there's the fact that Rumsfeld was lying through his teeth about armor production already being at capacity, and how there was nothing more he could do about it. That was bad too.

Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TEACHER PAY....Should good schoolteachers get paid more than poor ones? Over at Crooked Timber, Harrry Brighouse is skeptical, mainly because he thinks it's hard to figure out who's good and who's not. To cut a long story short, the best method (he thinks) is for principals to evaluate teachers and judge their performance, but that would be "a recipe for cronyism, unfairness, and divisiveness." Forget it.

This reminds me of a conversation I once had with my mother the schoolteacher (who is reading this and will probably call shortly to complain that I've misrepresented her). Somehow the conversation turned to performance evaluation, and after a bit of back and forth she said, OK, fine, so how do you get evaluated? Well, I said, once a year my boss calls me in, tells me what kind of job he thinks I'm doing, rates me in some way, and then tells me how big a raise I'll be getting.

At first this produced a blank stare. Then a shake of the head. How could that be? This one person has the power to just arbitrarily decide how you're doing? What if he just doesn't like you very much? This could be very unfair, couldn't it?

I just shrugged my shoulders. Yeah, I've had some bosses that liked me and some that didn't. Some people get big raises just for kissing corporate asses (or so the rest of us thought) and some are unfairly kept in lowly positions (usually us and our friends, of course).

But that's just the way it goes. Sure, there are usually some moderately objective criteria involved in all this, but in the end there's also lots of human judgment. Sometimes it's fair, sometimes it isn't.

At that point we just had a clash of cultures and the conversation petered out. To me, the idea that people got subjectively evaluated was fine, even though there's some inherent unfairness in the process. To her, it wasn't. And ne'er the twain shall meet.

There's one more thing, though, that Harry doesn't mention. A big difference between most white collar private sector jobs and classroom teaching is that, to a very large degree, every teacher does the same thing: they teach a single class (or in high school, a certain number of periods). Thus, differential pay is extremely obvious.

In the private sector, pay raises are roughly coordinated with title changes and increases in responsibility. This masks a lot of perceived inequity. You can still complain that Sally shouldn't have gotten the promotion, but everyone agrees that someone has to run Accounts Payable, and that whoever it is will get paid more than a senior AP clerk. What's more, in most private sector environments people work in close proximity, which makes it obvious that some people are more productive than others. Teachers are isolated in their classrooms, so it's a lot less clear who's doing a good job and who isn't.

But here's a question for the crowd: how does teacher pay work in private schools that don't have to worry about unions? I know it's generally lower, but is it also more dependent on subjective evaluation, rather than seniority? If so, does it cause lots of problems? And if not, why not? Any private school teachers care to comment?

Kevin Drum 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Not So Heavy Metal... You've heard of soldiers in Iraq not getting armor plating for their vehicles. Here's what some of them think about the armor they are getting.

Paul Glastris 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Tax Attacks II... In a previous post, I suggested that neo-populists like David Sirota and New Dems like Ed Kilgore (the two have been warring lately over what a progressive economic agenda might look like), ought to find common ground in supporting some kind of ban on the ability of footloose corporations to extract tax breaks from job-hungry state and local governments. Sirota has since emailed me to say he's for the idea. And now Kilgore has weighed in with his qualified support. See, we can all be friends!

Paul Glastris 8:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Housing Bubble... Are home prices in America unsustainably high, as Ben Wallace-Wells has argued? And if so, does the Fed risk bursting the bubble with interest rate hikes? Bruce Bartlett, for one, is worried, though his column offers sufficient countervailing evidence to forestall, perhaps, immediate panic.

Paul Glastris 8:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

"LACED WITH DARWINISM"....Wow. The Dover Area School District's attempt to insert the Bible into its biology classes was so blatant that even the Discovery Institute has asked them to back down. I guess they prefer a more subtle approach.

Chris Mooney has the details.

Kevin Drum 1:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SUPERMARKET FOLLOWUP....The Southern California supermarket strike ended nine months ago, but I'm still pissed off at the chains, and I still don't shop at my local Ralphs. Screw 'em.

The LA Times follows up today on how things are going. It's just disgusting that something like this happened in the richest country in the world.

Kevin Drum 1:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 14, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

WHY I'M JEALOUS OF MY CATS....Andrew Sullivan has been blogging and writing recently about his recently diagnosed sleep disorders, and it occurs to me that a fair number of people might be interested in a different perspective on this. So here's my story.

I've slept poorly pretty much my entire adult life: I generally get to sleep OK, but it doesn't do much good and I usually wake up tired. Several years ago, after reading a book called The Promise of Sleep, by one of the country's foremost sleep specialists, I decided to see if I could do something about it.

So I asked my doctor for a reference to a sleep specialist and she looked at me as if I'd proposed consulting an African shaman. After she recovered she said she didn't think their medical group had a sleep clinic anyway. A couple of days later the office called to confirm this.

I decided to visit one anyway, and called up a local hospital that did have a sleep clinic. By good fortune or perhaps bad fortune, as will become clear later the receptionist I talked to was concerned about how much this would cost me and asked me what medical group I belonged to. I told her. "Oh, they have a sleep clinic," she told me. "I used to work there until a week ago."

Hmmm. Back to my doctor. This time she admitted that such a clinic existed, and a week later gave me a referral. I called, and a couple of weeks later went in for a sleep study.

A sleep study is a simple thing. Basically, you come in, they spend about an hour wiring you up like a Christmas tree, turn a video camera on, and then tell you to relax and sleep normally. This doesn't work all that well, but it does work eventually. The next morning they rousted me out of bed and told me they'd be in touch.

A week or so later I went back in to get my results and this is where things got weird. It turned out I had mild sleep apnea, a disease that causes your upper airway to become obstructed during sleep. In other words, you stop breathing several times an hour 10-15 times an hour in my case and 40 times an hour or more in severe cases. When this happens, your brain goes into panic mode, wakes you up, and you start breathing again. You're awake for such a short time that you don't remember it, but the end result is that the quality of your sleep is severely impaired. My father had sleep apnea too.

It took me a while to learn all this, though. The sleep specialist was oddly reticent when I asked for advice. That's up to your doctor, she said. My doctor, of course, knew next to nothing about sleep disorders and seemingly considered them to be on a par with religious stigmata in any case. I made another appointment with the sleep specialist. No dice: she couldn't give me advice, she said.

Eventually, I figured out what was going on: the sleep specialist was a PhD, not an MD, and was legally prohibited from dispensing medical advice. So in the end, I had a sleep specialist who couldn't talk to me and a medical doctor who knew nothing about sleep disorders. This was not a recipe for success.

Still, between the two of them they ordered up a CPAP machine for me to see if it would help. Basically, a CPAP blows air into your nose through a mask that you wear at night. The air pressure keeps your airways unobstructed so that you don't stop breathing.

It's also a royal pain in the ass, and many people are unable to tolerate it. For example, me. I used it for several weeks, and even got a humidifying attachment for it, but I could never wear it for more than few hours. Around 2 or 3 in the morning, I'd wake up and couldn't get back to sleep as long as I had it on.

What's more, even the three or four hours of CPAP wear per night, which should have had some effect, didn't help. I got a deviated septum repaired and tried again. No difference. I asked about further surgical options, but no one was very enthusiastic about them.

The end result is that it was all for nought. The CPAP didn't work, the nasal surgery didn't help, and I still sleep poorly. Bummer.

And the lesson for anyone who thinks they might have a sleep disorder is this: don't be surprised if you run into some roadblocks, but go get a sleep study done anyway. For a lot of people the CPAP works fine, and there are medications available for other disorders. At the same time, I'd recommend that you shop around and try to find a good clinic. Most GPs don't know much about this, and it's the sleep specialist who's going to be able to help you. Good luck.

POSTSCRIPT: Actually, it wasn't all for nought. After reading the book I understood more about sleep cycles and finally figured out how to beat jet lag. I used to dread flying to Europe because I knew I was in for several days of severe jet lag, but now I have no problems at all. It's like a miracle.

Kevin Drum 7:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

REAL PROBLEMS vs. FAKE PROBLEMS....Here's a question for all you policy wonks out there: why is George Bush spending all his political energy on trying to privatize Social Security? Is Social Security really the most important problem we have right now? Is it even the most important entitlement program we have right now?

Here's a handy chart comparing Social Security with Medicare. Decide for yourself.

Social Security

Medicare

Current guess about when we start dipping into the trust fund

2018

2010

Current guess about when the trust fund is exhausted

2042

2019

Level of optimism about trust fund

High! Doomsday keeps getting pushed out, from 2029 a decade ago to 2042 today. And the CBO estimates that it's really more like 2050 anyway.

Low! Doomsday was pulled in from 2026 to 2019 just last year. The future of Medicare looks worse today than it did a few years ago.

Current expenditures (2003)

About 4.5% of GDP.

About 2.6% of GDP

Estimated expenditures in 2050

About 6.5% of GDP.

About 9.5% of GDP.

So: Social Security is solvent for several decades at a minimum, and if the economy performs decently it may very well be solvent forever. What's more, the cost of Social Security is only going to increase by 2 points of GDP in the next 50 years. This is not Armageddon.

Medicare, on the other hand, will start dipping into its trust fund in a mere six years. And no one thinks this estimate is going to improve: thanks to skyrocketing healthcare costs, Medicare might very well be in worse shape than we think it is. As a result, the cost of Medicare is likely to increase by a staggering 7 points of GDP over the next 50 years.

Why, then, are we obsessing over Social Security, which is not really that big a deal, and ignoring Medicare, which has serious problems in both the short term and the long term?

As near as I can tell, the answer is twofold. First, Social Security provides Republicans with a chance to introduce a conservative nostrum that they've long pined for: private accounts. We don't need them, and they won't actually do anything to solve whatever problems Social Security might have, but an invented crisis is a good excuse to introduce them anyway. Conversely, there's no way to plausibly pretend that private accounts will save Medicare, so why bother?

Second, Social Security is relatively easy to deal with since it's just a pure funding issue: you can raise taxes, cut benefits, or borrow more. It's pretty simple to grasp.

Conversely, Medicare reform is really, really hard. You've got the same funding issues as Social Security, except much bigger and much closer; and in addition you also have to face up to spiralling healthcare costs. And figuring out a way to contain healthcare costs is a subject that nobody wants to tackle. Not Democrats and definitely not Republicans.

Bottom line: we have one real problem and one fake problem. The fake problem is, well, fake, but it provides a plausible excuse to do something conservatives have long wanted to do anyway. The real problem, on the other hand, is, um, real, but fixing it would take genuine political courage.

So which problem do you think George Bush has decided to tackle?

POSTSCRIPT: On a practical note, I should add that I guess I'm just as glad Bush is ignoring Medicare. It's true that it needs reform, but considering the general level of political corruption and contempt for policy that attends any George Bush "reform," I'd just as soon he left it alone for someone else to worry about.

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By: Kevin Drum

MEDAL OF FREEDOM....Both liberals and conservatives seem incensed that President Bush is presenting former CIA chief George "Slam Dunk" Tenet with a Presidential Medal of Freedom today. Why would Bush do such a thing?

The answer is obvious, isn't it? To keep him quiet. He's really a guy you'd rather have inside the tent than outside.

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By: Kevin Drum

PUNDITUS MAXIMUS!....Now see? David Brooks can write a good column when he puts his mind to it. That wasn't so hard, was it?

Kevin Drum 12:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 13, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

NEWS OF THE WEIRD....Remember the Madrid bombings just before the Spanish elections back in March? The incumbent government blamed the attacks on the Basque terrorist group ETA, even though the evidence pointed strongly toward al-Qaeda, and shortly afterward they were handily beaten by Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero's Socialist party. The Socialists have contended ever since that the deception was deliberate.

So what's been happening since then? A government inquiry, of course. Today Zapatero gave his testimony:

Seor Zapatero said that it had been impossible to establish the truth because computer records had been destroyed.

Giving evidence under oath he said: In the Prime Ministers office we did not have a single document or any data on computer because the whole Cabinet of the previous Government carried out a massive erasure.

That means that we have nothing about what happened, information that might have been received, meetings or decisions that were taken from March 11 until March 14.

And get this: not only did they erase every scrap of evidence about what they said and did in the four days before the election including email, computer records, backups, and paper documents they charged the cost of the erasure to the government. The newspaper El Pais reports that it cost 12,000 euros.

Damn. That's chutzpah, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 11:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DON'T-BRING-A-KNIFE-TO-A-GUN-FIGHT DEPARTMENT....Shorter Digby: what we need to fight Social Security privatization is Harry and Louise, Mark II.

This is pretty much the conclusion I'm coming to as well.

(If you don't get the reference, Harry & Louise are the kitchen table couple who as legend has it were responsible for killing Bill Clinton's 1994 healthcare reform. Summary here. And as it happens, H&L have already been revived a couple of times since then, so I guess it would really be H&L Mark IV or something)

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY DOOM MONGERING, PART 2....A fellow named Silent E liked my Social Security chart from last night, but suggested that instead of charting the calendar year of projected Social Security doom, I should instead chart the number of years remaining until doomsday.

Funny he should ask. The Political Animal graphics team had a similar thought last night, but I foolishly ignored them. So Silent E, this chart's for you: a year-by-year rundown of how much time is left until the Social Security trustees predict Social Security doom. Remarkably, no matter how much time goes by, we never seem to actually get any closer.

There's a very serious point to be made here. Projections of Social Security solvency are based on projections of future economic growth, and the Social Security trustees have been systematically too pessimistic about the economy for the past decade. What's more, there are good reasons to think that they're probably still being overly pessimistic.

If that's the case, then it's probable that the system as a whole is solvent forever and that we won't even have to touch the trust fund for another 40 years if then. And frankly, a "crisis" that's at least 40 years off and might very well never occur at all just isn't something we should be spending a lot of time on right now. Predicting economic growth within a few tenths of a point 40 years in the future is a mug's game, and trying to justify radical changes on such speculation is foolish.

Social Security is safer without private accounts than it is with them. We should leave it alone and convene again in ten years to see how things are going.

Kevin Drum 5:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOLIDAY BOOKS, PART 4....Here's Part 4 of my holiday bookfest for political junkies:

From Phil Carter of Intel Dump

  • Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media, by Seth Mnookin. "This is the definitive history of the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, but it provides much more than that. Seth Mnookin's highly readable book goes into detail about the state of journalism at this point in our history, the rise and fall of Howell Raines at the Times, and the implications of this scandal for the way news is produced and consumed. I read this book on one flight from L.A. to New York it was that good."

  • Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, by Steve Coll. "The Al Qaeda threat we face today is a great deal different from the one we faced on Sept. 11, 2001 it has mutated and evolved into a far more decentralized and amorphous terror network. Nonetheless, Coll's book about the Afghan war and the rise of Osama Bin Laden's organization should be required reading for anyone who wants the backstory on how Al Qaeda came to be the principal security threat for the United States in the 21st Century. I have read many books on this subject, but none so good as this one."

