Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

February 28, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

ON CLICKING THE LINK....Here is why you should always click the link. Today, Todd Zywicki, writing about a controversy over speech codes at the University of Alabama, says:

[T]his is not the first time that Alabama's students have stood up to bullying by their Administrators, who once tried to prohibit the display of American flags on campus.

Wha...? They tried to prohibit the display of American flags? At the University of Alabama? That didn't compute. So I clicked:

This is, after all, the school that banned the American flag from dorm windows.

Hmmm. Dorm windows. But that still sounds peculiar. Click again:

After months of experimenting with different methods of restricting speech, the administration of the University of Alabama (UA) has "indefinitely" tabled a policy outlawing all window displays in student dormitories. The policy was issued after a student was ordered to remove a confederate flag from the door of his dorm room. Other students, aware of the threat to their liberty posed by this regulation, subsequently displayed American flags to challenge administrators to enforce the ban.

Ah. So what they actually banned was dorm room window displays of all types, and they did it in reaction to the display of a Confederate flag. That's still a misguided policy, but hardly the same as "prohibit[ing] the display of American flags on campus," is it?

Always click the link. That's why Tim Berners-Lee invented them.

POSTSCRIPT: On substance, by the way, good for the UA kids. Fighting hate speech is a worthy goal, but speech codes aren't the way to do it. First amendment and all that, you know.

Kevin Drum 8:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

REVIEWING BROWNSTEIN....Ron Brownstein's column today sure annoyed me. Reaction #1 was: good column! It's about the revolting USA Next attacks on AARP:

As synonyms for the word "vile," my thesaurus offers some of the following: offensive, objectionable, odious, repulsive, repellent, repugnant, revolting, disgusting, sickening, loathsome, foul, nasty, contemptible, despicable and noxious.

Any of those words would aptly describe the advertising attack launched last week against AARP, the largest advocacy group for seniors, by the conservative interest group USA Next.

Yep. But then there's reaction #2: how tiresome. Midway through the column Brownstein insists on playing the faux evenhandedness card by comparing USA Next's actions to those of MoveOn, even though he himself admits there's really no comparison:

The tone wasn't nearly as venomous, but it's worth remembering that the giant liberal online advocacy group MoveOn.org encouraged its members to resign in protest from AARP when the group backed Bush's prescription drug plan. The underlying message to AARP from both MoveOn and USA Next is the same....

No, it's not. Brownstein is implying that any organization that fights for its cause is playing in the same swamp as USA Next and its ilk, but that's not only untrue, it's noxious. Fighting hard is not the same thing as fighting dirty, and blurring the distinction does no one any good.

However, this was followed by reaction #3: good point!

On the left and right, the assumption is deepening that in this highly contentious political environment, no one can ever really operate as a neutral broker. Instead, politics is reduced to a binary choice: news organizations, lobbying groups and centrist legislators searching for common ground are all either with or against you. And when they are against you, they must be overrun by any means necessary.

This sense that anyone who deviates from the party line is a traitor does indeed seem to be gaining steam. Liberals, for example, are almost as dismissive of the mainstream media as conservatives these days, and the result is an increasingly fact-free environment in which both sides feel free to ignore any news report that makes them uncomfortable. This is not an area in which I hope liberals catch up with conservatives.

Finally, there was reaction #4: that's interesting. Here's what he has to say about the conservative strategy on Social Security:

The USA Next attacks on AARP so spectacularly set back the cause of restructuring Social Security that they deepen suspicion that conservatives are less interested in striking a deal than provoking a stalemate they can use as an issue in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Now that's something I haven't heard before. What's more, I find it hard to believe. If Social Security does get stalemated, it seems likely it will be long forgotten by November 2006, let alone November 2008. Still, it's an interesting thought.

Kevin Drum 5:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

FAKE NEWS....The LA Times is just full of interesting tidbits today. Apparently the administration has launched another phony news video:

The tape looks like a news report and is narrated by a former television reporter....But unlike an actual news report, it does not provide views critical of the proposed changes. Democrats have denounced it as propaganda. Snippets aired on as many as 18 stations earlier this month, the administration said.

....The video shows construction workers, waitresses, nurses, farmworkers and a forklift operator at their jobs, and includes interviews with a farmer and a restaurant manager. The narrator says the proposal would permit workers to "eat when they are hungry, and not when the government tells them."

Oh wait. I didn't mention which administration did this, did I? This phony news video turns out to be a California-only folly from the administration of Governor Arnold. I guess he figures he knows a good thing when he sees it.

Kevin Drum 5:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

OF MATH AND MEN....Do boys have stronger innate math skills than girls? The Chronicle of Higher Education investigates:

"There may be some innate differences, but we're so far from hitting that barrier that it's silly to talk about it," says Jacquelynne S. Eccles, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who has followed several groups of students over two decades, tracking how they chose high-school courses, college majors, and then careers.

....Data from [Julian] Stanley's program, at Johns Hopkins, shows just how strong the cultural factors are in determining math achievement. In the early 1980s, he and [Camilla] Persson Benbow reported a whopping disparity in the numbers of mathematically gifted boys and girls who scored 700 on the math section of the SAT at the age of 13, a distinction achieved by one in 10,000 students. A quarter-century ago, there were 13 boys for every girl at that level. Now the ratio is only 2.8 to 1, a precipitous drop that has not been reported in the news media. "It's gone way down as women have had an opportunity to take their math earlier," says Mr. Stanley.

Following on the heels of l'affaire Summers I've seen loads of long, serious articles asking the question: are men innately better at math than women? This article is a little better than most of that genre, but I'd still like to see something in the popular press that focuses on a different question: are there unusually large cultural barriers to advancement for women in the areas of math and science? Surely there's room somewhere for an article that focuses on the research for cultural influences rather than biological ones? I assume it must be fairly voluminous.

Previous post asking the same question here. If someone can point me to a long, well-reported article in the mainstream press that focuses primarily on the rigorous evidence for social and cultural barriers, please leave a comment. It's certainly possible that I've missed one somewhere.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, the answer to the question at the beginning of the Chronicle article is "all of them." Just showing off my innate mathematical skills here.....

UPDATE: It's not the long article I'm looking for, but it turns out the Chronicle piece does have a sidebar called "Vexing Stereotypes" that looks briefly at one piece of evidence about cultural barriers.

Kevin Drum 3:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

LET GOD SORT IT OUT....Congressman Sam Johnson explains his foreign policy views:

Speaking at a veterans celebration at Suncreek United Methodist Church in Allen, Texas....Johnson said he told the president that night, Syria is the problem. Syria is where those weapons of mass destruction are, in my view. You know, I can fly an F-15, put two nukes on em and Ill make one pass. We wont have to worry about Syria anymore.

He not only gave this advice directly to George Bush, but is so proud of it that he went right back home and started bragging about it to his constituents.

Did I mention that Johnson is an actual, living, breathing congressman? A Republican one?

Kevin Drum 1:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRACY IN LEBANON?....Following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri presumably by Syrian-backed terrorists the government of Lebanon has fallen:

With shouts of "Syria out!," more than 25,000 flag-waving protesters massed outside Parliament today in a dramatic display of defiance that swept out Lebanon's pro-Syrian government two weeks after the assassination of a former prime minister.

Cheering broke out among the demonstrators in Martyrs' Square when they heard Prime Minister Omar Karami's announcement on loudspeakers that the government was stepping down. Throughout the day, protesters handed out red roses to soldiers and police.

...."Today the government fell. Tomorrow, it's the one huddled in Anjar," opposition leader Elias Atallah told the crowd to cheers, referring to the Syrian intelligence chief based in the eastern Lebanese town of Anjar. He said the opposition will continue its actions until all demands are met.

More later.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRACY IN EGYPT?....Is Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak serious about introducing democracy to Egypt? Abu Aardvark rounds up some of the regional press reaction:

The Arab press seems to be mulling it over just like Egyptians are, trying to figure out whether this is a serious step forward or a clever move by Mubarak to pre-empt real reform. Al Quds al Arabi runs the most skeptical piece today saying that "the opposition considers Mubarak's change of the contitution to be a superficial change to satisfy Bush": no plausible candidates to compete with him, election rules which guarantee his victory, and preparation for a democratic inheritance (i.e. succession).

....Meanwhile, al Hayat reports that opposition parties are exploring their options about who might compete against Mubarak....On the editorial front, I've seen some cheerleading from al Sharq al Awsat (Ahmed al Rubai thinks that this is a major step forward which only congenital skeptics could have doubts about....

The Aardvark also recommends this more extensive roundup from Charles Levinson.

Kevin Drum 12:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

COUNTING THE VOTES....Commenting on the Count Every Vote Act, a piece of good government earnestness currently supported solely by Democrats, Julie Saltman wonders how Republicans will justify opposing it and then answers her own question:

So here's the interesting question. Republicans can't oppose this on the merits: in a just society this bill would be passed. One can debate the minor points, but decent people will be fundamentally in favor of it. But the Republicans will want to oppose it out of self-interest, which means they'll have to invent some spurious arguments to support their position. I have no doubt that they'll use the "Democrats want criminals to decide who gets to be president" approach.

I think that's part of it although the primary line of defense will probably be to just bottle it up in committee and ignore it. Unless Dems figure out a way to take this cause big time and make it an election issue next year and there are a very limited number of topics you can do that with that's all it will take.

But suppopse it takes off. Then what? Based on past precedent, I'd guess at two possible strategies:

  • Give it the Willie Horton treatment. Don't just claim that Democrats want criminals to pick your next president, find the meanest, scariest, most sociopathic ex-con in the contiguous 48 and make his name a household word. "Do you want him in the voting booth next to you? Democrats do." But best to find a white guy this time! No need to open yourself up to charges of race baiting.

    (Prior precedent for this strategy: Willie Horton himself, of course, but also the debate over the repeal of the estate tax, where Republicans were able to justify it by pointing to one trivial segment of the population that evoked public sympathy small family farms and claiming they'd be driven out of business. Remember: you don't have to fight an entire bill, just demonize one part sufficiently to bring the entire thing down in flames. See also Basketball, Midnight.)

  • Pretend it was your idea. If public sentiment shifts even slightly on this, my guess is that President Bush will quickly endorse CEVA or else introduce a similar bill of his own (sans voting rights for felons, of course). By the time it's passed, everyone will forget it was a Democratic idea in the first place. In fact, by that time Dems will be thought of as the obstructionists and the Rose Garden signing ceremony won't have a Democrat in sight.

    (Prior precedents for this strategy: Sarbanes-Oxley and the Homeland Security Department.)

So how do Dems fight back? I hate to say it, but ditching felon voting rights is probably part of it, which is too bad since felons who have served their time should no more have their voting rights taken away than their right to free speech. Second, it has to gain national attention as an initiative associated solely with Democrats. Given everything else going on Social Security, tort reform, Iraq, etc. it's hard to see how that will happen. Hopefully Sens. Kerry and Clinton will surprise me.

Kevin Drum 12:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

PULITZER WATCH....Last year Peter Gosselin of the LA Times wrote a 3-part series that tackled a subject that's probably the key economic story of the past 30 years: the steadily increasing risk and income volatility of the American middle class. In the years since 1970, quietly but inexorably, life has gotten increasingly precarious for an increasing number of people.

It's pretty widely understood that average incomes have stagnated during the past three decades, but as bad as that is in a country as rich as America, what's worse and less widely understood is how much riskier life has become: income volatility has skyrocketed, the minimum wage is down, the number of people with company pensions is down, average job tenure has dropped from 11 years to 7, and the number of people with health insurance has fallen seven percentage points.

This is not easy stuff to present and it's not easy to grasp, but it's an essential part of the economic story of America and it's an essential backdrop to our current debates over Social Security, Medicaid, and tax reform. Life is getting riskier every year, more and more people are living on the thin edge of disaster, and instead of working to ameliorate this the Republican party is working hard to make it riskier still.

Why do I mention this? Because Gosselin's series has now been collected in a single place and is available even if you aren't registered with the LA Times. All you have to do is click the link.

So do it: click the link. Believe me, this story is well worth the 20 or 30 minutes it takes to read, and if there's any justice you'll be seeing this series on a list of Pulitzer nominees in a couple of months. It's what print journalism was born to do.

Go read. And if you have a blog yourself, pass it along.

Kevin Drum 12:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 27, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

OSCAR PICKS....Dwight Meredith hasn't seen any of the movies nominated for Academy Awards this year, but he has some predictions anyway. Here's the final one:

Prediction #6

I do not know what will happen tonight but whatever it is, you can be sure that right wingers will say that it proves that although they control the White House, both Houses of Congress, much of the Judiciary, much of the business world, large segments of the media, and (they believe) the hearts and minds of most Americans, they are really just an oppressed minority.

Read 'em all!

Kevin Drum 8:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

BOXERS OR BRIEFS?....Jonathan Alter tells us the origin of "boxers or briefs?" today. Oddly, it's related to Hunter S. Thompson.

Kevin Drum 4:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

RUSSIA AND IRAN....From the New York Times today:

Russia agreed today to provide fuel for an Iranian nuclear reactor and sought to assure a wary world that tough safeguards would prevent any diversion of the fuel to build weapons.

....It came only three days after President Bush, who has sharply denounced the Iranian program, expressed his trust in President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and joined with him in saying that Iran should not have nuclear weapons.

Either (a) that private mini-summit between Bush and Putin didn't go well at all, or (b) Bush privately told Putin he didn't really care much about this. Neither alternative is all that comforting.

Kevin Drum 4:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

BLOGGING WOMEN....Since this is the one-week anniversary of the great female blogger meltdown here at Political Animal, I figure it's a good time to provide links to a few resources for anyone interested in reading more blogs written by women. I'm not generally a big fan of long lists of links, but they have their uses and after all, it's not like anyone is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to click on any of them. You can use them or discard them as you wish.

Note that this isn't meant to be any kind of comprehensive list, just a few things that have come across my radar in the past week. Feel free to add your own favorites in comments.

  • Over at Preemptive Karma, Carla has created a Progressive Women's Blog Ring. A complete list of members is here.

  • What She Said! has a lengthy blogroll of "Progressive Women who Blog Politics."

  • Feminist Blogs is a collective blog with a pretty obvious purpose. It has about 30 contributors and the posts have lots of additional links to likeminded blogs.

  • Ilyka Damen has a list of both conservative and liberal female political bloggers.

  • Plum Crazy has a pair of posts (#1 here and #2 here) with links to individual posts from women bloggers. It's all part of "Estrogen Week."

  • The Conglomerate is a legal blog run by Gordon Smith and Christine Hurt. Christine writes that "I have decided to be part of the solution. I am affirmatively acting to find female law blogs, read them and spotlight them." Here's the first one.

  • And finally, here's a list I put together last year. It's not the same one I'd put together today, but it's a good list anyway. There's also this list of responses to last Sunday's post, most of which are from women.

And of course there's also the website that started all this, Susan Estrich's Stop the Bias, primarily dedicated to harassing Michael Kinsley into running more op-eds by women in the LA Times (especially from local women, although that's gotten less attention.) However, as L.A. Observed, um, observes:

Today's advantage in the Susan Estrich-Michael Kinsley feud goes to Kinsley. Last week he informed the USC professor that she was no longer welcome on the Times opinion pages, and today the lead piece splashed atop the op-ed page is by her ex-husband, fellow USC professor Martin Kaplan. Oh, the piece is about lying in Hollywood.

It doesn't really seem likely that this was deliberate, but then again.....

UPDATE: Last sentence modified slightly. The Kaplan op-ed ran on Friday, not Sunday.

Kevin Drum 4:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

KILLING SOCIAL SECURITY....Why is George Bush so committed to privatizing Social Security? Matt Yglesias thinks he knows the answer:

Many conservatives believe quite sincerely, as far as I can tell that privatizing Social Security will actually create new conservative voters and they also seem to believe (likewise sincerely) that liberals share this belief and that this explains why liberals don't like privatization.

It's true that some conservatives believe that creating a country of stockholders will also create a country full of people dedicated to corporate growth, and therefore a country that's more sympathetic to the goals of the Republican party. But I think that misses the forest for the trees.

The truth is simpler, although it's not something that any savvy conservative will admit these days: they just don't like Social Security and they want to get rid of it. They didn't like it in the 30s when FDR first proposed it; they didn't like it in the 50s when Eisenhower made his peace with it; they didn't like it in the 60s when they nominated Barry Goldwater for president; and they didn't like it in the 80s when David Stockman briefly tried a frontal attack on benefits but then retreated to a strategic hope that rising payroll taxes would eventually inspire a workers revolt against the whole system. (It didn't work.)

So now they've learned their lesson: not only are frontal assaults fruitless Americans like Social Security but they're ephemeral anyway. Sure, price indexing might cut benefits and therefore the overall size of Social Security, but so what? Even if you passed it, some future Congress would just reverse it.

Private accounts are the only thing you can do to undermine the nature of Social Security that's likely to be permanent. There are no absolute guarantees, of course, but once you start up a program of private accounts, it's almost impossible to dismantle it. In the same way that there are enormous transition costs to ditch the current system in favor of private accounts, there would be enormous transition costs in the future associated with any attempt to ditch private accounts and bring back guaranteed benefits.

And that's the key: privatization is the only plan that has a chance of permanently crippling Social Security as a system of guaranteed benefits. When FDR created the current payroll tax-supported system, he said, "With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program." And he was right. Today's Republicans are hoping to achieve the same thing in reverse with private accounts. Social Security will eventually wither away, and no damn politician will be able to do anything about it.

Kevin Drum 1:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE WAR AGAINST CRAP....In the LA Times today, Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan tells us about the latest front in the culture wars over in the UK:

Law lecturer James Anstice...smashed up a nativity scene at Madame Tussaud's in London that featured David and Victoria Beckham (soccer star and former Spice Girl, respectively) as Joseph and Mary, and President Bush as one of the three wise men. He was charged with criminal damage for his efforts to render a cultural service to the nation. After his court appearance, Anstice said: "I have done my bit for the war against crap, but I do not think I am going to get involved in any more protests."

A war against crap! Let's all join in!

Mangan's target of choice, which actually comes from outside the field of culture, is phony food allergies: she suggests that about 2% of the population actually have them while 45% claim to have them. This takes a rather broader view of "crap" than Anstice's, but perhaps the modern world makes that necessary. (Although this whole peanut allergy thing, which appears to be quite real, sure is perplexing. Isn't anyone ever going to figure out why so many kids have become allergic to peanuts?)

Do I get to choose something too? Hmmm. Let me think about that. In the meantime, comments are open.

Kevin Drum 1:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 26, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

WINNING THE SOUTH....Over at SouthNow, Jon Bloom interviews political strategist David Mudcat Saunders:

SouthNow: Why did the Democrats lose in 2004?
Mudcat: They cant f***n count. Thats the Democrats problem. You dont get in the football game and punt on first down. You concede nothing. We condeded 20 states at first and then six more by Labor Day. Thats 227 electoral votes. Bush only needed 18 percent of the remaining electoral votes to win.

SouthNow: Whats the prescription for Democrats?
Mudcat: Theres only one precription and thats tolerance. Im a white, southern male who hunts. Im a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which has two black members, by the way. I dont know how many northern Democrats who have tolerance for my kind.

SouthNow: Whats your strategy for Southern progress?
Mudcat: We need to quit all this tap dancin around the truth....We need to stop tap dancin around the issues of guns, gays and God....Weve lost the white male. We need to get em back. We need to get through the cultural wall. Its a wall of straw. Inside every rural Republican is a Democrat trying to get out.

Saunders, who has worked on the campaigns of Mark Warner, John Edwards, and Bob Graham, thinks that if Democrats ease up on the culture stuff they can win in the South: "Weve got an affection for big guns and fast cars. Its a macho thing. Ive not seen any attempt by the Democrats to get into that culture."

I'm not actually sure I agree with this. The problem is that while there are areas where Democrats can compromise on cultural issues without betraying their souls, there are others, like abortion and gay rights, where they really can't. So the question is whether ditching the gun crusade and toughening up on national security is by itself sufficient to win back enough Southern votes to make a difference. I'm not quite convinced of that.

More on that here. And more on the colorful Mudcat here.

Kevin Drum 6:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

MILLION DOLLAR BABY....Shakespeare's Sister reminds me to comment about this year's crop of Academy Award nominees for Best Picture. Unfortunately, I haven't seen them all, but the topic at hand is Million Dollar Baby ("thoroughly wonderful") and I have seen that one. Spoilers follow below the fold.

Is there a phrase that's the opposite of "grows on you"? Whatever it is, that's my reaction to MDB. It was OK in the theater (though I wasn't blown away), but the more I thought about it the less I liked it.

It's a boxing flick and the basic story is simple: scrappy unknown from the mean streets gets a shot at the big time and becomes America's hero and she's a girl! In other words, Rocky VI except slightly less credible. (Although if Benjamin Wallace-Wells is right about the appallingly poor quality of female boxing in his more-interesting-than-the-movie essay about female boxing in the current issue of the Monthly, maybe Maggie Fitzgerald's astonishing ability to crush the competition with only a few months of training is more credible than I think.)

In any case, as we all know it turns out that MDB isn't just Rocky in drag. And that's the problem. It's bad enough that the first half of the movie is formulaic sports movie stuff, but the unexpected injury that ends Maggie's career, far from rescuing the story, felt to me like a dramatic fraud. Instead of being a well-acted but routine sports flick, we're now suddenly supposed to accept it as a deep and moving story about the quality of life and the meaning of family.

But I didn't buy it. The plot devices are too far removed from ordinary experience to be meaningful and the emotional manipulation is done with a sledgehammer. (I can't have been the only one to wonder what Dickens horror story Maggie's family came from, can I?) But the worst part was the faux religious crisis of conscience suffered by Eastwood's character. This was done why? To demonstrate that helping Maggie die was a really, really hard thing to do? No kidding. Hell, the whole subject was treated better two decades ago in Whose Life Is It Anyway?, and I don't even like Richard Dreyfuss.

In the end, I just didn't believe. Maggie's meteoric rise was a cliche and her family was a cartoon. Morgan Freeman has played the same character about four or five times now. And assisted suicide isn't really the groundbreaking subject the movie makes it out to be. In the end, the profundity was forced and the emotional manipulation was done with all the grace of a piledriver.

But other than that I liked it fine.

Of the other nominees, I've only seen Sideways and The Aviator. Sideways was OK, but I don't quite get the cult that's grown up around it. As for The Aviator, it may be a standard Hollywood big budget biopic, but it was a pretty good Hollywood big budget biopic, a three-hour movie that played like a two-hour movie. (As opposed to the far more common two-hour movie that drags on like a three-hour movie.)

Of the three, then, my vote goes to Martin Scorsese and The Aviator. It's probably not the best movie of the year, but then again, it's better than The Gladiator. That's something.

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRACY PROMOTION....From the LA Times last night:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled an official visit to Cairo on Friday amid growing tensions between the United States and Egypt over what the Bush administration views as Egypt's resistance to democratic reform.

....In an interview this week, Egypt's ambassador to the U.S., Nabil Fahmy, said he believed that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship would remain strong. But he said he was concerned that the administration's criticism of Egypt was hurting Americans' view of his country, as well as Egyptians' view of the U.S. government.

"In Egypt, the effect has not been useful. People don't like interference by anybody," he said.

Not useful? Here's the New York Times 12 hours later:

President Hosni Mubarak asked Egypt's Parliament on Saturday to amend the Constitution to allow for direct, multiparty presidential elections later this year for the first time in the nation's history.

The devil is in the details, of course, and this might turn out to be mostly window dressing in the end. But as a frequent critic of the administration's sincerity about democracy promotion, let me say that their conduct over the past couple of months has been better than I imagined it would be. Baby steps, to be sure, but hopeful ones. I hope they keep it up.

Kevin Drum 12:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

UNIFORM CODES....Via Joanne Jacobs, this lovely story of tolerance and acceptance from Green Cove Springs, Florida:

County school officials are backing a principal's decision to bar a picture of a lesbian student dressed in a tuxedo from the high school yearbook.

Sam Ward, principal of Fleming Island High School, said he pulled the senior class picture because Kelli Davis was wearing boy's clothes. His decision was debated Thursday at a Clay County school board meeting that drew 200 people, but the board took no action, and Superintendent David Owens said the decision will stand.

Most of the 24 people who spoke at the meeting supported Kelli Davis.

"This is not to be treated as a gay rights issue," said her mother, Cindi Davis. "Rather it's a human rights issue."

Others applauded Ward's decision, including Karen Gordon, who said, "When uniformity is compromised, then authority no longer holds."

Officials at the northeastern Florida school have said the picture was pulled from the yearbook because Davis did not follow the rules on dress. School board attorney Bruce Bickner said there is no written dress code for senior pictures, but principals have the authority to set standards.

The student editor of the yearbook, Keri Sewell, was fired after refusing her adviser's order to take the picture out.

"When uniformity is compromised, then authority no longer holds." Ain't it the truth? The 21st century marches on.

Kevin Drum 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 25, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THEORY vs. PRACTICE....Shorter Mark Schmitt: Americans are conservative in theory but liberal in practice. They think they like conservatism until it becomes clear it might actually apply to them.

That sounds about right.

Kevin Drum 9:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

"PIGS NOT GREAT"....This story is several weeks old, but since it didn't get any play in the American press maybe you'll all find it as amusing as I did.

It started in January, when Britain's Labor Party cooked up several posters designed to mock the fuzzy accounting of the Conservative Party's taxing and spending proposals. The posters were put up on the Labor website and people were asked to vote for the one they liked best. The specimen on the right makes the point plainly: pigs will fly before the Tories come clean about the cost of their election promises.

Only one problem: the faces pasted onto the pigs' bodies belong to Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin, who are both Jewish and the Evening Standard managed to gin up a controversy about it. "I am shocked the Labour Party finds it remotely clever or amusing to impose the faces of probably the two highest-profile Jewish politicians onto flying pigs," said a Conservative candidate for a largely Jewish district. "There is nothing more distasteful for a Jew than being associated with a pig."

One may doubt just how genuine this shock really was, but in any case the poster was taken down a few days later and the contest closed. That should have been the end of the story, but it wasn't.

The posters were concocted by an ad agency called TBWA, who were contacted by Andrew McFadyen, a reporter from the BBC program Newsnight. Who, he asked, came up with the idea in the first place? TBWA queried Labor spin guru Alastair Campbell about how to respond. Campbell Blackberried back the following message:

Just spoke to Trev [TBWA's creative chief] think tbwa shd give statement to newsnight saying party and agency work together well and nobody here has spoken to standard. Posters done by tbwa according to polotical brief. Now fuck off and cover something important you twats.

Unfortunately, Campbell didn't send this message to his mates at TBWA. He sent it to McFadyen. A few minutes later, realizing what happened, he Blackberried McFadyen again:

Not very good at this email Blackberry malarkey....Posters done by them according to our brief. I dreamt up flying pigs. Pigs not great but okay in the circs of Tories promising tax cuts and spending rises with the same money....Final sentence of earlier email probably a bit colourful and personal considering we have never actually met but I'm sure you share the same sense of humour as your star presenter Mr P.

Indeed. And I love this line: "Pigs not great but okay." Words to live by.

Kevin Drum 9:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY NEWS....Via Social Security Central Josh Marshall, two separate but weirdly related stories:

And don't forget the infamous SSI hold recording. I guess this finally explains what Karl Rove is talking about when he waxes nostalgic for the McKinley era. After all, this view of government as a mere personal appendage of the president wouldn't have raised an eyebrow back then.

Kevin Drum 4:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

BLOGGERS HIT THE BIG TIME....Trish Wilson emails today to call my attention to the OPEN Government Act, a bipartisan bill designed to "promote accessibility, accountability, and openness in Government." Among its other worthy features, this bill defines all the fine folks who write on the internet including bloggers, apparently as "representative[s] of the news media," at least as it applies to making FOIA requests. Hooray for us!

Kevin Drum 3:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

GUNNER PALACE....Phil Carter saw a screening of the documentary Gunner Palace last night and raves about it today:

"Gunner Palace" does what no book, no news article, and no blog can do it makes the soldiers of 2-3 FA come alive for those experiencing the movie, in a way they could only do if they were in person.

...."Gunner Palace" stands alone for conveying a sense of how it feels to ride down a highway in Baghdad in an open HMMWV, looking at every bag on the side of the road as a potential IED, never knowing which one might explode. It may be said that this movie is crude, profane, and even obscene at times but so is war. "Gunner Palace" gives us a brutally honest view of this war from the perspective of our young men and women fighting it, and I can't recommend this movie highly enough.

Acording to its website, Gunner Palace opens on March 4. Sounds like it's worth seeing.

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

ABORTION POLITICS....The LA Times reports that the Kansas attorney general, an abortion foe, wants two Kansas abortion clinics to hand over about 90 files related to "cases in which adult women had undergone late-term abortions and girls age 15 and younger had had abortions." Kansas prohibits late-term abortions except to protect the health of the mother, and the clinics say they have obeyed this law:

The clinics, which described the attorney general's subpoena as a "fishing expedition," said that they would be willing to release the records as long as specific identifying information such as names was blocked out.

Obviously you don't need personal information to ensure that the law about late-term abortions was followed, so why not accept the redacted records? The age of consent in Kansas is 16, and Attorney General Phill Kline says it's because he wants to investigate possible child rape cases. The New York Times adds this:

Mr. Kline's efforts to obtain records from abortion clinics follows his failed attempt last year to require the state's health workers to report any sexual activity of girls younger than 16, the age of legal consent in Kansas.

In other words, this guy really does want to prosecute anyone under 16 who's had sex. Or so it seems.

