Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 31, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRACY ARSENAL....On the advice of a friend, I just hopped over to a new blog called Democracy Arsenal, where a bunch of liberals under the aegis of a couple of liberal think tanks are talking about national security issues. It looks good. Maybe a bit too lecture-y in places, but that will probably smooth out over time.

Speaking of lecture-y, though, Heather Hurlburt has a "ten-step program to get Democrats back on the map" that's worth a look. For example:

Step 6. Every progressive takes a personal vow to learn something about our military, how it works, what its ethos is, and how it affects our society at all levels as well as what it does well and less well in the wider world.

That's good advice. Like it or not and I'm sure lots of you will let me know in comments that you don't rank and file lefties are frequently too ignorant of national security issues to even join the conversation in a constructive way. Too often they end up looking as dumb as George Will does when he endorses ignorant and dimwitted tax plans.

If I have a beef with Heather, though, it's that her list is basically just another call for liberals to figure out what they stand for. What we need, instead, is some actual recommendations about what liberals should stand for.

But that's just nitpicking. That stuff will all come out in the wash. In the meantime, the five contributors to Democracy Arsenal seem to be pointed in the right direction and are doing their thing in readable, bloggy style. It's worth everyone's time to follow along for a while to see where they go. It's worthwhile stuff.

Kevin Drum 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BURGER 911....This is so embarrassing. Via Jeanne, a woman calls the sheriff's department to complain that Carl's Jr. has screwed up her Western Bacon Cheeseburger:

Ma'am, we're not going to enforce how to make hamburgers. That's not a criminal issue.

....You're supposed to be here to protect me!

What are we protecting you from? A wrong cheeseburger?

Why embarrassing? The cheeseburger lunatic is a fellow resident of Orange County. And here I thought Dana Rohrabacher was the worst of my worries.

Transcript here, although you really need to listen to the audio to get the, um, flavor of the conversation.

Kevin Drum 1:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

MATH AND GIRLS....Interesting article from the front page of yesterday's Wall St. Journal:

In her 10th-grade math class, Frankie Teague dimmed the lights, switched on soothing music and handed each student a white board and a marker. Then she projected an arithmetic problem onto a screen at the front of the room.

"As soon as you get the answer, hold up your board," she said, setting off a round of squeaky scribbling. The simple step of having students hold up their work, instead of raising their hands or shouting out the answer, gives a leg up to a group of pupils who have long lagged in math classes--girls.

Ms. Teague's teaching methods are part of broad changes in how math is taught in England's classrooms. Starting in the late 1980s, England's education department worried that lessons relied too heavily on teachers lecturing and students memorizing. So it began promoting changes in teaching methods, textbooks and testing in both state-funded and private schools. The changes were designed to help all students, but educators have noticed a surprising side effect: Girls are closing a decades-old gender gap--and by many measures outscoring the boys.

Unfortunately, the article is only available to subscribers. So I'll just describe the cool graph that shows the math scores of boys and girls moving along parallel tracks (with girls far behind) until the new math program came along, at which point the girls' scores shot up and are now slightly ahead of boys'. More evidence to combat the idea of innate aptitude. And yet another illustration of why something needs to be done about the way kids offer opinions and answer questions in classrooms.

Amy Sullivan 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

DEATHLY AFRAID....Now that Terri Schiavo has died, I'd like to raise a question--not a political question, but a moral one. I've been bothered by the way religious leaders discussed her situation and the way that the Pope himself has framed his own slow, painful journey toward the end of life. In both cases, the loudest voices have seemed to promote a position that is not pro-life so much as very, very anti-death.

A cradle Baptist, I was taught in the church that while we were not to hasten death, neither were we to postpone or fear it. The ending of a life was sad for those who remained, but a joyous event for the one who died. As one of my friends put it this week, If all of these folks believe Terri Schiavo was a Christian, shouldn't they want her to slip from this life to be embraced by the arms of God? I understand that this is a particular kind of religious belief, not shared by all, but it is a belief to which most of the leaders you've seen on tv over the past few weeks subscribe. And yet the implication of their fight has been that death is something to be held at bay using all available means, that any quality of life is better than what may come next.

Just last week, the liturgy reminded Christians that while Jesus suffered--and probably had the option of postponing death--he ultimately chose to let God's will be done. I don't know what God's will was for Terry Schiavo, and neither does anyone else. But that question was lost in the political and media cacophony that provided the unfortunate score to the end of her life. I wonder how these religious leaders, who cling so fiercely to the idea of life, can prepare people of faith for the inevitable reality of death.

UPDATE: Apparently there's some sort of A. Sullivan convergence on this issue. A reader just pointed me to a very similar post Andrew Sullivan wrote last month about the Pope's illness:

Isn't the fundamental point about Christianity that our life on earth is but a blink in the eye of our real existence, which begins at death and lasts for eternity in God's loving presence? Why is the Pope sending a signal that we should cling to life at all costs - and that this clinging represents some kind of moral achievement? Isn't there a moment at which the proper Christian approach to death is to let it come and be glad? Or put it another way: if the Pope is this desperate to stay alive, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Amy Sullivan 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NATIONAL SALES TAX....REVISION 432....Spring is in the air and George Will is in love with Georgia Rep. John Linder and his plan for a national sales tax:

His bill would abolish the Internal Revenue Service and the many billions of tax forms it sends out and receives. He would erase the federal income tax system personal and corporate income taxes, the regressive payroll tax and self-employment tax, capital gains, gift and estate taxes, the alternative minimum tax, and the earned-income tax credit and replace all that with a 23 percent national sales tax on personal consumption. That would not only sensitize consumers to the cost of government with every purchase, it would destroy K Street.

What's not to like about this? Let me count the ways:

  • 23%? Think again. Bill Gale, who actually knows what he's talking about, says it would require a tax rate of about 60%. If you make reasonable assumptions about the level of tax avoidance and evasion, it's more like 100%. Ouch.

  • The tax would apply to home purchases. Here in The OC, for example, the average price of a new home is around $500,000. Linder's tax would mark that up by $300,000 or more. Can you spell "housing crash"?

  • Cars would be taxed too, of course. That SUV you've been lusting after? Better tack on $20,000 to the asking price.

  • The elderly would be royally screwed. All their lives their incomes have been taxed away, but at least what's left over is tax free because they've already paid taxes on it. Under Linder's plan, though, they suddenly have to start paying huge taxes again on rent, medicine, vacations, and cat food. It's the mother of all double taxations. I figure that should be good for about 30 million postcards from AARP members.

  • Is complex taxation a thing of the past? Of course not. You still have to perform all the usual complicated income calculations to pay state taxes, and multinational corporations all have global taxes to pay. Don't fire your accountant yet.

  • No taxes on dividends, capital gains, gifts, estates, or corporations? Sweet! Most corporate CEOs would end up with effective tax rates on their incomes of about, oh, 10% or so. You and I would end up with effective tax rates of 30-50%. Hey, the money has to come from somewhere, right?

A national sales tax is an idee fixe among a certain type of conservative lunatic, sort of like the gold standard and the Trilateral Commission. George Will might be dumb enough to fall for it, but the rest of us shouldn't. It's just a plain stupid idea.

But you know what? I wish Republicans would quit gabbing about it and actually implement it. They'd then be out of power for about a century or so, which might give the rest of us a chance to do some good. So go ahead Rep. Linder: make my day.

Kevin Drum 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HUH?....A zeptogram?

Kevin Drum 12:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MAKING A LIST, CHECKING IT TWICE....Michael Brub isn't so sure that full employment is a proper liberal goal:

Heres where Ive got to part ways, yet again, with some of my brothers and sisters on my left. Full employment sounds nice its sort of goofy and utopian, like imagining that access to health care is a human right or something but its dangerously naive. Certain people should definitely be unemployed. In fact, I have a nice long list of names on my hard drive, all alphabetized and ready to go.

What a coincidence: I've got a list just like that too. What are the odds?

Kevin Drum 12:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 30, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

VICTIMHOOD, LOVELY VICTIMHOOD....Conservative City Journal editor Heather Mac Donald writing in the conservative National Review:

Diversity grievances follow the usual logic: Victim-group X is not proportionally represented in some field; therefore the field's gatekeepers are discriminating against X's members. The argument presumes that there are large numbers of qualified Xs out there who, absent discrimination, would be proportionally represented in the challenged field.

Conservative political science professor Stanley Rothman rehashing six-year-old data in the online journal Forum suggesting that college professors are a pretty liberal lot:

Rothman sees the findings as evidence of "possible discrimination" against conservatives in hiring and promotion. Even after factoring in levels of achievement, as measured by published work and organization memberships, "the most likely conclusion" is that "being conservative counts against you," he said.

Sounds like they've got that whole victimhood thing down pat, doesn't it?

Kevin Drum 9:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE ROADSHOW CONTINUES....We're at the midpoint of the George Bush Social Security Revival Tour:

During a talk show-style "conversation" at a nearby community college, Bush appealed to opponents of his approach to enter into constructive negotiations on legislation to close Social Security's long-term funding gap.

"If you've got an idea, I expect you to be at the table," he said. "We want to listen to good ideas."

Although Bush did not name names, the invitation appeared to be aimed in part at AARP, the 35-million-member seniors organization that is conducting an aggressive campaign to oppose Bush's personal account proposal.

There are only two ways to significantly improve Social Security's finances: benefit cuts and tax increases. Bush is too gutless to propose either one, so he's desperately trying to sucker someone anyone into proposing them first. Nobody with half a brain should oblige him.

Until Bush has the political courage to step up to the plate and send a serious proposal of his own to Congress, he shouldn't expect anyone else to do it either. In the meantime, he deserves nothing but scorn. His sustained display of political cowardice is setting a standard for generations to come.

Kevin Drum 9:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL DIMMING....This isn't new, but it's new to me and maybe to you too. Did you know that in the three days following 9/11 the average temperature range across the United States (the difference between the daytime high and the nighttime low) rose one degree Centigrade? That's the biggest, fastest climate change ever observed.

The reason, it turns out, is that American airspace was shut down, and no airplanes means no contrails. Since contrails absorb sunlight, getting rid of them allows more sunlight to reach the ground and causes a rise in surface temperature. When planes started flying again temperatures went back down.

As this BBC report says, this is a dramatic example of an effect called Global Dimming, something that scientists have recently concluded is far larger than they previously thought: since 1950, increased amounts of soot and ash have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of the earth by an astonishing 10-30% in various parts of the world.

So shouldn't this cause global surface temperatures to decline considerably? Normally yes, but we've avoided this problem because during the same period greenhouse gases have been trapping ever more heat than before. These two effects cancel each other out, but greenhouse gases have been winning the race: overall surface temperatures have risen about .6 degrees Centigrade in the past century.

But here's the bad news: this means that the effect of greenhouse gases on global warming is probably stronger than we've previously thought. The only reason global temperature increases have been fairly modest so far is because of the cooling effect of global dimming.

So what happens if particle pollution is brought under control via cleaner burning coal technologies, for example? It means that suddenly greenhouse gases will have no competition, and instead of temperatures rising only moderately, they'll start skyrocketing.

In other words, our current models, which assume that climate has only a moderate sensitivity to greenhouse gases, might have been fooled by the countervailing effect of particle pollution. Once particle pollution levels flatten out or decline, we may find that climate is far more responsive to greenhouses gases than we thought.

Cleaner burning cars, anyone?

Kevin Drum 7:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

NO PILLS FOR YOU!....Kevin blogged about the "Pharmacists' Rights" movement briefly yesterday and Ed Kilgore has a very funny post on the issue that is worth your time. But I want to pull back for a moment to ask whether there is any "there" there to this UPROAR/CONTROVERSY/CULTURAL WAR TO END ALL WARS.

The Washington Post says there is, devoting a frontpage article to the issue on Monday, declaring: "Pharmacists' Rights at Front of New Debate." But let's look closer. "Some pharmacists across the country are refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control..." "The trend has opend a new front in the nation's battle over reproductive rights..." Says Steven Aden of the Christian Legal Society, "More and more pharmacists are becoming aware of their right to conscientiously refuse..." [emphasis mine]

Hmm. What kind of a sample are we talking about here? Is a trend thousands of pharmacists? Hundreds? Even a few dozen? Halfway through the piece, reporter Rob Stein admits that "no one knows exactly how often [this] is happening" but notes that cases have been reported in ten states.

Never you mind whether this is a real problem or a trumped-up political issue on both sides, though, because, as we are told in melodramatic fashion: "Pharmacists often risk dismissal or other disciplinary action to stand up for their beliefs, while shaken teenage girls and women desperately call their doctors, frequently late at night, after being turned away by sometimes-lecturing men and women in white coats."

My. I'm willing to believe that there are a few pharmacists around the country who refuse to dispense birth control (although if they do, that refusal had better be blanket and not on a case-by-case "hmm...I don't think you have a good enough reason" basis) and that there are a few women who have been denied access to birth control because of it. But unless someone can prove to me that this is more than just a few anecdotes on each side (a la the equally trumped-up Partial-Birth controversy), I'm not convinced that this is anything more than an uproar in search of a problem.

It seems to me that instead of playing into the idea that this is a widespread problem, opponents of the "Pharmacists' Rights" people should expose the fact that outright opposition to birth control is a pretty radical, minority view. While Americans are becoming more evenly split about when and how to allow abortion, they aren't confused about birth control--the latest numbers I've found (and if you have more recent ones, please send them along) are from Celinda Lake in the 1990s, who found that support for birth control among Catholic Americans was in the high eighties.

The best way to prevent abortions is to prevent unwanted pregnancies. If a small group stands in the way of that effort, they're the ones who will be responsible for increased abortion rates around the country. That's your message.

Amy Sullivan 4:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LIVING IN SIN....Via Peevish, it turns out that North Carolina (along with half a dozen other states!) has a law against unmarried couples living together. It's almost never enforced, of course, but a local sheriff apparently thinks it's a great idea anyway:

[Debora] Hobbs had been living with her boyfriend for about three years when she was hired as a Pender County 911 dispatcher in February 2004. The couple decided they didn't want to marry; Hobbs quit last May rather than be fired.

Sheriff Carson Smith said last year that Hobbs' employment was a moral issue as well as a legal question. He said he tries to avoid hiring people who openly live together, but that he doesn't send out deputies to enforce the law.

Lovely. The North Carolina ACLU is on the case.

Kevin Drum 3:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LEVERS OF POWER....Bill Bradley writes today about the makeup of the "pyramid" of Republican success:

Big individual donors and large foundations the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid.

The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove...convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate....And then there's the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.

Basically, Bradley argues that Democrats don't have a pyramid like this, so every four years their presidential candidates have to start from scratch to build and sell a liberal vision to American voters: "Unlike Republicans, they don't simply have to assemble a campaign apparatus they have to formulate ideas and a vision, too." Without a prepackaged vision, personal charisma becomes all important, and candidates without it are doomed.

Says Ann Althouse: "Very well put by a man with a fancy educational background who once ran for President and wiped out early, because of a woeful lack of charisma." Well, yes. And perhaps that makes Bradley a little oversensitive about the role of charisma in presidential contests.

But I'd like to make another point. Roughly speaking, here's what conservatives have done over the past few decades.

First, they created all those famous think tanks to spread their ideas: Heritage, Cato, AEI, etc. Second, they researched language and invented a new way of talking about conservative ideas and promoting wedge politics. Third, they figured out that the judiciary was a big deal and started overtly campaigning to install conservative judges on the federal bench. Fourth, when the Fairness Doctrine was tossed out in 1987, they glommed onto the underutilized AM spectrum and filled it up with the syndicated talk radio shows we all know and love today. Later, Fox News joined them. Fifth, they began the K Street Project, designed to coerce lobbying firms into hiring only fellow Republicans if they wanted any chance of getting their agendas passed.

The Democratic response to all this has been simple: build foundations of our own, fashion a competing liberal way of framing issues, fight back on judges, create liberal talk shows, and remind lobbyists that Republicans won't be in power forever. Which is all fine. But in a way, I think it misses the point.

What conservatives really did was to exploit new levers of power in ways that no one had thought of before. Their answers turned out to be foundations, language, judges, talk radio, and lobbyists, but there's nothing sacred about those particular levers. So while creating our own foundations and talk shows is important, what's more important is that we should be constantly searching for new and underappreciated levers of power and figuring out creative ways to exploit them. Howard Dean's campaign did this in a minor way with its use of internet MeetUps, a new way of organizing grassroots support that took everyone by surprise.

Merely mimicking conservative strategies is a strategy for staying in second place forever. Closer, perhaps, but still in second place. What we need in addition is to stay relentlessly on the lookout for new ways of mobilizing public opinion that no one has thought of before. Suggestions, anyone?

Kevin Drum 2:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum


I see Nat Hentoff and Jesse Jackson have joined the feed-Terri forces, which already included Ralph Nader, Randall Terry, Rush Limbaugh, Bo Gritz, Sean Hannity, and James Dobson. Now if we can just get Alexander Cockburn and Al Sharpton to join in, we'll have a left-right coalition embodying the very cream of the nation's loudmouth dimwitted self-promoting busybodies.

Don't forget Tom DeLay, Mark! He's a charter member.

Kevin Drum 12:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A WEE ASSIGNMENT FROM THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION....From the description of an upcoming Heritage Foundation event to be held April 19:

A growing number of scientists around the world no longer believe that natural selection or chemistry, alone, can explain the origins of life. Instead, they think that the microscopic world of the cell provides evidence of purpose and design in nature a theory based upon compelling biochemical evidence. Join us as Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, a key design theorist and philosopher of science, explains this powerful and controversial concept on the mysteries of life.

To get ready for this event, please prepare suitably relevant definitions for the following words and phrases:

  • "Growing number"

  • "Scientists"

  • "Believe"

  • "Theory"

  • "Compelling"

  • "Biochemical"

  • "Evidence"

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Kevin Drum 1:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 29, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SHIELD LAWS AND OTHER VEXING CONCERNS....They say there are no stupid questions. How then do you account for the question, "Are bloggers journalists?"

LA Times columnist David Shaw wrestled with this quandary on Sunday with predictable results, and Jack Shafer and Matt Welch both gave him the dressing down he deserves. Not so much because Shaw asked a dumb question, but because his answer is mostly a series of variants on the proposition that traditional reporters are simply more deserving human beings than hoi polloi bloggers. This is journalism?

On the other hand, for the legions of bloggers who feel that of course they deserve the same shield law protections as professional reporters, I'm not sure this holds much water either. Shield laws are already tricky things, balancing a legitimate societal desire for aggressive newsgathering with an equally legitimate societal desire to ferret out wrongdoing in courts of law. The problem is that if bloggers get the same protection as mainstream reporters, that means that practically anyone can shield themselves from testifying in court on a wide variety of topics simply by operating a blog. The scope for abuse will become so broad that shield laws could eventually be tossed out altogether.

In other words, be careful what you wish for. The demise of shield laws would benefit none of us.

Tedious as the question may be, however, the question of bloggers' legal status is rapidly reaching critical mass. Chris Nolan rounds up all the various ways in which this and related issues are coming to a head these days and suggests that the common thread in all of them is, "Who's in Charge?"

In each and everyone of these cases, the answer is pretty much the same: The reader. The consumer. The voter. The music-lover. The computer nerd. But not the guys who have been in charge for most of the past century: The marketing genius, the producer, the editors, the station owner and the publisher, the consultant, the pen-wielding columnist who hasn't made a phone call in 10 years. They're not in charge anymore. And they don't like it.

Actually, I suspect that the old guard has a few more tricks up its collective sleeve than Chris gives them credit for. The top websites in the world are all corporate behemoths, after all, and Yahoo alone probably gets more hits than the entire blogosphere. I have a feeling that soulless corporate marketing departments are going to adjust to the 21st century just fine.

Still, adjust they must, and Chris and others are correct to point out that traditional gatekeepers are feeling the heat. The winners will be those who figure out how to swim with the tide and still make money. The losers will be those who demand that the tide turn back and then gurgle in amazement as the tide declines to cooperate.

Kevin Drum 8:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT....I have Schubert's Impromptus playing in my car right now, and it's reminded me yet again of what lovely pieces of classical piano music these are. If you like classical piano but for some reason don't already own them, you should run right out and buy a copy immediately.

Just thought I'd mention it.

Kevin Drum 6:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SEX AND GENDER....Last week I invited several guest bloggers to post about the issue of women in the opinion biz (or, rather, the lack of women in the opinion biz). One of the reasons I did it is that I've long been fascinated by the fact that although issues of gender and sex are at the core of so many contemporary hot button social issues, this simple observation rarely bubbles up to the surface. The dominance of op-ed pages, blogs, and opinion magazines by men is almost certainly one of the reasons.

Now, it's true that not all hot button social issues are gender related. School prayer and guns aren't, for example, except in a fairly abstract way. But take a look at the other social issues that raise blood pressure the most and the sex/gender basis underlying them is striking:

  • Sex education

  • Abortion

  • Sex/porn on TV

  • Contraception

  • Gay rights

  • Welfare (overwhelmingly a problem of single mothers)

This is not just a random, unconnected list. For the most part, social conservatives have made their peace with racial equality in theory if not always in fact but are still adamant about enforcing traditional sex and gender roles. This is the glue that binds all these issues together. The latest example came a couple of days ago from the Washington Post in an article about the growing "Pharmacists Rights" movement:

An increasing number of clashes are occurring in drugstores across the country. Pharmacists often risk dismissal or other disciplinary action to stand up for their beliefs, while shaken teenage girls and women desperately call their doctors, frequently late at night, after being turned away by sometimes-lecturing men and women in white coats.

Needless to say, there don't seem to be any pharmacists out there who object to filling prescriptions for Viagra. Last year, Michigan even considered a bill called the "Conscientious Objector Policy Act," which would have allowed pharmacists and doctors to refuse to perform treatment they considered unethical. Notably, the act specifically prohibited doctors from withholding treatment on the basis of race, but not on the basis of sexual orientation. It was practically an invitation to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

This is why gender equality per se should get more attention from the liberal community: because it's the underlying core of so many emotional, election-deciding issues. I know, I know: this kind of talk is just so 70s. And it's true that the tone of feminist rhetoric especially academic feminism probably puts off a lot of liberal men, including me from time to time. But it's hard to make headway on all these disparate issues without understanding the core sensibility that drives so many of them. We shouldn't allow pique to get in the way of that.

Kevin Drum 4:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE JARGON WATCH....Speaking of jargon, Victor Fuchs and Ezekiel Emanuel had an interesting op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News yesterday. It's about healthcare:

We propose...a comprehensive reform: universal health care vouchers a 10-point proposal that is congruent with basic American values and should secure broad, bipartisan support.

  • All Americans under 65 will receive a voucher that guarantees them basic health care services such as doctor visits, hospitalization, pharmacy benefits, some mental and dental health services and catastrophic coverage, from a qualified health plan or health insurance company....

I'll spare you their other nine points. What I really want to point out is their use of language, particularly:

...universal health care vouchers...

Isn't that interesting? Their plan is a fairly ordinary single-payer proposal, but instead of calling it merely "universal health care," they steal conservative language and and call it "universal health care vouchers." Sounds just like those school vouchers the wingers are always going on about, doesn't it?

That's a clever use of language. By no means will it help their plan to secure "broad, bipartisan support," but it's the kind of thing that can help swing public opinion if it gets repeated often enough. I like it.

Kevin Drum 2:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TERRORISM, NOT MORAL VALUES....Via Philip Klinkner at PolySigh, here's an interesting chart. Based on NES data over the last 12 elections, it shows which issue was rated "most important" by voters and how the two major party candidates compared to each other. In 2004, for example, the most important issue by far was terrorism, cited by 42% of voters. What's more, of that 42%, 29% voted for Bush and 13% for Kerry, a delta of 17% in favor of Bush. By contrast, that old bugaboo "morals" produced only a tiny advantage for Bush.

Here's the full chart:



% Citing
As Most



















































































Foreign Affairs






As Klinkner points out, Bush's advantage on terrorism was by far the largest from any candidate since NES started collecting data in 1960. You can now put me down in the "totally convinced" column that terrorism was the key issue that won the election for Bush, not moral values.

And note one other interesting thing: in 10 out of 12 elections, the candidate that won was the one who had the advantage on the issue cited as most important by the most people and that candidate always won if the issue was cited by more than 20% of voters. The lesson seems to be: figure out the most important issue and hammer it home. The rest is fluff.

Now, what's going to be the most important issue in 2008? Time to start thinking about that.

Kevin Drum 1:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

JARGON WATCH....The Carpetbagger has the latest from our wily Republican word-meisters. Apparently they're having trouble figuring out what to call the power play that would eliminate filibusters of judicial candidates. It goes like this:

  • First take: "Nuclear option." Didn't poll well.

  • Second take: "Constitutional option." Nobody saluted when they ran it up the flagpole.

  • Third take: "Byrd option." Huh?

  • Fourth take: None yet. Still waiting for laughter to stop from third take.

I guess they could always call it the "temper tantrum" option. At least that has the virtue of accuracy.

Kevin Drum 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KOFI AND KOJO....Say what? After all the frenzied speculation that Paul Volcker's investigation of the UN oil-for-food scandal was going to nail Kofi Annan's hide to the wall over his son's misdoings, all we get is this?

The report obtained Tuesday said "there is no evidence" the selection of Cotecna [Kojo Annan's company] for an inspection contract "was subject to any affirmative or improper influence of the secretary-general in the bidding or selection process."

Investigators also said "the evidence is not reasonably sufficient" that Annan knew about Cotecna's bid in 1998.

That's got to be a disappointment for the Kofi haters.

Bottom line: there are still questions about Kojo's behavior, and the investigation is continuing. So far, however, all the report says is that Kojo hid his relationship with Cotecna from his father, something he confessed to long ago. Pretty weak beer.

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FLORIDA IN PLAY?....Is the combination of Social Security and Terri Schiavo two issues that have given conservatives more grief than they expected so toxic that even Florida might be turning away from the Republican party? In the LA Times today, Peter Wallsten suggests that might be the case:

"It may be that we tried to load the wagon with too many watermelons," said Tom Slade, Florida's former Republican Party chairman. "There's not a ... lot of good news on our side of the aisle at this minute."

....Strategists in both parties expect Schiavo and Social Security to be potent and unpredictable issues. Those issues could also be important in several potentially competitive congressional races in districts now held by Republicans E. Clay Shaw Jr., Ginny Brown-Waite and Katherine Harris.

Music to my ears. Here's hoping both these issues remain "potent and unpredictable" for another 18 months.

Kevin Drum 1:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ONWARD....Check out this remarkable post at Whiskey Bar. Yes, it's only one person, but it's about the shortest and pithiest comment you're likely to find on the "culture of life."

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March 28, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DON RUMSFELD AND TRANSFORMATION....Donald Rumsfeld's vision of military "transformation" is not a left-right issue. Rather, it's a technocratic issue: what's the most effective way for America to wage war? Rumsfeld believes the answer is a lighter, faster, higher-tech military that can be dispatched more quickly to the world's trouble spots and do more good when they get there than our existing military.

I don't have a problem with that. Or rather, I should say that I don't know enough about the technology of war to have an opinion one way or the other. What I do have a problem with isn't the specific program that Rumsfeld is promoting "Future Combat Systems," or FCS but with the fact that it was developed years ago and neither 9/11 nor Iraq seems to have influenced Rumsfeld's thinking about it one whit. As Fred Kaplan puts it:

If your guide to this future is the first 30 days of the war in Iraq, then the vision of transformation that underlies FCS might seem appropriate. However, if your guide is the subsequent two years of combat, then the vision seems out of whack.

It hardly seems conceivable that a military vision developed in the 90s would survive 9/11 virtually unscathed, and it seems downright lunatic that it would go on to survive our experience in postwar Iraq. FCS was designed to fight relatively conventional wars against massed troops, and while we still need that capability, there are now at least two capabilities that are rather more urgent: (a) asymmetrical warfare against stateless terrorists and (b) robust peacekeeping forces to take over after the FCS-equipped Army has routed whatever enemy it's put up against.

As it happens, the Army is distinctly unenthusiastic about becoming a peacekeeping force. But whatever else you can say about Don Rumsfeld, one of his undoubted virtues is that he possesses the kind of bullheadedness it takes to force change on a recalcitrant military bureaucracy. It's too bad he insists on using it in service of a vision that's been essentially obsolete for more than three years now.

UPDATE: Brad Plumer argues persuasively that Rumsfeld doesn't even possess the virtue of effective bullheadedness. I stand corrected. I guess he just sucks in every possible way.

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By: Kevin Drum

TORT REFORM BLUES....Did you know that George Bush once sued Enterprise Rent-A-Car? Me neither.

For more on this, plus other examples of Republican politicians who seem to think that torts need reforming unless they're the ones doing the suing, read this excellent and extensive post from Dwight Meredith. It stars all your favorites.

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND SCHIVAO....UPDATE....Yesterday I wondered aloud about the provenance of George Stephanopoulos's comment on This Week that Republicans were busily leaking the idea that Bush had been reluctant to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case. Just to close the circle on that, Stephanopoulos emailed today to tell me he had two sources for this. I don't have links, but here they are:

Newsweek (p. 28): "Accompanying [Bush] on the plane ride were several Florida lawmakers, including Weldon and Martinez, who pressed Bush on the Schiavo case. Though Bush 'told us that he supported our efforts,' said Weldon, 'he said that he didn't want to get directly involved.'

Time (p.28): "Top Republican staffers on Capitol Hill told TIME that it took some lobbying by congressional Republican leaders, who Bush needs for his controversial Social Security reform and budget cuts, for the President to return on short notice in such a visible role."

I don't have any special comment on this, but since I raised the question yesterday I figured I should provide the answer now that I have it. All in all, it sounds like Bush's standard "compassionate conservatism" schtick: keep the base happy with dramatic action, but then make sure that everyone else understands it was a tough call. I'm reminded of his ever-so-public deliberations over funding of stem cell research back in 2001. Same sort of issue, same sort of reaction.

Kevin Drum 6:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PRIVATE ACCOUNTS: MORE RISK THAN REWARD?....The Social Security trustees project that the economy will grow at a plodding rate of 2% a year over the long term. Nevertheless, President Bush projects that stock returns in private accounts will average a stellar 6.5% a year over the long term. Can both these things really be true?

Bloomberg surveyed 58 economists recently, and and 39 said no. And there's also this:

A Bloomberg analysis shows a strong correlation between investment returns and economic growth over the last 50 years. Gains and declines in the S&P 500 index preceded corresponding gains in gross domestic product and losses by about a year. The correlation coefficient was 0.92, with 1 being a perfect correlation.

If that's really true, it's pretty stunning. It stands to reason that stock market gains are correlated to economic growth, but nothing in the real world gets a correlation coefficient that high. If it's true, it means that economic growth explains 85% of the variance in stock prices. That doesn't leave much room for anything else, and it sure as hell means that lower economic growth in the future is almost certain to generate lower stock price growth as well. That's bad news for anyone who thinks that investing in private accounts will produce a miraculous windfall.

Still, it makes you wonder: what do the folks at S&P themselves think of all this? Via Josh, they seem to be pretty skeptical:

Personal Social Security accounts could bring more risk than reward to investors, and would shift more responsibility for saving for retirement to individuals, Standard & Poor's said Monday. "The key question is whether an individual account holder can build enough money in savings to retire comfortably while withstanding any inevitable investment risk," said David Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at S&P. Given the risks in the market, not all aggressive savers will retire with ease, S&P said.

I have a feeling that George Bush is slowly losing the backing of the business and investment community for his private account plan. Reality is closing in.

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By: Kevin Drum

DECONSTRUCTING WOLFOWITZ....As regular readers know, every few months I like to find an excuse to post a reminder of Paul Wolfowitz's testimony before Congress on February 28, 2003, three weeks before the Iraq war started. Here's a summary of the New York Times account:

Mr. Wolfowitz...opened a two-front war of words on Capitol Hill, calling the recent estimate by Gen. Eric K. Shinseki of the Army that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in postwar Iraq, "wildly off the mark." Pentagon officials have put the figure closer to 100,000 troops.

....He said there was no history of ethnic strife in Iraq, as there was in Bosnia or Kosovo....He said Iraqi civilians would welcome an American-led liberation force....And he said that nations that oppose war with Iraq would likely sign up to help rebuild it....Mr. Wolfowitz spent much of the hearing knocking down published estimates of the costs of war and rebuilding, saying the upper range of $95 billion was too high.

....Moreover, he said such estimates, and speculation that postwar reconstruction costs could climb even higher, ignored the fact that Iraq is a wealthy country, with annual oil exports worth $15 billion to $20 billion. "To assume we're going to pay for it all is just wrong," he said.

This is, I think, the prime reason to oppose Wolfowitz's nomination to head the World Bank. Lots of people favored the Iraq war, after all, but how many of them displayed such convincing evidence of their appallingly poor judgment on such a wide range of topics in such a public venue? Do we really want a guy like that running anything, let alone the World Bank?

And yet....here I have to confess one of my dark secrets: I'm not a Paul Wolfowitz hater. I'm not a fan, mind you, but then again, I'm not a fan of anyone George Bush is likely to nominate to head the World Bank. At the same time, Wolfowitz has always struck me as a bit different from the rest of the neocon/hawk fraternity. Guys like Kristol and Cheney and Rumsfeld, for example, talk a lot about democracy but mostly use it as a thinly disguised excuse for installing friendly pro-American leaders in countries that just happen to have lots of oil. Wolfowitz, conversely, really seems to believe this stuff.

Along these lines, then, ever since Bush nominated Wolfowitz to head the World Bank I've been curious about his tenure as ambassador to Indonesia, since it seems to be his most relevant experience. Today, Laura Rozen points to a nice piece in the Washington Post:

At the height of President Suharto's autocratic rule, then-U.S. Ambassador Paul D. Wolfowitz publicly offered advice in 1989 that could have landed domestic critics in prison, pointedly telling the dictator that his record of rapid economic growth was not enough.

"If greater openness is a key to economic success, I believe there is increasingly a need for openness in the political sphere as well," Wolfowitz said in May 1989 farewell remarks at Jakarta's American Cultural Center as he prepared to leave Indonesia after three years as ambassador.

....Abdurrahman Wahid, who became president in 1999, was so taken by Wolfowitz's 1989 speech that he asked to be introduced. Wahid, a leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization and staunch proponent of political pluralism, said in an interview Friday that they became friends and he remains proud of that relationship today despite differences over the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

....Wolfowitz was a highly visible emissary. He taught himself to speak and read the Indonesian language. He was not only a fixture on the Jakarta social circuit but also tramped through its villages and hiked its volcanoes. He won third prize in a cooking contest sponsored by the country's leading women's magazine, Femina, appearing in its glossy pages in an apron and explaining his secret for Madame Mao's chicken.

Laura herself doesn't say what she thinks of the Post story, but it's worth reading the whole thing, which also includes plenty of criticism of Wolfowitz for not promoting human rights during his ambassadorship and for being too close to Suharto. But while Wolfowitz deserves that criticism, I think we often discount how hard it is for partisans to go off the reservation even in minor ways. The fact that Wolfowitz was willing to criticize Suharto at all, or that he's willing to tell a pro-Israel audience that they should be more mindful of Palestinian suffering, says something about what he really believes.

Of course, there's still that appalling judgment (see Wolfowitz, Paul, Congressional Testimony of, op cit). And the atmospherics are horrible too. By nominating Wolfowitz, George Bush has said "fuck you" to the rest of the world about as clearly as he possibly could without actually saying the words themselves.

But still, I wonder: could Wolfowitz actually end up being good at the job? Maybe. My guess is that he'll either be a complete disaster or else an inspired surprise sort of the way Earl Warren turned out to be a surprise to the president who nominated him. The only problem is, I can't figure out which is more likely.

UPDATE: Jason Vest provides a bleaker look at Wolfowitz's tenure in Indonesia in the Village Voice.

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By: Kevin Drum

HOUSEKEEPING....Quick housekeeping note. If you try to bring up the Washington Monthly site and get this message:

Couldn't connect to MySQL server on localhost: Can't connect to local MySQL server through socket '/var/lib/mysql/mysql.sock' (11)

Don't worry: it's nothing wrong on your end. This problem has cropped up a couple of times a day for the past month or two, and usually lasts anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. It's something on our end, but I don't really know exactly what it is or what to do about it. Someday we'll probably figure it out, but in the meantime, if you get this message just wait a few minutes or an hour and try again.

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By: Kevin Drum

FINDING BOBBY FISCHER....Anyone who remembers the bizarrely spellbinding drama of the 1972 world championship chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykjavik can hardly help but be mesmerized by the latest installment in the appalling soap opera that Fischer's life has become since then. In the Guardian today, Stephen Moss writes about his attempt to interview Fischer following his recent escape from Japan to Iceland:

As [Fischer] is leaving Copenhagen, he is cornered in a car park by the agitated man from Channel 1 and gives some characteristically robust quotes to summarise, death to the Jews, death to Japan, death to America, death to George Bush. (Probably death to Tony Blair, too Fischer refused to fly via London because he feared he would be grabbed by the police there.) Anyway, Fischer has let off steam, the Channel 1 man's job is saved, we have a news story.

And where was I, ace sleuth, while the car-park encounter took place? Drinking a beer and composing a short piece about failing to find Bobby Fischer.

If you read to the end, he also has some good advice for anyone hoping to get Fischer to autograph a copy of My 60 Memorable Games....

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By: Kevin Drum

GOSSIP....There are many scary things about modern journalism, but surely this one belongs on the list:

The real-time pace of Internet gossip has made it difficult for newspaper gossip columnists to stay ahead of the curve. [Gossip columnist Richard] Leiby said that many people in the Post newsroom monitored Wonkette.com, a Washington blog, all day long. "She often has the lead on me because she's in real time," he said.

"Many" people in the Post newsroom monitor Wonkette "all day long"? Sheesh. Wonkette isn't even a very good gossip writer, let alone someone worth monitoring continuously. Is that really the best the Post newsroom can do?

Kevin Drum 1:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 27, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND SCHIAVO....From Sunday Morning Talk:

As Dubya starts to see his numbers slide, This Week reported that the Bush administration are starting to distance themselves from Republicans on Capitol Hill, leaking that Bush didn't even want to return to Washington to sign the Schiavo bill last Sunday.

Did anyone see the show? How well sourced was this leak?

If it's true, it's about as galactically craven and poll driven a rowback as I've ever heard. Did one of Bush's minions really say something this cowardly and gutless?

UPDATE: More here.

UPDATE 2: The Washington Post has yet more:

He flew halfway across the country in a vain effort to save her life, but in the week since, President Bush has retreated back to his ranch and remained largely out of sight as the nation wrestled with the great moral issues surrounding the fate of Terri Schiavo.

....The juxtaposition of racing through the night in Air Force One to sign legislation intended to force doctors to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube and choosing not to use his bully pulpit to advocate for her life afterward demonstrates how uncomfortable the matter has become for the White House.

I hope this matter becomes more than just "uncomfortable" for them.

UPDATE 3: Stephanopoulos's source for the leaks is here.

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By: Kevin Drum

EASTER GREETINGS....A couple of random ruminations on Easter. First up is Julie Saltman:

If, like me, you're not religious (or at least not Christian), Easter has to be the biggest waste of a holiday. Like, what's the point of having a holiday that falls every year on a Sunday, which hullo? is already a holiday! OK, true, I dig the chocolate-eating part. I'll give you that. There was a clear need for a chocolate-oriented holiday in the calendar.

Hear hear! Chocolate Butter Eggs from See's Candies have always been the traditional Easter chocolate around here although I'm pretty sure they've mysteriously shrunken over the years, like so many other chocolate treats of our childhood. Since this has happened at the same time that I myself have grown larger, it seems especially unfair.

Next up is Matt Yglesias:

I didn't know any practicing Christians when I was growing up, which perhaps accounts for the fact that I'm not sure what one is supposed to say on Easter Sunday.

Now that's a sheltered childhood. Happy Easter, Matt!

UPDATE: More chocolate Easter humor here.

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOGGING COMMUNITIES....Professor B ruminates on blogging and life:

Even the things we don't experience ourselves, we can get some idea of what they're like by reading other people write honestly about them, and part of that honesty is the rage, the frustration, the complaint. These things matter not because they're abstractly unfair but because they affect real people, who have real feelings about them. There's an enormous amount of good writing out there about important stuff, popular though it is to dismiss it.

....I've been thinking about this in terms of this blog. First, there's the hit spike from the Drum and Volokh posts I'm well over 2,000 hits/day now. There's a temptation to write more about politics, both in response to that, and in response to the whole "women don't blog politics the way men do" thing, but the fact is that the A-list type of political blogging bores the crap out of me, and frankly, feels false to me for precisely the reasons outlined above.

This, of course, is one of the wonderful things about blogging. In a large sense, it does matter who the A-list bloggers, A-list op-ed writers, and A-list talk show guests are, because they control both the tone and content of a lot of public discourse. But the whole point of blogging (well, one of the points, anyway) is that it allows far more people to participate in public discourse, and to participate with a very different and more personal tone than op-ed writing or academic journal writing. You don't have to appeal to a hundred thousand people. A few hundred or a few thousand will do.