From Laura Rozen of War and Piece

  • A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs, by Theodore Draper. "It's like reading the Congressional Iran Contra reports without any of the names blacked out, and with all the fascinating back stories on the cast of characters involved, many of them familiar from the Bush II administration. For instance, about Iran contra arms dealer, Manucher Ghorbanifar, there are more than 50 references, including this quote from the CIA's official burn notice of him: 'He had a history of predicting events after they happened and was seen as a rumormonger of occasional usefulness. In addition, the information collected by him consistently lacked sourcing and detail notwithstanding his exclusive interest in acquiring money.' Perfect. Who else would you want helping guide the Bush administration's Iran policy?"

  • Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi. "Yes, it's in every airport magazine shop, but it's well worth a read, not only for its insights about post-revolutionary Iran and in particular for the group of female students Nafisi selects to study literature in her mountain-encircled Tehran apartment, but for its gripping demonstration of the power of literature to free the minds of human beings living under political oppression. In that way, Nafisi's Lolita reminds one of the work of Milan Kundera."

From Matt Welch

  • Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990, by Vaclav Havel. "The best collection by and introduction to one of the 20th century's greatest men. Besides containing the two political essays that best (and thrillingly) lay out the case & fighting manual against communism & other totalitarianism ('Power of the Powerless,' and 'An Open Letter to Dr. Gustav Husak'), it provides an enticing window into modern Czech thought and history, while breathing new life into words like 'truth' and 'responsibility.'"

  • If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade, by Warren Hinckle. "Rollicking and inspirational history of the great lefty muckraking '60s Frisco magazine Ramparts (home of such writers as Robert Scheer and David Horowitz), written by the profane eyepatch-wearing lunatic who converted it from a quiet Catholic quarterly to one of the decade's most vital publications. Ramparts was a direct predecessor to Rolling Stone, Scanlan's, and dozens of spectacular failures, and the telling of this tale is drenched not only in terrific '60s weirdness, but the maverick sensibility of Western publishing stretching back to the Gold Rush."

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By: Kevin Drum

GIVE THE GIFT OF WONKERY....Hey, you know what would make a great holiday present for a loved one who also happens to be a political junkie? A gift subscription to the Washington Monthly.

Click here to order. It's fun and easy and we give volume discounts: $26 for the first subscription and $20 for each additional subscription. It's a bargain!

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By: Kevin Drum

SYRIA, IRAN, AND SAUDI ARABIA....By coincidence, I read the following two items one right after the other this morning. First, here is Spencer Ackerman on the future of our military presence in Iraq:

Forgive me if I indulge in a brief rant. Lots has been written over the last several days about the United Iraqi Alliance, the Sistani-brokered slate of mostly Shia candidates for the January election. Practically all the coverage recognizes that the ticket is practically assured to take power. But there's nearly nothing about what the slate says it wants to do when it finds itself in charge namely, get the U.S. out of Iraq.

And here is William Kristol on the future of our military presence in Iraq:

By Bush Doctrine standards, Syria is a hostile regime....What to do?....We could bomb Syrian military facilities; we could go across the border in force to stop infiltration; we could occupy the town of Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, a few miles from the border, which seems to be the planning and organizing center for Syrian activities in Iraq...

It's easy to overstate the problem here, but there is a problem. The Shiite slate is clearly going to win the January elections, and as Spencer points out, there's only one plank in the UIA platform that its leaders consider important enough to discuss publicly: a desire to get U.S. troops out of Iraq.

At the same time, democracy promoting neocons like Kristol not only don't want U.S. troops to leave, they want to widen the conflict: to Syria right now and eventually to Iran and possibly Saudi Arabia which "may ultimately be more serious than the Syria problem." But that can't happen unless U.S. troops have a permanent presence in Iraq.

Sometime next year this will come to a head. Do we leave Iraq if a democratically elected government asks us to? Or do we stick around in order to eventually bring the rest of the Middle East to heel? Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY DOOM MONGERING....As we all know because President Bush told us yesterday Social Security "is headed towards bankruptcy down the road." Specifically, according the Social Security trustees, the point at which full benefits can no longer be paid out comes 38 years from now in the year 2042. This prediction is based on a complex model that takes into account future economic performance, population growth, demographic changes, and so forth.

But anyone who's been listening to the Social Security doom mongers for a while knows that there's a problem with this prediction and since a picture is worth a thousand words I commissioned the chart on the right from the crack Political Animal graphics team. It shows the last decade's worth of Social Security predictions, and it turns out that back in 1994 the Social Security trustees were predicting that doomsday was....

35 years away.

That's right: even though ten years have passed, doomsday is now farther away than it was in 1994. As every year goes by, the doomsday schedule moves out another year too. Why? Because the doomsday predictions are extremely sensitive to the economic assumptions behind them, and if those assumptions are off by a little bit, so are the predictions.

In other words, Social Security doom mongering has a pretty checkered past which means that perhaps the current doom mongering isn't quite on target either. In fact, maybe Social Security is in perfectly good shape and doesn't need "rescuing." The most prudent course might be to wait a few years and find out.

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December 12, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

EMBARRASSING....In an op-ed explaining why Harry Reid was wrong to say that Justice Clarence Thomas is an "embarrassment," Thomas Krannawitter reminds us today of exactly why Clarence Thomas is an embarrassment:

Thomas is one of the few jurists today, conservative or otherwise, who understands and defends the principle that our rights come not from government but from a "creator" and "the laws of nature and of nature's God," as our Declaration of Independence says, and that the purpose and power of government should therefore be limited to protecting our natural, God-given rights.

....The American people need to be reminded of the source of their rights and persuaded that limited government is good; that the principles of the Constitution which are the natural-law principles of the Declaration of Independence are timeless, not time-bound; that without those principles, the noble ends set forth in the Constitution's preamble can never be achieved.

Coming from a priest or a preacher, this would be fine. Coming from a Supreme Court justice who's supposed to interpret the constitution on secular grounds, it's an embarrassment.

Kevin Drum 8:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON EXECUTIVE COMPENSATION....As Matt says, although tax and accounting issues are worth looking at, the real cause of runaway CEO compensation is widespread corruption in the corporate governance sphere. CEO salaries are essentially set by other CEOs and a small coterie of "compensation consultants," all of whom are motivated to set each other's salaries as high as possible so that in turn their own salaries will someday be set even higher. How many other employees have a sweet deal like that?

So how do they get away with it? First, by convincing everyone that this is a reasonable statement: "If we want a good CEO, we have to pay above the average." Simple arithmetic tells you that as long as everyone believes this, executive salaries will spiral upward endlessly.

Second, by making it hard to figure out how much their executives are paid in the first place. Stock options, perks, lucrative pension plans, and so forth are hard to value, and thus prevent overpaid CEOs from seeming overpaid until it's too late.

And third, by putting up roadblocks that make it difficult for dissident shareholders to complain about all this. In most companies, shares are so widely dispersed that very few people have a strong enough interest in this stuff to make a fuss. And when someone does manage to make a fuss, most corporations have rules that make it all but impossible to gather enough votes to make a difference.

Of course, I guess there are other possibilities. Price levels are controlled by supply and demand, and perhaps there's a shortage of talented CEOs these days. Or perhaps demand is higher. Or maybe companies are better run than they used to be.

If any of those things were true, it would mean rising CEO compensation is just evidence of the market at work. As it turns out, though, none of them are.

CEOs aren't paid astronomical salaries because of market forces. They're paid astronomical salaries because they can get away with it. That's all.

Kevin Drum 6:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TROUBLE IN PARADISE....I didn't have the heart to blog this last night, but you really ought to read the second installment in the Peter Gosselin's LA Times series about economic risk. On an analytical note, the point of the series is that although the poor may be a bit better off in average terms than they were 30 years ago, they face a far greater risk of imminent disaster. The chart on the right tells the story: the working poor face income swings as high as 50% per year, compared to only 25% in 1970.

But the real reason to read the story is to see the human face of this problem. It's heartbreaking, and it's heartbreaking on a whole bunch of different levels. Conservatives will point to the folly of buying big screen TVs on incomes that can't afford it, but the bigger picture overwhelms this kind of pettiness: every time the profiled families seem like they're finally making enough money to afford a (barely) middle class lifestyle, disaster strikes: legal problems, job losses, 9/11, loss of medical coverage, union busting, you name it. An unexpected miscarriage costs $5,000 and if that happens right after your union job has been replaced by a nonunion job that pays $2/hour less and doesn't provide medical coverage, you're in deep trouble. Things that seem small to most of us are life-threatening crises to people at the bottom of the income scale.

Structural changes in the economy are part of the reason for this, of course, but it's made worse by the growing indifference of our government to cushioning unforeseen disaster. There was a bit of progress on this front during the late 90s, partly because of the strong economy and partly because Bill Clinton managed to push through some of those famous small bore programs of his, but it was still a drop in the bucket compared to the overall trend. For many people, the result is a sense of constantly living on the edge, even if, statistically speaking, their average income over a long period is higher than it was a couple of decades ago.

This problem is not likely to improve any time soon, given the modern Republican obsession with either dismembering our traditional safety net programs or else piling ever more individual risk onto them as they're trying to do with Social Security, for example.

Risk vs. security. At some point, the risk-based society that the Republican party is trying to build will finally come crashing down on them. In the meantime, it's up to Democrats to make sure that when it does, the blame falls exactly where it belongs.

Kevin Drum 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY NOT IN CRISIS?....It's a small story below the fold in the LA Times, but hey! it's a start:

"Social Security is not in crisis, and the financial challenges facing the system are manageable," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento, the senior Democrat on the House Social Security subcommittee.

....Many Democrats accuse Republicans of intentionally making Social Security's future look bleaker than it is so that they can more easily sell their privatization proposals. The Republican agenda, they say, is more ideological than financial: the promotion of Bush's "ownership society."

Imagine that. Social Security might not be in crisis after all. May this meme spread joyously across the land....

Kevin Drum 12:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 11, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

BLOGGER WINS NATIONAL AWARD....Congratulations, Matt!

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By: Kevin Drum

CELEBRITY POLITICIANS....Yesterday I pondered aloud about the fact that although Hollywood is famously liberal, entertainers who (successfully) go into national politics all seem to be Republicans. I mentioned Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Thompson, and Sonny Bono.

I was properly chastised for including Thompson in that group, but on the other hand readers added both Fred Grandy, who was an Iowa congressman for a while, and song-and-dance man George Murphy, who was a California senator in the 60s. What's more, in the related celebrity field of athletics, Republicans have fielded Jim Bunning, Jack Kemp, Jim Ryun, Steve Largent, Tom Osborne, and J.C. Watts.

Among national Democrats, conversely, the only ones we came up with were Ben Jones, who played Cooter Davenport on Dukes of Hazzard and served a couple of terms as a congressman from Georgia; and basketball legend Bill Bradley.

So, really, what's the deal? Noam Scheiber suggests that it's the value of playing against type, sort of an only-Nixon-can-go-to-China thing. I guess that might be the case, but if it is then shouldn't that apply to other fields as well? Shouldn't there be several Fortune 500 CEOs who have won national office as Democrats? Or retired generals? Off the top of my head, I can think of Jon Corzine (ex-CEO) and John Glenn (ex-military, sort of), but that's it. Are we missing a bet here?

Kevin Drum 6:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY NOTES....Quick note on Social Security. A few people have mentioned that I'm all over the map on this, posting on a bewildering array of topics with no apparent rhyme or reason.

That's true. At the moment I'm just tossing out everything that comes to mind, getting it all out on the table. In the end, some arguments will work better than others and some will apply more concretely to President Bush's eventual plan than others. When he actually gets around to producing a plan, the criticisms should start to get a little more focused.

On a related topic, it's also true that I haven't proposed any kind of alternate plan of my own. But you can't fight something with nothing, so what do I think Democrats should propose instead of privatization?

I'm not sure, but here's an idea worth thinking about: changing the funding base of Social Security (and Medicare) from a payroll tax to a VAT, and setting it at a level that will produce a bit more revenue than the current tax. This has several things to recommend it:

  • It's a consumption tax, and conservatives like consumption taxes. In fact, several of them have suggested using a VAT to replace the income tax, so on a political level they'd have a hard time turning around and suddenly arguing that it's a fundamentally bad idea.

  • A properly constructed VAT would be more progressive than the current payroll tax, which costs middle class families about 15% of their incomes and millionaires only about 4%. So it should be attractive to liberals too.

  • VATs are quite efficient as a source of revenue.

  • It's a big, bold proposal. Democrats need something like this to avoid looking like obstructionists who are just afraid of change.

Like I said, it's just an idea. But it might be worth thinking about.

Kevin Drum 3:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SHORTER HOLBO....Over at Crooked Timber, John Holbo tells us that after his previous long posts about academic groupthink, a commenter has asked for "a dsquared-style shorter Holbo for all this." He then proceeds to provide one for an additional 1,700 words.

I think perhaps John should have a brief conversation with his blogmate about this concept....

Kevin Drum 2:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DAVID BROOKS TELLS THE TRUTH....I have a feeling this was a mistake on his part, but in today's column David Brooks accidentally tells the truth about Social Security privatization:

The government would essentially borrow at 2 percent in real terms, invest that money through regulated private accounts in the market and get a return, based on conservative historical averages, of about 4.6 percent. Those returns would, over time, cover the $11 trillion in liabilities that threaten to bring down the system.

If this scheme actually works, let's apply it to the entire federal budget! I propose that every year for the next century the government should borrow, say, a couple hundred billion dollars and invest it in the stock market. By the year 2100 this will have appreciated to a point where dividends and capital gains will fund the entire federal government with no need for tax revenues at all. It would be the greatest gift we could ever bequeath to our great grandchildren.

(Yes, the key word in Brooks' column is "borrow." If private accounts were honestly funded they'd be worth discussing. If they're based on borrowing, they aren't.)

And while we're on the subject, here's a historical note for Brooks. He complains earlier in the column that "Gone is the day when President Clinton could propose another plan diverting 15 percent of Social Security reserves into the stock market." Indeed, but who was it that shot down Clinton's idea? None other than Alan Greenspan and congressional Republicans.

Clinton's plan was perfectly doable with the right kind of regulation and would have taken advantage of the stock market's higher returns. So why didn't Republicans like it back in 1999? Because it would have kept Social Security as a government guaranteed pension program. It's not stock market returns these guys care about, it's an ideological drive to get the government out of the safety net business and force individuals to bear ever more risk in their daily lives. Don't ever forget that.

Kevin Drum 1:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CLASS WARFARE....I was so excited to receive my weekly copy of the Economist yesterday that I read the whole thing in a single sitting before dinner. It's a Thursday magazine, you see, but I usually don't get it until Tuesday, by which time it's so moldy that I often barely bother to crack it open. Sadly, this problem has gotten so bad that I'm now debating whether to even continue my multi-decade subscription next year.

So what was in this week's issue? One of my favorite topics, thankyouverymuch: executive compensation. As the chart on the right shows, it turns out that "pay for performance" is actually "pay for fogging a mirror." No matter how bad performance is, executive pay just keeps chugging upward:

In 1991 the pay of the average American large-company boss was about 140 times that of the average worker; by last year, it was over 500 times, and growing. Last year's 7.2% rise in the average American boss's total compensation is worth over $400,000nice work, if you can get it.

That's not $400K in pay; that's a $400K raise.

In other news, John Quiggin has been reading Pay without Performance: The Unfulfilled Promise of Executive Compensation and reports the following:

The most telling detail for me is the observation p98, that every single CEO in the S&P Execucomp Database has a defined benefit pension plan. This, while bosses everywhere have been shifting their employees onto defined contribution plans, where they, and not the company, bear all the risk, and while the Republicans in the US are trying to do the same with Social Security.