But does he? After all, if he's really serious, all he needs to do is keep track of birth records. Any teenager who has a baby at an age younger than 16 years and nine months has pretty clearly fallen afoul of the law and ought to be investigated. So why not do that?

The answer is obvious: Kline has no interest in prosecuting statutory rape, he has an interest in shutting down abortion clinics and family planning services or at least harassing them as much as possible. That's good wedge politics, after all. Investigating thousands of single teenage mothers, on the other hand, isn't.

Kevin Drum 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

A CONSERVATIVE TAKES ON WAL-MART....Stephen Bainbridge makes the conservative case against Wal-Mart today. You should read the whole thing to get a sense of his argument, but here's an incomplete summary:

So opening a Wal-Mart has a small positive effect on consumer prices and employment for the community. The latter effect dissipates over time as Wal-Mart drives competitors out of business or, at least, the area.

....By trampling small businesses underfoot, through its mix of volume pricing and subsidies, Wal-Mart and its ilk undermine the possibility of "wide participation in businesses." Prospective entrepreneurs are thus pushed out of fields like retail.

....Being a conservative is supposed to be about things like tradition, community, and, yes, aesthetics. If I'm right about that, it's hard to see why a conservative should regard Wal-Mart as a societal force for good....

The funny thing is that I don't really agree with this, even though we end up at the same place. The bucolic vision of small town America as a web of communities centered on mom and pop stores lining Main Street is a pleasant one, but I've long since given up thinking it's worth fighting for. In an advanced country of 300 million, any industry with economies of scale is bound to produce powerhouse nationwide corporations that take over most of the market no matter what we do. Fighting this is like fighting the tide. (Besides, one of the benefits of big box retailers that Steve doesn't mention is that they really do provide small town customers with far more variety than they can get from Main Street shops. That's a significant social good.)

For myself, I don't want to stop Wal-Mart from expanding, I'd just like to see them accept unionization and pay better wages. Beyond that,

government should not subsidize Wal-Mart either through zoning or tax breaks. Wal-Marts a big boy, so to speak, who can take care of itself. We ought to let it compete in a free market. And those of us with a bully pulpit ought to use it to encourage Wal-Mart to become a better neighbor and citizen.

On that, we agree.

Kevin Drum 12:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

I SURRENDER....All right, already. I'll link to you. Just don't bring catblogging into it, OK?

To avert feline catastrophe, head over to the blog deemed Most Deserving of Wider Recognition and drop a few shekels in the tip jar.

UPDATE: And don't forget runners up Dohiyi Mir, who also has catblogging, and Majikthise, who doesn't. On the other hand, she does have penguin blogging.

Kevin Drum 12:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

AMERICAN STYLE....Via Ezra Klein, this is pretty funny. Apparently George Bush had planned an "American style townhall meeting" as the centerpiece of his current trip to Germany, but it's been quietly dropped from the schedule. Why? Because his idea of "American style" meant a scripted event in which all the questions were screened and approved in advance.

As Ezra says, "American style, in some ways, is a lot like Cuban style. Or North Korean style. It shares some threads with Russian and Iranian style too."

Kevin Drum 12:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 24, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

HAVE CONSERVATIVES WON?....Brad DeLong has one analytical quarrel with Rick Perlstein's "extraordinarily good" Before the Storm:

Goldwaterism certainly did in the long run unmake Republican Party commitment to the New Deal Consensus. But in the short run Goldwaterism had other consequences: the damage it did to Republican congressional power were the only things that made the Great Society possible: the Johnson-era expansions of the social insurance state and the Nixon and post-Nixon-era expansions of the regulatory state were possible only on congressional foundations that had been created by Goldwater's Samson act directed against the Republican establishment.

To make possible the Great Society and then to cheer when Ronald Reagan rolls back 10% of it Goldwaterism was the greatest own-goal and act of political delusion by conservatives in the twentieth century.

As it happens, I don't share Brad's view that this is a defect of the book, primarily because I think Before the Storm was meant to be descriptive, not analytic. But on the first-order point, Brad is absolutely right.

The fact is that Goldwaterism, Reaganism, and Bushism to the contrary, liberals have basically won the big war of the past 40 years. With the exception of the conservative victory (so far) on taxes, conservatives have succeeded in rolling back only a tiny portion of the liberal victories of the post-World War II era. Social Security is bigger than ever, Medicare has just been expanded, anti-discrimination laws still rule the land, environmental laws have cleaned up the country, and to prevent themselves from being voted out of office en masse Republicans have to pretend that they enthusiastically support all this stuff even while they're trying to quietly tear it down in the background.

Make no mistake: they have succeeded in tearing some of it down, and they're continuing that effort. But 40 years ago Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan could speak plainly about their dislike of Social Security, while today George Bush has to pretend to be the second coming of FDR before he proposes his plans to subtly undo FDR's legacy. If conservatives have really won the national debate, why is it that they so carefully avoid saying things that they talked about openly a mere four decades ago?

POSTSCRIPT: And go buy the book, OK? At only 12 bucks it's a steal.

Kevin Drum 8:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

ARE WE READY FOR OUR CLOSEUPS?....I may be a sexist pig, but at least my clueless musings have done some good: a bunch of my female critics made it into Howard Kurtz's column in the Washington Post today. As Trish says, that's the big time!

Kevin Drum 7:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

PSSST....Prairie Angel notes Dan Froomkin's answer to an online question this afternoon about the media's almost pathological acceptance of anonymous briefings these days:

Having waited a long time for the press corps to overtly revolt against this vile tradition, allow me to suggest another possibilty: What if White House reporters just started anonymously outing the anonymous briefers to bloggers? Just an idea.

I've wondered the same thing. Naturally, I'd be delighted for Political Animal to become anonymous source central I'm very discreet but anyone would do as well. So why not?

I gather that bothersome professional ethics aside part of the reason is that the press corps is also pathologically averse to working together in any way. But that doesn't really have to happen. All it takes is for a few reporters to pick a likely blog and start feeding it the dirt. Others would likely follow. And soon the White House's insistence on keeping its public servants anonymous for purely self-serving reasons would wither away.

Great plan. Who will bell the cat first?

Kevin Drum 7:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

BEFORE THE STORM....Last year Rick Perlstein sent me a copy of his 2001 book Before the Storm, a look at the rise of Barry Goldwater and movement conservatism in the early 60s. I thanked him, and then put it aside and didn't pick it up again until last week.

What can I say? I'm an idiot. Before the Storm is one of the best political books I've ever read and one of the best descriptions of the roots of modern American conservatism anywhere. It's not just that it's deeply researched and meticulously written though it is it's that Perlstein has the rare gift of bringing the past to life. He gives you a sense of what it was really like to be alive during that era, something that few authors seriously try and even fewer ever accomplish.

Here's a sample paragraph about my own hometown:

Orange County's VFW halls and school auditoriums were Meccas for traveling lecturers like former double agent Herb Philbrick (whose claim to fame was announced in the title of his book, I Led Three Lives); Korean War POW John Noble (I Was a Slave in Russia); and World War I fighting ace Eddie Rickenbacker (The Socialistic Sixteenth A National Cancer). Another perennial was W. Cleon Skousen, who was so right-wing he had been fired as Salt Lake City police chief by Mayor J. Bracken Lee, the tax resister working to dissolve the federal government, for running his department "like a Gestapo." Another favorite was Ronald Reagan. It was glamorous having a movie star talk to your Republican precinct club. And he preached anticommunist hellfire as well as anyone else on the circuit.

This book is fun to read, and gets as deeply into the soul of movement conservatism as any I've ever read and it does this not by being a tedious lefty rant, but by taking its subject seriously on its own terms. Conservatives can read this book about their own roots and enjoy it every bit as much as liberals.

Buy this book. Really. Buy it right now and read it. Anybody with even a flicker of interest in modern American politics won't regret it.

POSTSCRIPT: On a slightly different note, this book makes me wonder: what the hell is up with liberal funding bodies? Take a look at these reviews. Anyone who writes a first book this good should be mobbed almost immediately by foundations and "writer in residence" programs eager to shovel him a bit of cash to get him going on his next book. (It's about Nixon.) But that didn't happen.

Why not? I've read all sorts of critiques of the way liberal groups dole out money, but this really brings it home. The fact that apparently not one single person at one single liberal grantmaking institution read this book and jumped at the opportunity to help fund the followup indicates that there's something deeply wrong with our institutional funding.

For God's sake, someone step up to the plate and write this man a check.

Kevin Drum 2:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CONSERVATIVES AND ABSTINENCE....Are modern conservatives fundamentally less open to reason than liberals? The liberal Jon Chait thinks so, but the libertarian Megan McArdle thinks he's full of hot air ("These orgies of self-congratulation to which the media (and the blogosphere) are prone make me cringe"). Over at Tapped, Sarah Wildman implicitly proposes a wee test:

A new study has found that Uganda's decline in HIV/AIDS can't be attributed to the "A" in ABC Abstinence. The Bush administration claims that Uganda's battle with HIV/AIDS stands on abstinence, a cornerstone of both the administration's international and domestic AIDS policy and the work of friends on the far right.... [But] evidence aside, the Bush administration has blithely continued to pour money into international abstinence-focused grants, $100 million since October 2004 alone.

There's nothing wrong with ideology per se, but if preventing actual illness isn't a good test of whether pragmatism has even a sliver of support in the modern Republican party, I don't know what is. Wouldn't that $100 million be better spend on something more effective?

Kevin Drum 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

HARVARD AND LARRY SUMMERS....Over at Left2Right, Elizabeth Anderson, a professor of philosophy and women's studies at the University of Michigan, has an idiosyncratic look at the whole Larry Summers flap. Her overall position seems to be that the real problem is "rot in the system" at Harvard, not Summers per se, but she then proceeds to criticize Summers on three separate grounds:

  • About the Cornel West kerfuffle a few years ago:

    Grade inflation is a serious issue well within the province of the President. But it is ludicrous and demeaning to single out West on this count, given its pervasiveness at Harvard....What may be a legitimate form of institutional accountability and standard-setting in an impersonal, publicly vetted, and universally applied system of rules becomes an imperious violation of academic freedom in the hands of a President who applies privately tailored standards at his personal discretion.

    Hmmm. This somehow seems too clever by half. I accept her point that if Summers is genuinely concerned about things like grade inflation he should offer an institutional solution, not a one-off dressing down. On the other hand, it's hard to get people to take this stuff seriously. Sometimes a high profile criticism is the only thing that will ruffle enough feathers to get people to sit up and take notice.

  • On his recent talk about women in science:

    Research scientists are entitled to their biases, in the sense that science can't get underway without people willing to place their bets on sometimes controversial hypotheses as yet unproved, and can't succeed unless people are free to vigorously pursue such hypotheses even in the face of rival hypotheses claiming their own empirical support. [But] Summers was not speaking as a research scientist in the fields in question. He was speaking as the President of Harvard University. In that capacity, Summers' deployment of his biases could not function in the fruitful way biases often function among research scientists. They functioned instead as lame excuses for a poor institutional record of tenuring women.

    I'm not quite as convinced as Anderson that Summers' substantive case was utterly without merit only mostly without merit but I agree that Summers's position is really the main issue here. There's a context to everything, and the context for Summers is that he's the president of Harvard, it's an institution with some longstanding grievances in this area, and he has considerable power to influence who's hired and who isn't. When you're in a position like that, you don't just muse out loud about stuff this sensitive unless you're awfully well prepared. He's a university president, not a blogger. (For now, anyway....)

  • On Summers's lack of action in response to allegations of widespread plagiarism:

    Plagiarism of published works is but a symptom of wholesale plagiarizing of texts submitted by research assistants. The offending authors failed to recognize that the passages from published works were not in their own voice, because their method of "writing" books by assembling and editing minimally referenced memos drafted by research assistants is inconsistent with having a voice.

    She's saying that the offending authors didn't deliberately plagiarize, they just outsourced their drafting to research assistants, and they were the ones who plagiarized. Damn. I had no idea. Is this really how Harvard professors write books?

    [UPDATE: Upon rereading, it's not entirely clear what Anderson is saying here. Are the research assistants plagiarizing material and the profs don't know it? Or are they quoting source material properly but the profs somehow don't realize they're reading quoted material when they steal the text? I'm not sure which scenario Anderson was actually implying.]

Overall, Anderson thinks the real faculty revolt at Harvard is because "the senior faculty have been getting from President Summers a dose of the humiliating medicine so many of them have happily doled out to the lower academic orders for decades" medicine that Anderson herself presumably tasted when she was there. Sounds like maybe Summers and Harvard are a match made in heaven after all.

Kevin Drum 2:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CHOICEPOINT UPDATE....It turns out that the massive identify theft scam at ChoicePoint happened last October but nobody got notified until last week. And even that never would have happened if not for the fact that California has a law requiring disclosure of leakage of personal information. Security expert Bruce Schneier says the same thing is likely to happen again unless economic incentives are brought to bear:

ChoicePoint protects its data, but only to the extent that it values it. The hundreds of millions of people in ChoicePoint's databases are not ChoicePoint's customers. They have no power to switch credit agencies. They have no economic pressure that they can bring to bear on the problem. Maybe they should rename the company "NoChoicePoint."

The upshot of this is that ChoicePoint doesn't bear the costs of identity theft, so ChoicePoint doesn't take those costs into account when figuring out how much money to spend on data security....Until ChoicePoint feels those costs whether through regulation or liability it has no economic incentive to reduce them.

Bruce is right. Unless ChoicePoint feels some pain, why should they care about keeping their records safe? Here's the pain:

A California woman has sued ChoicePoint Inc. for fraud and negligence after criminals gained access to a database of personal records compiled by the company.

.... The suit seeks to represent anyone whose personal records were maintained by ChoicePoint from October 2004 through the completion of the suit, regardless of whether or not that data was actually released to anyone.

Let's hope George Bush's new law restricting class action suits doesn't force this one into federal court and then into infinite limbo. At the moment, a civil suit is the only way to cause ChoicePoint enough pain to make them take security seriously.

Kevin Drum 12:39 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 23, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE SLIME SLOWLY RISES....An emailer writes to tell me that Charlie Jarvis of USA Next, the outfit that ran the anti-AARP ad shown on the right, was on Inside Politics earlier today. After some blustering about how AARP is the "largest left liberal lobbying organization on the planet" and "we are going after them very aggressively," Judy Woodruff asked why the ad had suddenly disappeared:

WOODRUFF: Charlie Jarvis, is USA Next going to run this ad some more? Why did you only have it up for one day?

JARVIS: We were testing to see whether left liberal groups would overreact. And they did. The hypothesis was that they would focus on one single tiny image on one Web site.

WOODRUFF: And it worked.

JARVIS: It worked. By the end of yesterday, to show you how crazy the left liberal groups are and that they have a death wish on Social Security, they literally were having people call television stations all over the country to pull the ad that didn't exist. Remarkable.

You betcha, Charlie! You were just testing to see if us lefties would overreact. How sneaky of you.

Michael Tanner of Cato was also on the show and my correspondent says that "Tanner looked like his skin was crawling just having to sit next to Jarvis." I don't blame him. The White House sure knows how to pick their friends, don't they?

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, Jarvis claims the ad is a legitimate attack on ARRP because "they do not take a position on veterans and combat veterans health" and because they opposed the Ohio gay marriage ban. The first charge is ridiculous and the second is mendacious. AARP clearly stated that they opposed the Ohio law and only the Ohio law because it was so broadly and vaguely written that they were afraid it could affect things like power of attorney for unmarried older couples both straight and gay.

Kevin Drum 6:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

KOUFAX AWARDS....The Koufax Awards for best lefty blogs are now up. The winners are:

Congrats to all. And thanks to Dwight and Mary Beth at Wampum for hosting and counting. Dwight has additional commentary on the winners and runners-up here.

Kevin Drum 6:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

WHISTLEBLOWING....Remember Sibel Edmonds? She's the FBI translator who charged the FBI with incompetence in the wake of 9/11 and was then fired. When she sued, the FBI said the case couldn't be brought to trial because it would involve divulging "state secrets." They've refused to release the documents that were the basis of an unclassified congressional briefing in which they admitted that much of what Edmonds said was true, and they even went so far as to try to reclassify letters that two senators had written to them and posted on their websites.

Via Melanie Mattson, it appears the FBI has partially thrown in the towel:

Last week the Bureau withdrew its claim about the congressional briefings. "We have stated that the information in those (letters from Sens. Leahy and Grassley) is ... not classified," Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller told United Press International Tuesday evening.

He declined to say what effect this might have on the department's assertion of the "state secrets privilege" but added that the department's lawyers would be filing papers in the case on Thursday that might make its position clearer.

OK, it's not much. Really, all they're doing is admitting that they can't reclassify stuff they've already released publicly. But it's a start. And since Edmonds claims that she was told to work slowly and build up a backlog of work (in order to justify funding increases); that completed translations were erased from her computer; that the Bureau hired translators who could barely speak English; and that they hired at least one translator who was working for a Turkish organization under investigation by....the FBI well, it's a pretty good guess that embarrassment and ass covering are more at issue here than state secrets. More background here from a 60 Minutes segment aired last year.

Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 4:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

RETIREMENT AGE....Will Saletan has a long, number-filled column today spelling out the reasons we should raise the retirement age for Social Security. I'm all in favor of numbers, but his don't add up.

I don't mean that literally. Tired as it is, his case makes sense on its own terms: people live longer than they did 60 years ago and are both physically and mentally active longer than they were 60 years ago. So why not work longer and retire later?

Answer: because we don't want to. Sure, we could continue inexorably raising the retirement age, ensuring that no matter how much richer we get and no matter how many medical advances we make, we're still working til we drop. We could do that, but we don't want to. Most of us like the idea that we'll have more years of "active retirement" (i.e., "free of chronic functional impairment") than we did 60 years ago.

And guess what? We can. Federal spending today is about 20% of GDP. Eighty years from now, if we make no changes to Social Security at all, its costs will go up by about 2% of GDP. That's easily affordable, especially since our economy will be far larger in 80 years than it is today.

Americans already work far more hours than any comparable nation on Earth, but for today's obsessively Puritan conservatives that's not enough. We must work ever more. But this isn't solely an economic issue, it's also an issue of social choice. And if, as a society, we choose to take advantage of our increasing wealth by enjoying longer retirements, that seems like a pretty good decision to me. 49 years is plenty for a working life. There's no need to extend it further.

Kevin Drum 1:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

OIL PRICES....Over at Morgan Stanley, Eric Chaney and Richard Berner are perplexed that oil prices haven't gone down. The reason for this strange state of affairs? High demand and low supply:

New data from the February International Energy Agency (IEA) report show that global crude demand was 0.2 mb/d stronger than previously estimated in the last quarter of 2004 and that crude supply was slightly lower than prior data indicated.

....Unfortunately, however, there's more to the supply story: non-OPEC producers are operating at full capacity and output is stagnant....Moreover, with no increase in refining capacity yet visible, we are concerned that the onset of the US summer driving season will push product prices back to previous highs and crude prices could well follow.

In hindsight, it appears that OPEC was literally operating at full capacity in the fourth quarter of last year, for the first time ever.

James Peltz echoes this in the LA Times today:

Oil prices are trading at lofty levels because global supplies of crude are stretched thin, while the world's thirst for oil especially in the U.S. and China keeps climbing steadily.

The only thing that perplexes me about this is why these guys are all so perplexed. It's true that short term prices are volatile and can easily go up or down for short periods based on strictly temporary conditions. But the basic picture is simple: demand has been growing faster than supply for over two decades, and today there's virtually no spare production capacity left in the world even in OPEC. Unless something dramatic happens, demand will permanently outstrip supply sometime in the next few years. In the meantime, prices will continue to rise and will continue to be highly sensitive to even small production problems.

More details are here in this post from last year, including some thoughts on what to do about this. There's no way to reliably predict the supply and demand of oil six months from now, but the picture six years from now is considerably clearer absent some stunning technological breakthrough. The fact that everyone seem freshly surprised about this every time gas prices go up a dime is truly mind boggling.

Kevin Drum 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 22, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CHRIS COX UPDATE....Did Rep. Chris Cox (RKevin Drum) really say "We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and facilities to make them inside Iraq"? Brendan Nyhan called him up and the answer is:

  1. Yes.

  2. But the quote got unfairly truncated.

  3. But it doesn't matter much, because even the full quote is a serious exaggeration of the actual evidence. Sort of like practically every statement about WMD before the war too.

Full details here.

Kevin Drum 11:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

GEORGE BUSH, THE PERFECT MAN....I had to laugh when I read Mark Steyn's column today. He's praising George Bush for the conciliatory language he's using during his visit to Europe:

So what would you do in Bush's shoes? Slap 'em around a bit? What for? Where would it get you? Or would you do exactly what he's doing? Climb into the old soup-and-fish, make small talk with Mme Chirac and raise a glass of champagne to the enduring friendship of our peoples: what else is left? This week we're toasting the end of an idea: the death of "the West".

So when Bush beats up on Europe he's doing exactly the right thing. When he goes easy on Europe he's doing exactly the right thing. Right.

I swear, at this point I think George Bush could declare Christmas illegal and his fan club would figure out a way to make it sound like a cunning and farsighted strategy for the future of America. Apparently he's already left the ranks of the human race and been elevated to godhood.

Kevin Drum 11:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CONSERVATISM vs. EXTREMISM....Over at the Prospect, Michael Tomasky argues that conservative are interested in conservative philosophy while liberals are mostly obsessed by strategy:

Ive long had the sense, and its only grown since Ive moved to Washington, that conservatives talk more about philosophy, while liberals talk more about strategy; also, that liberals generally, and young liberals in particular, are somewhat less conversant in their creeds history and urtexts than their conservative counterparts are (my excellent young staff excepted, naturally; Im mostly wondering if young Democratic Hill aides have read, for example, The Vital Center or any John Dewey or Walter Lippmann or any number of things like that).

Hmmm. I haven't read any of that stuff. Meanwhile, over at The New Republic, Jon Chait argues that conservatives are interested in conservative philosophy while liberals are mostly obsessed with pragmatic governance:

Conservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles. Conservatives believe that big government impinges upon freedom. They may also believe that big government imposes large costs on the economy. But, for a true conservative, whatever ends they think smaller government may bring about greater prosperity, economic mobility for the non-rich are almost beside the point.

....The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition than conservatism.

I may have more to say about this dichotomy later if I manage to get my thoughts in printable form. For now, though, let me just say that I think both of these pieces gloss over an important point: extremism. I'd say that extremist liberals are every bit as ideologically driven as extremist conservatives and that moderate conservatives are every bit as interested in problem solving as moderate liberals.

Back here on planet Earth, though, we happen to be at a point in history when the Republican party has been taken over by extremists like Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist, and George Bush. If the Democratic party were headed up by, say, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and Barbara Ehrenreich, you'd have all the liberal philosophy you could stomach. But it isn't. Those three have their own spheres of influence, certainly, but the actual Democratic party is run by folks like Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Howard Dean, and Bill Clinton, none of whom are agitating to take over the means of production or disband the military-industrial complex.

Extremists of all stripes are always convinced that they're in possession of ultimate truth. That's true of Larouchites, Trotskyites, Fallwellites, Randites, Scientologists, premillennial dispensationalists, Black Panthers, Nazis, and Islamic radicals. It's extremism that cares nothing for empirical evidence, not conservatism.

UPDATE: Speaking of extremism, Digby notes that John Hinderaker of Power Line the second most popular conservative blog in the country thinks the entire Democratic party "is engaged in an effort that is a betrayal of America." He's got video too.

Kevin Drum 5:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THAT WORD DOES NOT MEAN WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS....President Bush today:

This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous. Having said that, all options are on the table.

I don't get it. If all options are on the table, why is the notion that we might attack Iran ridiculous?

Kevin Drum 4:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

WOMEN AND BLOGGING....Well, that didn't go well. Here's a roundup of responses:

  • Meryl Yourish: "A (female) blogger sent me this link to Kevin Drum being an idiot (yes, I know, he is often an idiot, but this time, it's personalhe mentioned women bloggers)." And this one, where she doesn't call me an idiot: "The scholarship behind Drum's thesis simply boggles the mind. Why, it's as if he took all of five minutes to think about the issue before he wrote his post."

  • Trish Wilson: "I get so tired of this same stupid question coming up every three months. The guys don't read or link to political women who blog, and then have the audacity to feign innocence every two months (from three, previously). They wonder where we are. As we have said the last three or four times this discussion has come up, we're out there. You just have to take the time and energy you take to link to and read the primarily middle- and upper-class, white, male bloggers and find us. Guys, you have no excuse."

  • Random Thoughts: "I'm tired of this discussion. I'm tired of the comments that say women aren't as analytical, competitive, interested, bloviating, or motivated. I'm tired of reading about the boys network at the top, even though it does exist."

  • Pinko Feminist Hellcat: "Having the gall to point out that yes, we exist, is apparently unforgivable. The attacks women go for this--women who stated this quite civilly were called hysterical and accused of attacking people. They were also called dykes, ugly, manhaters, moonbats, and had their looks derided and their appeal to the opposite sex questioned. Because, you know, that's civil."

  • Brutal Women: "In other news, the fucktards are back."

  • Avedon Carol: "On the other hand, I'm staring you right in the face, Kevin, and even though you've said you read me every day you don't have me on your blogroll. It's things like this that make me tear out my hair when people wonder why women are underrepresented in the top-rated weblogs, or journalists, are whatever."

  • Media Girl: "[Some poor schmoe named Aaron is] nothing like the horses asses and raging bulls that litter the landscape, like the goombas and ninnies who pop up periodically to wonder why women bloggers aren't more popular, or the fuckwits who wield misogyny like a phallic sword."

  • Ilyka Damen: "Having proposed the most supportable theory, that 'there are plenty of women who blog about politics but they don't get a lot of traffic or links from high-traffic male bloggers,' a theory supported by a quick review of his own blogroll, Drum concludes instead that the delicate flowers of blogdom are averse to the medium's 'fundamental viciousness.' What can you say to that beyond, 'Bitch, please' . . . ?"

  • What She Said!: "The saddest part of this all, Kevin, is that there are some really excellent writers out here. There are women writing extraordinary commentary, with sharp analysis and flawless arguments and you'd rather waste time in another gender-jerkoff than reading it."

  • Echidne of the Snakes: "There is one theory about all this that has some merit, I believe, and that is that some men don't want to read what women write (unless it is on sex), so if a blogger can be identified as a woman she will lose those readers whose print looks too feminine...."

  • Ayn Clouter: "As noted below, Kevin Drum has stirred up the usual hornets nest about under-representation of femmes pixelle on the web. This tempest in a herbal tea pot is missing the really big picture far above the heads of all these busybloggers."

  • Sisu: "We can say right up front that the shallowness of Kevin Drum's argument turns off this woman. Maybe we're in a Pauline Kael bubble of our own, but most of the women we know -- fellow bloggers, readers, friends and relatives -- adore fiery political discourse and keep coming back for more."

  • Conglomerate: "I know from trying to get a group blawg together of female law professors, that most of the participants were pressed for time. Blogging is a second (or third or fourth) job after teaching and writing, and a lot of the women that I know have a few extra jobs anyway with child-rearing."

  • Ann Althouse: "Sigh. Why is he assuming that promulgating opinions is a mean and domineering sort of behavior? I've certainly noticed that a lot of bloggers that I find unreadable display this tendency, but I think the best blogs are reasonable, good-natured, humorous, and well-rounded."

  • Long story; short pier: "You want to know what the funny thing is? The ice-edged gut-punching joke of it all? Five minutes spent perusing any feminist comment thread or discussion group would be enough to rapidly disabuse Messr. Drum and his commentariat of the idea that women arent 'comfortable with the food fight nature of opinion writing.'"

  • Loaded Mouth: "In reply to your idiocy, I refer you to What She Said!. Then maybe, just maybe, you could start linking to women bloggers instead of using the old and busted (not to mention repeatedly debunked) 'Where are they?' argument."

  • Dummocrats: "Drum's hypothesis is that opinion writing on the web is too vitriolic and rough for delicate females. Clearly he's never read one of Lucas' takedowns of Michael Moore. But, all kidding aside, he may have a point. Sometimes the comments on the site do get pretty rough. The language is nasty and personally, I refuse to deal with that."

  • Elayne Riggs: "I think, if anything, female bloggers should be thanking Kevin Drum rather than piling on his latest version of the every-three-months "where are the women bloggers/why aren't women bloggers more 'famous' or 'popular' (i.e., listed higher up in a self-selecting ranking system)" discussion."

  • James Joyner: On the food-fight nature of political blogging as a turnoff for women: "It's as good a reason I can come up with."

Hmmm, should I defend myself? Only to this extent: the reason I suggested that women are turned off by the "fundamental viciousness" of blogging and opinion writing is because many women have told me this (and have told me the same thing in non-blogging contexts as well). Men are so routinely dismissive of women and so fundamentally dedicated to playground dominance games that many women decide they just don't want to play.

But hey click the links and decide for yourself. My critics certainly make a spirited if anecdotal case for the proposition that women have no problem being as nasty as men.

Kevin Drum 2:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

TAXES AND PROGRAMS....Ryan Sager has some worrisome words about the recent CPAC conference ("Here, evolution is a wild hypothesis, 'Log Cabin Republican' is a slur and young women know they have to wear short skirts to get ahead") and Andrew Sullivan worries right along with him:

But what if Bush really is successful politically and entrenches big government, moralizing paternalism as the Republican core for a new generation. What happens to real conservatism?