For example, standard issue political blogging doesn't feel false to me, but that's because I like that kind of thing. On the other hand, I've long felt that occasionally mixing in personal blogging with purely news-driven blogging is useful because it provides my readers with a better perspective of who I am and whether or not they should care what I have to say. It's also fun. This why you get catblogging here, as well as random pet peeve blogging, TV blogging, and linguistic blogging. These posts almost always provoke a few comments from people who want to know why I'm wasting their time with this stuff when GEORGE BUSH IS BUSY TURNING AMERICA INTO A FASCIST STATE! but that's the whole point. If this kind of thing makes you think I'm not a serious person, then this probably isn't a blog you should bother reading.

On the other hand, we all draw different limits around our lives and that includes limits around the amount of rage and frustration we're willing to expose. Like Prof B, I suffer from chronic depression, though, also like Prof B, it's obviously not debilitating. It just sucks. And while I'm not sure what choices she's made in her non-anonymous life, I chose long ago to mention this very seldom and to very few people. (If you're not sure why, go ahead and let your boss know that you're a chronic depressive and see what happens. For many people, their careers would be over.) I know from experience that my moods change, and while my mood is never what you'd call ebullient, the depressive cycles always eventually give way to something that's at least neutral. While I'm in a down cycle, though, I'm very conscious that I'm in the grip of bad brain chemistry, and my way of coping is to keep myself under very tight control. Don't react. Minimize human contact. Under no circumstances lose control of my temper.

Is this the right choice? I don't know. But it's the one I've made. And it does affect my blogging. For the most part, I keep an even tone because that's just what comes naturally to me, but other times it's a struggle. During those times, I occasionally break down (here's an example), but most of the time I don't. In fact, if I know I'm in a down cycle, I usually take care to watch my tone even more than usual.

(And in case you're wondering, I'm feeling fine right now, thanks very much. Although a bit of chocolate would sure hit the spot at the moment.)

So: did you want to hear this? Or were you bored because you come here for political red meat and wish I'd cut the crap and get back to Terri Schiavo? To me, the question seems pointless. It only takes a few seconds to skip a post you're not interested in, and there are thousands of other blogs out there to sample from as well. If this post bores you, wait for the next one. And if standard issue news blogging in general bores you, Prof B's advice is good: take the time to track down one of the countless communities of other likeminded people whose approach you probably will like. They're there for the taking.

Kevin Drum 2:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FROM THE MAILBAG....Bloggers get weird email all the time. Sometimes, though, you get one weird enough to share just for the pure weirdness of it all:


Followed up a few hours later by this:


So what's the call? Practical joke? Weird lunatic? Foreigner with poor grasp of English? Time traveler who doesn't realize the election was held four months ago?

So many choices....

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By: Kevin Drum

PRINT vs. TALK....This is sort of funny. Every week the LA Times runs a column called "Outside the Tent," where they invite their critics to, um, criticize them. I've been wondering how long it would take until they finally got one they refused to run, and today's the day.

Today's column was supposed to be by John Ziegler, a local talk show host I had never heard of until David Foster Wallace profiled him in the Atlantic earlier this month. (Yes, I learned about a talk radio host in my own city from an article by a midwestern writer in a magazine based in Boston. Go figure.) Why was it turned down? Sunday Opinion editor Bob Sipchen thought its accuracy was debatable:

But those weren't my reasons for rejecting the column. I spurned it because it reads more like a self-infatuated valentine to KFI than the sort of pointed, specific criticism of The Times that we demand in Outside the Tent.

....Just for the fun of it, we're giving readers a chance to decide for themselves: Did I spare you from several hundred words of pointless blather or deprive you of the opportunity to read a trenchant critique of a Southern California newspaper? Ziegler's submission follows below. Decide for yourself and vote.

Click here to read the whole thing and then vote.

My opinion? Ziegler's column was surprisingly turgid and poorly written, but they should have run it anyway. Sure, his point was that talk radio gets to the truth better than the Times, but what else did they expect from one of the self-promoting lunatic hordes at KFI? If you commission a column from a swamp, don't act surprised when you get swamp water in return.

POSTSCRIPT: The funniest line in the piece comes in an editor's note at the end that contains the following lament from one of Ziegler's guests: "I went there thinking it's a reputable station because Rush Limbaugh's on it. When I got there I found a station of clowns." The multiple levels of self-delusion on display there are remarkable.

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March 26, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DR. WHO....The consensus in the previous comment thread is that American copies of British shows suck. But how about British shows themselves? Robin McKie writes about the latest revival of Dr. Who in the Guardian:

It's not the contemporary values that make the show. It is its clever imitation of US hits such as Buffy and Angel: a mixture of smart, ironic humour and creepy horror. 'That won't last,' says the Doctor, peering at a couple posing for the pages of Heat . 'He's gay and she's an alien.' And Rose has some equally sassy gags. Told that an Evil Intelligence is going to bring all the world's plastic to life, she gasps: 'What, even breast implants?'

Lotsa yucks there. Apparently the Brits have learned well from their erstwhile colonists.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE OFFICE....So did anyone catch NBC's version of The Office on Thursday? I've never seen the original British version, but tuned in because someone had suggested it was similar in tone to the cult (and Kevin Drum) favorite Office Space. Needless to say, it wasn't.

Long story short, the American version didn't do much for me. Unlike Office Space, in which we get parodies of recognizable types, The Office seemed to offer up parodies of parodies, or perhaps parodies of Martians. The characters barely even seemed to be recognizably human, let alone engaging mockeries of people we all feel like we've met at some point in real life.

But that's just me. My question is for people who have seen both series: is it worth renting the British version? Is it different enough and better enough that there's a chance I'll like it even though I didn't like the American remake?

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By: Kevin Drum

GUEST BLOGGERS....Many thanks to Katha Pollitt, Garance Franke-Ruta, and Amy Sullivan, who guest posted this week about women in the opinion writing biz. I hope a good time was had by all.

Thirsty for more? You can normally find Katha writing at the Nation, Garance at the American Prospect, and Amy right here at the Washington Monthly.

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH'S BALDIES....Via The Hamster, more on George Bush and his love of baldies:

"He's very gracious and he's just happy," said Dorothy Spanos, who operates the Coffee Station with her husband Nick.

Mr. Bush comes by the restaurant occasionally, the last time was the Friday after U.S. Thanksgiving. The routine is always the same.

...."He loves rubbing bald heads. He says it brings him luck."

I hope they keep him away from chemotherapy wards. It could get ugly.

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By: Kevin Drum

JEB BUSH AND THE CULTURE OF SUPERIOR FIREPOWER....Jeb Bush is now certifiably batshit insane:

Hours after a judge ordered that Terri Schiavo wasn't to be removed from her hospice, a team of Florida law enforcement agents were en route to seize her and have her feeding tube reinserted but they stopped short when local police told them they would enforce the judge's order, The Miami Herald has learned.

....For a brief period, local police, who have officers around the hospice to keep protesters out, prepared for what sources called a showdown.

...."It was kind of a showdown on the part of the locals and the state police," the official said. "It was not too long after that Jeb Bush was on TV saying that, evidently, he doesn't have as much authority as people think."

Jeb was getting ready to send state troopers out to invade a hospice protected by local police officers? Words fail me.

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March 25, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

COMMIE GIRL....Had a nice lunch this afternoon with OC Weekly's Commie Girl. Guess what? She thinks I should link to more women!

Well....OK. Here's her latest column:

Are there times when you wouldnt want an incapacitated womans husband to decide whether she lives or dies? Absolutely: say, if the husband were Newt Gingrich, who, when his wife was in a hospital bed undergoing chemo for cancer, told her he was leaving her and whipped out divorce papers for her to sign. I sure as hell wouldnt trust Newt around a Do Not Resuscitate order.

But Michael Schiavos not that guy, no matter how many times former exterminator DeLay calls him a murderer and a medical terrorist. He lived with her parents for four years, so they could all care for her together; he went to nursing school so he could better care for her; he brought her to California for experimental treatments that didnt work because Terris brain has literally turned to liquid; and then, after almost a dozen years, he decided she would never come back. Her parents flipped, of course (its easy to say that everybody dies, but Im in meltdown right now because my sister wants to move), and filed a suit thats been litigated 19 times (activist judges), each time with Michael Schiavo prevailing. Hes her husband. Sanctity of marriage, you know.

If you like what you see, bookmark the OC Weekly and go back for more next week. Or read her blog here.

Just goes to show: there really are liberals here in Orange County. Real liberals, not the watered down kind like me. Enjoy.

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By: Kevin Drum

PEERING INTO THE FUTURE....Brad DeLong does some sleuthing today and discovers that last year the Social Security actuaries changed the way they calculate future productivity growth. Brad says that if they still used the old method, they'd be projecting long-term growth of 1.9%, not 1.6%.

Fine. But how much difference would that make? The trustees report doesn't tell us directly, but it does include a "sensitivity analysis" that relates real wage growth to actuarial deficit: roughly, a 1% increase in real wage growth gives you a 1% decrease in the actuarial deficit. Productivity growth is closely linked to real wage growth, so a .3% increase in productivity growth probably equates (approximately) to a .3% decrease in the actuarial deficit.

The trustees currently estimate a long term cumulative actuarial deficit of 1.92% of taxable payroll. Thus, the increase in productivity would decrease this deficit to about 1.62%. In other words, it wipes out about one-sixth of the deficit. That doesn't save the program, but it's nothing to sneeze at, either.

It's funny, isn't it? Every time we turn over another rock, Social Security's finances seem better than advertised and private accounts seem worse than advertised. Funny indeed.

Kevin Drum 7:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Garance Franke-Ruta

WHY IT MATTERS. I've been exceptionally impressed with the quality of the comments on this blog over the past week, which have been wonderfully intelligent, thoughtful, and polite. One question that's come up over and over, however, is why this topic mattered, or should matter, to those outside of elite media circles.

Let me try to answer that. Recall that the majority of Democrats are women. Given that, the absence of female voices on Op-Ed pages means that half the liberal/Democratic family is not getting its views across to the public, where they can be debated and have influence. That puts the Democratic Party at a substantial messaging disadvantage, especially, I believe, on values issues. White men are the most conservative demographic group in the country, and to the extent that they overwhelmingly dominate political speech on Op-Ed pages and in the blogosphere, the range of political issues under debate winds up being restricted to what they know, what they are concerned with, and their perspectives on values questions.

Take what is, I believe, the single most important issue facing middle-class families: the rise of the 50-80 hour work week and the disappearance of the weekend. Anne Applebaum wrote about this recently. I bring the issue up in story meetings at the Prospect at every available opportunity. And Im regularly surprised by the number of young, progressive women I know who tell me that the thing they dislike most about the Democratic Party is its obsessive focus on abortion instead of the question of how to combine work and family and not go crazy. They want to be approached as mothers and potential mothers, as well as people with jobs and aspirations, not as atomized rights-bearing individuals given to crisis pregnancies. But those who raise such issues often cannot get any traction because there are simply not enough voices in high enough positions in the press or the party to create buzz. And so the topic remains a cultural issue on the left, rather than a matter for political consideration and action. Result: middle-class mothers vote Republican, and the Democratic Party has won a smaller fraction of the female electorate each presidential-election year since 1996. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party carries on loudly about the outsourcing of manufacturing sector jobs, which are mainly held by men, and judicial appointments, which are crucial to preserving reproductive rights but, once again, turn the focus back to abortion. No wonder the so-called Mommy Party now routinely loses the votes of parents and the married. Recall, too, that the "Year of the Woman," 1992, helped boost Clinton into office.

Or take abortion itself. I expect that male politicians and pundits are not always cognizant of the way that men who are vehemently pro-choice can come across as creepy and irresponsible to some women. This has nothing to do with those women being opposed to choice; it has to do with a broader sub-rosa argument this country has been having for decades about male irresponsibility and untrustworthiness and the way that a lot of women in contemporary society wind up feeling used and cast aside by men. This argument and social worry lies at the heart of some of our most prominent media obsessions, from the Scott Peterson trial to the right-wing response to Terri Schiavo. The right wing has been trying to turn Michael Schiavo into Scott Peterson, and petite, brunette Terri into petite, brunette Laci. The O.J. trial was a variant on the same basic theme of the irresponsible, potentially violent mate who wants to be rid of his all-too dispensable wife. Such stories ricochet through a social landscape split apart by divorce and often ambivalent about its American Pie-style sexual ethics.

Virtually every values issue in this country can be reduced to a debate about how men and women are supposed to relate to each other. How can such a debate be won by men of the left only? It seems to me that it cannot. Reviving liberalism in America and growing the Democratic Party is not a sales job for a small cadre of men. It is the joint responsibility and project of every member of the Democratic coalition. The Republican Party's efforts to pick off members of the coalition, by targeting Hispanics and African-Americans, just makes that universal responsibility even more urgent.

Kevin thoughtfully offered some folks an opportunity to discuss one small slice of this broader problem. I thank him for his good intentions and for the opportunity to be part of this experiment on his blog. Thanks also to Amy and Katha, and to all of you for sharing your comments and thoughts. You can find me most of the rest of the time over at Tapped. Garance Franke-Ruta 7:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BARRO ON PRIVATE ACCOUNTS....Conservative economist Bruce Bartlett emails to tell me that conservative economist Robert Barro has changed his mind about private accounts. They have some virtues, he says in the current issue of Business Week, but "overall the accounts are a bad idea."

Roughly, Barro's argument depends on moral hazard. After a bit of preliminary throat clearing, he observes that government will always provide some minimum level of support for the needy elderly and everyone knows it. Because of this, though, private account holders "would opt for too much risk, knowing they would be bailed out if they fell short." Since this makes private accounts unworkable for minimum support, their only usefulness is to supplement the minimum government payout. But why bother? Beyond the minimum, why not just let people save on their own?

This is a useful point, although Barro and I pretty quickly part company after that, since his idea of "minimum" is rather different than mine. If he had his way, promised benefits would be slashed by upwards of 50% or more over the next several decades.

Still, Barro wields a big stick in conservative talking point land. Even if his support goes no further, it's nice to have him as an ally on the basic issue of the non-workability of private accounts.

Kevin Drum 7:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

BUSY SIGNAL....The Washington Post has a story today outlining the disappointment in the Native American community to the nearly radio silent response of the White House following the Minnesota shooting earlier this week that left ten people dead. By way of explanation, deputy press secretary (and holiday short-straw drawer) Dana Perino said that Bush tried to call the chairman of the Red Lake Chippewa tribe several times today, but got voicemail instead.

First of all, the shooting happened on Monday. I know the president has been busy and all (*cough* Schiavo *cough*) but, come on. More importantly, the White House is once again acting like we're morons. He's the president. He doesn't just pick up the phone and dial whoever he wants, catching them off-guard. These things are scheduled, with someone else placing the call, and then if they reach the right person, asking them to "please hold for the President" before he ever picks up the phone. That's not just the way it happens on "The West Wing"...it's the only way the President of the United States can get things done. What, are we supposed to expect that he sits around his office going, "Dang...where is everybody? I've called twelve people so far today and only two of them were home!"

If you're wondering whether I'm calling them liars, yes--I am.

Amy Sullivan 5:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TODAY'S TERRI SCHIAVO POST....Richard Cohen thinks that Democrats are "cowering in some bunker" when it comes to Terri Schiavo. Why aren't they fighting back?

It's a good question, but I think the answer might not be the one Cohen suggests. I haven't thought this through completely, but mostly as a discussion topic I'd like to toss out the hypothesis that there's a pretty good reason for Dems to stay on the sidelines: because there are no major core principles of liberalism at stake here. Here are the various arguments that have been floating around Terri Schiavo:

  • Congress shouldn't pass laws directed at a single person. No, Congress probably shouldn't. On the other hand, let's be frank: I can think of circumstances where I'd be all in favor of this, and I'll bet you can too. Don't get me wrong: this was both a bad law and a politically craven one as well, but I'm not sure single-person legislation per se really contravenes any deeply held liberal principles.

  • The rule of law should be upheld. Sure, and it was. But passing legislation to change the law doesn't violate any principle of liberalism. What's more, Congress changes laws following adverse judicial rulings all the time. Again, the issue here is more that the law was aimed at a single, specific case, not that it was passed after a court ruling that conservatives disliked.

  • The federal government shouldn't intervene in state matters. Give me a break. Everyone has their own ideas of where the boundary should be drawn between state and federal law, but states rights has never been a big favorite among lefties. As a liberal standard bearer, this argument is ridiculous.

  • Florida law is substantively correct. Maybe it is. On the other hand, what if Florida law stated that all patients should be kept alive by all means necessary until they're declared medically brain dead unless they've made contrary wishes known beforehand clearly and in writing, witnessed and notarized? That might not be the way I'd write the law, but at the same time I don't see any major liberal impediment to it, either.

Now, there's no question that Republican reaction to Terri Schiavo has been nauseatingly opportunistic, aimed more at pandering to a small core of Christian conservatives than because of any real concern over how Florida law treats PVS patients. And with any luck, Republicans will pay a price for that.

Still, while it's possible that Democrats have passed up a golden opportunity to make hay over this, that's a tactical argument. On the basis of liberal principles, conversely, the issues at hand seem fairly modest.

In the end, I'm not sure I blame Democrats that much for declining to go out on a political limb and join Bill Frist and Tom DeLay in yet another poisonous round of the culture wars. It's exactly what conservatives want, and the liberal issues at stake here just aren't big enough to make it worth playing their game. Sometimes it's better to let the other side make fools of themselves without interfering.

Kevin Drum 2:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Katha Pollitt

BLOGS vs. PRINT....We may not always agree on politics, Amy, but I feel the same way you do about political blogs. You mention a number of prominent political writers who've shifted their focus to blogging and of course there are many others, these days not having a blog is like not having a refrigerator but how many of them are better on screen than on paper? I can't think of a professional writer whose voice has improved by shifting to cyberspace, and voice plus information and perspectives I don't get in the mainstream media is what keeps me coming back.

Having endless space in which to expatiate is not necessary a good thing. The level of shameless self-promotion in some blogs takes my breath away I went on TV! I was on a panel! I had drinks with Christopher Hitchens! I hate the food fights, the chest thumping, the endless bestowing of laurels and lashes. I doubt blogging has ever made a print writer more thoughtful or complex in fact I suspect we can both think of writers it has driven deep into the wilds of egomania. Well, probably they were already there, come to think of it, but the space constraints and editorial conventions of print kept it under wraps.

Having said that, it's also true that when I wander around the blogosphere I am struck by how interesting it is. How many people have literary talent, know a lot, argue skillfully, are funny, have something distinctive to say. The feminist conversation in cyberspace is SO much more vigorous, sharper, unapologetic than the anemic and timid one in the mainstream media.

If I were an editor I would definitely look to the blogs for new and undiscovered writers of both sexes and all genders. For feminist and women political bloggers, interested readers should go to feministing.com and check out their blogroll. (Don't miss Echidne of the Snakes, a personal favorite.) Or check out Kevin's blogroll, which now has quite a number of blogs by women. I just visited Body and Soul, a new one for me, and found a really informative post on the Catholic church on "life" (as in right to) in Argentina, where the hierarchy is all entwined with the military and its terrible history. Torture si, condoms no!

I don't know why more well-known women print writers don't have their own blogs. Maybe they are writing great books or walking in the park, are already stretched to the limit between writing and home. Maybe they don't feel every single thought that flits through their head is automatically of interest to total strangers although if you look at the blogosphere overall, where, correct me if I'm wrong, women are in the majority, you certainly wouldn't get that impression. And then there's $$$. I'm not sure, but I think the writers you mention are mostly paid for blogging by the same news organizations that aren't so interested in women. The same gatekeeping function that promoted the men in print, promotes them in cyberspace. I hope that this discussion will encourage these and other male bloggers to put more women on their blogrolls and link to their posts.

One last point for now. One poster to this discussion says all women blog about is their cats. This is most unfair. First of all, it's sexist women blog about many things. Secondly, Kevin, a man, claims he invented the Friday catblogging tradition, and a fine tradition it is! [Full story here, here, and here. Ed] Thirdly, what is wrong with cats? Cats are great! [You bet they are! Jasmine]

POSTSCRIPT: Kevin here. Since I get this question a lot, yes, I do have a blogroll. It's at the very bottom of the page in a dropdown box. That's also where the search box and the archives reside, in case you've ever been looking for those too.

Katha Pollitt 1:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Garance Franke-Ruta

THE POWER OF MARKET FORCES. Kevin e-mailed me to add to Massie's point, below, noting that the local newcaster formula is almost always one male and one female anchor, partly because market forces demand it. I'd add that television and film both seem to demand greater gender parity than less visual media because the visual representation of an all-male world just looks so off and repels female viewers.

One of my favorite examples of how this works in practice is the movie Shattered Glass, about The New Republic, which turned Jonathan Chait into the fictional character "Amy Brand" in order to make up for the fact that so few women worked at TNR. The producers must simply have decided that they'd lose the audience if they only had one central female character, even if she was played by Chloe Sevigny and based on Hanna Rosin.

I also sometimes wonder if CNN's long decline is related to the utterly unwatchable women they promote to the anchor positions, such as the robotic, rail-thin Daryn Kagan. I greatly prefer watching someone like FOX News' lively Rita Cosby, who is also far less noxious than her male peers at that network. Cosby is plump (by TV news standards), slightly asymmetric, brash, and always seems to be having a really, really good time on the air. In short, she seems normal, whereas Kagan seems as unreal as the computer-generated movie character Simone. Cosby looks like someone who loves her job and is happy with herself and isn't trying to be perfect. Given the images of women on television in general, that's immensely appealing.

CNN used to have a lot more smart, strong, normal-looking women on air, such as the much-heralded Christiane Amanpour, who inspired a generation of women to become foreign correspondents and war reporters. I suspect if they went back to the formula of showcasing such women, instead of ones who look like winners of a spokesmodel contest, they'd find there's a market for watching them. Indeed, I wonder how much of the surprising popularity of CNN Headline News' controversial new Nancy Grace show is due to its content, and how much is due to the fact that Grace is a passionately opinionated woman with bad hair, which makes her more entertaining to watch than the prettily bland anchors. It also makes her seem more real, even if she isn't.

Occasionally watching FOX News -- as I do for, uh, research purposes -- has convinced me that one underappreciated reason for that network's success has nothing to do with its politics, but rather with the sorts of stories it chooses to cover. The network airs a fair number of little local-news style stories featuring regional events that no one else puts on cable, involving the sorts of people who otherwise never get brought into representation unless they are involved in a major national tragedy. If you are one of those people whose world is largely excluded from visual representation on television, it must feel very gratifying to have a news station willing to acknowledge that you and people like you exist.

All of which is just to say that television networks, despite their flaws, seem to be doing a better job than Op-Ed pages of catering to audience desires to see themselves represented, whether that audience is female or rural middle-American. And given the quality of most of what's on TV, you know what that says about the Op-Ed pages. Garance Franke-Ruta 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE END OF THE BLOGOSPHERE?....Agence France Presse is suing Google for $17.5 million for aggregating and extracting headlines and excerpts from AFP stories on its Google News service. Google claims its use of AFP material is protected by fair use laws; AFP denies it.

What if AFP wins? Over at CJR, Paul McLeary takes a look at whether an adverse ruling would affect bloggers who also excerpt and link to mainstream media material on a regular basis.

And in related news, Mike Krempasky has read through an early draft of an FEC rule aimed at regulating the way internet sites, including blogs, can promote political candidates. It was even worse than he expected, he says. The version that got adopted yesterday is a bit better, but we dodged a bullet.

I'm going to hold fire on the FEC draft until I learn a little more about it. The previous flap over Bradley Smith's remarks was pretty clearly blown out of proportion, and it's also not clear to me that the FEC rules are as bad as Mike thinks they are. What's more, although McCain-Feingold restrictions on free speech are indeed problematic, they've been upheld by the Supreme Court. Given that, it's never been clear to me why internet sites shouldn't be regulated the same way as any other medium.

Still, these are clearly rumblings on the horizon, and they have at least the potential to stifle the free flowing conversation the blogosphere is famous for. It's worth keeping an eye on.

Kevin Drum 12:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 24, 2005
By: Amy Sullivan

AND NOW THE MOMENT YOU'VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR--GIRLS AND BLOGS....I'm still laughing from Katha's post on male-centric blogs: "What a fine point Boygenius made over on nogirlsallowed.com! Thanks for the plug, NumberOneSon!" So perhaps now is a good time to add my thoughts on women and blogs to the mix.

In theory, blogs should be an ideal testing ground. Anyone can start a blog, you don't have to send in submissions, you don't have an editor, so men and women should have an equal shot of making it, right? The problem is that while starting a blog couldn't be easier, acquiring a readership is much much more difficult. And that's where the old rules of gatekeeping apply. It really helps if one of the big guns mentions you, links to you, or--even better--puts you on his blogroll. When Eric Alterman put my two-month-old blog on his list of recommended sites, my readership tripled within days.

It's remarkable that, as far as I know (and please correct me if I'm wrong), there hasn't been a single female version of Mickey Kaus, Joe Conason, Andrew Sullivan, Josh Marshall, Eric Alterman, and other professional writers who are now known primarily for their blogging. This could be because there are fewer women in that pool to start. But I wonder if some female writers decided that blogs were too trivial/juvenile/whatever and chose to focus on more traditional outlets.

I'm perhaps not the best person to comment on why women still haven't been able to break into the top level unless they rely on a truckload of drinking and sodomy jokes, because I've pretty much burned out on blogs and don't read many of them anymore. To me, blogs are like op-eds--I don't read them to get news, I read because I want to enjoy a particular writer's voice or hear their take on the issues of the day.

I could read Anne Lamott all day, but Barbara Ehrenreich--while I love her books--was just too lecture-y for me when she subbed for Tom Friedman. Friedman himself usually makes my eyes glaze over, but I'll put up with Maureen Dowd's dry spells just for the chance to read sentences like this one describing W: "The Boy Emperor picked up the morning paper and, stunned, dropped his Juicy Juice box with the little straw attached." I first developed a crush on my then-not-yet-boyfriend when his blog posts made me laugh out loud. And, because I'm not big on fulminating, I tend to avoid people who are always writing screeds about this or that thing, or agitating to exile someone from the ideological fold, and I miss sensible voices like the short-lived Tough Democrat blog.

And that brings me to one final point about the blogosphere. Again, in theory, it's a democratic world--everyone has an equal opportunity to speak, if not to be heard. But there is an ideological bias at play just as much as any gender bias. I don't know if it prevents women from being heard or drives them out of the game, but I know that my hate mail spikes whenever I write something that strays from the Kos-approved liberal line. That's a shame. Because no one ever solved complicated questions by bullying people they disagreed with into stepping out of the discussion. We need more female voices; but we also need more tolerance for people willing to question the liberal conventional wisdom.

Amy Sullivan 11:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUNNING WATCH....Via Max, here's the latest tax scam from congressional Republicans. I'll lay it out in easy steps:

  • In 1983 Congress voted to make up to 50% of Social Security benefits taxable. This tax applied only to high income recipients and the revenue was earmarked for the Social Security trust fund.

  • In 1993 Congress increased the share of benefits that was taxable to 85%. The taxes on the additional 35 percentage points of income were earmarked for Medicare.

  • Last week, the Senate voted to repeal the 1993 law. This means that after-tax benefits will be effectively increased for certain people

  • Which people, you ask? Via Citizens for Tax Justice, here's the answer: The average benefit increase for people making under $50,000 per year is $12. The average benefit increase for people making over $200,000 per year is $2,431.

End result: rich retirees get higher benefits and Medicare gets less money.

This is the handiwork of Kentucky's Jim Bunning, and in reality it's mostly just a scam to increase the target level for tax cuts in the 2006 budget resolution. His actual proposal may or may not ever see the light of day.

Still, you have to wonder: is there any limit to Republican recklessness these days? Any sense of shame at all? Regardless of its final fate, Bunning's proposal is so far beyond belief it's in the twilight zone.

Kevin Drum 8:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Katha Pollitt

PRIDE, PREJUDICE, BLOGS....I'm getting quite a bit of email from people following this discussion. Two women I think frame the outlying positions very well. One tells me she sent a query to a book review editor, got a polite rejection, and hasn't tried that editor again. Was that gendered behavior? she asked. Yes! I answered. Men are unbelievably persistent they pester, they bother, they come back again and again. They don't care if the person they are bombarding likes them or even likes their work. They just want to get that plum.

But....then again, perhaps men feel free to pester and women don't because male persistence succeeds and women's doesn't. Maybe pestering is gendered not just in who does it but in how it is viewed he's determined, she's some kind of a nut. I think we know, though, that going away quietly to nurse your wounded pride never works, so I hope women reading this will be bold and resolute and not give up. And take Amy up on her invitation!

Another woman gives the other side of the coin. She describes working as a journalist at a small newsweekly she describes as "a hard-core boys club": "It was only after several years that I realized that the reason the newbie boys were getting the scoops and I wasn't was not because of my reporting skills but because my editor was handing them the sources."

It's true that not every woman editor promotes or helps women writers some pride themselves on being one of the boys, some are queen bees who like being the only woman, some are insecure and rely on male viziers. But I think we're not going to see real diversity in our opinion pages until we see more women with power on the masthead, till we have that critical mass where women with power aren't isolated individuals. The same is true for other marginalized groups African Americans, for example. As long as most editors are white men, "white male" is going to be the norm, the neutral generic unbiased rational person, and women and nonwhites are going to be the extras, the color commentary.

BTW, I admired the ingenuity with which Garance parlayed the tiny number of women at the Washington Post into a virtual torrent of female bylines! I need someone to do that kind of math on my book manuscript maybe it only looks like it's 20 pages long.

Several people wrote to wonder why we are bothering with fuddyduddy old print when cyberspace is where the action is. So about blogging: I try not to spend all day reading blogs, which I could easily do, but the political ones I follow are mostly by women. Before the election, I read male political blogs obsessively, and still get a lot of useful information from them. But how can I say this in a nice way? I find that (present company and all my friends excepted! I am making gross and unfair generalizations here) the voices don't wear well: the range of tones, of topics, of approaches to topics is too narrow, and the mutual admiration society too exclusive: some blogrolls read like those interlocking directorates of railroad companies in the 19th century! There's too much boasting and crowing, too much scorekeeping, too much self-anointment as instant expert and public executioner. If I look at the blogroll and see only male blogs, I assume, perhaps unfairly, that the blogger is promoting a narrow view of politics and boosting his male network and his own career. What a fine point Boygenius made over on nogirlsallowed.com! Thanks for the plug, NumberOneSon!

To me, women political bloggers are so fresh and smart and full of fascinating underplayed news items, not linking to them really is a kind of misogyny. And since linking is so important in raising one's own visibility, Garance may well be right when she suggests that male liberal bloggers shoot themselves in the foot by overlooking women political bloggers, who are disproportionately liberal. (This would parallel the Democrats' inability really to go after women's votes by talking about issues women care about like equal pay, childcare, affordable housing, domestic violence, the whole range of women's health. I mean, weren't you shocked that John Edwards looked as clueless as Dick Cheney when Gwen Ifill brought up the high rates of HIV among black women during the vice presidential debate? It's not some big medical secret but it's black people, and it's women, and it wasn't on the talking points. But I digress.)

More on politics another time.

Katha Pollitt 5:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE VIEW FROM BAGHDAD....Are things turning around in Iraq? I'd like to think so, but the relatively good news we've been hearing about lately (fewer attacks on U.S. forces, better performance from Iraqi troops, increasing popular resistance to the insurgents, etc.) has only been floating around for a few weeks. That's not enough time to support a serious conclusion that we're finally on the path to success.

Unfortunately, over at TNR Lawrence Kaplan provides us yet another reason to be dubious:

Simply put, U.S. officials in Baghdad have in the past tended not to tell the whole truth. It is of course in their interest to convey good news. They've performed their job so well, however, that no one believes them anymore. The public's exposure to this has mostly been confined to shifting reports about the numbers of Iraqi forces and other upbeat but hollow assessments put out by U.S. officials.

Embassy and military officials in Iraq have told me and others, with a straight face, that the airport road is the safest road in Iraq, that Iyad Allawi will win the election by a landslide, that U.S. forces have killed more insurgents than the same officials have said even exist, and other tales too numerous to list. Dedication to the mission, career advancement, an impulse to spin whatever the motive, the public face of the U.S. mission in Iraq has been so disconnected from reality for so long that were its assessments eventually to jibe with the whole truth, it would have no more persuasive power than the boy who cried wolf. For if the Baghdad press corps has a bias, it is a bias against bullshit.

As near as I can tell, it's almost impossible to get even a moderately neutral read on what's happening in Iraq. Hawks dismiss mainstream media reports out of hand, arguing that reporters are hopelessly biased against the war and report only bad news. Lefties likewise dismiss official reports as nothing more than standard Bush administration spin a view that Kaplan persuasively endorses. In the end, we all believe whatever we want to believe, and since reporters in Iraq are mostly stuck inside the Green Zone and venture out only rarely and under heavy guard, the whole place is a gigantic black hole of information.

For myself, I hope things are turning around, but I remain skeptical. Even the official statistics are only mildly encouraging, and the bigger trends working against us are the same as they've always been: thinly spread troops, endemic ethnic and religious strife, too many insurgents and no good way to track them down, lousy infrastructure, and fundamentally different goals separating the U.S. from both ordinary Iraqis and the rest of the Arab world. So: when the next crisis comes and it will are we in any better shape to handle it? It doesn't really seem like it.

Kevin Drum 5:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

EDUCATION SPENDING....I'm not the fan of No Child Left Behind that Andy Rotherham is, but it's hard not to sympathize with his reaction to Jack Jennings' complaint that NCLB money is targeted heavily toward "urban districts with high concentrations of poverty":

Yes, federal education dollars are more targeted to urban and high poverty communities because of NCLB. But hello? Shouldn't the money be targeted toward poor kids? The federal treasury is not a bottomless pit after all and overall it's poor communities that have the most trouble raising state and local funds anyway. Shouldn't liberals/progressives and Democrats be for such targeting?

Yep, seems that way to me too. Hell, if it were up to me, the dollars would probably be targeted almost exclusively to poor, urban schools. That's where most of the problems are, after all.

Kevin Drum 4:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

VALERIE PLAME UPDATE....Via Laura Rozen, the Washington Post reports that news organizations are fighting back against subpoenas in the Valerie Plame case:

A federal court should first determine whether a crime has been committed in the disclosure of an undercover CIA operative's name before prosecutors are allowed to continue seeking testimony from journalists about their confidential sources, the nation's largest news organizations and journalism groups asserted in a court filing yesterday.

The 40-page brief, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, argues that there is "ample evidence...to doubt that a crime has been committed" in the case, which centers on the question of whether Bush administration officials knowingly revealed the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame in the summer of 2003.

Now, maybe this is just legal mumbo jumbo and doesn't really mean anything. But taking it at face value, it's a bit perplexing.

One of the reasons I continue to take this affair seriously is that I assume (a) the federal prosecutor wouldn't continue to waste resources on this case unless he was pretty sure a law had been broken, and (b) a court wouldn't issue the subpoenas in the first place unless the prosecutor had made a pretty decent prima facie case that there was a violation. The question of whether outing Plame was a violation of the law has been pretty thoroughly aired, after all, and both the prosecutor and the judge are surely aware of the issues at hand.

So is this still an open question? Or are the news organizations just throwing some mud on the wall to see if it sticks? Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 3:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY vs. MEDICARE....Why is President Bush spending so much time on Social Security when Medicare is actually a far bigger problem? The Washington Post graphic on the right illustrates the fiscal reality nicely, and this post from last December lays out the basic numbers.

On Wednesday, it turned out that the two independent trustees who oversee Social Security and Medicare were wondering the same thing:

"The financial outlook for Social Security has improved marginally since 2000," wrote [Thomas] Saving and [John] Palmer. "In sharp contrast, Medicare's financial outlook has deteriorated dramatically over the past five years and is now much worse that Social Security's."

You can guess the result: the Bush administration blackballed them from the unveiling of yesterday's trustees report. "They didn't particularly invite us," Saving said blandly. "They're doing it differently, I guess."

In a sense, though, I suppose we're lucky. Republican mucking around with Social Security is bad enough, but on Medicare they're completely hopeless. They have no new ideas on offer, and what ideas they do have are so obviously bad that their constituents would ride them out of town on a rail if they ever seriously tried to implement them.

What's more, I think it's becoming increasingly obvious even to their conservative corporate backers that eventually the problem has to be addressed not with piecemeal changes to Medicare, but with sweeping changes to the entire healthcare system. And that leads straight in only one direction: national healthcare. Unfortunately, that's a dark and stormy road the Republican party can't head down without first having a Scrooge-like confrontation with their own shriveled and wealth-obsessed soul. Eventually it will be their Waterloo.

Kevin Drum 2:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RANDOM, FREE-FLOATING, NON-POLITICAL WHINING THREAD....Tired of politics? I'm not. But how about a break for some miscellaneous pet peeve airing and audience brain picking? Three topics today:

  • A couple of months ago my computer started freezing up two or three times a day. The symptoms were always identical: after some action on my part (starting an app, closing an app, looking crosseyed at the monitor), the hard drive would thrash and the mouse would freeze for about 10 or 15 seconds. After that, everything was fine. Annoying, though not debilitating.

    Then, three days ago I uninstalled Google Desktop, an indexing and hard drive searching app from the Google empire that I had installed, um, about two months ago. My problems vanished. No more freezing. So a word to the wise: it's a handy program, but despite what they say, it doesn't work only in the background. Far from it.

  • Speaking of freeware, I've noticed that Firefox has a peculiar tic. Like Internet Explorer, it remembers text you've previously typed into text boxes and then presents it to you automatically when you start typing the text again. Very handy. However, if you accidentally type in something incorrect, it seems to stay in Firefox's memory banks forever.

    For an example, see the screen shot on the right. At some point in the dim past I typed my email address incorrectly, and now the bogus address shows up every time I start typing it. With IE, you could just delete typos, but with Firefox they seem to be embedded permanently. Does anyone know how to eliminate its memory of my typing boo boos?

    UPDATE: Hooray! Just press Shift-Delete and your typing detritus disappears. Thanks, Kathy!

  • Like Abu Aardvark, I really hate the modern TV tradition of running shows in tiny spurts: two or three new shows followed by two or three reruns. Dammit, run the whole season and then fill in the summers with reruns or tryouts. If it was good enough for my childhood, it's good enough for my adulthood.

    UPDATE: In response to the Aardvark's specific complaint (when the hell is Lost going to start running new episodes again?), the answer is here at the unofficial fan site. Next Wednesday is a new episode, and there are five more after that. Warning: site includes brief plot summaries.

That's it. File your own pet peeves in comments. But please note: no religious wars from the Mac zealots. Just....shut....up. You have better things to do with your time than indulging in fantasies that Macs never break and always work perfectly. And that goes for you Linux folks too.

Kevin Drum 1:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Garance Franke-Ruta

AMITY IN THE U.K....My friend Alex Massie of The Scotsman writes in to say that the Op-Ed pages in the U.K. are rather more open to women than their U.S. counterparts, but for structural as well as cultural reasons:

British papers seem to have far more female columnists than their American counterparts. Upon some reflection it occurred to me that this could be explained in a couple of ways:

1. British papers are far more in love with anything new than their American counterparts. So editors are quite happy to sack columnists to bring in their own favoured voices (something which, I suspect, would be considered the height of bad manners at the NYT or WaPo). In addition, papers lure columnists away form their rivals (on the usually erroneous assumption they'll bring readers with them. This rarely happens. But the columnist still gets a hefty pay rise.) Anyway, this all means that there's a greater turnover of columnists than here, hence freeing up space and opportunity for new voices.

2. This does vary from paper to paper. William Rees Mogg and Simon Jenkins have been writing columns for The Times (frequently so dull they could have been ripped from the NYT) since the '70s at least. But The Times also has two serious female political/cultural commentators. Ditto the Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Evening Standard, Scotsman, Daily Mail etc etc.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the number of serious women commentators in Britain is the competitive nature of the UK press. Papers have to watch what their rivals are doing and respond quickly if they are not to risk losing sales. With a dozen or more papers to choose from each day, you can't let your rivals get ahead. So, once one paper widens the range of voices on its op-ed pages by including women, everyone else scurries along to catch up. You can never risk being left behind, never take your eye off what the opposition is up to.

That's not the case here. There's no peer pressure to have more women's
voices heard. A properly competitive newspaper industry might change that.

3. When I ran Scotland on Sunday's op-ed pages for a while, I was acutely conscious that we did not always have enough female writers on board (although one of our four weekly op-ed columns was written, very well, by a woman). "Remember the women" was the mantra. A useful rule of thumb for life too, of course....