....Aggregate top-five compensation was equal to 10 percent of aggregate corporate earnings in 1998-2002, up from 6 percent of aggregate corporate earnings during 1993-1997.

Got that? A full ten percent of corporate earnings go to the top five people in the company. The. Top. Five.

Don't you think it's about time shareholders and workers started making some noise about this? I'm guessing that America's senior managers could probably make a perfectly good living on a measly 5% of total corporate profits, don't you?

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias says, fine, but what should we do about this? After all, government regulation of CEO salaries doesn't sound like such a great idea.

I agree, and I'd never suggest such a thing. But there are other options. First, if conservatives actually agreed that this was a problem which I doubt they'd at least speak out about it. That is, they'd try to shame their fellow conservatives into keeping their compensation demands somewhere south of the stratosphere. They'd try to persuade them that gold-plated executive washroom fixtures and salaries that are 500x the median are rather too close to Gilded Age arrogance for comfort.

Second, there's government regulation and then there's government regulation. We might not want to directly regulate CEO compensation, but we can certainly enact policies that motivate companies to pay their executives differently. Transparency of pay plans, stock option accounting, deductibility of perks, tax treatment of capital gains and dividends, and progressive taxation in general are obvious starting places.

Kevin Drum 12:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NANNY WOES....This whole Bernie Kerik affair is actually kind of funny. On Friday he withdrew his nomination to be secretary of homeland security, saying he had "discovered" that a former nanny might have been an illegal alien and that he might have, um, inadvertantly failed to pay all the required taxes during her employment. Thus Kerik joins a distinguished line of "nanny problem" politicians stretching from Michael Huffington to Zoe Baird to Linda Chavez.

But wait that's not the funny part. Newsweek's Mark Hosenball reports today that Kerik actually had more serious problems:

Kerik, who recently made millions in the private sector, once filed for personal bankruptcy as a New York cop. And just five years ago he was in financial trouble over a condominium he owned in New Jersey. More serious trouble than anyone realized: Newsweek has discovered that a New Jersey judge in 1998 had issued an arrest warrant as part of a convoluted series of lawsuits relating to unpaid bills on his condo.

Still not laughing? Here's what's amusing: apparently nanny problems are now so common and well accepted that they've become a standard excuse to cover up more serious offenses. Heck, it almost makes you a martyr, since the chattering classes unanimously agree that nanny issues are trivial it's just so hard to find good help these days and are used mostly as political payback anyway.

Remember that the next time you think the cops are closing in on you for selling secrets to the Russians or something. Just confess to a nanny problem! Everyone will believe you, the cops will suddenly understand why you've been acting shifty, and you might even get some sympathy in the bargain. It's perfect!

Kevin Drum 12:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Tax Attacks... If I were a politician or candidate looking for an anti-corporate-welfare issue to champion, one that would resonate with ordinary voters and small business owners; that would increase government revenues progressively; that would win the support of most academic economists and newspaper editorial boards; and that would put my crony-capitalist political opponents in an immensely awkward position, I would figure out a way to champion a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati. The New Yorker's incomparable James Surowiecki explains the decision here.

The case involves tax credits that the city of Toledo gave to Daimler-Chrysler, a major local employer, in order to lure the company into building a new plant there. Such sweetheart deals are, of course, extremely common. Giant manufacturers and big-box retailers routinely play cities and states off against each other in order to get their tax burdens lowered or lifted entirely tax. The governments play along because doing otherwise risks watching jobs go elsewhere. But as a general economic matter the incentives make no sense. They don't increase the number of jobs or the amount of economic activity in the country overall. They deprive governments of needed tax revenue. And they put smaller firms at a disadvantage. Your average auto repair shop or florist or small software company doesn't have the clout to get its taxes reduced by threatening to relocate.

These are all good arguments for disallowing such tax incentives. But the Sixth Circuit decision puts forth another one: they violate the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. I'm no lawyer, so I don't know if this is a sensible or tortured interpretation of the Commerce Clause--read the decision yourself here. Certainly the ruling will be appealed. Still, as Surowiecki notes, "for the moment at least, much of what we know as corporate welfare may be technically illegal."

But why leave it solely to the courts? Politicians ought to weigh in, too. Let's see some smart Democrats--and maybe some honest Republicans--sponsor a bill to outlaw this kind of corporate blackmail.

Update: Isn't this the kind of issue that David Sirota and Ed Kilgore can agree on?

Paul Glastris 10:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 10, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

REAL MONEY....One of the most common conservative critiques of Social Security is that the Social Security trust fund is a myth. Since it consists solely of treasury bonds, it's nothing more than a promise from one branch of the government to another. It's not real money, it's just an IOU.

But that's a serious misunderstanding of what money is. It's a promise. After all, you don't think those dollar bills in your wallet or the bits and bytes in your bank account have any real value, do you? In fact, their only value is that they're a promise: a promise that you can exchange them at some future time for concrete goods and services. When people no longer believe in that promise (think Weimar Germany), money no longer has any value.

The trust fund works the same way: it's a promise to the taxpayers who filled it up that at some later date it can be used to buy goods and services. The mechanism for honoring this promise that is, ensuring that at some point in the future the original investors get the goods and services they were promised is to collect taxes and turn the resulting revenue over to retirees. This promise can no more be broken than the promise that the United States government accepts dollar bills as legal tender.

Still not convinced? Try this instead: how about if we sell off the current contents of the trust fund to outside investors? They think it's real, and they'd be happy to buy those bonds in an orderly way, of course. After that was done and the money was reinvested, the trust fund would be full of stocks and corporate bonds and voila, suddenly everyone would magically agree that it's real money.

So yes, the trust fund is real. It's a promise from the United States government backed up by its taxing authority, just like real money, and it's accepted by outside investors, just like real money. How much more real can it get?

Kevin Drum 5:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOLIDAY BOOKS, PART 3....Here's Part 3 of my holiday bookfest for political junkies:

From Robert Tagorda of Priorities & Frivolities

  • Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, by John Lewis Gaddis. "I regard this book, which brilliantly examines the Bush Doctrine in historical context, as bipartisan: while Republicans will take pride in the president's visionary foreign policy, Democrats will find new evidence of his failure to accomplish noble goals. At just 160 pages, it's highly readable, too."

  • Booknotes: America's Finest Authors on Reading, Writing, and the Power of Ideas, by Brian Lamb. "With this recommendation, I pay tribute to the acclaimed C-SPAN show, which ended last Sunday. It's been the hallmark of American public discourse: intelligent, stimulating, civil, and accessible. Note that Lamb, in his usual modest way, edits out his questions and allows his guests ranging from Christopher Hitchens to Howell Raines to Hillary Clinton to tell their stories."

From Marc Danziger of Winds of Change

  • A New Age Now Begins, by Page Smith. "A humanizing look at the Revolutionary War and the founding. Youll understand America much better once youve read this."

  • Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner. "A wild 21st century update of John Dos Passos USA Trilogy. The themes running through it are completely useful today. Its sexy, violent, brilliantly written and makes you think. Plus when you finish it, you cant help but go read the original."

    Ed note: this recommendation is in willfull disregard of my request for nonfiction books, but bloggers are so hard to control, aren't they? Besides, I like this book too.

From Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber

  • Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth Century, by Mark Blyth. "Essential reading for anyone who's interested in the forces driving economic policymaking. Blyth examines how crises lead to the creation of new ideas about how the economy works, and how different groups in society labour, business and state argue over which idea gets to guide economic policy. He arguably overestimates the role of ideas (others usually underestimate them), but his arguments about the ways in which Keynesianism won after the Great Depression, and neo-liberalism and monetarism clawed back territory in the 1970's and 1980's, are directly relevant to what's happening now. The manufactured crisis over Social Security is exactly what Blyth would predict he'd also argue that leftists can't just defend the status quo; they need new ideas of their own."

  • American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare, by Jason DeParle. "Agrees with Blyth in part, but only in part. DeParle documents how Clinton's pledge to 'end welfare as we know it' had its origins in a speechwriter's desire to make his candidate stand out against the competition, rather than in any serious new ideas. Neither Clinton nor his advisers anticipated what would happen when a Democratic ceding of intellectual territory coincided with the Republican takeover of Congress. Yet the effects of welfare reform were neither what conservatives nor liberals expected. Conservatives claimed (mendaciously in many cases) that welfare was creating a culture of dependency the poor needed to be liberated from the system, and would do far better when they were. Liberals saw the end of a lifetime welfare guarantee as a disaster in the making. As DeParle documents, through an in-depth study of the lives of three Chicago women who moved to Milwaukee just before welfare reform got rolling, the results were more complex and ambiguous than either conservatives or liberals would have predicted. As David Glenn suggests in a rich, intelligent review of DeParle's book, his message can't be distilled into a policy tract, and it's all the more important for that."

    Ed. note: The Washington Monthly ran an excerpt of DeParle's book in September. You can read it here.

Kevin Drum 2:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY AROUND THE WORLD....Airy fairy theorizing is one thing, but how about some concrete data in the great Social Security privatization debate. In particular, how has Social Security privatization fared in other countries that have tried it? After all, the United States isn't the first country to think about doing this. Let's take a peek.

First there's Chile. They implemented privatization a couple of decades ago, and originally the World Bank was enthusiastic. Today, though...not so much. Greg Anrig of the Century Foundation summarizes:

  • Investment accounts of retirees are much smaller than originally predicted so low that 41 percent of those eligible to collect pensions continue to work.

  • The World Bank found that half of the pension contributions of the average Chilean worker who retired in 2000 went to management fees. The brokerage firm CB Capitales...found that the average worker would have done better simply by placing their pension fund contributions in a passbook savings account.

  • The transition costs of shifting to a privatized system in Chile averaged 6.1 percent of GDP in the 1980s, 4.8 percent in the 1990s, and are expected to average 4.3 percent from 1999 to 2037.

Bummer! Still, maybe that's just Chile. How about results from some nice, progressive, wealthy country instead? How about Sweden?

Sweden implemented a partial privatization back in 2001. Here's what the president of the Swedish Society of Actuaries reports:

General benefit levels have been significantly lowered, future benefits are impossible to forecast, and administrative costs have quadrupled mostly because of the mutual fund part to 2.0% of total benefits. (If real investment return is 3% per annum, the amount accumulated after 30 years of regular annual savings will be 22% lower if the cost factor is 2.0% instead of 0.5%.)

....Everyone in the new system is forced to speculate in mutual funds and results in the first years have been disastrous. From March 2000 until March 2003, the Swedish stock market declined by 68%. As of 31st January 2004, 84% of all accounts had lost money, despite the upturn in the market since March 2003.

Aren't you glad that President Bush wants to follow in the footsteps of glorious successes like these?

Kevin Drum 1:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

BLOGGERS WITH CONFLICTS OF INTEREST....As I read through this CBS column on political bloggers that Kevin linked to on Wednesday, I was struck not by the business about Atrios, but by the news that two purportedly independent South Dakota bloggers were on the payroll of John Thune's campaign for much of the past year. It raised some questions in my mind about the ethics of blogging without disclosing a paid connection to a candidate. And it also solved a little mystery for me.

I'd always wondered why some little twerp out in South Dakota insisted on pursuing some crazy "Daschle intimidation" conspiracy theory on his blog--twisting my words to do so--despite repeated emails informing him that his theory was totally without merit and requesting that he correct the record. USD law student Jason Van Beek authored, until recently, the South Dakota Politics blog. He also received $8,000 from John Thune's campaign in the third quarter of this year and coordinated his blog efforts with SDSU professor Jon Lauck, author of Daschle v. Thune (a blog that carried the innocuous tagline "Analyzing the biggest Senate race in the USA") and recipient of an impressive $27,000 from the Thune campaign.

Last year, I was the subject of a creative, but utterly false, conspiracy theory Van Beek wove--he wrote that I was "silenced" by the Daschle campaign, implying that I had damaging goods on the senator and was muzzled because of it, and then concluded that the disappearance of my blog archives after I switched hosting companies was the result of an intimidation plot to erase my earlier writings. (In fact, I had defended Daschle several times until one of his staffers told me to chill out before some overzealous blogger imagined that I was writing at the behest of the Daschle office instead of the other way around. Ironic.)

When I emailed Van Beek with the real story and asked him to issue a correction, he ignored me, posted my email on his blog, and huffed that it was my responsibility to correct the record. He then decided that the fact that he could no longer find my archived posts about Daschle was proof-positive that the Man had shut me down, ignoring my explanation that a doctoral program, full-time job, full-time blogging, and my dad's recent heart attack left fixing my archives at the bottom of a very long to-do list. All of which makes sense now that I know he was a paid political operative and not just a very rude independent blogger who refused to acknowledge facts that didn't fit his political predilections.

Although it was obvious from their writing that both of these men are conservatives who support John Thune, neither ever disclosed their financial connections to the Thune campaign on their blogs. While not illegal, this is, to say the least, very shady. The practice deserves some debate before the next go-'round in the campaign cycle.

UPDATE: I've corrected the post to reflect that Van Beek wrote the South Dakota Politics blog and Lauck the Daschle v. Thune blog--I'd switched them around. My bad.

Amy Sullivan 12:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MAN ON THE STREET?....NOT QUITE....CBS just can't seem to get anything right these days. Tonight they ran a segment on the evening news called "Social Security Changes" that featured an interview with a young man who could be "the poster child for Social Security reform." And indeed he could: 28 years old, 6 years of employment, planning to retire in 2042, and about to get married. "I don't expect to get anything from Social Security," said Tad DeHaven. "I don't consider it in terms of my long term planning. It's not going to be there." Needless to say, young Tad is all for private accounts.

Unfortunately, there's one crucial thing the segment doesn't mention: who Tad DeHaven is. A brief supertitle IDs him as a "National Taxpayers Union Employee," but that's it. Just an ordinary white collar working stiff like you and me, apparently.

Not quite. His website is here. It seems that DeHaven worked for the Heritage Foundation in 1998 and for Cato from 2001-2004 both big supporters of Social Security privatization. For Cato he was a fiscal policy research assistant and was the author of "War Between the Generations: Federal Spending on the Elderly Set to Explode."

At NTU also a supporter of Social Security privatization DeHaven is an economic policy analyst who "uses his extensive experience to amplify our pro-taxpayer message to lawmakers and the public." Indeed he does!

So just some random guy off the street? Not quite. More like a lobbyist for the very program the CBS segment was about. Don't they think their viewers might have appreciated that teensy weensy piece of information?

NOTE: The CBS News segment might be available here (under "Top Stories") if you click through before it scrolls away.

Kevin Drum 1:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

STAR POWER....Ronald Reagan was a Republican. Fred Thompson is a Republican. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Republican. Sonny Bono was a Republican.

I don't get it. Hollywood is a Democratic town. Actors and artists are nearly all liberals. So how come the Democrats can't find any cool Hollywood stars to run for office? What's up with that?

Kevin Drum 12:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 9, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

BATTLEFIELD MEDICINE....The New England Journal of Medicine has an interesting article this week about battlefield medicine. It turns out that although the Iraq War so far has produced as many injuries as the Revolutionary War or the first five years of the Vietnam War, it's produced far fewer deaths. Only 10% of injured soldiers have died, which is down not just from wars 200 years ago, but also from the 24% death rate in the Gulf War just a decade ago.