A better question is, what happens period? It's important to understand the underlying dynamic at work here.

In the past, Democrats were (roughly) the party of big government programs. People liked the programs but didn't like the high taxes that went along with them, so periodically they would revolt and elect a Republican.

Conversely, Republicans were (roughly) the party of fiscal responsibility and low taxes. People liked the low taxes but didn't like the stingy attitude toward government programs that went along with them, so periodically they would revolt and elect a Democrat.

George Bush and Karl Rove think they've found a better way: favor low taxes and big government programs. That way, everyone likes you and Republicans can rule forever.

So what happens next? One of three things:

  • They start cutting back on programs.

  • They start raising taxes.

  • The economy eventually goes kablooey due to persistent and increasing deficits.

Unless the laws of arithmetic and/or economics change dramatically in the near future, I don't think there's a fourth choice. Do Bush and Rove understand this? Maybe. Maybe they vaguely realize they've gotten themselves in a jam but don't see a way out. Or maybe they just don't care because the piper won't have to be paid until Bush is out of office. I don't know.

Regardless, though, those are your three choices and all the loony talk in the world won't change the essential reality. So which one does the Republican party really prefer? Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

MALPRACTICE....The New York Times has a pretty good overview of the medical malpractice "crisis" today that's worth reading. To summarize, there appear to be three major reasons why malpractice insurance premiums have gone up recently:

  • Malpractice payouts have been rising faster than the rate of overall inflation (though lower than the rate of medical inflation).

  • Insurance company investments have done poorly in the past few years. Much of their income comes from investments, and they've had to make up for lower investment income by raising premiums.

  • During the 90s, intense competition kept insurance costs flat even though costs were rising. When the bubble imploded and several companies exited the market, the industry made up for lost time by massively increasing prices all at once, when they should have been raising them gradually during the entire decade.

    As the chart on the right shows, we've been through this before. Premiums increased dramatically in the mid-80s, flattened out, and then went up again starting around 2000. If they had risen gradually along with costs, we'd be at about the same place we are today but no one would be talking about "skyrocketing" premiums or a malpractice "crisis."

To me, the weirdest thing about this whole mess is that doctors continue to follow the insurance companies' lead and demonize trial lawyers as the cause of their problems. I certainly understand why doctors hate trial lawyers I would too if they were suing me all the time but common sense suggests that doctors should be genuinely interested in keeping premiums under control, something that even insurance companies admit won't be accomplished by payout caps.

California is often held out as a model for the nation because we instituted payout caps a couple of decades ago. But so did a lot of states, and it hasn't helped much. What everyone chooses to forget is that California also did something else: it instituted some of the toughest regulations in the country on insurance companies. That's done a lot more to keep malpractice premiums under control than the payout caps.

If the AMA had any sense, they'd team up with the trial lawyers to agree on some sensible restrictions on malpractice suits and then train their collective guns on the insurance companies. That might not be as emotionally satisfying, but on the other hand it might actually work.

Kevin Drum 12:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

PRIVATE ACCOUNTS AROUND THE COUNTRY....The excellent Peter Gosselin has an interesting piece in the LA Times today about states and counties that have experimented with private accounts over the past couple of decades. The results are not especially pretty:

When Nebraska's state and county workers were given do-it-yourself accounts, they made so many investment errors that they ended up making less than colleagues with fixed-benefit pensions and less than what analysts have said is needed for old age. Their poor performance led the Nebraska Legislature two years ago to junk the accounts for new employees.

While Americans are just beginning to grapple with the president's proposal for private accounts, employees and retirement officials in Michigan, Montana, Washington, West Virginia and other states have discovered that the accounts can fall far short of their promise.

...."If people have private accounts in Social Security and they're left to make the decisions themselves, the results likely will not be positive," said Anna Sullivan, executive director of the Nebraska Public Employees Retirement Systems, which replaced its private account system with a centrally managed plan in 2003.

Joseph Jankowski, executive director of the West Virginia Consolidated Public Retirement Board, said: "The vast majority of people don't have the inclination or comfort level to be responsible for their own retirements." West Virginia board officials are debating whether to drop the state's private account plan as Nebraska did.

This is not an apples-to-apples comparison with George Bush's plan, but it's still instructive. The overall signup rate for public employees who were offered private accounts has been an anemic 8%, even in cases where there were significant incentives for doing so. Generally speaking, people prefer guaranteed benefits and don't trust their ability to manage their own retirement investments.

Of course, if you slash guaranteed benefits enough, that would probably motivate people to sign up and as near as I can tell, that's Bush's plan. It's not his public plan, but it appears to be his plan nonetheless.

Kevin Drum 2:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

TORTURE AND 24....Seriously, what's going on with 24 and its bizarrely casual use of torture this season? Here's a rundown:

In the first episode, Jack Bauer bursts into an interrogation room, shoots a captured terrorist in the kneecap, and then tells him there's another slug where that one came from unless he starts talking. He talks.

A couple of episodes later, CTU suspects that the Secretary of Defense's son knows something about the SoD's kidnapping, so it's off to the interrogation room for a few hours of torture. When the SoD is rescued, he's initially pissed off his son has been treated this way, but within minutes he's on board with the whole idea and the torture starts up again.

Next up is Sara, an attractive CTU agent suspected of treachery. She's immediately sent to the interrogation room for a tasering session.

A couple of hours later Jack and his backup team crash into a hotel room to arrest a terrorist's wife who's been shot. The first thing Jack's buddy does is grind his thumb into her gunshot wound and tell her to talk if she wants him to stop.

This week was a rare break from the torture routine, but in the previews for next week Jack apparently jury rigs some lamp cord, plugs it into an AC socket, and starts merrily torturing a suspect (who also happens to be his girlfriend's husband).

This has gone from merely bizarre to completely loony. What the hell is going on? I have a guess, but first, here are the results of the torture sessions so far:

  1. The terrorist squeals, but it's too late. The plot goes ahead as planned.

  2. The SoD's son provides no information. (Whether he's actually innocent remains to be seen, though.)

  3. Sara turns out to be wrongly accused. Someone else was this season's mole.

  4. Jack tells his buddy to back off. Instead, he gets what he needs by gaining the woman's trust and promising to find her son.

  5. We'll find out next week how this one goes.

Get the picture? Torture doesn't work. I was joking about this a couple of weeks ago via email with Jim Henley, but now I'm convinced it's true. At first it looked as though the writers had decided to portray torture as a routine interrogation device for use with terrorists, but now it looks like there's more at work here. The real goal is to convince America that torture is (a) revolting and (b) doesn't work anyway. Clever guys, these writers. I wonder if they'll convince anyone?

UPDATE: Jim responds. And thus does my sacred oath crumble into the merest dust....

Kevin Drum 1:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 21, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

AARP GETS THE SWIFT VETS TREATMENT....In my continuing quest to prove that a picture is worth a thousand words, here's your picture of the day. Via Josh Marshall, it's a screen capture from the American Spectator site of an ad from USA Next, a loony right group that thinks of itself as the conservative alternative to AARP. Apparently "the real AARP agenda" is to endorse gay marriage and disband the military.

Lovely folks, these USA Nexters. Clicking on the link doesn't provide any explanation for this putrid charge, but no matter. Clearly AARP is little more than a front group for godless communism anyway. Here is USA Next figurehead Art Linkletter, attempting a pale imitation of the John Birch Society:

Id like to ask some blunt questions: Do you want more taxes taken out of your earnings? Do you want more unelected bureaucrats taking over more details of your life and your familys life? Do you want federal regulators making your health choices, instead of you, your family, and your doctor? Do you want government regulators to control the investment and retirement decisions of your family, instead of you?

If you answered Yes, then AARP is your group....

That brings back memories. In any case, USA Next has now hired the same guys who created the SwiftVets commercials last year apparently the military/gay marriage ad wasn't quite incendiary enough and they ought to be a good fit. A marriage made in heaven, so to speak.

The lunatic right marches on. And on. And on.....

Kevin Drum 7:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE STATE OF IRAQ....The New York Times has the Brookings Institution's semi-annual "State of Iraq" summary in today's paper. Here's a summary of the summary (I know you're busy people):

  • Oil and electricity production: getting worse.

  • Car and telephone use: getting higher.

  • Public opinion: moving against us.

  • Number of trained Iraqi security forces: getting better.

  • Strength of insurgency: about the same.

The most striking data point is (presumably) a result of more cars and less oil: the average length of gasoline lines is now one mile (the same as it was six months ago, but ten times as high as 18 months ago). At a guess, that means the average line is about 300 cars long and the average wait time is at least five hours and probably more. Ouch.

Kevin Drum 2:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

HOW GOOD IS OUR INTELLIGENCE?....Michael Schrage has an interesting suggestion to force intelligence analysts to put their money where there mouths are. Instead of simply writing up their conclusions in vague, bureaucratic language, they should assign probabilities to everything they say:

The first number would state their confidence in the quality of the evidence they've used for their analysis: 0.1 would be the lowest level of personal/professional confidence; 1.0 would be former CIA director George Tenet should pardon the expression a "slam dunk," an absolute certainty.

The second number would represent the analyst's own confidence in his or her conclusions. Is the analyst 0.5 the "courage of a coin toss" confident or a bolder 0.75 confident in his or her analysis? Or is the evidence and environment so befogged with uncertainty that the best analysts can offer the National Security Council is a 0.3 level of confidence?

This sounds like a good idea, and I suppose it might be one. On the other hand, my personal experience with this suggests it might not make as big a difference as Schrage thinks.

I used to subscribe to a market research service that did this. (No, I don't remember which one, and I don't know if they still do it.) My initial reaction was quite positive, being the analytic geek that I am, but to my surprise I quickly began ignoring the numbers. Although the idea seemed sound, namely that a hard number provides more information than a bunch of waffly, ass-covering words, it turned out that it really didn't. In the end, the number often seemed like it was plucked out of the air with less thought than the verbal analysis it accompanied, and was there solely because it was required by the company's in-house style. (For comparison, think about how carefully you respond to questions asking for your opinion "on a scale of one to ten." Before long, practically eveything becomes a five.) After reading a few dozen reports with five or ten probabilities each in them, I started to tune them out.

What made a much bigger impact than the probabilities, which eventually seemed like little more than a gimmick, was two things: (1) who wrote the analysis and (2) the evidence they presented to back up their conclusions. Like most people, I paid a lot more attention to analysts who had a good track record and I paid a lot more attention to reports that were backed up by credible data.

Schrage's idea might still be a good one, but not for use on a routine basis. In fact, it could be harmful, since people often ascribe unwarranted credibility to anything with a number attached to it, even if the number is just a guess, as it would be in this case. Do we really want NSC meetings where the participants are heatedly discussing whether something is really a 60% probability or a 70% probability instead of asking deeper questions about the quality of the underlying data itself?

It's an idea worth thinking about. But it's got a downside as well as an upside.

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

ARAB TV....Via Abu Aardvark, As'ad AbuKhalil ("The Angry Arab") has posted a very chatty and bloggish review of Arab TV stations. Sample:

Al-Jazeera:....Al-Jazeeras orientations are largely vague Arab nationalist, although people in the West would be surprised to learn that people in the Middle East are convinced that Al-Jazeera is run by the Mossad. People in the Middle East do not find Al-Jazeera to be "nationalist" enough. Furthermore, they do not like how Al-Jazeera features Israeli guests/propagandists. The news broadcasts are largely straightforward; the shouting and the anti-American sentiments are expressed on, or confined to, AlJazeeras talk shows that are widely watched. But they always match the anti-American guest with a pro-American guest.

....You also feel that Al-Jazeera correspondents are increasingly taking seriously the profession that they are in. The staff and anchorpeople come from different Arab countries, and only one anchorwoman wears the hijab (and she did so after working for years without it)--not that this matters but I know how obsessed Westerners are with the "veil". The influence of Islamic fundamentalist demagogue Yusuf Al-Qardawi is highly exaggerated in the station. He has his weekly program and that is where he confines his fulminations and pontifications.

Obviously a very personal view, but pretty interesting. Worth reading.

Kevin Drum 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CREDIT REPORTS....The ChoicePoint ID theft debacle is surprise, surprise worse than they originally fessed up to. They now say it's affected 145,000 people, maybe more:

Investigators said they think the number of victims will continue to rise as officials learn more about the scheme.

....To control the damage to consumers and the company, ChoicePoint executives over the weekend decided to announce changes in how they assess their clients and maintain security.

Starting today ChoicePoint will offer victims free credit reports and credit-monitoring services for the next year. ChoicePoint officials said they expect to finish sending out notices by the end of the week. Company officials also said they will curb access to some sensitive information for as many as 17,000 small-business clients, including some lawyers, private investigators and insurance companies, while verifying their legitimacy. Conducting the background checks could take as long as two months, the officials said.

Sorry, not enough. The problem with credit reports is that they're strictly under the control of one side of the credit transaction: businesses. If a business requests a report, they get it, no questions asked. If a business reports a problem, it goes on the report, no questions asked. The consumer never knows any of this is happening, and that's the way the credit reporting companies like it.

This needs to stop. If a business requests a report, the consumer should be notified by email, phone, or in writing and the report should go out only if the consumer authorizes it. If a nonroutine entry is added to a credit report, the consumer should be notified so that she can object immediately if she thinks a mistake has been made. Consumers should be full partners in the creation of credit reports, and any changes or uses of credit reports should be fully transparent to the consumer involved.

These aren't just pieces of paper anymore. Credit reports are minutely detailed resumes of your entire life, and credit reporting companies shouldn't be allowed to arrogantly treat your life as if it's their sole property. After all, an improper use of your credit report can do you tremendous damage. It should fundamentally be considered joint property, as much yours as the credit reporting company's.

Someone needs to take this up as a cause. How about it, Senator Clinton?

Kevin Drum 12:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

HUNTER S. THOMPSON....Hunter S. Thompson apparently shot himself today. He was 67.

Kevin Drum 12:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

MAKING GOVERNMENT LESS EFFICIENT....Conservatives are always bellyaching about how complex the tax code is and what a burden it is on the average taxpayer. California Controller Steve Westly agrees, so he's started up a pilot program in which certain taxpayers receive a tax return that's already filled out. It's being used for taxpayers with very simple returns, and of course it's completely optional. You can toss it out and do your taxes yourself if you want.

Good idea, right? Not according to tax jihadist Grover Norquist:

In his letter to the governor, Norquist wrote: "Filling out quarterly or yearly tax returns is often the only time taxpayers really see how much they owe. By eliminating this step in the process, income taxes become almost invisible, and there will be less opposition to tax increases."

Remember that. Conservatives like Grover Norquist don't want to make government better and more efficient. Instead, they actively want it to be as intrusive and annoying as possible so that people will want to get rid of it. Improving people's lives just gets in their way.

Kevin Drum 12:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 20, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE PRIVATIZATION TROJAN HORSE....Today the Washington Post has another in their series of editorials in which they waffle about Social Security privatization. For now, I'll let them waffle unmolested and comment only on this:

The last risk is that the traditional Social Security system, which has performed well for the past 65 years, might be weakened....if better-off Americans come to like their personal accounts and to view the vestige of the old Social Security program as a welfare transfer to the elderly poor, the political foundations of a program that has greatly reduced old-age poverty could crumble.

This is a key point, and it's the ultimate Social Security wedge issue. Whatever else you can say about privatization, it's almost certainly true that the well off would be better off with private accounts than with current Social Security. For a variety of reasons, that's probably not true of the poor and working class.

Because of this, the long run result of privatization is probably a system in which the well off opt into private accounts while the poor and working class don't. As the Post suggests, this effectively turns traditional Social Security into a welfare program, with all the problems and moral hazards inherent in any welfare program. The end result is that support for Social Security will eventually wither away and die.

That's the whole point, of course, since the only way to eliminate a popular entitlement program is to gradually remove its broad based support. Private accounts are a Trojan horse designed to do just that.

Kevin Drum 8:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

BATSHIT INSANE....Knight Ridder reports on ideas for reforming our tax system:

A national sales tax would hit consumers at the retail level, just like state and local sales taxes....Sales-tax advocates, whose ranks include House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, see Bush's initiative as a chance to build public support for their idea. Legislation to create a national sales tax already has been introduced in Congress.

As Matt points out, Tom DeLay's proposed 23% sales tax is really a 30% sales tax if you figure the numbers in the conventional way. What's more, once you figure in the costs of evasion and then add in all the exemptions that are certain to be included (on mortgage payments or stock purchases, for example), it's closer to 40%.

But the wonkery isn't really what's interesting here. Rather, it's the fact that this idea is batshit insane. It's one of those things that sounds good during a barroom argument but doesn't withstand even a moment's scrutiny in the light of day. Trust me on this: I doubt there's a single serious tax analyst liberal, conservative, or otherwise who would give this even a moment's consideration. It's not a matter of ideology, it's that they know it's completely unworkable.

And yet Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert, two of the most senior legislators in the Republican party, have gone on record saying that this seems like a fine idea. Next up they'll be talking about abolishing the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard. If DeLay and Hastert were a couple of John Birch Society backbenchers, this wouldn't be worth a notice. But aren't there any adults left in the Republican party who are scared to death that guys like this are their leaders? Anyone?

Kevin Drum 4:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

WOMEN'S OPINIONS....Not to get too obsessed by the whole Estrich-Kinsley thing, but so far no one has attempted any kind of real answer to Estrich's question: why are op-ed pages so completely dominated by men?

I suppose the obvious response is that it's for the same reason that practically every other elite profession is dominated by men: we still live in a male-dominated society and probably will for at least another century. But that's a boring answer, and in any case op-ed pages seem to be worse offenders than even the celebrated areas of high-powered math and science. Can we say more?

For starters, it doesn't appear to be primarily the fault of journalistic gatekeepers, as it is in some other professions. The New York Times has a female editorial page editor, and so did the LA Times until Kinsely took over. That didn't stop their op-ed pages from being heavily male dominated. What's more, the news pages of major newspapers have plenty of female reporters.

The political blogosphere provides another clue. Although its geeky Usenet roots were (and are) testosterone laden affairs, there are still no formal barriers to entry here, no old boys club in the usual meaning of the word. Yet if you take a look at the Blogosphere Ecosystem, which for all its faults is probably the closest thing we have to a consensus measure of popularity for political blogs, you will find exactly three women in the top 30: Michelle Malkin, La Shawn Barber, and Michele Catalano. (There are a few group blogs in the top 30, but those are very heavily male dominated too.)

That's a grand total of 10% of the most popular political blogs. And to gaze even more deeply into our collective navel, that 10% is 100% conservative. On the liberal side, Wonkette weighs in at #33 and TalkLeft at #48 and that's it for liberal women in the top 100, unless I've missed someone.

So what's up? There aren't any institutional barriers in the traditional sense of the word, which means either (a) there are fewer female political bloggers and thus fewer in the top 30, or (b) there are plenty of women who blog about politics but they don't get a lot of traffic or links from high-traffic male bloggers.

My guess is that it's a bit of both, and the proximate reason is that men are more comfortable with the food fight nature of opinion writing both writing it and reading it. Since I don't wish to suffer the fate of Larry Summers I'll refrain from speculating on deep causes it might be social, cultural, genetic, or Martian mind rays for all I know but I imagine that the fundamental viciousness and self aggrandizement inherent in opinion writing turns off a lot of women.

Which begs another question: does this mean that women need to change if they want to enter the fray, or does it mean that the fray needs to change in order to attract more women? As usual, probably some of both. Unfortunately, the blogosphere, which ought to be an ideal training ground for finding new voices in nontraditional places, is far more vitriolic than any op-ed page in the country, even the Wall Street Journal's, and therefore probably turns off women far more than it attracts them.

I wish I had some answers for this, but nothing springs immediately to mind. So even though comment threads make blogs look like models of warmth and acceptance, I guess that's where the conversation will have to continue. Try to keep it civil, OK?

UPDATE: Links added. Click on La Shawn's link and see pictures of her with conservative stars of print and pixel!

UPDATE 2: Yep, I missed someone: Michele Catalano is also in the top 30. She's been added and percentages recalculated.

Kevin Drum 3:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

LA TIMES WATCH....Ironically, Susan Estrich's war against LA Times editorial page editor Michael Kinsley over the low number of women on the op-ed page was apparently brought to a boil over last week's Sunday Opinion section, which focused specifically on gender issues and featured op-eds by four women. Even more ironically, this week's Sunday Opinion, which was finalized and sent to press before the Kinsley-Estrich fight broke out, features four op-eds by women and four by men. Just what Estrich wanted! And two of them are even by local writers, something else she wanted. Too bad they couldn't wait a week to go public with their feud.

(On the other hand, the daily part of the opinion section is still wall-to-wall men. On the third hand, though, the daily op-ed section also has two regular female columnists, which is double the number of any other major newspaper.)

Switching topics, how's that "Outside the Tent" feature going, the one where they invite critics to thrash them on their own pages? So far Mickey Kaus has complained that the paper is boring because it doesn't have a gossip column; Hugh Hewitt has complained about liberal bias in its Iraq reporting; Marc Cooper has complained that the paper is boring because of its dedication to objective reporting; Patrick Frey has complained about liberal bias causing so many retractions; and today Jack Dunphy complains about liberal bias in its police reporting.

We seem to have this figured out, don't we? Conservatives think the LA Times is liberal and liberals think it's boring. I have to say I don't find this a big surprise. Besides, I refuse to take this feature seriously until they invite Jill Stewart to tear them a new one. Sure, it would be just another complaint that the Times is liberal (and maybe boring too), but at least it would have the vein-throbbing drama of, say, Khan going after Captain Kirk in the second Star Trek movie. Fun for the whole family!

I'll stop now. I realize that the vast majority of you aren't much interested in the LA Times editorial page and don't get the Jill Stewart joke in any case. Regular blogging will resume shortly.

Kevin Drum 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 19, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

KINSLEY vs. ESTRICH....Maybe Michael Kinsley is bad at returning phone calls and replying to email. Maybe he's a jerk. I don't know. I've never met the guy. What's more, Susan Estrich certainly has a point that the LA Times op-ed page doesn't have very many female voices something I suspect they have in common with most other high-powered op-ed pages.

Still, enough's enough. Here's the latest email from Estrich in their ongoing war being carried out in the editorial pages of the new DC Examiner:

Far from being "pissed off," I believe I have conducted myself with admirable restraint because of our past relationship and my honest concerns for your health.

....My suggestion that your publishing [my letter] would be better (for you too) than my having to go outside somehow constitutes me blackmailing you is so outlandish that it underscores the question I've been asked repeatedly in recent days, and that does worry me, and should worry you: people are beginning to think that your illness may have affected your brain, your judgment, and your ability to do this job.

Nice. Michael Kinsley, of course, suffers from Parkinson's disease.

Kevin Drum 1:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

DRIVING....I know, of course, that many New Yorkers never learn to drive, but even so I'm always freshly amazed when I hear about actual, specific, flesh and blood New Yorkers who have never learned to drive.

Sure, sure, my DNA is fundamentally different, and I know you don't need a car if you live in Manhattan. But do all these non-driving New Yorkers never take vacations outside big cities? Never travel on business? Never rent a car for any reason? I know you don't need to own a car in New York, but isn't driving still a pretty useful skill to have at hand?

Ah well. I guess east is east, and west really is west....

Kevin Drum 12:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CHRIS COX AMONG FRIENDS....How sad. My congressman is Chris Cox, and I've always considered myself relatively lucky to have him. Sure, he's a mega-conservative, but this is Orange County and there's just not much to be done about that. But at least he's a fairly serious mega-conservative. If I lived a few miles north of here I'd be represented by Dana Rohrabacher and that's wingnut city.

But apparently Cox said this at the CPAC confab yesterday:

"America's Operation Iraqi Freedom is still producing shock and awe, this time among the blame-America-first crowd," he crowed. Then he said, "We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and facilities to make them inside Iraq." Apparently, most of the hundreds of people in attendance already knew about these remarkable, hitherto-unreported discoveries, because no one gasped at this startling revelation.

What a jerk. And he never answered my email about whether he supported the DeLay rule either. I guess he won't be getting my vote next year for the eighth time in a row.

UPDATE: More here.

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

"ONE OF" THE GREAT ONES?....From a New York Times story about efforts to save the hockey season:

Wayne Gretzky...is generally considered the best player of his era and one of the best in hockey history.

"One of"? There have been plenty of great hockey players, but is there really any serious question that Gretzky is the greatest of all time by a pretty fair margin? Help me out, hockey fans.

On another note, this is bad news for LA. With the hockey season cancelled, we now don't have a football team, a hockey team, or a basketball team. And baseball hasn't started up yet. It's a sporting Black Hole of Calcutta around here, I tell you....

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 18, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

OF BLOGS AND MEN....Dan Drezner poses a good question today: why did CNN news chief Eason Jordan resign following his inflammatory remarks at the Davos conference?

Most of this debate is on whether Jordan's blog-fueled exit is good or bad. For me, there's another question did the blogosphere really force him out?

I ask this after reading Ed Morrissey's timeline of Jordangate in the Weekly Standard. Assuming that Morrissey's account is accurate (see below), then the media heat on Jordan was never particularly strong and it was dying down the day before he left CNN.

By coincidence, I was chatting with a friend about this just a few hours ago. I went a bit further, though: just how influential is the blogosphere, anyway? Were we really responsible for Trent Lott's downfall? Dan Rather's resignation? Keeping the National Guard story alive? Sure, those stories got a ton of play in blogs, but the fact that blogs played them up doesn't mean they were responsible for what happened afterward.

I don't have an answer to this, but I have some guesses. Based on several reports I've read, I suspect that blogs played a role in the Trent Lott affair, but not as big a role as we think. Blogs just didn't have that much influence back then, and there were other things going on behind the scenes. Our role in Rathergate was definitely bigger, but in the end I doubt that things would have turned out differently if blogs didn't exist. The facts were damning no matter where they came from, and other media outlets were all over the story within a few days. Finally, as Dan points out, Eason Jordan's resignation looks suspiciously like it had nothing to do with the blog storm over his remarks. It's not clear what really happened there.

I'm a little stumped about all this. It's pretty obvious that blogs can kick up a big fuss over certain kinds of stories, and it's also pretty obvious that blogs have a considerable indirect influence by virtue of getting read by a lot of (mostly younger) reporters and Hill staffers who themselves have influence. Beyond that, who knows? Certainly blogs act as a kind of distributed research service for other, more conventional, media outlets, and at times they can also produce pressure of their own.

But how much? I'm not even sure how to ask that question, let alone answer it. Maybe someone smarter than me will tackle it someday.

UPDATE: Brendan Nyhan has more here.

Kevin Drum 8:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

SURVIVOR BLOGGING....I'm temporarily in a nonpolitical mood, so let's blog about Survivor instead. Everyone loves Survivor, right?

First observation: these guys still can't make fire? How many seasons does this show have to be on the air before the contestants figure out that they should track down a boy scout or something and learn how to do this before the taping starts? Sheesh.

But that's just a quibble. The real problem is that Survivor is stale. It needs some real surprises, not the flim flammery on display last night. Their idea of a "surprise" on Thursday's opening episode was the fact that (a) they started with 20 contestants instead of 18, and (b) those 20 contestants were all thrown together into a single tribe for the first day. What a shocker that was. I could hardly stay on my seat.

The primary appeal of Survivor is not the physical surroundings or the number of people on the show or the ethnic or gender makeup of the contestants. The appeal of the show is in the human interaction. How do you keep from being voted off? How do you make and break alliances? Who gets betrayed this week?

That's where they need to throw in a few curveballs. The contestants need to learn that the standard way of forming alliances and screwing competitors is subject to change.

Here's an example. After the tribes were formed last night there were 18 people left. Suppose it then worked like this: one person wins immunity in a personal immunity challenge and the remaining 17 are then given the rest of the day to break themselves into four groups of four. Those groups are revealed at tribal council with a suitable set of rules that builds suspense and allows for lots of enjoyable last minute backstabbing. At the end, one person is left out and has to go home.

See what happens? Suddenly there's a new and unexpected way in which alliances have to be formed. All you have to do is find three reliable buddies and you're safe for the week. Next week, who knows? Maybe it's three groups of five. Maybe it's something completely different. Whatever it is, though, the way in which you interact with other tribe members is now entirely different than it has been in past seasons. If you think you have a strategy all worked out, think again.

I'm not suggesting things should have worked exactly that way, just that the contestants ought to be surprised with a new twist on the old alliance game. Backstabbing and betrayal are the key to the show, and the producers need to find new ways to make the knife twisting ever bloodier and more traumatizing. The masses are getting restless.

Kevin Drum 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

MY KIND OF GUY....Via Sam Heldman, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence Small is trying to negotiate a community service deal after being convicted of violating a provision of the Endangered Species Act. His proposal? That he spend the time learning more about the act and lobbying Congress to change it.

You gotta give him points for originality. And chutzpah.

Kevin Drum 12:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

TECHNOCRACY....This is a bit of an airy topic, but indulge me. Responding to a Jon Chait essay suggesting that liberalism is fundamentally nonideological, Matt Yglesias says:

The brand of liberalism Jon is describing is committed to a technocratic version of consequentialism undergirded by some theory of the good. This poses some problems.

One simple problem is that technocratism has a pretty limited political appeal....

Actually, I don't think that's true. Local politics, for example, is famously concerned with fixing potholes and keeping the streets safe, issues that are usually framed as matters of competency, not ideology. Local constituents vote for mayors and city planners on this basis all the time.