Indeed. Lucy Kellaway of the UK-based The Financial Times has some rather choice things to say about Maureen Dowd on this topic, as well (subscribers only). Garance Franke-Ruta 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ON THE USES AND ABUSES OF TERRI SCHIAVO....What's the Terri Schiavo case really about? A mug's game, maybe, but it's worth pointing to two related theories today.

First there's Garance Franke-Ruta, who writes at Tapped that the real goal is "packing the courts with President Bush's conservative judicial nominees." Mark Kleiman agrees, and even goes a bit further. In a pair of posts (here and here), he argues that congressional Republicans may have deliberately botched their custom-tailored emergency Schiavo legislation last weekend because they wanted to lose, thus ginning up a bit of useful grassroots fury in preparation for using the "nuclear option" later this year to ram through George Bush's ultra-conservative judicial nominees. Conservatives themselves seem to agree, as Janet Hook reported a few days ago in the LA Times:

Many of the activists are urging GOP leaders to move more aggressively this spring to win confirmation of Bush's judicial nominees.

They argue that the Schiavo case reinforces the importance of placing conservatives in the judiciary.

"This is just one more perfect portrait of why we need to have fair and just men on the bench," said Lanier Swann, director of government relations for Concerned Women of America, a conservative group that has made the Schiavo case a priority.

The second (and related) theory comes from Ed Kilgore, who says it's yet another front in the pro-life abortion campaign:

In the end, the Schindlers and their crusade is ultimately becoming just another battle in the right-to-life movement's long war to force a redefinition of life and the legal protections afforded it from the moment of conception to biological death.

We all need to understand this this is what the case is really about, and (a) ignore the legal and factual arguments being thrown out as tactical maneuvers by the anti-abortion activists and Republican politicians pursuing this issue, because they don't mean them for a moment, and (b) recognize that for most of the protestors marching in support of the Schindlers, the photos of poor Terri Schiavo (may she someday rest in peace) they wave are just this week's version of the fetus posters they brandish every day of the year.

My guess? Everyone is right, although I doubt it's quite as premeditated as they're making it out to be. At this point, both the culture wars and their newfound brand of institutional arrogance are so ingrained in the Republican party's DNA that I suspect this stuff is strategized on a practically unconscious level.

And in the end, that may end up being the only good news in this affair: that DeLay and company never really thought this through. As Julie Saltman reports, the government activism inherent in the Schiavo case may finally be creating a split in the conservative movement itself, as old-style small-government Republicans finally revolt against a party leadership seemingly in perpetual obeisance to a know-nothing wing of crude religious demagoguery. As Republican Christopher Shays of Connecticut put it, "This Republican Party of Lincoln has become a party of theocracy."

Yep. The only question is, will Shays and his likeminded rationalists finally try to do something about it?

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

NOW, IN SPECIAL FEMALE-FREE VARIETIES....While I still think there's plenty to be done on the socialization side, I agree with Katha that our time here is probably best spent figuring out short-term solutions for women at the top of the spectrum (i.e., those who are already interested in opinion journalism, but find it tough to break in/succeed.) We'll be back later today with some specific suggestions about that (particularly for our male colleagues.)

Meanwhile, I'd like to broaden the topic somewhat to the issue of women in politics generally. Garance and I were both at a dinner last night that was convened with the intention of gathering some of the most interesting minds on the left to talk about policy and politics. Of the twenty-three people around the table, three of us were women, and it would have been two except that my boss is out of town and I was allowed to attend in his stead. I'm not implying that women were excluded from this discussion--and you can be sure that Garance and I did our fair share of talking--but it's curious to me that women are either not in the high ranks of politics and journalism, or they are not thought of as occupying the position of "person you should listen to." (Apologies, Mom, for ending with a preposition.)

When I researched an article on the Democratic consulting world, I found that very few Democratic consultants anywhere, much less the heavy hitters in D.C., are women. The same was true of the press sections at both political conventions last summer--at least 75 percent, if not more, of the political journalists there were men. Is this systematic discrimination? Is is really women being less interested in politics as it is currently practiced? Is it socialization? A combination? I'm curious.

Amy Sullivan 12:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY LINGUISTICS....This is sort of fascinating. Earlier today, after the 2005 Social Security report was released, the LA Times headline was (approximately) "Social Security Broke by 2041." The Washington Post headline was (again approximately) "Social Security Broke by 2041." The New York Times was the outlier, leading with "Medicare in Worse Shape Than Social Security."

By tonight, though, all was changed. The New York Times had massaged their headline to "Report Says Medicare Is in Poor Fiscal Shape." No mention of Social Security at all.

The Washington Post followed suit with "Report Emphasizes Shortfall in Medicare."

And the LA Times joined the bandwagon with "Trustees Revise Fiscal Forecasts for Social Security and Medicare"

So two of the Big Three don't mention Social Security problems at all in their headline, and the third says only that its "fiscal forecast" has been "revised." And you'd never know it anyway since it's not on their front page. Happy, Josh?

POSTSCRIPT: And while we're on the subject, Matt is exactly right about Dems standing firm on refusing to offer an alternative plan of their own. It's not necessary, since Social Security isn't in crisis, and it would be politically moronic as no less an expert than George Bush himself has admitted. Bottom line: Bush is stuck in the quicksand on this issue, and it's not up to the Democratic party to throw him a rope. He's the one who claims there's a crisis, so let him make the first move.

UPDATE: Revised to reflect the LA Times headline that actually showed up in the print edition.

Kevin Drum 12:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 23, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TERRI SCHIAVO AND THE LIMITS OF CYNICISM, PART 2....A couple of days ago ABC News released a poll showing that huge majorities thought congressional action in the Terri Schiavo case was motivated by political expediency, not by genuine concern for Terri Schivao. Conservatives immediately cried foul, saying that the wording of the poll was fishy and the results not to be trusted.

Today, CBS News released its own poll. The result? An even bigger landslide for political expediency, 74% to 13%. The public including even most stone conservatives sure seems to have Tom DeLay pegged, don't they?

Note: I'm limiting myself to no more than one Terri Schiavo post per day, so this is it. You're on your own for further news.

Kevin Drum 8:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GLOBALIZATION....From Editor & Publisher: Sheik Khalid Salim a bin Mahfouz has filed a libel suit against Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It. The twist? He's filed suit in Britain even though Ehrenfeld's book has been published only in the U.S. Nonetheless, a British court entered a default judgment against Ehrenfeld last year and will determine penalties next month.

From TalkLeft: An Austrian cartoonist has been tried in absentia and convicted of blasphemy in Greece. He was apparently unaware his book had even been sold there.

From Captain's Quarters: A judge in Britain has cleared the way for a libel trial against Arnold Schwarzenegger based on comments he made made to the Los Angeles Times in 2003. Needless to say, the LA Times doesn't publish in Britain and is available solely over the internet, and Schwarzenegger's comments were made in California.

It's enough to give you pause, isn't it? I'm roughly familiar with libel and privacy laws in the United States and try to act accordingly. But is it possible that I could be held liable for something I say on this blog based on the law in some other country? I hope not.

Kevin Drum 5:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Garance Franke-Ruta

WOMEN IN THE BLOGOSPHERE: THE DATA.... MyDD has helpfully culled Henry Copeland's blogads survey data for some demographic facts:

Gender, Mean Age, Median Income
	Female	  Male    Age	Income
All	 24.5	  75.5    41.4	$79.2K
Dem	 31.0	  69.0    40.4	$77.3K
Rep	 19.3	  80.7    44.5	$87.6K
Ind	 22.2	  77.8    41.5	$74.0K
Lib	 13.4	  86.6    38.1	$83.6K
Green	 26.0	  74.1    38.4	$60.2K
Other*	 26.3	  73.7    40.2	  N/A

Partisan Self-Identification (%)
       All    Women    Men  
Dem    39.3    48.3    34.8
Rep    27.3    20.9    28.3
Ind    19.0    16.7    19.1
Lib    7.7     4.1     8.6
Green  4.0     4.2     3.9
Other  2.6     5.8     5.3

     Under 21  21-30   31-40   41-50   51-60   60+
Dem    40.9    42.0    39.5    36.4    36.5    31.9
Rep    20.7    17.7    23.7    30.6    30.6    38.2
Ind    14.2    19.2    19.1    17.9    19.0    17.8
Lib    9.9     9.7     8.5     6.8     5.5     4.3
Green  4.5     5.2     4.6     3.1     2.9     2.9
Other  9.8     6.1     4.5     5.1     5.6     4.9

Writes MyDD's Chris Bowers: "The comparative dearth of women in the political blogosphere is striking among all groups, with 75.5% of those who responded identifying themselves as male. It would appear that the number one way Democrats can strengthen their netroots is to bring more women into the process."

That's an important point, and raises an interesting question. Given the demographics of Democrats reading blogs (31 percent female, as compared to 19 percent for the Republicans and only 13 percent for libertarians) is the relative dearth of linking to female bloggers on the left contributing to the lesser intensity of left-blogosphere linkiness? Garance Franke-Ruta 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Garance Franke-Ruta

THE BROADER PROBLEM....Thanks to Katha and Amy for starting this off. I think I agree with just about everything that Katha said, and appreciate how forthright she has been (as always!). I also want to thank Kevin for pushing this story forward. I have a fair bit to say on this topic, but wanted to start off responding to a factual query raised by one of Amy's interlocuters in the comments about the relationship between functionally tenured men on Op-Ed pages, the gender of editors, and opportunities to promote more women on those pages.

There are an increasing number of women editors in critical roles at newspapers. Amy asserts, in her story, that the Op-Ed page editors gender has made no difference at either The New York Times or at The Washington Post. I'm not so certain we can make that judgement yet, at least when it comes to the Times. Gail Collins has only made two hires since taking them helm of the editorial page of Times in 2001: David Brooks and John Tierney. Both are conservatives. And, as Michael Kinsley has noted, theres been a bit of a trend in that direction thanks to present political realities and a desire for more ideological diversity on Op-Ed pages. Still, in the past two months, according to Anne Applebaums column on the topic, the Times has been better than the Post in publishing women. That may be a reflection of the fact that they have fewer in-house columnists and so more room for external submissions from women, but it also means, given how many male columnists they do have, that they must be publishing more than 17 percent women outside writers.

Also, it's hard to generalize about the impact of women editors on staff diversity from only two newspapers, and worthwhile to look at places like the Philadelphia Inquirer, edited by Amanda Bennett. Though its editorial page may not be widely read outside of Philadelphia, it does seems pretty balanced in terms of gender with two male and two female opinion writers and a broad array of men and women writing columns in other sections. I dont know if that predates Bennett or not, but Id be curious to know more broadly what the impact of women editors is, and Im not convinced that we yet know.

As far as The Washington Post goes, the story is also not so cut and dry. Meg Greenfield passed away in 1999. At the time, the paper had local columnist Judy Mann, who retired in 2001; national columnist Mary McGrory, who passed away after a long illness in 2004; and Donna Britt, who still covers local affairs in her Metro Section column. Anne Applebaum came on in 2002. So the paper had three and now has two women opinion columnists, in addition to various other columns in the Style section and elsewhere in the paper, many of which are written by women. Additionally, Marjorie Williams wrote episodically for The Post between 2001 and 2004, passing away in '05, and I distinctly recall Hanna Rosin gracing the editorial page for a space in late '02-early '03, before she joined the Style section. Today Applebaum is the only regular female Op-Ed columnist. But in discussing the work of women opinion writers at that paper its probably worth noting that half a dozen different women have written columns there in just the past few years, and looking at the trends rather than just counting bylines. The Post seems to be in a bit of a transitional period between women like Mann, the late McGrory and the late Greenfield, and a somewhat younger generation. Mann got her start in the 1970s, McGrory in the 40s, and Greenfield in the 60s. Applebaum has been writing only since the late-'80s.

Complicating the picture further is the fact that a substantial subset of The Posts male columnists have held their posts for more than two decades, as I learned from checking their online bios and Nexis.com. Richard Cohen has been a Post columnist since 1976. George Will has been a commentator since the 1970s, winning the Pulitzer for his work in 1977. Robert Samuelson has been writing a Post column since 1977. William Raspberry has been writing a column since 1966 (his Pulitzer came in 1994). David Broder won a Pulitzer for commentary way back in 1973. So thats five of the 19 columnists right there who were appointed in a much earlier era, before there was as much focus on diversity. All male, one African-American.

Somewhat less recently appointed columnists include: Sebastian Mallaby, Colbert King, Robert Kagan, David Ignatius, E.J. Dionne, and Fred Hiatt. They were appointed in the 90s, while Charles Krauthammer (Pulitzer, 1987), came aboard in the mid-80s, as did Jim Hoagland. Again all eight male, and, except for King, all white.

More recently appointed columnists include: Eugene Robinson and Jabari Asim (who are both African-American), Applebaum, my colleague Harold Meyerson (who, Ive been led to believe, was the actual replacement for McGrory, not Applebaum, because he added a liberal voice to the page), the late Williams, Jackson Diehl, and Michael Kinsley. Two women, two African-Americans, three white men. Asims column appears only online, not on the Op-Ed page itself. Still the trend here is clearly toward more diversity on the Op-Ed pages, even if the net result has not upped the number of women.

Im not really sure what conclusion to draw from this, except that it looks like the Post has been really trying, under Hiatt, to get more ideological, gender, and racial diversity onto the page. Given the substantial number of white male columnists appointed during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, however, I doubt hes going to be making lots of progress any time soon unless a) theres a wave of retirements or b) an expansion in the number of slotted columns.

The area where editors can most rapidly make progress in diversifying opinion pages is in the area of columns written by outside writers. But here, too, I fear the Post, most of all, is going to find it somewhat slow going no matter what they intend. Who gets published on its Op-Ed pages, after all? Members of Congress who are 85 percent male. People who run think tanks and advocacy organizations again, Id wager, largely male. Academics writing about federal policy. People in the military. Business leaders. The foreign policy community. Former politicians. Political staffers. In short, I suspect, the reason most submitted and published outside columns at Op-Ed pages come from men has less to do with women being hesitant to voice their opinions and much more to do with the internal dynamics at the sorts of organizations that submit columns, which are, by and large, heavily male at the top.

This is a much bigger issue than just the decisions by a handful of Op-Ed page editors and their relationship to women writers. Op-Ed pages reflect who has power in our society. Whether or not they should do only that is a question that very much needs to be debated, and I hope will be. But it is this underlying reality of a persistent and broad inequality in institutional power between men and women and not just what Michael Kinsley has or has not been doing at The Los Angeles Times that is the cause of this present debate and has given it its staying power. As Tad Bartimus of United Feature Syndicate told Editor & Publisher, It's like one of those peat fires in Alaska that was burning underground for 28 years before finally exploding." Garance Franke-Ruta 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FAIR AND BALANCED....Dan Froomkin on George Bush's endless "town hall" meetings:

No one gets in trouble for reporting what he says and calling the events whatever the White House calls them. By contrast, if you consistently point out his errors and regularly describe the events in a unflattering way especially without a named or unnamed "critic" to attribute it to you are in some danger of being considered a partisan, a kook, and off the reservation.

Melanie Mattson has the rest.

Kevin Drum 2:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A BRIGHTER FUTURE FOR SOCIAL SECURITY....Via Brad Plumer, here's a nice little chart from the 2005 Social Security report. It turns out that although the trustees have fiddled with the numbers to bring in the trust fund exhaustion date from 2042 to 2041 which makes for good headlines the long term outlook is actually better than it was last year.

Got that? In only a single year, the projected deficit in 2080 has gone down from 6.0% of taxable payroll to 5.75% of taxable payroll. Another few years of supposed doom and gloom like this and even George Bush won't be able to pretend that Social Security is in crisis.

Kevin Drum 2:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NEW SOCIAL SECURITY REPORT....The eagerly anticipated 2005 Social Security Trustees Report is out, and guess what? The system is going broke faster than we thought. We're do-o-o-o-med! Max is at the press conference and has the skinny.

Yeah, I know: big surprise from this crowd, right? But why are things allegedly getting worse? The report lists several reasons here, but the biggest by far is "Economic data and assumptions." Fine. But which economic assumptions?

It's hard to say. If you compare the principal economic assumptions in the 2004 report vs. the 2005 report, the long term assumptions are nearly identical in all categories. The short term projections are slightly different, but not all in the same direction. Some are higher, some are lower.

So my initial take is this: the trustees made minuscule changes in a bunch of categories, and the net result was to change the projected date of trust fund exhaustion from 2042 to 2041. Considering that the economy did pretty well last year, it's not clear why an honest update would choose to make a bunch of teensy changes with a net negative direction, but there you have it. I guess they figured it was easier to defend that than to defend some big change in any single variable. And the net result was still the one they wanted: an official looking report that the president can wave around to prove that Social Security is doomed.

Naturally, smarter people than me will be going over the report shortly. I'll let you know what they have to say later.

UPDATE: Both Max and a persuasive emailer with firsthand knowledge have convinced me that there was no monkey business with the economic assumptions. Employment growth and wage growth in 2004 were worse than projected, and inflation was higher than projected. Net result: current benefits have gone up more than taxable income, thus depleting the trust fund slightly faster than projected last year.

However, longer term solvency is slightly better than last year. Bottom line: there's still nothing all that serious to worry about. Social Security's problems are modest and can be dealt with more effectively in the future than they can be today.

Kevin Drum 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Katha Pollitt

Too Feminist for the Times?....Amy, I think you are right that at present the female pool of opinion writers is smaller than the male pool for all the reasons you suggest. But I would like to hear your thoughts on why it is that the women who are in the pool like the women I've mentioned are not being employed by the very people who claim to be looking for women! A top place like the New York Times or the Washington Post or the big newsweeklies can hire anyone it wants. The editors don't hire by waiting for the phone to ring, and I'm sure the names I've mentioned and dozens of others are familiar to them. Just because blatant and subtle sex discrimination is an old and longstanding issue, about which perhaps little that is original can be said and which puts men on the defensive, doesn't mean it's not a big part of the answer.

Another piece of the answer, I think, is that these women are too feminist and too liberal for today's increasingly conservative press. Conservative women may have a better shot the Minneapolis Star Tribune just hired very conservative Katherine Kersten as a metro columnist and pretty much admits it's to counter charges of liberal bias. (Funny, conservative papers like the Wall Street Journal and New York Post don't seem to feel they need to counter charges of conservative bias by having a liberal columnist or two.)

As for book reviewing, I have to say I know too many women who have gotten the runaround from editors to see the lack of women as a problem of supply. True, book reviewing is a form of opinion a very mild form, most of the time: there are plenty of reviewers of both sexes who mostly praise or evaluate in a neutral way. It is hardly a food fight, despite a few writers like Dale Peck who love to hate everything. The way you describe women, they sound pathologically paralyzed with fear of even the wimpiest forms of self-assertion. Yet, there are fields of criticism where women are well-represented, like restaurant and other consumer reviewing, and in which they even predominate, like dance criticism and of course the endless bashing of feminism and all its works. I think the key is that these are "female" fields and men are not so interested in them. But certainly they show that when the opening is there, women can express their opinions without getting sweaty palms. It's just that they mostly get the chance at subjects men scorn.

Speaking of dance, here is another way of explaining why the talent pool is not the key issue: Few boys study ballet or modern dance, and most American men have zero interest in and even contempt for these arts, which are not only stereotyped as feminine, but as gay. However, ballet and modern dance require male dancers, and voila, out of the very small pool of available candidates, approximately as many male as female dancers are found and hired men who range from adequate to fantastic and certainly do not drag down the level of the company that hires them. Famous male dancers have started out as athletes, started training late, or come to dance through unconventional channels. My point is, when you want (need) people, you find them, you make them.

The smaller talent pool is not an insuperable problem. With women, we are hardly talking tiny, minuscule, infinitesimal. Enough smart women with opinions exist so that magazines could be filling their pages with women.

So let's talk about what editors and others can do to bring this happy state about!

Katha Pollitt 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

ATTN: WOMEN--PLEASE WRITE FOR US....Some readers have commented that it seems like Katha Pollitt and I are having two different conversations one about why women at the top aren't as prominent as they should be (gender bias) and another about why so few women enter the field at all (self-selection). On that last point, it's important as I've stressed to make a distinction between opinion and straight journalism. It doesn't tell us much that men and women are now graduating from journalism school in equal numbers, because a) most opinion journalists don't come from a j-school background, and b) the question is why some people build careers on offering their opinions instead of primarily going out and reporting stories.

I'm not sure what it proves to say that the gender imbalance in submissions doesn't mean anything. Yes, Pollitt is right that a large percentage of the submissions we receive are essentially unusable. But we get good submissions, as well, and as a small publication, we rely more than others on good freelance work. If women aren't sending us any articles or pitches, then it doesn't matter that some of the male submissions are crappy men are going to dominate the pool of both good and bad writers who contact us.

Maybe women don't submit their work to publications like mine because, as Pollitt suggests, they think they won't get a fair hearing. Regrettably, the Monthly has particularly in the past not been as open to women as it should. That's changing. I have to admit that I don't have many of the complaints that my female colleagues at other publications do, in part because we're such a small magazine that a shift of one or two people can entirely change the mood of the office, which has become much more female-friendly in recent months.

Part of an editor's job should be to constantly scour other publications to look for good writers. We have precious little time as it is, but I try to set aside hours to do just that. But it steams me to think that the answer is for women to sit back and wait to receive hand-embossed invitations from us to please come write for our magazine. We need to do a better job of finding talented women, but they need to do a better job of letting us know they exist.

Or if, as I suspect, there simply aren't gobs of women sitting around waiting to write opinion pieces, if only they'd be asked, we need to focus on recruiting women into the field. And that...wait for it...goes back to the problem of socialization.

On behalf of The Washington Monthly, I'm giving notice to every female writer out there: We are desperately interested in your proposed story ideas, article submissions, and getting your names in our Rolodexes. That doesn't mean we'll always run your pieces sometimes a women gets rejected because her story is no good, not because she's a woman. But the same happens for men all the time. Have an idea? Want to run it by me? Email amysullivandc at gmail.com.

Amy Sullivan 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 22, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DOG BITES MAN....Look, I know that mocking headlines on news websites is sort of silly. Sometimes there isn't room to say anything other than an obvious banality.

But honestly, "Cheney Lauds Bush Appointees"? Is it seriously supposed to be front page news that the vice president thinks well of the president's appointees? Can a toughminded interview with Jenna and Barbara be far behind?

Kevin Drum 11:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

A RESPONSE TO KATHA POLLITT....Many thanks to Katha Pollitt for sharing her insight and thoughts on this topic. This promises to be a good week for discussion. And I think she and I mostly agree, although you wouldn't necessarily take that away from the flavor of her post.

There are indeed many terrific, talented women who write. And all too often, they don't get a fair shake in the boys' club of opinion journalism. Men who wring their hands and worry about the absence of women from their pages keep women's names off the cover because "they're not big enough names," begging the question of how all of those men who get promoted on covers got to be known in the first place. When assigning stories, they think first of the ten or twelve writers they know best almost always men instead of taking a few extra minutes to think outside the gender box and come up with a woman who could do the story just as well. They say, you're too quiet in meetings, you need to speak up, when if they maybe shut the hell up sometimes, they would hear us.

But naming all the smart, opinionated women we know doesn't help, beyond the essential point of getting those names in editors' Rolodexes. I didn't say those women didn't exist. I said they were outliers, that the average woman is less likely to get into this field than the average man. If that's because they don't feel welcome at publications, then let's look at why that is. I'm primarily interested in the women who never get to the point of wanting to have a career in opinion journalism. Maybe it's just a tiny field overall, but it's not SO tiny that these few names represent all of the women interested in breaking in.

While it's easy to get cheers from the girls choir by pointing the finger of blame at male discrimination, that critique is neither entirely accurate nor productive. I don't want a bunch of guys telling me why they're not really biased and a bunch of women telling me that everything would be so much easier if only the guys didn't get to bond by playing softball on Saturdays. I want a solution to the problem, and that means looking at everything from how boys and girls are raised differently, to gender bias in education, to the fact that women usually do not mentor each other the same way that men do, to why women are more generally more tentative about offering opinions.

This last point relates to the example Pollitt raised of book reviewers. I have no doubt that many book sections are still weighted unfairly toward men. But reviewing is not an opinion-neutral activity. You are expected to offer your personal take on a book. And that, again, can be a difficult thing for women conditioned to hold back their own opinions. When you write an article and someone doesn't like it, they'll tell you your facts are wrong or the story was wrong. When someone doesn't like your opinion, suddenly you are wrong. Jodie Allen, who used to be an editorial page editor at the Washington Post, told me how much more comfortable she used to be penning anonymous editorials that gave her a feeling of freedom, and she wasn't the only woman to share that thought.

Back with more thoughts in a while....

Amy Sullivan 7:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH'S BALDIES....I saw this picture over on Julie Saltman's site yesterday and found it....disturbing. I mean, I had heard that Bush had a thing for bald-headed people, but this went far beyond that. It seemed what? Haunting? Evocative? Alarming?

I'm not sure. But I went back for another look today. I couldn't help myself. What the hell is he doing? So I googled and found a whole collection of pictures of Bush rubbing the heads of bald men, including the (apparently) original source of this picture. I don't know who took it, though, only that it was "submitted by Webster" on or about February 15th, and it seems to be the only one where Bush is laying down a full bore smooch, not just copping a quick feel.

This is the kind of thing that can infest your dreams once you've seen it. I'm sorry. But that's the price of a free press, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 5:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CHOCOLATE UPDATE....Good news: eating chocolate is good for you. Bad news: apparently this is only true for dark chocolate, not milk chocolate. Sigh.

On the other hand, that abominable oxymoron known as "white chocolate" apparently doesn't do you any good either. It would have been too much to bear if white chocolate had turned out to have health benefits.

Kevin Drum 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Katha Pollitt

Terrific Women Already Exist....Before launching into this big and fascinating topic, I'd like to thank Kevin Drum for opening up Political Animal to this conversation. Lots of male bloggers have written their "where are the women?" piece, but so far as I know Kevin is the only one to follow up by inviting women writers and editors over to discuss it.

Why are there so few women op-ed writers? Amy Sullivan thinks it's because women are socialized out of the requisite personality traits: confidence verging on arrogance, thick skin, love of combat. At every step, from kindergarten on, girls are rewarded for being docile, quiet, unadventurous and alert to the feelings of others, and boys are rewarded for being the opposite. The end result is that political magazines like the Washington Monthly get lots more pitches from men. Women just don't come knocking.

I've been an editor at The Nation, where I now write a column (my column on this topic is here.) I would certainly agree that men send in more unsolicited articles almost none of which are usable, by the way, so I'm not sure what that example is supposed to prove. But ultimately it's the editors, not the slush pile or the volume of queries from freelancers, that determine what goes in a magazine. The phone works both ways! From what I have seen, editors are much more open to men and men flourish accordingly. Older editors, who are mostly men, mentor younger men in whom they see their younger selves, and these young men richly pay them back in admiration, even (surely not!) flattery and sycophancy.

Editors socialize with these acolytes, form friendships with them, offer them important career-making assignments (how often have you seen a "think piece" by a woman that wasn't about a "woman's issue"?), encourage them to take risks and give them more chances if they screw up. Marty Peretz at The New Republic was famous for this kind of mentorship, as was the Washington Monthly's Charles Peters. It wouldn't have occurred to me to approach the Washington Monthly when I was a freelancer partly because my politics were further to the left, but also because it was such a notoriously masculine preserve. Everything about it suggested that I had as much chance of appearing in its pages as in Popular Mechanics. I'm not saying no woman could get the odd assignment at the magazines that mostly publish men, but to make a career you need to be part of the family, you need to be the person to whom the magazine offers plum assignments and sudden opportunities, that gives you a kind of carte blanche (what's on your mind? what's on your plate? when are we going to see that piece on Outer Mongolia?), and that lets you develop as a voice and a personality. Women rarely get that kind of opportunity and the thing is, they know that. So what looks to you, Amy, like being easily discouraged or not trying is actually women assessing, fairly accurately, their chances.

To understand the absence of women's opinions, I look at the gatekeepers. Because the women are already there! As I argue in my column, there are actually quite a few fabulous women opinion writers who are more than ready for prime time, but who seem mysteriously invisible to the editors who are now saying they will try to "find" women. Barbara Ehrenreich is a hugely best selling writer whose been hard at work and famous for decades. She wrote great columns on the New York Times op-ed page when filling in for Tom Friedman so why isn't she at The Times (soon to be seven men plus Maureen Dowd) or the Washington Post (18 male pundits plus Anne Applebaum)? Other names off the top of my head: Debra Dickerson, Ruth Rosen, Dahlia Lithwick, Nina Totenberg, Rebecca Traister, Joan Walsh, Sharon Lerner, Wendy Kaminer, Ruth Conniff, Laura Flanders, Natalie Angier, etc. etc. etc! Why doesn't Time (11 columnists, no women, even in Arts and entertainment) give Molly Ivins a slot?

If women's fear of the fray were the crucial factor, we would expect to find women writers dominating in fields that suited their socialization. For example, book reviewing. After all, women read more fiction and poetry than men, disproportionately study and excel in the humanities, and are even granted, by the Larry Summerses of the world, a genetic edge in verbal and "people" skills. The ability to enter empathetically into the mind of a writer to respond to the ideas of another now there's a stereotypically feminine trait!

Furthermore, you can review books in the privacy of your own home when the kids are asleep, and it's a fairly leisurely and polite corner of the magazine world, with no scary office testosterone fiestas like those Amy describes. Certainly there is no dearth of women who would love to review books! Yet men dominate in this field also, even in fiction, poetry, literary biography. Women have criticized The New York Times Book Review for favoring male reviewers for decades (just lately they've improved a lot), to say nothing of The New York Review of Books it's like Plato's Academy over there. This is not because women aren't knocking on the door, aren't good enough, or can't stand the heat. In my own experience and with respect to many different magazines, I've just seen too many times when a woman friend can't get an answer on a query and a man friend gets an assignment within minutes.

Sexism, which is what we are discussing here, often justifies itself by assuming that women don't want the thing that is being denied them. Before Title IX, which opened up high school and college athletics to women, the common wisdom was that girls didn't like sports girls weren't competitive, they were weak (remember girls basketball?), they didn't like to get sweaty and dirty, they feared being hurt, they were always getting their periods. Once the opportunities were there thanks to the women's movement, not to gym teachers promising to keep an eye out for talented female players girls turned out in droves. Now we see girls even in quintessentially masculine sports like soccer and rugby. Today nobody says girls are shrinking violets on the playing field.

Build that woman-friendly magazine, and they will come!

Katha Pollitt 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PARTY OF VALUES....I really, really, don't want to write any more about Terri Schiavo. Honest. I really don't.

And yet....nobody becomes a blogger who isn't a bit of a news junkie obsessed with commenting on whatever the big news of the day is. So Terri Schiavo it is. I apologize in advance for my appalling judgment.

Anyway, Janet Hook has a good quote in her LA Times account today:

"It goes beyond shameless politics," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. "It becomes a more crystallized proof point that we are no longer the party of smaller government. We have become a party of 'It doesn't matter what size government is as long as it is imposing our set of values.' "

Yeah, it's the rank opportunism that's going to bite them in the ass here. It's too raw. When you get to the point that even evangelical Christians figure out that you're just pandering to them, you're in trouble.

What's more, congressional Republicans are practically daring them to come to that conclusion. "This is a great political issue," says one anonymous memo. And Tom DeLay jumps the shark as usual with this gem: "This is exactly the issue that is going on in America, of attacks against the conservative movement, against me and many others....a huge nationwide concerted effort to destroy everything we believe in." Sure, Tom.

But that's it for the day. No more Schiavo-blogging from me. Why? Max says it well:

In other news, the Environmental Protection Administration is protecting polluters from public health considerations, the Food and Drug Administration is approving drugs that kill you, the Social Security Administration is trying to wreck Social Security, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is stealing native Americans' money, our diplomats are lying to our allies, and the House Ethics Committee (sic) has been packed with donors to Rep. Tom DeLay.

It makes you nostalgic for blow-jobs in the White House.

The clown show is distracting us from more important matters. Onward.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DOG EATS EPA'S HOMEWORK....NEWS AT 11....The Bush administration war on reality continues:

When the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a rule last week to limit mercury emissions from U.S. power plants, officials emphasized that the controls could not be more aggressive because the cost to industry already far exceeded the public health payoff.

What they did not reveal is that a Harvard University study paid for by the EPA, co-authored by an EPA scientist and peer-reviewed by two other EPA scientists had reached the opposite conclusion.

That analysis estimated health benefits 100 times as great as the EPA did, but top agency officials ordered the finding stripped from public documents, said a staff member who helped develop the rule.

But here's the worst part: the EPA's excuse for not considering the Harvard report was that it was submitted past the EPA's deadline. Not the results of the study, mind you, which were submitted on time, but the final i's dotted and t's crossed report, which was submitted a few weeks later.

That's your EPA at work. Any port in a storm when inconvenient research results pop their unruly heads through the door. The next time this happens I expect them to claim the report got lost in interoffice mail. Or fell in a puddle. Or was typed in the wrong font.


Kevin Drum 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BRITSPEAK....This is a little off the beaten path, but journalism professor Timothy Kenny writes today that he's concerned about the invasion of Britspeak in the U.S. media:

Intellectual Anglophilia may be what's behind a virus that's infecting American media these days: Britspeak. We have become a nation of journalistic copycats, betraying perfectly good American idioms along the way.

....In major newspapers and in broadcast media, we "send up" instead of "parody"; our thoughts reach a "full stop" instead of merely ending. A correct answer is "spot on" rather than "dead on." And corporate heads get "sacked" instead of "fired."

More widely used are "went missing" and its close relative, "gone missing." Over the last 10 years, the elite American news media have begun to use the phrases willy-nilly, avoiding the perfectly good American "has disappeared" or "is lost."

Now, I'm sure that Kenny wrote this partially tongue in cheek, but at the same time it's pretty obvious that it really does annoy him. Why are we allowing solid, honest Americanisms to be replaced by British affectations?

But of course, that's not necessarily what it is. More likely, it's just an example of cultural globalization. The only difference is that instead of the French whining about American phrases taking over a process that Americans shrug at this time we're the ones on the receiving end. And even though English is the ultimate in bastard languages already, we don't like it so much when cultural globalization works in the opposite direction.

On the scale of linguistic imperialism, then, apparently an occasional Bollywood film is OK, but using the phrase "went missing" once every two weeks in the New York Times is stepping over the line. Who knew that Americans had such Gallic touchiness about their slang?

Kevin Drum 11:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT....Crooked Timber, which suffered a server meltdown a few days ago, is now back online. Pay 'em a visit.

Kevin Drum 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

INDEED....Jon Stewart on Terri Schiavo: "If you want to know just how sick you have to get before Congress is willing to do something about it, well, now you know."

Kevin Drum 2:14 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GOP SLEAZE....Damn. The Republican party has finally become so sleazy that even David Brooks can't stand it anymore.

And note this: Brooks got through the whole column without once copping out by pretending that Democrats are equally bad. Good for him.

Kevin Drum 1:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 21, 2005
By: Amy Sullivan

SILENT FEMMES....Two years ago, I had just started writing my blog when I noticed something odd: There didn't seem to be any other women in the political blogosphere. Oh, I knew that there were female-authored blogs. But the big guys (who I defined as Josh Marshall, Eric Alterman, Tapped, the DNC, those high-profile blogs) bookmarked one woman out of thirty, if any at all. (In fact, one blogger who was linked used the name Emma Goldman but was actually a guy.) More than that, at least 95 percent of the messages I received were from male readers. Debates were swirling around the blogosphere but for the most part, women were not part of the ones that got picked up in Krugman columns or that influenced news coverage.

I looked at newspaper columns and noticed something similar, although to a less drastic degree. Ditto tv pundits and magazine columnists (the obvious exceptions here are conservatives--I'll turn to that later this week). Although women were represented fairly equally in the ranks of newsroom reporters, it seemed there was an opinion barrier. Why?

I decided to find out, and I pitched the story to The New Republic. They were interested, but said they had recently run a piece on the same topic by Naomi Wolf. (Her essay ran in 1993.) When I came to the Monthly, I tried again. Interesting, I was told, but not really newsworthy.

Then Susan Estrich handed me a nice little gift. News hook firmly in hand, I took a new look at the question and wrote an essay for our upcoming April issue.

Are women discriminated against in opinion journalism? Not blantantly, not anymore. But women's writing is not judged the same as men's. Not all the time, at least. Some of the most fascinating stuff I found while researching this piece was evidence that while women tend to do well in areas where they are judged on objective standards, when the judgment is subjective, their work is discounted by both male and female evaluators. This happens in music and in art and, yes, in writing. When you add opinion onto that and consider that the type of written voice most people think of as authoritative is distinctively male, women suffer even more by comparison. And when it comes to the culture of political magazines, boys rules apply. Women may breathe a sigh of relief to have even made it through the door, but to succeed, they need to further adapt to male norms.

Even so, there's no getting around the fact that most women don't even get to the point where they're applying to work at magazines like ours. They're not writing letters to the editor, they're not calling into NPR political talk shows, they're not reading blogs, they're not opinion columnists at college newspapers. At a very early age, women decide not to become--as my editor puts it--"opinion warriors."

It's the result of socialization that is so subtle and powerful that we barely notice it, and so we simply take for granted that women are less interested in the rough-and-tumble world of punditry.

That's enough to start. Read the whole piece for yourself. But do me a favor--don't send me hate mail until you've read beyond the first section. This is an incredibly sensitive subject that lends itself easily to defensive reactions by both men and women. And it's just for that reason that we need to discuss it out in the open. Having some level of gender bias isn't the problem; nearly all of us do. Ignoring the gender bias and refusing to do anything about it is a problem.

Amy Sullivan 11:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SPECIAL GUEST BLOGGING ANNOUNCEMENT....So, are you tired yet of hearing about the issue of women in the blogosphere and on op-ed pages? No?

Glad to hear it, because I've invited a few women who write for opinion magazines to guest blog on the subject this week. I'll still be around blogging on other subjects, but the topic of female participation in opinion journalism will be taken over by The Nation's Katha Pollitt, The American Prospect's Garance Franke-Ruta, and The Washington Monthly's own Amy Sullivan. Amy will kick things off later tonight, and all three of them will then be posting for the rest of the week.

Should be fun, and I hope everyone enjoys it. I'm sure my loyal commenters will treat my guests with the, um, same courtesy and respect they treat me. Right?

Kevin Drum 9:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TODAY'S VOCABULARY LESSON....It turns out that the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles won't be "morganatic" after all. Explanation here. Long live the queen!

Kevin Drum 7:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SCHIAVO UPDATE....I apologize in advance for posting about Terri Schiavo again. It feels sort of like posting about Jacko. Still, I'm a little curious about what all this last minute frenzy to get Schiavo's case into federal court is supposed to accomplish. I mean, what arguments are her parents' lawyers going to make to a federal judge that they haven't already made to the state judge?

For what it's worth, Ann Althouse (here) and Orin Kerr (here) have read the complaint and they both seem pretty skeptical that there's anything to it. All of which begs raises no, dammit, begs the question: what will Tom DeLay do next if the case gets tossed out of federal court? Appeal to The Hague?

Kevin Drum 7:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TERRI SCHIAVO AND THE LIMITS OF CYNICISM....Via Think Progress, here's a fascinating ABC News poll about the Terri Schiavo affair. It turns out that not only do large majorities favor removing her feeding tube and oppose federal intervention in her case, but huge majorities know perfectly well that Tom DeLay and his crew are in it solely for political advantage. When you drill down into the numbers, it becomes obvious that even people who support DeLay's position don't believe he has any actual concern for Terri Schiavo.

Now, I realize that in one sense this doesn't matter. This whole thing isn't about majority support, it's about pandering to one specific segment of the GOP base. But here's the thing: even evangelical Christians don't support congressional intervention. Apparently the DeLay/Frist/Bush axis has dealt with this so cynically that even the people they're pandering to are uneasy about being treated with such open condescension.

This is not an issue that will last in the public mind for more than a few days, but it's still nice to see that even Bush's own supporters see through him from time to time. Even the pandering cynicism of the modern Republican party apparently has its limits.

Kevin Drum 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BASES IN IRAQ....Matt raises (again) a point that doesn't get enough attention:

[As] near as anybody can tell the administration is still trying to finagle some kind of permanent military basing agreement in Iraq. That the administration has managed to hew consistently to this agenda without ever stating that this is one of their major policy goals is astounding, and that the American media is consistently unwilling to discuss the point is appalling. What's even more astounding about it is that one regularly hears and reads in expert commentary that we ought to "make clear" that this isn't what we're doing. Apparently, it's impolitic to note that Bush isn't making it clear that we don't want permanent bases because we do, in fact, want permanent bases.

Of course the White House wants permanent military bases in Iraq. Just look at a map. As long as we have bases in Iraq and Afghanistan we have easy access to all of the Middle East and Central Asia and of the two Iraq is by far the most central and most critical.