This is apparently due to a revolution in battlefield surgery. It's a far cry from what Alan Alda used to do on MASH:

Today, military surgical strategy aims for damage control, not definitive repair, unless it can be done quickly. Teams pack off liver injuries, staple off perforated bowel, wash out dirty wounds whatever is necessary to stop bleeding and control contamination without allowing the patient to lose body temperature or become coagulopathic. Surgeons seek to limit surgery to two hours or less, and then ship the patient off to a Combat Support Hospital (CSH), the next level of care. Abdomens can be left open, laparotomy pads left in, bowel unanastomosed, the patient paralyzed, sedated, and ventilated.

....It is a system that took some getting used to. Surgeons at every level initially tended to hold on to their patients, either believing that they could provide definitive care themselves or not trusting that the next level could do so. According to statistics from Walter Reed, during the first few months of the war, it took an injured soldier an average of eight days to go from the battlefield to a U.S. facility. Gradually, however, surgeons have embraced the wisdom of the system. The average time from battlefield to arrival in the United States is now less than four days. (In Vietnam, it was 45 days.)

On a somewhat less serious note, there's also this:

Surgeons also discovered a dismayingly high incidence of blinding injuries. Soldiers had been directed to wear eye protection, but they evidently found the issued goggles too ugly. As some soldiers put it, They look like something a Florida senior citizen would wear. So the military bowed to fashion and switched to cooler-looking Wiley-brand ballistic eyewear. The rate of eye injuries has since decreased markedly.

Quick, somebody tell Virginia Postrel!

Kevin Drum 7:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TERRORISM AND NUKES....Peter Beinart responds to my response to his original article about Democrats and terrorism today. I've got a few quibbles with his reading of my piece, but nothing serious enough to blog about. Instead, I want to highlight the final two paragraphs of today's piece:

This February, then-CIA Director George Tenet noted that Al Qaeda documents discussed how to assemble and use a chemical weapon or a dirty bomb. According to the 9/11 Commission, Al Qaeda has been trying to acquire a nuclear device for ten years with the United States "a prime target." No one knows how close they are. But, in his book Imperial Hubris, Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit, writes, "No one should be surprised when bin Laden and Al Qaeda detonate a weapon of mass destruction in the United States."

If Scheuer's prediction comes true, the consequences for individual rights will be terrifying. Which is to say this: The fight for national security is the fight for liberal values, not merely in the Muslim world, where fanaticism has already blighted countless lives, but also at home, where threats to American safety almost inevitably spawn threats to American freedom. Totalitarian Islam has already damaged both, and unless defeated, the damage could be exponentially worse. What more do liberals need to know before they make this fight their own?

I don't have time to respond to this at length right now, but I do think it's worth drawing attention to. The threats from global terror are varied, but it's the threat of nuclear terror that puts it in a league of its own. And as Beinart implies, the potential damage from a nuclear strike is more than just human lives: it could also provoke a massive retreat from liberalism and civil liberties among the American population.

This oddly echoes Tommy Franks, who said last year that a nuclear attack could cause Americans "to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country in order to avoid a repeat of another mass casualty-producing event." Franks was pilloried for that comment, but I don't think he was suggesting that martial law was a good idea. Rather, he was suggesting that it was a horrible but chillingly predictable reaction to a massive attack.

Unfortunately, nuclear proliferation really doesn't seem to be very high on George Bush's agenda, and this is a place where I think a liberal response to terrorism could be quite different from the conservative response. In fact, it already is; it just needs to be embraced a little more fervently by the liberal community. It's good policy and good politics.

Kevin Drum 3:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOLIDAY BOOKS, PART 2....Here's the second batch of holiday book recommendations for politics and current affairs geeks:

From Ted Barlow of Crooked Timber

  • Embracing Defeat, by John Dower. "The story of the American occupation of Japan after WWII. Why was it so successful? A blog entry, column or magazine article would be likely to single out a reason (Overwhelming force? Japanese culture? MacArthur's genius? Cooperation of the Emperor?) and use it to bludgeon one side of the contemporary debate. But life isn't simple, and we can all use a good non-reductive whack on the head to remind us of that. Embracing Defeat is a terrific read about a fascinating, complex phenomena.

  • Wages of Guilt, by Ian Buruma. "An intelligent, unsparing look at the legacy of World War II in modern Japan and Germany. When your recent history your parents or grandparents is a universal synonym for evil, how do you deal with that? Can you be a normal country again? Japan and Germany have taken very different paths Germany's crippling guilt and moral paralysis seem to have no sizeable Japanese counterpart."

From Andy Rotherham of Eduwonk

  • The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry. "A compelling look at the 1918 outbreak of influenza. Not just a book about the horrors of what happened and the catastrophic death toll, but a story about human perseverance with some broader lessons. If you liked a book like Dana Preston's Boxer Rebellion, you'll like this. You get the individuals and the big story."

  • Demosclrerosis, by Jonathan Rauch. "In this season of recriminations, Democrats could do a lot worse than re-read Demosclrerosis and think about an agenda that is truly people v. the powerful."

  • Who's In Charge Here, edited by Noel Epstein. "This is a great look at governance and policymaking in American K-12 education. Collectively the chapters by various experts show deliberately and inadvertently the enormous challenges of making policy in this area and actually moving the ball on reform."

From Tacitus of RedState.org

  • A Savage War of Peace, by Alistair Horne. "Alistair Horne is perhaps the preeminent English-language historian of France in the modern era. In none of his works does he shine more brightly than in this, his epic history of the Algerian War. More than a cautionary tale for the present era (Horne's exposition makes brutally clear how this war, like so many guerrilla wars, can be militarily won and politically lost), it is also a gripping read. Narrative history doesn't get this good often enough. This book is unforgivably difficult to obtain in the United States, so be prepared to resort to Amazon UK."

  • Eleni, by Nicholas Gage. "The wrenching true story of a Greek mother who sacrifices her life to save her children from Communist guerrillas and her son's quest for revenge is too often viewed as a literary relic of the Cold War. It is a timeless tale of war and love that deserves to be widely read."

Kevin Drum 3:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BAD INTELLIGENCE....Dana Priest reports today that a CIA case officer is charging that he was harrassed and then fired because he refused to falsify reporting on Iraqi WMD:

The operative, who remains under cover, asserts in a lawsuit made public yesterday that a co-worker warned him in 2001 "that CIA management planned to 'get him' for his role in reporting intelligence contrary to official CIA dogma."

The subject of that reporting has been blacked out by the CIA, and the word "Iraq" does not appear in the heavily redacted version of the legal complaint, but the remaining language and context make clear that the officer's work related to prewar intelligence on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

....In 2002, the lawsuit says, the CIA officer "attempted to report routine intelligence" from a human asset "but was thwarted by CIA superiors." It goes on to say that he was subsequently approached by a senior desk officer "who insisted that Plaintiff falsify his reporting," and that when he refused, the "management" of the CIA's Counterproliferation Division ordered that he "remove himself from any further 'handling' " of the unnamed asset, who is referred elsewhere in the document as "a highly respected human asset."

For its part, the CIA claims he was fired for having sex with a female asset and stealing money intended to pay off informers. (The CIA doesn't actually say that, mind you, but that's the implication of the story.)

There may or may not be anything to this. But it's worth following.

Kevin Drum 2:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RUMSFELD AND THE TROOPS....Talk about missing the point. Glenn Reynolds reacts to Donald Rumsfeld's petulant and now infamous performance in front of the troops yesterday with a discussion of whether armored vehicles are better than non-armored ones.

But go read Spencer Ackerman's summary of Rumsfeld's performance. Sure, we ought to have more armor for our Humvees by now, but this isn't really a question of armor, it's a question of respect:

Today, he came face to face with pissed-off frontline soldiers. And he treated them with the same arrogance and condescension that their superior officers have come to expect. To the question about unequal retirement benefits for equal service, Secretary Marie Antoinette replied, "I can't imagine anyone your age worrying about retirement. Good grief."

Indeed. Hard to imagine an average joe worrying about retirement. Who does this grunt think he is?

It is genuinely to Rumsfeld's credit that he talked with the troops and took their questions. But these aren't hardened politicians on Capitol Hill, and they deserved better than Rumsfeld gave them.

The whole thing is inexplicable. I remember years ago the first time I had to face a hostile crowd (in my case, nothing worse than a bunch of sales guys and distributors), and I probably did as badly as Rumsfeld. But you learn some lessons pretty quickly after you've done this a few times, and what you learn is that even if you can't satisfy all their requests you can keep things on an even keel just by showing some respect, acknowledging that they have good points, and promising to work their issues when you get home. They might not be completely satisfied, but they won't boo you out of the hall either.

Rumsfeld has been doing this kind of thing a hell of a lot longer than I have, and the fact that he apparently still hasn't learned this lesson says something about his character. And it's not something good.

Kevin Drum 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SPY GAMES....This AP dispatch was buried on page A28 of the LA Times today, but it's still pretty interesting. Apparently there was a costly little pet project hidden inside the recently passed intelligence bill:

In an unusual rebuke, Sen. John D. ''Jay'' Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday that the spy project was "totally unjustified and very, very wasteful and dangerous to the national security." He called the program "stunningly expensive."

....The rare criticisms of a highly secretive project in such a public forum intrigued outside intelligence experts, who said the program was almost certainly a spy satellite system, perhaps with technology to destroy potential attackers. They cited tantalizing hints in Rockefeller's remarks, such as the program's enormous expense and its alleged danger to national security.

Not just useless, but actively dangerous. Not just expensive, but stunningly expensive. Hmmm....

Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 8, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

CABINET RESHUFFLE UPDATE....Treasury Secretary John Snow is staying on board after all, but Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi has resigned. That's nine resignations so far.

I've updated the scorecard here.

Kevin Drum 10:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FROM THE IF-YOU'RE-GOING-TO-COMPLAIN-THAT-BLOGS-HAVE-NO-STANDARDS, YOU-PROBABLY-OUGHT-TO-HAVE-SOME-YOURSELF DEPARTMENT....I have to admit that this column by David Paul Kuhn of CBS News is embarrassingly inaccurate. It's not just that it's wrong, it's that it's almost the exact opposite of the truth.

Atrios has every right to be pissed. And he is.

Kevin Drum 10:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FORWARD TO THE PAST!....According to The Hill, Republicans have decided that the best way to get around the transition costs of Social Security privatization is to pretend they don't exist. Rep. Bob Matsui (D-Calif.) is puzzled:

Ive never even contemplated that anyone would come up with an idea like this, Matsui said. The whole idea and purpose of a budget and expenditures and revenues is to have an accurate accounting of where the federal government is in terms of fiscal policy and in terms of the overall economy. To take off $2 trillion and to say it doesnt really exist because its a future debt, it really distorts the whole budget process.

Bob, Bob, Bob, that's just such a....Clintonian view of what the budget is for. Accurate accounting? Fiscal policy? Overall economy? Puh-leeze.

In today's world, the budget is a dynamic document. It's an actuarial document. It's a big picture document. And if the president says that transition costs aren't really costs, then that's the way it is. I'm sure the Bank of China is on board with this, so why aren't you?

Next up: it's back to the gold standard, the only real basis for a sound economy! I swear, it's the only thing left in the crackpot agenda they haven't tried yet.

UPDATE: As usual, I see that The Onion has beat me to this. It's hard to keep up with those guys.

Kevin Drum 7:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LIFE IN IRAQ....Matt Yglesias finds himself in a nostalgic mood today and wonders how electricity production is doing in Iraq these days. Via the Iraq Weekly Status Report, it turns out that the answer is: not so great.

I note also that although, as Matt says, telephone service is indeed much improved over prewar levels, a couple of pages after the electricity chart we learn that crude oil production is pretty sucky too. Saddam managed to pump out 2.5 million barrels per day before the war, and right now we're only managing 1.6 million barrels per day. This compares to a goal of either 2.5 mbpd (from the chart) or 2.8-3.0 mbpd (from the footnotes to the chart). This might be either cause or effect of the declining electricity production, but the report doesn't really go into that.

Sadly, school painting quotas don't appear to be addressed at all.


Kevin Drum 4:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOLIDAY BOOKS, PART 1....A few days ago I spammed a (fairly random) set of bloggers for holiday nonfiction book recommendations. It seemed like a good idea since I assume my readers like books about as much as I do and might want some ideas for their Christmas lists. I've gotten about a dozen replies so far, and I figure I'll blog them a few at a time. Here's the first batch:

From Max Sawicky of MaxSpeak

  • Social Security: The Phony Crisis, by Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot. "The best debunking of the entire campaign for privatization of Social Security, as well as the long-run budget austerity advanced by centrist Democrats."

  • After the New Economy, by Doug Henwood, and Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity, by Robert Pollin. "One or the other is essential for a progressive economic view of the world. Pollin is more on macroeconomics, while Henwood is more about finance.

Max also recommends Other People's Money: The Corporate Mugging of America, by Nomi Prins. Note that Henwood's book has been extensively discussed over at Crooked Timber.

From David Adesnik of Oxblog

  • President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, by Lou Cannon. "This is simply the best book ever written about the Reagan presidency. Its author was a White House correspondent for the Washington Post who had covered Reagan since his days in the California State House. President Reagan is a weighty tome, but the writing is fluid and almost all of the chapters can be read as stand alone pieces."

  • Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, by Ben Mezrich. "You won't be able to put this one down. The story of M.I.T.'s covert blackjack team is like a real-life version of Ocean's Eleven. Find out how a little bit of math and a lot of dramatic flair transformed an unremarkable engineering student into an Armani-clad high-roller with a taste for fine wines and NFL cheerleaders."

From Kieran Healy of Crooked Timber

  • The Creation of the Media, by Paul Starr. "This is a terrific, sweeping account of the communications media in the United States. The broad theme of the book is that political choices rather than technological imperatives gave America its communications media, from the postal service to the TV networks. The political tendency in America was to keep things decentralized. But technologies like the telegraph, radio and TV also led the state to take on a more direct regulatory role in its efforts to keep the public sphere open and protect it from the abuses of commercial monopolies. Starr brings the story up to the beginning of World War II, but his argument about the importance of 'constitutive choices' that define the 'material and institutional framework' of a communications technology has clear application to the emergence and governance of the internet."

  • The Company of Strangers, by Paul Seabright. "Modern economics and sociology both have their roots in the problem of how it's possible for large, complex, highly differentiated societies to exist in any kind of stable way. No other species has anything like the extraordinarily elaborated division of labor between strangers that we do. (The closest analog is ant and termite societies, but their members are all genetically related to one another.) By contrast, we entrust our lives to complete strangers all the time, whether it's traveling by plane, or simply buying a bottle of water to drink. Seabright asks what institutions have made this kind of trust and cooperation possible, tries to explain how they might have evolved, and wonders about how robust they are, given the delicate balance between self-interest and cooperation they need in order to survive. This is the kind of book that starts conversations rather than ends them there's plenty to disagree with but it's one of the most engaging and intelligent efforts I've seen to put problems of modern social organization in the context of human evolution."

Kevin Drum 2:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSHCO....As everyone knows, the Democratic Leadership Council is the steward of modern, centrist liberalism, spending the bulk of its time urging Democrats to follow in Bill Clinton's hawkish, third way, values-loving footsteps. Love 'em or hate 'em, the DLC is the voice of the moderate wing of the Democratic party.

Here's what Ed Kilgore, the DLC's policy director, had to say about the election yesterday:

I came to believe strongly that the real agenda of the people closest to Bush--including his political advisors and much of the Republican congressional leadership--was not only dishonest, but deeply cynical and irresponsible: a drive to simultaneously wreck the federal government and to perpetuate their control over the wreckage as long as possible through the exercise of the rawest sort of institutional power and corruption.

Kilgore is part of a remarkable phenomenon: the radicalizing of the center left. He's part of a crowd that includes people like Paul Krugman, Al Franken, Howard Dean, Atrios, and, um, me: liberals who are basically fairly moderate in policy terms but who have been appalled to discover that what seems unthinkable actually appears to be true. The modern Republican party really does seem to want to wreck the federal government.

I guess I should have more to say about this, but I don't at the moment. It just seems salutary to point this out once in a while. Thanks, Ed.

Kevin Drum 2:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOUSING BUBBLE REVISITED....It's been months since I had a housing bubble post, which means it's about time for another one. Today's comes courtesy of the UCLA Anderson Forecast:

In an outlook to be formally released today, forecasters say California and the nation are beset by a housing "bubble" that will depress construction next year, slowing the nation's economic recovery.

...."The housing sector's high and unusual contribution" to economic growth "is not going to continue in 2005," said Edward Leamer, director of the forecasting group and author of its national outlook.

The less-than-upbeat analysis is sure to raise plenty of eyebrows because the UCLA group was among the first to foresee the 2001 recession as well as slower growth earlier this year.

....In turn, the home-building slowdown will throttle U.S. economic growth to an annualized pace of 2.8% by the second half of next year, Leamer predicted. That is about half a percentage point lower than UCLA's previous forecast in September and contrasts with an expected inflation-adjusted growth rate of 4.4% for all of this year compared with 2003.

Of course, LA Times reporter Bill Sing also dutifully reports that "many experts inside and outside the housing industry reject the notion that there's a bubble waiting to pop." And who are these experts inside and outside the housing industry? The chief economists of the California Building Industry Association and the National Assocation of Realtors.

On the other hand, when you really do go outside the housing industry, here's what we learn: "A survey of 28 industry analysts and economists conducted last month by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago said the U.S. economy would cool next year because of a sharp slowdown in housing."

That's kind of pathetic. I wonder if Sing inserted that phrase himself or if his editors made him do it?

Kevin Drum 12:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SMOKE AND MIRRORS, PART 2....In my previous post I mentioned in passing that it's hard to come up with future projections in which (a) economic growth is bad enough that Social Security goes bust in 2042 but (b) economic growth is good enough that private accounts have investment returns of 7% annually and thus are lucrative enough to save Social Security. This point is worth expanding on a bit.

Every year the Social Security trustees produce a 75-year financial estimate. To do this, they make estimates of population growth, life expectancy, economic performance, and so forth, and then add them all up into an overall estimate of long-term solvency. In fact, they make three estimates (see chart on right), and the one you hear about in the news is the middle one, or "intermediate projection." In that projection, Social Security starts running a deficit in 2042. The key assumptions in the intermediate projection from 2015 forward are the following:

  • Labor force growth: 0.2% per year.

  • Productivity growth: 1.6% per year.

  • Average hours worked: no change.

Which leads to the following overall estimate:

  • GDP growth: 1.8% per year.

This growth is lower than we're used to, but that's because GDP growth = population growth + productivity growth. Since population growth is slowing down, so will GDP growth.

Still, what if you assume that things will be a little more robust than this? If you project GDP growth of around 2.6% per year, you end up with Estimate I, and in that scenario Social Security never runs out of money. In fact, if you project GDP growth just a few tenths higher than 1.8%, Social Security stays solvent for the next century.

In other words, if GDP growth averages, say, 2.2% over the next 75 years, Social Security is in fine shape and we don't have to do anything. We only need to "fix" it with private accounts if GDP growth is less than that.

So here's the puzzler: for private accounts to be worthwhile, they need to have long-term annual returns of at least 5%, and 6-7% is the number most advocates use. But are there any plausible scenarios in which long-term real GDP growth is less than 2% but long-term real returns (capital gains plus dividends) on stock portfolios are well over 5%?

Privatization enthusiasts are encouraged to leave their answers in comments.

Kevin Drum 1:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 7, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

SMOKE AND MIRRORS....I was emailing with WM's editor today about Social Security, and one of the things I mentioned is that I'm skeptical of "free lunch" proposals. A free lunch proposal is one that when carefully examined essentially proposes that we can fix Social Security without any tax increases or benefit cuts.

All of these proposals rely on at least one heroic assumption, and in the case of privatization the assumption is that the average return on private accounts will be about 7% per year. Is this reasonable? Over at MaxSpeak, Dean Baker is properly skeptical. The following prose is pretty impenetrable to financial non-gurus, but that's the way it goes with these things, and you should probably treat the numbers in the following paragraphs the same way you treat Russian names in Tolstoy novels:

I have a test of my own that I have been trying to get economists to take (thus far unsuccessfully), in which I ask proponents of privatization to write down the set of dividend yields and capital gains that will give them the 6.5-7.0 percent real stock returns that they conventionally assume. Such returns were possible in the past because the price to earnings (PE) ratios have historically been much lower and profit growth was much faster.

The price to earnings ratio averaged about 14.5 to 1 over the last seventy years, compared to more than 20 to 1 today. This is important, because if 60 percent of profits are paid out as dividends (or used for share buybacks), this gets you a dividend yield of over 4.0 percent with a PE ratio of 14.5 to one. It gets you just 3.0 percent with a PE ratio of 20 to 1, and of course less when the PE ratio is higher.

He goes on to suggest that profit growth (and thus stock appreciation) is likely to be about 1.4% in the future, which gives you a total return of about 4.4%. In other words, the first question you should ask about any privatization scheme is: What if average returns over the next 40 years are only 4.4% or less?

It's a good question, because you can "fix" Social Security pretty easily if you're allowed to simply make any future growth assumptions you want. For example, if productivity growth and labor force growth are just a bit higher than the Social Security trustees currently assume, the system will remain solvent forever. Look ma, no crisis!

(On a related note, here's a variation on Dean Baker's question: please provide a projection of future economic growth rates that makes it reasonable to assume that (a) private accounts grow 7% a year but (b) Social Security as it's currently funded eventually becomes insolvent. You can probably do this if you're willing to fiddle with a spreadsheet long enough, but you'd have to twist your brain into a pretzel in the process.)

The fact is that there's nothing necessarily wrong with private accounts being part of a Social Security package, but only if they're based on reasonable assumptions about how much money they'll raise. If they're properly accounted for, tightly regulated, and honestly funded, they might be worth taking a chance on.

Needless to say, though, "properly accounted for, tightly regulated, and honestly funded" is not what we've come to expect from Bush administration economic policy. So unless you hear otherwise, you'd best keep your hands on your wallet when their actual proposal comes down the pike.

Kevin Drum 6:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KERRY vs. THE BASE....I guess I can't promise that this will absolutely, positively be the last post about Peter Beinart's "Fighting Faith" article, but it probably will be. However, I think it's worth posting one more link since I agree completely with this critique of Beinart's thesis from Noam Scheiber:

Peter...argues that there are structural forces within the [Democratic] party that prevent it, or its candidates, from fully embracing national security issues--namely, the party's reflexively dovish left-wing, best epitomized by Michael Moore and MoveOn.org, which he dubs "softs"....In retrospect, we were all too pessimistic. A heartbreakingly close 2000 election and three years of chafing under Bush had made Democratic primary voters incredibly pragmatic. They valued winning much more than they valued ideological purity, as they eventually demonstrated by nominating Kerry.

....Peter is right that, even during this time, interest in national security among the Democratic rank and file was low (though the polling data he cites doesn't capture the obvious hostility to the Bush administration's Iraq policies). But the Democratic base was so pragmatic in its determination to oust Bush that Kerry could have gotten away with proposing a truly dramatic foreign policy initiative--say, a get-tough policy on Iran, possibly culminating in a military strike--without suffering more than a handful of defections. Making proposals like this a central theme of his campaign would have jarred swing voters out of the presumption that Kerry and the party were chronically suspicious of exercising military power.

There's no telling what would have happened if Kerry had done this, of course, but I think Noam is right. As near as I can tell, Kerry's stock went up whenever he talked tough on national security but stalled when he drifted onto other issues. And when he did talk tough, he didn't suffer any defections. My guess is that talking even tougher wouldn't have caused any significant defections either.

What's more, Kerry actually had plenty of toughminded national security proposals. As I wrote shortly after the election:

John Kerry made significant inroads when he spoke plainly about hunting down terrorists and killing them, as he did in the first debate, but he was never really willing to much further than that.

Why? Why didn't he make a bigger deal out of his plan to increase the size of the Army by 40,000 troops? Why didn't he make a bigger deal out of his desire to get tougher with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan? Why didn't he make a bigger deal about George Bush's unwillingness to confront the Arab world over their continued funding of radical madrassas?

Did Kerry not do this because he was afraid of alienating part of his base? Maybe, but my guess is that he just decided not to. If he'd had a little more confidence in his own proposals, the election might have turned out quite differently.

POSTSCRIPT: Steve Rosenthal, the CEO of America Coming Together, comes to a similar conclusion in the Washington Post.

Kevin Drum 6:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BEATING THE MARKET....This is off the beaten path, but Andrew Tobias has a good answer today to a perennial question: can smart investors beat the stock market?

Yes, you are likely smarter than most people....But youre not competing with the 98% who may not have your gifts, but, in the main, with the 2% who do and especially with a small subset of that group who have a lot of information at their disposal and perhaps more time and training than you. (And still they too tend not to be able to beat the market.)

This is something that too few smart people appreciate: in most things that matter, you're not competing with the whole world. You're competing with a tiny subset of the world that's probably at least as smart and knowledgable as you and probably more so. Caveat emptor.

Kevin Drum 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ABORTION....Speaking of moral values, even though this op-ed is several weeks old I think this paragraph deserves resurrection from the New York Times archives:

During the eight years of the Reagan presidency, the number of legal abortions increased by more than 5 percent; during the eight years of the Clinton presidency, the number dropped by 36 percent. The overall abortion rate (calculated as the number of abortions per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44) was more or less stable during the Reagan years, but during the Clinton presidency it dropped by 11 percent.

As with so many other things cough national security cough the Republicans talk the talk but it's Democrats who actually figure out how to get things done. That's what reality-based policies will do for you.

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

OFF TO A GOOD START....The future just keeps getting brighter for Barack Obama. Pete Rouse, chief of staff to outgoing Democratic Leader has just agreed to head up Obama's Senate office, bringing instant credibility and invaluable institutional knowledge to the operation. And he also provides a connection to the new crop of leaders on the Democratic side--Rouse once served as incoming whip Dick Durbin's CoS in the House.

A Hill veteran who started out answering constituent mail along with fellow legislative assistant Tom Daschle, Rouse is so well-respected for his political skills and knowledge that he's often referred to as the 101st Senator. Obama will be fortunate to have Pete's steady hand at the helm, particularly given the enormous expectations that will accompany him into office.

Pete used to hassle me after I left Daschle's office for divinity school, asking me every time I came back, "So, have you learned to walk on water yet?" I would explain that, no, that came in the second semester; we learned to turn water into wine first. At the risk of ruining the gruff front he puts up, he's not only one of the sharpest people I've ever worked with, but one of the sweetest as well. It's good to see him land in a position that will make continued good use of his political ability. As for Obama, I think I speak for all Daschle alums when I say: Learn to love cats. Or at least talking about Pete's cats. We've found cat-shaped sugar cookies to be well-received. Just saying...

Amy Sullivan 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

I'M SHOCKED, I TELL YOU, SHOCKED!....Ah, those moral values. Via Jeff Jarvis, we learn today that national concern over moral decay on TV might have been a wee bit overstated:

The number of indecency complaints had soared dramatically to more than 240,000 in the previous year, [FCC chairman Michael] Powell said. The figure was up from roughly 14,000 in 2002, and from fewer than 350 in each of the two previous years. There was, Powell said, a dramatic rise in public concern and outrage about what is being broadcast into their homes.

What Powell did not revealapparently because he was unawarewas the source of the complaints. According to a new FCC estimate obtained by Mediaweek, nearly all indecency complaints in 200399.8 percentwere filed by the Parents Television Council, an activist group.

Just to put that into raw numbers, it means that last year the FCC received a grand total of 480 complaints aside from the mass spammings from PTC. Out of a population of 300 million. Does that sound like a groundswell of outrage to you?

Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 6, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

A FEW WEE QUESTIONS....I'm sure that conservative bloggers are feeling pretty smug about the Beinart-Drum-Atrios-Yglesias tiff regarding liberals and national security, but if I could have a moment of your time before you bust a collective gut over this, I'd like to suggest that you could all stand to have a brutally honest conversation about a few things yourselves. Just to get you started, here are a few questions numbered for easy reference:

  1. Considering how Iraq has gone so far, do you still think that American military power is a good way to promote tolerance and democracy in the Middle East? Has your position on this changed in any way over the past two years?

  2. Shortly after 9/11, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said publicly that they thought the attacks were well-deserved retribution from God in response to moral decay as personified by gays, feminists, the ACLU, and NOW. Do you worry that Falwell and Robertson are identified by many as the face of the Republican party? Do you think President Bush has sufficiently distanced himself from them and their followers?

  3. Is democracy promotion really one of your core concerns? Just how far are you willing to go to demonstrate your credibility on this subject? Note: President Bush's policy toward either Pakistan or Saudi Arabia would be excellent case studies to bring this question to life.

  4. On a related note, which do you think is more important to the Bush administration in the short term: preservation of a stable oil supply from the Middle East or spreading freedom and liberty throughout the region? Would you be interested in seeing the records of Dick Cheney's 2001 energy task force to verify this? Please be extra honest with this question.

  5. A substantial part of the Christian right opposes any compromise with Palestinians because they believe that Jewish domination of the region west of the Jordan River is a precondition for the Second Coming. Is this a reasonable belief? Or do you think these people qualify as loons who should be purged from the Republican party?

  6. Yes or no: do you think we should invade Iran if it becomes clear despite our best efforts that they are continuing to build nuclear weapons? If this requires a military draft, would you be in favor?

  7. If President Bush decides to substantially draw down our troop presence in Iraq after the January 30 elections, will you support that decision? Please answer this question prior to January 30.

  8. Would you agree that people who accept Laurie Mylroie's crackpot theories about Saddam Hussein's involvement in 9/11 might be taking the threat of terrorism a little too seriously? What do you think should be done with them?

And you know what? These aren't even the most embarrassing questions I could ask. But hey that's just the moderate, civil-discourse-loving kind of guy that I am.

But I'll bet Beinart and Atrios and Yglesias could come up with a few more if they wanted to. And they might not be as nice as me.

Kevin Drum 11:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CITY MOUSE, COUNTRY MOUSE....Bill Bishop of the Austin American-Statesman has been covering the trend toward increasing polarization of American politics all year. On Sunday he wrote that this trend became even more glaring this year:

The nation in 2004 became more politically polarized than during any presidential contest since World War II, according to an Austin American-Statesman review of election results.

....The contours of that divide fell along stark geographic lines: Democrats concentrating in dense urban areas and inner suburbs, Republicans expanding in exurban and rural America.

As the graphic on the right shows, individual counties are becoming ever more polarized, with nearly half producing landslides this year for ether Bush or Kerry. Democrats are increasingly concentrated in the cities and Republicans in suburbs and rural areas.

Rural-urban splits are common in just about every country, and I continue to think that in many ways it's the most basic split of all. The problem is that densely populated cities require a fundamentally different type of governance than thinly populated rural areas, but since we haven't really come to grips with this we end up turning these differences into moral crusades. It's perfectly reasonable, for example, to suppose that big cities ought to handle gun ownership differently than farm communities, but instead of simply acknowledging this as a garden variety governance issue to be handled differently in different places, it's become part of a nationwide culture war.

It seems like there's an opening of some kind here for a politician who forthrightly admits that city and country have different needs but that we don't have to split into warring factions over it. It's worth a thought, anyway.

Kevin Drum 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRACY PROMOTION....Speaking of "getting serious," Noam Scheiber points us toward the president's recent comments about Pakistani strongman and noted democracy promoter Pervez Musharraf:

Some believe that the only solution for government in parts of the world is for there to be tyranny or despotism. I don't believe that. The Pakistan people have proven that those cynics are wrong. And where President Musharraf can help in world peace is to help remind people what is possible. And the solution in the Middle East is for there to be a world effort to help the Palestinians develop a state that is truly free--one that's got an independent judiciary, one that's got a civil society, one that's got the capacity to fight off the terrorists, one that allows for dissent, one in which people can vote. And President Musharraf can play a big role in helping achieve that objective.

If conservatives wonder why liberals laugh at the notion that George Bush is genuinely interested in spreading freedom and democracy in the Islamic world, this is why. If we have to deal with these guys, then we have to deal with them. That's life. But could we at least refrain from pretending that Musharraf is one of the century's great lovers of democracy?

Kevin Drum 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LIBERALS AND WAR....Responding to either Peter Beinart or me (or both), Atrios says this today about the use of military force:

Even if we stipulate that going to Afghanistan was the right course of action, by essentially branding all those who disagreed at the time as america-haters (and, yes, arguing that such people would "never" support the use of military force, including presumably as the North Korean tanks are rolling through Los Angeles, is doing just that) provides a very loud warning for anyone who would ever dare disagree with a proposed war. For some reason it's only okay to be wrong about a war if you supported it.

Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias, who spent 2001 and 2002 as a student at Harvard, has this to say:

Fine, fine. Opposition to the Afghan War does not imply, as a matter of formal logic, that you would oppose the use of American military power under all circumstances. But if you, like I, spent the fall of 2001 in a place where anti-war sentiment ran high, listening to anti-war speeches and lectures and protests and teach-ins, reading anti-war op-eds in your school paper, speaking to anti-war people in your daily life and so forth, it was clear that most of the publicly offered rationales for opposing the war did, in fact, imply that the speaker or writer was opposed to any and all use of American military power. The most common line of criticism I heard was that any action that resulted in the deaths of Afghan civilians was an illegitimate form of collective punishment. There's a certain logic to this position, but it's the logic of pacifism and it's not the basis of a viable national-security policy. Unless the Democratic Party and its advocates can say so, it's not going to win any elections for the foreseeable future.

Needless to say, the issue at hand is expeditionary military force, not some weird strawman about Koreans invading LA. And evading the issue by constantly implying that no one who supported the Iraq war is morally qualified to criticize those who opposed it doesn't really help matters.

This is a conversation we liberals need to have. But if we don't engage in it honestly it doesn't do any good.

(Conservatives could stand to have a few honest conversations about this themselves. But that's up to them, not me.)

Kevin Drum 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BECKER AND POSNER BLOG!....I promise not to make a career of this, but Gary Becker and Richard Posner have finally started up their long awaited blog (actually, more like a weekly column than a blog, but whatever), and all I can say is, huh?

Today, Posner argues that sometimes preventive war is justified and sometimes it isn't. It all depends on the cost of going to war vs. the likelihood that you're going to be attacked in the future if you don't. I daresay he'll get little argument about this.

Becker, writing on the same subject, says that preventive war is justified because deterrence doesn't work against terrorist groups and rogue states, especially in an age of WMD. He then inexplicably suggests that this is an argument that hasn't received enough attention in recent years.

These aren't exactly keen insights. Hopefully it's just startup jitters.

Kevin Drum 1:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KERIK AND IRAQ....I'm personally neutral on the question of whether former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik is the right guy to head up the Homeland Security Department. I just don't know enough about the guy.

But Josh Marshall is right to focus on the most glaring issue in his record: the fact that he scurried home to New York a mere 14 weeks after heading to Baghdad to rebuild Iraq's police force. No good reason was ever given for this, and the idea that this was the plan all along is both laughable on its face and contradicted by his own statements.

So what happened?

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Tax Deform... C-SPAN the other day broadcast a conference by the New America Foundation on tax reform. It was an informative, timely program, full of wise ideas about how to alter the tax code in just and economically efficient ways. But what struck me about the conference, at least the portion of it I saw, was a certain suspension of disbelief. I was watching, and the analysts were speaking, as if this discussion were still part of "the process" in Washington, as if these ideas and concerns will help clarify and inform the "tax reform debate" that President Bush has launched, the way nonpartisan and bipartisan experts framed and influenced the tax reform legislation that President Reagan signed in 1986.

Alas, the truth is that tax reform, like so many other issues, is now firmly in the hands of the GOP, which controls virtually all power in Washington. Hence the "tax reform debate" is unlikely to be influenced by forces other than those within the party itself. And the more or less preordained outcome of that "debate" will be legislation that first and foremost advances the long-term political power of the GOP.

Confirmation of this comes from two stories in the papers yesterday. One is about the trial balloon being floated by conservatives to eliminate the deduction for state and local taxes, an idea which, if enacted, would disproportionately punish blue states. Another is about the successful effort by Tom DeLay to outsource the collection of delinquent taxes to private companies. By all objective accounts this will not save the government money; in fact, it would be cheaper to hire more IRS personnel to do the job. But debt collection firms tend to be big GOP donors, and their DC lobbyists are part of the Republican machine. As Nick Confessore has noted, the overall Republican strategy is pretty simple: first take over K Street, then move the government there.

Paul Glastris 10:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 5, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

LIBERALISM AND TERROR....A FOLLOWUP....I want to follow up a bit on my response to Peter Beinart's TNR article, "A Fighting Faith." As you recall, Beinart argued that liberals need to get serious about terrorism and purge the MoveOn/Michael Moore wing of the Democratic party. I argued that he had put the cart before the horse: before he recommended purging anybody, he first needed to persuade liberals that Islamic totalitarianism posed a grave threat to the security of the country. Unsurprisingly, several people had, um, frank and candid comments about all this.

Let's take first things first: it's pretty clear that a lot of liberals really don't like being told they need to "get serious" about terrorism. And I don't blame them especially since regular readers know that I think Republicans are the ones who have trivialized terrorism by treating it more like a partisan wedge issue than a serious danger.

So let's be more precise: the charge isn't so much that liberals don't have a serious approach to terrorism, it's that liberals tend to think that terrorism and national security just aren't very important in the first place. Beinart provides one telling statistic to support this: 38% of Republican delegates to this year's national convention mentioned terrorism, defense, or homeland security as important issues. For Democratic delegates the total was 4%. Likewise, Matt Yglesias notes today that looking over the post-election roundtable at The Nation, the problem isn't dovishness, it's that nobody even bothers discussing national security at all. Whether or not liberals have serious ideas about combatting terrorism, I agree with Beinart that simple lack of interest in national security issues is a big problem for liberals.

Second, a number of people criticized Beinart for equating "tough on terrorism" with support for the Iraq war. But he didn't. There's no question that the Iraq war has warped the issue of terrorism so badly that it's almost impossible to unlink the two, but Beinart rather clearly refrained from criticizing Iraq skeptics as well he should have, since even TNR largely seems to have accepted by now that Iraq has been a disaster.

Rather, he criticizes MoveOn because they even opposed the Afghanistan war (and he criticizes Moore for flatly denying that terrorism is a real threat). This is quite a different thing, and a distinction that strikes me as pretty well justified. If the Taliban's refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden after 9/11 wasn't enough to justify military action, I'm not sure what is and I think it's fair to say that anyone who loudly opposed the Afghanistan war is just flatly opposed to any use of American military power at all. If this represents a sizable wing of the Democratic party, it's a big problem for us.

Third and finally, when I suggested that I wanted Beinart to write an article spelling out the danger of Islamic totalitarianism, I wasn't taking sides. All I meant was that I'd really like him to write the article. Why? Because I'd really like to read it.

For what it's worth, I think any honest account needs to address at least the following four items:

  • Nuclear terrorism. A terrorist group with a nuclear weapon poses an entirely different threat than one without, so this needs to be treated as a danger all its own. How likely is it that a terrorist group could really acquire a nuclear weapon? And deliver it? And what's the best way to stop it? The fact that the Bush administration has been so lackadaisical on this score is going to make this a hard argument to deliver convincingly. If they don't take it seriously, why should anyone else?

  • Garden variety terrorism. Aside from the nuclear scenario, what's the actual danger from terrorist groups like al-Qaeda? 9/11 was due to luck and poor foresight, but now that we know the danger how much military harm can they really do to us? How much economic harm? And how likely is it?

  • Expansionism. Do Islamic extremists really have much interest in anyplace outside the Middle East? To the best of my knowledge, no Islamic country in the greater Middle East has ever invaded or shown the slightest interest in invading a country that wasn't a neighbor. Is Islamic extremism fundamentally expansionist, like fascism and communism, or not?

  • Oil. Nobody wants to talk honestly about this, but it's obviously the reason we care about the Middle East in the first place and don't care much about, say, sub-Saharan Africa and therefore care about Islamic totalitarianism but not sub-Saharan totalitarianism. The problem here is shared by both liberals and conservatives.

    On the left, "no blood for oil" is childishness. Economic interests are and always have been a legitimate concern of national governments, and a steady supply of oil is plainly vital to the industrialized world. If a Taliban-like regime deposed the House of Saud and took over Saudi Arabia, for example, they might decide to tighten the taps because they figure they only need half as much oil money as they currently receive after all, most of it just went to those decadent westernized royal princes anyway. The resulting oil shock would almost certainly cause a global depression of enormous magnitude. This would be a disaster, and one that would hurt the poor far more than the rich.

    On the right, conservatives hypocritically refuse to admit that oil has anything to do with anything. It's all about democracy promotion, you see despite the fact that our national policies have virtually nothing to do with genuinely promoting democracy. What's more, conservatives make a bad problem worse by practically sneering at the idea that anyone should take seriously the idea of greater energy conservation or alternative energy sources. Squawking endlessly about ANWR which contains a minute amount of oil just trivializes the whole problem.

You'll note that I've said nothing about the humanitarian case for intervening (or not intervening) in the Middle East. One thing at a time. I think the first step is for some credible liberal to construct the most compelling argument they can that an aggressive, militant policy toward Islamic totalitarianism is necessary simply because any other policy will end up with a lot of dead people. If that argument is successful, then we can argue about means and methods.

Of course, it's not clear to me who should make this argument, since to do any good it needs to be honest and it needs to come from a liberal perspective. Maybe Al Gore? After all, Beinart might be a good writer, but his support of the Iraq war makes him damaged goods to most of the left. Ditto for guys like Joe Lieberman and Joe Biden. Even someone like me, who only supported the war for a short while, doesn't have the street cred to pull it off.

But who?

UPDATE: I guess I need to say this more plainly: I'm not taking sides on this debate right now. I'm just saying that I'd like to hear the arguments.

Maybe Islamic totalitarianism is as big a threat as fascism and communism were in their day. Maybe it's not. I'm not sure. But I would like to see liberals address the issue head on. It would be good for liberalism and it would be instructive for me.

Kevin Drum 10:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

OBSESSION....I have to say that this essay by English teacher Patrick Welsh in the Washington Post today is a puzzler. He starts out by saying that he wonders why boys are so obsessed with video games potentially a good hook for a piece but then spends his remaining 2,000 words wondering why boys are so obsessed by video games. However, aside from asking a couple of his students about this, and then watching them play for a bit, he never actually tries to answer the question. Why are boys so obsessed with video games, Pat?

Whatever the answer, it appears to be another sign of the decline of Western Civilization. As near as I can tell, pretty much this exact same essay could have been written 30 years ago about TV, 60 years ago about radio, 90 years ago about movies, or a bit further in the past about dance halls, saloons, or penny novels. Sadly, great literature has never been all that popular among the youth of the world, regardless of what our rose tinted hindsight might suggest.

Anyway, as long as I'm at this, I'll answer Welsh's question. Boys these days are obsessed with videogames because boys throughout history have had a remarkable ability to obsess about things for uncounted hours: video games, computer programming, throwing balls around, practicing their swordfighting, whatever. The ability of young men to lose themselves to obsession is probably responsible for both more progress and more suffering than just about any personality trait I can think of.

Kevin Drum 6:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

YES, I'M EASILY AMUSED....I've probably seen Allstate's "Rose Bowl" ad a few dozen times, but it never fails to crack me up when President Palmer Dennis Haysbert tells us that of the million people who switched to Allstate last year, "many of them saved an average of $278."

In other words, counting only the ones who saved an average of $278, they saved an average of $278. Priceless. I wonder what marketing genius came up with such a beautiful phrase?

UPDATE: Just saw the ad again and went up close to read the fine print. Apparently this number is based on reports from 4,103 customers. Hmmm.

Kevin Drum 6:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FUNKY TUT....I'm a Steve Martin fan, and of all his short skits "King Tut" is my favorite. Today in the New York Times, though, he sets the record straight: King Tut was not born in Arizona.

Kevin Drum 1:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 4, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

IS FIREFOX A LIBERAL BROWSER?....Today, in the department of meaningless but still perplexing statistic-oids, a Dutch fellow named Steeph steps forward with the following data based on the usual small sample size beloved of home-brewed bloggish research:

  • 72% of right-leaning blog readers use Internet Explorer compared to only 60% of left-leaning blog readers.

  • 89% of right-leaning blog readers use Windows compared to only 80% of left-leaning blog readers.

Make of this what you will. And be sure to take a look at Steeph's "mooi beestje" cat while you're over there.

Kevin Drum 8:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

USC UPDATE....It was kind of ugly, but USC finished off UCLA today and finished off their season undefeated. Next up: the BCS championship game we should have been in last year.

It's kind of ironic, really. My gut feel is that last year's team was actually better than this year's, but last year we didn't get to play for the championship and this year we do. Funny how that works.

Kevin Drum 7:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PICTURE OF THE DAY....Here's your photo of the day: a rickety old Convair cargo plane with a George Bush banner on its side was forced to ditch in a Florida lake today, and this picture was taken as it was slowly sinking out of sight. The misspelling of "elect" is just a little bonus.

(And don't worry: it was an artificial lake and no one was hurt.)

Kevin Drum 3:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

"AS SOUND AS ANY SCIENTIST'S"....Via David Appell, Alaska's solidly Republican congressional delegation has responded to the latest study on Arctic warming by saying that more (much more!) study is needed before concluding that human activity is responsible. However, Don Young gets the prize:

Alaska's lone congressman, Republican Rep. Don Young, went so far as dismissing the major new report on Arctic climate change. He called it ammunition for fearmongers.

...."I don't believe it is our fault. That's an opinion," Young said. "It's as sound as any scientist's."

There you have it! There's no need for all those boring, lengthy, scientific studies that have unanimously concluded that human activity is a primary cause of warming. Don Young's opinion on this is every bit as sound as any research scientist's.

I note that this is Don Young's second appearance on this blog. His first one is here. I'm not sure which one ranks higher on the doofus scale, though.

Kevin Drum 1:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COMMENT SPAM....Comment spam is once again becoming a problem here, and I notice that several other bloggers are complaining about it too. So I have a question I'd like to throw out to the crowd.

Is there any way (via plug-in, maybe) to require commenters to preview first before posting? As long as the only way to preview is by clicking a mouse button (i.e., no programmatic workarounds are available), this would prevent all robotic spam. What's more, it would even have the beneficial side effect of forcing people to read their comments before posting them.

Is there a way to do this with Movable Type?

Kevin Drum 1:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 3, 2004
By: Benjamin Wallace-Wells

STOP ME BEFORE I QUIT AGAIN!....My nominee for the best line in this morning's New York Times comes midway through a profile of Bernard Kerik:

When Mr. Kerik was appointed to a top job in the New York City Department of Correction in the mid-1990's, one official told the department's commissioner: 'Congratulations. You've just hired Rambo.'

Bernie Kerik gives good schtick. He's got a thick-necked, Sopranos kind of charm and a terrific tough guy biography after his prostitute mom was killed, he dropped out of high school, became a military policeman, then a jail warden, and then a New York City cop, a charismatic, long-haired narc, whose rise through the ranks began after he was assigned to a detail as Rudy Giuliani's personal bodyguard.

So, fascinating guy. But is he really ready for his new gig, as Director of Homeland Security, leading a tender, evolving and urgently important government agency? His new job will require mastering the knotty bureaucracies and power structures of Washington. He's never worked in the capital. It will require him to be a nimble consumer of intelligence, deciding which threats warrant action for local police departments, when he has never before worked with intelligence. It will demand that Kerik figure out a way to fix our nation's porous borders (he's never dealt with immigration or border security) make sure our planes and transportation routes are safe (nope) and master the coordination of what were once 22 separate federal agencies, none of which he's ever worked for.

Bush, sensibly, gave Kerik a pre-hire tryout in the summer of 2002 in a gig that his experience prepped him much better for, training Iraqi police. So how'd Kerik do? Pretty poorly. Kerik's credited with upping the equipment of the forces, but he also neglected to run any background checks, meaning that, after Kerik left, the Iraqi police were so corrupt and insurgent-friendly that American leaders eventually demanded a purge. I write "after Kerik left" because he only stayed in Iraq for three months, leaving with no public announcement and for reasons which remain a mystery and which Newsday, among other outlets, has been trying to uncover ever since. The job, of course, was far from finished. In October, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi complained that the American training of his force was insufficient: "[The police's] capabilities are not complete and the situation is very difficult now in respect to creating the forces and getting them ready to face the challenges." That's not all Kerik's fault, but the problem he was assigned to fix probably deserved a stay of more than ninety days.

So what does Kerik have going for him? Mostly, his experience in New York. "As Mayor Rudy Giuliani's police commissioner," Bush said in nominating Kerik, "he had great success in reducing crime in New York City." But that's a little misleading. The dramatic reversal in the city's crime rate happened in the early nineties, when then-Commissioner Bill Bratton instituted computer models of crime, "broken-windows"-style community policing and focused enormous resources on particular neighborhoods and troublespots. (Also the crack epidemic ended). During this period, Kerik was a beat cop, Giuliani's bodyguard, and then a senior officer in the city's corrections department, in all of which he performed admirably. But he wasn't yet a department policy-maker, and it's a stretch to give Kerik much credit for the city's drop in crime. By all accounts Kerik did a competent job in his sixteen months running the NYPD, in 2001 and 2002, but he was hardly a reformer, or a legendary star.

Kerik was, of course, in office on September 11, and he deserves credit for sounding calm and brave on television in the days following the event. But what has been less reported, and is to my mind more telling, is what he did after 9/11. The police department at that point was in a tough spot: facing hundreds of retirements, a city in economic difficulty, skyrocketing homeland security requirements, and a federal government busy cutting its funding for local cops. And so what did Kerik do? He quit. He traded on his 9/11 celebrity, taking a fat contract to write his memoirs and, as he would do a year later in Iraq, left someone else to do the dirty work.

For liberals, there's a lot of other stuff to raise eyebrows about Bernie Kerik. He once worked as a security chief for the Saudi royal family's hospital system. He was one of the Bush campaign's most aggressive and irresponsible attack dogs, telling the press that if John Kerry were President, the U.S. would see another 9/11. And his nomination reeks of an attempt by the administration to permanently associate the GOP's connection with 9/11. But even for conservatives, it seems hard to understand what professional qualifications this man has for leading the nation's homeland defense. The President didn't mention Kerik's experience much yesterday in the short speech presenting him, choosing instead to focus on his "leadership" qualities. But the record doesn't give much evidence of leadership: he's prematurely quit the two biggest jobs he's ever been handed, just when they got difficult.

I've never met Kerik, and so perhaps there's something I've missed, some brilliant-fix-it-all plan for homeland security that explains why the Democrats appear, so far at least, to be supporting his nomination. But in the absence of such a plan, I hope the press and Senate put his record to some rigorous, tough-minded scrutiny as the confirmation process unfolds.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells 4:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL WARMING WATCH....Are humans responsible for global warming? Naomi Oreskes recently conducted a literature review of every climate change article published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 to find out if anyone disagreed about this.

Answer: nope. Of the papers that addressed the subject at all, every single one agreed with the consensus scientific view that human emissions are causing warming. Chris Mooney has the details.

Kevin Drum 2:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GUINEA PIG KIDS....Via Patridiots, a BBC documentary last week claims that experimental HIV drugs are being tested on foster kids in New York.

Somebody please tell me there's more to this than meets the eye. Please.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, by "more to this" I mean something like these treatments being the only ones available. As in, nothing else would work and the kids would die if they didn't get the experimental stuff. That would qualify as "more to this."

UPDATE 2: Over at Respectful of Otters, Rivka, whose opinion I trust completely on matters like this, says the BBC documentary is polemical nonsense based on the ideas of "AIDS denialists" who don't believe the HIV virus causes AIDS and are rabidly opposed to standard AIDS treatments. You can read her entire debunking here.

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By: Kevin Drum

GRANHOLM ENDS BENEFITS FOR GAYS....On November 2, Michigan voters approved Proposal 2 to ban same-sex marriage. Here it is in its entirety:

To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.

Just trying to "preserve the sanctity of marriage?" Not hardly. Before the election its supporters assured voters that the amendment was about marriage, not benefits, but now that the results are in they claim that Proposal 2's "similar union" language prevents the state not only from recognizing gay marriage, but from even offering benefits to same-sex partnerships. That kind of bait-and-switch is hardly surprising, but what is surprising is that despite the fact that the state has already negotiated a contract to provide same-sex benefits to its 30,000 employees, governor Jennifer Granholm has agreed to suspend them even though no court has yet ruled that this is required.

That's pretty disappointing from a supposed rising star in the Democratic party, especially since the new benefits don't start until next October anyway, making this mostly a symbolic act. It's one thing if you fight it out in court and lose, but you'd think that Granholm could at least fight it out. It's hard to imagine a Republican governor in a similar situation meekly rolling over like that. They usually fight for what they believe in.

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CABINET RESHUFFLE UPDATE....Tommy Thompson has resigned as secretary of the Health and Human Services Department. We're now up to eight cabinet resignations, with a ninth expected soon. UPDATE: Turns out Snow is staying, but Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi is leaving. So we're now officially at nine resignations.

Here's a scorecard:

  1. State: Resigned.

  2. Treasury: "Can stay as long as he wants, provided it is not very long." Staying onboard after all!

  3. Defense: Rummy forever!

  4. Attorney General: Resigned.

  5. Interior: Gale Norton.

  6. Agriculture: Resigned.

  7. Commerce: Resigned.

  8. Labor: Elaine Chao.

  9. HHS: Resigned.

  10. HUD: Alphonso Jackson.

  11. Transportation: Norm Mineta.

  12. Energy: Resigned.

  13. Education: Resigned.

  14. Veterans Affairs: Resigned.

  15. Homeland Security: Resigned.

Only six left to go for a clean sweep!

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BOB IN PARADISE....Reporters like Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller, who have declined to reveal their sources in the Valerie Plame case, find themselves threatened with jail. But Bob Novak, the man at the very center of the Plame case, apparently faces no such problem.

Why? And more intriguingly, why is it that no one neither conservative nor liberal ever asks him about it? Amy Sullivan goes inside the Novak bubble to look for answers in "Bob in Paradise," this month's cover story in the Washington Monthly. Check it out.

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December 2, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

LIBERALS AND TERRORISM....Peter Beinart has a cover story in the New Republic this week called "A Fighting Faith." Its thesis is simple: Democrats need to take the threat of Islamic totalitarianism more seriously. In fact, he says, "as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be liberalism's north star."

His piece has been linked approvingly by a number of people, mostly fairly hawkish sorts who applaud his call to purge liberalism's ranks of the MoveOn/Michael Moore "no blood for oil" crowd. Since I'm moderately hawkish and agree with much of what Beinart says, it would be easy to join in myself and leave it at that. But I think there's more to it.

The article is worth reading, but for those who don't click through here's the nickel version: in the late 40s Democrats fought an internal war that pitted the anticommunist Truman/Roosevelt wing of the party against the accomodationist Henry Wallace wing, which mostly thought that communism wasn't that big a deal. The Truman wing won, and Beinart thinks today's Democrats need to have the same kind of battle royal for the soul of their party. "Spreading freedom in the the Muslim world...can provide the moral purpose for which a new generation of liberals yearn," he says.

Maybe. But I've exchanged a couple of emails with Beinart about this, and I think he may have written the wrong article. His history lesson explains what happened, but not why, and in the end this makes his piece more assertion than argument. What he really needs to write is a prequel to his current piece, one that presents the core argument itself: namely, why defeating Islamic totalitarianism should be a core liberal issue. What follows is a little long for a blog post, but I want to explain what I mean. Here goes.


The basic post-9/11 position among conservatives is that the war on terror is the moral equivalent of the anti-fascist crusade of World War II and the anticommunist crusade of the Cold War. Since this is their core argument, let's take a look at the historical comparisons.

First, World War II. Here's a quickie timeline of what happened in the five years before the United States entered the war: In 1936 German troops occupied the Rhineland. In 1938 Austria fell in the Anschluss, Hitler bullied Neville Chamberlain into brokering the Munich agreement that turned over Czechoslovakia to Germany, and the Nazi holocaust against the Jews began in earnest with Kristallnacht. In 1939 Hitler invaded Poland, and a year later overran Scandinavia, Belgium, and France and began the Battle of Britain. In 1941 Rommel began operations in North Africa and in June Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union.

And that's just Europe. In Asia, Japan had been fighting an offensive land war in China for a decade. In 1937 the Rape of Nanking slaughtered over 300,000 innocent civilians. In 1940 Japan formally joined the Axis along with Germany and Italy. In 1941 the Japanese invaded southern Indochina.

Got all that? Now let's fast forward to the beginning of the Cold War. In 1945 Roosevelt bowed to reality at Yalta and acceded to Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe. By 1946 Stalin's control was complete and Winston Churchill delivered his famous speech declaring that "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent."

In 1947 communist-backed insurgencies threatened both Greece and Turkey, which were saved only via massive military and economic aid from America. In 1948 Stalin blockaded Berlin and Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of being a Soviet spy. In 1949 China fell to communism and the Soviet Union announced that it had developed an atomic bomb of its own followed shortly by the sensational news that America's atomic secrets had been betrayed to the Soviets by a spy ring headed by Klaus Fuchs.


What's the point of these historical highlights? Just this: in the five years before 1941, world events made the danger from fascism so clear that when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor even diehard Republican isolationists didn't hesitate to declare war. The argument was over.

Likewise, by 1949 world events had made communist aggression clear to all but the farthest reaches of the left. Truman won the debate within his party largely because the threat was so plain that only a small minority could continue to ignore it.

Beinart basically argues that in 2004 the argument over our response to terrorism should also be over. But the problem is that world events today are nowhere near as clear as they were in 1941 and 1949. Sure, 9/11 was a wakeup call, but in the three years since then what's happened that's the equivalent of even a single one of the events described above? There have been some scattered bombings, but barely more than before 9/11. North Korea and Iran appear to be building nuclear bombs, but they've been doing that for over a decade. The Middle East is dominated by brutal totalitarian regimes, but that's been true for as long as there's been a Middle East and in any case the United States actively supports many of them.

Now, Beinart is right that there's a liberal humanitarian case to be made for some kind of American intervention in the Middle East: the entire region is a cesspool of human rights violations, religious intolerance, violence against women, and brutal poverty amid great wealth. But just as in 1941 and 1949, that's not enough. It's never been enough, no matter how much we Americans like to flatter ourselves otherwise. The crusades against fascism and communism won majority support only when it became absolutely clear that they were expansionist ideologies that posed a deep and ongoing threat to the security of the rest of the world.

That's the story I think Beinart needs to write. If he thinks too many liberals are squishy on terrorism, he needs to persuade us not just that Islamic totalitarianism is bad of course it's bad but that it's also an overwhelming danger to the security of the United States. After all:

  • Subsequent to 9/11, virtually no Americans have died from terrorist acts. Rather, American deaths have been caused by our own war of choice in Iraq a country that has turned out to possess no WMD and have virtually no serious connection to al-Qaeda.

  • For all his tough talk, the president of the United States has tacitly admitted that he doesn't feel this war is important enough to require any sacrifice on the part of the American citizenry.

  • The Republican party has made it as clear as it possibly can that the war on terror is not vital enough to require either bipartisan support or the support of the rest of the world. They've treated it more like a garden variety electoral wedge issue than a world historical struggle.

  • Things like Tom Ridge's sales pitch for duct tape, along with the transparently political color coded terror levels, have made the war on terror fodder for late night TV. It's entirely predictable that anyone who was even a bit skeptical in 2002 now views the war as trivial at best, and comical or Machiavellian at worst.

It's arguable that liberals are foolish to let all this prevent them from seeing the totalitarian danger for what it is. But it's hardly surprising. The fact is that compared to fascism and communism, Islamic totalitarianism seems like pretty thin beer to many. It's not fundamentally expansionist, and its power to kill people isn't even remotely in the same league.

Bottom line: I think the majority of liberals could probably be persuaded to take a harder line on the war on terror although it's worth emphasizing that the liberal response is always going to be different from the conservative one, just as containment was a different response to the Cold War than outright war. But first someone has to make a compelling case that the danger is truly overwhelming. So far, no one on the left has really done that.

Kevin Drum 9:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HAPPINESS....The results of a brand new kind of happiness study were released today. The subjects were 909 Texas women, and they were pretty clear about what made them grumpy:

By far the two factors that most upset people's daily moods were a poor night's sleep and tight work deadlines. According to a scale the researchers developed, women who slept poorly reported relatively little enjoyment even when relaxing in front of the TV or shopping.

Hmmm. I spend my entire day making up deadlines for myself (gotta post something quick!) and I don't sleep worth a damn and never have. I guess that explains my perpetually poor mood.

Oh well, it could be worse. I could always be a cat with insomnia. That would be one unhappy critter.

Kevin Drum 5:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

R.I.P. SEAN HARRIGAN....CalPERS is the state of California's employee pension fund. Yesterday, as expected, Sean Harrigan finally lost his job as its president.

Why? Because he's a shareholder activist who has pushed hard for reform in the executive suite. He's a union official who fought the Safeway strike last year. And he and other activists have fought boardroom cronyism relentlessly and nearly got Disney's Michael Eisner fired a few months ago. And then there's this:

In addition, the [Chamber of Commerce] and the Business Roundtable say pension funds and other activist investors shouldn't be able to target corporate practices in the name of narrow agendas that don't have all shareholders' interests at heart.

To that end, both groups have vociferously opposed a pension fund-led proposal that would make it easier for unhappy shareholders to nominate their own director candidates for corporate boards.

That's a funny way of looking at things. Making it less onerous to nominate a new board which would still have to win the votes of a majority of shareholders is, for some reason, apparently not in everybody's interest.

And here I thought that competition was supposed to be good for capitalism. Just not in the boardroom, I guess.

Kevin Drum 1:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOG EUPHORIA....I don't mean any disrespect here, but do you suppose we could all keep our jaws firmly in place over the upcoming blog from Gary Becker and Richard Posner until they actually, you know, start blogging?

These are both sharp guys, and Posner in particular has a sharp tongue as well, and I hope their blog turns out to be great. But there are lots of sharp minds and even more sharp tongues out there, and that combination doesn't always make for a great blog. Let's wait and see how they do.

And one more thing: I sure hope they realize that a Nobel Prize doesn't cut any ice with the blogosphere. It's a rough world out here, guys....

UPDATE: Here's an interesting question for the comment section: what well known person do you think would make a great blogger? Good bloggers tend to be acerbic, prolific, polemical, and good in short spurts. I think Richard Dawkins would be good, for example, whereas, say, an essayist like Tom Wolfe probably wouldn't even though they're both interesting people. Who else would be good?

Kevin Drum 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GRANDMA IN GUANTANAMO....It's good to see that the Bush administration is keeping a level head in the war on terrorism. The subject in federal court yesterday was the government's ability to detain any foreigner they wanted for any reason they wanted:

Could a "little old lady in Switzerland" who sent a check to an orphanage in Afghanistan be taken into custody if, unbeknownst to her, some of her donation was passed to Al Qaeda terrorists? asked U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green.

"She could," replied Deputy Associate Atty. Gen. Brian Boyle. "Someone's intention is clearly not a factor that would disable detention." It would be up to a newly established military review panel to decide whether to believe her and release her.

So actual intent to aid terrorism isn't a factor. Doesn't that just make you feel tingly all over?

Kevin Drum 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BROOKSIES REVISITED....This is peculiar. Back in September I entered "Kevin Drum" in Google and got back 143,000 hits. Today I did the same thing and got 411,000 hits. In other words, ten weeks ago my Internet Fame was equal to 1.13 brooksies, while today it's equal to 1.33 renormalized brooksies which means my internet fame is growing faster than David Brooks'. Hooray!

I tried a few other names too, and pretty much everyone's link count has gone up by 100% or more. Doesn't that seem like an awful lot for only ten weeks?

Kevin Drum 1:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK....I just love stories like this:

A majority of Metro directors [in Washington DC], who set policy for the region's subway and bus system, say they have never ridden a Metrobus or can't recall the last time they did. About half rarely or only occasionally ride the subway. And none is a daily passenger on either bus or train.

In interviews, 10 of the 12 board members characterized their use of Metrobus and Metrorail. Eight said they had either never ridden a Metrobus or could not recall the last time they had climbed aboard. Two members said they rarely rode the subway or could not recall the last time they had. Five said they rode occasionally.

All of the board members get a free SmarTrip card, but except for one guy they've all refused to release the travel records embedded on the cards. Why? Because they claimed it was highly personal information and that releasing it might undermine the public's confidence that the data was kept private. Uh huh.

Crikey. What kind of nitwit agrees to sit on a board but then figures that it doesn't matter if they have any personal experience with their own product? An idiot, that's who. These guys need to get off their butts once in a while and take a ride on a bus. They might learn something.

Kevin Drum 1:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TEEN DRIVING....Is being a teenager these days really that different from being a teenager 30 years ago? I'm frequently skeptical of the seemingly limitless supply of stories suggesting they are, which makes this story in the LA Times today particularly intriguing. Apparently teenagers are increasingly not bothering to get driver's licenses these days:

Only 43% of all 16- and 17-year-old Americans were licensed in 2002, the last year for which statistics were available, according to the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Census Bureau. In 1992, that figure was nearly 52%. Meanwhile, in supposedly car-addicted California, teens are even less likely to be driving. Slightly less than 27% about 1 in 4 of the state's 16- and 17-year-olds were licensed last year, a figure that has been sliding since at least 1978, when it was 50.1%.

....In urban Los Angeles, Garfield High School football coach Lorenzo Hernandez recently bought an SUV to shuttle players because so many lacked transportation. "It's amazing," said Hernandez. "It used to be if kids needed rides, there were seniors or whoever who could take them. But we have 56 kids on the team this year and I only have, like, two who can drive."

The whole story is fascinating. Part of the reason for the decline is that many states, including California, have made it more difficult for teens to get a driver's license, but the fact is that it's still not that hard. (And don't let the story fool you. The "50 hours of supervised driving practice" that California requires can be with your parents. It doesn't have to be at a driving school.)

Rather, a big part of the problem seems to be that a lot of teens are perfectly happy being ferried around by their parents, and their parents are happy or have at least resigned themselves to do the ferrying. I don't really have anything profound to say about this, and there's no telling just how big a trend this really is, but to the extent that it's real it strikes me as a bad thing. Teenagers should want to become independent of their parents, shouldn't they? Isn't that practically the definition of adolescence?

POSTSCRIPT: Just to make this clear: I don't mind that teenagers are driving less. Probably all for the best. But to be driving less because they're afraid to learn, or because they're happy to have their parents drive them around that seems somehow unhealthy.

Kevin Drum 12:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 1, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

CORPORATE TAXATION....It's a slow day today, so that gives me a chance to toss out an idea that's probably pretty retarded but possibly interesting anyway. Here it is: why not join the Caribbean tax haven movement and get rid of the corporate income tax altogether?

First, here are a few arguments in favor of doing this:

  • Corporate taxes have been declining for years and don't really raise all that much money anyway. Last year corporations paid a mere $131 billion in taxes, about 7% of total federal tax receipts.

  • People complain about the complexity of the personal tax code, but personal income taxes are almost childishly simple compared to the byzantine regulations that govern the corporate tax regime. If you want to simplify things, the corporate tax code is the real place to start.

  • Eliminating the corporate income tax would give U.S. businesses a leg up against foreign competitors who have higher tax rates.

  • If you eliminate the corporate income tax, you also eliminate a huge amount of corporate welfare. It's easy to bury a tax break for a favored business in a 1000-page tax bill, but it's a lot harder to give that same business an outright subsidy in a spending bill.

  • Corporate taxes are eventually paid by consumers in the form of higher prices anyway, so why not eliminate the middleman?

  • We wouldn't have to listen to any more nonsense about dividend taxes being "double taxation."

Now, this is hardly a recipe for corporate nirvana for a variety of reasons. Corporate accounting departments will still have plenty of work cut out for themselves since SEC regulations, NYSE regulations, foreign reporting laws, and so forth still apply. What's more, unless we convince all 50 states to also eliminate their corporate income taxes, the tax lawyers will still have plenty of work to do. And multinationals will have to continue paying foreign taxes no matter what.

Oh yeah, and we'd probably have to tighten up the laws that prevent people from pretending that personal income is really corporate income and therefore not subject to tax.

Details, details. And what do liberals get in return for showering this largesse on our conservative friends? I don't know. How about a carbon tax? Higher dividend and inheritance taxes? An increased gasoline tax? Or higher income tax rates on top incomes? We need to made up that $131 billion somewhere, and the price of our support for this plan would be a replacement revenue source that appealed to liberals.

Is this ever going to happen? Of course not. Is it a dumb idea? Probably. Comments are open to tell me why.

Kevin Drum 6:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NR ON IRAN....National Review is unhappy with Europe's efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program:

The Europeans have been negotiating with Iran since August 2003, and getting strung along the entire time as Tehran tries to extract more "carrots." Tehran later reneged on its agreement to stop building centrifuges and enriching uranium, but the Europeans continued to negotiate anyway. Now, the Bush administration apparently the only international actor serious about ending Iran's nuclear program will have to wait on the sidelines while the EU3 once again buys the mullahs time.

This is interesting language, no? The Bush administration will "have to" sit on the sidelines while the Europeans dither around some more. Have to? What's more, this sitting around apparently demonstrates that Bush is serious about getting tough with Iran.

And what does Bush's version of getting tough consist of? Referring the whole issue to the UN Security Council and recommending economic sanctions.

It's a curious world, isn't it? If Bill Clinton had been doing the exact same things as Bush letting Europe handle direct negotiations, recommending UN sanctions, making occasional tough sounding noises National Review would be beside itself with outrage that he had no real plan for dealing with Iran's gathering threat and was seemingly unwilling to clearly draw a line in the sand. The UN!? Sanctions?! Puh-leeze. That's Jimmy Carter all over again.

And yet, when this is George Bush's plan, he's a hero. Funny, that.

UPDATE: Arms control expert Paul Kerr has more on this. Like me, he's bemused by the contradictory attitude toward the UN among conservative commenters on Iran. (Unlike me, though, he actually knows what he's talking about.)

Kevin Drum 2:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

RECOUNT REDUX....A few words following up on yesterday's post about the recount taking place (provided Dems raise the required $$ necessary--received an email solicitation from the DNC about it this morning) in the Washington state gubernatorial race.

First, State Rep. Laura Ruderman--the Democratic challenger in Washington's Secretary of State race--writes to dispute the charge that she defeated efforts by her opponent to institute electoral reform:

Mr. Reed didn't even introduce legislation for a paper trail until it became clear in mid-December that I was a strong challenger. This bill was not the result of a long-held view that such a paper trail was necessary. In testimony about his bill he admitted that he was reversing his previous position that such a paper trail was not necessary. The bill that he introduced was weak and did not have enough support to pass out of the Technology, Telecommunications, and Energy Committee. With my colleagues, I rewrote the bill so that it provided actual protection and not just lip service. We passed it out of the Committee (of which I am Vice-Chair) twice.

Where the bill died was in the Rules Committee. It died for a variety of reasons, as good bills often do in Rules. I was a champion of this issue during the 2004 Legislative Session.

So noted. Also, as several commentators observed, I was perhaps a little overzealous in describing Christine Gregoire as an "extremely popular" AG. I still say that the race was hers to lose, but it's true that she did not perform well on the stump and failed to energize Democrats as hoped.

Maybe there's nothing going on here, maybe this is just the vagaries of politics, and there are no better explanations than good or bad candidates. I still find it remarkable that a state like Washington would have back-to-back contested elections for major offices.

But maybe it raises a bigger question: With so much gnashing of teeth at the national level about the dearth of political talent, and now at the state and local levels as well, is it time to ask what exactly we're looking for from a candidate? I'm not disputing the fact that some recent candidates have had significant flaws. But I'm awfully tired of people telling me they're undecided because they don't like anyone. Seriously, people, the political rockstars--FDR, Clinton, Reagan (take your partisan pick)--come along only once in a generation, if that. Are we asking too much? And if not, give me your picks for political role models in our midst.

Amy Sullivan 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

AND HE'S GOT A PICTURE TO PROVE IT....Phil Carter is now officially a lawyer. Congratulations, Phil!

Kevin Drum 12:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

STOCK MARKET BLUES....Jeez, Bill Frist's campaign racked up half a million dollars in stock market losses between 2001 and 2004? But I thought the economy was roaring along under the stewardship of the Republican party?

Huh. Guess I heard wrong.

Kevin Drum 1:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE "ILLUSIONARY" TRUST FUND....There are lots of different ways to look at Social Security funding issues, and pretty much every one of them is jaw droppingly boring. What's more, since the Bush administration is plainly not interested in actual policy issues related to Social Security, it seems not only boring but also pointless to keep yammering away about it.

But yammer we must. So here's one more angle to think about.

Social Security is funded by payroll taxes. In 1983, Alan Greenspan headed up a commission that recommended saving Social Security from imminent doom by raising those payroll taxes to cover expected increases in Social Security payouts. But there was a twist: Greenspan recommended raising payroll taxes above what was required to actually pay current benefits to retirees, with the resulting surplus used to buy treasury bonds that would be piled up each year in Social Security's trust fund. And since these bonds were sold to the trust fund by the federal government, this means that the federal government got a big chunk of extra money every year for use in the general fund.

Under this scheme, payroll taxes were sufficient to cover payouts plus bond purchases until about 2018. Then, from 2018 to 2042, when payroll taxes would no longer be enough to cover payouts, the difference would be made up by cashing in the bonds in the trust fund. In other words, the feds would tap into the general fund to give back all the money that Social Security had handed over between 1983 and 2018. This money would come from the same place all general fund money comes from: income taxes.

Still with me? Here's what this means:

  • Between 1983-2018, this plan calls for payroll taxes to be higher than they need to be to cover payouts to retirees. However, because the surplus payroll taxes are handed over to the feds, it means income taxes are lower than they would otherwise be.

  • Then, between 2018-2042, payroll taxes will be less than they need to be to pay benefits to retirees. However, the difference will be made up by higher income taxes, which will be used to pay off the trust fund bonds.

Payroll taxes are paid mostly by the middle class and the poor. Income taxes are paid mostly by the well off.

So: for 35 years the middle class and the poor pay excess payroll taxes and the well off get a break on their income taxes. However, for the following 24 years the middle class and the poor get a break on their payroll taxes and the well off finance it by paying higher income taxes.

Now, this may sound like a dumb idea to you, but that was the deal. The bottom 80% take it on the chin for a few decades, followed by a couple of decades in which the well off get socked.

But suppose as conservatives are laying the groundwork for that Bush decides the trust fund is a mirage, just a giant IOU from one part of the government to the other. And as part of his "reform" plan he proposes a complex scheme that, when stripped to its essentials, entails doing away with the flim flam of that illusionary trust fund and the higher income taxes it will require when 2018 finally rolls around. What would that mean?

It would mean that the middle class and the poor got suckered into overpaying their taxes for three decades, and then when the bill came due the well off ducked out of their end of the bargain.

Of course, that would be a brazen rip off of the middle class in order to give a break to the well off and the rich. George Bush would never do something like that, would he?

Kevin Drum 12:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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