More to the point, though, liberal technocratism was enormously popular in America for many decades starting with the New Deal. Sure, FDR offered up his own unique brand of liberal American ideology, but he mainly had a vision of government that worked something that it manifestly didn't do during the first few years of the Depression. By the time Republicans finally took over after 20 years of Democratic rule, technocratism reigned so supreme that Eisenhower accepted it almost without blinking. His "Modern Republicanism" of 1958 and beyond was explicitly dedicated to solving problems instead of waging ideological wars, and practically everyone fell into lockstep behind this vision. There was a widespread belief barely remembered today by anyone who wasn't alive at the time that the old ideological battles were over, relegated forever to the ash heap of history.

In other words, technocratic liberalism can have enormous public appeal. But there's a catch: it has to work, and the 60s and 70s were not kind to it. Robert McNamara was the very soul of an efficiency expert and he brought us nothing but the misery of Vietnam. Henry Kissinger was an international realist, but he couldn't stop the Arabs from embargoing their oil. Jimmy Carter was the ultimate technocrat by both training and temperament, but by the end of his term in office the country suffered from high inflation, high unemployment, a second oil shock, a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and a seemingly endless hostage crisis in Iran. Technocratic liberalism had been transformed into malaise.

So, yes, technocratism has pretty limited political appeal today, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to ever restore its luster. What it needs is someone like FDR, who had the delicate judgment necessary to balance technocratic idealism and experimental risk taking with a hardheaded understanding of American culture that produced programs that mostly worked. Bill Clinton almost (but not quite) managed the same trick on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, he had a penchant for risk taking of a different sort.

My guess is that common sense will make a comeback one of these days. The modern Republican party is dedicated to an economic program so wildly out of touch with reality that they really don't have much choice except to eventually either compromise their ideology (which will cause them to lose elections) or else watch the economy come crashing down on their heads (which will cause them to lose elections). The only real question is: how long will it take?

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY BLUES....The LA Times reports today that Democrats are resolutely opposed to George Bush's Social Security plans, conservatives are blowing their stacks over the possibility of raising the payroll tax cap, no one wants to talk about benefit cuts, and the public is slowly turning against private accounts. In other words, things aren't looking good for the prez.

I guess they call it the third rail of American politics for a reason. I continue, though, to think that somewhere there's a Plan B in the background. Bush has gained a reputation for resoluteness based on his unbending dedication to upper crust tax breaks and military action in Iraq, but as Marshall Wittman points out, he's happily flip flopped on practically every other policy initiative he's been associated with. He's probably willing to do it this time too.

He's good at it, too, which means that Max is right: Democrats shouldn't let themselves get panicked into offering alternatives to Bush's plan too soon. After all, there's no particular crisis at hand and no particular reason to help Bush out of a dilemma of his own making. Let him twist for a while.

Kevin Drum 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 17, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

LARRY SUMMERS LIVE....Harvard has released a transcript of Larry Summers's infamous talk about women in science, and the funniest part is the very first question:

Q: Well, I don't want to take up much time because I know other people have questions, so, first of all I'd like to say thank you for your input. It's very interesting I noticed it's being recorded so I hope that we'll be able to have a copy of it. That would be nice.

LHS: We'll see. (LAUGHTER)

Right. Moving on, here's probably the key part of his talk:

So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.

Summers clearly says at various points that he's guessing, that he's provoking, that he's not an expert, that he hopes he's proved wrong, etc. At the same time, he also says very clearly (more than once) that of the three factors he discusses, he thinks socialization and discrimination are probably the least at fault for the low number of women in high-powered science and engineering positions.

In response to a skeptical questioner, he also says this:

I don't presume to have proved any view that I expressed here, but if you think there is proof for an alternative theory, I'd want you to be hesitant about that.

I don't have any special comment on the substance of Summers's remarks, but at least now we know what he said. You can read the entire transcript, including the Q&A, here.

Kevin Drum 7:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CATS, DOGS, AND KIDS....I'm a few days late on this, but congrats to Bill Sjostrom on the adoption of his new daughter. I hope she gets along swimmingly with Asta and Mazal.

Kevin Drum 6:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CHALLENGING UNCLE ALAN....Matt Yglesias says today that he still thinks "Democrats need to mount a clear attack on Greenspan and his long history of double-dealing on Social Security."

Indeed they do. If you want to know what he's talking about, may I recommend this post from early last year? It's short and sweet and was written back before the current Social Security assault began and we all suddenly became experts on bend points, wage indexing, and expected returns on private investments. You may all revel in its earnest naivete.

Kevin Drum 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CALCULATOR CAGE MATCH....Via Josh Marshall, here's yet another Social Security calculator that helps you understand the joys of private accounts.

Except, um, this one is a little different: it's from New York senator Chuck Schumer and it's designed to show how much you'll lose in traditional benefits under Bush's plan and how little you'll gain. Two can play at the calculator game!

So let's compare, shall we? I'm a 46-year old male, and if I plug that into the Cato Institute's calculator and then enter an annual salary of $40,000, they claim that my private account will pay me $20,034 per year upon retirement, $1,906 more than Social Security would. Not bad!

Now let's try Schumer's calculator. Plug in 1958 and $40,000 (no choice of gender allowed), and my private account will be worth....$1,866 per year. Sadly, this is offset by a reduction of $3,773 in traditional benefits. Damn.

So who's right? Schumer explains his assumptions here, and needless to say they're a wee bit different from Cato's. He figures a net rate of return of 2.7% instead of Cato's 4.95%. He assumes retirement at age 65, not 67. He assumes a constant average salary instead of Cato's endless 4% real growth. He assumes the plan starts in 2009 and contributions are capped at $1,000 per year (plus annual growth) whereas Cato figures the plan starts now, has a contribution rate of 6.2% of your salary, and completely replaces Social Security. And Schumer assumes that traditional benefits will be cut both by changing the indexing formula and by the "privatization tax" favored by George Bush, which reduces your benefits based on how much money you accumulate in your private account.

So who's right? Hard to say. Schumer's 2.7% rate of return, for example, is as needlessly pessimistic as Cato's 4.95% is needlessly optimistic although the rest of Schumer's assumptions seem broadly reasonable (unlike Cato's, although they've changed them a bit since I last wrote about them). Beyond that, what this shows is just how much details matter in any privatization plan. Small differences in wage growth, retirement age, and contribution rates make a very big difference after being compounded for a couple of decades.

In other words, buyer beware. When Democrats complain that Bush hasn't produced a detailed privatization plan, this is the reason. Without an actual plan on the table, you can dangle pretty much any pot of gold you want in front of future retirees. Once a real plan is put down on paper, though, you can do real calculations and figure out whether it really works. The fact that Bush is so reluctant to do this should certainly make everyone skeptical that his plan is as good as he says it is. Schumer's calculator makes that abundantly clear.

Kevin Drum 1:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST....As near as I can tell, the new position of "director of national intelligence" was rendered pretty close to meaningless after the job was successfully neutered by the Pentagon during congressional negotiations last year. The fact that George Bush's choice for the job is John Negroponte therefore inspires in me mostly a yawn.

Except for one thing: Negroponte has been ambassador to Iraq for the past seven months and will be leaving Baghadad (and its forthcoming billion dollar embassy!) to take the new job. What's up with that? It's hardly plausible the Negroponte was literally the only person Bush could find for the job, so this means that Negroponte must have made it clear that he was anxious to leave.

Not that I blame him, mind you, but we sure do have a hard time finding people willing to spend more than a few months in Iraq, don't we? If Iraq were really the future garden spot that administration spokesmen keep implying it is, you'd think there would be plenty of heavy hitters anxious to step in and take their place in history as the MacArthur of the Middle East. But apparently not.

Food for thought, anyway. On the bright side, maybe this will renew calls for Paul Wolfowitz to take the job, a slice of poetic justice that would surely have broad support on both sides of the aisle. Plus we're certain to get confirmation hearings for Negroponte in which questioning about death squads will figure prominently. That's always good for late night TV.

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

WAL-MART UPDATE....Did Wal-Mart get a sweetheart deal the other day when they agreed to a settlement over charges of violating child labor laws? Or was it just the standard set of conditions imposed in these kinds of cases?

You will be unsurprised to learn that the answer appears to be "sweetheart deal." Nathan Newman, of course, has the details.

Kevin Drum 12:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

RUMSFELDISMS....Donald Rumsfeld, asked about the number of insurgents in Iraq:

I am not going to give you a number for it because it's not my business to do intelligent work.

We've suspected it all along.

(He meant "intelligence." But read the rest of the article for a blow-by-blow description of Rumsfeld's Arrogance-o-Thon before Congress on Wednesday.)

Kevin Drum 12:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 16, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

WE....ARE....OUTRAGED!....Howard Dean, speaking to the Democratic Black Caucus on Friday:

"You think the Republican National Committee could get this many people of color in a single room?," Dean asked to laughter. "Only if they had the hotel staff in here."

All the blacks who were actually in the room at the time seemed to get a kick out of Dean's remark, but today a couple of black Republicans tried to crank up the wheezing old conservative outrage machine one more time over his "racially, insensitive and intolerable remarks." I shall allow nonwhite conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru to answer them:

Give me a break. Dean is saying, hyperbolically, that there aren't many blacks or other nonwhites in the Republican party. He's right. I've been to many, many Republican dinners where most nonwhites present have been serving the food. (Or giving the keynote.) If Republicans are bothered when people make that observation, they should try to make it less true.

I especially liked the "or giving the keynote" parenthetical. Way to twist the knife, Ramesh.

Kevin Drum 7:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

QUOTING FDR....FDR's grandson, James Roosevelt, was on Keith Olbermann's show last night to say that Fox News anchor Brit Hume should offer "a retraction, an apology, maybe even a resignation" over his deliberate misquoting of FDR's views on Social Security. I've mentioned this before, but since my original post provoked several questions I want to make crystal clear what Hume did. Here is FDR's exact quote. All I've done is add paragraphs for easy reference:

In the important field of security for our old people, it seems necessary to adopt three principles:

  1. First, non-contributory old-age pensions for those who are now too old to build up their own insurance. It is, of course, clear that for perhaps thirty years to come funds will have to be provided by the States and the Federal Government to meet these pensions.

  2. Second, compulsory contributory annuities which in time will establish a self-supporting system for those now young and for future generations.

  3. Third, voluntary contributory annuities by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age.

It is proposed that the Federal Government assume one-half of the cost of the old-age pension plan, which ought ultimately to be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans.

In other words, #1 (a temporary program for people who were already retired at the time) would eventually be phased out and replaced by #2, which is the permanent Social Security system we have today. (#3, which FDR didn't care much about in the first place, never even got enacted in the final bill that created Social Security.)

Now here's what Hume said:

In a written statement to Congress in 1935, Roosevelt said that any Social Security plans should include, "Voluntary contributory annuities, by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age," adding that government funding, "ought to ultimately be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans."

By clever truncation of the quotation, he's trying to make it look like FDR thought #2 (Social Security) should eventually be replaced by #3 (private annuities). FDR neither said nor meant any such thing, and Hume knows it.

So why is a major network news anchor allowed to get away with this? This isn't just a difference of opinion or a matter of Hume's point of view versus mine. It's a deliberate misquotation in the service of ideology, and it's been making the rounds for two weeks now. Does Hume plan to ever apologize and air a retraction?

Kevin Drum 6:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

BLOG....You know, I might have posted a review of Hugh Hewitt's new book, Blog, but, um, that would have required me to buy a copy first. For some reason, Hugh hasn't sent me a complimentary copy even though we're practically neighbors.

Ezra Klein, however, apparently got himself a review copy and has commenced reading. Poor Ezra. He's only gotten through the introduction so far and he already seems to be pondering suicide. Let's all wish him luck.

Kevin Drum 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

USS JIMMY CARTER....For a fine example of the right wing's continuing obsession over a man who hasn't been in office for a quarter of a century, scroll though this morning's comments over at The Corner about the upcoming commissioning of the USS Jimmy Carter, our newest attack submarine. It's like being back in fourth grade.

Jimmy Carter, of course, is an actual Annapolis graduate who served on board submarines for seven years. During that time he served on one of the first nuclear submarines, the USS Seawolf, which makes it all the more fitting that the last of the Seawolf class of subs should be named after him. This contrasts with, say, Ronald Reagan, whose closest connection to an aircraft carrier was on a Hollywood sound stage.

Suck it up, guys. I know you don't like Carter, but he was a fine naval officer, a president of the United States, and has done more good in his post-presidential career than probably any president in history. Show a little respect just this once. You can go back to your usual bellyaching next week.

Kevin Drum 4:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

WEDGE ISSUES....Noam Scheiber writes today about the Hillary Clinton/NARAL tactic of seeking common ground with anti-abortion activists in the area of reducing unwanted pregnancies. No matter what you think about abortion rights, after all, everyone's in favor of trying to reduce the need for abortion. Right?

In a word, no. Carol Tobias, political director for the National Right to Life Foundation, said her group took no position in the debate over birth control and declined NARAL's offer:

Takes no position? That's it? That's your response? As far as I can tell, the only way you could be an anti-abortion activist and not think of birth control as directly relevant to what you do is if you really weren't interested in preventing unwanted pregnancies. Maybe that's the case. But it would be a pretty alarming admission.

This is classic wedge politics, and it's how the game is played. There are plenty of anti-abortion conservatives who think that reducing unwanted pregnancies is an excellent idea, and NARAL's stance is likely to drive a wedge between them and the hardline abortion activists who view abortion primarily as another bludgeon in the culture war (itself a hodgepodege of conservative wedge issues).

Conversely, it's a freebie for liberals. No matter how they feel about abortion, liberals unanimously support programs that make contraception more widely available and reduce the rate of unwanted pregnancies.

Want another example? I posted this morning about an identify theft problem at ChoicePoint, and this is an area that's ripe for liberals to turn into a wedge issue. Identify theft is scary stuff, and it's becoming common enough that many of us have either suffered from it ourselves or know someone who has. Broaden this into the wider issue of privacy rights and you have an ideal wedge issue.

Here's why. There are plenty of conservatives who agree that our continuing loss of privacy is important and that both corporations and the government need to be reined in. At the same time, this requires corporate regulation, and there are plenty of conservatives who are simply unwilling to consider this.

Like the issue of unwanted pregnancies, however, this is a freebie for liberals. From both a populist perspective and a civil rights perspective there's wide agreement that individuals should enjoy more control over their own records and their own privacy and should have the right to challenge anyone who infringes it. And since we don't have an ideological bias against sensible corporate regulation, advocating this doesn't cause us any heartburn.

We need more issues like this. Republicans have used the culture wars to divide liberals and moderates for decades, and we need issues of our own that divide conservatives and moderates. In the end, the best way to win the culture wars is probably to switch gears and force conservatives to fight on an entirely different set of subjects. After all, time is on our side on most culture war issues anyway, and putting conservatives on the defensive in other areas may be a better way to win than a headlong assault.

Kevin Drum 3:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE MSM FIGHTS BACK....Via Matt Yglesias, this Q&A with Newsweek's Rod Nordland is genuinely entertaining. My favorite bit:

Hopatcong, NJ: Do you, Masland and Dickey mean "F---ing Murderers" when you say "insurgents" and "fighters" in your STUPIDITY? I've grown sick and tired of you "politically incorrect" reporters. Why don't you have the gumption to call a spade a spade?

Rod Nordland: OK, you're an idiot. How's that?

The whole thing seemed like it might be a joke, but I clicked the link and it's for real. Be sure to read it.

Kevin Drum 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE VOICE OF THE RIGHT....Instapundit, in late January:

When Ted Kennedy can make an absurd and borderline-traitorous speech on the war....well, this [Ward Churchill] is the authentic face of the Left. Or what remains of it.

Power Line, two weeks ago:

Jimmy Carter isn't just misguided or ill-informed. He's on the other side.

New York State GOP Chairman Stephen Minarik, yesterday:

The Democrats simply have refused to learn the lessons of the past two election cycles, and now they can be accurately called the party of Barbara Boxer, Lynne Stewart, and Howard Dean.

Feel free to add your own recent examples in comments.

Kevin Drum 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE NANNY STATE CHRONICLES....ChoicePoint, a credit reporting company, said yesterday that hackers had infiltrated its database and stolen personal information about thousands of consumers. California customers were urged to check their credit reports for suspicious activity.

Why only California customers? Because no one else is being told:

A ChoicePoint spokesman said the number of victims nationwide could total 100,000, but the company could not be sure of the extent of the fraud and had no plans to contact people outside California.

There are about 65,000 of you elsewhere in the country who are at high risk of identify theft but don't have a clue. Your state laws don't require ChoicePoint to notify you, so they're not going to.

Remember this the next time some corporate lobbying group whines about excessive regulation. If you don't regulate them, they won't act like nice guys all on their own.

Kevin Drum 11:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Amy Sullivan

DOUBLE-DIPPING CONSULTANTS WATCH #1....Remember our buddy Joe Hansen, the direct mail consultant who also helps out the DSCC by recruiting and preparing candidates ("you're going to want to set aside a large chunk of your campaign budget for direct mail...")? We hear he's headed to Minnesota to meet with potential candidates for that state's soon-to-be-open Senate seat and help the DSCC pick a winner. J.B. Poersch, the new executive director of the DSCC with an impressive background in the field, is buddies with Hansen and apparently tapped him for this assignment.

Let me be clear. This isn't a case of a loser consultant. Evaluating candidates and doing the essential work of laying the ground for a campaign is Hansen's specialty. But I can only assume that the fact that the DSCC is still using him for this type of work means he's no longer affiliated with his direct mail group. Right, Senator Schumer? I mean, you want your candidates to feel free to select the very best consultants out there, right? Not just the guy who is DSCC-stamped and approved.

Amy Sullivan 11:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE ECONOMIST ON SOCIAL SECURITY....Brad DeLong is right to be annoyed by the Economist's latest foray into Social Security analysis. It's weirdly typical, though. As good a magazine as the Economist is, its editors are schizophrenic when it comes to figuring out what they think of George Bush. The entire thrust of the piece is that Bush's privatization proposal might be OK as long as he listens to criticism and changes it in nearly every particular even though this is something they know perfectly well won't happen since they've editorialized about this shortcoming of Bush's repeatedly over the past four years.

The last paragraph gives the game away:

Note that changes such as these delaying the retirement age, raising the payroll cap, and so on are the ones that will actually stop Social Security going bust. In that regard, Mr Bush's new retirement accounts are no help. Yet this misses the point. Giving people greater control of their savings is desirable in itself: that is why private accounts deserve their place in this reform. It is wrong that in the world's most advanced economy so many retirees should rely so heavily on the state. That idea is at the heart of Mr Bush's ownership society and it is worth supporting.

In other words, there's no real crisis, the details of Bush's plan are all wrong, and it does nothing to rescue Social Security anyway. But we support it for the same reason George Bush does: because it's one of our ideological hobbyhorses.

And if it eventually becomes law as one of his usual bloated, policy-free, crony friendly monstrosities, they'll be able to point back to this editorial and piously say, We'd never have supported doing it that way. We endorsed the proper version of privatization.

And then they'll move on to enthusiastic support of his next plan.

Kevin Drum 1:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 15, 2005
By: Amy Sullivan

IF A TREE FALLS IN A FOREST...If the Democrats held a hearing and nobody came, did it really take place? Dana Milbank writes about the first investigative hearing held by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee (DPC) this year and notes that while they picked a good topic (Iraq contracting abuses) and received good press coverage, it might help the cause a bit if Democratic senators themselves could be bothered to show up.

Still, the Democrats might get others to take their events/hearings more seriously if they did so themselves. Only two senators bothered to attend the nearly two-hour event -- Dorgan and Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), who told those assembled that "I have a number of questions, but I have other things to do."

I have some questions about the ability of any minority party-sponsored hearing to really make waves (particularly the DPC, which some Senate staffers derisively refer to as, "Democrats Preaching to the Choir"). But as Henry Waxman has shown in the House, being in the minority doesn't mean you can't hold people's feet to the flames and make the news while you're doing it.

Lord Almighty, Democrats, this is shameful. Particularly because what I heard before the hearing took place was that the leadership put out the call to all Senate Dems to avoid scheduling anything else the same time so that the hearing would command full attention. Apparently, nearly every Democratic senator interpreted this as a sign that they should extend their weekend an extra day and hang out in the state. Milbank is absolutely right--no one is ever going to take Democrats seriously if they don't do so themselves.

Amy Sullivan 4:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

FIGHTING MODERATES....Paul Krugman on the election of Howard Dean as DNC chair:

It doesn't represent a turn to the left: Mr. Dean is squarely in the center of his party on issues like health care and national defense. Instead, Mr. Dean's political rejuvenation reflects the new ascendancy within the party of fighting moderates, the Democrats who believe that they must defend their principles aggressively against the right-wing radicals who have taken over Congress and the White House.

Yep.

Kevin Drum 4:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

PARTISAN WITCH HUNT?....As Amy mentioned earlier, a U.S. appeals court ruled today that reporters Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper are required to testify before a grand jury in the Valerie Plame case. Sam Heldman points out that aside from the broad importance of the ruling itself, there's an interesting additional tidbit: the judges have seen a huge amount of information and apparently think the Plame case is pretty important. Here's the key passage:

Having carefully scrutinized [the special prosecutor's] voluminous classified filings....

[Eight pages of redactions follow]

....In sum, based on an exhaustive investigation, the special counsel has established the need for Millers and Coopers testimony.

Were laws broken? Was national security compromised? That's still to be decided, but three circuit court judges seem to think that Patrick Fitzgerald has a pretty good case so far. That's bad news for the conservative apologists who keep pretending this is just a partisan witch hunt.

Kevin Drum 3:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

FAIR USE, ANYONE?....Via James Joyner, the Tulsa World has sent a letter to blogger Michael Bates demanding that he no longer quote any material from their newspaper and no longer link to their website.

Idiots.

Kevin Drum 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Paul Glastris

TORT REFORM FOLLOWUP....On December 16, 2004, just as we were going to press with our January-February 2005 issue, we received a very long letter to the editors by Newsweek legal writer Stuart Taylor. The letter criticized a piece by Stephanie Mencimer that we had run in our October 2004 issue ("False Alarm: How the media helps the insurance industry and the GOP promote the myth of America's 'lawsuit crisis'") about the media's treatment of the tort reform issue, which was itself critical of a piece that Taylor had written for Newsweek. We had planned to run Taylor's letter in the very next issue, March 2005, along with a response from the author, until Taylor decided to publish his letter first on the pro-tort reform web site overlawyered.com. You can read Taylor's letter here.

We have posted Mencimer's response below the fold.

Stephanie Mencimer replies:

Stuart Taylors conspiracy theory about The Washington Monthlys failure to print his letter in what he views as a timely fashion is flawed. Heres what really happened: Taylor missed the deadline to get his letter into the combined January/February issue shortly before Christmas. The Monthly didnt have another issue scheduled to go to press until March, and had every intention of publishing Taylors letter in that issue.

Along with his conspiracy theory, Taylor has accused me of regurgitating personal-injury lawyer propaganda, a charge that I find not just insulting, but also rather nervy coming from someone who regularly provides a free, high-profile outlet for slanted, industry-financed research designed to bring about changes in the legal system restricting citizens rights to sue.

For the record, I have taken most of my data on the decline in tort filings and civil jury trials from nonpartisan entities such as the National Center for State Courts, which is funded by the courts themselves, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Congressional Budget Office, as well as the Rand Corporation, which is famous for its objectivity despite the fact that it is funded, in part, not by trial lawyers but by the insurance industry. I have tried to make my reporting as transparent as possible and to rely on original sources and academic researchers who have no financial ties to either side of the debate. There are many such sources, but few of them ever make it into the mainstream media or, notably, anything written by Taylor. In addition, I have never taken any money or other perks from trial lawyers or organizations supported by them. My research over the past year has been funded by the Alicia Patterson Foundation, a journalism foundation created by the former editor and publisher of Newsday, as well as the Fund for Investigative Journalism, neither of which has a dog in this fight.

Here is my attempt to respond to some of Taylors specific criticism.

Ryan Warner, softball and the Volunteer Protection Act

Taylor is right when he says the Volunteer Protection Act is irrelevant in the case of the Arizona softball tournament organizer, Ryan Warner, but thats because Warner was never sued. No one ever alleged that Warner was guilty of anything, much less gross negligence. Its unfortunate that Warner had to be deposed. But crafting a legal system to prevent softball organizers from being inconvenienced without also excluding serious and meritorious lawsuits is nearly impossible. Thats why Congress did not extend the Volunteer Protection Act to cover volunteer organizations from liability. Doing so would have granted immunity not just to Little League, but to groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, another volunteer organization whose paramilitary training camps in Texas and Alabama were successfully shut down by lawsuits by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the 1980s. The American remedy for inconvenience, one unfortunate downside of an incredibly democratic legal system, is insurance, which Warner and the tournament organizers had to pay for any legal costs they would have incurred.

As for the injured man, I never said that Sawyer dropped his suit, only that he was pressured to do so. Conversely, Warner was not pressured to cancel the softball tournament. Indeed, there was no legal reason for him to do sono ongoing danger, no further legal threats, etc. The choice to cancel was his own.

Its true that Arizona law allowed Sawyer to recoup his medical expenses regardless of whether he had health insurance. Thats because in many cases, health insurance companies demand to be repaid out of any settlement or jury award arising from a lawsuit. In this case, Sawyer had insurance and he did not have to reimburse his insurer, but according to his attorney, that fact was acknowledged in the settlement negotiations.

Falling lawsuit filings

In accusing me of making factual errors in asserting that lawsuits filings have fallen radically in recent years, Taylor says, The most recent NCSC report states that its (incomplete) data 'indicate a 40 percent increase in tort filings' from 1975 to 2002. Census figures indicate that the population increase from 1975 to 2002 was about 33 percent. So tort filings per capita have not declined by 8 percent since 1975; they have increased somewhat.

But he badly misinterprets the state court data. The NCSC data from 1975 to 2002 includes tort filings from only 16 states, not the whole country. The Congressional Budget Office, the source for my original story, adjusted those NCSC numbers for population growth in the 16 states studied and determined that far from an increase, the rate of tort filings fell 8 percent. (Heres the link.)

Taylor is right that between 1993 and 2002, California tort filings fell by 18 percent, not 45 percent. I erred by not explaining that I was referring to lawsuits filed during the same time frame that I used for calculating the Texas tort filings, 1990 to 2000. Between 1990 and 2000, according to NCSC data, the rate of tort filings in California fell 44 percent, which I mistakenly rounded out to 45. As a result of this decline, Californias tort filings are hovering around a 30-year low. I regret the errors, but my overall assessment that tort filings have fallen substantially is very much on target. I must say, too, that I am amused to be having a debate with Taylor about the extent to which tort filings have plummeted.

I didnt get into the issue of auto accident lawsuits because Taylors original story didnt either. Newsweek, after all, gave the erroneous impression that the vast majority of lawsuits were over such things as softball injuries and hugs from friendly ministers, not car accidents, which indeed make up the bulk of all tort lawsuits. He is right that some of the decline in lawsuits can be traced to the fall in car crash cases. Its also true that some of the earlier increases in tort filings that have Taylor so excited were also car crash cases, which increased not because Americans grew more litigious but because they got more cars and drove them farther. Taylor wants to have it both wayshyping a now-ancient increase in car crash lawsuits as a sign of the end of civilization as we know it and the death of personal responsibility, but then dismissing a radical decline in tort filings as simply the result of fewer car accidents.

As for the alleged increase in medical malpractice filings, again, Taylor is misrepresenting the NCSC study. He conveniently leaves out the part that says while the number of medical malpractice lawsuits increased in real numbers between 1992 and 2001, Adjusting the trend for changes in population over time provides an alternative, if not more accurate, way to view this information the 1992 to 2001 trend in medical malpractice filings per 100,000 population has only fluctuated minimally, with an overall 1 percent decrease in per capita filings.

Taylor also ignores the many changes in state laws that have taken place since 2001 that will accelerate this trend, including a constitutional amendment in Texas that allowed the state to radically cap pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice cases, a change that took place with a great deal of publicity three months before Taylors story was published. Since September 2003, the Dallas Morning News reports, medical malpractice filings in Texas have fallen 80 percent.

Tillinghast and the tort tax

The tort tax study to which Taylor refers is so deeply flawed and largely meaningless that TTP has finally acknowledged as much in the most recent edition, writing that the costs tabulated in this study are not a reflection of litigated claims or of the legal system.

The problems with this study have been repeatedly outlined in academic journals now for almost a decade. But the primary reason for this latest admission by TTP is that its definition of tort costs includes such things as insurance claims where no lawsuits were filed, such as for auto accidents, including those in no-fault states where lawsuits are in fact banned in auto accidents, and for which people pay insurance premiums.

Their tort costs also dont take into account the profits that the insurance companies earn from premiums or the dividends paid to policyholders (like doctors), or the earnings from their investments. If Taylor wants to claim that these insurance/tort costs are a drain on the economy, he has to acknowledge that the profits generated by insurance industry (which is having a booming year, incidentally) significantly offset those costs.

Even if the tort tax were an accurate reflection of the tort system, it cant be used to compare the American legal system to most other industrialized nations because most of those countries have higher taxes to pay for comprehensive social welfare systems as well as larger, bureaucratic regulatory systems that negate the need for much of what tort litigation does in this country.

Taylor says that TTP doesnt undertake this study to influence policy, but I have not found any evidence that this study is used for anything but changing public opinion. Why else would TTP pay an expensive New York PR firm to distribute it widely to op-ed columnists and other opinion leaders in the media? Taylors repeated use of this study in his columns and public appearances suggests that TTPs PR budget has been well spent.