Like Matt, I'm also a little surprised this doesn't get more attention. You can argue all day long about whether permanent U.S. bases in Iraq are a good idea or not, but the Bush administration has made it plainly obvious that they want them. Why then does there seem to be an underlying assumption in press accounts that as soon as everything calms down we'll pull out our troops and leave? The odds of that happening are slim and none.

Kevin Drum 1:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BREAKING TRAINING....The Carpetbagger says today what I was only thinking over the weekend: have we finally figured out what it takes to get George Bush to cut short a vacation? Here's the box score:

To recap, Osama bin Laden, Israel, war, and devastation? Vacation on. The religious right wants action on a woman who has been in vegetative state for 15 years? Vacation off. The man has his priorities.

Yep, it's true. This is the first time the very first time that Bush has ever cut short one of his Crawford brush clearing holidays. When the Christian right speaks, your commander-in-chief jumps.

Kevin Drum 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Health courts... The website of the magazine Legal Affairs features a quite entertaining debate between Phillip K. Howard, head of a group called Common Good, and Washington Monthly contributing editor Stephanie Mencimer, over an idea Howard's group is pushing as the next wave of tort reform: health courts. Stephanie pretty much guts the poor man.

Paul Glastris 7:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

STOP THIS MAN BEFORE HE DIAGNOSES AGAIN....I wasn't going to comment on the Terry Schiavo case, mostly because it seems that any attention just feeds directly into what conservatives are hoping to achieve: a trumped-up culture war. (See Ed Kilgore's comments for my general take on the issue.) But Senator Frist's recent diagnosis--via a home-made video, it's important to note--that Schiavo is not actually in a persistent vegetative state, compels me to write. To the extent that Frist's comments have been covered at all, it has been through the 2008 "Oh, he's just trying to suck up to the Christian Right" lens. (And by the way, Senator, if that's what you're doing, let me save you the effort and a few years of your life: the Christian Right favorites are Santorum and Brownback. No amount of false diagnosing is going to change that. Oh, and by the time the Social Security debacle is over, your political career will be as well.)

But what's really appalling about Frist's latest I'm-not-a-neurologist-but-I-play-one-in-the-Senate routine is that he does this all the time. For at least eight years, Frist has been making medical pronouncements on all manner of medical issues outside his speciality (he's a heart surgeon), and his message is always the same: You can't trust all those other doctors, but you can trust me because I am a doctor.

Last December, when asked by George Stephanopoulos whether HIV could be transmitted through saliva or tears, Frist refused to say that it could not, stalling three times before finally admitting, "It would be very hard." That's putting it mildly. In October 2001, after a letter containing anthrax was sent to Senator Daschle's office, Frist assured his fellow senators that the anthrax wasn't powerful enough to kill anyone, even though several people had already died in Florida and postal workers who handled the letter in D.C. subsequently died. And in 1997, when the Senate was debating the "Partial-Birth Abortion Ban," Frist claimed on the Senate floor that D&X, the abortion procedure they sought to ban, was a "rogue procedure" that was not taught in medical schools, a claim that would come as a surprise to many teaching hospitals.

Frist is a doctor, yes. But he is not a neurologist, he is not an infectious disease specialist, he is not a biological agent expert, and he is not an obstetrician. He uses his "Dr." title as a smokescreen to make politically-motivated pronouncements. The only reason he gets away with it is that people are intimidated by his certainty, reminded (because he repeats it all the time) that he is the Senate's only physician.

Except he's not. Now that Tom Coburn is the junior senator from Oklahoma, Frist is merely the Senate's only not insane physician. Who are you or I to question his medical judgment? When it comes to diagnosing neurological function on the basis of watching a home video for an hour, you and I are just about as qualified as Frist.

Amy Sullivan 1:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 20, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE CONSERVATIVE ASSAULT ON LABOR....In the LA Times today, Joe Robinson writes about the latest squeeze on the working class: the paid time-off bank, or PTO, which combines sick leave with vacation time. The result: if you dare to take a vacation, you risk ruin if you get sick later that year. And if you run out of sick leave, tough luck:

Slashed sick leave is part of a broad assault on labor roundly ignored in the last election across a downsized workplace as the burden of risk shifts from employers to employees, who, if anyone's listening out there, are livid about it, whether Republican or Democrat or independent. Companies are cutting or eliminating vacation leave (nearly a third of American women don't get any; a quarter of men), pensions, health insurance and ergonomics rules. Meanwhile, the Economist reports that corporate profits in the U.S. are higher than they've been in 75 years as benefits including sick leave shrink.

...."It's a huge cost to the public when someone who doesn't have paid sick days loses a job and has to go on public assistance," said Linda Meric, director of 9 to 5, National Assn. of Working Women. "People are being forced to choose between being good employees and good family members. That's not a choice anyone should have to make."

Robinson makes several key points:

  • PTO banks don't work. Despite the rising popularity of PTO, unscheduled absences from work have risen over the past five years, not fallen.

  • PTO policies tend to force more people onto public assistance.

  • PTOs decidedly aren't imposed on corporate executives, whose benefits have grown more and more lavish even as they've been slashed for everyone else.

There's a single core reason why this and so many other issues of class warfare have become increasingly acceptable: the decline of labor unions in America. None of this would happen not PTOs, not stagnant working class wages, not skyrocketing CEO compensation, not declining healthcare coverage if employers were forced to negotiate, market style, with labor unions that had roughly the same bargaining power as the corporations themselves. More on this later.

Kevin Drum 1:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LYING TO OUR FRIENDS....Laura Rozen points to what ought to be but sadly isn't a startling story in the Washington Post today:

In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya.

....But that is not what U.S. intelligence reported, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the transaction. North Korea, according to the intelligence, had supplied uranium hexafluoride which can be enriched to weapons-grade uranium to Pakistan. It was Pakistan, a key U.S. ally with its own nuclear arsenal, that sold the material to Libya. The U.S. government had no evidence, the officials said, that North Korea knew of the second transaction.

I'm willing to cut Bush some slack on Pakistan. Yes, his policies have been inconsistent and often hypocritical, but Pakistan is genuinely a tough nut: a dictatorship, a nuclear proliferator, and a country with key officials who are sympathetic to radical Islamism; but also a nuclear power, a necessary ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, and an unstable country in a powderkeg region. Bush is hardly the first president to have a tough time figuring out what to do about Pakistan.

But to actively cover up their role in transferring uranium to Libya? In private briefings to key allies? What the hell was he thinking?

Bush seems bound and determined to ensure that no U.S. ally will ever again believe anything we tell them. Does he really think that's in America's best long-term interests?

Kevin Drum 11:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KILLING THEM SOFTLY....Mark Kleiman writes today about Terri Schiavo and the "Texas Futile Care Law." Apparently George Bush and other Texas Republicans think that pulling the plug on hopeless patients is perfectly OK as long as money is the issue and no one on the Christian right is protesting.

So, despite a couple of complaints from conservative friends, I'm going to stick with "nauseating" on this one. Unless someone can come up with a better word, that it.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias comments:

It seems worth noting at this point that the overwhelming majority of the Republican caucus voted last week to cut Medicaid benefits. Like the cowards that they are, no specific cuts were on the table, rather they wanted to force Governors to undertake unspecified cuts. We do know, however, what Medicaid spends the bulk of its money on long-term care for ailing elderly and disabled people so we know what would have been cut.

Barbara O'Brien puts it more bluntly:

We need a list of politicians and commentators, including bloggers, who have been calling for cuts in Medicaid but who now have joined in the "save Terri Schiavo" cult. These people need to be challenged to take her off Medicaid and pay for her maintenance themselves. If you know of any such people, please add their names to the comments.

The righties are going to say, it's not about money, it's about principle. But the principle is that there are people right now who are not receiving health care that they need because they can't afford it, and their lives may be shortened as a result. But there is plenty of taxpayer money to keep Terri Schiavo alive, even though she has no hope of ever being conscious.

Why? Because she's politically useful, that's why. That's your "principle."

"Nauseating" is still the frontrunner here....

Kevin Drum 11:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KINSLEY JOINS THE FRAY....Michael Kinsley, the guy whose feud with Susan Estrich started up the recent controversy over women's representation on op-ed pages, weighs in today:

When the New York Times anointed Maureen Dowd as a columnist nine years ago, I gave her some terrible advice. I said, "You've got to write boy stuff. The future of NATO, campaign spending reform. Throw weights. Otherwise, they won't take you seriously." The term "throw weights" had been made famous by a Reagan-era official who said that women can't understand them whatever they are, or were.

Dowd wisely ignored me and proceeded to reinvent the political column as a comedy of manners and a running commentary on the psychopathologies of power. It is the first real innovation in this tired literary form since Walter Lippmann....But Dowd is different, and she is the most influential columnist of our time.

He goes on to talk about Larry Summers, reverse discrimination in favor of conservatives, and problems of mathematics. His conclusion? "Everyone involved should be trying harder, including me."

Kevin Drum 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 19, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MEDIA CRITICISM....The relentless barrage of partisan media criticism in the blogosphere has long left me uneasy. Dana Milbank explains why today:

Partisans on the left and right have formed cottage industries devoted to discrediting what they dismissively call the "mainstream media" -- the networks, daily newspapers and newsmagazines. Their goal: to steer readers and viewers toward ideologically driven outlets that will confirm their own views and protect them from disagreeable facts. In an increasingly fragmented media world, ideologues have already devolved into parallel universes, in which liberals and conservatives can select talk radio hosts, cable news pundits and blogs that share their prejudices.

....Ultimately, it's not good for anybody, even partisans, to get into a postmodern morass where there are no such things as facts, only competing perceptions of reality. Would liberals really favor the absence of a press that calls into questions the Bush administration's claims about Iraq's weapons and ties to al Qaeda? Would conservatives really favor the absence of a press that brought the Clinton scandals to light?

Actually, media bashing is still primarily a right wing phenomenon, but I think Milbank is right that it's slowly creeping into the left's foundational mythology as well. If this continues, the eventual result will be an almost universal ability to ignore any news report you don't like simply by claiming it's the result of bias and therefore not to be trusted. This is unhealthy.

On the other hand, it's pretty hard not to be skeptical when a recent survey of reporters indicates that a fair number of them are skeptical too:

15% said that on one or more occasions their organizations edited material for publication and they did not believe the final version accurately represented the story.

I continue to believe that on a list of problems with the American media, ideological bias barely cracks the top ten. And perhaps 15% isn't really that much. Still, if reporters don't trust their own bosses, how can they expect us to?

Kevin Drum 7:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ON BLOODLUST AND THE TORTURE OF CRIMINALS....Eugene Volokh, who famously wrote a couple of days ago that he thought it was OK to torture especially heinous criminals before executing them slowly and painfully, has now recanted. Except he hasn't, really. He conceded even in his original post that his views were too unpopular to ever become law, and his latest post merely concedes that his views are so unpopular that they'd also gum up the criminal justice system. That strikes me as a fairly minimal change in position.

As it happens, I share Eugene's caution about slippery slope arguments, and he's already preempted arguments based on moral intuition, since he figures his are as good as anyone's and there's not much point in trying to convince him otherwise. Still, since in principle he continues to think his position is defensible if only he could persuade his fellow citizens to agree with him, I have a boundary question for him: just how far does he think "cruel and unusual" punishment should be allowed to go?

In other words, a hundred lashes, being stabbed by your victim's brother, and then being slowly hanged before a cheering crowd is OK. But how about being burned at the stake? Or being buried up to your neck in the desert and left for the vultures? Or being kept in a 4x4 foot box and fed moldy bread and rotting meat for the rest of your life?

These are all punishments that have been commonly accepted at various times and places in human history, but aren't any longer by anyone we consider civilized. And this gets to the heart of the moral intuition question. Aside from material advances, the primary achievement of human civilization slow and spotty as it's been has been moral progress: we don't keep slaves anymore, we don't execute heretics, and we don't allow eight-year-olds to work 12-hour days in front of power looms.

But this progress has been tenuous and halting, with our inner demons never far from the surface and accepting a reversal in our slow march toward moral improvement is playing with fire: as both recent history and current history demonstrate, the veneer of civilization continues to be mighty thin. We should be working to build up the veneer that protects us from our demons, Eugene, not sand it back down.

Kevin Drum 5:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

STEM CELLS....As many of you know, the state of California is teetering on the edge of bankrupty. Our answer? Pass an initiative to increase our financial problems by spending $3 billion on stem cell research!

I mildly opposed the stem cell measure when it was on the ballot back in November, and one of the reasons was that it was something of a sweetheart deal written by the biotech industry and rather clearly for the benefit of the biotech industry. And sure enough, after only a few months of existence the agency set up to manage the money is already under sustained attack for its casual attitude toward conflict of interest and open meeting laws.

Typical industrial/corporate arrogance regarding taxpayer money? Maybe. But Chris Nolan has an interesting gloss, suggesting that it's arrogance of a slightly different pedigree:

[Silicon Valley's] "friends and family" culture created this measure, funded it and will profit from it.

....Politics, which most Progressive libertarians think of as a corrupt enterprise, beneath their intelligence and not a worthy outlet for their skills, is seen as corrupt by definition. It is therefore unimportant and can be dismissed. After all these are good people doing the right thing; we can trust them to do good work. They prefer to think of policy the more noble act of creating worthwhile endeavors for people to follow as their true calling. When their deeds are done, they'll call us to admire the effect. The nobleness of their purpose overides any need to satisfy critics; once the task is complete, they will be silenced by the wonder of it all.

There's probably something to this. The peculiar strand of libertarianism that thrives in Silicon Valley isn't much appreciated outside the Valley (Paulina Borsook's Cyberselfish is a decent introduction if you're curious about it), and Chris is probably right that the travails of our new stem cell agency are at least partly caused by the contempt for government and the glorification of their own skills that are part and parcel of this subculture. If Tom Wolfe is ever on the lookout for a group even more convinced of their own godhood than Manhattan investment bankers, Silicon Valley techies might be right up his alley.

Of course, I'd still argue that some good old fashioned corporate shilling is a big part of this too. After all, just how libertarian can you really pretend to be when your entire agency is funded by $3 billion in government money?

Kevin Drum 1:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PRIVATIZATION WOES....Yale economist Robert Shiller, an expert in investment cycles, has performed an extensive set of computer simulations to estimate likely future returns for Social Security private accounts invested in George Bush's proposed "life-cycle" portfolios. The results aren't pretty:

According to U.S. historical rates of return, the life-cycle portfolio fell short of the 3 percent threshold 32 percent of the time, meaning nearly a third of personal account holders would have been better off sticking with the traditional Social Security system. The median rate of return was 3.4 percent....

But he also adjusted for what he expects to be lower future rates of investment return by using historic rates of return from international stock and bond markets....The results were not encouraging: The life-cycle portfolio under these adjusted returns lost money compared with the traditional system 71 percent of the time, with a median rate of return of just 2.6 percent.

What's even more remarkable are the people who apparently agree with Shiller. The Post's Jonathan Weisman quotes both Jeremy Siegel, a stock market enthusiast, and Kevin Hassett of the conservative American Enterprise Institute in support of Shiller's views. All three agree that balanced investment portfolios are unlikely to earn 3% a year over the next few decades. The Heritage Foundation demurs as expected, but if a routine denunciation from Heritage is the best the privatizers can do, they're in big trouble.

Bottom line: any kind of prudent investment is likely to leave a lot of people worse off than they are under current Social Security law. As with any financial scheme, you should be mighty cautious about signing on the dotted line when you're dealing with a fast talking huckster who's seems a little too eager to sell his goods without giving you time to read the fine print. And who's a faster talking huckster than our very own George W. Bush?

Via Max. You can read Shiller's paper here.

Kevin Drum 1:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 18, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS....A couple of books I've been waiting for came out in paperback recently and I had the chance to read them both last week. Neither one disappointed.

David Shipler's The Working Poor is a terrific examination of the perils of being poor in America. It's not merely or even primarily about their lack of money, but about their lack of stability. A poor person with a steady job and predictable expenses is one thing, but a poor person with emergency medical expenses, irregular hours, and the constant threat of being laid off is in a whole different class. In case after case, the poor, who are the worst equipped to handle it in the first place, are faced with an unrelenting stream of setbacks that would be severe problems to most of us but are life threatening disasters to them and all with an increasingly stingy safety net to save them from complete destitution.

David Cay Johnston's Perfectly Legal is the flip side: the story of how our tax system increasingly punishes the poor and middle class and rewards the already rich. Why, for example, do we spend $100 million harassing poor people who get small refunds from the Earned Income Tax Credit but virtually nothing on billionaires who shelter vast sums using obvious scams? Why has the Social Security payroll tax paid on the first dollar of income from every worker regardless of how poor gone steadily up over the past few decades while tax rates on capital gains, dividends, and inheritances have gone down? If you think it has something to do with who donates money to politicians and who doesn't, Johnston agrees with you.

The Working Poor is heartbreaking, Perfectly Legal is infuriating. Read them both.

Kevin Drum 6:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY FOLLIES....A correspondent emails to tell me about the latest Social Security agitprop running on CNN:

Wait until you see the new Bush Social Security ad. It's funny. It says "No one thought Social Security could ever go bankrupt....and no one thought the Titanic could ever sink either." Then it shows the demographic problem in a nice graph showing SS going into the red, and then the guy intones "...Then it will go bankrupt."

Then they show a clip of Bush from the SOTU: "But we must move ahead with courage and honesty."

....One of the other notable things they do is that they flash a chyron on the bottom that reads "Source: Social Security Administration", which of course is meant to make the whole thing look like it's from the SSA.

As he says, "Ah, the irony." Courage and honesty indeed.

Kevin Drum 5:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RICE FOR PRESIDENT?....Eleanor Clift finally says the obvious about the possibility of Condi Rice running for president in 2008:

Condeleezza Rice says she is mildly pro-choice, a position that dooms her candidacy for president in the Republican Party....Rice can flirt with running, but unless shes prepared to do what the senior George Bush did and become a pro-life convert, shes flirting with ghosts. While senators and governors can cut and paste their position according to political need, the presidency is different.

We all remember what happened to Colin Powell in 1996, don't we? He was an even more perfect candidate than Rice, but the social conservative base of the Republican party made it crystal clear that they would fight his candidacy tooth and nail because of his soft pro-choice views. After a short bit of statesmanlike soul searching, Powell wisely announced that the presidency was "a calling that I do not yet hear" and that was that.

Rice would face exactly the same fate as Powell, and without the active support of social conservatives no one can win the modern day Republican nomination. It's a fantasy to think that Rice could buck this.

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By: Kevin Drum

PRIVATIZING IRAQ....Via Juan Cole, it looks like Greg Palast has an interesting new bit of muckraking airing tonight on the BBC. What makes it more noteworthy than usual is that the sources are all named, instead of being the usual anonymous suspects buried deep in the bowels of who knows where.

According to Palast, in April 2003 administration hawks brushed aside oil industry concerns and cobbled together a plan to privatize the Iraqi oil industry:

The sell-off was given the green light in a secret meeting in London headed by Ahmed Chalabi shortly after the US entered Baghdad, according to Robert Ebel.

Mr Ebel, a former Energy and CIA oil analyst, now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Newsnight he flew to the London meeting at the request of the State Department.

[Iraqi-born oil industry consultant Falah] Aljibury, once Ronald Reagan's "back-channel" to Saddam, claims that plans to sell off Iraq's oil, pushed by the US-installed Governing Council in 2003, helped instigate the insurgency and attacks on US and British occupying forces.

"Insurgents used this, saying, 'Look, you're losing your country, you're losing your resources to a bunch of wealthy billionaires who want to take you over and make your life miserable,'" said Mr Aljibury from his home near San Francisco.

The plan didn't work, but apparently that was only because it turned out the oil industry didn't want to own Iraqi oil fields:

Philip Carroll, the former CEO of Shell Oil USA who took control of Iraq's oil production for the US Government a month after the invasion, stalled the sell-off scheme.

Mr Carroll told us he made it clear to Paul Bremer, the US occupation chief who arrived in Iraq in May 2003, that: "There was to be no privatisation of Iraqi oil resources or facilities while I was involved."

Ariel Cohen, of the neo-conservative Heritage Foundation...said America should have gone ahead with what he called a "no-brainer" decision.

Mr Carroll hit back, telling Newsnight, "I would agree with that statement. To privatize would be a no-brainer. It would only be thought about by someone with no brain."

As always, it's hard to know what was really going on, and the State Department claims that their report merely set out various options and advocated none. Maybe. But it will be interesting to see if anyone else follows up on this story.

Kevin Drum 1:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

EPISCOPALIAN (AND OTHER) SOCIOLOGISTS....Fortunately for my friend Ed Kilgore, who yesterday expressed "an overpowering urge to attend the next major conference of sociologists within commuting distance to seek out its Episcopalian subgroup," the Eastern Sociological Society's annual conference is going on right this very moment in downtown D.C. If you're just learning about it now, then you missed this morning's panel on blogging and public policy, starring Crooked Timber's Eszter Hargittai and Henry Farrell, as well as yours truly. But don't fret, Ed--you can still make it for tomorrow's noontime session on political writing. I'm just guessing here, but I think it's a pretty good bet that with both Garance Franke-Rute and me on the panel, we'll address the question du jour: Where are all the women? For those three other people out there who have ever felt an overpowering urge to attend a regional sociological conference, you can find us (and fellow panelists Ramesh Ponnuru, Noam Scheiber, and Chris Suellentrop) at the Wyndham Washington Hotel at noon on Saturday.

Amy Sullivan 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TERRI SCHIAVO....I realize that Terri Schiavo has long been one of those weird obsessions that grips the Christian right with such fervor, but this is just nauseating:

The Senate Health Committee has requested that Terri Schiavo and her husband, Michael, appear at an official committee hearing on March 28. Earlier Friday, a House committee was issuing congressional subpoenas to stop doctors from disconnecting the tube.

....A statement from the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Friday said the purpose of the hearing was to review health care policies and practices relevant to the care of non-ambulatory people.

It's not just that this is an obvious abuse of congressional power, since subpoenas are designed to compel testimony and Terri Schiavo is obviously not going to testify about anything. What's really nauseating is the almost slavering Republican eagerness to treat Schiavo as a common media spectacle. What are they going to do? Wheel her into a committee room under the klieg lights so the whole country can gape in wonderment at a comatose woman? Why not just set up a circus freak show on Capitol Hill and be done with it?

Majikthise has more on the Schiavo case if you're not up to speed on it. Bottom line: she's not coming back to life, folks.

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE TORTURE....From congressional testimony today:

Porter J. Goss, the director of central intelligence, said Thursday that he could not assure Congress that the Central Intelligence Agency's methods of interrogating terrorism suspects since Sept. 11, 2001, had been permissible under federal laws prohibiting torture.

Well, at least he's honest about it. It's a start.

Kevin Drum 1:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ALTERCATION LINKS CONTEST....Would you like a blogroll link on Eric Alterman's MSNBC blog? Then run over to Jeralyn's place pronto and let her know. She's in charge of the third Altercation links contest (she's the one who got me on his blogroll a couple of years ago) and she's looking for a few good blogs. Don't be shy!

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By: Kevin Drum

THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING....The boys are mostly still laying low on the issue of women on the op-ed page, but the girls are continuing to attack in force. Over at The Nation, Katha Pollitt throws cold water on the idea that women are put off by the combative nature of the political opinion world:

It may be true that more men than women like to bloviate and "bat things out" socialization does count for something....[But] the tiny universe of political-opinion writers includes plenty of women who hold their own with men, who do not wilt at the prospect of an angry e-mail, who have written cover stories and bestsellers and won prizes and whose phone numbers are likely already in the Rolodexes of the editors who wonder where the women are.

This is true, but I think it also glosses over an important point. Sure, there are plenty of battle hardened female opinion writers, but, by definition, we only see the ones who are comfortable in the fray and their numbers are fairly small if Dahlia Lithwick's experience with comparative submission rates is any guide. I think a lot of women the ones we don't hear from really are put off by the tone and substance of opinion writing, and we do them a disservice by pretending they don't exist. There are plenty of issues in play here, and we should do our best to honestly identify all of them, not just our own favored subset.

Over at NRO, though, Cathy Seipp blames the problem on women themselves:

The uncomfortable fact is that women just seem less interested in politics than men. No one's preventing women from subscribing to policy-wonk magazines, for instance, but the readership of these is still mostly male.

....There's more to political commentary than just saying you feel bad about something that typically female emotional-reaction-as-argument is one big reason why the op-ed pages are still mostly male, although so far everyone but City Journals fearless Heather MacDonald has been too polite to even hint at it.

Sorry, but I'm not touching that one. Take it away, commenters.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare's Sister is pissed:

Were not going to get anywhere as long as the male bloggers who post about this issue continue to do so with such appalling intellectual dishonesty. In private emails, male bloggers who publicly wring their hands about how to solve the problem of the dearth of women bloggers in the upper echelon, will admit that the reality is the difficulty of finding women worth linking to.

Women dont give me much linkable material.

Women write on subjects that dont interest me.

Women dont know how to compromise on abortion rights.

Why dont women post about Social Security? It affects them, too.

Women dont write commentary, dont come up with new ideas.

Gender politics is all secondary issues.

The day I see any one of those notions let loose for open debate on one of the blogs authored by a man who holds those opinions is the day we might actually get somewhere with this discussion.

Consider it done! In fact, some of those points are ones I myself made to Shakes but I'm not going to tell you how many of them or which ones. See if you can guess.

In any case, I think the overarching question this brings up is one that Shakespeare's Sister and I have also discussed but then dropped because we ran out of steam: what are "women's issues"? Isn't the war in Iraq a women's issue as much as a men's issue? How about abortion? Is that a women's issue? Or is it equally a men's issue?

In other words, if men complain that women spend too much time blogging about "women's issues" and I know that some of them do and if women complain that men spend too little time blogging about women's issues and some of them do we better figure out what we're talking about. This might be a long settled question in academic circles for all I know, but it's probably not for most of us denizens of the blogosphere. So chat away in comments and let's see if we come up with anything.

Kevin Drum 1:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 17, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TORTURE UPDATE....I haven't linked to all the latest torture news because, frankly, I just can't stand it anymore. Sorry. But Jeanne is made of sterner stuff than me, so head over there if you think you can bear to read the most recent developments.

Kevin Drum 11:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CONSERVATIVE MIND....Conservative blogger Jim Miller weighs in on the question of women on the op-ed page:

On the average, moderate and conservative women, such as Anne Applebaum, are the best columnists. The worst, on the average, are leftist women and you can probably think of your own examples.

[Explanation for this theory omitted. Click the link if you can't stand the suspense.]

This idea would also predict that male moderate and conservative columnists would be better, on the average, than their leftist counterparts. And I think that's true, too.

So: Lefty women are lousy columnists. And lefty men are lousy columnists too. In other words, all lefties are lousy columnists! QED, you liberal bastards, QED.

Still, even this isn't quite as absurd as last week's observation from Hugh Hewitt, a man whose conservatism is so hackishly slavish that even the gang at NRO have their occasional doubts about him:

After two days of conversations in DC with leading conservatives and officials, it is clear to me that the GOP is the party of expertise and achievement abroad and innovation and new ideas at home, always the superior position in politics.

Gee, Hugh, were you unsure about this before your trip to DC? I guess it's a good thing you were open minded enough to hear out all your fellow conservatives before drawing any hasty conclusions.

That's your fun and games for the evening. We now return you to your regular programming.

Kevin Drum 11:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

EVIL OR STUPID?....Jon Chait is reading Ari Fleischer's book and trying to make sense of it. An acquaintance provides the key:

While I was slogging through the book, I happened to be e-mailing with a conservative I know. My correspondent thought my Ari-as-virtuoso theory was silly: "When Ari worked on the Hill he was widely considered to be a moron even by other press secretaries, who are mostly a bunch of ignorant dolts themselves." But how, I asked, could he have run circles around the Washington press corps? "Ari is a genius like the [Peter] Sellers character in Being There," he replied. "He was too stupid and too ignorant to know he was telling lies."

Ah, the age old "evil or stupid?" question. I usually side with stupid on the statistical grounds that there's way more stupidity in the world than outright evil and Fleischer's book seems to provide some pretty good evidence for this in his case.

Of course, Fleischer was also a pretty successful press secretary, so perhaps IQ tests will become standard fare for future nominees: score above 90 and you're disqualified. After all, if it works for NRO financial writers, why not press secretaries?

Kevin Drum 7:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CARPETBAGGER....I have to go to lunch now. While I'm gone, go read The Carpetbagger. I don't know who the mystery writer behind it is, but it's an astonishingly good blog that I had never heard of until a few weeks ago.

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By: Kevin Drum

JORDAN'S PRESS....King Abdullah of Jordan visited President Bush a couple of days ago, and the American media mostly yawned. Abu Aardvark takes the next step and looks overseas:

What about the Jordanian press? I'm paraphrasing here, but it went about like this:

Al Ghad: King has fabulously successful trip to America, Bush loves him
Al Arab al Yom: Fabulously successful trip to America for the King, Bush declares love
Al Dustour: On fabulously successful American trip for King, Bush's love declared
Al Rai: Fabulously successful trip to White House for popular, handsome, intelligent King; Bush once again declares undying love and devotion

Free press in Jordan, you know.

The Aardvark has more about Abdullah's visit here. From a democracy promotion standpoint, he's pretty unimpressed.

Kevin Drum 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT DO MEN WANT?....Researchers have finished cataloging the genome of the X chromosome and have found a surprise: it contains 200-300 genes that are expressed up to twice as much as in a male or some other females:

All told, men and women may differ by as much as 2% of their entire genetic inheritance, greater than the hereditary gap between humankind and its closest relative the chimpanzee.

In other words, guys, your wives and girlfriends really are justified in thinking of you as practically a different species. Science marches on.

UPDATE: In other gender related semi-news, the Guardian reports today on the 2002 Ig Nobel Prize winning paper, "Right-left and the scrotum in Greek sculpture." As the article says, the paper's "investigation of scrotal asymmetry remains the definitive work on this topic." No doubt.

Kevin Drum 12:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BOLTON AND WOLFOWITZ....Yesterday I suggested that President Bush's appointment of well-known hawks John Bolton as UN ambassador and Paul Wolfowitz as World Bank president were, on a PR level, attempts to prove that he doesn't take guff from anyone. Anyone who thought he was going to back down and take a more conciliatory tone in his second term had better guess again.

For what it's worth, Dan Drezner, Matt Yglesias, and several emailers point out an obvious alternate theory: both men are being kicked upstairs. In reality, they're moving from influential positions within the administration to peripheral positions that most people don't care about much. Certainly it's unlikely that the neocon fraternity itself is overjoyed at seeing these guys shunted into institutions that they think are worthless at best and downright harmful to U.S. interests at worst. As Matt puts it, maybe "this is the way a man who doesn't like admitting to mistakes is admitting that he made mistakes."

There's probably something to this, especially in the case of Bolton, who was most likely given the UN position as a bone after being rejected for a high-level State Department position by Condoleezza Rice. Wolfowitz is a little harder to figure, though, especially since it's been widely reported that Bush canvassed the World Bank board, found widespread opposition to Wolfowitz, and then went ahead and nominated him anyway. It's hard to read this as anything but a thumb in the eye of the Europeans, even if it's also true that Bush and Rumsfeld wanted Wolfowitz out of the Defense Department for other (unknown) reasons.

Tea leaves are everywhere these days, but the tea itself remains surprisingly murky, doesn't it? Still, I thought it was worthwhile to mention this alternate explanation. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

EXTRAORDINARY RENDITION....In the annals of "no shit" moments, this lede has to be somewhere in the top ten:

The system the CIA relies on to ensure that the suspected terrorists it transfers to other countries will not be tortured has been ineffective and virtually impossible to monitor, according to current and former intelligence officers and lawyers, as well as counterterrorism officials who have participated in or reviewed the practice.

Yes. "Ineffective." Indeed it has been, hasn't it? Ineffective, that is.

I'm not trying to poke fun at Dana Priest, who's a terrific reporter and (perhaps) didn't have much choice except to lead with something like this if she wanted to write the story at all. And she includes plenty of quotes that make it pretty clear everyone knows exactly what's going on.

Still, it's a little hard to take. The lede makes it sound as if we just have a quality control problem or a bureaucratic snafu of some kind, when in fact we all know perfectly well that this is deliberate policy on the part of our government. Fifty years from now I imagine we'll look back on this the same we look back at blacklists and World War II internment camps today. At least, I hope so.

POSTSCRIPT: On a related note, over at Obsidian Wings, Hilzoy reports that Rep. Edward Markey has introduced a bill to end the practice of turning prisoners over to countries that engage in torture. Unfortunately, over at Crooked Timber, Ted Barlow reports that the bill is sponsored solely by Democrats and has zero chance of even being considered, let alone passed. He suggests a campaign to try to get one (1) Republican on board as a cosponsor.

Kevin Drum 1:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 16, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

RANDOM CAT BLOGGING.... What did I do on my mini-vacation? I visited other cats. This is Grayson, approximately 80% fur and 20% actual cat.

Grayson and I spent a lot of time together, rolling around, sitting in laps, and being smooched. But keep it quiet, okay? I don't want Jasmine and Inkblot to know I've been cheating on them. They're a little bit old fashioned about that kind of thing....

Kevin Drum 9:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH'S VISION....President Bush tells the nation about his, um, vision for Social Security:

THE PRESIDENT: I have not laid out a plan yet, intentionally. I have laid out principles....

Q: But, sir, but Democrats have made it pretty clear that they're not interested in that. They want you to lay it out. And so, what I'm asking is, don't

THE PRESIDENT: I'm sure they do. The first bill on the Hill always is dead on arrival. I'm interested in coming up with a permanent solution. I'm not interested in playing political games.

Fine. But can we now please stop bellyaching about how the Democrats don't have any ideas because they aren't willing to put a plan on the table? If the President agrees that the first bill on the Hill is dead on arrival, Democrats would have to be pretty stupid to offer up a sacrificial lamb of their own, wouldn't they?

And for anyone who still doesn't get it, here are the competing "visions":

Bush: Private accounts in which people assume the risk of investing their retirement savings is a must. Everything else is on the table.

Democrats: Guaranteed minimum retirement benefits are a must. Everything else is on the table.

That's not so hard, is it? Both sides have perfectly comprehensible positions, and Democrats are being no more closed minded than Republicans. They just have a different idea of whether safety net retirement benefits are an appropriate place for investment risk.

Kevin Drum 9:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WOMEN AND BLOGGING....On a lazy Sunday several weeks ago I wrote about the dearth of women among the ranks of the most highly trafficked political bloggers. I suggested the reason was partly because high-traffic men don't link much to women and partly because fewer women than men write political blogs in the first place. But why do fewer women blog about politics than men?

In my initial post I wrote this: "My guess...is that men are more comfortable with the food fight nature of opinion writing both writing it and reading it....I imagine that the fundamental viciousness and self aggrandizement inherent in opinion writing turns off a lot of women."

Two days later I added this: "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."

In the past few days this topic has suddenly gotten a renewed round of attention, and it turns out that a fair number of women agree with me but only partly. So read on.

Gail Collins, who runs the New York Times editorial page, told Howard Kurtz, "There are probably fewer women, in the great cosmic scheme of things, who feel comfortable writing very straight opinion stuff, and they're less comfortable hearing something on the news and batting something out." Maureen Dowd described her first few months of column writing like this: "I was a bundle of frayed nerves....Men enjoy verbal dueling. As a woman...I wanted to be liked not attacked." Dahlia Lithwick agrees: "I know an awful lot of smart, accomplished women who avoid both the op-ed pages and the Crossfire-style 'screaming shows' because that is simply not the type of discourse they seek out or value."

Linguist Deborah Tannen: "Many men find that their adrenaline gets going when someone challenges them, and it sharpens their minds: They think more clearly and get better ideas. But those who are not used to this mode of exploring ideas, including many women, react differently: They back off, feeling attacked, and they don't do their best thinking under those circumstances." Trish Wilson responded with tempered agreement: "I don't like the combative nature of talk radio and TV talk shows. I don't think it's very productive, I don't like being attacked." And Ann Althouse adds this: "There may be a lot of men clamoring to speak first, easily finding a way to talk over the women who have just as much to say. It may take a little something more to unleash what women can say."

But there's more to the story. First, plenty of women don't agree that the food fight nature of blogging and opinion journalism is an issue. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum says the whole thing is "a storm in the media teacup." Joanne Jacobs says: "I was an op-ed columnist for the Merc and Knight Ridder for more than 16 years....I have to say I never trembled about expressing my opinion." Chris Nolan offers ten reasons for the low representation of women in the political blogosphere, and confirms via email that she didn't leave off the rancorous nature of blogging by accident. She doesn't think it's an issue.

Second, even the women who agree that the argumentative nature of opinion writing is a problem brought up plenty of other issues too. Maureen Dowd thinks women who fight as hard as men are stereotyped as "castrating" instead of authoritative. Deborah Tannen thinks the real problem is that we accept the "attack-dog" definition of opinion writing in the first place, and Ann Althouse agrees. Trish Wilson may not like the confrontational nature of radio or TV, but doesn't have a problem with it in print. Dahlia Lithwick reports that as an editor, she gets more op-ed submissions from men by "several orders of magnitude." (This is an issue in talk radio too. Male callers outnumber female callers so heavily that call screeners have to work hard to get anything close to even representation.)

When we turn to the men, however, we mostly get either silence or stubborn denial. Manan Ahmed: "Huh?! There never should be a reason to link to anyone besides your appreciation for their content." Jeff Jarvis: " I'm white. I'm male. I blog. You got a problem with that? Tough." The Deacon over at Power Line: "The notion that [successful] bloggers are making decisions about linking based on gender, or race for that matter, seems quite far-fetched." Dave Winer mocks the whole idea that there's any kind of problem in the first place.

Right. No problem at all. No wonder so many women got pissed off at what I thought was a fairly unexceptional post last month. If this is the crowd I'm part of, I don't blame them.

So why bring it up again? This really wasn't a blog post I wanted to write, especially since I don't have any magic solution to the problem aside from a personal attempt to broaden my reading and linking habits. I got my fill of it back in February. However, the old boys' reaction to this prompted me to think about it further, and then two women wrote things today that convinced me to go ahead and poke my head out again.

First, Jeanne d'Arc notes that the blogosphere has a lot more skew than just that between men and women. "It wouldn't surprise me if it ranged from center-left to center-right, but does Atrios to Little Green Footballs really span the range of political thought in this country?" That's something that doesn't get enough attention, and she raises some other good points as well. Read the whole thing.

And then there was Dahlia Lithwick's piece, in which she pretty much read my mind about why more men haven't addressed this issue: "More likely, they are terrified to opine on the debate because the inquiry is so fraught with the possibility of career-terminating levels of politically correct blowback la Larry Summersthat they deem it better to hold their tongues and wait for the storm to pass." Yep, that's me. Who needs the grief? But as she says:

And so a clutch of women are left on the pink margins of the page, to wring our hands and, well, discuss among ourselves. The subtext will thus remain that anyone choosing to speak out on this is somehow hysterical or overemotional; that this is not a "serious" problem since serious people (i.e., men) aren't addressing it. All of which practically guarantees that nothing will be done about defining, measuring, or redressing the issue in the long term. Claims that no man wants to step on the landmine of political correctness, gender stereotyping, and identity politics should not justify bowing out of the conversation. Maureen Dowd, Deborah Tannen, and Anne Applebaum are smart, serious people. They have taken the time to initiate a conversation. They deserve serious responses from men and women alike.

Yes they do. And the men who do respond deserve serious responses in turn. There's no time like the present.

Kevin Drum 8:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LEAD BABIES....It turns out that "crack babies" are mostly a myth. On the other hand, "lead babies" are entirely real, and a substantial number of American children suffer from long-term exposure to lead that produces lower IQs and increased delinquent and violent behavior in adolescence.

So why was there an explosion of crack baby stories in the 80s and 90s but nothing about lead babies? Rivka takes a guess:

The lead problem is complex; it implicates delinquent landlords, decaying inner city housing stock, the shift in low-income housing assistance from federally maintained properties to the Section 8 system (which relies on private landlords), and state and municipal governments. That complexity just didn't fit in with the 80s and 90s zeitgeist in which the problems of the poor were blamed on individual pathology. In contrast, the "crack baby epidemic" was about poor black women being bad mothers, individually to blame for putting their babies at risk.

There are lots of issues with lead abatement that make it a difficult problem, but most of them can be solved with money and effort. Given the well known and universally accepted consequences of even minute lead exposure during infancy, getting rid of the stuff would probably be one of the most cost effective social programs in the history of the country. So why aren't we doing it?

Kevin Drum 6:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTH COURTS....Over at Legal Affairs, Philip Howard is arguing that medical malpractice cases should be removed from the current judicial system and instead be tried by special jury-less "health courts." Stephanie Mencimer thinks he's being a snob:

The facts involved in medical malpractice trials are not any more complicated, nor is the law more "arcane," than those currently facing Alabama jurors in the fraud trial of former HealthSouth president Richard Scrushy. Yet imagine the public's reaction to a proposal to abolish juries in CEO trials and replace them with an administrative system staffed by "trained business professionals" whom we should trust to create predictability in sentencing, deter future wrongdoing, and set the standards of corporate behavior.

In this country, we trust juries enough to let them kill someone in a criminal case, but somehow, when juries make decisions about money, especially insurance company money, they're attacked as irrational, unsophisticated, unwieldy, and slow.

Yes, it's funny how insurance company money seems to require special treatment, isn't it?

Howard and Mencimer are debating the idea all this week, so head over and read the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 5:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TAX REFORM....The Center for American Progress has released a proposal that's a fine addition to the tax reform debate. Of course, tax reform is a subject so dull that even I have a hard time getting interested in it, which means that this report will probably disappear without a trace within a few days.

Before it does, though, it brings something to mind. One of CAP's proposals is that we should eliminate the employee portion of the Social Security tax and increase the employer portion. In response, Mickey Kaus says that since economists agree that employees actually pay both portions anyway, Democrats should do just the opposite and get rid of the employer's portion:

If employees kept paying their part of the tax they would be more likely to continue to believe, correctly, that they'd earned Social Security benefits with their contributions. Democrats should want workers to feel entitled to at least some traditional Social Security benefits.

....[In addition,] cutting the employee's but not the employer's portion creates an appearance that the Democrats are following their old, hack instinct to go for anything that seems to screw employers and help workers.

Unlike Mickey, I'm not that interested in the symbolism of having Democrats "play against type by seeming to be willing to do something to help the businesses that create jobs." Still, he's got a point: why not try to sell Democratic proposals in a way that gains the support of the business community? For example:

  • If we want to lower Social Security taxes, why not lower both portions to, say, an uncapped 3% of income. Employees and employers would like it.

  • CAP suggests closing corporate tax loopholes. Good idea. But instead of targeting "wealthy individuals," why not make the case to corporations that a flatter, broader, simpler tax code is in their best interests? It helps keep rates low and it helps insure that everyone plays on a level playing field, instead of constantly worrying that their competitors are figuring out new and better ways of outperforming them via ever more innovative tax scams.

  • Shouldn't large corporations be in favor of national healthcare? These guys don't want to be in the healthcare business, and they don't like having to compete with foreign companies that have a built-in advantage because they don't have healthcare costs of their own. Why haven't Democrats done a better job of getting the business community behind them on this?

In a lot of ways, this is wedge politics: these proposals are good for business but not so good for the wealthy individuals who run businesses. At some point, though, if liberals play their cards right, shareholders will start demanding that companies support proposals that are good for the company, even if the CEO himself ends up paying higher taxes. That's a wedge that has a lot of potential.

Kevin Drum 3:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FT BUSH vs. ST BUSH....So George Bush has tapped Paul Wolfowitz to be head of the World Bank and John Bolton to be ambassador to the UN. Earlier this year he resubmitted all ten of the judicial nominees that Democrats had filibustered before the election. And Alberto Gonzales, the guy who wrote the torture memos, is now Attorney General.

I don't know enough about Wolfowitz and Bolton on a substantive basis to have much to say about their appointments. On a PR level, though, the message Bush is sending is plain. A number of pundits inexplicably thought that Bush might settle down in his second term and try to run a more conciliatory, less strident administration, and it's pretty obvious that he's trying to make it crystal clear that he has no intention of doing this. Second term Bush will be no different from first term Bush, and don't you forget it.

I never understood the wish fulfillment fantasies of people who thought Bush might change in his second term he's obviously a guy with only one gear and a profound need to crush his enemies but I wonder if anyone still believes this? If so, it's time to face the music. It's going to be a long four years.

Kevin Drum 1:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NON-SENSE OF THE SENATE....What do you think?

Yea or Nay: Congress should reject any Social Security plan that requires deep benefit cuts or a massive increase in debt.

Sure, forcing Republicans to almost unanimously vote no on this question probably won't have any lasting effect, but you never know. It might. After all, who in his right mind would be in favor of deep benefit cuts and massive increases in debt? Not Joe Sixpack, that's for sure.

This is how the game is played, folks. More like it, please.

Kevin Drum 1:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DOUG WEAD RECANTS....Another thing I did while I was on vacation that I don't normally do was to read USA Today the official newspaper of trapped hotel guests all across this great land of ours. On Monday they ran a letter from Doug Wead, the guy who taped all those conversations with George Bush back in the late 90s, and I wish I could link to it. Unfortunately, USA Today apparently doesn't put letters to the editor online (though you can read a synopsis here).

Basically, it was an apology. But it wasn't just an apology. You'll have to trust me on this (or else go find a copy of Monday's paper in a library somewhere), but like several apostates before him, what Wead offered up was nothing less than a full bore brand of forgive-me-for-I-have-sinned style groveling that was almost physically painful to read. And while I was reading it, what I wondered was this: how do they do it? How does the Bush family manage to scare so many people into public retractions of such Stalinesque thoroughness?

Hell, I'm not even sure I want to know the answer. Don Corleone had nothing on these guys, that's for sure.

Kevin Drum 12:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NANNY 911....While I was on vacation I did a couple of things I don't normally do. One of them was to catch an episode of Nanny 911, a Fox reality series in which British nannies (plus the usual crew of roving cameramen) are dispatched to dysfunctional families in order to impart a few days of tough love and sensible advice that will hopefully get each week's featured household back under control.

At first, I thought that this was merely the latest slide down the slippery slope of revoltingly meanspirited reality shows. And without much doubt, it is indeed that. Watching husbands and wives and children all screaming at each other and acting like a ravening pack of spoiled brats for an hour is pretty unedifying stuff.

And yet....by the time the show was over I was partially won over. I have no idea whether the Fincks (this week's family) will benefit in the long run from their week of professional nannying I suspect not, actually but you know what? "Nanny Deb's" advice was pretty sensible. What's more, the show reaches a lot of people who would never read a parenting book, and does so in a dramatic way that's probably pretty effective. So even given all its sordid voyeurism, this is actually a show that might do some good.

I can hardly believe I wrote that. But there you go.

Kevin Drum 12:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 15, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

I'M BACK!....Many, many thanks to Brad Plumer and Laura Rozen, who filled in for me while I was gone. It was kind of fun reading my own blog and seeing all those great posts appear out of nowhere!

If you're not already reading them, both Brad and Laura are worth putting on your daily reading list. Laura blogs at War and Piece and Brad blogs at both Bradford Plumer and MoJo Blog, the group blog at Mother Jones. Check 'em out.

Kevin Drum 11:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

I ACTUALLY VOTED FOR PHASE-OUT BEFORE....Sam Rosenfeld reports that 50 Senate Republicans just voted in favor of "steep benefit cuts" and/or a "massive increase in debt." Nicely done, all of you! I wonder, though, why Craig Thomas and especially Lincoln Chaffee (who's up for reelection next year; maybe he's tired of politics) both voted for cuts/debt, which is odd since both are also on record as opposing Social Security phase-out. Hm

At any rate, seems like there's no turning back or dropping the subject for Republicans nowwhy abandon phase-out when you've already endorsed its most unpopular aspects? On the other hand, it's too premature to say that this debate is now officially dead. Yes, it would seem awfully odd for Collins, DeWine, Graham, Snowe, or Specter to vote for some version of phase-out after voting against steep benefit cuts and massive increases in debt, but there's still a lot of leeway there. Lindsey Graham's plan, for instance, would some entail borrowing and benefit cuts, though you could haggle over whether the words "steep" and "massive" apply. Though that's certainly a distinction I'd love to see Graham squirm over in public!

So what's next for the GOP? Painting the Democrats as "obstructionists"? Using the "nuclear option" as a diversionary tactic? Or is there some deep, dark, Karl Rove master plot that no one seems to be expecting?

UPDATE: In comments, Matthew Marler brings up a very good point. All of the Senate Republicans except for Snowe and Voinovich, along with a few Democrats, also voted for another "sense of the Senate" resolution declaring that "failing to address the financial condition of Social Security will result in massive debt, deep benefit cuts and tax increases." (Really? All three of those?) Perhaps they think that gives them an out, though it doesn't, really (why do they want to make a bad problem even worse? Hmmm?).

Brad Plumer 10:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

INVESTIGATE DELAY?....In the National Review today, Eric Pfeiffer is pushing yet another round of "advice" for liberals:

If Pelosi continues to push for an investigation of DeLay it will backfire on her and Democrats.

Aw, and no doubt he has the Democrats' best interests at heart! Pfeiffer's argument, though, is that Democrats have also been taking the same sort of "paid-for" overseas trips that recently put Tom DeLay in hot water. But if that's true, then fine, investigate them all! I'm not partisan enough to care if Democrats' also get burned for breaking House rules. On the other hand, if they do want to think in terms of partisan warfare, Democrats need only think back to 1991, when House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich used a banking mini-scandalHouse members were caught overdrawing from their private bank without penaltyto whip up public outrage, even though both parties were eventually found guilty. (Gingrich, it turned out, had 22 bounced checks himself.) The best way to paint yourself as the party of reform, it seems, is not to care where the finger gets pointed.

(And yes, it's also worth noting that the "power trips" to Korea are hardly Tom DeLay's only problem) Brad Plumer 6:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

JUDICIAL TERM LIMITS....Since courts and judges are obviously going to be on the debate agenda over the next few weeks (wonder why?), let's talk courts and judges. Gary Becker wants term limits for the judiciary:

[T]he average tenure of a Supreme Court Justice has increased from about 16 years to almost 26 years, and the average age at retirement grew from about 70 years old to 80.... Given their desire to influence future Court decisions, presidents are appointing younger Justices who will be able to affect judicial decisions for 40 years or more. Moreover, the prestige and power of a Justice is so great, and the workload so low... that they have little work incentive to retire before death or severe incapacity.

Do we really want 80 year olds, who have been removed from active involvement in other work or activities for decades, and who receive enormous deference, in large measure because of their great power, to be greatly influencing some of the most crucial social, economic, and political issues? My answer is no

So 18-year term limits it is, says Becker. But there seem to be a couple issues here. The first thing that catches my eye is that, with 18-year terms, any two-term president would have the chance to nominate four Supreme Court judges. (Clinton, by contrast, only got two picks, and Reagan only three.) That seems like a much, much greater power than the opportunity to appoint a very young judge. And every single election would instantly become "about" those two guaranteed Supreme Court nominees, which, besides making American politics even uglier, would undermine whatever political independence the judiciary now claims to have. Terrible, just terrible.

This also goes back to one of my pet peevesthat the presidential election is way too crude a process to represent the "will of the people". After all, it's the only time the entire nation can get together and vote, collectively, on a national representative, as opposed to a local one. And yet we're voting for a person who a) conducts foreign policy, b) essentially sets the domestic agenda, and c) picks judges. Now there's no way majority preferences can manifest themselves coherently in one single person. Just because the voting public selects three Republican presidents in a row, for instance, doesn't always mean the majority "wants" six conservative judges on the court, which Becker's proposal would entail. Perhaps they were voting on foreign policy, or terrorism, or Social Security, or whatever. Unfortunately, though, the only checks on the president are the House and Senate, which hardly express the collective will of the nation. (As I once showed on Mother Jones' blog, the current Democrats in the Senate represent more Americans than the Republicans do.)

Now it would be nice if we had two truly national elections: one to elect the president, and another to elect one of the Congressional chambers via proportional representation. Then the collective public could vote on, say, one party's foreign policy and another party's judicial preferences. But we don't do that. So, um, "nay" to Becker's proposal.

Brad Plumer 5:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

SIDELINE THIS....The Washington Post today has one of the more uplifting articles I've read all week. It looks like seniors aren't willing to sit on the sidelines in the Social Security debate, where, you know, George Will thinks they belong:

By and large, the elderly do understand the president has promised not to touch their Social Security checks, according to polling. But that is not relevant to their political opposition, Smorodin said, noting that older people also worry that pension benefit cuts will hurt their children and grandchildren.

At 69, Gene Wallace knows the White House's proposal would have no impact on his Social Security check, but if Bush believes that will silence the Republican mayor of Coldwater, Mich., Wallace grumbled, "he's all wet."

"I'm a parent as well as a grandparent. Somewhere along the line, they are going to be eligible for retirement assistance," he said, with all the energy he could muster three weeks after open-heart surgery. "It's everybody's concern what happens to this country."

Jon Chait has more: "[T]he main reason [privatization has flopped] is that the public is not quite as selfish as the conservatives thought."

Brad Plumer 1:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

"ROGUE STATES"....In the post below, I used the term "rogue state" somewhat unthinkingly, and several commenters called me on it. I confess: it was sloppy writing, and normally I try to avoid the phrase. And since I don't think I'm the first person to use the term loosely, it's probably worth clearing up.

Wikipedia has a good discussion: "rogue state" is used almost exclusively by the United States, and has been used to refer to other states that: don't follow international law, don't follow standards of proper governance, try to acquire weapons of mass destruction, sponsor terrorism, reject human rights, squander natural resources, or just plain don't engage in "good" diplomacy. Of course, that could refer to a very wide range of states; in practice, it mostly just refers these days to Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Syria, and maybe Libyastates the U.S. government doesn't particularly like and doesn't mind antagonizing. (No official calls China a rogue state, for instance.) Venezuela might find itself on the list soon, but right now it's only a measly "rogue element."

Doing a bit more googling, the term first became widely used in the Pentagon, it seems, in the 1989 Quadrennial Defense Reviewwhen Iraq and others were first labeled rogue statesto designate post-Cold War threats. And even more fun: The Clinton Administration switched to "state of concern" in its last six months, but basically meant the same thing.

Brad Plumer 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

NUKES OF HAZARD.Okay, enough about evolution and mental stress, and back to more serious matters. Tuesday's New York Times is reporting that President Bush wants to rewrite the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), because the darn thing makes it way too easy for rogue nations to develop nuclear weapons:

At the heart of Mr. Bush's concern is a fundamental flaw in the treaty. As long as nations allow inspections and declare their facilities and nuclear work, they get the atomic agency's seal of approval and, often, technical aid. But there is nothing to prevent a country, once it has learned how to enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods, from withdrawing from the treaty and moving full-bore toward a bomb. North Korea did exactly that two years ago, and now says it reprocessed a huge cache of spent nuclear fuel to make it suitable for weapons.

That part seems undeniable; the treaty is badly flawed. What will probably raise a few hackles, though, is the fact that Bush doesn't want to renegotiate the treaty, because he has, quote, "neither the time nor the patience." That sounds like a horrendous bit of anti-multilateralism, doesn't it? In this case though, Bush might well be right. Re-negotiating the treaty with all 189 other countries could, potentially, take a lifetime and a half. Alternatively, if Bush could get a select group of countries with an interest in squelching nuclear proliferationthe United States, the EU, Japan, South Korea, etc.together and tells them, let's all adopt strict nonproliferation requirements and agree to levy sanctions on any country that doesn't comply, well, that could work out quite nicely. In theory.

The proposal outlined above somewhat replicates the sort of international pressure that induced countries like South Africa and Brazil to give up their nuclear programs. But the only alternative I see is to do what the Carnegie Endowment recommends and pass a new UN resolution imposing harsher measures on any country that withdraws from the NPT. Sounds fantastic, but of course China and Russia may not want to take part in this sort of deal, and might even actively ignore itas they seem to be willing to do in the case of Iran. So if the UN route's out (though first let's find out for sure), and if renegotiating the NPT can't work, then the Bush way does seems like the best way forward. Of course, the devil's all in the details here, and I'll allow that the White House will probably screw this up somehow...

UPDATE: Since agreeing, however slightly, with the president always makes me nervous, here's a dissenting essay by Daryl Kimball arguing that there are, in fact, realistic steps for strengthening the existing NPT framework. Not sure Kimball's proposal would have enough teeth to deal with rogue states like Iran and North Korea, but it's also true that our nonproliferation strategies should be a good deal more far-sighted than focusing solely on Iran and North Korea. It also goes without saying, I think, that the ways in which the U.S. is undermining the current non-proliferation regime"bunker busters," etc.are clearly unhelpful.

Brad Plumer 1:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 14, 2005
By: Brad Plumer

DEEP IN THE HEART OF TAXES....A few days ago Kevin posted on the tax reform bill percolating through the Texas state legislature. As he put it, "this is literally a tax bill that openly cuts taxes on the rich and raises them on both the poor and the middle class." At any rate... it just passed:

The Texas House tentatively approved a sweeping $10.8 billion tax bill that will force all businesses to pay, including those that now evade the franchise tax, while levying a host of new consumer taxes on Texans.

The sweeping bill approved on a 78-70 vote is part of a package to overhaul the way Texas pays for public K-12 education. It includes various consumer taxes to help replace property taxes used for schools that would be cut by one-third.

The Chronicle's lede, by the way, makes the bill sound much more benign than it really isread Kevin's old post for more background. But to find out who the big winners are here, Charles Kuffner sums it up pretty nicely.

Brad Plumer 11:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Laura Rozen

Bolton and Niger Uranium Fiasco.... Steve Clemons has a post you will want to read about the previously undisclosed role of undersecretary of state and UN ambassador-nominee John Bolton in pushing bogus information contained in the forged "Niger uranium" documents in a fact sheet distributed at the United Nations, despite deep skepticism about the Niger information from the State Department's own intelligence analysts. The Niger docs, you will remember, were the poorly forged documents that claimed Iraq had signed a contract to purchase several hundred tons of uranium from Niger, that was one of the shreds of faulty evidence cited by the Bush administration that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons.

But strangely enough, when Congressman Henry Waxman inquired of the State Department back in the summer of 2003 if Bolton had had any role in creating the "fact sheet" distributed at the United Nations that cited the bogus Niger info, the State Department sent the California Democrat a "definitive denial."

That, it turns out, was a lie, Clemons says. He points us to a March 1, 2005 letter by Waxman describing evidence that the State Department classified Bolton's office's role in the fiasco as "sensitive but unclassified" so as not to have to disclose it under the Freedom of Information Act. That's dubious enough in its own right, but to misrepresent Bolton's role in approving the fact sheet to a sitting Congressman would seem an altogether graver matter. Check out Steve's post.

Laura Rozen 11:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

WE HAD TO SAVE ID IN ORDER TO DESTROY IT....Let's get this out of the way: Every time I hear someone say that evolution is "just a theory" or suggest that there's plenty of evidence for intelligent design, I can't help but do the little eye-roll/snort-of-derision thing blue-staters are so famous for doing. Sad but true. And for serious exasperation, I need only recall the time I was persuaded to read William Dembski's "seminal" Intelligent Design, which, for anyone who's studied set theory, is quite appalling. (See here or here for starters.)

Still, when the Washington Post today headlines the coming battle over creationism in the classroom, I wonder if a slight retreat by the reality-based community on evolution might not in fact be the best tactic, in order to vanquish the ID silliness in the long term. Really.

Just look at the current terrain. Many high schools, it seems, don't even touch evolution in their curriculum (mine didn't), either because biology classes are too busy covering hundreds of other more basic topics, or because teachers are just too intimidated to broach the topic. (And there's little chance of ending that intimidation.) Either way, the religious kids likely just end up learning the nonsense at home anyway. In universities, meanwhile, this ID debate is essentially mootany aspiring biologist that didn't believe in evolution would be utterly useless, laughed out of the laboratory. It's the fate of Joe teenager at stake here.

So okay, the fake-science advocates want to put evolution and ID side by side. Well, what of it? One should note that ID essentially gives away the game from the start, when it says that microevolution can happen but not speciation. Um, except that speciation is just microevolution up to the point where two species can no longer interbreed. The slippery slope is very slippery indeed, and ID loses pretty quickly here. Add in the fact that 99 percent scientists believe one of these theories, while a handful of cranks believe the other (quick, how many evolutionary biologists spoke out in favor of ID in the Post's story? Right.), well, you have a perfect opportunity for teachers to discuss fun topics like "evidence" and "scientific method" and "peer-reviewed journals." We'll see who wins out. What I'm saying, essentially, is that if ID is truly as ridiculous as we all think it is, then why not shove it on the stage and force it to cluck around in public? As this guy said, "Not by wrath does one kill, but by laughter."

In the long term, too, putting ID in the classroom will force the scientific community to mobilize and start educating the public. Too many evolutionary biologists, I think, still refuse to stoop so low as to argue with ID theorists. And yet 55 percent of Americans don't believe in evolution! That quite obviously doesn't mean the theory's false, it just means that it's time for some mass educating. If the religious right wants high schools everywhere to start thinking about evolution "critically," then fine, let's start talking about how complex organs arise, or whatever other clever "critiques" ID theorists like to tout. (The scare quotes indicate heavy snickering.) The point is that classroom discussions like these would be far more enlightening than the non-education about evolution that goes on now. And with biologists finally mobilized and ready to debate, it's a discussion that Darwinists would win.

At any rate, that's the way I see it. The current battle seems to have at best reached a stalemate, and at worst enrages and mobilizes the religious right. So why not try something else?

UPDATE: Okay, wow, I had honestly never seen Panda's Thumb before. I take back my "not enough evolutionary biologists willing to debate" line...

Brad Plumer 11:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Laura Rozen

Overcoming Anti-Semitism in Europe's Most Arab City....Regular readers of my site, War and Piece, may be aware that I like spy fiction (and non fiction). So I was drawn into this Jerusalem Post interview today with American spy novelist Claire Berlinski. The interview is not really about Berlinski's spy novel, but about a fascinating article the Oxford-educated PhD recently published about why France's most Arab immigrant-dense city, Marseille, has seen among the least amount of anti-Semitic violence plaguing much of France:

The launching of the second Palestinian intifada, in late 2000, ignited the most extensive outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in France since the Holocaust. The crimes have been perpetrated almost entirely by the beur Arab immigrants...

Yet while in other French cities the violence continues, in Marseille the animus soon fizzled out. This is largely because the city reacted with revulsion to these crimes: City-wide protests against anti-Semitism were immediately organized. Significantly, Arabs participated in these protests.

Islamic leaders were also present for the burial of the synagogue's charred Torah scrolls, and were photographed comforting Jewish religious leaders. These symbolic actions have been surprisingly successful in dampening outbreaks of ethnic violence.

Marseille's success is particularly impressive when one considers its demographics.

Fully a quarter of Marseille's population is of North African origin, and demographers predict that Marseille will be the first city on the European continent with an Islamic majority. Moreover, its Jewish community is the third-largest in Europe.

The most ethnically diverse city in France, then, has paradoxically been the most successful in containing its outbreak of ethnic violence.

A key reason for the city's calm is an entity called Marseille Esperance, a group of religious leaders convened by the mayor in a regular discussion group. Created in 1990 to stave off ethno-religious conflict between Jews and Muslims, it includes delegates from each of the city's religious communities who meet regularly to discuss civic problems... Whenever tension threatens to rise, the group meets and, at the mayor's urging, makes a public display of solidarity.

Most striking about Marseille Esperance, however, is this: It challenges the core principles of the French republican ideal, and the historic concept of what it means to be French.

This is an important article that certainly deserves more attention. Also don't miss the interview with Berlinski, which features some interesting observations about anti-Americanism in Europe, including this bit:

In some ways, anti-Americanism is not really irrational, if you completely ignore what the Europeans keep nattering on about their desire for human rights and international brotherhood of man. If you see that for the total bulls--t it is, and look at it in terms of traditional power politics and traditional European interests, you can see it as the traditional impulse that most nation states have for power.

Europe was divided, occupied, razed to the ground some parts literally levelled by American bombers. And the US has dominated the continent for the entire post-war period.

Finally, the Cold War is over and we're looking at a new generation of people growing up who do not feel any personal guilt for past events. What they do feel is that they are Europeans with a grand tradition of an extremely powerful Europe...

Is it any surprise, then, that these countries are now concerned with establishing and asserting their power on the world stage? Their biggest obstacle to this end, of course, is the United States. Structurally, what you would expect to see is a resentment of American power and a yen to curb it in any way possible. In the European case, curbing American power can only be done through diplomatic means, not military ones. In this sense, we're not talking about a psychotic illness; we're talking about something quite rational.

Interesting stuff.

Laura Rozen 2:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

DEATH OF ONLINE NEWS?....Via Susan Madrak, it looks like the New York Times online edition may finally be gearing up to go subscriber-only:

The New York Times on the Web, which is owned by The New York Times Company, has been considering charging for years and is expected to make an announcement soon about its plans. In January, The Times's Web site had 1.4 million unique daily visitors. Its daily print circulation averaged 1,124,000 in 2004, down from its peak daily circulation of 1,176,000 in 1993.

Executives at The Times have suggested that the paper, which already charges for its crossword puzzle, news alerts and archives online, may start charging for other portions of its content, but would not follow the Journal model, which charges online readers $79 a year for everything.

I forget who first made this pointEzra Klein possibly [UPDATE: here 'tis]but you have to think that whichever newspaper makes this jump first is going to lose out in a big way. If suddenly I have to pay to read the New York Times online, and can't just *ahem* find the password somewhere, then it's not a big deal. I'll just go read the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times and KnightRidder and get my liberal media fix. There's not that much of a difference that I so desperately need the Times.

But suppose the move is inevitable. Betsy Newmark thinks subscriber fees would "put a crimp in political blogging." Perhaps. But then again, perhaps this could all work out in a way that actually improve political blogging. What if the daily news was subscriber-only, but all the news archives were free and open to internet users everywhere? Blogging, it seems, could certainly benefit from slowing things down a bit and doing more commenting on week-old or month-old political stories. And sure, a few big bloggers and institutions would no doubt still buy subscriptions and do "insta-updates" with off-the-cuff commentary, but the rest of us would have to do a bit more thoughtful analysis/research/reporting and a bit less hyperactive mouse-clicking and "breaking" updates. That sounds fine to me!

(On a side note, making news archive-only would also make op-ed pundits more accountable, since we'd all be reading their predictions a week or so after being written. Of course, this would probably just force op-ed writers to make predictions on a longer time scale"infinite horizon" punditry could become the new trend.)

Brad Plumer 2:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

WHY SO STRESSED....While we're talking about global competitiveness, Richard Florida's new book, The Flight of the Creative Class, is relevant and quite interesting, and I'll try to write more about it later today. But for now, take a peek at some of the book's fun statistics about stress levels in various countries. The numbers are based on this JAMA study, and Florida arguessensibly enoughthat citizens in "stressed out" countries are less able to harness their creativity and put it to good productive uses.

So here's a sampling of countries and the percentage of their citizens suffering from some form of clinically diagnosed (even if it hasn't been treated) mental disorder:

United States: 26.4 percent Ukraine: 20.5 France: 18.4 Colombia: 17.8 Lebanon: 16.9 Belgium: 12.0 Germany: 9.1 Beijing: 9.1

Amazing. The United States is more stressed out than Lebanon. Lebanon! Just thinking about Lebanese politics sort of stresses me out. And Colombia too. Some other surprises: We all know why Germans are so mellow (that lush welfare state, no doubt), and why the French are so neurotic (too much existentialism), but what explains why Beijing has so little stress? One would imagine middle-class China to be very similar to India, where, I'm told, a billion people are competing in a rat race for the 100 million or so good jobs. But the JAMA study doesn't cover India, and my only data points here are a few Indians I know plus that crazy kid from Spellbound. Further irresponsible conjecture is of course welcome.

Brad Plumer 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

SOCIAL SECURITY AND THE "NEW ECONOMY"....Even though I don't know a whole lot about international finance, I still try to check on Brad Setser's blog on a weekly basis, just so that I don't miss out on passages like this one:

[G]iven the Washington Post oped page's spirited championing of free trade, I am surprised that they have not noted that Social Security is designed in such a way that it allows lets the winners from trade to help out those who lose from trade. That should help make trade more politically palatable.

Social Security, unlike many traditional corporate pensions, vests immediately and is fully portable, so "job churn" doesn't reduce retirement benefits. Some people end up with slightly lower lifetime earnings as a result of the dislocations associated with trade, just as others end up with higher life-time earnings.

Suppose you happen to work in a plant that is shut when you are 55 or so. Lots of your human capital probably is tied up in a set of skills specific to that plant, or maybe that industry. And, given your age, you have relatively limited opportunities to earn back the costs of investing in your own "retraining." One of the risks Social Security insures against is the possibility that someone "who works hard and plays by the rules" but happens to end up in the wrong industry at the wrong time will end up with slightly lower than expected lifetime earnings.

Heh, indeed, etc. You could extend this point even further. It goes (er, almost) without saying that today isn't the 1950s. The U.S. no longer has rows and rows of manufacturing firms that lay off workers during downturns and then rehire those exact same workers a few months later. Blame globalization, or the decline in manufacturing, or whatever, but it seems likely that permanent, rather than temporary, layoffs will play an increasingly large role in future economic cycles.

If that's the price to pay for entering the new, shiny, 21st century economy, then okay. But let's not pretend there won't be a large political backlash here. In this month's Washington Monthly (no, I'm not obliged to plug these articles while I'm here, they're just plain interesting) Benjamin Wallace-Wells noted that America's losing its competitive edge around the world, and proposed more government spending on R&D and friendlier immigration policies. What he doesn't do, however, is talk about ways in which to make a globally competitive United States "politically palatable". It should be clear that a world in which workers pay a very high price for losing their jobs is a world in which protectionist and anti-immigration policies find a lot of support, and hence a world in which all the federally-funded R&D in the world won't do much good.

A privatized Social Security system, as Brad Setser says, would plunge us even deeper into that sort of world, since workers would pay a very high price indeed for being unemployedwithout the ability to continue adding to their private accounts, they'd be losing out on the magic of compound interest. (Note too, many workers would be unemployed when the economy, and hence the stock market, was doing poorly, which, ironically, is usually the best time to buy stocks for your private account.) Social Security, on the other hand, insures you against periods of unemployment, since retirement benefits depend only on your highest 35 years of work. I won't pretend to know how much this would actually bother workers, but I assume it's a big deal, and risks strengthening the anti-"New Economy" constituency.

(P.S. I'd also like to know if private accounts would give incentives to workersand, while we're at it, mothersto get back to work more quickly, and whether this would be a good thing [less lounging around] or a bad thing [getting a job you're not well-suited for]. But I'm not an economist, so...)

Brad Plumer 11:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Laura Rozen

Israel-US Policy Shifts....Foreign policy is an outgrowth of domestic policy. In a shift left from the recent past, Israel is now reaching out to liberal Jewish groups for support of Ariel Sharons Gaza disengagement plan opposed by some American evangelical and ultra conservative groups, the Forwards Ori Nir reports.

Israel's ambassador in Washington, Danny Ayalon, is slated to take part in a March 14 forum on Capitol Hill, hosted by Americans for Peace Now, a group that supports Israel's dovish Peace Now movement and regularly criticizes Israeli settlement policies. The group historically has had little contact with representatives of Israel's Likud-led governments.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a leading Likud defender of the disengagement plan, has agreed to deliver in June the keynote address at the annual dinner of the Israel Policy Forum...founded during the 1990s to support the Labor Party's peace moves. Olmert will be the first top Likud leader to deliver the keynote address at the organization's annual dinner.

The scheduled appearances of Ayalon and Olmert are said to be part of an intense campaign recently launched by Israeli diplomats in the United States to rally American and Jewish public support for the disengagement plan and the resumption of Israeli contacts with the Palestinian Authority. The main goal, Israeli diplomats said, is to counteract the efforts of politically conservative Jews and evangelical Christians who oppose Israel's plan to withdraw from Gaza, and dismantle four West Bank settlements, in July.

As Nir further reports, one American group that vehemently opposes Sharons Gaza pull-out plan (as well as US assistance to the Palestinians) is the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), a group that has honored undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith in the past. Other prominent neoconservatives formerly tied with the administration have gone on the record in opposition to the disengagement plan. My point is, some of the significant U.S. opposition to Sharons Gaza pull-out plan is coming not only from far-right Christian evangelical groups, but from individuals and groups very closely associated with the Bush administration foreign policy brain trust. Interesting to see how this all shakes out. The neoconservative motto "peace through strength" faces a test: is it just code for unwavering opposition to the peace process at all costs? or will they ever see an opening?

Laura Rozen 1:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

UN RAPE SCANDALS....While detainee abuse by the U.S. is an important topic, I'd be remiss (and callous) not to link to this story about sexual misconduct by UN peacekeepers in Congo, Burundi, Haiti, Liberia, and elsewhere. It's sickening and yes, I'd happily endorse (for what very little it's worth) whatever oversight measures need to be put in place, or whatever punishments need doling out, to stop this. I don't, however, think the United Nations needs to be abolished or banned from peacekeeping effortsi.e. the "John Bolton approach"because of scandals like these, just like I don't think the Pentagon should be blown up because of widespread detainee abuse.

On that note, the RAND Corporation has a new online report about the success of UN peacekeeping that's very much worth looking through. It argues that UN operations "have almost always been undermanned and under-resourced," but that one of the reasons for its relatively high success rate in peacekeeping missions (e.g. Namibia, Cambodia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, East Timor) is that the institution "has done a better job of learning from its mistakes than the United States." In part, I would guess, that's because the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations is staffed by career technocrats and employs long-serving civil servants, whereas the Pentagon has very rapid turnover among its leadership, soldiers, and Foreign Service officers.

Still, that entrenched UN bureaucracy seems to have fostered poor accountability and transparency in missions like those in Congo or Burundi or Liberia. And the whole "being undermanned" problem has pretty plainly led the UN to rely on local, poorly-trained troopsprecisely the ones doing all the raping and exploiting. So ideally, one would figure out how to combine the best features of U.S. peacekeeping missions with those of the UN (which usually involves, of course, getting the two working together), though from experience this discussion usually tends to degenerate into a multilateralism v. unilateralism mudfest. It shouldn't.

Brad Plumer 1:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 13, 2005
By: Brad Plumer

"A CULTURE OF ABUSE DOESN'T STAY IN THE BOX"....Jeanne of Body and Soul has an extremely powerful essay on the latest round of detainee abuses now coming to light. No comment here; just go read it.

Brad Plumer 7:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

OH, VERY FUNNY....The New York Times today explains the philosophical underpinnings of the recently-passed bankruptcy bill: "Supporters of the bankruptcy bill cite the rise of borrowers who spend money they never intend to repay In these stories, gamblers and greedy consumers are the main players." Funny stuff, and it reminded me of this passage from Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, where Panurge sings the praises of debtors everywhere:

Be still indebted to somebody or other, that there may be somebody always to pray for you, that the giver of all good things may grant unto you a blessed, long, and prosperous life; fearing, if fortune should deal crossly with you, that it might be his chance to come short of being paid by you, he will always speak good of you in every company, ever and anon purchase new creditors unto you...

Debts, I say, surmounting the number of syllables which may result from the combinations of all the consonants, with each of the vowels heretofore projected, reckoned, and calculated by the noble Xenocrates. To judge of the perfection of debtors by the numerosity of their creditors is the readiest way for entering into the mysteries of practical arithmetic.

Except, you know, Rabelais' book was a satire, not a policy prescription.

Brad Plumer 6:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

IS CHECHNYA MORE IMPORTANT THAN PALESTINE?....The spread of democracy in the Middle East, along with "winning Muslim hearts and minds," are clearly big, complicated topics. But one grand truism that keeps popping up again and again is the need to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict before "real progress" can be made. On one level, there's a lot to recommend this view: Arab dictators have dug in their heels so much on Israel as an excuse for avoiding reform, and pulling the issue out from under them would call their bluff in a big way and leave them with nothing to lean againstsort of like letting go of the rope in Tug-o-War. But it's also true that a Palestinian state would hardly cure all that ails the Middle East or causes Islamic terrorism.

Anyway, I'm bringing this up after reading a (typically) excellent post by praktike of Liberals Against Terrorism, which notes that the Chechnya conflict might well be even more instrumental in producing Islamic terrorism than Israel/Palestine, and deserves much greater attention. That's true, though I'd also add that it's high time to start thinking more clearly about Chechnya than has usually been done. (I may be torching a few straw men here, but I don't think so.)

For starters, it's a bit facile to think that "solving" Chechnya is simply a matter of ending the brutal Russian suppression of the region, as the Boston Globe did yesterday. That's part of it, but keep in mind that the 1999 war is essentially over, and though the atrocities of the past were truly horrific, Putin has largely tamped down Russian incursions into Chechnya. Since 2002, according to this Carnegie report, Chechen terror attacks in Nazran and Beslan have in fact killed more people than Russian forces. So this isn't like Lebanon, where self-determination is the only remaining bone of contention. Indeed, I don't know if liberation will solve all of Lebanon's problemsin true pundit fashion, my somewhat shallow understanding of the country has been heavily influenced by reading bloggers like Michael Young or Tony Badran, who generally play down the possibility of sectarian conflict in Lebanon (and perhaps rightly so, I don't know). But liberation certainly won't solve the problems in Chechnya, which is by now pretty undeniably a failed, essentially criminal state. Cast blame at Yeltsin and Putin if you must (I do), but that doesn't fix anything.

At other times the debate around Chechnya surrounds how and when to settle the question of the region's autonomy. In the Los Angeles Times today, Raj Menon argues that "only a political solution can stop the bloodletting." But a political solution alone won't get rid of the scores of Chechen gangsterslike the infamous Kadyrovtsyor the mujahideen pouring into neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan. Even Aslan Mashkadov, the Chechen leader who was recently killed by Russian forces, might have been able to sign a truce with Russia, but he wouldn't have been able to stop the violence.

So a more subtle approach is needed here, aided by the West, that does at least the following: increases development and aid to the region; isolates the extremists from the rest of the Chechens (perhaps by convincing Russia to offer amnesty to a wide swath of Chechen fighters); secures the borders in the North Caucus; and builds functional political institutions in Chechnya. Much of this will involve a mix of firm pressure and cooperation with Putin, though it seems that Bush could find common ground by explicitly putting the Chechen independence issue aside for now and focusing on other concerns. True, this isn't classic Bush-style democracy-promotionwhat is?but a deft touch is essential here, lest the problem continue to spiral out of control.

Brad Plumer 6:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

THE VARIETIES OF DEPENDENCY....One other point on George Will's column. Will suggests that the Democratic defense of Social Security "really is rooted in reluctance to enable people to become less dependent on government." Unlike Will, sadly, I'm not a psychoanalyst, so I can't speak to ulterior motives, or to what liberals "really" believe. But I'd like to know, because I've heard this repeated more often than I can count, how on earth does Social Security foster "dependence" on government?

Like almost everyone else, I pay FICA taxes for Social Security and Medicare part A. For the most part, I don't even think about it, the taxes are withheld automatically. As a 22-year-old, I know that 45 years from now the Social Security Administration will use an automatic formula to calculate my guaranteed benefits and send me a monthly check. I know that if I work hard and my salary goes up over the course of my career, that check will be bigger. And I also know that I should probably save elsewhere if I don't want a big income drop-off at retirement. But day to day, I don't really feel any sort of "dependence" or "neediness" or anything else towards the federal government. If there's anyone who does feel this way, let me know.

To make a rough analogy, although the details and rates of return obviously differ somewhat (and that's a separate debate), my little Social Security routine is similar to when I deposit a chunk of my paycheck in the bank down the street. Money goes in, money is guaranteed to come out later on, and I can rest easy knowing that part of my paycheck is safely stored. But no one, of course, pretends that banks are fostering a culture of dependency. Sure I "depend" on the bank to give me my money back when I need it, but this doesn't make me fat and lazy. Everyone knows the difference between a friend you can rely on and a friend you depend on. The latter can be unhealthy, true, but the former is perfectly essential, and, I think, the right way to look at banks or Social Security or many other things.

Now there's another angle here. If the bank was somehow allowed to "lose" some of my savings at random points in time, this might make me feel less secure about the future and force me to work harder. But banks don't do that, because no one thinks that's cool. In fact, you could say that Social Security is even less secure and less dependency-breeding than a bank, since we can never fully predict whether Congresses of the future will hack up benefits or not. Interestingly, Alberto Alseina, an economist at Harvard, once showed that when people are more nervous about the future of the public pension system, they start saving more. So here's a modest compromise: We'll keep Social Security in its current form, and George Will can keep writing Chicken Little columns about how the system is in a "crisis," so that we keep the public a little nervous and less dependent. Deal?

Brad Plumer 5:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

WHERE SENIORS FEAR TO TREAD....In the Washington Post today, George Will suggests that President Bush will win the Social Security debate as soon as seniors realize they have nothing to fear from privatization. Matt Yglesias skewers this argument nicely. Most 55-year-olds today, after all, probably expect to live at least another 20-25 years, by which time the Bush privatization quasi-plan will have added several trillion dollars in new debt to an already debt-strapped country.

What 55-year-old would look at those numbers, breathe easy, and expect to keep receiving full benefits? (Or, more precisely, expect that they won't see their benefits chewed up by ever-larger taxes in the future to pay for all that debt?) Sure, the president can promise that their checks will keep coming, but he's only going to be around another 4 years, and Congresses of the future won't feel bound to protect anyone if the deficit reaches crisis proportions. As we saw yesterday with Alan Greenspan's 1983 plan to "save" Social Security, the first instinct of most conservatives is to keep income taxes as low as possible, and not to preserve any sort of safety net for retirees. It's no wonder seniors are feeling a bit antsy. (Well, that and some seniors apparently care about the future of their kids and grandkids. How bizarre, huh?)

Brad Plumer 5:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Pay for performance medicine... Roger Lowenstein, who wrote a justly-praised analysis of Social Security reform for the New York Times Magazine a while back, has another penetrating piece of policy journalism in the same publication today. This time Lowenstein's subject is health care--specifically, the increasingly influential ideas of David Cutler, a Harvard health care economist. Cutler believes that previous health care reform efforts, such as Hillary Clinton's (on whose task force he served) failed because they explicitly tried to control costs. The way forward, he argues, is to forget about consciously trying to contain costs (if society wants to spend more on health care, why is that wrong?) and focus instead on improving quality. He would rearrange the incentive structure of the health care market to reward hospitals, HMOs and other medical enterprises for improving the actual health outcomes of patients, rather than just for delivering the service, as is the case now. Such changes, he says, would not only extend people's lives, but would have the effect of containing cost increases. Lowenstein, who in this piece basically channels (and presumably agrees with) Cutler, writes:

America's fee-for-service system does not require doctors to measure. It rewards them for each instance of delivered ''care,'' Cutler notes, but not necessarily for the end result -- for ''health.'' This is especially true for chronic patients, whose well being depends on following a long-term regimen of care. Diabetics, for instance, should receive yearly eye exams, regularly monitor blood sugar and cholesterol and take other steps to avoid problematic (and expensive) complications. ''Doctors say, 'You really should get your eyes examined,''' Cutler notes. ''There is no follow-up. Every doctor you talk to says: 'I know we don't do a good job on that. We don't get paid for it.' My way, we would pay them.''

How would ''paying for performance'' work? In the late 90's, HealthPartners, a not-for-profit health plan in Minneapolis with 630,000 members, instituted a bonus system to providers. It paid doctors extra if their diabetic patients got blood sugar and cholesterol below certain levels, ceased smoking and took aspirin daily. In 1996, 5 percent of patients met all criteria. By 2003, 17 percent did. Similar gains were registered with heart patients. ''These clinics are trying to provide quality care,'' says Dr. George Isham, the plan's medical director. ''What we're doing is putting a measurement on it.'' In 2003, the plan awarded a total of $9 million to doctors on merit. But was it worth it?

At Isham's request, Cutler and a team of colleagues analyzed the economic payoff. They found that the program reaped huge rewards. It cost $330 a patient and was expected to save roughly $30,000 over each patient's life. While the analysis is not precise, Cutler wrote, it ''illustrates a general point that professionals in health care have known intuitively for some time: . . . comprehensive disease-management programs are clearly worth the investment.''

So far, so good. But why, you might ask, are health care firms not already implementing such pay-for-performance systems? Lowenstein provides the answer:

The rub is that the investment was only marginally worth it for HealthPartners. The gains went to the patients, in the form of better health, and to their employers, who were expected to suffer less absenteeism. HealthPartners did recoup some of its investment, as members were hospitalized less frequently. But some of those people would change jobs and change insurers, so the benefits were largely reaped by someone else. Ultimately, as patients retire, they will be reaped by Medicare.

This ''exemplifies some of the problems inherent in our current system,'' Cutler wrote. A program with huge benefits for society (and for patients) offered only a marginal incentive to the health plan to create it. HealthPartners did not have the option of simply raising its rates, because healthy patients would have departed for a cheaper plan. This is why closed-loop systems -- systems in which patients made healthy don't leave -- tend to work best.

The two examples of such "closed-loop systems" that Cutler and Lowenstein point to are Kaiser Permanente, the giant nonprofit HMO, and GE, with its hundreds of thousand of lifetime employees. Curiously, however, they don't mention the biggest and most successful example of such a system: the VA. As Phil Longman reported in the last issue of The Washington Monthly, veterans hospitals, once dangerous and scandal-ridden, have turned around dramatically and are now providing arguably the highest-quality care in America. They've done this by implementing precisely the kind of careful, computerized case-management systems that Culter advocates. And they've been successful at this implementation because they have what Cutler and Lowenstein acknowledge is the key to making the whole quality regime work: patients who remain in the system. Vets tend to stay with the VA for decades, and so the VA reaps the long-term economic rewards of its investment in quality control. That is not the case in private medicine, where patients jump from one system to another as they change jobs. (Slate's Timothy Noah has smart thoughts on Lomgman's piece here.)

Why didn't Lowenstein mention the VA? Perhaps he simply hadn't read Longman's article. But another possible explanation is that the VA's success screws up Cutler's argument. He's an economist and a pragmatist. He thinks government-run health care is a political nonstarter, believes market competition in health care creates valuable incentives for innovation, and advocates a form of vouchers as the best way to achieve universal health care. Count me as someone who shares Cutler's general view of the world. But the fact is that a government agency, the VA, has achieved what no private-sector health care provider so far has. And reforms that make the health care system even more market-driven are likely to lead to patients jumping around even more among health care providers, further undermining what little incentive there is for investments in quality. I wish Lowenstein had dealth with these fly-in-the-ointment facts in his piece. I would honestly like to know how Cutler would respond to them.

Paul Glastris 12:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Laura Rozen

Iran Tea Leaves...Getting much attention this morning is a Times of London report that Israel has drawn up plans for an air and land assault on Irans nuclear facilities. And some specific plans are laid out. But lets pause for a moment to suggest that drawing up plans is not the same thing as agreeing on a policy. The comments by Israeli Knesset Foreign and Defense Affairs committee member Ephraim Sneh in Haaretz would seem to suggest that leaked plans are useful for posturing, but that bombs will not begin falling shortly.

That said, I am also skeptical of reports from late last week that the Bush administration puts much store in a diplomatic solution to Irans nuclear ambitions. The other part of the agreement reached between the US and European allies last week is just as important: the European troika agreed that if Iran rejects economic incentives to curtail its nuclear program, then they will go along with the US in having Iran referred in noncompliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the UN Security Council the same early path charted by the Bush administration on Iraq. And dont forget who the Bush administration has just nominated to represent the US at the UN, John Bolton.

What does it all mean? Of course, Israel, the US, and the Europeans share the desire that Iran could be persuaded through diplomatic means to abandon its nuclear program. It just doesn't seem likely to succeed. What the Bush administration appears to have accepted is that it needs to make a good faith effort at appearing to pursue diplomatic options, before they are deemed unsuccessful.

Laura Rozen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

DEBATING THE FUTURE OF LABOR....Those of us following the big internal debate over the future of organized labor know the basic story: A bunch of "upstart" unions, led by Andrew Stern of the SEIU, want to carry out a bunch of changes, that include withholding some dues from the AFL-CIO, labor's big umbrella organization, so that unions themselves have more money for organizing. Stern also wants, among other things, to merge many of the smaller unions together. Meanwhile, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, along with many of the bigger unionsand that includes the municipal employees' and teachers' unionswant to keep the money with the AFL-CIO so that there's enough cash to wage political warfare in Washington.

Anyway, it's been hard to come by analysis that judges these various proposals on the merits, and as a newly unionized worker myself (no, seriously), I'd like to know who actually has the better vision for the future of labor. To that end, I was pleased to read John Judis' take in the New Republic:

In Las Vegas, Stern dropped his widely unpopular demand for forced mergers; instead, he supported a Teamster proposal to rebate some dues for organizing, while indirectly encouraging mergers. But that proposal was defeated 15 to seven by the Federation's Executive Committee.

It's just as well: Neither rebates nor mergers would solve the Federation's problems. The record among U.S. unionsincluding the SEIU and the AFSCME [municipal workers --B], the AFT [teachers --B] and the National Education Association, and the pre-merger AFL and CIO themselvesis that competition over recruits has actually encouraged organizing. And there is little reason to believe that rebating part of a union's dues would dramatically spur organizingbut it would definitely put the AFL-CIO's legislative and political program in jeopardy.

That's one view. On the other side, offering a somewhat pro-Stern take a few weeks ago, was Nathan Newman:

Instead of emphasizing new worker organizing, unfortunately, the majority proposals emphasize increased spending on politics, not worker organizing.

While there's no doubt federal labor law changes would assist organizing, that's just not going to happen any time soon in the face of GOP filibusters. There is a chicken-and-egg problem for labor: labor's numbers have decreased, so their political power has declined, which means they can't change the law without expanding their membership numbers. Dramatic labor law changes will be the result of an upsurge in new worker organizing, not the cause of it.

And another of my favorite labor-bloggers, Jordan Barab, argued that this whole debate has obscured a potentially even more important issuethe fact that the AFL-CIO is considering cutting its health and safety department, thus weakening a crucial part of its political operation:

Forcing OSHA to issue health and safety standards or to enforce the law is no longer a simple administrative process. To be successful, unions need to organize massive grassroots political action campaigns. It takes coordination from the AFL-CIO and national unions, it involves organizing the victims of health and safety problems on the local and national level and it takes political action in Washington and in the states.

There's no obvious solution here. Yes, it would be great if unions could devote plenty of resources to better organizing and fighting the Bush administration's regulatory rollbacks, but some sort of trade-off seems necessary. Judis, on the other hand, opts for a Third Way approachsimply replace John Sweeney with a "new leader" for the AFL-CIO who can unite and motivate the unionsthough those sorts of answers always sound slightly dubious to me.

Brad Plumer 4:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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March 12, 2005
By: Brad Plumer

HAVE WE ALL BECOME BIG PANSIES?...Apparently fresh out of ideas for a column, David Brooks struggles today with his guilt over drinking decaf, and decides that society is to blame:

And yet we live in the age of the lily-livered, in which fretting over things like excessive caffeination is built into the cultural code.

I blame parents. Kids are raised amid foam corner protectors and schooled amid flame-retardant construction paper. They're drugged with a vast array of pharmaceuticals to keep them from becoming interesting. They go from adult-structured tutorials to highly padded sports practices to career-counselor-approved summer internships.

I blame the titans of corporatism. Fitness is now the prime marker of capitalist machismo, so the higher reaches of corporate America are filled with tightly calved Blackberries in human form, who believe that extremism in pursuit of moderation is no vice. They have become such obsessive time-maximizers that all evening, in what used to be known as social life, they keep an eye on the need to be up, fit and early, for the next day's productivity marathon.

Since we've all heard that blogs don't do enough reporting, I decided to do a little crack investigating on my way to the coffee shopfor, yes, the strong black cheap stuffa few minutes ago. There on the street was a five-year-old puttering around on a bicycle (with no training wheels! Impressive; I didn't learn to do that until I was around 11 or so) somewhat unsupervised and lo, without a helmet. I also spotted one of those miniature cardboard "Slow Children At Play" signs in the driveway, which might support Brooks' thesis, except that it was pretty firmly crushed under the wheel of a parked car. So, you know, even here in San Francisco, where we practically invented lily-livered decadence, the kids are alright.

More to the point, though, what is David Brooks talking about? According to the American Heart Association, 62 percent of Americans don't get enough exercise. More than half of Americans "don't follow their physician's medication and lifestyle guidance." Etcetra etcetra. Meanwhile, only 8 percent of regular coffee drinkers drink decaf. Those "titans of corporatism" could do a much better job of letting everyone else know that we live in the age of health obsessions and time-maximization.

On a side note, though, I did find this interesting Wall Street Journal story on weight discrimination in the corporate boardroom. Brooks is right about one thing: Only 9 percent of executives are overweight. But that phenomenon seems just as much due to weird natural selection pressures on hiring decisions as it is to some bizarre culture of dullness now taking over America.

Brad Plumer 7:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

IRAN SAYS BUGGER OFF....The big foreign policy news of the day is that Iran has rejected an offer of economic incentives from the United States to abandon its nuclear program. So is that it? Were the Iran hawks right and now it's off to war we go?

A while back, I got a bit frustrated with hawks who seemed to be saying, in effect, "well, negotiations won't work so why bother trying." Indeed, I'm a lot less sanguine about the Iran regime than many liberals: I think the Iranian neoconservatives, including the increasingly influential Abadgaran Party, are really in control in Tehran, and that "pragmatists" like Hashemi Rafsanjani aren't all that pragmatic, or at least too politically weak to be pragmatic. But for the love of Khomeini, it's at least worth trying to see if we can't strike a deal. Then, when we know for sure it won't work, we can consider other options.

But even now, it doesn't seem like the U.S. has yet been very serious about offering a workable "grand bargain". Jeffrey Lewis [EDIT: Sorry, Paul Kerr], of ArmsControlWonk, points out that we're basically offering Iran modest economic incentives and some spare parts in exchange for Iran giving up its nuclear fuel cycle, something the country is legally allowed to do under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Not to apologize for the regime, but little wonder they said "no". So it seems like there's still a lot of bad-faith diplomacy on the part of the Bush administration, though it's hard to tell just yet. In an interview I did with him a while back, Kenneth Pollack suggested that any "grand bargain" needs to include security guarantees if we want Iran to completely give up its nuclear aspirations. There may be problems with this approachDan Darling has pointed some of them outbut nothing to make me think it's not worth trying.

On another note, I wonder if discussions with Iran might proceed more smoothly if they started with other, non-nuclear issues, like those al-Qaeda members still lurking around in Iran. Pollack suggested to me that there's a real divide in Tehran over whether to harbor these guys or kick them out, and thus far they've just punted and done nothing. If that's right, then perhaps negotiations can open on this issue, as a trust-building exercise. The U.S., note, once shot down a deal to swap al-Qaeda members in Iran in exchange for an Iranian exile group, the Mojahideen al-Khalq (MKO), ostensible because we thought the MKO might be useful for regime change in Tehran. Unfortunately, as this Jamestown Foundation report points out, the MKO were vastly overrated in this regard, and now the new Iraqi government will probably just hand this exile group over to Tehran anyway. So much for that, then, but possibly there are other avenues still open...

Brad Plumer 6:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Brad Plumer

FOREIGN AID MYTHS....While we're on the topic of foreign aid, Foreign Policy did one of their useful "Think Again" features on the topic a few months back. It seems to be lurking behind a subscriber firewall, so here are a few relevant myth-busters summarized:

  • Aid can do a lot of good. Jesse Helms famously claimed that foreign aid merely "lined the pockets of corrupt dictators, while funding the salaries of a growing, bloated bureaucracy." But, according to FP, "one recent study found that every dollar in growth-oriented aid added $1.64 on average to the incomes of recipient countries." (If anyone knows what study this is, feel free to post in comments and I'll link it.)
  • The key to development is both trade and aid. "Aid without tradeor more accurately, aid without the creation of a robust private sectorcannot stimulate long-term growth and development." At the same time, trade isn't enough. South Koreaone of those famous "export-led industrialization" states that globalization buffs love to toutstill received nearly $100 per person in aid between 1955 and 1972. (South Korea also deftly employed a number of interventionist trade policies during that time, but that's another story entirely)
  • Private investment and other financial flows won't do the trick. Capital flows go mostly to a small number of middle-income countries, not the countries that need aid the most.
  • Aid can do little to overcome poor governance and destructive policies. Though the authors claim that under "certain circumstances," well-targeted aid to these countries can help improve people's lives. What circumstances, I wonder.
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    By: Brad Plumer

    ELIMINATING POVERTY?....Via Matt Yglesias (who has, as usual, great things to say), Dan Drezner is touting the UN Millenium Development, which aims to eradicate world poverty for a mere $150 billion a year. As Dan says, it's a proposal certainly worth discussing, though a few weeks back a colleague of mine at Mother Jones had a few skeptical things to say about the project. So let's get skeptical, if only to figure out what problems need fixing.

    Reading over Jeffrey Sachs' UN report, one thing that strikes me is that he notes upfront: "Importantly, we are not advocating new development processes or policy vehicles." In other words, this isn't anything particularly different from aid policies of the past, and a lot of it does involve funneling money to corrupt governments. As Dan says, the project blacklists truly flagrant offenders like Zimbabwe and North Korea, but that still leaves a wide range of corrupt governments receiving plenty of aid.

    So how is the plan going to enforce good governance in those countries? Ah:

    In low-income countries where the political will genuinely exists to meet the Goals, specific investments and policy reforms are necessary to improve governance in six areas: public administration, strengthening the rule of law, increasing transparency and accountability, promoting political and social rights, promoting sound economic policies, and supporting civil society.

    Worthy, of course, but much easier said than done. In Egypt, for instance, NGOs and other aid organizations have been trying to strengthen civil society for years, but it hasn't panned out all that well well. Most of the Egyptian "service NGOs" that receive foreign aid tend to get co-opted by the regime, and while they can perform a lot of valuable social services, they don't contribute much to governance reform. What's needed here, it seems, is for the U.S. to swagger on over and actually coerce (or "gently nudge") the Egyptian government into undertaking the sort of serious political changesthe legalization of political parties, more competitive elections, a lifting of press restrictionsthat can actually lead to a vibrant civil society. None of this is to disparage the Development Report, but some of these projects may require some proactive muscle-flexing on the part of the United States and, hopefully, Europe.

    Another concern is a rather wonky one: the coordination of aid agencies. Since I'm here, I may as well flag a wonderful old Washington Monthly article by Nancy Birdsall and Brian Deese back that shows how, when every country tries to give out aid in its own way and pursue its own preferred projects, you get inefficiency, waste, and overlap. In Guinea, for example, schools can cost anywhere between $130 and $878 per square meter, depending on which country is in charge. So better coordination would automatically free up $748 per square metera "free lunch" if there ever was one. Now Chapter 13 of the Sachs report addresses these problems directly, which makes me think that, whatever its other flaws, it could easily lead to an instant improvement in global economic development.

    Brad Plumer 5:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Brad Plumer

    FUN WITH ALAN GREENSPAN....Well, no reason not to kick off the guest-blogging act with a long post on... Social Security. And yes, I realize Alan Greenspan-bashing was so last week, but surely it's worth taking another shot, no? The subject today is the 1983 Greenspan Commission to "save" Social Security. As it turns out, things were not quite what they seemed here, and Greenspan comes out looking like more of a hack than we all thought.

    Back in 1983, as the story goes, Social Security was only a hop, skip, and jump away from a crisis, so a commission chaired by Alan Greenspan stepped in to save the day. With Democrats and Republicans working oh-so-nicely together, Greenspan and Congress came up with a package of benefit cuts and tax hikes that not only saved Social Security, but created surplus revenue that was put into the Trust Fund we all know and love today. The Trust Fund, of course, was supposed to sock away enough cash to pay for the coming Baby Boomer retirementand indeed, according to the CBO, thanks to the Trust Fund the program will pay out full benefits until at least 2052.

    Like I said, that's how the story is usually told. And today liberals call Greenspan a hack because he once tried to save Social Security in a sensible and rational fashion, whereas today he's calling for phase-out. The Greenspan flip-flop, many believe, came about because Congress has raided the Trust Fund over the last 20 years to pay for fun things like income tax cuts for high-earners, and now Republicans don't want to have to pay that money back for Social Security starting in 2018.

    But here's a question: What if Greenspan's 1983 proposal was never meant to save Social Security? What if raiding the Trust Fund was his aim all along? These questions are raised ("begged" if I'm following house style) by Ravi Batra in a short passage of his soon-to-be-released book, Greenspan's Fraud. Is there anything to this, or is it just kneejerk sniping? Let's take a look.

    Between 1975-81, Social Security had indeed been running small shortfalls totaling some $18 billion during that time. But in 1982, the general budget, thanks to the Reagan tax cuts, was borrowing a whopping $128 billion. The deficit was ballooning, interest rates were soaring, investors were grumbling, and something had to give. Greenspan, of course, had no intention of reversing the Reagan tax cuts, even if they were the primary reason for the deficits, and so he latched onto Social Security. In the end, his commission essentially raised taxes on low- and middle-earners far and above what was necessary to fix Social Security's immediate shortfall so as to raise money to pay for the general budget deficit.

    Sound conspiracy theory-ish? Well, sure. But notice: One of the unnoticed provisions of the eventual Social Security amendment was that, starting in 1993, the Trust Fund would be separated from the general budgetin essence, making sure that Congress couldn't raid Social Security revenue. But why start only in 1993? Why let Congress pillage the Trust Fund for a full decade before putting it in a lockbox? Why, so Congress had revenue to clean up Reagan's deficit mess, of course!

    Many reporters spotted this at the time. Via Lexis-Nexis comes a 1983 Washington Post article reporting that one White House motive for the Greenspan compromise was "a desire to be able to factor into the forthcoming 1984 budget any reductions in net spending for Social Security and lower the federal deficit." The Financial Times, meanwhile, called the Greenspan compromise a victory not for Social Security, but for [a]dvocates of lower budget deficits." And in a 1988 New York Times op-ed, Sen. Daniel Moynihan, who served on the Greenspan commission, noted that the White House had whipped up "a scare campaign of vicious proportions" over Social Security, even though the real concern was the rising general budget deficits. This wasn't about Social Securityit was entirely about preserving the Reagan tax cuts. The real scandal is that Democrats went along with it.

    Batra notes that only three short months after the Social Security "fix" had been signed into law, Greenspan began stumping for further cuts in benefits, arguing for a price index. But why? Price-indexing is a steep cut. Why on earth would anyone have proposed this at a time when Social Security was running huge surpluses? Unless, of course, Greenspan needed even bigger surpluses to pay for Reagan's mounting general budget deficit.

    There's a lot more to this story, and I'll get to it later if people are interested. But the conventional viewthat Greenspan was once an honorable man who only recently turned into a hackis all wrong. He's always been a hack. And sensible compromises to "save" Social Security aren't always what they seem.

    Brad Plumer 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    ETHICS PROBLEMS....I really am leaving for the airport in a few minutes, but check out this LA Times report on the latest shenanigans in the House Ethics Committee. Hot on the heels of the Tom DeLay fiasco, Republicans not only sacked the chairman of the ethics committee but also rewrote its rules to make future investigations much more difficult. Democrats are protesting by halting business, which is apparently like punishing a child by taking away his brussels sprouts:

    Republicans criticized the decision as a publicity stunt, and indicated that they were in no hurry to get the committee functioning.

    "The Democrats have chosen to shut down the ethics committee," said Ron Bonjean, press secretary for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "The only way to get around this impasse is for the Democrats to put the ethics process above partisan politics."

    The shamelessness of House Republicans is truly breathtaking. If they don't watch out, it could be their Waterloo.

    Kevin Drum 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    VACATION NOTE....I'm off for a long weekend visiting friends in Northern California. The border authorities have granted me a 96-hour visa, with my wife and cats left behind as security against my return.

    But the blog won't be going dark. Filling in for me are a couple of my favorite bloggers: Laura Rozen of War and Piece and Brad Plumer of the aptly named Bradford Plumer. Laura is flying back from China as I write this, so perhaps she'll share some tales of Guangzhou and Wuhan in addition to blogging on all the usual stuff.

    I'll be back on Wednesday. In the meantime, you're in good hands.

    Kevin Drum 1:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    March 11, 2005
    By: Kevin Drum

    MORE BLOG RESEARCH....Gallup did a poll recently that concluded that blogs are "not yet in the media big leagues." That's probably true, and in fact blog triumphalism is sort of a pet peeve of mine. Still, I think Gallup missed the real story. Here are the numbers:

    Fewer than one in six Americans (15%) read blogs regularly (at least a few times a month). Just 12% of Americans read blogs dealing specifically with politics this often.

    12%? Out of 200 million adults that's 24 million people. That's a helluva lot for a medium that really got its start only three years ago.

    But if you read on the news is even better. Here's the age breakdown:

    % Who
    Use Internet

    % of Internet Users
    Who Read Blogs

    Total %
    Who Read Blogs

    Age 18-29




    Age 30-49




    Age 50-64




    Age 65+




    It turns out the total numbers were dragged way down by the number of senior citizens who don't read blogs hardly a surprising result. But among people ages 18-64, over a quarter read blogs. Among twenty-somethings, the number is 40%.

    Now, only about half of these people read blogs daily or weekly, but still. If 30 or 40 million Americans read blogs even occasionally, that seems like an awful lot of people to me. How long was MTV on the air before it had that many occasional viewers?

    Additional factoid: 24% of liberals say they read blogs at least monthly, compared with 15% of conservatives and 12% of moderates. I'm not quite sure what that means, but it's not what I would have expected.

    Kevin Drum 6:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    SAY IT, BROTHER....Via the Carpetbagger, here's the quote of the day:

    The message coming out of the White House is that we'll fix Social Security by raising your taxes and cutting your retirement benefits and, to get something passed, we'll forget about the personal retirement accounts we promised. [That's like telling voters] 'Never vote for Republicans again we lie.'"

    The source? A "senior Republican senator."

    Kevin Drum 3:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    HE SAID, SHE SAID....Dan Froomkin reports today that there will finally be someone at the White House who can act as a counterweight to Karl Rove. Unfortunately, that person is Karen Hughes. Here's the "balance":

    While Hughes is utterly devoted to Bush, Rove is utterly devoted to building a lasting Republican majority.

    10-4, good buddy. Guess I'll break out a tall boy for this celebration.

    I actually have personal data to demonstrate how dangerous Karen Hughes is. My wife is temperamentally more conservative than me, but despite that she dislikes George Bush even more than I do. She just can't stand to watch the guy. It's visceral, not political.

    But Marian likes Karen Hughes. "Oh, she's good," she'll say when Hughes is spinning someone after a debate, and that's not just technical admiration for a job well done. Hughes genuinely appeals to her.

    And that's dangerous. If Hughes can make even a stone Bush hater like Marian melt, imagine what she can do to someone who just modestly dislikes him. Besides, I don't think Rove knows when to quit. Eventually he would have screwed himself and his boss pretty badly, and Hughes might stop him from doing that. Pity.

    Kevin Drum 2:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    PREQUELS AND SEQUELS AND REMAKES, OH MY!....This is shaping up to be a scary summer at the movies. I am, however, using "scary" in a very particular sense.

    To begin with, there's Star Wars Episode 3. Will it suck? The first two episodes did, so it seems likely this one will too. This is a scary prospect for Star Wars lovers like me.

    Then there's Batman Begins. Same deal: I love Batman, but the movie franchise has gone downhill ever farther and faster than Star Wars. I can hardly bear to watch.

    But the scariest movie of the summer is surely The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In this case, we have a beloved classic that hasn't deteriorated over the years, so there's every reason to hope the movie will be great. Needless to say, though, that merely sets us up for even greater disappointment if it turns out to be a great, plodding, overdone mashup of a movie. Do I dare go see it?

    POSTSCRIPT: In other news of cult classics, Harry Brighouse informs us that the BBC is resurrecting Dr. Who. I'm not a Dr. Who fan, so this doesn't affect my blood pressure one way or the other, but I thought I'd point it out anyway since it fits the general theme of this post.

    Kevin Drum 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    GHOST DETAINEES....Via TalkLeft, the Washington Post reports that it has obtained documents showing that the CIA and the military were actively involved in hiding "ghost detainees" at Abu Ghraib:

    Army Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, who was second in command of the intelligence gathering effort at Abu Ghraib while the abuse was occurring, told military investigators that "other government agencies" and a secretive elite task force "routinely brought in detainees for a short period of time" and that the detainees were held without an internment number, and their names were kept off the books.

    ....An Army major at the prison "suggested an idea of processing them under an assumed name and fingerprinting them," but Col. Thomas M. Pappas, the top military intelligence officer there, "decided against it."

    These guys didn't just "fall through the cracks." Hiding them was deliberate policy.

    Kevin Drum 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    DIVERSIFICATION....You probably think "diversity" is just a modern code word for racial and sexual integration. But how about "diversification"? This is a new code word, and it's one that sends currency traders into a tizzy. Dan Drezner explains.

    Kevin Drum 12:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    IDENTITY THEFT....It's been a bad month for people who worry about identify theft which ought to be all of us. A quick rundown:

    • ChoicePoint was the big news, of course. 145,000 records were stolen, the public was informed only because California has a law requiring it, and even at that it turns out that ChoicePoint is not even trying to identify records stolen before July 1, 2003, the date the California law took effect. As Bruce Schneier puts it, "ChoicePoint has decided to tape a huge 'Please Regulate My Industry' sign to its back."

    • Bank of America announced that 1.2 million records had been stolen, including the records of, um, some United States congressmen. Suddenly the United States Congress sat up and took notice.

    • LexisNexis announced that 30,000 records had been stolen by identity thieves.

    • On Thursday, shoe retailer DSW announced that "hundreds of thousands" of credit card records had been stolen.

    Congress is "concerned," of course, and Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) says he plans to introduce legislation to improve the security of consumers' financial data.

    Which is fine, although I'd be happier if the legislation were written by someone not associated with the financial industry. After all, we've already gotten a pretty good look at what happens to too many Democrats when the credit card industry starts tossing out a bit of walking around money. And the Republicans well, they do everything but get down on their hind legs and start barking.

    What we really need is a revolution. I propose two basic approaches:

    • Stricter regulation of personal information, along the lines of Corzine's legislation but tougher. This would apply to companies that limit their databases to information about their own transactions with their own customers.

    • Individuals should be invested with property rights in any commercial collection of personal data about themselves that's assembled from multiple sources. In a modern society, any such collection really is "your" identity. You should have the right to control it.

      As co-owners of the data, consumers would have the absolute right to be informed that a file on them exists; to review their files free of charge; to contest any information in their files; to be notified whenever their data is requested; to compensation if their data is sold to another broker; and to approve the release of their data.

    Needless to say, this would drive up the cost of data brokering considerably. Too bad. It's time for everyone to understand that our identities are as much our property as our cars and our houses, and losing them is considerably more harmful. Talk to anyone who's suffered from identity theft and ask them: would you rather go through that again or would you rather have your car stolen? I bet the car would win hands down.

    This is also a case where there ought to an opportunity for bipartisan unity. Conservatives and libertarians are strong believers in property rights, so this is an idea they should warm up to. Liberals are strong believers in privacy rights, so they should be pretty open to this idea as well. Now all we have to do is fight the flood of money that would be opposed. Should be a piece of cake.

    Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    THE YEAR IN REVIEW....I've been in a rotten mood lately, a feeling that I blame on the 109th Congress. Here's a summary of their first few weeks of activity:

    • Passed: A tort reform bill that makes it harder for ordinary citizens to sue corporations who harm them.

    • Coming soon: A bankruptcy bill that will make it harder for distressed workers to declare bankruptcy and will increase credit card company profits by an estimated $1 billion.

    • Coming soon: A transportation bill that adds two unpaid hours onto the work days of short-haul and long-haul truckers.

    • In progress: Changes to Social Security that will almost certainly include benefit cuts for current workers.

    • In progress: Making permanent a set of tax cuts that primarily helps the upper class.

    And it's only the middle of March. Can anyone name even one thing the Bush administration has done this year or is proposing to do that would benefit ordinary workers? Do they even pretend to care any more?

    UPDATE: I'm informed that the "unpaid hours" amendment to the transportation bill failed to pass in the House and probably won't in the Senate either. I feel better already!

    Kevin Drum 1:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    March 10, 2005
    By: Kevin Drum

    WE ARE ALL JUST ATOMS IN A GAS....My thermodynamics professor at Caltech who has gone on to bigger and better things since awarding me a C+ in his class 28 years ago once regaled us with the following example of nerd humor:

    The fundamental unit of study in electrodynamics is the photON, and the fundamental unit of study in atomic physics is the electrON. So I guess that means the fundamental unit of study in the social sciences is the persON.

    That's some big yucks there, folks. I bring this up because, against all odds, it turns out that Prof. Goodstein may have been more insightful than he imagined. Apparently a breed of researchers who call themselves "econophysicists" have been studying income inequality and have come to the following conclusion:

    They found that while the income distribution among the super-wealthy about 3 per cent of the population does follow Pareto's law, incomes for the remaining 97 per cent fitted a different curve one that also describes the spread of energies of atoms in a gas.

    ....While economists' models traditionally regard humans as rational beings who always make intelligent decisions, econophysicists argue that in large systems the behaviour of each individual is influenced by so many factors that the net result is random, so it makes sense to treat people like atoms in a gas.

    Indeed, treating 97% of the population like atoms in a gas bears a disturbing resemblance to orthodox Republican economics, doesn't it? (Admit it. You were waiting for the political spin on this, weren't you?) In fact, as macroeconomist Makoto Nirei puts it, the gas model "seems to me not like an economic exchange process, but more like a burglar process. People randomly meet and one just beats up the other and takes their money."

    Nirei seems to think this is a defect of the model, but I'm not so sure. After watching the bankruptcy bill wend its way through Congress, I suspect this might actually be the reason the model seems to describe reality so well.


    Kevin Drum 10:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    BEGGING THE QUESTION....Whenever I use the phrase "begging the question" on this blog I always get at least a couple of commenters taking me to task for misusing it. I've always meant to reply to their complaints but have somehow never gotten around to it, which turns out to be lucky because John Holbo does it for me today and is then soundly thrashed in comments for his efforts. As a pretty thoroughgoing descriptivist, though, I agree with him: common usage on this one has long since changed. It's time to give up the fight.

    Kevin Drum 3:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    HARNESSING THE FREE MARKET....Ben Wallace-Wells writes in the current issue of the Monthly that today's free market fundamentalists are coasting on the success of a previous generation's government interventionism:

    The land grant college system, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, provided the nation's farmers with expert guidance on the latest agricultural techniques to improve their crop yields. No entrepreneur could figure out how to mass produce cars profitably, writes Harold Evans in his excellent new book They Made America, until Henry Ford fought an aggressive bid against restrictive patents. The pharmaceutical, financial, and airline industries blossomed thanks to the creation of the FDA, SEC, and FAA, which gave customers some assurance of safety when they popped pills, traded stocks, or boarded flights.

    ....These investments and regulatory changes aren't merely tools of the past; it is impossible to imagine the '90s boom emerging without them. Early investment from the Pentagon helped nurture the Internet. The algorithm that powered Google was developed when co-founder Larry Page, then a Stanford graduate student, won a federal grant to write a more efficient sorting and search engine for libraries. The innovative new medicines that have driven the expansion of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries arose from university research largely financed by the National Institutes of Health.

    Ben argues that we have increasingly abdicated this traditional government role and are starting to pay the price:

    For decades, the United States ranked first in the world in the percentage of its GDP devoted to scientific research; now, we've dropped behind Japan, Korea, Israel, Sweden, and Finland. The number of scientific papers published by Americans peaked in 1992 and has fallen 10 percent; a decade ago, the United States led the world in scientific publications, but now it trails Europe.

    His recommendations? A stronger government role in a few specific areas such as broadband, wireless, alternative energy, and healthcare IT, combined with a bipartisan commitment to policies that broadly encourage innovation.

    Instead, of course, we've gotten an initiative to go to Mars. So I'd add to Ben's recommendations one more: the first step is to elect people to office who believe that government has a serious role in the economy in the first place. We liberals need to work on that.

    UPDATE: By coincidence, just after I wrote this CNN posted two related pieces. This one reports that the United States has dropped from first to fifth in "making the best use of information and communications technologies," and this one reports on high tech CEOs' concerns about our lagging broadband capability.

    Kevin Drum 12:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    YET ANOTHER BILL....The Bush administration and congressional Republicans have finally agreed on a new highway bill. As usual, though, it contains a few little surprises. For example:

    A planned amendment to the six-year highway and transit bill to be considered by the House of Representatives on Wednesday would permit companies to schedule their drivers over a 16-hour period each day, adding two unpaid hours to the 14 hours now paid. Maximum driving time would remain at 11 hours.

    Sweet. Two additional unpaid hours each day. The folks at Wal-Mart must be ecstatic.

    The Republican leadership also wants to start putting toll booths on interstate highways:

    In a sign of the growing political support for tolls, the House on Wednesday rejected a measure that would have limited tolls to newly constructed lanes and required the charges be lifted once the new lanes were paid for. State highway officials were among those opposing any effort to weaken the bill's toll provisions.

    ....The federal gasoline tax, the major source of funding for highways, has not been raised in more than a decade, and Bush opposes any increase.

    Congestion pricing tolls in urban areas is an interesting experiment, and I wouldn't mind a few pilot projects along these lines although the technology is probably still too immature to make this work in most American cities. But aside from that I just don't understand the appeal of tolls. I'd much rather pay a higher gasoline tax at the pump than be forced to stop at tollbooths every few miles. Sure, tolls are a little more precisely targeted at people who use the roads more, but not by much. Is it really worth the hassle? It sure doesn't seem like it to me.

    Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Amy Sullivan

    WHITHER THE RELIGIOUS LEFT?....The question may not interest or disturb many people, but it should. We've already discussed the perfect storm that led to the nearly-inevitable rise of the Religious Right. But I'd argue that religious conservatives would never have become as powerful as they now are if their rise had been checked by anything close to a functioning Religious Left. At the exact same time--and with nearly the same speed--that the Religious Right was coming to power, the Religious Left was fading from view and from relevance. For more details on how this happened, check out Salon today.

    The grand result of all this is a public square in which religion is defined and monopolized by the right. Religious liberals are stuck in the position of convincing people they're relevant before they can weigh in with any force on political debates. And people out in the grassroots who are ticked off when "moral issues" get portrayed as only conservative, who want to stand up and be counted as religious liberals, have few outlets through which to be heard.

    What's that, you say? Doesn't Jim Wallis have a bestselling book and an organization to do just that? Hmmm...kind of. I have the greatest respect for Wallis and his efforts (it was after reading one of Wallis' early books, The Soul of Politics, that I decided to go to divinity school). His work to remind people that people of faith care about things like poverty, too, is invaluable. But it's not enough, and this is why the entire movement needs some reworking.

    Wallis' central message calls out both the political right and the left, and they both do deserve criticism. But it's easy to infer from Wallis' critique that the failings of both sides are morally equivalent, which he would probably admit in private is not the case. In its well-intentioned effort to be exquisitively sensitive about politically involvement, the Religious Left has misunderstood what it means to be nonpartisan. Avoiding entanglement with a particular political party does not require a movement to be neutral.

    On Tuesday, I attended a press conference held by five denominational leaders to oppose the President's budget, which was a great first step...but the religious leaders refused to direct any fire at Bush, dodging questions about whether the budget failed to reflect "compassionate conservative" principles, and insisting that they were there to critique a document, not cast judgment on the administration. I could go on, but I'll direct you instead to my review of Wallis' book in this month's issue of the Monthly.

    I'll return to this subject again. If the left has any chance of countering the Religious Right, it will be when religious liberals make some noise and demand to be part of the debate. But they won't be able to do that unless someone mobilizes them. And so far, the leading organizations have shown only middling interest and/or ability to do just that.

    UPDATE: By the way, one of the reasons religious progressives have a hard time being heard is that they can't get through the media filters that equate "religious" with "conservative." You may notice that one of the blog ads we're currently running on this site is from the United Church of Christ. Take a look at the televised spot it links to and tell me if there was really any reason for both NBC and CBS to refuse to run it.

    Amy Sullivan 8:14 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    TOM DELAY WATCH....Yet another ethics investigation against Tom DeLay? He sure takes an awful lot of trips from people he doesn't realize are lobbyists, doesn't he?

    Kevin Drum 1:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    HEZBOLLAH TURNAROUND....Is this hypocritical opportunism or mature flexibility? Hard to say:

    After years of campaigning against Hezbollah, the radical Shiite Muslim party in Lebanon, as a terrorist pariah, the Bush administration is grudgingly going along with efforts by France and the United Nations to steer the party into the Lebanese political mainstream, administration officials say.

    ...."The main players are making Hezbollah a lower priority," said a diplomat who is closely tracking the negotiations. "There is a realization by France and the United States that if you tackle Hezbollah now, you array the Shiites against you. With elections coming in Lebanon, you don't want the entire Shiite community against you."

    ...."Hezbollah has American blood on its hands," an administration official said, referring to such events as the truck bombing that killed more than 200 American marines in Beirut in 1983. "They are in the same category as Al Qaeda. The administration has an absolute aversion to admitting that Hezbollah has a role to play in Lebanon, but that is the path we're going down."

    Hezbollah is hardly a bunch of angels, but "in the same category as Al Qaeda" is ridiculous hyperbole and self-defeating as well. After all, would the Bush administration suggest that "Al Qaeda has a role to play in Iraq"?

    Overall, this sounds like good news. Like it or not, nothing is going to happen in Lebanon unless Hezbollah is part of it. Better to have them in the tent pissing out than the other way around.

    Kevin Drum 1:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    BOWDLERIZED JEOPARDY....On Jeopardy tonight, one of the categories was "Online Abbreviations." The $1000 clue was "RTM."

    Hmmm. I guess the real acronym didn't make it past the censors.....

    Kevin Drum 12:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    BLOGS AND BLOGGERS....I know that not everyone is interested in blog navel gazing, but this study by Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance about blog behavior is pretty interesting and it has a cool blogo-diagram too. Let's look at the diagram first.

    The authors collected a sample of 40 political blogs, 20 from the right and 20 from the left, and then plotted the links between them over a period of time. The top diagram shows all connections, the middle diagram includes only connections that have at least five reciprocal links, and the bottom diagram includes only connections that have at least 25 reciprocal links. I'm represented by blue circle #16, for example, and if you think that I link frequently to Matt Yglesias, Josh Marshall, Tapped, and Brad DeLong well, now you've got geometrical proof of it.

    There are a few interesting observations here:

    • The conservative blogosphere has a generally denser web of relationships than the liberal blogosphere. More on this later.

    • However, it also includes the least connected major blogs. In the bottom diagram, the only large blogs without a single connection are both on the right: Andrew Sullivan and RealClear Politics.

    • Generally speaking, there aren't very many ongoing relationships between right and left. You only need five links to get a connection in the middle diagram, but even so there are only three connections between right and left: Sullivan-Marshall, Sullivan-Kos, and Volokh-Crooked Timber.

    The primary finding of the study (or at least the finding I think is the most interesting) is that conservative blogs have a stronger sense of community than liberal blogs a quality that I often wish liberals could emulate. Here's what Adamic and Glance found:

    • Conservatives link to other conservative blogs at a much higher rate than liberals link to other liberals: .20 links per post compared to .12 links per post.

    • Conservative bloggers have a more "uniform voice" than liberal bloggers, as measured by what they link to. If you count only links to blogs, not media reports, the difference in uniformity is even greater. (However, on another measure, the "echo chamber" quality of liberal and conservative blogs is about the same.)

    • Liberal bloggers tend to link to a fairly small subset of other liberals. Conservatives spread the link love around.

    The study also found (unsurprisingly) that blogs are primarily a medium based on criticism, not support:

    Notice the overall pattern: Democrats are the ones more often cited by right-leaning bloggers, while Republicans are more often mentioned by left-leaning bloggers....These statistics indicate that our A-list political bloggers, like mainstream journalists (and like most of us) support their positions by criticizing those of the political figures they dislike.

    Donald Rumsfeld, for example, is cited almost exclusively by liberal bloggers, while Michael Moore is ignored by the left but widely cited by the right.

    Food for thought. Munch away in comments.

    Kevin Drum 12:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    March 9, 2005
    By: Kevin Drum

    THE YELLOW WOES OF TEXAS....If you want to understand the kind of vision the modern Republican party has for America, the place to go is Texas, home of George Bush, Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, and the true believers who wrote their state's party platform. It is there that you see modern Republicanism in its nakedest form, unfettered by the annoying need for pretense or "compassion" that's still required to win on the national stage.

    So what's up in Texas right now? Answer: tax cuts, of course. But tax cuts for who? Charles Kuffner rounds up the headlines about the latest tax bill from the Texas Lege:

    Chron: Tax bill called best for richest
    Express-News: Tax bill has silver lining for richest
    Statesman: Study finds poor Texans would bear brunt of tax changes
    Star-Telegram: Study: House bill would raise most Texans' taxes
    Morning News: Analysis: Tax bill would benefit richest

    Is it just me, or is anyone else detecting a theme here?

    Nope, I think we all get it. And lest you think this is just more liberal whining, here are the raw numbers from the Legislative Budget Board's analysis:

    Texas families earning less than $100,000 a year would pay about $1.1 billion more a year in state taxes, while higher-income residents would see a tax cut of $437 million under a House bill designed to cut school property taxes, a report said Tuesday.

    ....Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, author of the tax bill, said he believes the tax impact analysis is accurate. "Facts are facts. I don't dispute the LBB numbers," Keffer said.

    It's breathtaking, isn't it? This isn't merely a matter of everyone getting a tax cut but the rich getting a bigger one, this is literally a tax bill that openly cuts taxes on the rich and raises them on both the poor and the middle class in a state with a tax system that's already one of the lightest and least progressive in the country.

    But the Republican sponsor of the bill is OK with that as long as taxes on corporations and the wealthy go down. This is "compassionate conservatism" without the mask. And it's the future of the Republican party.

    Kevin Drum 6:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Amy Sullivan

    THOU SHALT NOT END LATE FEES....Others can tackle the substance of the bankruptcy bill. I'm here to find the religious angle in every conceivable policy story. According to Chuck Grassley's hometown paper, the Des Moines Register, a national group of Christian lawyers is broadcasting its opposition to the bill on religious grounds: "As Christian attorneys, we strongly believe that it was never God's intention to create a society where indebtedness was a crime or a badge of dishonor."

    Grassley, however, is having none of it. "I can't listen to Christian lawyers because I would be imposing the Bible on a diverse population," Grassley told the paper. Ah, yes, there would be that vaunted Republican support for the separation of church and state. Anyone want to volunteer examples of cases in which Grassley was more than happy to listen to Christian groups lobbying him for something or other?

    Now, the Christian lawyers are consumer bankruptcy lawyers, which means that they have a substantial stake in seeing the bill stopped. But this is an argument that often comes up whenever people of faith get involved in politics and it's time to clear things up. If someone makes an argument for why you should do something, and then you do it, it does not then follow that your action was based on their argument. Plenty of religious progressives used biblical arguments for abolition, but that does not mean that the politicians who supported abolition imposed religious beliefs on the rest of the country.

    By the way, on an totally different late fee subject, I was pleased to see that Blockbuster is being taken to court over its phony "End of Late Fees" policy change. (Yes, I'm a month late on this...I've been waiting for a way to worm it into a post.) The first time we saw the commercial and heard "Need extra time? Keep it another day or two...", we knew something was up. An extra day or two is not the end of late fees. The company is arguing that they have technically done away with late fees because now if you keep the rental too long, you're not charged a late fee, you're charged the entire cost of the item. Nice.

    Amy Sullivan 3:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    REPUBLICAN LEADERS ARE BAD....NEWS AT AT 11....Like Jeff and Matt, I plead lack of time for not having read through this 147-page report on Republican abuse of congressional rules yet. My excuse is that this is the kind of thing I often do on weekends instead of during the week though I'll be out of town this weekend, which makes this a feebler excuse than usual.

    Anyway, Matt excerpts a nice chart from the report, so go take a look at it. Maybe you can't read a 147-page report, but you can look at a chart, can't you?

    More later. Maybe.

    Kevin Drum 2:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    THE ETYMOLOGY OF SOCIAL SECURITY....Here's a question for the press corps: In Social Security articles, many of you have now adopted the shiny new phrase "personal accounts" to replace the moldy old phrase "private accounts." You've done this despite the fact that conservatives have been quite open about why they're promoting this change: "private accounts" didn't poll well, so they switched to talking about personal accounts.

    But recently they've started promoting a new switcheroo, and we language mavens get to watch it happen in real time. Here it is: in the past, "carve-out" referred to a private account that was funded by taking money out of current Social Security taxes. "Add-on" referred to an account that was over and above current Social Security and that left existing taxes and benefits alone.

    As it happens, Democrats have a long history of saying that although they dislike George Bush's Social Security privatization plans, they'd welcome the idea of add-on accounts, which are sort of like IRAs or 401(k)s. To take advantage of this, the White House has now started referring to their plan as an add-on. "See, personal accounts is an add-on to that which the government is going to pay you," said President Bush recently. Dan Froomkin traces the first few days of this new language offensive here.

    Now, it's pretty obvious what's going on here. Democrats have spent a fair amount of rhetorical capital saying nice things about "add-on accounts," and the White House figures they can take advantage of that by pretending that that's exactly what their plan is. This is probably pretty effective with ordinary audiences who are unaware of the nuances of the Social Security debate.

    Reporters know better, of course, because they've been following this debate for months and know that this new phraseology popped up out of nowhere just in the past few days. And so my question is this: who will be the first reporter to either (a) adopt the White House's usage or (b) accept the argument that neither of the previously neutral phrases "add-on" and "carve-out" can be used at all because that would be taking sides?

    A free lollipop to the first reader who catches anyone in the mainstream press doing either of these things.

    Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    GOLFING AT ST. ANDREWS....Expensive European golf junkets for Republican congressmen? Say it ain't so! The LA Times has the latest in the convoluted story of Tom DeLay and his cronies in Congress who received expensive golf trips from infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff (illegal) but submitted reports saying the trips were paid for by a think tank (legal).

    The folks involved say they are shocked shocked! to learn that the golfing money actually came from Abramoff. It's a sad world we live in when innocent congressmen can be fleeced so badly by the corporate lobbyists they've come to trust, isn't it?

    UPDATE: And the New York Times has this:

    Documents subpoenaed from an indicted fund-raiser for Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, suggest that Mr. DeLay was more actively involved than previously known in gathering corporate donations for a political committee that is the focus of a grand-jury investigation in Texas, his home state.

    The documents, which were entered into evidence last week in a related civil trial in Austin, the state capital, suggest that Mr. DeLay personally forwarded at least one large corporate check to the committee, Texans for a Republican Majority....

    Funneling corporate contributions to political campaigns is a no-no in Texas, of course, but DeLay says it's just a political witch hunt and he was busy in Washington on the people's business while all this monkey business was going on. I report, you decide.

    Kevin Drum 12:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    BANKRUPTCY WEIRDNESS....The more I read about the bankruptcy bill the more perplexed I get. Liberals don't like it. Moderate liberals don't like it (Bill "DLC" Clinton vetoed it the last time it cropped up). Conservatives aren't really very excited about it. And it's sponsored by the credit card industry, which is roughly the 21st century equivalent of being sponsored by the German Bund.

    So how is it getting such wide support? Sure, Republicans are rewarding their corporate paymasters as usual, and I know their discipline is pretty tight, but 100% support? And support from a dozen Democratic senators as well? Plus both the Blue Dog Coalition and New Democratic Coalition in the House?

    I'm missing something here. Not only is this bill pretty crappy on a policy level, but it doesn't seem like much of a winner on a political level either. Does the credit card industry really contribute such vast sums of money that even many Democrats feel like they have to vote for this thing? What other reason is there?

    There's something weird going on here that I don't quite get. Tort reform and Social Security privatization I understand, but not this. What is it that makes bankruptcy reform worth fighting for for eight years? And why would any Democrat vote for it?

    POSTSCRIPT: And as long as I'm at it, can anyone point me to the arguments in favor of this bill? Aside from being a straightforward payoff to the credit card industry, it's supposedly designed to curb abuse of the bankruptcy process. But is there any actual evidence of widespread and growing abuse? As near as I can tell, the backers of this bill haven't even bothered to gin up the usual phony studies. Or have I missed them?

    Kevin Drum 1:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    March 8, 2005
    By: Kevin Drum

    24 BLOGGING....Jim Henley reminds me that I forgot to follow up on my 24 post from a couple of weeks ago. To recap: I suggested that 24's weirdly casual use of torture this season was actually a cleverly disguised anti-torture message. Why? Because the torture never works!

    As it happens, this was a testable hypothesis because the previews of the upcoming show included natch more torture. So how did it turn out?

    Answer: After Jack finished up a session of home brew torture directed at his girlfriend's almost-but-not-quite ex-husband (don't ask), it turned out that GABNQXH wasn't a bad guy after all. He was telling the truth all along, and after the girlfriend got Jack to ease up GABNQXH cheerfully (under the circumstances, anyway) opened up his laptop and found the information Jack wanted. What's more, this week GABNQXH was a positive sink of help, magically knowing how to open up a secure database before the bad guys neutralized it with a pulse bomb that took out half of LA in the process.

    So how does my theory hold up? I'm not sure. Technically, I think I'm vindicated: GABNQXH wasn't a bad guy and couldn't provide any more information than the minimal (and legitimate) records he had on his computer. But given the way the show progressed, viewers might very well come away with the impression that Jack only got GABNQXH's records because of the torture. So I'm not sure how to call this one.

    As for who killed Driscoll's daughter, beats me. This isn't a show where they drop clues, so it could be anyone. But I will say this: I sure hope they give Edgar the Hero of the IT Industry Award First Class at the end of the season. Revenge of the nerds indeed!

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, I know many people don't watch 24. If you're one of them, there's no need to leave comments trumpeting the fact, OK? Let the rest of us have our fun.

    Kevin Drum 6:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    BANKRUPTCY AND SOCIAL SECURITY IN ONE POST!....Musing about the Republican party's eagerly anticipated bankruptcy bill, Max asks:

    In a different vein, a good question is whether the private accounts and annuities under Bush's excellent Social Security privatization plan would be vulnerable to attachment by creditors, thereby opening up a new source of equity to the credit card industry, after they have sucked out all your blood.

    Funny he should ask. Just a couple of months ago a case was argued before the Supreme Court on the question of whether creditors could seize money in IRA accounts. Associated Press reports:

    Bankruptcy law already protects pensions, 401(k)s, Social Security and other benefits tied to age, illness or disability. Most justices appeared reluctant to allow the seizure of all the money in IRAs, a nest egg used by millions of people, though Justice Sandra Day O'Connor offered that some accounts might be taken to repay debts.

    So IRAs are still up in the air, but private accounts tied directly to retirement would presumably be safe. Until the credit card industry manages to ship Grand Theft Bankruptcy v2.0, anyway.

    Kevin Drum 6:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    WRITING ADVICE FROM BERKELEY....Brad DeLong lists the two most common writing mistakes from his students:

    1. Nobody ever told them--or they have forgotten, or they are too stressed for time--to revise. They are handing in first drafts.

    2. Nobody ever told them that if you are going to hand in a first draft, an easy way to significantly improve it is to, when you are finished, cut the last paragraph from the paper and paste it at the beginning. Your final sum-up paragraph--written at the end, as you have by trying to write down what you think discovered what you really do think--is almost always going to make a better first paragraph than the first paragraph that you wrote.

    #1 is so obvious that I can't figure out what's up with people sometimes. Note to bloggers: yes, you're allowed to proofread your posts, check your links, noodle over a phrase, and think twice about what you're saying before you press the "Publish" button. Honest.

    (People ask me sometimes what the secret to good writing is. I don't know. Lots of practice, for one. But I can tell you this: a lot of writing that sounds effortless and fluid is anything but. It's the result of rewriting, deleting, rephrasing, obsessive flipping through a thesaurus, googling to check up on data, and just generally reading and rereading what you've written. A blog post isn't a term paper, but you still need to do this stuff in miniature if you want to consistently make sense.)

    (And bloggers, please check your links. That is, after you publish a post, bring it up in your browser and click through every link in the post. It only takes a few seconds. Thanks.)

    As for Brad's #2, I'm not so sure. However, as evidence in his favor, it's true that when I excerpt stuff from published articles I frequently find myself excerpting the last paragraph or two. So maybe he's on to something.

    Kevin Drum 2:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE....Over at The Corner yesterday there were a couple of posts about whether felons who have served their time should be allowed to vote. I almost responded, but 24 was on and then I forgot all about it.

    That is, until I opened up the LA Times today and saw that National Review's Jonah Goldberg had an entire op-ed on the subject. There's not much to it, really. After a bit of guffawing aimed at Marion Barry and then some further guffawing about how it's no surprise that criminals vote for Democrats yuk yuk he gets to the meat of his complaint:

    As a matter of principle, I oppose voting by ex-cons because voting should be harder, not easier for everybody....If you are having an intelligent conversation with somebody, is it enriched if a mob of uninformed louts, never mind ex-cons and rapists, barges in? People who want to make voting easier are in effect saying that those who previously didn't care or know enough about the country to vote are exactly the kind of voters this country needs now.

    If you asked me to name the most fundamental rights of U.S. citizen the absolute minimum core that we could have and still call ourselves America I'd name three: freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, and the right to vote. The government should not be in the business of limiting any of these things except in the most extreme cases.

    Felons who have paid their debt have paid their debt. Once they've served their time, their right to free speech and their right to a fair trial are restored, and I can't think of any reason why their right to vote shouldn't be too. If you're a citizen, you should get to vote, period.

    As for the idea that we should make voting harder in order to keep away the "uninformed louts," I have only one question: who decides who the louts are? National Review? The same magazine that ran an article in 1965 opposing the Voting Rights Act because, "Over most of this century, the great bulk of Southern Negroes have been genuinely unqualified for the franchise"? The magazine whose founder wrote sympathetically that, "In much of the South, what is so greatly feared is irresponsible, mobocratic rule, and it is a fear not easily dissipated, because it is well-grounded that if the entire Negro population in the South were suddenly given the vote, and were to use it as a bloc, and pursuant to directives handed down by some of the more demagogic leaders, chaos would ensue"?

    I think not.

    Kevin Drum 1:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    DEATH IN BAGHDAD....Riverbend writes that the only surprising thing about American troops firing on the car of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena is that anyone is paying attention:

    I dont understand why Americans are so shocked with this incident. Where is the shock? That Sgrenas car was under fire? That Americans killed an Italian security agent? After everything that occurred in Iraq Abu Ghraib, beatings, torture, people detained for months and months, the stealing, the rape...is this latest so very shocking? Or is it shocking because the victims werent Iraqi?

    Im really glad shes home safe but at the same time, the whole situation is somewhat painful. It hurts because thousands of Iraqis have died at American checkpoints or face to face with a tank or Apache and beyond the occasional subtitle on some obscure news channel, no one knows about it and no one cares. It just hurts a little bit.

    She's also got an account of Iraqi National Guard troops beating up doctors at a Baghdad hospital after an explosion last Wednesday. It's not pretty stuff.

    Kevin Drum 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    LEBANON UPDATE....So how are things going to turn out in Lebanon? Our first data point arrived today, and it looks like Hezbollah is still able to turn out a crowd:

    Hundreds of thousands pro-Syrian protesters waved flags and chanted anti-American slogans in a central Beirut square Tuesday, answering a nationwide call by the militant Shiite Muslim Hezbollah group for a demonstration to counter weeks of massive rallies demanding Syrian forces leave Lebanon.

    ....There were no independent estimates of Tuesday's crowd, but at least 500,000 people crowded Riad Solh Square and nearby streets. The Lebanese army blocked the road between the two squares with an armored carrier.

    That's a far bigger protest than any of the anti-Syrian rallies so far, which indicates that Lebanon is hardly of one mind about how to respond to the Hariri assassination. What's more, as the Zogby poll below shows, this isn't really a surprise since there's no consensus on who was responsible for the assassination. In fact, most Lebanese are still more likely to blame it on the U.S. or Israel than they are on Syria. In light of this, it's hardly surprising that another question in the poll got three very distinct answers about what was the best solution to Lebanon's security situation. Maronites want the Syrians to pull out, Sunnis and Shiites want a stronger Lebanese army, and the Druze want everyone to disarm. The only answer that was universally repudiated was the deployment of international peacekeepers.

    Lebanon is surely a country that deserves some peace, and I hope for the best. But it ain't over yet.

    Kevin Drum 12:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    March 7, 2005
    By: Kevin Drum

    BUSH ADMINISTRATION LIES....What do you do if the scientific evidence suggests one thing but political realities push you in the opposite direction? Chris Mooney provides the answer today: If you're Slick Willie, the president who supposedly had a hidden agenda even for his hidden agendas, you suck it up and tell the truth. "Yes, the science is sound, but we've chosen a different policy anyway."

    But if you're George Bush, the president who supposedly means what he says and says what he means, you lie. You pretend that the scientific evidence is the opposite of what it really is.

    The subject at hand is needle exchanges as a way of curbing the spread of AIDS, and Chris points to what he calls "an extraordinary editorial" in the Washington Post last week. He's right: it is extraordinary. Check this out:

    The administration claims that the evidence for the effectiveness of needle exchange is shaky. An official who requested anonymity directed us to a number of researchers who have allegedly cast doubt on the pro-exchange consensus.

    One of them is Steffanie A. Strathdee of the University of California at San Diego; when we contacted her, she responded that her research "supports the expansion of needle exchange programs, not the opposite."

    Another researcher cited by the administration is Martin T. Schechter of the University of British Columbia; he wrote us that "Our research here in Vancouver has been repeatedly used to cast doubt on needle exchange programs. I believe this is a clear misinterpretation of the facts."

    Yet a third researcher cited by the administration is Julie Bruneau at the University of Montreal; she told us that "in the vast majority of cases needle exchange programs drive HIV incidence lower." We asked Dr. Bruneau whether she favored needle exchanges in countries such as Russia or Thailand. "Yes, sure," she responded.

    Note the familiar MO of an administration official who demands anonymity on a subject that should be perfectly open. Why? Because he knows perfectly well he's lying and doesn't want his name associated with it in case he gets caught. He's not just bullshitting, either: he's flatly lying and hoping that it's not a big enough story for anyone to bother tracking down his sources.

    There are two lessons here. First, the Post should feel no obligation to keep this person's name anonymous. He lied to them. Second, even in a blatant case like this the Post was still unwilling to flatly call these statements lies. What does it take, guys?

    Oh, and a third lesson too: the press should never believe a word the Bush administration says unless they confirm it themselves. Maybe that's really lesson #1.

    Kevin Drum 4:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    GOOSES AND GANDERS....Megan McArdle asks a pungent question: If pilots were trained the same way as doctors, would any doctor ever set foot on a 747? Hmmm....

    Kevin Drum 3:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    SPENDING MYTHS....Via The Carpetbagger, the folks at PIPA have an interesting report out about how average citizens would like to reallocate the federal budget. 1,182 adults were given a spreadsheet that showed current spending in a variety of categories and were then asked to either accept the current amounts or move them around in a way that kept total spending constant. As the chart below shows, respondents overwhelmingly wanted to make drastic cuts to defense spending and voted to redirect the money to deficit reduction and a variety of mostly social programs.

    But here's the interesting thing: these results are plainly wrong. People say this kind of stuff to pollsters all the time (and Democrats usually rejoice at the results), but when election day comes around they flatly don't vote based on these priorities. If John Kerry had proposed cutting the defense budget by $150 billion he wouldn't have lost the election by 3 percentage points, he would have lost by 10 or 20.

    I don't know quite why these polls always turn out this way, but I suspect they do a lot of harm to liberals, who continue to read them as vindication that Americans really do support liberal issues. There's some truth to that, but the fact is that most liberal issues aren't salient election causes and we haven't succeeded in making them so. Anyone who disagrees should recommend cutting the defense budget by 25% and reallocating the money to education and job training. The very same people who responded to PIPA's poll will then cheerfully vote you out of office in a huge landslide.

    Kevin Drum 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    SOURCES OF TERRORISM....Juan Cole argues that the true source of Middle Eastern terrorism is not Islam, not poverty, and not authoritarian governments. The common seed, he says, is foreign occupation:

    You want to end terrorism? End unjust military occupations. By all means have Syria conduct an orderly withdrawal from Lebanon if that is what the Lebanese public wants. But Israel needs to withdraw from the Golan Heights, which belong to Syria, as well. The Israeli military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank must be ended. The Russian scorched earth policy in Chechnya needs to stop. Some just disposition of the Kashmir issue must be attained, and Indian enormities against Kashmiri Muslims must stop. The US needs to conduct an orderly and complete withdrawal from Iraq. And when all these military occupations end, there is some hope for a vast decrease in terrorism. People need a sense of autonomy and dignity, and occupation produces helplessness and humiliation. Humiliation is what causes terrorism.

    Iran doesn't fit his model all that well, and there's no mention of Libya at all, but he makes a pretty good case for Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Lebanon.

    Still, is he right? Israel pulled out of Lebanon five years ago and, as Dan Drezner puts it, "there will soon be data to examine" on the question of whether the Lebanese also want the Syrians to leave and whether it will do any good if they do. Stay tuned.

    Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    THE CONSERVATIVE BLOGOSPHERE....In the Prospect today, Garance Franke-Ruta writes that things are not always what they appear to be in the conservative blogosphere:

    Right-wing blogs...increasingly provide cover for professional operatives to conduct traditional politics by other means including campaigning against the established media. And instead of taking these bloggers for the political activists they are, all too often the established press has accepted their claims of being a new form of journalism. This will have to change or it will prove serious journalisms undoing.

    Garance ties four recent blog storms not to citizen bloggers, but to activists who are posing as citizen bloggers in order to provide a 21st century cover for old fashioned dirty tricks campaigns:

    At worst, they're the protgs of conservative fund-raiser Richard Viguerie and dirty-tricks master Morton Blackwell, who has tutored conservative activists since 1965....Easongate.com, the blog that served as the clearinghouse for the attack on CNN, was helped along by Virginia-based Republican operative Mike Krempasky. From May 1999 through August 2003, Krempasky worked for Blackwell as the graduate development director of the Leadership Institute, an Arlington, Virginiabased school for conservative leaders founded by Blackwell in 1979. The institute is the organization that had provided Gannon with his sole media credential before he became a White House correspondent.

    There's more that ties together the blog storms over Dan Rather, Eason Jordan, Jeff Gannon, and Joseph Steffen, so read the whole thing. Bottom line: a large part of the conservative blogosphere is nothing more than old style slime artists with a shiny new medium to abuse, while another large part either wittingly or unwittingly passes along their swill as a supposed groundswell of grass roots outrage. Peek underneath the rock and it's not a pretty sight.

    Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    TAXES IN WONDERLAND....Life in Washington DC must be like life in Wonderland these days. Here's the Washington Post on the current mood regarding tax cuts:

    To be sure, Bush and most congressional Republicans, especially in the House, remain committed to cutting taxes as a guiding principle. Some leaders are considering pushing this year to extend some of the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003, including those for capital gains, at the very least. But after cutting taxes aggressively over the past four years, a growing number say it would be unwise to reduce the amount of money the government is taking in at a time when bills for Medicare, Social Security and the Iraq war are piling up.

    It might be "unwise"? That's the best they can do? After spending the past three months screaming about how a 2% Social Security deficit 75 years from now is ruinous to the moral fiber of the nation?

    Still, I guess I'll take my common sense anywhere I can find it. Apparently even the idea of making Bush's tax cuts permanent is running into trouble:

    Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said at least six Senate Republicans have signaled opposition to extending the cuts. "They could keep it from getting done," he said. "But I think most people would like to make them permanent."

    I'll bet he's right. And we'd all like a visit from the tooth fairy too. But eventually we all have to grow up and work for a living. Even Republicans.

    Kevin Drum 1:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    March 6, 2005
    By: Kevin Drum

    THE MINIMUM WAGE SHUFFLE....Question: when is a minimum wage increase not a minimum wage increase?

    Answer: when it's sponsored by Rick Santorum. Nathan Newman explains the gruesome details of an amendment expected to come up for a vote on Monday.

    Kevin Drum 10:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    RED STATE, BLUE STATE....Julie Saltman links to this David Brooksian rumination from Phoebe on blue staters visiting a red state:

    As a Blue-Stater in a Red State (or an urbanite in a rural area) there's really no acceptable reaction to your new surroundings. Either you sneer and note the lack of Vietnamese restaurants/museums/sample sales, and you're an elitist ("What, corn dogs again?"), or you bubble over with David Brooksian enthusiasm for wholesome exurbia, in which case you're seen as smug and patronizing, or as pro-rural only to make a political point ("Mmm, corn dogs!"). A rural person visiting a city can act either awed or horrified, and either reaction is generally considered to be understandable. So what's a stranded-feeling, smile-forcing Blue American to do?

    I have to confess I don't get this the same way I don't really get it when Brooks does his schtick either. I was born and raised in suburban California, so I'm pretty thoroughly blue, but I've also visited red states plenty of times on both business and pleasure and it's never seemed like that big a deal.

    Lots of churches? Yeah, I guess so, although we build ours a lot bigger here in Orange County. I just drive by them. Quieter? Definitely. Restaurants? About the same, really. There are regional differences, of course, though with the growth of chains even regional differences aren't that dramatic anymore. Accents? Yeah, but I've never had any trouble understanding anyone. More Wal-Marts? Sure, but I've got two CostCos and several K-Marts within ten miles of my house. The difference isn't that noticable.

    There's no question that if you get into serious conversation in small towns you'll find some bedrock differences pretty quickly: they really are more religious and more conservative on average. But we're only talking about visiting here, and on my visits I've never found red staters to be any pushier about this stuff than anyone else. What's more, while every place has its share of loons, when you stick to average people and normal staples of conversation (TV shows, the weather, good places to eat, how business is doing, etc.) there's not that much difference. My impression is that small town residents tend to be a bit less rich and bit more friendly than city dwellers, and it's true that they don't have many opera houses, but aside from that the differences don't surface all that strongly until the first Tuesday after the first Monday every four years.

    So....just act normal. That's what I always do, and it seems to work fine. If that doesn't work, pretend you're in France and think of everything as charming. That works well too.

    Kevin Drum 8:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE GOVERNOR WHO DIDN'T SPEAK AT THE CONVENTION....So, um, I think I'm going to piss off a bunch of people with this post, and to make it worse I'm going to do it over something pretty trivial. But I got kind of curious about a question that came up the other day over at Atrios' site: why was Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey prevented from speaking at the 1992 Democratic convention?

    Short answer: Conventional wisdom says it was because he wanted to give a pro-life speech and that's verboten at Democratic conventions. But no: the real answer is that it was because he had refused to endorse the Clinton/Gore ticket and if you don't endorse the ticket, you don't get to speak.

    But is that true? Is that what people actually said at the time? Through the magic of Nexis I pulled up about a hundred news stories from July 1992 that mentioned the Casey controversy and read them all. My conclusion: in fact, he was prevented from speaking because he wanted to give a pro-life speech.

    Now, I'm genuinely curious to know if this is true or not, since before now I've always accepted the "didn't endorse Clinton" explanation but I wasn't there and wasn't paying much attention to politics at the time. In other words, my Nexis archeology is all I have to go on and it may be missing something. So comments are welcome. The rest of this post is below the fold.

    First things first: there is evidence that Casey's non-endorsement was the official excuse for preventing him from speaking.

    July 7, Washington Post: DNC press secretary Ginny Terzano says "anyone who is speaking at the convention will have endorsed Governor Clinton by the time of the convention and Governor Casey has not."

    July 13, USA Today: Jim Desler, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, says Casey was not allowed to speak because "most...speakers have endorsed Gov. Clinton."

    That's it. Those are the only two quotes I could find to back up the non-endorsement story. What's more, the second one is pretty equivocal. "Most" speakers? Obviously this indicates that non-endorsement was not completely disqualifying.

    What's more, it's also clear from contemporaneous reports that (a) Casey's non-endorsement was at least partly caused by the DNC's refusal to let him speak in the first place, (b) Casey himself believed his abortion stand was the reason he wasn't allowed to speak, and (c) virtually 100% of the news coverage also assumed that Casey's abortion stand was the reason he wasn't allowed to speak.

    In fact, Casey's abortion stand was so universally understood to be the real reason he wasn't allowed to speak that most news stories barely even mentioned it. What's more, Democrats widely seemed to accept this as well:

    July 13, CNN, Rep. David McCurdy: "It's clear they [Clinton and Gore] have a message that wants to that they want to have come out of this convention. It's a mainstream message....And I think a little toughness is in order."

    July 13, CNN, Gov. Ann Richards: "It's a matter of timing and giving everybody equal opportunity. What would you do if you say to one person on your issue, and you didn't come before any of the committees ahead of time, you get up and we're going to allow you to make a five minute speech. Then, how are you going to turn down any of the hundreds of people that might want to get up and make a speech? And it's just a practical matter. It really isn't a big deal."

    July 15, Daily Oklahoman: Asked why Casey was not allowed to speak, [James] Carville said, "The convention schedule is set. The Democrats of the country have spoken as to the direction they want the country to go," he said in defending refusal to deviate from Clinton's agenda.

    July 15, CBS This Morning, Bob Beckel: "It's going to do a take a lot to repair the damage there, I think. So they could have treated Casey better but don't underestimate the Democrats are not going to try to fudge it on this issue. You've got to be choice on this issue."

    July 16, CNN, Gov. Roy Romer: "There's a process. We went through the process. Governor Casey had a full hearing. The majority of the Democrats didn't buy his position. I respect him very much, but there is no slight to Governor Casey."

    So: McCurdy suggested it was about message control; Richards (the convention co-chair) pretended it was just about process; Carville said it was about the "direction" Democrats wanted to go; Beckel said "you've got to be [pro] choice on this issue"; and Romer adopted the Richards line that it was all about process. These were all the relevant quotes I could find.

    Here then is what we have:

    • Casey had made it clear that he wanted to talk about abortion and he had formally requested a convention speaking slot. Normally, for the governor of a major state, this would be a no-brainer.

    • It also seems likely that if he had been given his speaking slot he would have endorsed the Clinton/Gore ticket. It's not as if he seriously expected them to change the party platform subsequent to losing a platform fight, after all.

    • Casey, other Democrats, and the entire press corps almost universally accepted the view that Casey had been denied a speaking slot because of his abortion stand.

    • Richards and Romer, given a chance, didn't even try to pretend that Casey's non-endorsement was the reason he was prevented from speaking. Instead they made up a "process" excuse that was transparently untrue.

    • There's only one quote in the entire record (Terzano's) that unambiguously offers up the non-endorsement theory, even though other people had plenty of additional chances to make that point.

    So it seems to me that the real reason Casey was prevented from speaking was because....he wanted to give a pro-life speech. Clinton was keeping a tight lid on the convention and wanted no dissent on an issue that he considered important.

    Which is all fine, I think. That's how conventions work in the television age, and it's not as if Republicans haven't been known to impose a bit of message discipline of their own now and again. Things probably got out of hand and could have been handled better, but I don't think Casey really had anything to gripe about. He knew his own party's platform.

    Still, it doesn't change the fact that abortion really was the key issue here or so it seems to me. Any contradictory evidence is welcome.

    UPDATE: Based on a comment from Don P, I've made a couple of minor changes to the post to make it clearer. My tentative conclusion is that Casey was denied a speaking slot because he wanted to give a pro-life speech, not simply because Casey himself was pro-life. I don't think there's any evidence at all that simply being pro-life prevents you from speaking at Democratic conventions, either in 1992 or any other year.

    Kevin Drum 7:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    MITCH McCONNELL AND THE SOLVENCY TAP DANCE....Here's a handy new blog: Sunday Morning Talk. You can check in on Saturday to see the lineup for each of the Sunday talk shows, and then check in on Sunday for a few highlights and links to transcripts as they come up.

    So I clicked around a bit and skimmed through the transcript of Meet The Press today. Turns out that Tim Russert spent a bit of time asking Mitch McConnell if private accounts actually did anything to improve the solvency of Social Security. McConnell was, um, reluctant to answer:

    MR. RUSSERT: Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican, the chairman of the Finance Committee, told reporters in Iowa that "Congress should focus on the solvency of Social Security rather than the president's plan to create personal investment accounts for younger workers."....That's a Republican, chairman of the Finance Committee. Why not set aside personal private accounts and deal with solvency?

    SEN. McCONNELL: Well, why don't we talk about all of it? Blah, blah, blah.

    ....MR. RUSSERT: What does private personal accounts do to fix the solvency problem? I don't understand that.

    SEN. McCONNELL: What personal accounts are is an extraordinarily good investment, blah, blah, blah.

    MR. RUSSERT: But how does that help the solvency problem?

    SEN. McCONNELL: But why not discuss it? Blah, blah, blah.

    MR. RUSSERT: Private accounts don't seem to deal with the solvency problem alone. And the White House acknowledges that.

    SEN. McCONNELL: What we want to do is blah, blah, blah.

    Lotsa laughs there. I think we can take this as a tacit acknowledgment that private accounts don't, in fact, do anything to improve Social Security's solvency.

    And as long as we're in the laughs department, note also Russert's use of "personal private accounts," "private personal accounts," and (elsewhere in the interview) "private and personal accounts." Now that's evenhanded!

    Kevin Drum 6:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    WARNING: PENALTIES AND LATE FEES MAY APPLY....In the Washington Post, Kathleen Day and Caroline Mayer explain how credit card companies make money:

    Penalty interest rates usually are about 30 percent, with some as high as 40 percent, while late fees now often are $39 a month, and over-limit fees, about $35, [Cardweb CEO Robert] McKinley said. "If you drag that out for a year, it could be very damaging," he said. "Late and over-limit fees alone can easily rack up $900 in fees, and a 30 percent interest rate on a $3,000 balance can add another $1,000, so you could go from $2,000 to $5,000 in just one year if you fail to make payments."

    According to R.K. Hammer Investment Bankers, a California credit card consulting firm, banks collected $14.8 billion in penalty fees last year, or 10.9 percent of revenue, up from $10.7 billion, or 9 percent of revenue, in 2002, the first year the firm began to track penalty fees.

    That's a $4 billion increase in penalty revenue in two years in case you're keeping score at home.

    And you have to love this: that penalty rate of 30-40% can be imposed for missing a single payment in fact, in can be imposed for missing a single payment on a different account, like your telephone bill but a card spokesman said this was perfectly reasonable because it was "clearly disclosed on account applications." Something tells me that their idea of "clearly disclosed" is a wee bit different from most people's.

    Bottom line: credit card companies now make half their profits from penalties and late fees. They actively seek out customers who are likely to miss payments and end up in a penalty fee spiral, and they make a fortune from them. In a normally functioning market there's at least a small incentive to limit loans to these high-risk customers, namely the possibility that they might go bankrupt, and the bankruptcy bill before Congress is a brazen attempt to remove even that small but annoying incentive to act responsibly.

    Credit card companies want the ability to make risky loans, but they also want federal protection that protects them from bearing the risk that goes along with making those loans. That's a pretty cushy setup, as long as you can buy yourself enough politicians to make it happen. Apparently they can.

    Kevin Drum 12:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    March 5, 2005
    By: Kevin Drum

    THREE PLASTIC ANIMALS....Is a supersized Ten Commandments monument on public grounds constitutional? Jeffrey Rosen provides some historical context:

    In the past, the Supreme Court has subscribed to what lawyers call a "three plastic animals" rule for religious displays: If a crche in a town square, for example, is surrounded by a wishing well and a laughing clown, it's constitutional. The logic is that reasonable observers perceive unadorned religious displays to be endorsements of religion, while the addition of kitschy accoutrements turns the display into a celebration of Americana.

    Indeed. What kind of godless commie tries to ban kitsch?

    For the record, this week's Supreme Court hearings revolved around two displays, one in Texas and one in Kentucky, and Rosen suggests that the TPA rule might make the Texas display constitutional and the Kentucky one not, or maybe the other way around. He doesn't really know.

    But I thought that paragraph was kind of funny anyway, so I'm sharing it.

    Kevin Drum 8:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    NEW AND IMPROVED HENLEY....Jim Henley is all new, all redesigned, and now with comments. Go visit him and comment on something.

    Kevin Drum 5:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    THE BANKRUPTCY BILL....The bankruptcy bill currently wending its way through Congress is a complex piece of legislation covering a complex topic. So how do nonexperts figure out whether the law is any good? Is it genuinely meant to crack down on abuse of the bankruptcy system, as its sponsors say, or is there more to it?

    It's hardly possible to become an instant expert in a field like this, but there are nonetheless a few proxies that can help us see what's really going on, things that help us figure out the score even if we don't understand all the details. Here are a few:

    • Amendments. What amendments have been offered to the bill and then rejected? Here are the main ones, all of which were summarily dismissed by the Republican majority:

      1. From Russ Feingold, an amendment that would have allowed senior citizens to protect $75,000 of the value of their homes during bankruptcy proceedings.

      2. From Ted Kennedy, an amendment focused on helping people who are forced into bankruptcy due to major medical expenses.

      3. Also from Ted Kennedy, an amendment that would have protected $150,000 of the value of patients' homes from being seized to pay creditors.

      4. From Daniel Akaka, an amendment to force credit card companies to disclose how long it would take a consumer to pay off his bill making minimum monthly payments, and what the interest rate would be.

      5. From Dick Durbin, an amendment that would have exempted veterans from the most onerous provisions of the bill and prevented creditors from recovering debts from military personnel if the loans had annual percentage rates higher than 36%.

      If stopping abuse were truly your primary goal, why would you vote against amendments like these?

    • Loopholes. What loopholes have been left in the bill? Answer: the bill does nothing to address the growing use of "asset protection trusts," used by rich people to shield income from bankruptcy proceedings, or to rein in the unlimited use of the homestead exemption, which allows them to shield multimillion dollar homes from bankruptcy courts.

      If abuse is the target, surely these are some of the prime abuses that would be targeted by any honest bill?

    • Medical bankruptcy. It's true that bankruptcy rates have skyrocketed in the past couple of decades. If you look solely at population growth, you'd expect the number of bankruptcies to have grown from about 300,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 2000. In reality, the number of bankruptcies was over 1.4 million in 2001. That's a million extra bankruptcies.

      However, as Barbara O'Brien points out, there's considerable evidence that this has been driven largely by people who faced ruin due to huge unforeseen medical expenses. In fact, if you crunch the numbers in this report, it appears that about two-thirds of the extra million bankruptcies may have been caused by medical emergencies.

      The bill does nothing to address this. Since medical emergencies certainly aren't an abuse of the system, wouldn't any honest bill aimed at abuse pay special attention to the recent and growing epidemic of families that declare bankruptcy due to medical emergencies?

    • Who's for it? Who's against it? Credit card companies, who have grown rich from their increasingly revolting loan shark-like tactics, don't want to pay the price of their reliance on these obscene methods. They want the ability to engage in any kind of shady marketing they can, eagerly promoting the virtues of almost unlimited debt to people they know to be unsound risks, but when the loans don't pay off they don't want to suffer the consequences. Credit card companies are among the primary backers of the bankruptcy bill, which is largely designed to shield them from taking responsibility for their own loan portfolios.

      Conversely, practically every consumer group in the country is against the bill.

    Bottom line: you don't need to understand all the intricacies of bankruptcy law to know what to think of this bill. Through their actions, its sponsors have made it abundantly plain that abuse of the system isn't their real aim: protection of major campaign contributors is. The poor get shafted, the very real crisis of medical bankruptcy is ignored, the rich are allowed loopholes that let them off the hook, and credit card companies can continue on their merry way knowing they won't have to pay the price for their own folly.

    Welcome to America.

    Kevin Drum 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    THE CHOICEPOINT STING....In the Washington Post today, Robert O'Harrow Jr. tells the story of the investigation that uncovered the massive ChoicePoint fraud. The initial lead came from a sting operation led by Los Angeles sheriff's detective Duane Decker, which netted a Nigerian national named Olatunji Oluwatosin at a Copymat store on Sunset Boulevard:

    On the way out of the store with Decker, Oluwatosin dropped the paperwork he had just received from ChoicePoint and other forms for a company dubbed Gala Financial. At the time, he was carrying five cell phones, only one of them in his own name. Three credit cards bore the names of other people, including at least one woman.

    At Decker's request, Oluwatosin shared his address in North Hollywood. Once there, Decker said he found a printout of a ChoicePoint search involving another name, that of a man he later learned had lost $12,000 to identity thieves. Decker also found a receipt for a public storage business not far away. Before long, searching in unit B-245, Decker found what he later told a state court judge were the tell-tale signs of an identity theft operation: new televisions, electric generators and other products in shipping boxes stripped bare of details about where the goods came from.

    The paperwork offered other leads. Decker found addresses that turned out to be commercial mail services. Investigators asked to see the unopened mail at some of those locations. One clerk brought out two large bags containing credit card applications, financial statements and other mail that had been redirected from homes around the nation.

    Driving to more than a dozen commercial mail services in one day, Decker and a postal inspector identified redirected mail from more than 700 people. Further investigation revealed links to 22 other ChoicePoint accounts that had been opened under false pretenses.

    "I realized that this was just absolutely huge and out of control," Decker said.

    Read the whole thing. It's scary stuff.

    Kevin Drum 1:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    March 4, 2005
    By: Kevin Drum

    WINGNUT UPDATE....Kansas AG Phill Kline claims he needs abortion records of teenage girls because he figures some of them were raped and he wants to track down the rapists. So why not get the records of teenage girls who actually give birth too? Mouse Words reports that Kline addressed that question today:

    I have stated that repeatedly; we are looking for the child predators. You do not find child predators standing in a hospital as their prey gives birth to the child that they father. That's common sense.

    That's a fine legal mind at work, isn't it? You'd think that if he were really concerned about child abuse and rape, as opposed to harassment of abortion clinics, he'd try actually investigating teenage births instead of assuming that the only way to catch the perps is to hang around the hospital hoping they show up. There are only a few dozen a month, after all.

    But you'd think wrong. I think it's safe to say that harassment of abortion clinics is the real issue here.

    And as long you're in wingnut land, you can read about "Capture the Illegal Immigrant Day," hosted by the fine young gentlemen of the Young Conservatives of Texas. I didn't actually read about it myself because a weekend is coming up and I can handle only just so much wingnuttery per day. But maybe you have a stronger stomach than I do.

    Kevin Drum 6:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    CHOICEPOINT UPDATE....You may recall that although ChoicePoint revealed the theft of 145,000 personal financial records last month, they actually knew about the theft back in October. Guess what? It turns out that ChoicePoint's CEO and president both sold a bunch of stock in the intervening period:

    In regulatory filings earlier this year, ChoicePoint disclosed that [Derek] Smith and [Doug] Curling reaped $16.6 million by selling company stock after they became aware that scammers had broken into their databases, but before the company announced the breach Feb. 15. The stock has lost about 15% of its value since then.

    Just a coincidence, I'm sure. The company also announced that they were making some procedural changes about how personal data is released:

    These changes are a direct result of the recent fraud activity, our review over the past few weeks of our experience and products, and the response of consumers who have made it clear to us that they do not approve of sensitive personal data being used without a direct benefit to them.

    No kidding. Of course, I'd be a lot happier if some additional changes were made via the collective authority of all of ChoicePoint's consumers, otherwise known as the federal government....

    Kevin Drum 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING....Many requests for catblogging recently. Who am I to refuse?

    As cat lovers all know, cats have favored sleeping spots that they seem to rotate for no apparent reason every few weeks. Inkblot's favorite place these days is my sock drawer. His usual ploy is to wait until we all get into bed, sneak silently into the bedroom, and then start meowing sorrowfully until I get up to open the drawer so he can jump in though he actually prefers it if I pick him up and save him the energy of jumping. I don't know what it is about this drawer, but he goes into ecstatic spasms of purring and rolling and smooching once he gets in. This is about as close as it gets to cat heaven.

    Today's picture of Jasmine shows her in one her favorite places too (and looking mighty majestic and patriotic, I might add). This is how much of this blog gets written: me typing while trying to peer around Jasmine's frustratingly opaque body. She can stay there for hours, alternating between making work difficult by sitting in front of the screen and making it impossible by aggressively smooching the mouse. It's almost like she knows those things are called mice.

    Need more catblogging? Elayne has her cats here, apparently caught just prior to destroying her house with their destructo eyes. Trish has nostalgic catblogging here, back when Domino was brand new to the world. Jake Kohlman, who is under the sad misimpression that Atrios started Friday catblogging, shows off his snoozing feline here. (For the real origin of Friday catblogging, see here, here, and here.) And SKB has his usual bird blogging today, which, as we all know, is referred to as "supper blogging" around here....

    Kevin Drum 1:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    IS GROVER OVER?....Grover Norquist, as all the world knows, is the grand ayatollah of the anti-tax jihadists, a man whose entire life is dedicated to one thing: starving government of revenue so it's unable to do anything worthwhile. His proudest accomplishment is his "anti-tax pledge," a document he has successfully bullied practically every Republican congressman in the country into signing.

    But is the tide turning against both Grover and the anti-tax movement? Maybe so. After all, it's one thing for congress critters to take this pledge, since they can just run up deficits whenever they feel like it, but state level politicians don't have that luxury. And they're starting to revolt.

    In Colorado, a legislator who was one of the original backers of the anti-tax TABOR initiative is now governor, yet he's now working to curtail the law. Why? In an enlightening article in the current issue of the Washington Monthly asking "Is Grover Over?," Daniel Franklin and A.G. Newmyer III explain:

    Business is the chisel driving a crack between moderate Republicans and the anti-tax fanatics. Although there is no group in Washington more loyal to the GOP's anti-tax doctrine than the Chamber of Commerce, in the states, reality often trumps ideology.

    For businesses to be successful, you need roads and you need higher education, both of which have gotten worse under TABOR and will continue to get worse, says Tom Clark of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, who notes that higher education has shrunk from 25 percent of the state budget in 1995 to about 10 percent today. I'm a Republican, Clark says, but I made the decision not to give any money to the state party.

    Hey, how about that? The state needs roads and universities! Is anyone else on this bandwagon? Yes indeed, says David Sirota:

    Alabama Gov. Bob Riley last year ignored his votes in Congress for deficit-expanding tax cuts and instead pushed a referendum to raise taxes on his state's top income earners to deal with budget shortfalls.

    In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels is calling for an income tax increase on his state's top income earners. This is the same Mitch Daniels who, as President Bush's budget director from 2001 to 2003, attacked congressional Democrats who proposed doing the very same thing.

    Norquist has called his former pal Daniels a "traitor" for his efforts, and Mike Huckabee, the Republican governor of Arkansas, is pissed about it:

    "Grover's never been in government, doesn't have to balance a state budget, never had a state constitution forcing him to deal with a balanced budget," Mr. Huckabee said at a meeting with editors and reporters from The Washington Times.

    "Grover's never been in a situation where he couldn't borrow money so he didn't have to raise taxes or tell old people he's just going to take them out of the nursing home and drop them on the curb," he continued.

    On the federal level, of course, even George Bush himself recently raised the possibility of supporting a tax increase as part of a Social Security rescue package. This is probably more a trap for Democrats than a serious proposal, but still. That's apostasy.

    Is Grover, in fact, over? No. But his aura of invincibility Grover will crush you if you don't toe the anti-tax line! is an important part of his image, and that aura is fading. Norquist and fellow traveler Stephen Moore have sworn to unseat the Virginia legislators who recently raised their state's taxes, for example, but they seem unlikely to make good on that promise. What's more, as Franklin and Newmyer point out, "Voters in November rejected every tax-limitation measure on state ballots, including a Maine property tax initiative that was the most ambitious of its kind in 20 years."

    Perhaps the tide is finally turning.

    Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    AN INDUSTRY WITH NO SHAME....I do not like the credit card industry. The revolting travesty of "universal default" is one reason. That they have become obscenely profitable by transforming themselves into little more than genteel loan sharks preying on the unfortunate is another. And the fact that despite all this they still insist that bankruptcy laws need to be tightened so they can squeeze another few dollars out of their already wretched clients is the final straw:

    In Cleveland, for example, a municipal court judge tossed out a case that Discover Bank brought against one of its cardholders after closely examining the woman's credit card bill.

    According to court papers, Ruth M. Owens, a 53-year-old disabled woman, paid the company $3,492 over six years on a $1,963 debt only to find that late fees and finance charges had more than doubled the size of her remaining balance to $5,564.

    When the company took her to court to collect, she wrote the judge a note saying, "I would like to inform you that I have no money to make payments. I am on Social Security Disability....If my situation was different I would pay. I just don't have it. I'm sorry."

    Judge Robert Triozzi ruled that Owens didn't have to pay, saying Owens "has clearly been the victim of (Discover's) unreasonable, unconscionable and unjust business practices."

    Read the whole thing. If you haven't registered with the LA Times, then register. I know it's a pain in the ass. Do it anyway.

    Kevin Drum 1:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Amy Sullivan

    I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS....Yesterday's Washington Post headline on a story about Judge Terrence Boyle's confirmation hearing first caught my eye, then utterly confused me, and finally reminded me that I wanted to write about my latest pet peeve: the seemingly reckless way in which terms like 'values' and 'religion' and 'morals' are being tossed about in the press.

    "Judges May Be Vetted for Mainstream Values." What does that mean? That judges whose values the paper considers mainstream may be held up by liberals who object? Or that the standard to which judges will be held is that of mainstream values, and there are some extremist judges who may not pass? And what is 'mainstream', anyway? Unfortunately, a read through the article--a "he said/she said" Mad-Lib of a piece--doesn't help at all.

    The inaccurate and/or indiscriminate use of concepts and terms like "values" and "religion" without context is fast becoming my biggest pet peeve, and if I have to become a one-woman officiating squad, then so be it. A few weeks ago, Time magazine managed to raise my blood pressure with these parting sentences in an article about Democratic efforts to reach religious voters: "But the biggest risk for the party is to come off as insincere. Religious voters might like the music, but they're unlikely to be seduced by it as long as Democrats stick to their core positions." [my emphasis]

    Yes, because Lord knows "religious voters" couldn't possibly agree with any Democratic core positions. Good grief. You've heard me say it before, but apparently it needs repeating: A good many people are Democrats not despite their faith but precisely because of their faith. I don't want to read "religious" when what you mean is "right-wing." I don't want to read "evangelical" when what you mean is "conservative evangelical." And I don't want to read "moral values" when what you're really referring to are hot-button, right-wing sexual morality issues. The conflation of those terms with those specific definitions is NOT a neutral decision; it's part of a very conscious strategy. It's understandable that some news outlets have been taken in by the spin. Repeating the spin, however, is irresponsible.

    Amy Sullivan 12:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    THE ELEVENTH COMMANDMENT....Displays of the Ten Commandments don't really raise my blood pressure much. I'm as nonreligious as they come, but really, I figure life's too short to worry too much about stuff like this. Let's just pretend it's a symbol of our cultural heritage and move on.

    But then Antonin Scalia comes along to throw a pie in my face. Sam Heldman explains:

    I see it reported the same way in two different places, and so I trust the reporting: that his take on the big Texas 10 Commandments monument was that it was "a symbol of the fact that government derives its authority from God," and that this is a good thing (or at least a constitutionally-acceptable thing). Here I was thinking that people didn't necessarily agree on whether the existence of God is a "fact," and that the Government wasn't supposed to take sides in that debate.

    But there is, at least, this: that having staked out that position, Justice Scalia can't very well sign on to an opinion saying that the posting of the Commandments or the construction of a Commandments monument is merely some sort of secular historical blah blah blah.

    I may be relaxed about this stuff, but enough's enough. If an explicit statement that the authority of the United States government is derived from God isn't a violation of the establishment clause, then what is? Does the First Amendment have any meaning left at all?

    Kevin Drum 12:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    March 3, 2005
    By: Kevin Drum

    PALMISTRY....This comes as news to me, but the BBC reports that a new Canadian study indicates that you can tell a lot about a man by the relative size of his ring finger and index finger:

    In women, the two fingers are usually almost equal in length, as measured from the crease nearest the palm to the fingertip. In men, the ring finger tends to be much longer than the index.

    Other studies looking at finger length ratio have suggested that, in men, a long ring finger and symmetrical hands are an indication of fertility, and that women are more likely to be fertile if they have a longer index finger.

    ....One study found boys with shorter ring fingers tended to be at greatest risk of a heart attack in early adulthood, which was linked to testosterone levels.

    In the current study, Dr Peter Hurd and his student Allison Bailey measured the fingers of 300 undergraduates at their university.

    Men with the shortest index fingers scored higher on measures of physical aggression than those with longer index fingers, but the study's findings did not apply to women.

    Naturally I went right out and measured my own fingers. Unfortunately, the results were disturbingly ambiguous.

    As you can see, on my left hand I have an index finger that's noticably shorter than my ring finger. The difference is about 5/16 of an inch. But on my right hand, the two fingers are almost identical in length.

    So what does this mean? Do I have a relatively short index finger, meaning I'm a physically aggressive person? Or do I have relatively long index finger, meaning I'm a wuss? The actual answer is that I'm a wuss, so it must be the right hand that controls. Or, since I'm right handed, maybe it's the dominant hand that controls. Or maybe the BBC has provided us with woefully insufficient information.

    Or....maybe it doesn't mean a thing. After all, what would a couple of Canadian scientists know about aggression? But even so, I'll bet all the men who read this are going to sneak a peek at their hands to see how they measure up.

    POSTSCRIPT: In any case, Prof. Hurd says finger length accounts for only 5% of the variation in aggression and warns that "you wouldn't want to screen people for certain jobs based on their finger lengths." That's a relief.

    Kevin Drum 10:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    A WEE QUIZ....Shakespeare's sis asks: "Excluding the Pres & VP, who is your least favorite person in the Bush administration and why?"

    OK, so not Cheney. Fine.

    How about Tom DeLay? I really, really don't like Tom DeLay. But he's a congressman, not a member of the Bush administration.

    Rumsfeld? I actually like Rumsfeld in some respects. On a gut level, he doesn't annoy me nearly as much he does some other people. Frankly, a little arrogance in response to stupid questions is perfectly appropriate sometimes. (Feith, though? Maybe....)

    Scott McClellan? Boy is he annoying. On the other hand, the head flack is the head flack. What do you expect from him? Plus it's a little unfair to choose him since the nature of his job forces him on the public stage so much more than the others. He's just bound to get knocked around more than anyone else.

    There are some good candidates in the economic crew: John Snow, Harvey Rosen Greg Mankiw, and Joshua Bolten, for example, men with a seemingly limitless willingness to utter any bullshit that pops into their heads as long as it furthers their master's cause.

    But no. I think the ones I detest the most on a purely visceral level are the Iran-Contra retreads. And of those, I think I'll choose almost-but-not-quite Iran-Contra felon Elliot Abrams. He's got the perfect combination of revolting policy preferences and revolting personal qualities a man so clearly unfit for public office that the administration literally hid him from the press during Bush's first term.

    Yeah, that's my pick: Elliot Abrams. Unless someone can nominate a better choice that's slipped my mind, that is.

    UPDATE: Harvey Rosen is new, so there's nothing to hate yet. Greg Mankiw is the guy responsible for so much recent economic drivel, but he's gone now. So who to pick on? I guess Mankiw. We'll have to wait and see how Rosen does.

    Kevin Drum 6:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    MOVIE HALF LIFE....Tyler Cowen quotes Edward Jay Epstein about why movie releases are almost psychotically frenetic these days:

    The benefits of prolonging a film's run in the theaters are now negated by the loss that would be sustained by delaying its video opening past the point at which it can benefit from the movie's advertising campaign.

    Ah. That makes sense, and it explains why most movie marketing is designed around an effective lifespan (in theaters) of only a few weeks these days. I've wondered about that.

    Kevin Drum 3:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    POLL RESULTS....The New York Times reports today that "New Poll Finds Bush Priorities Are Out of Step With Americans." That should get Brent Bozell fuming.

    As it happens, the poll did find exactly that, although it also found that George Bush's approval ratings have been pretty steady. As far as findings qua findings go, I was interested (and heartened) that more people trust Democrats on abortion than Republicans; that over half the respondents support either gay marriage or civil unions; and that 86% of the country thinks our healthcare system needs fundamental changes (and 27% of them think it needs to be completely rebuilt).

    On Social Security, the most interesting result is that Bush has apparently done a great job of convincing everyone that we're in dire straits: large majorities think the system is in serious trouble; is going broke; won't pay them a penny when the retire; and needs substantial changes.

    And yet, large majorities also distrust the Republicans on Social Security; are "uneasy" about Bush's approach; and are opposed to private accounts, especially when they learn that they might increase the deficit and lead to reduced benefits. At this point, it seems like Social Security might be an own goal for Bush: he'll succeed in scaring the hell out of everyone, but then he'll be the one who ends up being demonized for it. We can hope, can't we?

    But before anyone gets too excited about all this, I've reproduced my favorite finding over on the right: 87% of respondents say they are registered to vote and 89% say they voted in last November's election. The actual numbers are approximately 60% and 55%. In other words, about 30% of the respondents flatly lied.

    Keep that in mind whenever you read poll results. Sometimes people lie, and sometimes they're just guessing. It's not quite an exact science yet.

    Kevin Drum 2:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    MORE ON THE DRAFT....Want to watch Phil Carter and Paul Glastris squirm as they try to defend the idea of bringing back the draft? Now's your chance! They'll be on the Lou Dobbs show on CNN at 6 pm Eastern time today, squirming before a live nationwide audience of millions. Don't miss it.

    Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    WRITE ABOUT ZOMBIES, GO TO JAIL...."Bible baseball" in English class? Yeah, that was probably illegal, says Flea, even back in the Reagan 80s. (Though at least the Godless Heathens won.) Still, it's better than being arrested and held on $5,000 bail because your writing assignment for English class features zombies taking over a high school.

    There's a lot of that going on post-Columbine. I sometimes think that school officials have gone certifiably insane over this stuff.

    Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    ON BULLSHIT....Two decades ago Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay called "On Bullshit." It became a classic. Why? Probably because the mere repetition of the word bullshit 84 times in a 20-page scholarly essay is funny. Funny in a juvenile kind of way, yes, but still funny. Here, for example, Frankfurt muses on the question of whether or not bullshit is inherently messy and unrefined:

    The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves...a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all. The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.

    Quite so. But why has "On Bullshit" recently gotten a new lease on life, including its release as an actual, if extremely teensy, book. It turns out that Frankfurt's fundamental insight, illustrated with an intriguingly weird anecdote about Ludwig Wittgenstein, is that the defining characteristic of bullshit is not that the bullshitter is lying, an act that requires the perpetrator to know the truth in the first place, but that the bullshitter doesn't care one way or the other. The actual facts are irrelevant, and if the bullshitter ends up telling the truth, that's fine. He just doesn't care. The relationship of this unblinking indifference to facts with our present day political environment is both obvious and striking. Timothy Noah explicates this a bit further in Slate today:

    Why should bullshit be so prevalent now? The obvious answer is the communications revolution. Cable television and the Internet have created an unending demand for information, and there simply isn't enough truth to go around. So we get bullshit instead. Indeed, there are some troubling signs that the consumer has come to prefer bullshit. In choosing guests to appear on cable news, bookers will almost always choose a glib ignoramus over an expert who can't talk in clipped sentences. In his underappreciated book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Richard Posner found a negative correlation between media mentions and scholarly citations for the 100 public intellectuals most mentioned in the mediaand these 100 accounted for 67.5 percent of all media mentions!

    I'd say this is unassailable. And yet, for all that this advances our current understanding of bullshit, I think there's something still missing. I shall illustrate this not with Wittgenstein, but with the far more appropriate character of Bill O'Reilly.

    Consider O'Reilly's signature schtick, the "No Spin Zone." What does he mean by this? I propose that "No Spin Zone" is merely an FCC-friendly translation of "No Bullshit Zone." O'Reilly is claiming that for at least a few minutes each night, you, the viewer, will not bullshitted. And yet, there's a meta level here, isn't there? Because this is itself bullshit. What's more, there's a level above that too: namely that both O'Reilly and his audience know that it's bullshit. And they don't mind.

    This, I think, is a key characteristic of bullshit: not just that the bullshitter knows he's bullshitting, but that the bullshittee also knows it. He may know it for sure, or he may just suspect it deep in his heart, but part of the essence of bullshit is that both sides implictly recognize that the statement in question is, in fact, bullshit. In this way it acts like a compact between spewer and receiver, a shared secret that brings them closer together. Thus the piquancy of bullshit, as well as its popularity.

    Kevin Drum 1:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    March 2, 2005
    By: Kevin Drum

    GOLDWATER REDUX....Rick Perlstein emails some thoughts about Barry Goldwater, the birth of modern conservatism, and the transformation of modern liberalism all inspired by the blog discussion that's been going on over the past week about his book Before the Storm.

    Previous discussion from DeLong, Drum, Yglesias, Waldman, Yglesias again, Schmitt, and Kilgore. Here is Rick's email:

    I've finally figured out a way to elegantly get at what is missing from the discussion of my Goldwater book, speaking now as a historian without getting bogged down in the complexities of the story I'll be telling in the sequel, which I hope to finish this fall, for publication in 2006.

    It comes down to this: In the period I was writing about, "liberalism" was synonymous with the expansion of liberalism's vision and influence, the creation of new programs that no one had even thought of yet. The word had nothing much to do with "preserving" New Deal programs, or even improving and/or strengthening them. If it wasn't about expanding its frontiers to new social realms, it wasn't called "liberalism." And if you weren't into expanding the New Deal's domain, you weren't called a "liberal." Expansion was central to the concept.

    Now, right here and now, you may or may not yourself believe that the kind of things the New Deal did should be expanded to new frontiers. But the crucial point to grasp the historical shift is that if you don't believe that the New Deal project should be expanded, you aren't a "liberal" in the sense the word meant before the forces Goldwater represented began flexing their muscles in the mid 1960s. Though you may still call yourself a liberal. Which may mean that the word itself, "liberal," has changed meaning, and the thing it refers to is not as far to the left as the thing it used to refer to.

    This is a bedrock shift in the geological narrative I'm laying out, slowly, slowly but this point is one of its foundations, and one's understanding of this point (if not one's opinion about the lessons for Democrats today, which the book leaves intentionally vague) should definitely come out in the text.

    Rick Perlstein

    Kevin Drum 4:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    BUSH AND THE CEDAR REVOLUTION....I intended to write more about Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution" after my initial brief post on Monday, but then figured I should wait a while to see what more knowledgable people had to say first. To my surprise, though, media reports and expert blogs have had plenty of description but relatively little analysis. What follows, then, is just some rough musings after taking in the news for the past couple of days. Take them for what they're worth.

    To begin with, are events in Lebanon and elsewhere a result of the Bush Doctrine? There are reasons to remain skeptical on this score. For starters, despite a fair amount of breast beating in the conservative blogosphere, the Bush administration itself never considered democratization a primary reason for the Iraq invasion. Paul Wolfowitz acknowledged this last year, telling Sam Tannenhaus shortly after the war that the three main reasons for invading Iraq were WMD, terrorist ties, and "the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people." What's more, he specifically discounted the idea that the war would "destabilize" the Middle East.

    We also know in retrospect that the administration originally planned a quick turnover of power in Iraq to some reliably friendly chieftan along with a drawdown to 30,000 troops within a few months. Elections were not in the cards, and the Bush administration opposed Iraqi elections as forcefully as it could until it finally caved in to pressure from Ayatollah Sistani and the insurgents.

    Other events seem equally unrelated to either the actions or the intentions of the Bush administration. The recent progress between Israel and the Palestinians was made possible by the death of Yasser Arafat, not the invasion of Iraq. Hosni Mubarak's acceptance of multi-party elections may well turn out to be a cynical sham designed to put his son in power without inflaming public opinion too badly. And the Cedar Revolution itself was kicked off by the Syrian assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

    Still. All plans go through considerable transformation as they run into events on the ground, and responding to these events is a key part of the president's job. So even though Bush actively opposed Iraqi elections and had nothing to do with the deaths of either Arafat or Hariri, he deserves credit for displaying the flexibility to take advantage of events as they unfolded. And if he's truly decided that democratization is something to take seriously something of which I'm hopeful but not yet convinced then he deserves credit for that too. For better or worse, the invasion of Iraq has set the background against which all these events are playing out, and if things eventually turn out well it will be hard to argue that the invasion didn't play a part.

    (For a more robust defense of Bush's role in current Mideast events, see Belgravia Dispatch here and here. I think Greg is a bit too dismissive of Bush's obvious lack of connection or outright opposition to some of the events in question, but then again, I imagine he feels the same way about me in reverse. In any case, he's a reasonable analyst and more knowledgable about the Middle East than I am, so it's worth reading his stuff seriously.)

    One final thing: I've long had a nagging feeling that the real hero in all this is satellite TV. So naturally I'm delighted to hear an expert agree with me:

    Arab satellite television has had an extraordinarily important role in the recent seeming "cascade" of events from Baghdad to Ramallah to Cairo to Beirut. I would argue that Arab satellite television including most especially al Jazeera might be more important than the American invasion of Iraq in these events.

    Part of it is a long term process: al Jazeera, and to a lesser extent to the other satellite stations, have been eviscerating the legitimacy of the Arab status quo for years....There's also the cumulative effect of the way issues have been framed....Finally, there's a more immediate and direct effect, driven by the fact that the protests in each individual country are being broadcast live to a vast Arab audience....the televised images of the Lebanese people, seemingly unified against Syria, tapped in to the core narrative of this new Arab identity: a unified, mobilized Arab public protesting against oppression and an intolerable status quo. They identified with this public more than they identified with a "targeted" Arab state.

    And that, I believe, is the most fundamental impact of the new Arab media. It's been developing for a number of years now. It has largely been in opposition to American foreign policy. But it has laid the groundwork for the kinds of democratic changes that we can now begin to envision. Wherever you come down on Bush and the value of the Iraq war, you should also appreciate the essential role played by the oft-demonized Arab media. Maybe you needed Bush to get what you're seeing today I remain skeptical but you definitely needed al Jazeera.

    This is ironic, of course, since al Jazeera is the bte noir of conservative hawkdom. But in the end, anti-American or not, they may prove to have been the biggest boosters of American values we have.

    Kevin Drum 3:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    THE ALL SEEING EYE....From TalkLeft:

    Homeland Security is requiring immigrants in 8 cities who are in the process of applying for residency to wear electronic monitoring ankle bracelets 24/7.

    These people have never been accused of a crime. There are 1,700 of them to date.

    What's next? Ankle bracelets for all high school students to make sure they don't skip class?

    UPDATE: A friend reminds me of where my snarky remark about tracking high school students came from. Apparently it filtered up from my subconscious memory of reading this story a couple of weeks ago:

    Educators in a small Sutter County school district gathered electronic tracking devices from hundreds of elementary and junior high school children Wednesday morning, ending the controversial pilot program that raised concerns over Big Brother-type privacy violations.

    At a special meeting the night before, officials from locally based InCom Corp. announced that they were pulling out of an agreement with the Brittan School District near Yuba City that allowed them to test the devices on the students.

    The company markets the badges, which have a radio-frequency antenna that is scanned when students pass through specially outfitted doorways, as a tool for taking attendance and monitoring students' locations.

    See? It's not just immigrants.....

    Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    SURVEY....I'm not sure if this counts as sticking it to The (Mainstream) Man or consorting with the blog-industrial complex, but the folks at BlogAds are conducting their 2005 reader survey and you can participate here:


    The survey allegedly takes only four minutes to complete, and it provides people like my corporate paymasters with invaluable information.

    For question #16, the name of this blog is "Political Animal." Thanks for participating!

    Kevin Drum 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    BLUENOSES AT THE TROUGH....The indecency police are feeling their oats. Heady over their success at bending broadcast TV to their will, they're now aiming higher:

    Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told a group of broadcasters yesterday that he wants to extend that authority to cover the hundreds of cable and satellite television and radio channels that operate outside of the government's control. In addition to basic cable channels such as ESPN, Discovery and MTV, that would include premium channels such as HBO and Showtime and the two satellite radio services, XM and Sirius.

    "We put restrictions on the over-the-air signals," Stevens said after his address to the National Association of Broadcasters, according to news reports confirmed by his staff. "I think we can put restrictions on cable itself. At least I intend to do my best to push that."

    Of course, the FCC is allowed to regulate broadcast stations only under the theory that the public owns the airwaves and can therefore regulate their use. [Oops, not true. See update below.] The government should no more be allowed to regulate cable TV than they should be allowed to regulate magazines or blog sites. Joe Barton (R-Texas), head of the House Commerce Committee, understands the First Amendment issue:

    Cable and broadcast TV "ought to play on the same field. If we can work out the constitutional questions, I'd be supportive of that."

    Of course, Barton knows perfectly well that the Supreme Court has ruled on this already. This vote is nothing more than grandstanding, just like a similar vote last year.

    To me, though, the worst part of all this is the part that TV broadcasters have long played. "A 5-year-old doesn't know if they're watching cable or over-the-air," says Edward Fritts, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, which argues that cable TV should play by the same rules as broadcast TV. Sure, I know the broadcast guys are losing viewers to cable, but are they really so desperate to cripple the competition that they're willing to support stronger government regulation of the whole industry? It's hard to think anything more shortsighted.

    UPDATE: In comments, Dilan Esper points out that the "public airwaves" argument is not the key constitutional issue here. He's right. The most recent case on the subject of regulating porn on cable TV was United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, decided in 2000. The Supreme Court did restrict Congress' right to regulate cable TV, but did so primarily on technical grounds, not "public airwaves" grounds. More details here.

    Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    PROFESSOR NEWT?....Over at Suburban Guerrilla, Susan comments on Newt Gingrich's latest foray into public policy. She says he's thinking like an academic:

    Academics don't know how to think like poor people. How would they? I was reading a piece Newt Gingrich wrote for today's Post about Medicaid, and he talked about removing the option for using emergency rooms as expensive primary care.

    See, I immediately understood the dilemma: Poor people go to the emergency rooms because they're always open and they don't have to take time off from work. That's how you think when you're poor.

    If Newt knew anything at all about scraping bottom in the real world, he'd know the way to deal with the problem is to offer financial incentives to medical practices with night and weekend hours. His tunnel vision leads to people not seeing a doctor at all.

    Tunnel vision? Nah. Newt knows this stuff backward and forward. He just doesn't care. He's not thinking like an academic, he's thinking like a Republican.

    Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    MORE CHOICEPOINT....Remember the ChoicePoint meltdown? They lost 135,000 personal records (so far, anyway) and would have kept the whole thing secret if it weren't for the unlucky break that one state super-hyper-loony-lefty California had a law requiring disclosure.

    Well, it turns out it's not the first time. Surprised?

    Scammers penetrated ChoicePoint Inc.'s vast online database of personal records five years ago in an operation similar to a more recent case that has triggered a national furor over privacy, court records show.

    ....That security breach, which received no public attention at the time...

    No public attention indeed. Records like these are central to interstate commerce and well within Congress' power to control. They should get off their butts and pass a fundamental overhaul. Nibbling around the edges isn't going to stop this stuff.

    Kevin Drum 11:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Paul Glastris

    Tax Attacks IV... A while back, I suggested that Democrats could do themselves and the public some good by taking on the practice of footloose corporations extorting
    tax subsidies from jobs-hungry state and local governments. Now, it appears that Democrats in the Georgia legislature have a way into that issue. They're opposing GOP-sponsored legislation that would shield such corporate relocation incentives from public scrutiny. Ed Kilgore, subbing for Josh Marshall, has the details.

    Paul Glastris 8:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    THAT WAS QUICK....The Washington Post reports that Bill Frist has publicly admitted that private accounts are in big trouble:

    The Senate's top Republican said yesterday that President Bush's bid to restructure Social Security may have to wait until next year and might not involve the individual accounts the White House has been pushing hard.

    ...."In terms of whether it will be a week, a month, six months or a year, as to when we bring something to the floor, it's just too early," Frist said.

    ....House leaders have said they want the Senate to go first in passing Social Security legislation. That is because they are pessimistic about picking up Democratic support, and they do not want to put GOP members in the position of passing a controversial bill that then dies in the Senate, leaving a ripe issue for Democrats in 2006.

    You don't say stuff like this in public unless you're pretty close to giving up. Combine that with pessimism from other Republican senators and Tom DeLay's unwillingness to even address Social Security unless the Senate goes first, and I think it's safe to say that privatization is doomed. And if it's doomed this year, it's sure as hell doomed next year, with midterm elections approaching.

    At this point, the only question left is how hard Bush will try to cut some kind of compromise deal with Democrats. And about all I can about that is: Don't. Don't do it unless you get something really good in return. And even then, you probably still shouldn't do it. Caveat emptor.

    Kevin Drum 12:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    March 1, 2005
    By: Kevin Drum

    OOPS....Apparently we are having problems with Frank Gehry's swoopy new steel-clad concert hall:

    Construction crews are set to take a hand sander to some of the shimmering stainless steel panels that have wowed tourists and architecture lovers but have baked neighbors living in condominiums across the street.

    Beams of sunlight reflected from the hall have roasted the sidewalk to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to melt plastic and cause serious sunburn to people standing on the street, according to a report from a consultant hired by the county.

    ...."I will just appreciate not having the glare," said condo resident Jacqueline LaGrone, who said her air conditioning bill doubled during summer months since the Disney Hall opened and that she can't use her patio.

    "It's about time," said Sheila Nixon, a Department of Water and Power employee who regularly walks around the hall for exercise. "We feel like ants under a magnifying glass."

    Alternatively, maybe Christo could wrap it up in saffron colored burlap or something.

    Kevin Drum 9:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    EXECUTING TEENAGERS....The Supreme Court ruled today that execution of minors is unconstitutional. Upon learning that until now only the United States and Somalia allowed this, Julie Saltman asks:

    What sort of ass-backwards place is this, that it is (or was until today) one of the last two places on earth to permit the execution of children? "Overwhelming weight" indeed.

    But James Joyner wonders how the court justified its decision:

    I'm not a big fan of capital punishment for minors but find it incomprehensible that it could suddenly be unconstitutional. The 8th Amendment was ratified in 1791. The fact that 19 states still allowed youth executions until this morning belies the argument that the citizenry considers the practice cruel.

    But that's the whole problem with strict constructionism, isn't it? After all, the text of the constitution says only that "cruel and unusual" punishment shall not be inflicted. In one sense this is clear: "cruel and unusual" punishment is directly forbidden, so the court must rule in specific cases whether it wants to or not. However, since the text provides no clue about what this means or how to decide if something qualifies as cruel and unusual, relying on it for further guidance is fruitless. What's more, harkening back to 1791 does no good either. After all, our founding fathers engaged in plenty of practices that would be universally condemned as cruel and unusual today. It can't be our purpose to freeze moral values for all time.

    This is where strict constructionism flounders. As with much of the constitution, the 8th Amendment is simply too vague to be taken literally. There's no there there. But while the Supreme Court therefore has no choice but to redefine the meaning of "cruel and unusual" over time, there's no built-in algorithm that will take them there. There's no guidebook and the process is inevitably going to be fuzzy.

    At the same time, even though the decisionmaking process is inevitably fuzzy, the decision itself is just as inevitably sudden. One day executing minors is OK, the next day it isn't. What other choice is there?

    As for me, count me happy to leave the company of Somalia.

    Kevin Drum 5:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    BRING BACK THE DRAFT?....Do we need to reinstate the draft? Phil Carter and WM editor Paul Glastris suggest the answer is yes in "The Case for the Draft" in the current issue of the Washington Monthly. If I can summarize (and I can!), their argument goes like this:

    • Every 20 years or so the United States needs to put half a million or more soldiers in the field. This happened during WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War. It's foolish to think it won't happen again.

    • As the Iraq war demonstrates, we're no longer able to do this. Our current military, stretched to the limit, can field about 300,000 troops for a short time (a year or less), or about 100,000 troops over an extended period.

    • What to do? Relying on foreign assistance or private contractors is implausible, and increasing the size of the standing army (or the reserves) is politically impossible. What's more, we don't need a bigger standing army. We need a "surge" capability that we can call on in the rare cases where we need large numbers of troops.

    • The best way to get this surge capability is a draft. Phil and Paul have a suggestion for a specific kind of draft (one that's universally required for admittance to university, with draftees given a choice of either national service or military service), but what's more important is the purpose of the draft: to create a pool of experienced recruits who can be called up when necessary. They suggest their plan would produce 100,000 military recruits per year, so after a decade the military would have a pool of a million former soldiers who could be called up in an emergency.

    Politically, this proposal strikes me as being every bit the nonstarter that any other draft proposal would be. What's more, it all hinges on the very first point, namely that we need to have the ability to field a large army in the future and this is the only way to do it.

    I'm skeptical on both counts. The U.S. military is already overwhelmingly powerful, and it's hard to see the case for making it yet more overwhelming. If we can't protect U.S. national interests with our current military including its sizable nuclear deterrent there's something wrong with our perception of our national interest.

    I'm also skeptical that an ongoing draft is the only way to field a large army anyway. After all, if we ever found ourselves needing a million-person force we could still do what we did during World War II and the Vietnam War: start drafting and training soldiers then. Sure, it would take a while, but it would take a while to build up the equipment to outfit their combat brigades anyway. It's true that having a large pool of trained former soldiers would nonetheless be a benefit, but would it really be such a large benefit that it makes an ongoing draft worth the cost?

    I don't see it. Any danger to U.S. interests that requires a fast response will be the job of the current volunteer military, and it's hard to foresee any danger that requires both huge numbers of troops and an immediate reaction. This seems like a solution in search of a problem.

    Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    MAIL-IN REBATES....Via Andrew Tobias, here's a website from a guy with advice on how to successfully collect mail-in rebates. Frankly, he makes me want to give up on the whole thing, but if you're more obsessed about this stuff than me it sounds like pretty good advice.

    Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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    By: Kevin Drum

    SOCIAL SECURITY FLACKING....Is the Social Security Administration (a) an independent agency of the federal government or (b) a shill for the Bush administration's privatization plans? In theory (a), but in practice, apparently, (b). Henry Waxman and and his pals on the Committee on Government Reform have released an instructive report about how the SSA's documents have been changed systematically over the past four years with the express purpose of convincing the public that Social Security is unsustainable and underfinanced and must change.

    Some excerpts:

    During the Clinton Administration, one of the agencys primary strategic goals was to educate the public about the Social Security program. This strategic goal was replaced....The agencys 2005 strategic communications plan states that a key message is Social Securitys long-term financing problems are serious and need to be addressed soon.

    ....Changes in The Future of Social Security booklet. The 2000 version of this public primer on Social Security began: Will Social Security be there for you? Absolutely. In the 2004 version....Social Security must change to meet future challenges. A key heading from the 2000 document read: Social Security Is an Economic Compact Among Generations. In the 2004 version, the new heading reads: Current Social Security System Is Unsustainable in the Long Run.

    Changes in agency press releases....The 2001 press release was titled: Social Security Trust Funds Gain One Additional Year of Solvency. By 2003, the estimate of the programs solvency had increased by four years to 2042. Yet the 2003 press release is titled: Social Security Not Sustainable for the Long Term

    ....Changes in other agency communications....The 2000 narrative told audiences, There is no immediate financial crisis, and the baby boom generations pressure on the trust funds is not permanent. The 2004 narrative removes these statements. New additions to the agencys website warn the public of a massive and growing shortfall and benefits that could be reduced by 33 percent.

    ....2001 statements told workers....Social Security will be there when you retire.....2005 version, replaced by the vague but alarming assertion that Congress has made changes to the law in the past, and can do so at any time.

    Via The Stakeholder, which also has a copy of the press release. The whole report is here.

    Kevin Drum 2:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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