Incidentally, Joanne Doroshow at the Center for Justice and Democracy provided Taylor with much of the well-known criticism about the failings of the TTP study, but he decided not to share any of it with his readers.

Medical Malpractice

It would take an entire new article to sufficiently address all of the myths Taylor has put forth about medical malpractice, but I feel compelled to respond to one or two key points.

Taylor asserts that studies show that 80 percent of malpractice lawsuits are unfounded. Its hard to refute that statement without knowing to which studies hes referring, but most of the peer-reviewed empirical research in this area shows that he is wildly off the mark.

For instance, the Harvard Medical Practice Study famously found that medical malpracticeand not just bad outcomes, but outright negligencewas widespread in the health care industry, but that very few people ever sue as a result. Their work concluded that for every seven people injured by medical negligence, only one lawsuit was ever filed. The Harvard researchers recognized that some lawsuits are invalid because no negligence occurred. But they determined that for every doctor or hospital charged with an invalid claim, there were grounds for at least seven other meritorious suits that were never filed. Similar results have been found in numerous studies since then, all suggesting that Americans rarely sue even when they have an actionable injury, but when they do, and lawyers agree to risk their own money to put up the significant resources needed to bring those cases, they are in fact, quite serious.

Common Good

I never suggested that Taylor didnt verify the information he got from Common Good. My point was only that he has been a willing recipient of materials produced by a vast corporate PR machine that has long been assisting journalists in finding anecdotes to support its cause. I noted his sources to show that Taylors observations about the legal system were not only unrepresentative of reality, but also werent the product of hours of reporting he did at the local courthouse digging through civil filings himself. If he had actually done such an exercise, I suspect he would have a very different story to tell.

Newsweek's Covington & Burling link

And finally, Taylor asks: Does Mencimer think that every article about the litigation system ever published should list the lawsuits that have been brought against the publisher?

Yes. When writing articles supporting policies that would financially benefit ones employer, I think it best to err on the side of full disclosure by providing at the very least a list of jury verdicts and large settlements paid by the publisher in successful lawsuits and let readers decide whether that information

Stephanie Mencimer
Washington, DC

Paul Glastris 1:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

ACTORS AND THEIR ROLES....Eugene Volokh wonders why actors come across so badly when they talk about politics. If you're a good actor, he says, "you should be able to play thoughtful, empathetic, and trustworthy":

So why don't the actors just treat this as a role? You've got a new gig, which requires a bit of improvising. Your character is someone people trust and like. He's passionate but reasonable, serious but funny, compassionate but hard-headed. He's the guy next door, who's smart enough that his neighbors trust him, but not so full of his smarts that his neighbors loathe him. Your goal is to make the filmgoers like you, and thus like what you say. (Want more incentive? Pretend you're trying to get the Best Actor in a Politically Persuasive Role Oscar. Can't improvise? Heck, don't you know any screenwriters? Have them script some lines for you.)

Here's my uninformed guess: actors are lazy. My evidence for this is the annual Academy Awards ceremony. Every year I watch slack jawed as the famous actors who have been chosen as presenters walk onto the stage, squint discernibly at the TelePrompter, and recite their five or six lines about as well as an average fourth grader. Are they really so lazy and arrogant that they can't be bothered to rehearse their lines for 20 minutes in order to produce a good reading?

It's an enduring mystery, right alongside the continuing charade about the telecast being scheduled to last three hours. All part of the glamor of Hollywood, I suppose.

Kevin Drum 1:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

O'NEILL ON SOCIAL SECURITY, PART 2....Last month, former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill wrote a peculiar op-ed in the New York Times saying that we should come up with a way of guaranteeing all Americans a million dollar nest egg by the time they retire. I criticized it at the time because he provided no details about exactly how he thought we could finance this.

Today O'Neill takes to the LA Times to switch gears and explain a way to get there from here:

If we decided as a society that we were going to put $2,000 a year into a savings account from the day each child was born until he or she reaches age 18 and if we assume a 6% annual interest rate each child would have $65,520 at age 18. (The worst return for a 25-year investor in the stock market from 1929 before the crash to 2004 was an average of 6% a year.) With no further contributions, again with a 6% interest rate, those savings would grow to $1,013,326 at age 65.

If we began to do this now, the first-year cost would be $8 billion; that is $2,000 times the roughly 4 million children born each year. The second year would cost $16 billion and so on until we were contributing $2,000 per year to a savings account for every child from birth until age 18. When fully implemented, the cost would be $144 billion per year. To put this $144 billion per year into context, this year's combined spending for Social Security and Medicare will exceed $750 billion.

I'm not going to quibble with his 6% interest rate, even though that's rather higher than it should be. After all, if you assumed a lower interest rate you could just increase the yearly contribution to $3,000 and still have a workable plan.

The bigger problem is that his plan doesn't do anything to fix today's Social Security system, which would need to stay in place for the next hundred years or so. When you add that in and also assume a more reasonable interest rate, he's suggesting total additional spending down the road not of $144 billion, but more like $400 billion a year. Or maybe $500 billion.

O'Neill's idea is one that's been floating around DC think tank circles for a number of years in various forms, and it has some merit although I'd be interested in hearing from some serious economists whether it would really work. Would we all really have a million bucks when we retire? Or would it expand the money supply in an unsustainable way? Or what?

But I still have the same problem that I did with O'Neill's initial op-ed: how is he going to finance it? Details matter, and they're still missing.

Kevin Drum 1:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

QUESTIONING ALAN....In the LA Times today, Warren Vieth has a piece that raises the question of whether Alan Greenspan will support George Bush's Social Security privatization plan:

"His input is important," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. "With someone of Chairman Greenspan's stature, everyone would rather have him on their side than against them."

....If Greenspan signals his support this week for Bush's private account plan, or voices no objections to the initial borrowing it would entail, it could improve the president's prospects in what is shaping up as the biggest legislative battle of Bush's second term, according to congressional insiders and independent analysts.

I wish this were something of a genuine mystery, but it's hard to see how. After all, Greenspan long ago demonstrated his unqualified fealty to George Bush, prostituting his long held beliefs in front of the entire world by worrying publicly about deficits as long as Bill Clinton was president and then suddenly switching course and deciding they weren't so bad as soon as George Bush took office.

What's more, Greenspan's policy preferences are already well known: he's in favor of private accounts and he's against tax increases. So if he takes any position at all, it's almost certain to be one in support of privatization combined with benefit cuts. And since Bush is anxious to keep the benefit cut part of his proposal hidden deep below the surface of public debate, Greenspan will almost certainly help out by mentioning cuts only in passing and in even more Delphic inarticulateness than usual.

Sure, he might surprise us. But the odds are against it. He picked his team long ago.

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Amy Sullivan

UNDERPRIVILEGED....Word came down yesterday from a U.S. Appeals Court that Judith Miller and our own (contributing editor) Matt Cooper must testify before a grand jury in the Plame case or face up to 18 months in jail. The court determined that the two reporters cannot claim a First Amendment privilege for the evidence being sought by investigator Patrick Fitzgerald.

Meanwhile, still not a peep about the guy who started the whole thing, Bob Novak.

Amy Sullivan 11:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 14, 2005
By: Amy Sullivan

THE FAITH-BASED CON.... This terrific piece by David Kuo, former deputy director of the White House's faith-based office, is worth five minutes of your time. It's not necessarily new--we said much the same thing last October in a piece outlining how Bush's faith-based policies have amounted to nothing not despite the White House's best efforts but precisely because of White House indifference. What's really striking is to see a former insider leveling the same charges.

Kuo lays some blame at the feet of Democrats, as well. While I still maintain they're right to insist that those who receive state money abide by the simple--and reasonable--rule that they not discriminate when they hire people to use that money, that objection very quickly came to define the entirety of the Democratic position on faith-based initiatives. And, as I pointed out in an earlier article and Kuo says here, that not only put Democrats on the losing side of the debate, but it also distracted them from what should have been their real mission: holding Bush accountable for his goals and claims with the faith-based initiative. As Kuo writes, "Had these liberal groups or an alliance of charities held the White House accountable for how little was being done--especially compared to what was promised--there is no telling what might have happened."

One quibble: Before he really gives the White House a good whack, Kuo provides the requisite "of course, I have the utmost respect for the president, blahedy-blah" statement, noting that the president is a sincerely compassionate man and that colleagues in the White House were kind to him when he experienced a health crisis. That's good to hear--although stories like that often make me wonder if the bar for good behavior isn't set just a bit low ("Bob Novak doesn't eat small children...he must be a good guy"). But I guess this is where liberals and conservatives diverge. I'd much rather see the country run by a jerk of a guy who forgets his secretary's birthday and can't be bothered to remember staff member's names (much less give them nicknames) but whose policies make life better for MILLIONS OF PEOPLE than a president who gets along well with his staff and friends but whose policies hurt others.

I know Kevin's made this point before, but it's worth repeating. Priorities, people.

Update: Not surprisingly, a few people are huffily assuming that my comments imply a belief that Democrats should have shut up and let Bush have his way on the faith-based initiative. Not so. What they're missing is the political context of this debate: Faith-based legislation has never passed Congress, nor did it need to. Bush has done everything purely via executive order. Putting all of your energy into fighting a bill that isn't going anywhere (partly thanks to your efforts) does not mean that you can't also demand oversight and accountability for the piece of the program that is being implemented at the very same time.

Amy Sullivan 4:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?....In my continuing quest for interesting charts and graphs related to Social Security, I came across a pretty good one today. But first some background.

By law, the Social Security trustees are required each year to make projections of the system's future solvency. In fact, they make three projections: high, low, and intermediate. The intermediate projection is the one that everyone uses.

But which of these projections is actually the most accurate? The trustees have been making these three projections for quite a while, which means there's enough historical data to see how they've fared. David Langer, an actuary who's been following the Social Security debate for years, presents this chart showing past projections of how big the trust fund would be in the year 2002:

Take a look at the percentages I've highlighted inside the orange rectangle. The low-cost projection is consistently more accurate than the intermediate projection. As Langer puts it:

The chart suggests that (1) the high cost projection is so far off it deserves to be discarded, (2) the intermediate cost projection should be redesignated as high cost, (3) the low cost projection, since it is on target, merits promotion to the intermediate level, and a new low-cost basis needs to be developed.

Consider the ramifications. The intermediate basis currently projects the assets to run out in 2041, while the low-cost basis develops a surplus of $18 trillion. At the end of the 75-year projection period, the difference grows to zero vs. $83 trillion.

Now, Langer has made some incendiary charges of political interference in the forecasting process that have made him pretty unpopular with the Social Security actuaries. Still, his numbers speak for themselves: the low-cost projection is historically the most accurate one, and it shows that the trust fund is not only solvent forever, but runs a huge surplus.

That doesn't sound like much of a crisis, does it?

Kevin Drum 3:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE 2010 TIME BOMB....In the Washington Post today, Jonathan Weisman and Peter Baker note that the latest George Bush budget is a "budgetary landmine that could blow up just as the next president moves into the Oval Office."

Indeed it is. Despite heroic efforts such as limiting forecasts to five years instead of the traditional ten, it's painfully obvious to anybody with a pulse that Bush's policies explode into massive deficits starting right around....2010.

That's not a coincidence, either: George Bush has shown considerable fondness for policies that have big benefits while he's in office but whose costs don't become clear until he's safely retired to Crawford. More here.

Kevin Drum 1:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

TOUGH ON CRIME?....If you were a gigantic U.S. retailer with a history of hostility to labor, what kind of treatment would you expect if you had been caught repeatedly violating child labor laws?

That depends. With George Bush in office, the appropriate punishment appears to be a slap on the wrist and a secret agreement to provide plenty of advance notice before investigating any future violations. That'll teach 'em.

Nathan Newman has the details.

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

SALIVATING LYNCH MOBS....Rony Abovitz, the guy who first blogged about Eason Jordan's remarks at Davos, is apparently having second thoughts about how the affair ended up hounding Jordan from his job at CNN. From the New York Times:

Mr. Abovitz, who started it all, said he hoped bloggers could develop loftier goals than destroying people's careers. "If you're going to do this open-source journalism, it should have a higher purpose," he said. "At times it did seem like an angry mob, and an angry mob using high technology, that's not good."

The article quotes a number of journalists who are becoming increasingly disturbed at what Steve Lovelady calls the "salivating morons who make up the lynch mob." Maybe so. But if they're really disturbed, maybe they should start fighting back. For an allegedly popular guy, Jordan sure didn't seem to get much support from his colleagues during this affair.

Kevin Drum 1:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

PRIVATE ACCOUNTS DONE RIGHT....Regular readers know that I'm pretty strongly opposed to George Bush's Social Security privatization proposal. To the extent that there's a problem with Social Security at all, I think it's fairly modest and can be fixed with a couple of simple, straightforward changes. More details are here if you're interested.

At the same time, I've also suggested that there's nothing wrong with private accounts in theory as long as they're "properly accounted for, tightly regulated, and honestly funded." Today I'm going to put my money where my mouth is and outline a private account proposal I could live with. It will also make clear the vast gulf between an honest plan and the Bush plan.

To begin with, I'd adopt the "Longman Plan" as the core of my proposal. (That's not its real name, but the only place I've seen it described is in a Fortune column by Phil Longman. So that's what I'm calling it.) As we all know, the basic problem with Social Security is that at some point in the future the CBO's estimate is 2053 the trust fund will be exhausted. When that happens, total payouts need to drop about 25% in order to match incoming revenue.

Longman's idea is that instead of cutting benefits 25% we should move the age at which you start getting checks from 67 to 72. This reduces the number of retirees being paid benefits and cuts costs by about 25%, thus putting Social Security on a permanently sustainable course.

However, the retirement age doesn't change. It stays at 67, and this is where private accounts come in: they're used to pay for retirement between ages 67 and 72. This has several advantages over standard privatization proposals:

  • You don't have to buy an annuity. Your private account only has to last five years, so it's easy to just draw it down 20% each year.

  • Regular Social Security kicks in at age 72 and takes care of you for as long as you live. You don't have to worry about running out of money.

  • If your investments do badly, the worst that happens is that you have to put off retirement for a year or two. That's bad, but it's not catastrophic.

  • On the other hand, if your investments do well, or if you're willing to live on a reduced amount for a few years, you can retire early.

  • You have money left to bequeath to your kids all the way until age 72. Under Bush's privatization proposal, you turn your account into an annuity at age 67, so your kids inherit only if you die before then.

  • If you don't feel like retiring at all, you can just cash out your account and buy a boat or something. It's your choice.

That's the core of the plan, but it's not all. Next up is "properly accounted for." This means that we use honest numbers to project how much money needs to be put into the accounts to fund five years of retirement. The basic assumption should be stock market returns of about 4.5% and portfolio returns of 3.5-4% not the phony 7% returns hawked by outfits like Cato and Heritage.

"Tightly regulated" means the money is put in safe, low-fee, low-churn investments. In order to cushion the impact of a weak stock market wiping out your account just when you plan to retire, all accounts should include a "lifecycle" feature in which the percentage of stocks goes down as the account owner ages. During the ten years prior to retirement, only a small amount of the account would remain invested in stocks.

"Honestly funded" means just that: the accounts are funded by some kind of tax increase, not by borrowing the money. Funding the transition with a higher deficit is foolhardy and dishonest, since it does nothing to increase national savings (the private accounts are offset by a bigger federal deficit) and acts as a drag on the national economy.

The actual funding mechanism could be anything. Maybe an increase in the payroll tax of, say, 1.5% on both employer and employee. Maybe something else: increasing the payroll cap, reinstating the inheritance tax, whatever. There are plenty of possibilities.

There are other details too. Some kind of government matching program for low-income workers, for example. Maybe a built-in mechanism to change the retirement age based on changes in life expectancy. Modest cuts in benefit growth. Nothing insurmountable.

And now the $64 question: if I could live with this plan, why am I so unalterably opposed to private accounts? Simple: it's because my plan is a fantasy. It's not the plan on offer from George Bush and it never will be and in the real world, supporting private accounts means supporting George Bush's version of them

And that's why I oppose private accounts: because I live in the real world, not fantasyland.

Kevin Drum 12:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 13, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SCALP HUNTING FOLLOWUP....At the end of a post yesterday about the recent success of the longtime conservative crusade to hound public figures (mainly media figures) out of their jobs, I said: "It might be time for liberals to realize that even if we manage to collect a few scalps of our own along the way, conservatives gain strength from promoting this brand of warfare far more than liberals do. I hope we're not just being useful idiots by joining in this game."

I've gotten a lot of email and comments about this, so let me explain briefly what I meant.

What I'm not saying is that liberals should back down from a fight. I supported Howard Dean for DNC chair even though I'm probably going to find myself wincing through some of his infamous miscues over the next four years because liberals need fighters these days. Dean's a fighter.

But liberals and conservatives prosper in different kinds of atmospheres. Conservatives tend to thrive on a sense of besiegement, a belief that they're surrounded on all sides by enemies seen and unseen who must be destroyed. The politics of personal destruction, brought to a fever pitch during Bill Clinton's presidency, is tremendously helpful to their cause and always has been.

Liberalism simply doesn't thrive in this kind of atmosphere. If we fight back using the same tactics we'll win a few battles along the way Hooray for our side! Jeff Gannon is a smut peddler! but in the long run we're just intensifying exactly the kind of warfare that helps conservatives the most.

So sure: of course we have to fight back. But we have to fight in a way that creates an atmosphere that encourages liberalism. The politics of personal destruction isn't it, and that's why I hope the lefty blogosphere doesn't give in to it.

Remember: you don't always fight fire with fire. Water usually works better.

Kevin Drum 3:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

POST HOC BULLSHIT....Tom Maguire has been pestering me for several days to comment on his theory that contra Paul Krugman and others it's quite possible to have both a low-growth economy (meaning that Social Security finances are in bad shape) and high stock market returns (meaning private accounts would be great). I'm not an economist and therefore couldn't offer him a detailed response, but my approximate answer was, sure, it's possible for that to be true (up to a point, anyway), but hardly probable.

Yesterday, though, Brad DeLong, who is an economist, took a look at the question and concluded that....it's possible for the low growth/high return scenario to be true, but it's not very probable. So I think I'm going to stick with that.

However, there's an aspect to this whole thing that bothers me, and Matt Yglesias devoted a considerable amount of philosophical brainpower to it yesterday. If I can summarize for the lay audience, it's this: the problem with Tom's argument is that it's just a random post-hoc effort to explain away a problem the privatizers hadn't thought of before (or had been able to ignore). In other words, it's part of the genus bullshit.

For the last 75 years, real stock market returns have closely followed GDP growth. GDP growth is projected to decline in the future, and common sense dictates that lower growth leads to lower corporate profits which in turn leads to lower stock market growth. When someone finally pointed this out, it meant that privatizers could no longer rely on their usual lazy (but credible sounding!) explanation that stock returns for the past 75 years had been around 7% and it was therefore reasonable to use those same returns going forward. They had to make up something new.

What resulted was a bizarre series of Rube Goldberg inventions designed to figure out something anything that might change in the next 75 years to make the low growth/high return scenario plausible. Maybe corporations will suddenly become far more profitable than they have been. Maybe they'll start paying out enormous dividends. Maybe overseas investment will skyrocket. In other words, toss every possible piece of mud on the wall you can think of and hope that something sticks. None of these things have to make sense, after all, they just have to sound plausible enough to create a cloud of FUD fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Frankly, the privatizers would be better off just telling the truth: stock market returns aren't going to be 7% in the future, but there's a pretty good case to be made that they'll be higher than the 3% you get from treasury bonds. Brad buys that argument, for example, and so does Dean Baker. Stock market returns of, say, 4% or 4.5% don't provide quite the sizzle of 7%, but they still make a perfectly reasonable story. Why not stick with it?

Kevin Drum 2:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQI ELECTION RESULTS....We finally have the results of the Iraqi election. Sort of:

  • Shia list: 48%

  • Kurdish parties: 26%

  • Iyad Allawi list: 14%

  • Others: 12%

The conventional interpretation of this is that the Shia list (the Sistani-endorsed religious slate) didn't do as well as expected and the Kurds did a little better than expected. But what about the Sunnis?

Obviously, due to a combination of fear and boycotts, they did poorly. But how poorly? I can't find a single story that explicitly spells out how many votes they got. Was that information not released? Or was it released but no one has bothered to add a few extra bullets to their summary tables? Even this more detailed listing from AP contains only a couple of additional results and doesn't tell us anything about the overall Sunni vote.

Maybe I'm just in a bad mood this morning, but this bugs me. We should either get the full results or an explanation of why we're not getting them. What's the deal here?

Kevin Drum 1:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE CUNNING PRINCE ABDULLAH....In the recent quasi-elections in Saudi Arabia, radical Islamists rather unsurprisingly won a number of key victories. Matt Yglesias provides the following analysis of Crown Prince Abdullah's strategy in calling these elections:

To make a long story short, Abdullah did everything possible to ensure that Islamists would win the election. He also managed to ensure that no matter what the result, he wouldn't lose any real power. Upshot articles in the western press calling him "reform-minded" and that build the case for him not to engage in further democratization since, as we just saw, Abdullah's earnest efforts at reform are counterproductive since they just bring Islamists to power. It's everything an absolute monarch could dream of in an election. He keeps absolute power, gets credit for being a reformer, and gets off the hook in terms of pressure to reform. Meanwhile the American media will continue to assist the House of Saud in its campaign to get al-Jazeera of the air so that it can be 100 percent insulated from criticism in the Arab media, too. Abdullah is a very clever man.

As it turns out, very few people are actually as Machiavellian as their critics suppose they are. In this case, though, I find Matt's Machiavellian interpretation of Abdullah's machinations disturbingly plausible even though, unlike Matt, I'm stone sober at the moment.

Comments welcome, of course.

Kevin Drum 2:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 12, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQI VOTE UPDATE....Final results of the Iraqi voting will be announced on Sunday at 4 pm Baghdad time. I've been wondering when they'd finally get around to giving us a final result.

Kevin Drum 7:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

TEXAS POLITICS UPDATE....As you may recall, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle whose jurisdiction includes the entire state of Texas has been investigating Tom DeLay for possible campaign fundraising violations for a couple of years now. Republicans are unhappy over this state of affairs, and this week a Republican legislator introduced a bill that would give the Texas Ethics Commission the authority to halt prosecutions of politicians whenever it felt like it. Here's my favorite quote from the LA Times account:

State Rep. Mary Denny, who filed the bill, said in an interview Thursday that she was attempting to add oversight, not remove it. She said it never occurred to her that the legislation could be used to protect Republican leaders who might become targets of the fundraising investigation.

God love 'em. The DeLay investigation is just about the biggest political circus in the entire state of Texas, but this 14-year Republican legislator is just dumbfounded at the idea that people think her bill might have anything to do with it. Folks sure do get the wildest ideas, don't they?

The story continues:

But the bill doesn't stop there.

It also says that a district attorney, including the one in Austin who is overseeing the fundraising investigation [i.e., Ronnie Earle], would be prohibited from continuing such an inquiry if the Ethics Commission did not agree that charges were warranted. Denny said she believed district attorneys would welcome input from people who specialized in election law.

"Why would they want to pursue something when there is no wrongdoing?" she asked.

Aw, isn't she sweet? Wouldn't any district attorney welcome an outside commission setting them straight about the merits of their own case while an investigation is still ongoing? Sure they would!

Damn. They sure do grow them brazen down in Texas, don't they?

Kevin Drum 5:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

USEFUL IDIOTS?....The right-wing outrage machine has been screaming about liberal bias in the news media since at least the Nixon administration, but until recently screaming has been pretty much all they've done. Ironically, though, after a decade in which the press has gotten demonstrably less biased, conservatives are finally scoring the victories they've been hungering after for so long thanks in large part to the blogosphere:

  • In June 2003, New York Times editor Howell Raines was forced to resign following the revelation that reporter Jayson Blair had fabricated numerous stories over a period of several months.

  • In January 2004, BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies resigned in the wake of the Andrew Gilligan scandal. Gilligan had claimed that Tony Blair made knowingly false statements about Iraqi WMD, a claim he was later unable to back up.

  • Last month, several CBS producers were fired after an internal report concluded that they had acted irresponsibly in the Rathergate scandal. Dan Rather had already announced he would step down as CBS News anchor, although he claimed unconvincingly that this decision was unrelated to the scandal.

  • On Friday, CNN's chief news executive, Eason Jordan, resigned following reports that he had said U.S. troops were deliberately targeting and killing journalists in Iraq.

In isolation, none of these resignations is noteworthy. As a trend, though, they're disturbing. With the exception of Rathergate, which was truly a sad failure of journalistic standards, the offenses in question have all been relatively modest.

The core of the complaint against Howell Raines, for example, is that he didn't realize the Times had hired a con man who worked four management levels below him. This was the first time such a thing had taken place under Raines, and when he realized what had happened he apologized, ordered an excrutiatingly detailed public disclosure, and promised to clean house. In the end, the worst specific charge ever leveled at Raines was that he might have paid too little attention to Jayson Blair's problems because Blair was black hardly a firing offense.

Across the ocean, Andrew Gilligan's blunder took place during a brief report on a live morning call-in show. His subsequent conduct was indeed dodgy, especially in the details, but in the end it turned out that the core of what he reported was disturbingly close to the truth. The claim that Saddam Hussein could launch WMD-tipped missiles within 45 minutes really was false, the intelligence behind it really was single-sourced, there really were senior intelligence people who were skeptical of the whole thing, Gilligan's source for his accusation really was highly placed, and the government "dossier" in question really was rewritten to make sure that the 45-minute charge would dominate the next day's headlines. It's true that Davies and the rest of the BBC's managment backed up Gilligan a bit too credulously, but their culpability never went much further than that.

And Eason Jordan? During a meeting at Davos he made an inflammatory accusation about the military killing journalists and then backed down (literally) seconds later at the same meeting. Since then, he has consistently said that he spoke hastily and emotionally and didn't intend to imply any kind of deliberate military policy.

In the wider world, throw in Trent Lott, Ward Churchill, and Jeff Gannon and probably some others I've forgotten about and you start to wonder: is this really the blogosphere's biggest contribution to public discourse? Collecting scalps?

Sure, these guys bear varying amounts of culpability and deserve varying amounts of criticism, but if you take a look at the standard history of the blogosphere it becomes clear that its best known incidents on both left and right Lottgate! Rathergate! Easongate! all revolve around public figures being viciously hounded out of their jobs. Positive accomplishments, conversely, are pretty thin on the ground.

I guess we all have our own ideas of what the blogosphere is good for. But when the history books are finally written, I hope that cranking up the politics of personal destruction yet another notch isn't what we end up being most famous for.

And one more thing: it might be time for liberals to realize that even if we manage to collect a few scalps of our own along the way, conservatives gain strength from promoting this brand of warfare far more than liberals do. I hope we're not just being useful idiots by joining in this game.

Kevin Drum 3:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

FEVERED IMAGININGS....Republican congressman Paul Ryan has gotten a bit of blogospheric attention lately for his claim that Democrats are being bullied into opposing his plan to privatize Social Security:

"We were in planning stages [with friendly Democrats]," said Ryan. But each essentially told him: "I like what you're doing. I like this bill. I think it's the right way to go. But my party leadership will break my back. The retribution that they are promising us is as great as I have ever seen. We can't do it."

Wow. Is the Democratic leadership really playing that rough? Permit me to express some doubts.

Far more likely is either (a) Ryan is making this up, or (b) the people he's talking about were doing the same thing we all do when we get collared by a street person: mumbling something soothing and then making a quick getaway.

Here's the thing: I find it highly unlikely that there are any Democrats anywhere in Congress who think Ryan's approach is "the right way to go." Here are the key features of how Ryan proposes to fund his Social Security privatization plan:

  • His bill mandates a forced slowdown in federal spending. The difference between what we spend under the Ryan plan and what we would have spent without it is then counted as "extra" revenue, which is transferred from the general fund to Social Security. The consistent failure of such plans in the past is not grappled with.

  • His bill assumes that private accounts will boost the economy, thus boosting corporate earnings, and thus boosting corporate tax payments. The amount of this "extra" tax revenue would be transferred from the general fund to Social Security.

In other words, after you get though all the gobbledegook explanations, the bottom line is that his scheme pays for privatization by sucking up money from the general fund. In the year 2010, for example, $173 billion would be transferred from the general fund to Social Security. But when you add the gobbledegook back in, the whole thing is free!

You will be unsurprised to learn that this plan is endorsed by the crackpots at the Club for Growth and USA Next, and is based on the keen economic insights of former Senator Phil Gramm. It is the ultimate in fairy dust inspired free lunch economics.

So: are Democratic leaders in the House really staying up nights worried that some of their backbenchers might bolt party lines and support Ryan's plan? I'm guessing not. Conversely, is it possible that Ryan's fevered imagination has caused him to invent a tidal wave of support where none exists? That seems distinctly more likely.

Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Paul Glastris

Just a thought... Maybe a lot of people have made this point and I just missed it. Or maybe it's so obvious it doesn't need to be made. But...

In 2018, Social Security will begin paying out more money than it takes in. This is what Dennis Hastert calls the "crisis point." But the entire federal government is paying out more money than it takes in right now. Indeed this has been the case for four years, thanks in no small measure to GOP tax-and-spending policies. And it will continue to be the case indefinitely under the president's own supposedly-tough budget. Why is it that a modest deficit in Social Security that won't begin for almost a decade and a half requires immediate radical action, while a vastly greater overall federal deficit occurring right now doesn't?

Paul Glastris 10:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 11, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SHAREHOLDER ACTIVISM....The Nation has an interesting review this week from William Greider on the subject of pension fund activism and corporate responsibility:

The largest public pension funds, including CalPERS, have always been conflicted in their obligations to workers and retirees. They are supposed to invest only in the "best interests" of their beneficial owners, which traditionally has meant seeking the best financial returns. But they have often seemed to be playing for the other side trashing the environment, workers and communities, and cutting costs in ways that undermine long-term economic prospects. Dennak Murphy, a West Coast organizer for SEIU, crisply explains: "We have nearly 800,000 members, most of whom are in public employee retirement funds [including 210,000 in CalPERS]. The pension funds take their money and buy stocks in two or three thousand companies. Then a lot of those companies turn around and screw the workers."

No other major investors in finance capital would tolerate such abuse for long they would dump the stocks and perhaps plot retaliation.

....Grossly oversimplified, the reform strategy is guided by two interacting principles: First, pension funds should invest to restore the once-common understanding that, in the long run, you can't have a successful economy and a failing society (roughly speaking, that's what the "market ideology" ignores). Second, while pension funds adopt this perspective to advance the self-interest of their members (including long-term financial soundness), they should also use their leverage to make the financial system incorporate these principles as the system's operating routines.

There nothing in the article about my favorite hobbyhorse, grossly excessive executive compensation, something that's the result of a crony culture that has caused market forces in CEO compensation to break down a breakdown that pretty clearly hurts both shareholders and workers. But I guess you can't have everything. That aside, it's a pretty good overview of what's going on in the areas of corporate reform and shareholder activism.

Kevin Drum 8:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Amy Sullivan

COMMON GROUND....This is a good start. Pro-lifers? The ball is in your court.

(I hardly need say, of course, that pro-lifers will come out against this, claiming that the proposed legislation is "deceptive" and "full of loopholes". But it puts them in a tough position. What? You're not for reducing unwanted pregnancies? Really? Who's not for reducing unwanted pregnancies? They'll come up with an answer, no doubt, but my guess is it won't be terribly convincing.)

Amy Sullivan 4:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

ARAB TV ROUNDUP....There's an entertaining firsthand report about Arabic TV over at Abu Aardvark today. Highlights: team handball, blackhawk helicopters, Green Tree Snakes, and the relative hotness of the female presenters on the genuinely Arabic stations compared to those on the U.S. sponsored Al Hurra station. Good clean fun for everyone.

Kevin Drum 4:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

MARKETING, FRAMING, WHATEVER....I have some advice for the Democratic party: go talk to Tony Blair to see how things are done.

Over on the right is the unveiling of the Labor Party's 2005 "pledge card," a cheap and cheerful list of six things the Laborites say they stand for. Beneath it is a short amount of text expanding (slightly) on each of the six points.

Now, the wording of the points is worth looking at, but it's the marketing itself that's more noteworthy: six simple points, none of them longer than six words. This is accompanied by six explanations, none of them longer than 30 words.

Compare this to the comically inept "New Partnership for America's Future" unveiled by House Democrats a few weeks before the November election. I sagged when I first read it. The pamphlet version had a laundry list of 60 separate topics 60! jammed together in small type spanning six pages. The complete version needed nothing less than an entire website to contain its full gloriousness. In case you're ever having trouble falling asleep some night, here's one page from the manifesto:

OPPORTUNITY

Providing Americans access to the tools to succeed as they choose: a vibrant public education system, accountable to the highest standards for every school and a chance for all children to reach their potential, including an affordable and accessible college education.

Provide a high quality early childhood education system, including child care and Head Start, that prepares children for school Invest in a fully funded education system that gives every child the skills to succeed Fully meet our
responsibilities to children with disabilities, language issues, and other special needs Assure a well paid, highly trained teacher in every classroom Ensure a college education that every qualified high school graduate can afford Expand Pell Grants and college student loan programs Make college tuition tax deductible Provide lifelong learning in a world of unlimited opportunities Partner with states and local governments to build and rehabilitate school buildings Encourage parental, community, and private sector involvement in enriching our schools Support mentoring, tutoring and afterschool programs

Got all that? And there's five more where that came from!

So: take a hint from Tony. Figure out a message that can be printed on a something the size of a credit card and then hand them out by the millions. It can't work any worse than our previous marketing wheezes, can it?

UPDATE: Funniest comment so far:

They omitted: "Your language's verbs now redundant."

Well, we would have to Americanize the concept, wouldn't we?

Kevin Drum 2:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

HITTING 'EM WHERE IT HURTS....Who said this?

This will have a major impact on people who are on the snow-crab gravy train.

Answer: Chuck Downs, an expert on North Korea.

This all relates to the deadly serious subject of North Korean nukes and the possibility of further economic sanctions against them, but the quote still seemed sort of amusing. Who knew there was a snow-crab gravy train up there?

Kevin Drum 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

FOOL ME ONCE....The members of the Washington Post editorial board must be as cute as buttons. I'd like to meet them someday.

Today they come out in favor of private accounts for Social Security. Their reasoning is simple: private accounts invested in stocks should have pretty good returns, and these high returns will allow benefits to be cut enough to to bring the system closer to solvency.

As far as it goes, that's perfectly reasonable. Private account returns are highly unlikely to be the 4.6% they cite, but they'll probably be higher than 3%, and that means that investing in stocks is likely to be a good deal for retirees who make wise investment decisions. This in turn means that private accounts might be a good idea if they were "properly accounted for, tightly regulated, and honestly funded," as one critic put it.

But what are the odds? We already know the administration is pushing stealth cuts in guaranteed benefits far larger than anything the system needs. We already know their plan includes diversion of current payroll taxes, something that will weaken, not strengthen, Social Security. We already know they're planning to fund the accounts by borrowing $700 billion in the first decade alone, something that likely wipes out the supposedly high returns. We already know that the administration plan does nothing in particular to help out the half of retirees who end up making below-average investments.

In fact, what we already know is this: their plan is brought to you by the same folks who brought you 2003's prescription drug bill. What more do you need to know?

If you're a trusting soul, I guess you're willing to give them another chance and the Post editorial board, having already been scammed several times before, is apparently willing to do this. But guess what? Six months from now they'll be writing editorials saying that what they really meant was that they supported a well-balanced, properly implemented privatization plan. Who could have known the administration would botch it so badly?

Sound familiar?

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

TINFOIL HAT TIME....So much to blog on, so little time.....

Here is today's mystery. Regular readers will remember that I've blogged several times before about the infamous Article 3, Section 2 exemption. A3S2 is a section in the constitution that allows Congress to exempt particular areas of law from judicial review, and it's been a wingnut obsession pretty much forever. The basic idea is that you pass a law about, say, gay marriage, and include A3S2 language prohibiting the courts from ruling on marriage issues. That way, they can't rule your shiny new law unconstitutional.

In the end, these things never pass. Cooler heads generally prevail, since doing it once would open up an enormous Pandora's Box of crap as well as the mother of all constitutional crises. But it keeps coming up anyway.

Over at the Stakeholder, Jesse Lee writes about the latest A3S2 wingnuttery, and it's a doozy. The immigration bill working its way through Congress contains a section giving the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to "waive...all laws" in the critical area of wait for it construction of barriers and fences. And of course the courts are prohibited from interfering.

The really weird part of this is that no one can figure out what's going on. What's the point of this provision? After all, you don't include a tactical nuke like this in a bill over the routine construction of fences. So what are they really up to? Jeffrey Dubner has additional speculation.

And there's more! The bill also contains a provision that creates a national database of driver's licenses. Rep Silvester Reyes (D-TX), worried about his right to keep and bear arms, offered up an amendment to prohibit the database from tracking (among other things) gun ownership. It was voted down. Why? "The best argument Judiciary Chairman Sensenbrenner could come up with was that it would be an unfunded mandate for Congress to tell the states not to create this directory."

So, um, it's OK to force the states to create the database, but it's an unfunded mandate to prohibit them from spending money to put extra information in the database. Are these guys clever or what?

Your Congress at work....

Kevin Drum 12:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CLASSLESS ACTION....The Senate passed a bill on Thursday that moves many class action suits to federal court. Generally speaking, I don't have a problem with this: it doesn't apply to cases in which the defendant and the members of the class come from the same state and it doesn't apply to suits under $5 million. It's going to make some suits harder to prosecute, but putting an end to venue shopping seems like a reasonable goal.

At least, that might have been my opinion except for one thing: a series of Supreme Court rulings starting in 1985 have made it difficult on procedural grounds for nationwide suits to be heard in federal court. This means there might be cases where it's impossible to bring suit in either state or federal court. James Joyner comments:

There has to be some sort of fix for this....Obviously, taking away the ability to sue at all is something that even the most hard-hearted capitalist would oppose.

You can see where this is going, can't you? James clearly has not taken the measure of today's capitalist class and trusts the Republican party to fix this little problem. I don't. After all, if they agreed this was unfair they would have accepted Dianne Feinstein's amendment designed to clear up the procedural issues.

But they didn't. They don't just want to restrict venue shopping, they want to restrict the ability to bring class action suits at all. Always read the fine print.

UPDATE: A law student correspondent suggests that I have this wrong. His take: the bill makes it easy to move a case from state court to federal court, but if the federal court declines to accept the case a motion can be made to move it back to state court. So the case wouldn't end up nowhere, it would always end up either in state court or federal court.

I don't know if this reading is correct or not. If anyone with expertise has some further comment on this, let me know.

UPDATE 2: There's a surprisingly good discussion of all this in comments. Although there's no firm conclusion, there seems to be at least some agreement that there are indeed jurisdictional problems with this bill that could have been cleared up but deliberately weren't. If you're interested in more, read the whole thread.

Kevin Drum 12:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 10, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BUSHISMS....I think Eugene Volokh has finally nailed Slate for a Bushism that genuinely calls for a retraction. Maybe we can start up a feature called Slatisms?

Kevin Drum 6:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

MAIL-IN REBATES....Over at TCS, Arnold Kling writes with appropriately dripping vitriol about the "mail-in rebate" scam that long ago took over the retail computer business:

Last month, I bought a laptop at a CompUSA in Rockville, Maryland. I did not know nor care about any mail-in rebates. However, as I was standing at the cash register waiting for the stockboy to bring the box, I was accosted by two salesmen as well as the register clerk, who told me that I was entitled to a lot of free merchandise, because of a special sale that week. The catch was that I would have to pay for the merchandise and then wait for the rebate.

....So far, I have received denial letters for every single rebate.

My experience isn't quite that bad, but I've had plenty of dismal encounters with rebates. It's a scam.

From an economic standpoint, however, it offers an instructive lesson. One of the business world's standard frustrations is that although different people are willing to pay different amounts for the same product, most products have only a single price tag. This means you're (a) losing some price sensitive (but still profitable) customers that you could get with a lower price but (b) you're leaving money on the table from current customers who would willingly pay more than the listed price.

Most businesses can't do much about this. Airlines are the best known exception, putting in place Byzantine rules designed to extract (for example) higher fares from last minute business customers and lower fares from holiday travelers, all for the exact same service.

Mail-in rebates accomplish the same thing. A $50 software package can be sold profitably to more people if it comes with a $20 mail-in rebate. Price conscious consumers who wouldn't pay $50 will buy it and fill out the rebate form, while wealthier consumers who can afford the $50 price will buy the software and never bother hassling over the rebate. In fact, there are really three categories of customers here:

  • Those who don't care about the rebate and just pay the $50.

  • Those who want the lower price, mail in the rebate, but then give up when the rebate is denied. Basically, these people are tacitly accepting a 50-50 chance of getting the rebate and paying an average of $40 for the software

  • Those who really want the rebate and will continue harassing everyone they can find until they get it. Nearly all of these people eventually get the rebate and end up paying $30 for the software. (There are exceptions, of course. Arnold is obviously in this category, but he still didn't get his rebate.)

The real question, of course, is why the mail-in rebate scam affects the computer industry so much more than other industries. I suspect it's partly due to path dependence it just started up there and has never gone away and partly because it's a loser strategy for industries that care about customer satisfaction. The computer industry, needless to say, has never worried itself overmuch about that.

Kevin Drum 4:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

PANICKY HOTNESS....There was a riot during the grand opening of an Ikea store in Britain today, and it prompted a truly bizarre reaction from Susie Steiner in the Guardian. It's all Ikea's fault, she says. Not because they misjudged the mob scene at the opening, mind you, but just for being themselves:

There is less talk about Ikea's greed, and in particular about the way in which this giant of a corporation manipulates its customer's emotions, sending them into ever more hysterical cycles of rage and frustration.

....This unbending approach is evident in all Ikea's rules of purchase. You can look on Ikea's website, but you cannot purchase anything on it. You cannot purchase over the telephone either. You cannot ring up and add to your existing order, you must visit the store again. If you go to an Ikea store by car, you must resign yourself to a couple of hours in a tailback. If you go to an Ikea store by public transport, you must resign yourself to being stung by the store's furniture delivery service.

When you're inside an Ikea store, you must come to terms with a near permanent state of bewilderment: shelves stacked with flat brown boxes labelled with random codes and names; a yellow road which takes you inexplicably through bedrooms when all you wanted was some kitchen handles. And then, then, when your emotional temperature is rising and you can feel a panicky hotness around your ears, you will be faced with Ikea's version of customer care an underpaid teenager, trained in psychic disengagement who'll tell you they're out of stock.

I would just like to say for the record that I have wandered through my local Ikea many times, and it has never prompted a panicky hotness around my ears. The fact that Ikea is a self-service store that doesn't do business over the phone doesn't really strike me as something to get quite so bothered about.

Then again, perhaps Susie Steiner was traumatized during her childhood by a bored sales clerk in a furniture store somewhere. That might explain it.

Kevin Drum 3:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE PUBLIC AND SOCIAL SECURITY....A couple of notes from today's Washington Post poll about Social Security. From a purely practical perspective, it looks like the following anti-privatization arguments are the ones most likely to resonate with the public:

  • Cost. Among people who currently support private accounts, over half change their mind when told the plan will cost $700 billion over the next decade. This is by far the most effective argument among privatization supporters.

    (Conversely, people who oppose privatization are pretty solid. There don't appear to be any arguments that have a significant effect on their opposition.)

  • Bush's proposed benefit cuts. The most effective wording is "cutting guaranteed benefits for future retirees," not "slowing the growth of benefits." But regardless of wording, this is the change to Social Security most strongly opposed by the public.

  • Increasing the cap. A surprising 81% of respondents believed that income above the current cap of $90,000 should be taxed. Since this would fix the system completely with no benefit cuts, it could be a very strong public position for Democrats to take if it's presented correctly.

    (However, some caution may be called for. The wording of the question is technically accurate, but it seems possible to me that some people might have mistakenly believed that people who make over $90,000 don't pay any Social Security taxes at all. Some more refined polling might be called for here.)

So: George Bush's plan costs too much, it cuts guaranteed benefits, and the system can be fixed simply by taxing income over $90,000. Short and sweet.

UPDATE: On the other hand, here's an example of a bad argument, courtesy of Senate Democrats:

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the privatized accounts are, in fact, expected to produce a risk-adjusted rate of return of 3% above the inflation rate. Therefore, the automatic reduction of Social Security benefits would equal the entire value of the privatized accounts. In effect, the automatic benefit reduction would constitute a 100 percent tax on the retirement savings in those accounts.

Trying to argue that private accounts won't have better returns than treasury bonds is dumb. It's not only wrong, it's also not credible. The stock market isn't likely to have the 7% returns that enthusiasts say it will, but it is likely to have risk-adjusted returns higher than 3%.

I know, I know, it's just the "Question of the Day," not the core of the Democratic message. But it's still a wonky argument that's unlikely to work. Best to stick with more potent arguments like the ones above.

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

NEW NUCLEAR POWER?....North Korea officially says it has nukes. It's hard to know if this makes any practical difference, but there you have it.

Kevin Drum 12:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

OOPS....Question: what's the difference between awarding $1 million to 1,812 people and awarding $1 million each to 1,812 people?

Answer: $1.8 billion. Talk about your runaway juries.....

(Don't worry, I'm sure the judge will fix it. The rest of the story is amusing enough to be worth reading too. It's a sordid tale of small time fraud that stretches from Manhattan Beach, California, all the way to the wilds of British Columbia!)

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

TORTURE....This has already been much linked, but Jane Mayer's New Yorker piece on the apparently routine U.S. use of torture either directly or by "rendering" suspects to countries that will do it for us is well worth reading. There's a lot to say about it, but here's a paragraph that caught my eye. It's about John Yoo, the lawyer responsible for several of the memos justifying torture as an instrument of state:

As Yoo saw it, Congress doesnt have the power to tie the Presidents hands in regard to torture as an interrogation technique. He continued, Its the core of the Commander-in-Chief function. They cant prevent the President from ordering torture.

It's the "core" the core of the commander-in-chief function, to be used at his sole discretion whenever he feels like it. The founders, apparently, valued it so highly that no one, not even Congress, can restrict its use. God help us.

On a different note, I generally avoid the argument that torture is ineffective, because that's not why I oppose it. I oppose it because it's wrong, and that wouldn't change regardless of whether or not it worked.

But it's a worthwhile question anyway: does torture work? Mayer does a fairly good job of demonstrating that the answer is probably no. It's not conclusive since no one from the CIA is willing to talk about this stuff, but the FBI sure seems to be convinced it's worthless.

UPDATE: Sebastian Holsclaw has about the same reaction as me, and wonders why his fellow Republicans aren't saying more about it. "We don't need to wait for the Democrats to raise this issue....We are the party which leads the most powerful country in the world. And lead it we must. President Bush must be shown that the Republican Party is not willing to stand for the perversion of our moral standards."

Kevin Drum 2:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

GUVMINT SPENDING....It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry about this recent poll from the Washington Post. Jerry Traylor, 58, a retired government worker who lives in Newell, Ala., is aghast that George Bush's Social Security privatization plan will cost $700 billion. Hah! I'd be inclined to support it if it cost that little. And a majority of Americans think indexing benefits to prices instead of wages is a good idea but only because they figure prices have been going up faster than wages. (Can't blame 'em, really.)

But forget that. I'm tired of Social Security (until I wake up to fresh outrages in the morning, anyway). Instead, here's question 2 from the poll, showing once again the American public's obsession with foreign aid:

49% of the country thinks foreign aid is one of our two biggest programs. No wonder they're convinced their tax dollars are being frittered away. This is no surprise, though, since it fits with this earlier poll result showing that Americans think 24% of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid. (Real number: about 1%.)

I wonder why Americans are convinced we spend such vast sums on this? Whatever the reason, it probably explains why Americans are so frequently taken aback that the rest of world isn't more grateful toward us. They think we're spending a couple hundred billion dollars a year on these guys and then wondering why they don't show a little more gratitude.

On the other hand, at least it's getting better. Back in 1997, 64% thought foreign aid was one of our two biggest programs and 26% figured food stamps was another. Onward.

Kevin Drum 1:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 9, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

EVERYONE'S FAVORITE SUBJECT: THE TRUST FUND....President Bush made some weirdly contradictory statements about the financial solvency of Social Security today, but that's hardly surprising and hardly worthy of comment any longer. However, he also made the following plain statement about the Social Security trust fund:

Some in our country think that Social Security is a trust fund in other words, there's a pile of money being accumulated. That's just simply not true. The money payroll taxes going into the Social Security are spent. They're spent on benefits and they're spent on government programs. There is no trust.

This is a fool's errand, I suppose, but I'd like to clear up the nature of the trust fund once and for all on a variety of different levels. Here goes.

The trust fund consists of U.S. treasury bonds. These bonds have been purchased with excess payroll taxes collected since 1983.

Fine. But what is a treasury bond? Easy: it's a call on the future general fund revenue of the United States. People who buy bonds are receiving a promise that they will be repaid (with interest) by U.S. taxpayers in the future.

Who then are the purchasers of the bonds in the trust fund? Answer: the people who paid payroll taxes between 1983-2018.

And who is required to pay them back? Answer: the bonds will be redeemed by the general fund between 2019-2042 (on current estimates, anyway). Since the general fund is financed mostly by personal and corporate income taxes, that means that the people required to pay back the bonds are income tax payers between 2019-2042.

So: are these bonds merely IOUs from one branch of the government to another? Not really. They are IOUs between one set of citizens (payroll tax payers between 1983-2018) and another set of citizens (income tax payers between 2019-2042).

What this means is that the United States really does have a moral obligation to pay back those bonds. Bonds are always paid back by future taxpayers, not all of whom had any say in selling the bonds in the first place. The fact that it's a burden on these future taxpayers is not reason enough to pretend the bonds don't need to be repaid or don't exist at all.

And make no mistake: redeeming the trust fund will be a burden on future taxpayers in the same way that paying excess payroll taxes is a burden on current workers. There's no free lunch. The only way to pay back the bonds is either to increase the federal deficit or to increase taxes. My approximate guess is that it will require a phased increase in income taxes totaling about one-fifth. In other words, beginning in 2019, someone paying a 15% tax rate will see their rate slowly increased to 18%.

The bottom line is this: the trust fund is not an accounting trick. It's a genuine obligation, both morally and legally. At the same time, it's not a stack of gold bars, either. Redeeming it will require some kind of tax increase. (It doesn't have to be an increase in personal income taxes of course. It could be anything: corporate taxes, inheritance taxes, carbon taxes, whatever.) There's no point in pretending this tax increase won't be a burden, but equally, there's no point in pretending that our obligation to devote tax revenues to paying back the trust fund bonds is just a fiction.

The president of the United States, of all people, ought to understand that.

Kevin Drum 9:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CLEARING THE AIR....Should we have a timetable for pulling out of Iraq? Or should we leave "only when the job is done"?

I've actually been sympathetic with the administration line that we need to stay until the job is done and only then get out. After all, regardless of whether the war was right, it seems like we owe the Iraqis a decent reconstruction and an end to the insurgency, and we shouldn't leave until we accomplish that. (My biggest problem with this is that it's not clear the Bush administration can end the insurgency with the resources they're willing to use, but put that aside for now.)

Conversely, the timetable argument hinges on the idea that it's our very presence that's causing the insurgency. The insurgents might very well run out of steam if everyone knew for sure that we were going to leave sometime in the foreseeable future and weren't planning a permanent military presence. However, Matt Yglesias points out a wee problem:

It's become a staple of "responsible" criticism of the administration to say that Bush ought to "make clear" that we're not trying to establish permanent bases. But the all-important first step here would be to actually stop trying to establish permanent bases.

This reminds me of a post I did a long time ago about an international poll showing that foreigners thought we were invading Iraq just to get our hands on their oil. Since foreign support for the war was such a problem, I said, why not just make an unequivocal statement that we'd put Iraqi oil under the control of the UN or some other international body? It would take the steam out of the anti-war movement and wouldn't hurt U.S. interests at all.

So why didn't we make a statement like this back when it would have been helpful? And why don't we now say that we have no plans for a long term military presence in Iraq, since that might be pretty helpful too?

Hmmm?

Kevin Drum 8:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE GODFATHER SPEAKS....The Bush folks sure do confuse me at times. Here is Condi Rice today talking about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons:

I believe that everyone is telling the Iranians that they're going to have to live up to their international obligations, or next steps are in the offing. And I think everyone understands what "next steps" mean.

Yowza! What are we talking about here? Nuclear strikes on Qom? Cruise missile assaults on nuclear facilities? U.S. troops marching on Tehran? What?

Nope, none of the above. If Iran doesn't cooperate, we're going to....refer them to the UN.

That's been the plan all along, of course, but why the tough guy language if that's all we have in mind? I've heard of strategic ambiguity, but this is ridiculous.

Kevin Drum 3:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

BRIT HUME, HACK....The Al Franken blog, based on a report at Media Matters, catches Fox News anchor Brit Hume in a piece of "Dowdification" i.e., a deliberate misquotation far worse than anything Maureen Dowd herself has ever done. And so craftily done!

I assume the excuse assuming the conservative blogosphere can tear itself away from Eason Jordan, Bill Moyers, and Ward Churchill long enough to notice will be the usual one: everyone knows Fox anchors are conservative shills. So it's OK for them to do this kind of stuff.

Blecch.

Kevin Drum 3:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

BUDGET MAGIC....Imagine that. The administration's prescription drug bill isn't going to cost $400 billion, and it's not going to cost $534 billion. It's going to cost $1.2 trillion.

But it's not so bad. Honest. The White House says there are offsets that will make the real cost $720 billion, a mere doubling of the original estimate. Personally, my guess is that these "offsets" will turn out to be less than the White House is saying, but you know me. I have an irrational hatred of George Bush that causes me to distrust his numbers. I don't know where it comes from.

As Matt Yglesias points out, the worst part of this whole charade is being forced to listen to congressional Republicans who pretend that they're outraged at being duped. The clarification about costs (that is, today's clarification, not last year's) has a simple source: the White House is now using the first ten years that the prescription drug program is actually active (2006-2015) instead of the first ten years after the bill passed (2004-2013) which included a couple of years in which the program wasn't even scheduled to exist.

This is childish, and no one can pretend to be astonished about tactics like this, especially since Republicans routinely use them on other programs as well. Dick Cheney, for example, uses estimates for the cost of Social Security privatization based on ten years starting right now, even though the program won't start up until 2009 at the earliest. The real number is at least 50% higher than the White House estimates, and everyone knows it.

Tax cuts are treated the same way. Two years ago, for example, Republican Senator George Voinovich loudly insisted that Bush's 2003 tax cut be limited to $350 billion. How responsible! But the deal he cut only got to $350 billion by pretending that the cuts would be temporary, thus cutting their apparent 10-year cost. Everyone knew perfectly well that Bush would turn around and fight to make the cuts permanent, and that's exactly what happened. Voinovich knew it too.

The Bush White House is congenitally unable to produce honest figures for any of its programs, and the sleight of hand it uses is transparent to everyone. But Republicans pretend to accept it anyway and then pretend further to be shocked when the real numbers eventually can't be concealed any longer. I wonder if their constituents will ever wake up?

Kevin Drum 1:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

DARKNESS AT NOON....An Iranian blogger writes in the LA Times today about her arrest and interrogation in Tehran:

"These answers will lead us nowhere, and you will stay here for years. Tell us the truth. How much have you received to write these offenses against the Islamic state? How are you and your fellow Web loggers organized?"

How should I respond? I knew my mother must be terribly worried about me. What could I say to make sure I got out?

"We are not organized against the state," I said. "I write because I want to criticize the system. There are some things in our state that should be corrected." "Why don't you write an e-mail directly to the supreme leader's office?" he asked. "The supreme leader considers all criticisms and takes corrective actions."

.... I remained in prison for 36 days. Now I am awaiting trial. On my release I was reminded, "Be thankful to God that we arrested you. If you had been detained by the intelligence department of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, they would surely have beaten you. Here you were our guest."

Before I departed I was politely asked to fill out a form seeking suggestions for improving conditions in the jail.

Would Stalin have been so droll?

UPDATE: Sometimes you just can't win. I'm not sure why anyone is interpreting a comparison between Iran and Stalinist Russia as anything other than condemnation, but several commenters are doing just that. Be assured I have nothing but contempt for a country that treats its critics like this.

Kevin Drum 11:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

PROMOTING KARL....Ah, excellent. Karl Rove has been promoted to deputy chief of staff "in charge of coordinating domestic policy, economic policy, national security and homeland security."

That's a relief. Rove is a talented guy and I've been worried that he doesn't have enough influence over policy in the White House. This should take care of that.

Kevin Drum 11:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE EVOLUTION OF SOCIAL SECURITY....Mark Schmitt kindly pretends that there's not much point in adding to something if I've already said it (thanks, Mark!), but then goes ahead and adds to it anyway. You should read what he has to say if you want to understand why things have changed on the Social Security front in the half dozen years since Bill Clinton was president.

To summarize, Mark makes two points:

  • Back in 1998, Social Security's problems seemed worse than they do today. Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot argued back then that the long-term financing of Social Security wasn't that big a deal and they were right but no one else agreed with them.

  • The budget was in surplus and Medicare's problems weren't as clear as they are now. Social Security really did seem like the most serious fiscal problem to be addressed at the time.

Today, Social Security is a smaller problem and the deficit and Medicare are much bigger problems. That means Social Security is a distant third on the list of long-term financial problems to be concerned about, and that's why Bush's fixation on it for ideological reasons strikes so many of us as reckless and foolhardy.

But go read Mark's entire explanation. It's very good.

Kevin Drum 12:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 8, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BUDGET UPDATE....Is the military budget really going up by 4.8% next year? Of course not. What with the costs of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, there's going to be a whole bunch more in the supplemental budget submitted later this year.

But Fred Kaplan says there's more going on than that. The supplemental request this year isn't just for the legitimate, hard-to-predict cost of the occupations. The administration is also tossing in ordinary, predictable costs that ought to be in the regular budget to begin with.

If they did that, of course, the top line growth number would look more like 9 or 10%, and the top line deficit number would look tens of billions of dollars higher than it does now. That makes for bad headlines.

Smoke and mirrors, folks, smoke and mirrors. The deeper you look, the worse it gets.

Kevin Drum 6:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

SEMI-INTELLIGENT DESIGN....I don't have the chance to say this often and might never again but this post from John Derbyshire about Intelligent Design is good ("I like a good knock-down argument as much as the next person, but I must say, ID-ers are low-grade opponents....")

UPDATE: I've deleted the rest of this post. It was about the difference between macroevolution and microevolution, but I screwed up the definitions so badly that it rendered my whole point meaningless. Best just to get rid of it. Sorry.

Kevin Drum 1:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST?....Maybe:

The announcement at the summit hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and attended by Jordan's King Abdullah II was not a formal cease-fire, but was described by both participants as an agreement to begin working toward a cease-fire.

Baby steps. But let's hope it blossoms.

Kevin Drum 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE BUDGET....To budget blog, or not to budget blog? It's hard to work up the energy.

What is there to say about George Bush's latest effort, after all? It's a grandstanding budget because it includes lots of flashy cuts that Bush knows perfectly well aren't going to be implemented. It's a meanspirited budget, because the cuts that will be implemented mostly strike the working poor and their children and don't really have much impact on the deficit anyway. And it's a dishonest budget because it excludes the enormous costs of Iraq, AMT reform, and Social Security transition.

So what should the liberal response be? Here's Marshall Wittman's suggestion:

The Moose suggests a third way for the donkey. Democrats should move to the right of the Bushies on deficit reduction. Embrace the spirit of the betrayed Republican Revolution of 1994 and call for the closing of Federal departments. The Moose suggests two Federal behemoths to put on the chopping block - the Departments of Commerce and Energy.

Commerce and Energy are the targets because they are primarily conduits for corporate welfare. Along with these two agencies, the donkey should launch an "end corporate welfare as we know it" campaign. Then, Democrats can hold news conferences at the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute and urge Republicans to join them in this great cause to cut welfare for the comfortable.

Sounds good to me. If George Bush can continually pepper his speeches with references to FDR, I guess we can make common cause with Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and the Cato Institute.

UPDATE: Sheesh. They won't include expenses that aren't ironclad, but they can count a billion bucks in revenue that's unlikely to ever see the light of day.

Kevin Drum 12:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CHANGE OF HEART ON GERRYMANDERING REFORM....I'm in a pickle. I've been feeling guilty ever since my churlish dismissal of Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to end gerrymandering in California, and yesterday's article in the New York Times on the subject just made me feel worse. The Times reports that anti-gerrymandering efforts are gaining traction across the nation, and success in California could go a long way toward moving the cause forward. That seemed like a good opportunity for me to have a public change of heart about the whole thing.

But then I read in the LA Times this morning that the biggest opposition to Arnold's plan is coming from....Republicans:

The fear is that tinkering with the California congressional boundaries could jeopardize Republican control of the U.S. House. By some estimates, the state's 20-person GOP congressional delegation opposes the governor's effort 4 to 1.

...."California now has more clout in the House of Representatives than at any time in previous history," said U.S. Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin), referring to the committee chairmanships held by California Republicans.

"It would seem to me self-defeating if we set in motion forces that could result in the loss of seats in California, which in conjunction with a loss of a handful of seats elsewhere in the country could spell a return to the minority for Republicans in the House. I just don't think that's a risk worth taking."

That sucks. If I change my mind now, it looks like I'm only doing it because reform might help, not hurt, Democrats after all. Talk about partisan hackery.

Sigh. But I guess I might as well suck it up and officially change my mind anyway. Gerrymandering in the age of the personal computer has become a scourge, and something needs to be done. California is a good place to start, and I hope Arnold succeeds.

And here's a thought for Republicans who are opposed because they're afraid neutral districts will cause them to lose a few seats. In 2010, when the next redistricting is scheduled, California will still have a Democratic legislature and quite likely a Democratic governor as well. If you're afraid of what a neutral redistricting will do, just imagine what a genuinely partisan gerrymander could accomplish. Can you spell "oblivion"?

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 7, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

LOOKING GLASS JOURNALISM....Some days I just want to scream. On Saturday, Nick Kristof criticized Democrats for not getting on the Social Security reform bandwagon:

But what if we paid for Social Security reform by keeping the inheritance tax? Or by undoing Mr. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Rescuing Social Security strikes me as a good use for that money while paying for it with debt would not secure our children's future, but mortgage it.

On Sunday, Allan Sloan criticized Democrats for not supporting private add-on accounts:

I'm in favor of private accounts constructed along the lines that Bush suggested. But the accounts ought to be in addition to the basic benefit, not as a replacement for about half of it. Democrats are crazy to oppose private accounts. They really do empower you.

Today Gregg Easterbrook criticizes Democrats for being one-sided:

The present Social Security structure highly taxes labor income, which in turn discourages job growth. (Whatever you tax, you get less of.) Reducing taxation of labor income ought to encourage job growth, which is in the interest of society. The initial round of opposition to the Bush proposal seems to score only the costs spending by Congress, etc. not the benefits. If only costs are weighed, all plans for anything are bad ideas!

For the love of God, can we stop this? Democrats would be delighted to rescue Social Security by keeping the inheritance tax or undoing Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. It's Republicans who won't hear of it. Democrats are also happy to support add-on private accounts. You can hardly swing a dead cat without hearing some Democrat saying so. But that's not what George Bush is proposing. And I imagine Democrats would be open to the idea of reducing the payroll tax and replacing it with something more progressive, too. But Bush's plan contains nothing of the kind.

As happens so often, the journalistic community has decided that they're required to say that both sides are being equally irresponsible, regardless of the facts. The way to do this, apparently, is to (a) condemn Democrats for opposing a plan they all acknowledge is a bad one, and (b) then condemn them further for not supporting their own favored alternatives, even though they know perfectly well that the obstacle to these alternatives is not Democrats but Republicans.

It's George Bush who's insisting on a private account plan that even his own people admit won't do anything to shore up Social Security's finances. It's George Bush who's insisting that the only cures he'll consider are ones that include huge but quiet benefit cuts. It's George Bush who has publicly refused to even consider proposals to increase Social Security revenue in any way. It's George Bush who has run up the unconscionable deficits that are far more responsible for our deterioriating finances than anything in the Social Security system.

The facts: Social Security has modest problems that are many decades out. They could be easily solved with small benefit cuts combined with small tax increases. A bipartisan solution could be hammered out in a few days if it weren't for one person: George Bush.

The problem isn't that Democrats aren't willing to negotiate. The problem is that Democrats don't have anyone to negotiate with. That ought to be the story.

Kevin Drum 6:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

FOOD STAMPS IN THE CORNER POCKET....George Bush's newfound religion on farm subsidies has prompted two basic reactions from liberals. First, cautious support. Seems like an idea whose time has come. Good for George.

Second, that it's just for show. Bush gets to look tough, even though he knows perfectly well it will never get through. It's just cheap grandstanding.

Today, Ed Kilgore tosses out a third: maybe it's actually a devious scheme to cut funding for food stamps. I'm not sure I buy it, and even Ed admits it's a "two-cushion shot," but who knows? Worth keeping an eye on.

UPDATE: As Matt Yglesias points out, Bush's budget already contains a $1.1 billion cut in food stamps. Who needs Ed's subtle ploy when food stamps are already directly on the chopping block?

On the other hand, this might actually be evidence that Ed is right. Bush's budget has a target of $8 billion in cuts to the agriculture budget, and by putting both farm subsidies and food stamps on the table from the start, it makes it a lot easier to horsetrade between them. Not so subtle after all.

Kevin Drum 1:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

NO POLICEMAN LEFT BEHIND....Do you wonder what kind of test you have to take to become a policeman in Iraq? Wonder no longer. The Guardian has sample questions from a recent midterm.

But there's also this:

By graduation cadets should have learned to march, have shot 200 rounds at a static target and absorbed crash courses on law and human rights. Question 24 on yesterday's test betrayed the legacy of police brutality under Saddam.

"Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person is: a) torture; b) interview techniques; c) interrogation techniques; d) informative and reliable."

Sgt Clay Laughman, a US military policeman supervising the exam, admitted the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal was a setback. "We had to explain to them that everybody has bad people."

Indeed.

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

TECHNOLOGY MARCHES ON....A couple of days ago I told a friend that someone ought to invent a machine that could create a dental crown while you wait. You know, using lasers or something. Just like they can make eyeglasses while you wait these days.

I figured this idea could make me a millionaire, but it looks like someone beat me to it. Damn.

Kevin Drum 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

DEMONIZING HARRY....Remember Tom Daschle? Mild mannered senator from South Dakota. Had the misfortune of being Senate Minority Leader when George Bush took office. By all accounts, about as good a guy as you could hope to meet.

I still remember the day several years ago when I turned on the radio and heard Rush Limbaugh lay into him for an entire hour. "El Diablo" he called him. The most liberal, conniving, liberal, obstructionist, liberal, backstabbing, revoltingly nasty thug ever to hold a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Wow, I thought. (This was pre-blogging, so I only thought it.) This is what they're saying about Tom Daschle? Who's next? Mother Teresa?

Of course not. Mild mannered, gentlemanly Harry Reid is next up for the treatment. At least this time it doesn't come as a surprise.

Kevin Drum 1:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

BLOG HEAVEN....Looking for some new lefty blogs to try out? Looking for lots of new lefty blogs to try out? Kevin Hayden writes to announce that his update of States Writes is now complete and contains links to over a thousand progressive blogs, organized by both state and topic. Dig in!

Kevin Drum 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE PAST IS PROLOGUE....Skipping around the news today, there's a common thread.

In the Washington Post, David Kay, who should know, says the Bush administration made alarmist, unsupported statements about WMD in Iraq that turned out to be both wrong and misleading. Why should we trust similar statements today about Iran?

In the LA Times, Ron Brownstein reminds us that cooperating with George Bush during his first term bought Democrats nothing except grief. Why should they bother cooperating this time around?

In the New York Times, Edmund Andrews says that Bush's plans to cut the deficit in the past have been smoke and mirrors. Is there any reason to think this year's plan is any different?

Are people finally learning their lesson? What Bush has done in the past, he's likely to do in the future. There's really no reason to trust a word he says.

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

SPECIAL HISTORICAL MYSTERIES POST....The LA Times reports on two historical mysteries today.

First, John Dean says the identity of Deep Throat will become public soon:

Bob Woodward, a reporter on the team that covered the Watergate story, has advised his executive editor at the Washington Post that Throat is ill....The source who informed me that Woodward leaked the news of Throat's illness to the executive editor of the Post gave me that information either on "deep background" or "off the record" (I never could get the distinction of those rules straightened out). So I apologize to my source if this information was never meant to be public, but it is a tidbit too hot to keep sitting on.

Second, Herbert Lee Stivers, a retired sheet-metal worker from Hesperia, claims that he's the guy who gave Hermann Goering the cyanide that Goering used to commit suicide. He says it all happened when he met a German girl who said she had a friend she wanted Stivers to meet:

There, Stivers said he was introduced to two men who called themselves Erich and Mathias. They told him that Goering was "a very sick man" who wasn't being given the medicine he needed in prison.

Twice, Stivers said, he took notes hidden by Erich in a fountain pen to Goering. The third time, Erich put a capsule in the pen for him to take to the Nazi.

"He said it was medication, and that if it worked and Goering felt better, they'd send him some more," Stivers said. "He said they'd give him a couple of weeks and that Mona would tell me if they wanted to send him more medicine."

Next up: who really killed JFK?

UPDATE: As Steve Snyder points out in comments, it should be fairly easy to come up with a list of consensus suspects for Deep Throat's identity and then check to see which ones are gravely ill. I'm much too lazy to do this myself, but it seems tailor made for the supposedly distributed intellect of the blogosphere. Let's get cracking, folks!

Kevin Drum 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 6, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE WHITE HOUSE AND THE TRUST FUND....This is sort of wonkish, but I want to revisit the question of whether the Bush administration thinks the government should default on the Social Security trust fund. I've now read the transcript of Wednesday's briefing, and here's the key passage:

SR. ADMIN. OFFICIAL: Well, there's a implication at the end of your question which you have to remember, the current system can't pay the current guaranteed benefit, so

Q is to be paid through 2042 or 2052, the point are you suggesting that would not be paid?

SR. ADMIN. OFFICIAL: Well, it's well, actually, it's I don't want to get off on too far of a tangent, but the Congressional Budget Office actually put out a paper this week which made a modification to what they had previously said about what current law was. And they made it very clear that current law is actually the level of benefits the current system can actually pay, as opposed to the level of benefits the current system is promising. So if you ask the question in terms of

Q But they also said it can pay current level benefits until 2052 correct?

SR. ADMIN. OFFICIAL: But the Congressional Budget Office is also very careful to say that starting in 2019 or 2020, the resources are not there to pay those benefits.

Now, I'll grant that interpreting this stuff is sort of like reading Peking wall posters in post-Mao China, but the SAO is actually being more explicit here than I had thought. Currently, the trust fund is scheduled to redeem its bonds between 2019 and 2052, and the reporter asked about benefits during that period. In reponse, SAO said two things:

  • CBO says current law is about benefits that can be paid, not benefits that are promised.

  • Starting in 2019 or 2020, promised benefits can no longer be paid.

The only way that promised benefits can't be paid is if the government defaults on the trust fund. So SAO appears to be saying that default is both legal and likely.

This is why someone ought to ask explicitly about the administration's view of defaulting on the trust fund. After all, everyone knows what a treasury bond is: it's a call on the tax revenue of the U.S. government. Bonds in the Social Security trust fund are no different, and workers who pay payroll taxes have been funding the purchase of bonds on that basis for over two decades.

Every Social Security plan I've seen in print assumes that the trust fund will be redeemed. Does the White House plan also assume that? If it doesn't, they ought to let us know.

Kevin Drum 11:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

NEWSPEAK WATCH, PART 2....Over at Hit & Run, Jacob Sullum gets mail from The Man about his imprecise recent references to personal account program related activities:

Greg Crist, director of communications for the House Republican Conference, liked my column on Social Security. Well, most of it. As he explained in an e-mail message, he did not care for my use of certain explicit language that he feels has no place in public discussion of the president's reform plan:

Every day, we fight reporters and Democrats for using the term 'privatization' b/c every poll worth its salt shows it frightens the public.

And here you write a great article, but use the term in the headline and everywhere else!

Can you help us out please? Dems love to demagogue. We shouldn't help them.

Bad as it is for Republicans to covertly buy the assistance of commentators, it may be worse when they assume you're on their team without having the decency to pay you.

The comments are pretty funny too.

Kevin Drum 7:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

NEWSPEAK WATCH....From the Washington Post today:

The White House will brandish independent studies on program effectiveness, appeals for lawmakers to set priorities, and, on occasion, some rhetorical creativity. The deep cuts to community development, for example, have been titled the "Strengthening America's Communities Initiative."

Really, what can you say about these guys anymore?

Kevin Drum 7:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE SOCIAL SECURITY CON GAME....If there's any single area where conservatives have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, it's in convincing the populace that government sucks. Sure, they got a great kickstart from Vietnam and Watergate, but it was decades of railing against waste and fraud and incompetence that finally won the day for them.

What brought this to mind was an op-ed in the Washington Post today by Laura Thomas, a 25-year-old news aide in the Style section. Thomas writes that she considers the Social Security deductions from her paycheck to be "giving back to my older family members." This is correct. She also writes that she's eager to start up a 401(k) because she wants to make sure she has a retirement income of her own no matter what happens to Social Security. That's good thinking.

But then there's this:

When it comes to my retirement money, I don't want anyone else touching it, especially the government, which has done such a dandy job of handling retirement funds so far.

I see a pitfall to this so-called privatization. Is it really private if the government's involved?....What if those of us in our mid-twenties live to be 120 years old? Will there be enough money to live that long comfortably? These questions keep this 25-year-old holding onto her retirement fund, one the government can't tamper with. Better be safe than sorry, Mama always said.

This kind of cynical mockery is insane. The United States government has done a superb job of handling retirement funds for seniors. Social Security is one of the most successful safety net programs, both in spirit and in execution, in the history of the country.

And the "pitfall" of Bush's privatization plan has nothing to do with having the government involved. The whole point of Social Security as it exists today is to take care of people who live to 120, something that a private account can't do unless it's turned into an annuity just like Social Security.

Thomas is a living, breathing example of the triumph of Republican cynicism. For decades Republicans have been squawking that Social Security is doomed, but the fact is that the only danger it faces is that Republicans are determined to dismantle it. Democrats have been proposing simple, modest fixes to Social Security's simple, modest problems for years, and have been stymied by Republicans who deliberately refuse to consider them because that would remove the crisis atmosphere that might allow them to do away with it.

Thomas is smart to save for her retirement. Everyone should. But she'd be smarter still to quit buying the Republican con that Social Security is doomed. The only danger Social Security faces is from Republicans themselves.

Kevin Drum 1:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 5, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

2 YEARS, 167 DAYS AGO....Here is my very first blog post ever, written shortly after New York City banned smoking in bars and restaurants:

This is old news here in California, where smoking has been banned almost everywhere for years, and the arguments coming from restaurant owners and tobacco flacks are old news too. Think what you will about whether smoking in bars is a reasonable thing for the state to regulate, but it didn't have any impact on the restaurant and bar business here on the Left Coast and it won't in NYC either.

Of course, this is just common sense. After all, how many people are going to schlep through the scenic Holland Tunnel to visit a bar in Jersey City just because they can't smoke at their favorite watering hole in Manhattan? Approximately none.

Here is the New York Times today:

Back in 2002, when the City Council was weighing Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's proposal to eliminate smoking from all indoor public places, few opponents were more fiercely outspoken than James McBratney, president of the Staten Island Restaurant and Tavern Association.

....Asked last week what he thought of the now two-year-old ban, Mr. McBratney sounded changed. "I have to admit," he said sheepishly, "I've seen no falloff in business in either establishment." He went on to describe what he once considered unimaginable: Customers actually seem to like it, and so does he.

....A vast majority of bar and restaurant patrons interviewed last week, including self-described hard-core smokers, said they were surprised to find themselves pleased with cleaner air, cheaper dry-cleaning bills and a new social order created by the ban.

Can I call 'em or can I call 'em?

The whole story is pretty interesting. I read similar sorts of pieces in California after our smoking ban took effect in 1998, and the upshot is that even lots of smokers have ended up liking the ban. "I'm all for it. My dry-cleaning bill's gone way down," said one. "You realize you stop stinking, you don't smell like an ashtray," said another. "You can meet a girl out here. Strike up a conversation," said a third.

Just another triumph of pragmatism over libertarianism.

UPDATE: I notice that I was also right in the second post of my career. And I still hope that I eventually turn out to be right about the third.

Kevin Drum 10:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

PACK JOURNALISM....After reading yet another article about University of Colorado nutjob Ward Churchill in the LA Times this morning, I began to wonder. How did this story get so much play? I mean, the guy's an obscure academic in Boulder, and the "Roosting Chickens" paper that created all the flurry was written three years ago. What gives?

The short answer is twofold: it's the result of both the agenda-setting power of the right wing outrage machine and the agenda-setting power of the New York Times. According to Nexis, here's how the story developed.

On January 26, a local newspaper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, wrote about Churchill's upcoming visit to nearby Hamilton College. The paper quoted Hamilton art history professor Steven Goldberg saying that it was "morally outrageous" to bring Churchill to campus. On the same day, AP distributed a short dispatch about the controversy.

On January 27, the conservative New York Post picked up the story and Joe Scarborough mentioned it on his cable talk show.

On January 28 it led Bill O'Reilly's program. After telling his audience that free speech has its limits "I can't subject my audience to irresponsible ravings," he said, apparently without a trace of irony O'Reilly declared that Churchill didn't deserve to be an American citizen and then suggested that he should be arrested for sedition.

On January 29 the right-wing Washington Times called Churchill a fascist.

On January 30 the Scaife-owned Pittsburgh Tribune Review weighed in.

Then, on January 31, the New York Times devoted a thousand words to the controversy. At that point, a story that had been mostly confined to wire services, local media outlets in Syracuse and Colorado, and right wing provocateurs, went mainstream.

Within the next three days stories appeared in the Seattle Times, Philadelphia Daily News, New York Sun, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, Deseret Morning News, New York Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, Kansas City Star, Detroit Free Press, CNN, NPR, and the CBS Evening News. Richard Cohen reported that O'Reilly's segment had resulted in over 6,000 letters and emails, including death threats, to the president of Hamilton College.

It's fascinating how a trivial story like this managed to spread so far, isn't it? The right wing machine pushed, the New York Times responded, and then the rest of the press followed. Within days, the previously insignificant Ward Churchill had become a household name and a virtual poster boy for lefty nihilism based on something that no one on either the left or right had cared a whit about in the three years since he wrote it. Truly an object lesson for us all.

UPDATE: In case you're curious (and who wouldn't be?), I did a Nexis search on Ward Churchill all the way back to 9/11/2001. Sure enough, there's only one mention of his "Roosting Chickens" paper in the entire time between then and now: it was in the Burlington Free Press in December 2001, reporting on a small rally of peace activists at which Churchill spoke.

And guess what? It turns out that even Vermont peaceniks didn't sympathize with his views. "It's clearly not our position at all, and it's unfortunate it came out now," said one organizer after learning about Churchill's essay. "What he said is so completely at variance with what we believe," said another. "We do not want to see a growing movement for peace derailed by the views attributed to a speaker," said yet another. As Free Press columnist Sam Hemingway put it, "One thing's sure: UVM and the people responsible for sponsoring his visit to Burlington don't support what he wrote about the victims."

Churchill's a real lefty icon, isn't he?

Kevin Drum 1:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

HACK WATCH....Sorry, Atrios, but you're going to have to update your Wanker of the Day. Here is Fox News anchor Brit Hume on Friday:

Last night, Senate minority leader Harry Reid likened the presidents proposal to allow Americans to divert a portion of payroll taxes into personal security investment accounts to "gambling." But in 1999, the Nevada Democrat proposed something very similar on our own "FOX News Sunday" saying, "Most of us have no problem with taking a small amount of the Social Security proceeds and putting it into the private sector."

Via Nexis, here's what Reid really said:

REID: But I am not for turning all Social Security moneys over to the private sector. I think we have to continue along the way we have been...

SNOW: (OFF-MIKE) private sector, that's people? That's you know, that's me, that's Brit, that's you?

REID: Well, but, see, that's easy, Tony, to throw those words out. My father, probably as smart as any of the three of us, but he had no education. My father never graduated from the 8th grade. And to think he can invest his own money, he couldn't do that.

....HUME: Are you suggesting that your father had some extra money that the

REID: I think if my Dad had some extra money he would have spent it. My, you know, he had four children, he worked very hard. We need Social Security has been a great program, the most successful social program in the history of the world. Let's not denigrate the program. It's worked great. We need to make sure it continues to work great. And most of us have no problem with taking a small amount of the Social Security proceeds and putting it into the private sector. The vast majority we should continue to (OFF-MIKE)

SNOW: Senator Domenici, you just heard that. We're talking about investing some Social Security money. Should the government be putting it into the stock market or should people be doing it?

This entire conversation was about Bill Clinton's proposal for the government to invest part of the Social Security trust fund in the stock market. Reid was specifically saying that he was open to that idea but was opposed to private accounts, something that Tony Snow acknowledged in the very next sentence in Hume's presence.

What a hack.

UPDATE: By the way, did you notice the lovely phrase "personal security investment accounts" in Hume's paragraph? Is that the new White House diktat, or do you think Hume came up with it on his own?

Kevin Drum 11:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRATS AND SOCIAL SECURITY....This is just annoying. Nick Kristof thinks liberals are wrong for obstructing George Bush's Social Security plan even though he agrees it's irresponsible. Here are his ideas:

But what if we paid for Social Security reform by keeping the inheritance tax? Or by undoing Mr. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Rescuing Social Security strikes me as a good use for that money while paying for it with debt would not secure our children's future, but mortgage it.

Seriously, what planet is he writing from? Everyone with a pulse knows perfectly well that neither of these proposals has even the slightest chance of being considered by anyone in today's Republican party. They are complete nonstarters.

What's more, I can point Kristof to dozens of Social Security rescue plans from earnest liberals. Hell, George Bush even mentioned a bunch of them in his State of the Union address. They come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from quick and dirty (like mine here) to hundred page white papers from professional economists at respected think tanks (like this one here). Take your pick.

The real problem, as Kristof himself acknowledges, is not that Democrats have no proposals, it's that Republicans are in charge and their proposals are wildly irresponsible. They agree that private accounts don't help Social Security's solvency but they want them anyway. They agree that the system needs more money but they refuse to even consider a tax increase. They want private accounts, big benefit cuts, and massive borrowing to finance the transition costs, and that's that. Those are their nonnegotiable demands.

Kristof knows perfectly well that Democrats have plenty of modest, sensible, nondramatic plans that would eliminate Social Security's future problems. Republicans, however, have no interest in hearing about them. That's what Kristof ought to be exercised about.

UPDATE: Jonathan Schwarz weighs in with a fair and balanced critique of Kristof here. To get the joke, though, you should read this first.

Kevin Drum 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 4, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SHOWTIME AT GITMO....CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen wrote a column a few days ago explaining why more and more judges are becoming skeptical of administration good faith in the conduct of military tribunals. Here's his account of a conversation between accused terror-detainee Mustafa Ait Idr and the court officer in charge of his case:

The presiding tribunal officer accuses Idr of associating "with a known Al Qaeda operative." The detainee says, reasonably enough: "Give me his name." The tribunal president says: "I do not know." Idr understandably asks: "How can I respond to this?" The tribunal president asks: "Did you know of anybody that was a member of al Qaeda?" Idr says: "No, no ..."

And then Idr went to the heart of the constitutional problem, as Judge Green sees it, with an evaluation that the judge described as "piercingly accurate."

"This is something the interrogators told me a long while ago," Idr complains during his so-called trial. "I asked the interrogators to tell me who this person was. Then I could tell you if I might have known this person, but not if this person is a terrorist. Maybe I knew this person as a friend. Maybe it was a person that worked with me. Maybe it was a person that was on my team. But I do not know if this person is Bosnian, Indian or whatever. If you tell me the name, then I can respond and defend myself against this accusation."

The tribunal president then responds, presumably with a straight face: "We are asking you the question and we need you to respond to what is on the unclassified summary."

As Cohen points out, Idr may very well be a terrorist and may have been detailed properly. But finding out is the whole point of the trial, and it's impossible for Idr to offer any kind of defense if the court won't even produce the evidence against him. And if you're not allowed to defend yourself, it's not a trial, it's just a show.

Kevin Drum 7:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE PRIVATE ACCOUNT BUREAUCRACY....One thing I've been waiting for is for someone to estimate just how much the administration of private accounts would cost. I don't mean management fees, I mean the additional federal bureaucracy and cost to businesses of setting them up in the first place.

No one has taken a comprehensive look at this yet, but Greg Anrig at The Century Foundation has taken the first step. Based on congressional testimony from the former head of the Thrift Savings Plan, it looks like it would cost around half a billion dollars just for telephone support of the accounts, and small businesses would have to cough up about $300 per employee in administrative costs.

Of course, this is just a drop in the bucket. The full cost of administering a new bureaucracy to handle this stuff would be quite a bit higher. I'm sure someone will put together an estimate soon.

Kevin Drum 2:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

IT'S A SMALL WORLD....Most of you don't subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, but today they have a good survey of Social Security privatization around the world. Bottom line: it's not pretty. CJR Daily has the highlights.

Kevin Drum 1:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

FRAMING UPDATE....What name does George Bush's Social Security privatization plan deserve? In passing, John Holbo suggests "Soylent Security."

I like it!

UPDATE: Speaking of Crooked Timber (John Holbo's summer home), Kieran Healy writes to tell me that it's broken. You can still read it, but no one can post and you can't leave comments. A team of CTU technicians headed by the guy who shut down (almost) all of the country's nuclear reactors last Monday is working on it.

Kevin Drum 12:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

DEFAULTING ON THE TRUST FUND....I have a question. Matt Yglesias tried to explain the president's Social Security program yesterday, and while his explanation isn't bad, it suffers from the fact that the president himself hasn't actually proposed a plan yet. The only thing we Social Security Kremlinologists have to go on are his spokesman's fumbling attempts to lay out some principles prior to the State of the Union address.

This is undoubtedly deliberate. When your plan is a bad one, confusion works to your advantage. But here is Matt's understanding of the first part of Bush's privatization scheme:

The first phase is to default on the General Fund's debt to the Social Security Trust Fund in order to make room in the budget (sort of) to make the Bush tax cuts permanent.

Now, it turns out no one has ever actually said this. Rather, Matt is inferring it from all the talk of Social Security's problems starting in 2018. After all, the only thing that happens in 2018 is that the trust fund starts redeeming some of its bonds, so there's no reason to mention this date as a "problem" unless you think that redeeming those bonds is also a problem.

So here's my question: why hasn't anyone just asked the White House if they think the government should default on the trust fund? It seems like a clear enough question that it would be hard even for the Bushies to dance around it. Either you think the government should honor those bonds or you don't.

Perhaps someone in the White House press corps would like to give this a try, if only for the sport of watching Scott McClellan tap dance around it. Of course, you never know: maybe he'd actually answer the question. I'm sure it's happened before.

Kevin Drum 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

MORE ENRON TAPES....Guess what? New Enron tapes were released yesterday, and they contain some of the clearest evidence yet of Enron's strategy of deliberately creating electricity shortages by shutting down power plants during the California power crisis:

According to the newly released transcript, Enron traders on Jan. 16, 2001, hatched a plan to take an Enron-controlled power plant in Las Vegas off-line the following day. In a phone call, "Bill of Enron" informed "Rich," a Las Vegas power plant employee, that "we want you guys to get a little creative...and come up with a reason to go down."

The shutdown, he added, was "supposed to be, ah, you know, kinda one of those things."

In an effort to cooperate, Rich responded: "OK, so we're just comin' down for some maintenance, like a forced outage type thing?"

"I think that's a good plan, Rich," Bill said."....I knew I could count on you."

The 52-megawatt plant was out of operation for several hours the next day, when rolling blackouts plagued Northern and Central California and about half a million homes and businesses lost power. At that same time, U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson had ordered suppliers to make power available in the West.

I hope there's no one left who still thinks California's problems were caused by too little power plant construction, or overly restrictive environmental regulations, or a badly constructed power grid, or mismanagement by Gray Davis. This tape is just one more piece of evidence that what really happened was fraud. Enron and other energy traders took a routine, temporary problem that could have been solved fairly easily, and made it into a crisis by deliberately removing power from the grid at times calculated to cause the greatest possible panic.

And it worked. Read the whole story for even more gruesome details.

Kevin Drum 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

MORE TROOPS....Paul Wolfowitz testified before Congress on Thursday that troop levels in Iraq would be reduced by 15,000 now that the elections are over. This has been planned for a while and isn't news.

However, Wolfowitz also said that Donald Rumsfeld, who for years has resisted the idea of increasing the Army's permanent end strength, has finally agreed that this is necessary. Just like John Kerry and the Democrats have been saying for the past year. How about that?

The size of the increase apparently hasn't been decided yet, but funding will be included in the Pentagon's FY2006 budget request next week. I'm not quite sure how they can ask for funding if they haven't decided on how many troops they need, but they're the budget wizards, not me.

Kevin Drum 1:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

EARLY ELECTION RESULTS FROM IRAQ....The New York Times reports that early returns in the Iraq vote show that the UIA, the Shiite slate dominated by religious groups, has won 72% of the vote so far, compared to 18% for Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's more secular Shiite coalition.

These results aren't meaningful on a broad basis because they come from strongly Shiite precincts. When the full vote is counted the Kurds will have a larger share than they do now, and possibly the Sunnis as well.

Still, the religious slate so far has won 80% of the Shiite vote. If that holds, and if Shiites win 70% of the overall vote, it means that the UIA will win about 56% of the total vote. If the Kurdish slate wins 23% of the vote (as I estimated here), a UIA/Kurd alliance would have a comfortable two-thirds majority all by itself and have no need for any further coalition.

I have no analysis to offer on what this means. I just thought I'd toss the numbers out.

Kevin Drum 1:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 3, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

OIL FOR FOOD UDPATE....The Volcker Report on the UN oil-for-food scandal makes for fascinating reading. The head of the oil-for-food program was a UN bureaucrat named Benon Sevan, and one of the key charges of corruption involves an allegation that he steered oil contracts to a company called AMEP, which was run by a guy named Fakhry Abdelnour.

But when the investigation started Sevan denied even knowing Abdelnour, let alone steering business his way. At least, that was his story at first:

When Mr. Sevan was interviewed on January 21, 2005, his description of past contacts with Mr. Abdelnour evolved from a single meeting at the OPEC conference to acknowledging a second chance meeting at a restaurant in Geneva and then, after being confronted with phone record evidence, to having developed an acquaintanceship with Mr. Abdelnour lasting over several years: "I came to like the guy. He is an interesting character you know, he's been around the world."

(He's been "around the world"? That doesn't seem like it would be especially noteworthy to a lifelong UN bureaucrat, does it?)

Still, I guess we all enjoy being around interesting characters. Unfortunately, there's also the fact that Sevan took over the oil-for-food program in 1997 and there are Iraqi records for oil purchases in the name of "Mr. Sevan" that start in 1998:

And then there's Sevan's receipt of several "large cash payments" over a suspiciously similar period:

The investigators apparently found his explanation that he got this money from his aunt unconvincing:

Mr. Sevan claimed...that this money came from his elderly aunt (now deceased), who lived in Cyprus. Her lifestyle did not suggest this to be so. She was a retired Cyprus government photographer, living on a modest pension, for about twenty years. During her retirement, she lived in a small, plain two-bedroom apartment in Cyprus, which had been purchased by Mr. Sevan. According to a longtime family friend, she never had shown signs of having access to large amounts of cash....

As the report laconically notes, Mr. Sevan "is under continuing investigation."

Kevin Drum 7:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

A NEW TROJAN HORSE?....The basic economic argument behind Social Security privatization has always been simple: In order to solve Social Security's future deficit, we have to cut benefits. But if we give everyone a private account invested in the stock market, the returns from the accounts will be high enough to make up for the benefit cuts.

You might recognize this as the same kind of free lunch argument beloved of supply side enthusiasts in the early Reagan years. Back then, the idea was that if we cut taxes, the resulting economic boom would provide the government with more tax revenue than it would have had in the first place.

Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, figured out pretty quickly that the supply side fantasy was a ruse a "Trojan horse" to bring down tax rates for the wealthy, he called it and no one aside from a few dead enders pretends to believe it anymore. Now, via Josh Marshall, it appears that George Bush has quietly stopped talking about the private account free lunch as well:

A Bush aide, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity, was more explicit, saying that the individual accounts would do nothing to solve the system's long-term financial problems.

That candid analysis, although widely shared by economists, distressed some Republicans.

"Oh, my God," one GOP political strategist said when he learned of the shift in rhetoric. "The White House has made a lot of Republicans walk the plank on this. Now it sounds as if they are sawing off the board."

Now why would Bush do this? Possibly because he's finally realized he just won't be able to get away with continuing the pretense. After all, as I mentioned last month, the president's plan is based on something called CSSS Plan 2, a plan the CBO has already examined and found wanting. As this CBO chart shows, even if Social Security is left alone and runs out of money, it's still a better deal than CSSS Plan 2:

For more details, see this post. The bottom line is that private accounts by themselves don't improve the solvency of Social Security. They actually make it worse.

And now, for extra credit, answer this question: if private accounts don't solve anything, if indeed they actually make Social Security's problems worse, then why is Bush pushing them? Cui bono?

Kevin Drum 6:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

OIL FOR FOOD....Paul Volcker's preliminary report on the UN oil-for-food program is supposed to come out today, and in a preview essay in the Wall Street Journal this morning he says, "The findings do not make for pleasant reading."

No doubt. The oil-for-food program, which allowed Saddam Hussein to sell limited amounts of oil in return for humanitarian aid (mostly food and medicine), was fatally flawed because Hussein was permitted to sell the oil to whomever he chose. This allowed him to hand out contracts to favored suppliers for less than the UN price and then extract kickbacks out of their profits. That much has been known for years, but the big open questions are: who were the people who gave Hussein kickbacks and how much money did they give him?

Whether the Volcker report names names remains to be seen, but the LA Times has a lengthy review of the scandal today that makes it pretty clear that no one is going to come out of this looking good:

In the end, national interests trumped vigilance, even for the U.S. and Britain. In one of the biggest and most blatant cases of oil smuggling, 14 tankers hired by a Jordanian company illegally lifted at least 7 million barrels of oil from an Iraqi port not approved or monitored by the U.N. in February 2003, one month before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

....Oil traders were told informally that the U.S. let the tanks go because Amman needed oil to build up its strategic reserves before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, according to a joint report by the Financial Times and the Italian business daily Il Sole 24 Ore that was confirmed by U.N. officials. But Jordan sold most of the oil to Yemen, China and Malaysia.

Every country had their own parochial concerns. The United States considered Turkey and Jordan too important to provoke, and the rest of the Security Council had issues of their own as well:

The U.S. and Britain also looked the other way when their citizens and businesses traded favors for oil and brought it into the country in ways that skirted legality, say U.N. officials who oversaw oil contracts.

Russia was Iraq's best customer and most powerful ally on the Security Council; it blocked several U.S. and British attempts to tighten controls on Iraqi imports and told Hussein's government in advance when and where U.N. weapons inspections would take place, a former U.N. official said.

China was a consistent opponent of sanctions and interference with another country's sovereignty, wary of precedents that could be used against it.

France fought attempts to reduce kickbacks that traders paid to Hussein's regime for the right to buy discounted oil, and sent charter flights to Baghdad in a brazen challenge to sanctions it had voted to enact.

As they say, read the whole thing. It's a pretty good roundup.

UPDATE: I haven't read it yet, but here's the full text of the Volcker report.

Kevin Drum 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

APPLAUSE WATCH....Dana Milbank notes divisions in the Republican ranks at last night's State of the Union address.

Kevin Drum 2:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

TODAY'S QUIZ....Question: who does this quote refer to?

The purists despise him, but in Japan he's bigger than David Beckham or any other celebrity you care to name. He endorses everything from toothpaste to underwear.

Answer: ex-football player Bob Sapp.

Question 2: Who the hell is Bob Sapp and why is he so popular in Japan?

Answer 2: Click here to find out.

Kevin Drum 2:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

TALKING ABOUT SOCIAL SECURITY....I don't really have much comment on this, but I thought I'd pass along the conclusions of some polling by Hart Research that Ruy Teixeira highlights in his latest edition of Public Opinion Watch. Hart polled a variety of ways of talking about Social Security, and here are their recommendations:

DON'T debate this at the level of philosophy "ownership society" vs. "social insurance."

DO focus on the real, concrete harm to Americans' retirement security done by the Bush plan.

DON'T get caught up in debating the size of the problem.

DO focus on how Bush plan makes problem worse and weakens Social Security.

DON'T focus all your attention on "risk" of accounts.

DO tell Americans about huge benefit cuts in plan....

Conclusions: Focusing Our Message

The Bush plan undermines retirement security by cutting guaranteed benefits 30% to 50%, even for those who don't choose an account. Risky privatization accounts won't make up the difference. Working people should get the benefits they paid for.

Social Security does face problems, but the Bush plan makes the problem worse and weakens Social Security by diverting trillions of dollars from the trust fund.

We can strengthen Social Security without slashing benefits:

Require Congress to pay back the money it has diverted from Social Security and create new opportunities for Americans to have tax-free savings for their retirement in addition to Social Security."

Like I said, I don't have any special comment on this. Just food for thought.

Kevin Drum 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

REVIEWING THE DEMOCRATIC RESPONSE....Just a quick note: is there really any point in having an opposition response to the State of the Union address? I don't mean to harass Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid, but they just aren't very good speakers and given the setting they're apparently forced to use (sitting down, staring woodenly into the camera with no audience, reciting a speech prepared days ahead of time), it would take a brilliant speaker to do well.

Frankly, Democrats would be better off using the 20 minutes after the SOTU just getting on the news programs and providing some garden variety spin. I doubt that much of anyone watches the response, and anyone who does is not going to come away impressed.

Next year, Dems should either insist on a better format or just skip the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

GEORGE BUSH'S RUBE GOLDBERG FOLLY....The Washington Post describes the White House's latest explanation of its Social Security plan today, and here's how part of it goes:

Under the system, the gains may be minimal. The Social Security Administration, in projecting benefits under a partially privatized system, assumes a 4.6 percent rate of return above inflation. The Congressional Budget Office, Capitol Hill's official scorekeeper, assumes 3.3 percent gains.

If a worker sets aside $1,000 a year for 40 years, and earns 4 percent annually on investments, the account would grow to $99,800 in today's dollars, but the government would keep $78,700 or about 80 percent of the account. The remainder, $21,100, would be the worker's.

With a 4.6 percent average gain over inflation, the government keeps more than 70 percent. With the CBO's 3.3 percent rate, the worker is left with nothing but the guaranteed benefit.

Got that? You put some money into a "private account," and in return you get lower benefits. The feds actually own the account, though, and will pay you the benefits you would have gotten anyway under the system we already have but only if the account does well. If the account does really well, you might get a bit of bonus cash.

And the cost? Hard to say. But at least $4 or $5 trillion for a system that even in the worst case is only $3.7 trillion in the hole for the next 75 years.

Oh, and did we mention that participants are required to buy annuities instead of cashing out their accounts when they retire? So much for bequeathing your "personal account" to your kids in the event of your untimely demise.

What a Rube Goldberg monstrosity: layer upon layer of weird safeguards and limitations just to make sure that the new system can do what the current system already does, namely provide a guaranteed, stable retirement income for old people.

The worst part of the whole thing is how unnecessary it is. As you know, I think the projections of insolvency in 2042 are overly pessimistic, but even if you accept those projections a bipartisan solution could be crafted in about half an hour. Back in 1998 most Democrats (as well as AARP) were ready to support a plan that cut benefits modestly by modifying the formula used to calculate cost-of-living increases. Republican Lindsey Graham has been gathering support for the idea of increasing the cap on the amount of income subject to the payroll tax (from $90,000 to about $200,000). Both Dems and Republicans are open to the idea of investing some or all of the trust fund in equities instead of treasury bonds.

Those are simple, moderate, common sense solutions that would cost very little and would cause minimal pain; they could easily gain broad bipartisan support and would solve Social Security's problems into the next century and beyond. There's exactly zero reason to make an enormous partisan battle out of this.

Unless, of course, an enormous partisan battle is the whole point of the exercise.

UPDATE: The Post has corrected its story. Guaranteed benefits will indeed be reduced, but private accounts belong to the account holder, not the government. Annuities are no longer mentioned.

Hard to say what's going on here, although the administration could clear everything up if they'd actually produce a plan for everyone to look at instead of dancing around every question that comes up. There's still a ton of extra complexity and additional bureaucracy here just to keep us close to the system we already have.

Kevin Drum 12:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

A QUESTION....I rented The Forgotten last night and I just have to ask: was this the dumbest movie ever made, or what? I know the competition is stiff, but still.....

Kevin Drum 11:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 2, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE DEMOCRATIC RESPONSE....I don't feel like blogging about the Democratic response, but can I ask why it is that Bush's only references to past presidents were to FDR and Clinton, while Harry Reid's only reference was to Eisenhower? Shouldn't these guys be flogging their own presidents, not the other guys?

UPDATE: OK, the reference to opposing gambling with Social Security, "and that comes from a senator who represents Las Vegas," wasn't bad.

Kevin Drum 10:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

STATE OF THE UNION 2005 LIVEBLOGGING....I wasn't planning to liveblog the State of the Union address this year, but what the hell. I can't help myself.

Wrapup: The domestic half of the speech seemed fairly pedestrian and flat. The foreign affairs half was often soaring and beautiful. Overall a decent speech, although I doubt he changed many minds about Social Security privatization.

A full transcript of the speech is here.

10:02 Another FDR reference?

9:55 You know, you'd hardly even know that the only reason we just had elections in Iraq was because of a UN-brokered deal with the country's most prominent cleric opposed by the Bush administration for over a year until they were finally forced to give in and agree to it.

9:51 The whole foreign policy part of the speech has been pretty good so far. I could almost learn to like Bush if my only contact with him came from listening to his speeches about freedom and democracy.

9:47 Egypt? Democracy?

9:45 That was a good bit about the difference between us and the terrorists.

9:42 Goodness, what a multilateralist President Bush is....

9:38 "Freedom from fear"? Yet another FDR reference?

9:37 There's always lots of applause during SOTUs, but are there always this many standing ovations? I don't really remember from previous years.

9:36 "Taking on gang life"? Laura's going to head that up?

9:34 "Every judicial nominee deserves an up or down vote." I think that's gotten the biggest standing O yet from the Republican side of the aisle.

9:32 No gay marriage. Culture of life. I guess this is the "pandering to the Christian right" part of the speech.

9:29 The Democratic side of the aisle sure wasn't very enthusiastic about private accounts.

9:24 Hmmm, the crisis now starts in 2018, not 2042. In 2027, the government will "somehow" have to come up with $200 billion. Sounds like GWB isn't sure the feds should really be responsible for honoring the trust fund.

9:22 Social Security was "a great moral success of the 20th century." Now he's the second coming of FDR.

9:18 "Environmentally responsible energy"? Man, you'd think Bush was the second coming of Jimmy Carter.

9:15 Hmmm, he's talking about increasing Pell Grants again. Didn't he promise that last year too?

9:12 Yep, it's all about the kids.

9:04 Can we get on with things already? Enough with the gladhanding.

9:00 OK, OK, I'll listen to the speech anyway. Maybe someone will spill their glass of water or something.

8:59 Heck, why bother with listening to the speech at all? The major newspapers have already written their stories, and apparently it's all about the kids this year. From excerpts provided to AP: "Let us do what Americans have always done, and build a better world for our children and grandchildren....Our second great responsibility to our children and grandchildren....Our third responsibility to future generations..." And what is it that our children want? Social Security reform, moral values, and a bigger military.

Kevin Drum 7:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

PLAME UPDATE....Are you waiting impatiently for more news on the Valerie Plame case? Sadly, I'm afraid you'll have to keep waiting.

In the meantime, though, the Washington Post has a nice profile today of Patrick Fitzgerald, the hard-charging Chicago prosecutor who's handling the case. Check it out if you need a fix.

Kevin Drum 5:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

RICHARD GRASSO UPDATE....Remember Richard Grasso, the ex-CEO of the New York Stock Exchange who was fired resigned a couple of years ago after his, um, unseemly pay package became public? Here's the nut graf from a report on his compensation that was written in 2003 but not released publicly until today:

The level of benefits that Grasso accumulated during this period [1995-2002] was excessive by any reasonable standard. By August 2003....[Grasso's pension] translated into a lifetime annuity of at least $7.4 million per year....This translated into a total lump sum present value...of about $126.4 million.

Applying appropriate executive compensation analysis and benchmarking criteria, an appropriate pension for Grasso would have been in a range of about $875,000 per year, which would translate into a lump-sum pension benefit of about $12.8 million.

Ownership society, baby, ownership society!

So the bottom line is that Grasso's pension was excessive by $113 million. But that's not all. The report estimates that his regular old pay was inflated by $43 million as well. What's more, his pay in 2001-2002 wasn't merely "excessive," it was "grossly excessive."

But why was it so excessive? The report runs through several tedious explanations, all of which boil down to the usual factors of greed and cronyism. But here's my favorite part:

Only a handful of people knew about Grasso's pension accumulation, and Grasso's compensation awards were not disclosed outside the Board. Many Board members agreed that, had Grasso's compensation and benefit levels been disclosed outside the Board, they would never have reached such excessive levels.

In other words, sheer embarrassment would have kept Grasso in line if anyone outside his own circle had known about his compensation. As usual, secrecy is the enemy of good governance.

UPDATE: In other news of CEOs gone bad, Martha Stewart's stint in prison appears likely to make her richer and more famous than ever. When she gets out, she'll be hosting the latest extension of Donald Trump's "Apprentice" empire. Since my wife loves both Martha and The Apprentice, she's going to be thrilled!

Kevin Drum 4:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Amy Sullivan

OH, THOSE LOVABLE SOUTH DAKOTANS....A former Daschle colleague just alerted me to this ongoing controversy in her home state. Just the name of the group of outraged South Dakotans--Citizens Against Nude Juicebars and Pornography--makes the story worth reading.

Amy Sullivan 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CARD CHECKS....Should Congress limit the ability of corporations to voluntarily enter into contracts that limit their own investments? Sounds like a bit of a lefty notion, doesn't it? Brings to mind dolphin safe tuna fishing or shoe factories in Malaysia.

But no. This time it's a group of conservatives, and they're complaining about companies that decide to cooperate with unions instead of waging the usual labor-management war over union representation. They think that's illegal, even if it's what management wants.

Via Nathan Newman. Read the whole article to get a quickie primer on the issue of card check agreements vs. secret elections. It's one of the key fights in the labor movement today.

Kevin Drum 2:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

CAPITALISM AND SCIENCE....Tyler Cowen celebrates the 100th anniversary of Ayn Rand's birth with a brief review of her influence. Here's his third point:

3. What do you really learn from her? Most of her formal philosophy is wrong or at the very least underargued. The true take-away message is a reaffirmation of how the enormous productive powers of capitalism the greatest force for human good ever achieved rely on the driving human desire to be excellent. I don't know of any better celebration of that combination of forces.

Allow me to disagree. Although they're inextricably bound together in so many ways that this may be moot, I'd argue that the Renaissance formalization of the scientific method has been more important than capitalism per se. Free market economies do a brilliant job of allocating resources, but it's growth that's key, and scientific and technological discovery are the linchpins of growth and productivity.

Like I said, maybe it's moot. Scientific advance without a means of making the best of use of that advance doesn't get you very far, and the Soviet Union is certainly an example of how active hostility to capitalism can destroy even a society that's relatively open to technological change.

But that's at the margin. As long as they're committed to scientific discovery and technological change, a broad range of mixed economic models seem to work well. Those that aren't open to such change fail.

Kevin Drum 1:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

THE PARLOUS STATE OF AMERICAN INTELLIGENCE....American experts have apparently concluded that North Korea sold nuclear material to Libya for use in their (now dismantled) bombmaking program. That's disturbing news, but so is this tidbit farther down in the Washington Post's account:

"This was not a conclusion reached by the CIA" or the intelligence bureau at the State Department, said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the intelligence matter. "This was the lab technicians from DOE."

He said this gave added credence to the report because it was based not on a murky intelligence assessment but on hard data.

It's pretty pathetic that administration officials now feel like they have to go out of their way to insist that U.S. intelligence wasn't involved in something if they want it to have any credibility at all.

It's also worth noting the cheap shot thrown at the State Department's intelligence agency, which actually has a very good track record. Shouldn't it have been "not the CIA or the Pentagon"?

Kevin Drum 12:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRATIZATION vs. LIBERALIZATION....Greg Djerejian points today to a piece by Ray Takeyh in National Interest about democratization in the Middle East:

A genuine strategy of democratization would concentrate, first and foremost, on placing significant curbs on executive power....The second imperative of democratic change is an independent judiciary.

....If Washington is serious about democratization in the Middle East, as opposed to liberalization, it has to change strategies....A viable democratization strategy would employ the considerable economic leverage that the United States and Europe possess to pressure these states toward viable reforms. Preferential trade agreements, foreign assistance and access to U.S. markets should be contingent on the level of progress that regimes make toward democracy. The U.S. experience vis-a-vis Latin America, especially Mexico during the 1980s and 1990s, and that of the EU towards its eastern periphery make it clear that when political reform is linked to economic benefits, regimes can be induced to introduce changes that lay the basis for a democratic transformation. The West should link aid to reforms designed to reduce state controls over both political life and the economy.

Takeyh's main point is that Washington should stop worrying about an inchoate "liberalization" agenda and instead focus on a concrete goal of reducing executive power in autocratic Middle Eastern states. "This would imply no more state visits for President Mubarak and Crown Prince Abdullah until the behavior of their regimes alters," he says. What's more, he continues, we shouldn't let fear of radical Islamists dissuade us. They aren't the danger that Washington bureaucrats think they are.

From a nonexpert point of view, this strikes me as correct. The obvious problem is that it's risky, and I'm not quite as sanguine as Takeyh that "Islamism is proving a fading ideology in today's Middle East." He says that "a subtle intellectual transformation is underway in many Islamist circles," but this seems like a subtle shift indeed if the majority of news reports can be trusted.

Still, at some point we need to put our money where our mouth is and try this out. Despite its big talk, the Bush administration has been remarkably timid about taking any serious action outside Iraq that might genuinely promote democracy at the expense of our current allies. Maybe it's time to start.

Kevin Drum 12:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 
February 1, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DNC RACE A DONE DEAL?....Martin Frost has withdrawn from the race for DNC chair. Donnie Fowler is still running, but apparently the contest is all but over:

"It's a fait accompli, it's over: [Howard] Dean's going to be it," said Gerald McEntee, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who runs the umbrella political organization for all the unions in the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

....Dr. Dean is moving to the forefront of Washington politics at a moment when the party, seen as lacking any obvious leaders in the wake of the November defeat of Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader, has been struggling to define its case against Mr. Bush on the war in Iraq and on overhauling Social Security.

I wish him the best. There's no question that Dean is a high-risk choice, and he's going to need to be smarter about harnessing his passion than he was during his presidential run. From all reports, he's also going to need to find a top notch manager he trusts who can do the organizational and management tasks that he's apparently not very good at.

But at the very least, it's gonna be fun. Give 'em hell, Howard.

Kevin Drum 11:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Amy Sullivan

RETURN OF BIBLE GIRL...Those of you interested in news from the world of religion and politics might want to stop by Beliefnet.com (headed by Washington Monthly contributing editor Steve Waldman), where I'm the liberal blogger for the week. Today you can read about the revelatory New York Times article reporting that conservatives don't believe Hillary Clinton when she talks about faith and morality. They think she's a big faker. Here's a tip for our friends at the Times: Conservatives also don't believe Hillary Clinton when she says the sky is blue or that two plus two equals four. There's an interesting story to be written here, but this isn't it.

Other big doings this week: Not only can we expect some coded references (and, if the Inauguration was any indication, plenty of not-so-subtle ones) in the State of the Union address, but that big blowout bash known as the National Prayer Breakfast takes place on Thursday. I, for one, can't wait. If it's anything like all of those Sunday School Teacher Appreciation breakfasts I attended growing up, there will be plenty of sour cream coffee cake for everyone.

Amy Sullivan 5:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

LANGUAGE CONTROL....We already know all about the GOP's language strategy for their Social Security plans: at first it was "privatization," but that didn't poll well. So they changed it to "private accounts," but that didn't poll well either. So now it's "personal accounts."

With that out of the way, they're ready to move on: Rick Santorum now says he wants to ditch the idea of "transitional costs" that's the multiple trillions of dollars that privatization would add in either taxes or higher deficits and instead favors the term "prepaying." Orwell marches on.

I should add that I'm not bothered that Republicans are doing this. All political parties try to control language in ways favorable to their own causes. What bothers me is that so many reporters are buying into this despite the fact that Republicans have been so open about what they're doing. It's one thing to get rolled, but it's quite another to go along without a whimper when you know you're getting rolled. Wise up, folks.

Kevin Drum 1:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

NUMBER CRUNCHING....Paul Krugman writes today about something that's already been batted around the blogosphere a fair amount: the rosy projections that Social Security privatizers use when they estimate stock market returns. Typically, they assume long-term returns of 6.5-7%, but returns like that are only feasible if long-term economic growth is also very strong. The problem is that if long-term growth is strong, Social Security isn't in trouble in the first place:

It really is that stark: any growth projection that would permit the stock returns the privatizers need to make their schemes work would put Social Security solidly in the black.

But is it really that stark? The Social Security trustees the same ones who predict insolvency in 2042 include their economic assumption in their report. So what happens to the health of Social Security if growth projections are bumped up?

A bunch of math follows. In fact, it's worse than that: it's amateur, back-of-the-envelope math. I'm just trying to get an idea of what the answer is, and I hope some real economist will stick these numbers into a model and produce a more rigorous result. Here goes:

  • Privatizers assume that stock market returns for the next 75 years will be as high as they have been for the previous 75 years. For that to happen, economic growth for the next 75 years also needs to be roughly as high as it has been for the past 75 years.

  • Real GDP growth over the past 75 years has averaged 3.4% per year.

  • GDP growth is equal to productivity growth + population growth + growth in average hours worked. The trustees assume long-term labor force growth of .2% per year and no growth in average hours worked. Thus, GDP growth of 3.4% requires productivity growth of 3.2% per year.

    Warning: No one believes productivity growth will actually be that high. But given the slowdown in population growth over the next few decades, that's the assumption we have to make in order to get 3.4% GDP growth.

  • In the trustees' model, real wage growth is closely related to productivity growth. Typically, it's a few tenths of a percentage point less than productivity growth, which means that productivity growth of 3.2% equates to real wage growth of about 2.9%. This is 1.8 percentage points higher than the intermediate projection for real wage growth of 1.1%.

  • Using the sensitivity analysis included in the trustees' report, an increase of .5% in real wage growth equates to a decrease of .54% in the "actuarial balance" a measure of how big the Social Security deficit will be in 75 years. Thus, 1.8 percentage points of additional real wage growth equates to a drop of 1.94 percentage points in the projected Social Security deficit.

  • The current intermediate assumption is that the long-term deficit equals 1.89% of taxable payroll. If you subtract 1.94, you get a long-term deficit of -.05%. In other words, you get a surplus of .05% of taxable payroll.

That was fun, wasn't it? Basically, Krugman is right: if you take the economic assumptions behind stock returns of 6.5-7% and plug them into Social Security's economic model, the system is solvent as far as the eye can see.

The big caveat here, of course, is that the privatizers are almost certainly wrong. Productivity growth is likely to be higher than the trustees' estimate of 1.6%, but it's not going to be 3.2% either. Something in the middle is more likely.

Still, no matter what numbers you use, Krugman's basic point is sound: if you're going to compare the current Social Security system to a privatized system, you need to use the same economic assumptions for both. Instead, privatizers like to play a shell game where they use gloomy assumptions for Social Security and rosy assumptions for privatization.

But you can't have both. You're free to be as gloomy or rosy as you want, but intellectual honesty requires that you be consistently gloomy or rosy. Unfortunately, there's been precious little of that in the privatization debate.

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

AVIAN FLU PANDEMIC?....A number of experts are beginning to think that a mutated form of the avian flu virus may be setting us up for a worldwide pandemic:

"The situation in Southeast Asia right now is the most significant setup for a very serious public health crisis that I've seen in my 30 years in this business," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "We're sitting on a time bomb."

Apparently there's evidence that the virus has already mutated enough to allow transmission between humans with sustained contact. The fear is that it could mutate again to allow transmission with only casual contact.

Kevin Drum 11:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

DOG BITES MAN....The CIA has issued an official final report on Iraq's development of chemical weapons during the 90s. Its conclusion: there wasn't any.

Final reports on bioweapons and nukes are coming up next. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 11:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
By: Kevin Drum

OR IS IT JUST AU REVOIR?....Andrew Sullivan says goodbye to the blogosphere.

Kevin Drum 1:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

Bookmark and Share
 




 

 

Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM



buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly