Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 30, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THUNDERBIRD UPDATE....As I mentioned last week, I've switched to Thunderbird as my email client. Aside from what I said at the time, I don't have much to add after using it for a week. Basically, it works fine and has several features that Outlook Express lacked.

One complaint: Outlook Express sends emails in the background. As soon as you press the "Send" button, it returns control to you. Thunderbird is just the opposite: it does everything in the foreground, so you have to sit around and twiddle your thumbs for five or ten seconds while it sends your email. Bummer.

The spam control is good, but not great. The good news is that it hasn't marked a single good email as spam. The bad news is that even after a week of training it misses over 50% of the actual spam. However, my ISP filters about 90% of my spam at the server, so I assume that what gets through is only the toughest 10%. Given that, a 50% hit rate might not be so bad. (I should add that some of the spam that gets through is so fiendishly disguised that I'd be astonished if any anti-spam filter caught it.)

I still haven't decided on an antivirus program, though. So far, I'd say PC-cillin is the leading candidate.

UPDATE: Well, I tried the much recommended AVG antivirus software, but unfortunately its email scanner caused my email to cease functioning altogether. If I had to guess and I do since the documentation was no help and the configuration screens were inscrutable I'd say it was because it didn't know the password for my POP3 server. However, since there didn't appear to be any way to inform it of the proper password, there's no way to test this theory. So for now, it's uninstalled. Further suggestions are welcome, of course.

Kevin Drum 6:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TEXAS TWANG....Over at The Corner, Warren Bell comments on Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

Maybe I'm paranoid, but Sam Rockwell plays Zaphod Beeblebrox, who has recently been elected President of the galaxy despite being notoriously stupid because he is charming and likable. Rockwell renders this charming but stupid leader with a distinctly familiar Texas twang.

So, um, what's your point, Warren?

Kevin Drum 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BUSH'S WAR....I decided a couple of days ago that it would just be masochistic to complain about Glenn's latest attempt to pretend that democracy promotion was the real reason for the Iraq war. However, Julian Sanchez is a stronger man than I am and says what needs to be said. He speaks for me in this.

But I will add one more thing: except in passing, George Bush didn't mention democracy promotion as a rationale for the war until his AIE speech of February 26, a mere three weeks before the bombing started. The fact that he went months with barely a mention of freedom and democracy in the Middle East and then made such a lame speech when he did finally mention it was one of the main reasons that I turned against the war. I originally supported the war as a way to "promote the values of tolerance, human rights, and democratic self-government" in the Middle East, but then switched sides when I finally concluded that my reasons for supporting the war were not George Bush's ("It's simply become wishful thinking to believe that Bush is really committed to any kind of serious effort to promote democracy in Iraq"). In other words, I have a pretty good memory about this stuff since it had a considerable effect on my own thinking.

Still not convinced? Here is Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech, delivered seven weeks before the war started. Read through it. There are 1,200 words about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the danger they pose. There are exactly zero words about bringing democracy to Iraq and the greater Middle East. In fact, aside from a passing reference to Palestine, the word "democracy" is used only once in the entire speech: in reference to Iran, in a passage that specifically states that "different threats require different strategies." The United States supports Iranian aspirations, Bush said, but that's all. It's not a reason to go to war.

I can't look into George Bush's heart, but I can listen to his words and watch his deeds. And based on that, democracy promotion was not on his agenda before the war, during the war, or after the war until the Ayatollah Sistani forced his hand. Let's not demean history by pretending otherwise.

Kevin Drum 2:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FAMILY VALUES....If you could vaccinate young women against a sexually transmitted virus, would you do it? Of course you would. Who'd be against something like that?

Via Body and Soul, we get the answer. Here's Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council:

Abstinence is the best way to prevent HPV. Giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a licence to engage in premarital sex.

It just leaves you speechless, doesn't it?

Kevin Drum 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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REMAKES....Quick quiz: can you think of a movie remake that was better than the original? I'm looking for something made in the last 30 years or so, and it has to be a remake of a movie, not a sequel or a movie version of a TV show. Any candidates?

Kevin Drum 3:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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TIERNEY ON BUSH....Look, I know that conservatives are going to try and describe George Bush's Social Security plan as favorably as they can, but this is just a lie:

Democrats like to portray Mr. Bush as King George or Marie Antoinette. But on Thursday night, when he promised to improve benefits for the poor while limiting them for everyone else, he sounded more like Robin Hood....

Bush didn't promise to improve benefits for the poor, he promised to keep them exactly the same as they are under current law while reducing them for everyone else. Cut the crap, John.

Kevin Drum 3:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BRITISH CAMPAIGN ADS....I was looking for a bit of fun to clear my mind of filbusters and bend points and judicial tyranny this evening, and Andrew Sullivan delivered! This site contains three British campaign ads, and you really, really ought to spend a few minutes and watch them. To someone born and bred on 30-second American attack ads, they're mesmerizing. My summary:

Labour: Sure, we kind of suck. Totally understandable you feel that way. But Christ, just look at the Conservatives. If you vote for them, they'll make you wish you'd never been born.

Conservatives: Britain has become a hellhole. A hellhole with oddly soothing music to go along with it, but a hellhole nonetheless. However, if you vote for us things might become a bit less hellish.

Liberal Democrats: Oh face it: both Labour and the Conservatives are a bunch of twits. Might as well give us a try, don't you think?

The weird thing is that mesmerizing though they might be, I don't think any of these ads would actually persuade me to vote in any particular direction. Labour's pitch is almost a parody, the Tory ad made me want to hide in the closet and never come out, and the Lib Dem ad was funny but pointless.

Anyway, give them a look. They're well worth a few minutes of your time.

UPDATE: My bad (and Sullivan's). Via FreddieMercury in comments, these aren't real ads. They were created by Lee Ford and Dan Brooks:

[Channel 4] gave us a completely open brief to do whatever we wanted. Basically, we set about creating the kind of broadcasts the three main parties would like to make if there were no regulations and they didn't have to be politically correct. The aim is leave the viewer thinking, 'O my God, did they actually make that?'

Still funny and worth watching, but not what I originally thought they were. Ford and Brooks successfully suckered me.

Kevin Drum 1:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 29, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MORE OUTSOURCING....I'm low on energy today. Paradoxically, though, it's because there are too many cringeworthy things to blog about today. For a quick rundown, go read the Carpetbagger.

Kevin Drum 4:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LA TIMES BASHING....I'm outsourcing today's critique of my hometown newspaper:

  • In a story above the fold on Page 1, the LA Times repeats the oft-debunked claim that Sudan tried to turn over Osama bin Laden to Bill Clinton in 1996 but Clinton turned them down. Island of Balta performs the necessary debunking chores.

  • David Gelernter returns to his weekly spot on the op-ed page. I was too tired to waste time on him this week, but Matt Yglesias picks up the slack. He also proposes a theory that Michael Kinsley is deliberately hiring nitwit conservatives for the op-ed page in an effort to make conservatives look stupid. I guess that's as good an explanation as any. Gelernter's columns would embarrass a high school sophomore.

You may now return to whatever your hometown news source is.

Kevin Drum 2:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BUSH'S SOCIAL SECURITY PLAN....So it turns out that the Social Security plan George Bush talked about last night was based on a proposal called the "Pozen Plan," named after Bob Pozen, who first suggested it. CBPP has a detailed breakdown of the plan, but for those of you with short attention spans I've cut it down to a single chart.

Basically, low income earners ($16K/year) currently get about 49% of their income replaced by Social Security. Under the Pozen plan, this would stay the same. Medium income workers ($36K/year), however, would see their replacement rate fall from 36% to 23% by the year 2100. The replacement rate for higher income workers ($58K/year) would fall to 14% and for maximum income workers ($90K/year) to 9%.

That's a pretty substantial cut in benefits. I think you can decide for yourself whether you like this plan or not.

UPDATE: As Judd Legum points out, Pozen's plan cuts benefits for anyone making over $20,000 per year. This is Bush's definition of "people who are better off." Needless to say, this is a slightly different definition than he used when he was selling his tax cuts.

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A SHINY NEW BUDGET....Here's your new Republican budget:

The House and Senate broke a lengthy impasse over federal spending Thursday night, narrowly adopting a $2.56 trillion federal budget for 2006 that aims to trim the growth of Medicaid by $10 billion over five years, add $106 billion in tax cuts and clear the way for oil drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge.

Attaboy! Reduce the deficit $10 billion by cutting back on healthcare for the poor, and then turn around and increase the deficit $106 billion by approving additional tax cuts for the rich. Moral values, baby, moral values.

Kevin Drum 2:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 28, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BUSH ON SOCIAL SECURITY....Huh? Here's a transcript of what President Bush said about Social Security tonight:

As a matter of fairness, I propose that future generations receive benefits equal to or greater than the benefits today's seniors get.

Secondly, I believe a reformed system should protect those who depend on Social Security the most. So I propose a Social Security system in the future where benefits for low-income workers will grow faster than benefits for people who are better off.

....This reform would solve most of the funding challenges facing Social Security.

I assume that "equal to or greater" is code for "indexing to inflation, not wage growth." In other words, guaranteed benefits, which today are based on wage growth, would be reduced by quite a bit for everyone except the lowest wage earners. But he didn't have the guts to actually say this, instead making it sound like no one's future benefits would be cut.

Presumably the unvarnished truth will come later, at some time when the president isn't on primetime TV. What a coward.

POSTSCRIPT: Technically, I assume the plan Bush is talking about involves fiddling with Social Security's "bend points." There are currently two bend points: the first at about $7,500 and the second at about $45,000. When you retire, you get 90% of your average income up to the first bend point, 32% up to the second bend point, and 15% of the rest of your income (up to a maximum of $90,000).

A worker with an average income of $7,500, for example, would get an initial Social Security benefit of $6,750. A worker with an average income of $45,000 would get an initial Social Security benefit of $6,750 + $12,000, or $18,750, which is 42% of their total income.

Got that? These bend points are increased each year to match wage growth for the previous year. It sounds like Bush's plan is to continue indexing the first bend point to wages but to change both the second bend point and the $90,000 maximum so they increase only by the rate of inflation. Thus, middle income workers, who currently have 42% of their income replaced by Social Security, would see that percentage slowly erode. In 50 years, it would be more like 30%. In 75 years it would be 25%.

Or something like that. Presumably the White House will dish the details eventually.

Kevin Drum 10:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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A QUESTION....I just have to wonder: is it really a good idea for George Bush to repeatedly refer to the president of Russia as "Vladimir" on primetime TV? Doesn't that seem just a wee bit more intimate than the American public might be comfortable with?

POSTSCRIPT: The press conference was originally scheduled for 8:30 but then rescheduled for 8:01. Oddly, though, the White House failed to inform me of this change, so I missed the first ten minutes, including all of President Bush's opening statement.

However, thanks to the miracle of liveblogging from James Joyner in this case, who's doing a great job it appears that he had nothing fresh to say about Social Security. Supposedly we were going to get new details about his plan, but nada. No specifics. No news. No nothing.

So what was the point? What was this press conference all about? Very peculiar.

Kevin Drum 9:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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TOM DELAY UPDATE....NBC News has more details about Tom DeLay's trip to Moscow in 1997:

The cost of DeLay's room, with all the amenities, was $295 a night....NBC News has learned the expenses were, in fact, put on the credit card of a lobbyist and a Russian businessman.

A source close to the case says $885 was charged to [Jack] Abramoffs credit card, and records indicate the rest was put on the credit card of Alexander Koulakovsky, general manager of a Russian oil and gas company called NAFTASib.

Most of this was reported three weeks ago by the Washington Post, but their story was based on "four people with firsthand knowledge of the trip arrangements." NBC, conversely, got hold of actual hotel records.

Kevin Drum 9:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SCHWARZENEGGER'S SWOON....Our cover story for May is a profile of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's not doing so well these days, and LA Times reporter Mark Barabak tells us why:

It may be the contradictions are finally catching up with Schwarzenegger. After campaigning as the scourge of special interests and vowing to take money from no one, the governor has collected political cash at a ravenous pace, raising more than $30 million since taking office.
(Invitations to a recent Sacramento fundraiser, An Evening With Governor Schwarzenegger, blithely offered access at four levels, starting at $10,000 for a ticket and one photograph and topping out at $100,000 for a seat at the head table.)

....Worse, perhaps, for a governor so image-obsessed has been his decline in public opinion surveys, which has been almost entirely a function of Democratic and independent defections. (Like President Bush, Schwarzenegger continues to enjoy near universal support among Republicans despite his disdain for party-building.) By late February, his approval number in the statewide Field Poll was a decidedly mortal 55 percent, down 10 points in five months. More galling still, the governor's rating stood a tick below that of the rejected Davis before the bottom fell out for the beleaguered Democrat amid the 2001 California energy fiasco.

It's actually even worse than that. Pretty much all of Schwarzenegger's highly touted initiatives are in trouble. He wanted to gut California's public pension program but was forced to cave in on that a few weeks ago. Redistricting reform was a centerpiece of his State of the State speech earlier this year, but yesterday he as much as admitted he couldn't make it happen. His proposal for merit pay for teachers is dead in the water, and teachers and nurses have run an astonishingly effective ad campaign accusing him correctly of reneging on his promises of a year ago. Indian tribes are all over TV too, complaining about his plans to tax hardworking tribe members. The result? His latest approval ratings are down to 40%.

So how did this happen? Part of it is due to arrogance and an unwillingness to work with a heavily Democratic legislature, but I suspect a bigger part is that Schwarzenegger has no real governing principles he could fall back on when things got tough. Instead, he's a guy who's good at backslapping and has a hodgepodge of unrelated populist ideas he thought he could pass by sheer force of personality. When he turned out to be wrong, he was stuck. He has no coherent message he can sell to the public and no real core support except for rich businessmen. When he fell, there was no one to catch him.

Read the whole story for more.

Kevin Drum 7:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

REPUBLICAN RAGE....Since I have mixed feelings about parental notification laws, I also have mixed feelings about legislation passed yesterday by the House making it illegal to transport minors across state lines in order to evade parental notification laws. Basically, I think the idea of requiring parental notification for any surgical procedure is pretty defensible, but at the same time I'm appalled at the Big Brotherish potential of federal legislation that could send friends and relatives to jail merely for driving a 17-year-old across a state line. Since I'm unable to resolve this inconsistency in my own mind, that's all I have to say about it for now.

But that won't stop me from noting the spectacular temper tantrum thrown by Judiciary Committee Republicans yesterday. Democrats offered several amendments to the bill that would have exempted, for example, friends and relatives or common carriers like bus companies and taxicabs from the new law. They were all voted down, of course, but in addition the descriptions were all rewritten to say things like "Mr. Scott offered an amendment that would have exempted sexual predators from prosecution if they are taxicab drivers...." Hilzoy has all the gory details.

Republicans are just going insane with frustration these days. If they're mad because their candidates are being filibustered, they threaten to change the filibuster rule by fiat. If they don't like what the courts are doing, they threaten to defund the courts. If their candidate for UN ambassador is likely to get voted down in committee, they plan to report him out anyway. If they don't like your amendments to their pet bill, they unilaterally rewrite them in a display of juvenile pique.

I can hardly wait to see what's next. Are we going to have fistfights on the floor of Congress again? Or is the Republican caucus simply going to explode in purple cheeked rage? Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

POP CULTURE REPORT.... Camille Paglia was in Madison, Wisconsin, yesterday. Ann Althouse reports:

In the question session, one young man asks what she thinks of blogging. She says, Im worried about blogging. Theres decadence in the web. Once youre swept up in the blogosphere, you become self-referential. (Afterwards, my colleague expresses amusement that she said other people were being self-referential.) Instead of blogs, she prefers on-line magazines. Mainly, Salon. Do you know shes returning to Salon? Theres also Slate, but Slates a little bit more wonky, though it has some good wonky articles now and then. Who knows which blogs to read? There are so many! What bloggers need to do is join together and make on-line magazines. Like Salon. Did you know shes returning to Salon?

Say, um, I've heard that Camille Paglia might be writing for Salon again. Anyone know if that's true?

Kevin Drum 2:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRACY IN MEXICO....A couple of weeks ago, shortly after he announced he would be running for president, Mexico's Congress made Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador ineligible for office by allowing him to be indicted him for a minor offense. Lpez Obrador was the front runner, and the whole affair stank of the worst kind of partisan hackery.

But on Wednesday, President Vicente Fox announced the resignation of the attorney general who was leading the prosecution against Lpez Obrador:

In a surprise announcement broadcast nationwide, Fox gave no reason for the departure of Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha, but analysts said the president acted because of growing criticism of the government's criminal case against Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the top contender in next year's presidential election.

...."My government will not obstruct anyone from participating in the coming federal election," he said. He went on to say that he would soon propose legal reforms that would "preserve the rights of citizens subject to trial until a final sentence is given."

That's good news. And although I wish George Bush had been a little more vocal about criticizing this anti-democratic move in the first place, I'd be inclined to cut him some slack on this. It's true that if you claim to be a democracy promoter then you should be a democracy promoter everywhere, but at the same time American interference in Mexican internal affairs is a pretty sensitive topic for obvious historical reasons, so it may well be that a private approach was best in this case. I'll be curious to see if any of the major papers write a piece over the next few days about what, if anything, the American government did behind the scenes here.

Kevin Drum 11:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FREAK-IOLOGY....I just finished reading Steven Levitt's Freakonomics, a very nice, accessible book that addresses a hodgepodge of interesting topics. Should you read it too? Sure, although at 25 bucks for 200 pages you might want to wait for the paperback edition. (I don't buy many hardbacks these days, but I had a gift card in hand and the book looked interesting and....anyway, I bought it.)

Aside from some generic whinging about the high cost of books these days, however, there was one thing that bugged me about this particular book: virtually nothing in it had anything to do with economics. Here are some sample questions: Is sumo wrestling fixed? Does school choice matter? Why has crime declined? Do baby names have any impact on life outcomes?

Now, this is all interesting stuff, but the investigations all followed pretty much the same pattern: Levitt (or some other researcher) analyzed a huge dataset of some kind and then used statistical tools to tease out correlations that explain some aspect of human behavior. The divide between economics and other social sciences may be pretty fuzzy these days, but as near as I can tell these are almost purely sociological questions and are addressed almost purely with the standard statistical toolkit of sociology, psychology, political science, and organizational behavior. This isn't economics unless you define economics so broadly that it encompasses any investigation into stuff that human beings do.

Yeah, I know: whatever. But there was one other thing: on page 13 Levitt promised that the book would explode the myth that drinking eight glasses of water per day is good for your health. Longtime readers with good memories will remember that this is a topic of interest to me, and I wanted to hear more about it. But no. After the tease, there was nothing more.

Bastard.

Kevin Drum 1:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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24 BLOGGING....An email from a reader reminds me that intellectual integrity demands that I do some followup 24 blogging. So here it is.

Those of you who care may recall that a couple of months ago I theorized that this season's casual and frequent use of torture was actually a trick: since the torture never actually worked, the writers were sending a subtle but definite anti-torture message.

Well, this theory was always a little shaky, and the past couple of weeks have blown it completely out of the water. To recap: last week Jack shanghaied a suspect and used a taser to force him to reveal the location of the primary bad guy. At that point my theory was hanging by a thread.

[UPDATE: My bad. Jack tasered the federal agent who was guarding the suspect. The suspect himself got his fingers broken. Thanks to skeptic in comments for the correction.]

This week the thread snapped: it turned out that the torture worked perfectly. The location the bad guy coughed up was accurate and Jack & Co. promptly surrounded the bad guy's working headquarters (though he subsequently escaped). But it's actually worse than that. Not only did the torture work, but Jack did it despite specific instructions from the president not to. Because of this, the president (who was VP until a couple of hours ago, when Air Force One got shot down) was very clearly presented as an indecisive wimp who was unable to make manly decisions like authorizing the torture of suspected terrorists. The writers have left us in no doubt: not only does torture work, but real men approve of it while wimps stand around wringing their hands about consulting the the attorney general. This is not an anti-torture message.

So I was wrong. Really, really, wrong. Tomorrow I will turn in my TV merit badge and retire from pop culture criticism.

On a different note, though: way to handle an assault rifle, Chloe! IT nerds of the world unite!

Kevin Drum 1:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 27, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

LIBERAL PRINCIPLES....What do liberals stand for? If you can stand a bit more navel gazing about this, Matt Yglesias makes the following comment today:

The Prospect ran a contest a little while back asking readers to submit ideas for a liberal counter to the conservative pitch of "low taxes, traditional family values, and a strong military." We got a few good ones, but the results were pretty bad....The problem was that people didn't even seem to understand the right kind of thing to be doing. What makes the conservative pitch work is that while it's general enough to be broadly appealing, it's specific enough that liberals will have to reject it. The submissions we got tended to either operate at an overly-broad level ("we're for good things happening and against bad ones") or else to just be policy laundry-lists.

I think this is basically correct. Laundry lists don't inspire anyone, and slogans are just....slogans. As Matt points out, "we're for the middle class" is useless as a guiding principle since everyone says they're for the middle class.

I don't have any kind of comprehensive answer to this problem of modern liberalism, but I'd like to toss out a few thoughts. The first one is this: conservatives have done a great job of building intellectual superstructures that support their actual policy goals. These superstructures all share two features: (a) they are intuitively appealing to ordinary people and (b) they very definitely aren't ideas shared by liberals.

Supply side economics is a good example of this. Basically, conservatives have made the case that low taxes on capital spur economic growth and therefore benefit everyone. This is both intuitively believable and personally appealing, since everyone likes low taxes. Whether it's correct or not is beside the point. What matters is that it's (a) understandable and (b) can act as a backstop for a whole raft of specific tax cutting measures favored by conservatives.

There are other examples, of course. In the judicial realm, originalism is an intellectual backstop for conservative social policies. "Small government" is the backstop for a wide range of regulatory policies favoring corporate interests.

Note that these three things clearly differentiate conservatives from liberals. Liberals wouldn't even claim to support supply side economics, originalism, or small government.

So what do liberals need to fight back? Although no set of principles is going to cover every base, I'd argue that we need three or four backstops that underly a lot of the things we want to accomplish. But what?

Here's an example: equal tax rates for all types of income. After all, it's intuitively appealing that if wage earners pay a certain tax rate (which varies with income), people who get their incomes from capital gains, dividends, or inheritances should pay the same rate. That's something that sounds fair to a lot of people, and once it's accepted as a principle it can act as a backstop for a wide range of detailed tax policies.

On the corporate front, how about a fair shake for the working poor who want to unionize? Stronger unions especially in the service area would provide an automatic counterbalance to both a wide array of corporate abuses as well as our growing problem of income inequality, all without liberals being forced into either punitive taxation or ill-considered (and probably unpopular) regulatory schemes. What's more, the case that low-paid workers should be allowed to unionize without threats and abuse from management will strike a lot of people as fair and reasonable.

These are just examples. I'm not trying to propose some kind of overarching liberal frame here, I'm just trying to point out that the right way to think about this stuff is to come up with appealing ideas that can be used as jumping off points for lots of other things. This takes some imagination, since you have to think hard about the direction your ideas can ultimately take once people internalize them, and it also takes time to successfully insert them into the public discourse most likely years, and quite possibly decades.

So toss out your ideas in comments if you have any. Just be sure to keep them appealing, wide ranging, and clearly unconservative.

Kevin Drum 6:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ETHICS COMMITTEE UPDATE....Dennis Hastert has apparently agreed to back down on his plan to emasculate the House Ethics Committee. Good news.

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LEFT AND RIGHT....Via Praktike, Michael Walzer has an interesting essay in the current issue of Dissent. He argues that over the past few decades the basic temperaments of left and right in the United States have swapped places with each other:

....the first crossover: ideological certainty and zeal have migrated to the right....Most of us on the near-left live in a complex world, which we are not sure we understand, and we move around in that world pragmatically, practicing a politics of trial and error. We defend policies like Social Security, which have worked pretty well, and try to make them work a little better. We want more redistributive tax and welfare systems, but we are not Bolshevik egalitarians-even if our opponents are Bolshevik inegalitarians. We opposed the Iraq War but are painfully unsure about how to get out and when. National health insurance is the most radical proposal that I've heard from American liberals in recent years, and it's a European commonplace.

....the second crossover: ideological uncertainty and skepticism about all-out solutions to social problems have migrated to the left. This must have something to do with 1989 and the collapse of communism though I don't think that the left, near or far, has even begun to come to grips with the disaster that was communism. Perhaps the second crossover is also the product of the (very incomplete) success of social democracy in Europe and New Deal liberalism here, of civil rights and feminism, even of multiculturalism. Successes of this sort don't leave us without an agenda, but they may leave us without the kind of agenda that makes for passionate conviction and zealous endeavor.

I've made a similar argument before, and I think there's something to it. To a large extent, despite the triumphalism of the right, liberalism has won most of the big debates in this country. Sure, we've only gotten 80% or 90% of what we set out to get half a century ago, but it's hard to bring a lot of passion to the fight for the final 10 or 20%. The reason liberalism seems lackluster these days is that with the exception of the radical left, which is mostly ignored, garden variety liberals don't have all that much to complain about.

Conversely, conservatives do. They don't have a constructive program so much as a seething rage to tear down the liberal experiment, something they really haven't had much success at. The result is an explosive frustration that surfaces in things like the Terri Schiavo case or the recent "Justice Sunday" assault on the judiciary. But as polls clearly show, this kind of stuff doesn't go over well with the American public. There may be some support for changes at the margins, but not for wholesale revolution.

In the end, then, we have a stalemate. The left in America has limited energy because its goals are fairly modest and its story is disjointed. The right has energy and vision to spare but its goals aren't widely supported. Someone or something is likely to come along in the near future and smash this stalemate, but what? Or who?

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THERE IS ONLY THE TEXT....Kieran Healy moderates a blog smackdown between the Montblanc Meisterstuck Solitaie Doue and the latest version of AUCTeX. Are they both equally evil? Or merely harmless diversions from the mediocrity of daily life?

Kevin Drum 11:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 26, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BEING TOM DELAY....Should liberals be fighting to force Tom DeLay to step down as Majority Leader of the House? A friend of mine has been arguing for a while that we'd be better off keeping him around for symbolic reasons, a case that Jonathan Alter makes in the current issue of Newsweek:

On every issue ethics, the environment, guns, tax cuts, judges [DeLay] is a clarifying figure for anyone who might be confused about the true nature of today's GOP.

So assuming he dodges indictment, DeLay should stay in his post for 18 months, until the 2006 midterm elections....His potential successors are all just as conservative as DeLay, but they seem colorless and would thus fuzz up the choice. The midterms should be a referendum on DeLay's America. Stay on the right fringe or move toward the center? Let the people decide.

....If DeLay goes down, his shamelessness will go with him, which will make it harder to see the GOP's true agenda....Let's make 2006 a referendum on the right wing. For that, DeLay must stay.

Is there a downside to letting DeLay stay? Alter says no: the Republican majority isn't going to let the Democrats get anything done no matter who's in charge, and if keeping DeLay around distracts Republicans from accomplishing their goals, so much the better.

I have to say that the more I think about this, the more appealing I find it. The modern Republican party has always had to hide its radical agenda behind folks like Ronald Reagan and George Bush, appealing faces who strike most people as more moderate than they really are. But when voters outside of deep red states are faced with extremist Republicans who actually say what they mean, they shy away in horror. DeLay is that kind of Republican, and with the proper encouragement he could be an enormous millstone around the GOP's neck for a good long time.

In practice, what does this mean? I guess it means that we should keep pricking away at DeLay but make no serious effort to get him to resign or step down all the while working to nationalize the 2006 election around the Bug Man. The goal would be to make Tom DeLay the national face of the Republican party by November 2006.

Who knows? It might work. It's worth a thought, anyway.

Kevin Drum 11:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

JOURNAL-ISM....I see that the Wall Street Journal is busily cementing its reputation as the most dishonest editorial page in the country. Today they crow yet again about the vast tax burden of the upper classes:

An IRS study by a trio of tax wonks shows that, even after including Social Security taxes, the overall tax burden grew more progressive from 1979 to 1999. And while that burden became a tad less progressive after the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the rich and upper middle class continued to pay far and away the bulk of U.S. taxes.

Now, it's true that the rich and the upper middle class pay the bulk of U.S. taxes. But you know why? It's because the rich and the upper class also have the bulk of the money: the top 20% of taxpayers pay 67% of federal taxes, but they also earn 60% of all income.

And how about the super rich? Here's the Journal's half of the story: according to their tax wonks, the share of federal taxes paid by the top .1% of the country those making roughly a million bucks a year doubled between 1979 and 1999, rising from about 5% to about 11%.

But here's the second half of the story that the Journal mysteriously left out: during that same period, the share of income received by the top .1% tripled, from about 3% to about 10%.

So in 1979 the super-rich earned 3% of the money and paid 5% of the taxes. In 1999 the super-rich earned 10% of the money and paid 11% of the taxes. The Journal clearly has a different definition of "grew more progressive" than the rest of us.

In fact, these numbers might start you wondering. If the income share of the super-rich tripled but their tax share only doubled, doesn't that mean that their tax rates must have gone down? Indeed it does. Here's a chart from the tax wonks that the Journal must have inadvertantly overlooked:

(Note: the last line, labeled "1999 JGTRRA," is basically an estimate of 2003 tax rates after the first round of Bush tax cuts.)

So shed no tears for the super rich in America. Their incomes have tripled in the past couple of decades and at the same time their tax rates have decreased by 9 percentage points. That's a pretty sweet deal in anybody's book.

Kevin Drum 6:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SOCIAL SECURITY COOTIES....Here's the latest on Social Security:

On the eve of the first congressional hearing on the restructuring of Social Security, Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee signaled that they will not insist that personal accounts be part of the legislation and that they will not seek further details from President Bush about his plans for the government-run retirement program.

....In yesterday's briefing, the committee official asserted that the contours of Bush's plan for Social Security are already well known and that the panel did not believe the release of further details of the plan would be helpful.

Am I missing something? Or did this guy basically ask President Bush to please shut up and stop making things worse?

Kevin Drum 1:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WHITEWASHING BOLTON....Matt Yglesias links today to Bill Kristol's recent piece on John Bolton in the Weekly Standard. Here is how Kristol summarizes liberal opposition to Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the UN:

Bolton disagreed with he even disliked! a couple of bureaucrats. He challenged them. But no one has really accused Bolton of doing anything fundamentally inappropriate....For future government jobs, perhaps the Democrats should add to the job description: Only girlie men need apply.

I've seen a lot of this lately from conservatives, and it's one of the reasons I'm leery of liberal opponents focusing too heavily on Bolton's bad temper. Kristol is obviously writing in bad faith here he knows perfectly well what the substantive charges against Bolton are but the fact that he can plausibly write this stuff is bad news for us.

For the record, here's what Kristol didn't bother addressing:

  • Bolton is not a guy who wants to reform the UN. He's a guy who fundamentally doesn't believe in the UN's mission.

  • He has a history of misusing intelligence information, and lashes out at anyone who insists that he characterize intelligence data accurately. He's done this at least twice, over both Cuba and Iraq.

  • Colin Powell, his boss during George Bush's first term, is apparently unable to recommend him for the UN job.

  • There are credible charges that he hid information from his superiors.

  • He made numerous requests to the NSA to disclose the names of American citizens in NSA intercepts. He has not explained why he needed to see these names, and it seems likely that he wanted them for purposes of bureaucratic retaliation, not national security.

Bolton's temperament is a legitimate issue, but it's not the primary issue. The fact that he misuses intelligence and then engages in all-out bureaucratic jihad against anyone who blows the whistle on him is the primary issue. This is not the kind of person you want as America's ambassador to the world.

Kevin Drum 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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IRAQI WMD....THE FINALE....The final remaining hope of the WMD-last-gaspers has been the notion that Saddam did have WMD but transferred it all to Syria before the war. As I recall, the most popular scenario involved a fleet of ambulances and some hideouts in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

But no. Not only did Saddam not have any WMD in Iraq, the Iraq Survey Group has now officially concluded that he didn't secretly hand it over to Syria either:

Although Syria helped Iraq evade U.N.-imposed sanctions by shipping military and other products across its borders, the investigators "found no senior policy, program, or intelligence officials who admitted any direct knowledge of such movement of WMD."

....Iraqi officials whom the group was able to interview "uniformly denied any knowledge of residual WMD that could have been secreted to Syria," the report said.

Like the grassy knoll folks, I'm sure the WMD conspiracy theorists will latch onto enough loose ends in the report to convince themselves that Saddam really did have WMD but hid it too cleverly for us to find it. You know, because Saddam and his crew were so clever and thorough in everything else they did.

For the rest of us, though, the story is over. Saddam was just a sorry and deluded tinpot tyrant. He posed a major threat to his own people, but never to us.

Kevin Drum 1:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 25, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

NUCLEAR WAR....Here's an interesting thing. Democrats have been threatening to "bring the Senate to a halt" if Republicans go ahead with plans to eliminate the filibuster, but today the Senate Dems announced a plan to do just the opposite. Via email, Harry Reid's office announced this afternoon that "As a matter of comity, the Minority in the Senate traditionally defer to the Majority in the setting of the agenda. If Bill Frist pulls the nuclear trigger, Democrats will show deference no longer."

In other words, they're going to introduce some bills and demand votes on them. Here are the nine bills they have in mind:

  1. Women's Health Care (S. 844). The Prevention First Act of 2005 will reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions by increasing funding for family planning and ending health insurance discrimination against women.

  2. Veterans' Benefits (S. 845). The Retired Pay Restoration Act of 2005 will assist disabled veterans who, under current law, must choose to either receive their retirement pay or disability compensation.

  3. Fiscal Responsibility (S. 851). Democrats will move to restore fiscal discipline to government spending and extend the pay-as-you-go requirement.

  4. Relief at the Pump (S. 847). Democrats plan to halt the diversion of oil from the markets to the strategic petroleum reserve. By releasing oil from the reserve through a swap program, the plan will bring down prices at the pump.

  5. Education (S. 848). Democrats have a bill that will: strengthen head start and child care programs, improve elementary and secondary education, provide a roadmap for first generation and low-income college students, provide college tuition relief for students and their families, address the need for math, science and special education teachers, and make college affordable for all students.

  6. Jobs (S. 846). Democrats will work in support of legislation that guarantees overtime pay for workers and sets a fair minimum wage.

  7. Energy Markets (S. 870). Democrats work to prevent Enron-style market manipulation of electricity.

  8. Corporate Taxation (S. 872). Democrats make sure companies pay their fair share of taxes to the U.S. government instead of keeping profits overseas.

  9. Standing with our troops (S. 11). Democrats believe that putting America's security first means standing up for our troops and their families

Details are missing, of course, and the point isn't really to get any of these passed anyway. It's to gum up the works and force Republicans to vote against popular measures.

Still, it's not a bad list. The only clunker is #4 the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is there for emergencies, not for intervening in the market whenever gasoline hits two bucks a gallon. But #1, 2, 3, 6, and 8 all sound good, and #5, 7, and 9 might be decent too depending on what's inside. It would have been nice to see something on the list that gives unions a fairer shot at organizing new industries, but I guess you can't have everything.

Anyway, I just thought I'd pass this along. If you want to know what Senate Democrats are doing to fight back against the nuclear option, this is it.

Kevin Drum 11:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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TURNING ON THE CHARM....George Bush met with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah today. I love this paragraph from AP's account:

Traditionally Bush holds news conferences with visiting foreign leaders, but there will be none during this visit because Abdullah rarely talks with the media. The president got around that by emerging from the building well before Abdullah's arrival and engaging in what was made to appear to be an impromptu exchange with the reporters gathered there.

Italics mine. Sounds like AP's Jennifer Loven is getting annoyed.

Elsewhere in the story there is much gnashing and moaning about increasing Saudi Arabia's production of oil. The Saudis' carefully worded reply was that they were "producing all the oil that our customers are requesting" and that they would increase their capacity by 1.5 million barrels per day by 2009 without mentioning that by that time world demand will have increased by about 8 million barrels per day. They also claimed to have 1.5 million barrels per day of spare pumping capacity right now, an assertion I'd take with a shaker of salt.

In other words: nice talking with you, but there's no more oil to be had. Now please excuse me, I have a flight to Beijing to catch.

Kevin Drum 4:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BUSH AND THE PEOPLE....Garance Franke-Ruta speculates today that George Bush has lost touch with the American public, a notion that seems pretty plausible to me. In fact, I'm not sure he was ever really in touch aside from his hawkish response to 9/11. His success on that front, however, convinced him that he could persuade the electorate of anything even Social Security privatization and he hasn't quite figured out yet that he can't.

For a different take on this issue, check out Janet Hook's article in today's LA Times about how seriously Bush takes Social Security. He takes it so seriously that he's even willing to sit down and listen to other people about it! Can you imagine?

And then this:

Invariably, when Bush talks to Republicans about Social Security, he sends an important political message: He's not going to give up this fight any time soon.

"He gives you a lot of confidence he's not going to leave you out on a limb," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who rode with Bush on Air Force One to the senator's home state last week. "He's going to stick with this issue....Until the last day in office he's going to keep doing this."

Out of all the possible issues to choose as a centerpiece of his second term, Bush chose Social Security, a fairly moderate and non-urgent problem that's almost certain to backfire on him. Why? It's a real mystery.

Kevin Drum 1:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CENTRISM AND THE INTERNET....Ron Brownstein has an odd column this morning. He thinks that both Democrats and Republicans are pandering so heavily to their extreme wings these days that there's a real opportunity for a new centrist party to steal some votes away. What's more, Joe Trippi agrees:

Trippi believes an independent presidential candidate who struck a chord could organize support through the Internet just as inexpensively [as starting a blog]. "Somebody could come along and raise $200 million and have 600,000 people on the streets working for them without any party structure in the blink of an eye," he says.

It might not be quite that simple. But the two parties are pursuing strategies that create an opening in the center of the electorate, even as the Internet makes it easier for a new competitor to fill it.

...."We are now moving toward a very dangerous place for both parties," he says. "It is becoming much more possible for an independent or third party to emerge because they are leaving so much space in the middle."

Now, this appeals to my centrist temperament, just as it appeals to guys like Marshall Wittman and, presumably, Matt "2% Solution" Miller. But the internet?

For all the usual reasons which I won't bother going into I doubt very much that an independent centrist party is going to start up. But even if one does, I sure don't see the internet providing the juice. That's sort of like suggesting that talk radio might become a force for moderation and sensible solutions to our nation's problems. But I don't see it: regardless of their actual policy positions, Howard Dean and MoveOn succeeded on the internet by pushing strident political rhetoric, not calm moderation.

Now, I could see the internet providing some traction for a revived libertarian party although it hasn't happened yet. Or maybe a Christian right party except that they already have one. Or maybe a hardline green party.

But $200 million from the internet for a centrist party? From the internet? Quick: can you name any centrist blogs, for example, that get more than 10,000 hits a day? I mean genuinely centrist moderate but clearly liberal or conservative sites like this one don't count. I can't think of a single one, which makes me wonder: if centrism has a future on the internet, where is it going to come from?

And one more thing: is Brownstein's idea of an independent really John McCain? Take a look at Keith Poole's rank ordering of senators in the 108th Congress and McCain is ranked the 4th most conservative senator out of 100. That's independent?

Kevin Drum 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NSA INTERCEPTS....The NSA is not allowed to spy on U.S. citizens, so when it intercepts conversations involving Americans it removes their names before forwarding transcripts to other agencies. Of the many improprieties John Bolton is accused of, one of them is that he asked the NSA to supply the missing names of American citizens in several transcripts that they supplied to him.

Guess what? Greg Miller of the LA Times reports that this is common practice:

The National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on electronic communications around the world, receives thousands of requests each year from U.S. government officials seeking the names of Americans who show up in intercepted calls or e-mails....

The State Department subsequently revealed that...the department as a whole had submitted about 400 requests during that period.

Those 400 inquiries represented only a "small percentage" of the total number fielded by the NSA, according to a government official with access to NSA data who spoke on condition of anonymity. Since January 2004, the NSA has received more than 3,000 requests, the official said, adding that "the magnitude is surprising" even to some intelligence experts.

Does this get Bolton off the hook? Maybe although Bolton still needs to explain why he wanted to see those particular names. What's more, he has enough additional problems that it might not matter.

On the other hand, the NSA might have a few questions of its own to answer now. Apparently there's virtually no oversight of this process, and 3,000 requests a year sounds mighty close to "spying on U.S. citizens." Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 24, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BOLTON AND BLAIR....Tony Blair has faithfully backed up George Bush on virtually every aspect of the war on terror, up to and including his invasion of Iraq. But it turns out that even Blair has his limits.

Surprise! It's John Bolton! Laura Rozen relays the details.

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WHERE PARIS HILTON'S TAX CUTS ARE GOING....Another chapter from the annals of "America has the best medical care in the world":

In Tennessee, Gov. Phil Bredesen plans to end coverage for more than 320,000 adults, many of them elderly. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to shift more Medicaid recipients into managed care and require some to pay monthly premiums.

Minnesota may stop insuring 27,000 college students and adults without children. Washington state may require senior citizens to pay $3 for each prescription that Medicaid used to provide for free.

....In Missouri, where nearly one in five residents is enrolled in Medicaid, Gov. Matt Blunt is poised to sign the most drastic overhaul of all: a bill that would eliminate the program entirely in three years.

Read to the bottom of the story and try to tell me with a straight face that you're not reminded of Dickensian England. We used to be better than that, didn't we?

Kevin Drum 1:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NIXONIAN PARANOIA WATCH....The Bush administration is blackballing the attendance of technical experts at a telecom standards meeting this week if they contributed money to John Kerry's campaign. A telecom standards meeting!

Just to give you a flavor of what we're talking about, here's an excerpt from the agenda for the Working Party on Terrestrial Fixed and Mobile Radiocommunication Services:

Recommendation for 400 MHz bands
RLAN in the 5 GHz band
Recommendation on harmonized frequencies for property protection
Revision to Recommendation PCC.II/REC. 67 (XIX-01) on Low Power Radiocommunication devices,
Radio frequency identification devices (RFID)
Broadband Power Line Communications (BPL)
Refarming of 700 MHz band
Answer to Market questionnaire on IMT 2000 and systems beyond
Results of the video conference on wireless broadband

Atrios is right: this is completely insane. The paranoid lengths to which the Bushies will go to punish their perceived enemies is simply stunning.

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 23, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE SEMIOTICS OF SOCIAL SECURITY....A couple of days ago Jon Chait wrote that Republicans have won at least one great victory in the Social Security debate: they have forced the media to abandon the phrase "private accounts" in favor of "personal accounts":

Late last year...Republican polls found that the public reacted far more favorably to "personal" accounts than to "private" accounts. So, overnight, they banished talk of "privatization" and "private accounts," accusing any journalist who dared use the phrase that they themselves had used mere weeks before of insidious bias.

....Under this sustained barrage, the media have slowly retreated....In the weeks that have passed, "personal" seems to be overtaking "private," like untreated weeds creeping over a garden. Politicians who dare use "oldspeak" risk censure, not just from Republicans but from the media themselves.

This got me curious. Like everyone, I've seen several examples of journalists cravenly knuckling under to the GOP's version of Social Security political correctness see here, for example. But anecdotes aside, has the use of "private accounts" really declined in the past few months?

In an effort to prove that nothing is too trivial to be graphed, I decided to check. A Nexis search gave me some baseline results: between 1998-2003, 67% of all news stories that referred to privatization used the phrase "private accounts," while 33% used the phrase "personal accounts." How does this stack up to 2004 and 2005?

The chart on the right tells the story: as a percentage of all references to accounts of some kind, media use of the phrase "private accounts" actually rose throughout 2004, and then began to decline in 2005, presumably as the Republican linguistic onslaught began to gain steam. However, it really hasn't declined very much and is still hovering around 70%, higher than both its 1998-2003 average and its 2004 average.

So: although Republicans have indeed been working with Orwellian thoroughness to influence the lexicography of Social Security, I'm happy to report that they've had only minor success. Overall, it looks to me like the media is writing about Social Security pretty much the same way it always has.

POSTSCRIPT FOR NEXIS GEEKS: I searched "US Newspapers and Wires" using the following search terms:

"social security" w/5 "private account"

and

"social security" w/5 "personal account"

That doesn't catch every reference in every periodical, but I figure it's probably a statistically random subset.

Kevin Drum 11:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THUNDERBIRD....Quick note: I just finished converting from Outlook Express to Thunderbird as my email client. It took multiple hours, multiple installs, multiple uninstalls, multiple configurations, and a huge amount of protracted hand copying and moving of Outlook Express folders. It was an enormous pain in the ass.

My recommendation: if you have a single email account, the conversion will be pretty painless. However, if you have multiple email accounts, be prepared for plenty of frustration.

Advantages: searching large folders for messages is both faster and more flexible. I do this a lot, so it's a nice feature. Multiple email accounts (once you've finally configured them) all show up in the sidebar, so you don't have to restart the client just to check each account, the way you do with Outlook Express. Spam filtering is built in, although I can't tell you yet how well it works since it takes a few days to be properly trained. Virus protection is presumably also better just by virtue of not being a Microsoft product.

Disadvantages: I have three separate address books, one for each of my email accounts, but when they were imported into Thunderbird they were all merged into a single address book. This is not good.

That's all for now. Just thought I'd keep everyone up to date with today's high tech adventures.

Kevin Drum 10:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BOLTON AND CUBA....Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times today about "recently declassified" email exchanges between John Bolton's staff and various intelligence officials. On the personal abuse front, here's an exchange between Christian Westermann, the State Department's top expert on biological weapons, and Thomas Fingar, State's #2 intelligence official. The subject is Cuba's development of biological weapons:

  • Westermann to Fingar: "Personal attacks, harassment and impugning of my integrity" by Mr. Bolton and Mr. Fleitz are "now affecting my work, my health and dedication to public service."

  • Fingar to Westermann: "I am dismayed and disgusted that unwarranted personal attacks are affecting you in this way."

On the abuse of intelligence front, here's an email regarding a speech Bolton wanted to give about Cuba in 2002:

  • Westermann to Fleitz (one of Bolton's assistants): "As you are probably aware, C.I.A. is not able to complete the cleared-language request on Cuba B.W. for use in Mr. Bolton's upcoming speech. The demarche coordinator told me this evening that C.I.A., N.S.A., I.N.R, and D.I.A. had several difficulties with the proposed language and that C.I.A. is trying to craft an answer to you."

Hmmm, that's pretty much all the intelligence agencies, isn't it?

Read the whole thing. It's not really a smoking gun, but it's pretty clear that Bolton was hell bent on saying whatever he wanted to say about Cuba, regardless of what every intelligence agency in town was telling him about our actual state of knowledge.

I give him until Tuesday, maybe Wednesday. At that point I suspect Bolton will develop a sudden desire to spare the country and the president a divisive confirmation debate. The whip marks will be barely visible.

Kevin Drum 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FOLLOWING YOUR CONSCIENCE....Everitt Middle School guidance counselor Margo Lucero decided to make a wee change to the Pledge of Allegiance on Wednesday. Here it is:

One nation, under "your belief system"....

And so the worm turns. After all, if it's OK for biology teachers to decline to teach evolution and for pharmacists to refuse to dispense certain medications, why shouldn't teachers have the right to modify the pledge for reasons of personal conscience?

It's quite a little rabbit hole we have here, don't we?

Kevin Drum 12:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ANOTHER SPAM THREAD....In response to my question about spam filtering in the previous post, several people have suggested migrating to Gmail and Thunderbird. I've been thinking about doing both, but I have a couple of questions:

  • Does Gmail work with an email client or is it strictly a browser-based interface?

  • Can anyone share their experience migrating from Outlook Express to Thunderbird? The FAQ is strangely silent about it. Does it work? Any problems? Any gotchas I should be aware of?

Thanks!

Kevin Drum 11:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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VIRUS/SPAM QUERY....My life has been flowing along too smoothly lately, so it must be time to install some new software on my computer. Virus protection and a spam filter are the order of the day.

Any recommendations based on personal use? Ease of use is probably paramount, and I don't want to use Norton. Other than that I'm wide open.

My platforms are Windows XP and Outlook Express.

Kevin Drum 12:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 22, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DON'T READ THIS POST!....Here's an interesting tidbit of pseudo-information:

Workers distracted by phone calls, e-mails and text messages suffer a greater loss of IQ than a person smoking marijuana, a British study shows.

....In 80 clinical trials, Dr. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King's College London University, monitored the IQ of workers throughout the day.

He found the IQ of those who tried to juggle messages and work fell by 10 points the equivalent to missing a whole night's sleep and more than double the 4-point fall seen after smoking marijuana.

....Wilson said the IQ drop was even more significant in the men who took part in the tests.

OK, I'll buy that. But what I want to know is this: how did they manage to monitor IQ "throughout the day"? Electrodes? Quickie IQ tests every hour? Remote gigawatt powered MRI machines?

And if email reduces your IQ by ten points, I wonder what blogging does?

Kevin Drum 9:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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HEALTHCARE ROUNDUP....There's been a bunch of healthcare blogging in the past couple of weeks. Here are a couple of roundups that are worth taking a look at if you haven't already:

  • Ezra Klein has collected his snapshots of national healthcare systems in other countries here. The complete set includes Japan, Germany, Canada, Britain, and France.

  • Angry Bear pulls together all his recent healthcare links here.

I especially recommend Kash's post about waiting times. One of the main bugaboos that Americans have about national healthcare is the fear that it means long waiting times for office visits and elective surgery. But it just ain't so. As Kash points out, some countries have long waiting times and others don't. There's nothing inherent in national healthcare that causes long waiting times and there's nothing inherent in the U.S. system that eliminates them. It all depends on how much money you spend, what your priorities are, and how well you run things.

Kevin Drum 5:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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GOD AND SCIENCE....Physics professor Chad Orzel had a scary run-in a few days ago with what passes for teaching science to kids among the editorial staff of Children's Ministry. A recent issue described a surface tension experiment that doesn't actually mention surface tension anywhere, followed by this:

It's even more maddening with their version of the egg-in-the-bottle trick (which is meant to show that with God, nothing is impossible), which includes the explicit instruction to ask the child "Why do you think that happened?" and then doesn't provide the answer.

So for some of these folks, apparently it's not enough anymore to simply say that evolution is wrong. Now they're claiming that even the most mundane kinds of physical phenomena are actually signs that God can do the impossible, even put an egg in a bottle! That's pathetic.

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THE FOOD PYRAMID....I wouldn't normally do this, but Gerry Daly wonders what I think about the federal government spending $2.5 million on the new food pyramid that I mocked a few days ago. That got me thinking:

  • Do I approve of the federal government spending money on public health issues? Yes.

  • Are nutrition and obesity important components of public health? Of course.

  • Is public awareness an important part of the government's overall public health mission? Definitely.

  • Would I approve of an ad campaign urging parents to get their kids vaccinated? Sure.

So: do I approve of the government's desire to increase awareness of the public health issues of nutrition and obesity? I don't see why not.

But: do I like the pyramid? No. Do I think $2.5 million is too much to spend on the redesign? Maybe. Depends on what the Department of Agriculture got for its money. $2.5 million is actually a pretty lean budget for a nationwide PR campaign though rather a lot if it consists solely of logo and website development.

I guess the bottom line is that although I'm skeptical that their latest effort was worth the money, I think that proselytizing for better nutrition is, in general, a perfectly reasonable thing for the federal government to do. After all, if they can spend money on abstinence-only sex education, why not better eating habits?

Kevin Drum 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FOREIGN OIL....Over at Mahablog, Barbara O'Brien rightly mocks Neal Boortz for saying "The left doesn't want us to reduce our reliance on foreign oil. Their goal is a weaker America." Nice try, Neal. Whatever else you can say about us, we lefties have been pretty assiduous in our conviction that Americans should drive less and use less gasoline.

But as long as we're on the subject, I want to pick a nit: short of either a major catastrophe or a dramatic scientific breakthrough, we will never reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Period. Oil is a global commodity, and even if we reduce our use of oil, the oil we do buy will come from the cheapest producers. And the cheapest producers are all in the Middle East.

In fact, it's only going to get worse. For all the fuss over ANWR, Barbara correctly points out that it won't really produce that much oil. Overall, U.S. oil production reached its peak three decades ago and has been steadily declining since. In another three decades we won't produce any oil at all. So no matter what we do, our dependence on foreign oil is going to grow.

70% of our oil use is for transportation, mainly cars and trucks. Reducing that use via conservation, higher efficiency cars, and use of alternative fuels is a good idea. But in the short and medium term (5-20 years) there's really nothing much we can do that will reduce our reliance on foreign oil. It's a chimera.

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE GELERNTER FILES....A while back the LA Times decided to follow the lead of papers like the New York Times and Washington Post and beef up its stable of regular columnists. I happen to like regular columnists, so I thought this was a good idea.

Unfortunately, the problem with hiring a regular columnist is that if you hire an idiot, you're stuck with an idiot. For example, you could hire the guy who said this last year:

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina seems like a decent and likable man, the political equivalent of a handsome, slightly under-ripe bunch of bananas, just the thing if you are looking for bananas and can't find any ripe ones, or don't know the difference.

That was David Gelernter, writing in wait for it the LA Times last July. His reward for this was to be given a regular column on the op-ed page starting last week.

Needless to say, I feared the worst, and today I got it. This morning's column is just embarrassing, the sort of thing the Onion might run as a parody of an op-ed. It starts with the dimwittedly contrarian premise that the Republican party is the true heir of FDR Look Ma, I can be provocative! and then descends into the spittle-flicked rant of a man who woke up constipated one morning and just started pouring his rage into his word processor. And then emailed it off.

There are plenty of conservatives out there who can pen a decent column. Not one that I'd agree with, but still decent. David Gelernter isn't one of them, and I suspect it won't take long before the Times regrets hiring him. Seething juvenile tirades don't make either the Times or conservatism look good.

UPDATE: Gelernter responds to his critics in comments. I think it's fair to say that no one's mind was changed, but I'll give him this: he was civil throughout despite considerable provocation.

Kevin Drum 11:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

YET MORE TROUBLE FOR JOHN BOLTON....Thomas Hubbard, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, says John Bolton lied under oath. The LA Times has the details.

Kevin Drum 1:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING...."God's Rottweiler"? Not quite:

"I went with him once [to the Campasanto Teutonico]," said Konrad Baumgartner, the head of the theology department at Regensburg University. "Afterwards, he went into the old cemetery behind the church.

"It was full of cats, and when he went out, they all ran to him. They knew him and loved him. He stood there, petting some and talking to them, for quite a long time. He visited the cats whenever he visited the church. His love for cats is quite famous."

.... "When we were on vacation, a cat, a little kitten, would come by, and he'd be giddy, almost giggling with joy," [his brother's housekeeper] said. "Cats love him; they always go to him straight away. And he loves them back."

.... On Thursday afternoon, Chico the cat perhaps the closest thing there is to The Pope's Cat, strolled from the shaded arch between the pope's front door and his garage. Chico belongs to Rupert Hofbauer, who looks after Benedict's garden and home [in Regensburg].

Hmmm. Maybe this guy won't be so bad after all.

With that in mind, here's some Friday cat blogging in honor of the new pope. I figure if he likes Roman cats, the Roman cat above is posed appropriately. On the other hand, it's posed appropriately at the Protestant Cemetery, which is perhaps slightly less appropriate. Unfortunately, we didn't see any cats when we were at St. Peter's.

Kevin Drum 12:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 21, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CONGRESSIONAL UPDATE....News from Capitol Hill:

  • How's the Bolton nomination coming along? According to the New York Times, his former boss Colin Powell has been chatting with Republican senators and has "made clear his concerns with Mr. Bolton on several fronts, including his harsh treatment of subordinates."

  • How's the energy bill coming along? Republican Richard Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, mistakenly thinking he was speaking privately despite the fact that a CNN reporter was standing right next to him, told a colleague, "This is bullshit." Apparently he's not a fan of hydrogen fuel.

  • Finally, how's the "nuclear option" coming along? The Washington Post reports that two filibusterable candidates were sent to the Senate floor today. A showdown is now imminent.

Isn't Washington a delight?

Kevin Drum 8:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BOLTON AND THOSE NSA INTERCEPTS....So what's the deal with those NSA intercepts that John Bolton wanted to get his hands on? Laura Rozen quotes "someone close to the investigation":

Bolton was running his own counterintelligence operation, was using the intelligence to figure out how he can get back at people.

Yes, that sounds about right. So let's see those intercepts, shall we? They sound mighty interesting. And if they say what everyone thinks they say, they'd definitely put Bolton squarely in Suzanne Nossel's category #4....

(If you're not sure what I'm nattering on about, last week's New York Times story about Bolton and the NSA intercepts is here. There hasn't been much news on this front since then because the Bush administration is continuing to hold onto the intercepts for dear life. I wonder why?)

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By: Kevin Drum

SEX AND GENDER....Charles Curran, a Catholic priest who argued for more liberal interpretations of church doctrine during the 60s and 70s, was banned from teaching Catholic theology in 1986. Here's his account in the LA Times today:

Cardinal Ratzinger now Pope Benedict XVI told the Catholic University of America to revoke my license to teach theology because of my "repeated refusal to accept what the church teaches."

I was fired. It was the first time an American Catholic theologian had been censured in this way. At issue was my dissent from church teachings on "the indissolubility of consummated sacramental marriage, abortion, euthanasia, masturbation, artificial contraception, premarital intercourse and homosexual acts," according to their final document to me.

That's par for the course. Six out of seven of those items are related to sex and gender. In the end, that's what it's always about, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 1:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ALAN GREENSPAN....I see that Alan Greenspan has yet again testified that budget deficits are out of control. Yet again he urged Congress to do something about it. And yet again he refused to acknowledge that Republican tax cuts on billionaires are making the problem ever worse.

Even the most hard nosed conservative acknowledges that Social Security privatization would make the budget deficit worse for at least the next couple of decades. Medicare reform even if undertaken seriously would have little impact for years. Nor is the defense budget going to be cut or interest on the national debt going to go down. Welfare has already been reformed. That takes care of about 80% of the budget right there.

In other words, "pay-as-you-go budgeting policies," which affect only the small portion of the budget left over, would have a minuscule impact on the budget even if everyone took them seriously. This is something Alan Greenspan knows perfectly well.

And yet, given a choice between extolling PAYGO, which might save $20-30 billion per year at the outside, and expressing skepticism over repealing the estate tax on billionaires, which will cost the treasury upwards of $100 billion per year, which does he choose?

Do I even have to tell you the answer? Of course not. As Harry Reid put it so pungently last month, the 21st century version of Alan Greenspan is a hack. Greenspan proved him right yet again today.

Kevin Drum 1:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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LIMITS....Sam Rosenfeld passes along a report from The Hill that suggests Republicans are losing their nerve in the filibuster fight because of internal polling showing "public disquiet" over Republican demagoguing of judges.

As well there should be. Let's face it: most Americans don't know or care much about any judge below the level of the Supreme Court, and most Americans don't know what a filibuster is either. To the extent they do, they probably associate it with a heroic James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

But they do know what Tom DeLay said and did in the Terri Schiavo case and they have heard about his wild attacks on the judiciary since then. And I imagine most of them don't like it much. Hell, I'll bet there are plenty of Republican senators who don't like it much either. Regardless of ideology, they think the Republican leadership has gone too far.

In fact, I think that's at the bottom of a lot of disquiet over Republican tactics recently and could probably be countered pretty effectively with a Democratic theme along the lines of "Shouldn't There Be a Limit?" That could apply equally to things like the nuclear option, Tom DeLay's European junkets, Social Security privatization, John Bolton, estate tax elimination for billionaires, and more.

Last November, Republicans seemed to think that a 2% win for George Bush was a landslide victory and promptly did the same thing that Newt Gingrich did after the 1994 elections: overreached. But the American public really isn't ready for full bore conservatism and never has been. In fact, I'll bet an awful lot of them are pretty relieved that congressional Democrats have recently developed the backbone to stand up to Republican zealotry. After all, shouldn't there be a limit?

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 20, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH....Over at Foreign Affairs, Brad DeLong has a very nice review of Richard Parker's John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics. Here is his summary of Parker's explanation for why the Democratic party no longer has the energy to embrace Galbraithian politics and economics:

Too many party intellectuals and politicians drink cocktails on Martha's Vineyard, in Parker's view, and too few spend time on the shop floor learning what issues are important to those sweeping up or manning an assembly line or tending the convenience-store cash register from midnight to six am. Thus, the mass base of the Democratic Party has withered, and without a mass base Democratic politicians listen too much to their rich contributors and turn into Eisenhower Republicans people who are interested above all in balancing the budget.

The entire review is worth a look although I'm not quite sure I buy Brad's ultimate Horatio Alger conclusion. But you should read it for yourself and make up your own mind.

The review also brought back to mind a post that Brad Plumer wrote a few days ago while he was reading Parker's Galbraith biography. Unlike Democrats of Galbraith's era, Brad complained, today's Democrats have policy visions galore but no overarching economic vision. Conversely, Republicans have economic vision to spare.

There's something to that although I don't think Brad identifies the Republican economic vision quite correctly: I'd say that its key tenets are sound money (i.e., low inflation) and small government. In practice, this translates into a preference for tight monetary policy and low taxes on capital. Neither of these directly drives economic growth, though, which is why the economy routinely does poorly under Republican presidents.

But what about Democrats? If I had to describe Democratic economic vision in only a few words, I'd say its tenets are full employment and a thriving middle class. Regardless of the policy choices that various administrations have used to pursue these goals which include such disparate things as Social Security, the minimum wage, support for labor unions, and the Earned Income Tax Credit these two things do directly drive economic growth. This is why the economy does better on practically every measure you can think of under Democratic presidents. It's not a coincidence, it's a result of the fact that the things liberals care about really do drive growth.

Unfortunately, "full employment" is practically an archaic term these days, one that probably has more negative than positive resonance even among those who would benefit from it. As for taxes, the middle class has largely been hoodwinked into believing that low taxes on capital are actually good for them or that they shouldn't worry about economic policy at all and base their votes instead on important stuff like gay marriage or gun laws.

My advice? We can't and shouldn't return to the 50s or 60s. The world is different today and we know more about how it works. But Democrats should regain their fervor for increasing employment and keeping the middle and working classes healthy and thriving. As far as I'm concerned, that means pushing for things like national healthcare, union friendly legislation, broader and more progressive taxation, and so forth. You might have different ideas. But as long as your goal is to stimulate more and better employment among the middle and working classes, we're both singing out of the same hymn book.

Kevin Drum 9:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BLOG FOG....Speaking of readability scores (as I was in passing in the previous post), I was curious to see how readable this blog is. So I copied out all the posts on the front page and fed them into this site.

Results are on the right. The Flesch-Kincaid test indicates that the blog is written at about an 8th-9th grade level, while the Fog index indicates that it's written at about the same level as the Wall Street Journal. Isn't that fun?

Disclaimer: I have no idea what these numbers really mean or if anyone takes them seriously. They are reproduced here solely for entertainment value. You have been warned.

Kevin Drum 6:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DEBAUCHERY AND DIVORCE....This is interesting. Last month I read I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe's terrifying warning about the wanton attitudes toward sex that are apparently rampant among today's university coeds. It's quite the breakdown of civilization he describes.

And yet, there's this. Divorce rates are declining, and guess who's responsible?

Researchers say that the small drop in the overall divorce rate is caused by a steep decline in the rate among college graduates.

....Since 1980...women without undergraduate degrees have remained at about the same rate, their risk of divorce or separation within the first 10 years of marriage hovering at around 35 percent. But for college graduates, the divorce rate in the first 10 years of marriage has plummeted to just over 16 percent of those married between 1990 and 1994 from 27 percent of those married between 1975 and 1979.

Whatever Charlotte and her friends are actually up to, apparently it's doing them some good. Our new pope should be happy to hear this.

POSTSCRIPT: On an entirely different topic, Amazon informs us that Wolfe's latest opus is written at about an eighth grade level. It's fascinating the stuff Amazon tells us these days, isn't it?

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By: Kevin Drum

BOLTON BLOGGING....I've been trying since yesterday to figure out what I think of the whole John Bolton affair. I haven't blogged about it much because, frankly, ambassador to the UN isn't that important a position these days. What's more, in this case it was clearly a consolation prize to mollify Bolton for not getting the deputy secretary of state job he wanted in the first place.

However, one thing that occurs to me after yesterday's dramatic events is that I'm getting increasingly uneasy about the focus on Bolton's "abuse" of subordinates. Don't get me wrong: the guy sounds like a prime grade asshole, and it might do a world of good to send a message to ambitious DC bureaucrats to rein in that kind of behavior. On the other hand, let's be honest here: if everyone who abused subordinates were blackballed from senior positions in Washington, the city would be a ghost town. I'm a little fearful that this line of attack could end up accomplishing little except elevating the politics of personal destruction on both sides to ever pettier and more vicious levels.

What should be getting most of the attention aside from the folly of appointing someone as UN ambassador who fundamentally doesn't believe in either the UN or international law is not abuse per se, but the reasons for Bolton's abusive episodes: his venom appears to have been directed primarily at anyone who presented intelligence information he didn't care for (details here). He appears (at a minimum) to have done this both over WMD in Iraq and biological weapons in Cuba. As Suzanne Nossel says, "Virtually everything...negative I have heard about Bolton goes directly to his fitness for the job":

All the other arguments against Bolton, including my 10 Reasons Bolton Should Not Be Confirmed, Bolton's indifference to genocide, his lack of respect for independent intelligence and dissenting views, his insubordination, his alleged abusiveness toward junior staffers, and his alleged lack of decorum and willingness to smear others (what am I missing . . .) all go directly to his ability to effectively represent the U.S. at the UN. The job of Ambassador is not one of ideologue, it is one of diplomat, policy shaper and manager (of the 100+ person U.S. Mission). All the charges are germane to one or more of these key roles.

So: he doesn't believe in the UN's mission, he doesn't believe in international law, he has a history of deliberately misrepresenting intelligence information that doesn't fit his agenda, and he would have no credibility with his peers. That's why he's egregiously unqualified for the job.

Oh, and he's a real jerk too. But that's just icing on the tabloid cake. It's the other stuff that disqualifies him.

POSTSCRIPT: On a related note, is it time to start a pool on what happens to his nomination? Now that George Voinovich has provided cover by suggesting he's likely to vote against Bolton, will Chaffee and Hagel switch too? Will someone pay a visit to Dick Cheney and persuade him that it's time to cut Bolton loose? How much longer will it be until Bolton decides that he needs to withdraw his nomination in order to "let the president get back to the business of running the country"?

UPDATE: In comments, Mark Garrity has a pretty amusing rundown of the yesterday's hearings.

Kevin Drum 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FAT IS FIT....Good news from the CDC, food lovers!

People who are overweight but not obese have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight, federal researchers are reporting today.

The researchers...also found that increased risk of death from obesity was seen for the most part in the extremely obese, a group constituting only 8 percent of Americans.

A quick calculation indicates that I have a BMI of 26.6, right in the sweet spot! And here I've been thinking that I really needed to get serious about losing 20 pounds.

Read the whole thing to get both sides of the story including the warning that there's more to good health than just being alive. And on a related note, although I wouldn't start getting complacent about being overweight, I've read a fair amount of persuasive research over the past few years indicating that regular exercise is more important than weight anyway, as long as you're not way overweight. Perhaps the old adage should be revised to say that half an hour of pulse pounding exercise a day keeps the doctor away....

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ACTIVIST JUDGES....Allow me to start out the day by posting about a minor pet peeve of mine. This story appeared in the LA Times this morning:

Juror No. 2386 had been sitting in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom for two days, waiting to be grilled by lawyers, when he let out a loud yawn.

"You yawned rather audibly there. As a matter of fact, it was to the point that it was contemptuous," said Superior Court Judge Craig Veals, who was presiding over jury selection for an attempted murder trial.

"I'm sorry, but I'm really bored," the juror replied.

...."Your boredom just cost you $1,000....I'm finding you in contempt," Veals said, according to an April 1 court transcript. "Are you quite so bored now?"

This did not happen during a trial. It happened during jury selection. And the juror involved had not done anything to draw attention to himself before this incident.

Judges have a legitimate need to keep control of their courtrooms, and sometimes this requires sharp language or threats of contempt. But too often they act like petty dictators. In this case, the judge had allowed lawyers to ramble on for two days in a process that shouldn't take more than a few hours, and then blew up when someone staged a minor protest by yawning a little too theatrically.

I say: take control of the jury selection process and quit wasting everyone's time. The purpose of jury selection is to discard jurors who are unable to judge a case fairly, not to grill them on every detail of their personal lives in order to figure out which ones are most sympathetic to your case.

So count me on the juror's side here. The judge should have kept things moving, and in any case should have been able to control his courtroom with a warning, not a childish loss of temper and an absurdly high fine (which he later reduced to $100). What's more, I don't blame the juror for arguing with the judge when he was cited. Why shouldn't he when the judge was so obviously abusing his authority?

Kevin Drum 11:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 19, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

FEAR UP....Um, yes, Praktike, this sounds like new information to me:

Army intelligence officials in Iraq developed and circulated "wish lists" of harsh interrogation techniques they hoped to use on detainees in August 2003, including tactics such as low-voltage electrocution, blows with phone books and using dogs and snakes suggestions that some soldiers believed spawned abuse and illegal interrogations.

Apparently these tactics were used on at least two prisoners, one of whom died and one of whom was badly beaten. Not everyone was happy about it:

A military intelligence staff sergeant who supervised the interrogators said a "fear up" approach had been approved for the interrogation. The unnamed sergeant wrote in a rebuttal to a reprimand that senior leaders were blurring the lines between official enemy prisoners of war and terrorists not afforded international protection.

"This situation is made worse with messages from higher echelons soliciting lists of alternative interrogation techniques and the usage of phrases such as 'the gloves are coming off,' " he wrote.

....Another interrogator, with the 501st Military Intelligence Battalion, wrote a response to the headquarters e-mail with cautions that "we need to take a deep breath and remember who we are." "It comes down to standards of right and wrong -- something we cannot just put aside when we find it inconvenient," the soldier wrote. "We are American soldiers, heirs of a long tradition of staying on the high ground. We need to stay there."

That's well said. Too bad there weren't enough people listening.

Kevin Drum 5:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRATS IN 2008?....I said in passing yesterday that I thought 2008 would be a Democratic year. Maybe even a landslide win for the Dem presidential candidate. Unsurprisingly, many people were skeptical. Why exactly do I think this? (And: even if I'm right, shouldn't I keep my mouth shut about it?)

On the "keeping my mouth shut" part, what can I say? I wouldn't be a very good blogger if I were in the habit of keeping my mouth shut, would I? On the "why do I think this" part, however, some explanation is in order. So here it is.

Warning: No, I can't prove any of what follows. What's more, I'm not an economist. And maybe I'm just blinded by partisanship. All true. But here it is anyway.

As preface, I agree that it's possible that George Bush's foreign policy will turn out to be a disaster. If Iraq fails to improve and instead remains a festering, Vietnam-like quagmire four years from now, that would probably be enough all by itself to sweep a Democrat into office.

What's more, if the culture wars light up again and the Republican party goes over the cliff with a candidate less adept at finessing the Christian right than George Bush, that could do it too.

But although those are possibilities, four years is a long time and they remain just possibilities, certainly not something I'd be willing to bet on. However, there are two other reasons for taking a Democratic victory in 2008 more seriously.

First is simply the rhythm of American politics. Since World War II, the presidency has switched parties every eight years like clockwork. The only exception has been 1976-1992, in which Democrats got shortchanged a term. Considering that George Bush won both his terms by tiny margins and that the country appears to be just as evenly divided today as it was in 2000, I expect that the pendulum will swing back in the usual way.

But here's the real reason I think a Democrat will win in 2008: the economy. I'm not sure what will happen with Iraq or the culture wars, but the economy looks to me to be headed for disaster. Four years after the 2001 recession, the labor market is still slack and economic growth is mediocre, despite massive amounts of conventional fiscal stimulus. The budget deficit is out of control, and Bush is plainly not serious about reining it in (the first priorities of his second term have been Social Security privatization, an energy bill, and estate tax elimination, all of which would make the deficit even worse). The housing bubble is likely to end soon and rising interest rates have already killed off the refi boom which in turn will tighten the spigot on consumer spending. The current account deficit continues to skyrocket, and rising oil prices will likely make it even worse. As Paul Volcker wrote a week ago, current economic circumstances "seem to me as dangerous and intractable as any I can remember, and I can remember quite a lot."

This is all bad stuff, but not necessarily catastrophic. Ronald Reagan faced many of the same problems, for example, but despite his reputation as an ideologue he raised taxes six years in a row after cutting them once (chart here), addressed trade deficits, and faced down his corporate donor base to pass a genuinely useful tax reform bill. (He also had the good fortune to preside over declining oil prices.)

That's not the case today. George Bush is an extremist who has no apparent intention of facing up to reality. He will continue to push taxes down, he will continue to spend heavily, and he will continue to ignore global imbalances. This is a recipe for disaster.

How long can this state of affairs last? It's possible that it can last more than four years, but I doubt it. My guess is more like two or three at the outside, and a serious shock most likely an oil shock of some kind might cause it to happen sooner.

There are no good solutions to this any longer, but there are still reasonable (if painful) actions that could be taken to soften the blow. Unfortunately, George Bush gives no sign of believing that he should take any of them. What's more, his economic team is far too weak to react to an economic crisis effectively if and when we have one.

So: that's why I think a Democrat will win in 2008. George Bush is a true believer who will keep a firm and confident hand on the wheel as he drives the United States off a cliff. And then we'll have an election.

Kevin Drum 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ADOBE DEVOURS MACROMEDIA....Natasha is not thrilled by the news that Adobe is buying Macromedia:

Well that is just great. Now instead of Macromedia products being nominal memory hogs, Adobe will probably massage them into programs of such spectacular bloat and magnitude that they'll bluescreen my computer if I so much as try to run Notepad simultaneously.

I sympathize. I know that Adobe's graphic arts customer base all have monster machines, but it would be nice if Adobe could at least pay a wee bit of attention to the bloat in their mass market consumer products. It's really out of control.

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PAPAL UPDATE....Ah, we have a new pope. It's 78-year-old Joseph Ratzinger, who apparently will become Pope Benedict XVI.

From the Washington Post's profile of Ratzinger:

He wrote a letter of advice to U.S. bishops on denying communion to politicians who support abortion rights, which some observers viewed as a slam at Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry. He publicly cautioned Europe against admitting Turkey to the European Union and wrote a letter to bishops around the world justifying that stand on the grounds that the continent is essentially Christian in nature.

....Ratzinger was active in stamping out liberation theology, with its emphasis on grass-roots activism to fight poverty and its association with Marxist movements.

Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BOLTON UPDATE....Over at John Bolton central formerly known as The Washington Note Steve Clemons reports that Bill Frist has shut down the Senate:

By stopping all Senate business ALL business and planning to reconvene at 4:30 p.m., the Republican leadership has preempted an option that the minority would have had to make the administration comply with Senator Dodd's request for the National Security Agency intercepts that Bolton may have used to wage war against rival officials in the State Department.

Hmmm, those NSA intercepts must be dynamite. Sounds like the Republican leadership is running scared here....

UPDATE: The Senate is back in business. Details here.

Kevin Drum 12:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NEW FOOD PYRAMID!....First there were four food groups. Then there was the more complicated but (presumably) more accurate food pyramid. Today the Agriculture Department unveiled a new food pyramid incorporating colors rather than actual words and pictures. In fact, it unveiled 12 new food pyramids. Here's the explanation:

[Agriculture Secretary Mike] Johanns said the 1992 pyramid had "become quite familiar, but few Americans follow the recommendations."

I realize that the boffins who created this are fully expecting uninformed mockery from people like me, but really, what do they expect? Few Americans were following the old recommendations, so the solution is to make new recommendations that are even more complex and difficult to understand? Does that make any sense?

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EXCESS AND EXTREMISM....Vivian Gornick eulogizes Andrea Dworkin today:

Dworkin was our excess our inspired nihilist, our emblematic man-hater, everything that wouldn't fly not only in Peoria but in New York as well and those who shrink from excess do not understand the requirements of a great social movement. In the end, it is the excess that forces the surge of liberal action that, ultimately, achieves only moderate change.

Italics mine.

This is a longtime source of bedevilment to me. Excess and extremism are the proximate causes of some of the worst catastrophes of history, and certainly some of the worst catastrophes of the 20th century. I am a sworn foe of excess and extremism and will continue to be.

And yet....Gornick is also right. Without people like Dworkin, I find it quite plausible that people like me would never accomplish anything. Needless to say, this is disturbing.

Discuss.

Kevin Drum 11:39 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 18, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE IN FRANCE....In my posts over the past week on national healthcare, I've generally used France as an example worth emulating. The reason for highlighting France is that it's a big, diverse country (unlike, say, Denmark, which wouldn't be a fair model for a country the size of the United States); its healthcare system is very highly regarded; and the way it's run is well suited to American temperaments.

By "well suited," what I mean is that it's not a super-centralized system like the NHS in Britain. Rather, doctors operate privately; their basic fees are set at low levels by the government but can be increased if the market will bear it; patients can choose any doctor they like; and the government pays only 75% of all normal costs (though longer hospital stays and expensive operations are covered at higher rates). There are lots more details, of course, but that's the basic outline, and it's the kind of thing that appeals to American sensibilities.

And it works pretty well. French healthcare is excellent, waiting lists are short, the supply of doctors is high, overall costs are reasonable, and patient satisfaction levels are excellent. It couldn't be transplanted whole into the United States, of course doctors are paid considerably more here, for one thing but it's a pretty good model for what we could accomplish.

If you're interested, Ezra Klein has a good brief summary of how the French system works. Check it out.

Kevin Drum 11:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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COULTER-MANIA....Looking for an antidote to Time's mash note to Ann Coulter this week? Try "The Wisdom of Ann Coulter," an oldie but goodie from the Washington Monthly archives....

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A TAXONOMY OF RESEARCH....How is one supposed to evaluate complex research reports that contain loads of data and come to conclusions you may or may not agree with? Eduwonk has a handy dandy chart that explains it all!

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HARASSING THE POOR....Back in the 1990s, conservatives managed to simultaneously lower the number of audits performed on high income taxpayers and raise the number of audits on the working poor who claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit. Odd, isn't it? After all, cheating by the wealthy certainly costs the Treasury way more money than cheating by the poor, doesn't it?

Indeed it does. But conservatives whipped up scare stories about poor people practically forming consortiums to rip off Uncle Sam for hundreds of thousands of dollars, followed up by dramatic hearings about jackbooted IRS agents raiding peaceful businesses with machine guns blazing. A few months later it all turned out to be bogus, but by then the damage was done.

Well, it's a new decade, but the same old strategy. The target this time is labor unions, who apparently require stronger auditing because hundreds of thousands of dollars have been embezzled! Nathan Newman has the details.

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WEEKEND NEWS I MISSED....Mark Kleiman went to a Wes Clark fundraiser on Saturday and says that Clark's intentions were clear:

Clark is running for President in 2008. He stopped just shy of a formal announcement, but left no one in doubt about his intentions. The crowd of about 150 seemed delighted.

And only 43 months to go before the election! He's certainly taking the opposite approach from his last minute entry into the 2004 race, isn't he?

I expect the 2008 race to be very crowded. For a variety of reasons, 2008 is likely to be a landslide win for whoever the Democratic candidate turns out to be, and I think lots of Dems know it. That's why John Kerry is still sounding like a candidate: he doesn't want to be the unlucky Al Smith watching from the wings while someone else cruises to the presidency because they had the good luck to pick the right year to run.

Already it looks like Clark, Kerry, and Hillary Clinton are likely candidates, and I'll bet there are at least a couple of high-profile Southerners who will run too (John Edwards, Mark Warner, Phil Bredesen). Stay tuned. It looks like the campaigning is going to start early this time around.

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

REVIEWING THE ECONOMIST....John Holbo reviews the Economist:

Every major story has either the 'there are dark clouds on the horizon but there's a silver lining' structure; or 'it looks like a golden age, but there are dark clouds of the horizon' structure. It's comforting to know that, however bad it gets, there will always only be those two major stories....

He's right, but it's actually worse than he thinks. Business speakers (and others, I assume) learn early that the proper structure for a presentation is "bad news first, then good." The idea is that even if there are problems that need to be addressed, you want your audience to leave the room filled with determination and optimism.

The Economist does the same thing. But here's the catch: how do you decide what counts as good news and what counts as bad? In a business presentation, that's pretty easy (revenues down = bad, new product launching soon = good). For the Economist, though, good news is whatever ideological position they prefer. So while it may look like they publish two different kinds of stores, they actually publish only one: bad news followed by good. If you want to know the editorial line on any particular issue, just read the second half of a story dedicated to it. That's where you'll find it.

And speaking of the Economist, could this week's lead editorial be any lamer? It's a paean to the flat tax, and like legions of politicians and bloggers before them, they confuse flat (as in getting rid of deductions) with flat (as in taxing everyone at the same rate). These have exactly nothing to do with each other. It's one thing for people who don't know better (or who are trying to get elected) to say stuff like this, but the Economist certainly can't plead ignorance. So why the egregious dishonesty about it?

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE IN AMERICA....Before I left on my mini-vacation, we were chatting about healthcare in America vs. healthcare in the rest of the world. I had an interesting statistic about this that I wanted to share last week, but I didn't have a chance to do it before I took off. So here it is.

This paper includes some survey data about how satisfied people are with their country's healthcare system (see Exhibit 1). The United States rates pretty low on this scale (14th out of 17 countries), but it turns out the survey includes something even more interesting: separate satisfaction ratings for the poor and the elderly (see Exhibit 3). It takes a bit of interpolation to extract all the numbers, but that's not hard to do. So with that in mind, here are the percentages of Americans who say they are "fairly or very satisfied" with their own health system:

  • Poor: 45%

  • Elderly: 61%

  • Everyone else: 34%

This is pretty remarkable. First, the elderly in America, who are covered by a state-run national healthcare system (Medicare and Medicaid) are way more satisfied with their healthcare than everyone else. As it happens, the elderly in other countries also tend to report higher satisfaction levels than other people, but usually by just a few percentage points. In America, where the elderly are covered by a national system and others aren't, the elderly are more satisfied by a whopping 27 percentage points.

Second, even the poor are more satisfied with their healthcare than the rest of us. The poor generally rely on a combination of Medicaid, emergency rooms, and free clinics for their healthcare, a system that's hard to beat for sheer inefficiency and appalling service. But even at that, the rest of us, who are mostly covered by employer-provided health insurance, are less satisfied than the poor. The system of health coverage provided to the vast majority of American citizens is so bad that we like it even less than the jury-rigged system the poor are forced to use.

It's hard to know what to say about this. Americans in general are highly dissatisfied with their healthcare system the one that's supposedly the "best healthcare in the world" and yet they've been conned into thinking that a national healthcare system would be even worse. This is despite the fact that people in America who are enrolled in a national healthcare system (most of whom have previous experience with private employer programs) like it better than the working stiffs who have private coverage. What's more, people in other countries that have national healthcare systems report much higher satisfaction levels than Americans do.

In addition, as we all know, national healthcare systems cover everyone, produce better outcomes on average, and are generally cheaper than the weird pseudo-free-market system we insist on clinging to here.

So when does everyone wake up?

Kevin Drum 1:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 17, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THANKS!....A million thanks and a big round of applause to Julie Saltman and Praktike for guest blogging for me this weekend. I'll be back here blogging as usual on Monday, but you can keep up with Julie at her blog, Julie Saltman, and with Praktike at Liberals Against Terrorism. They're both on my regular reading list, and I recommend them to all of you as well.

Kevin Drum 11:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

THE BOY WHO CRIED MARTIN WOLF....I'm enjoying Martin Wolf's Why Globalization Works, and I recommend that all good Americans read the book. Most Democrats and Republicans will find much to agree or disagree with because Wolf's policy preferences don't map well to the American political scene: he's an old-school British liberal internationalist. I'd say his views are somewhere between those of Daniel Drezner, America's most honest conservative, and those of Brad DeLong, America's greatest blogging economics professor.

Let me cherry-pick this part of the book:

Nineteenth-century nationalism coincided with a resurgence, in the last three decades of that century, of pre-modern imperialistic and protectionist ideas. The aim of countries became to create a protected sphere of their own. From the point of view of promoting prosperity, these shifts were an error. This is particularly true of the late nineteenth-century scramble for new empires in Africa. But, worse than that, the emergence of protectionism and imperialism changes the calculus of international relations: suddenly, being small and weak begins to look rather a bad choice, because one might be locked out of opportunities for peaceful exchange and prosperity. In a protectionist world, countries will try to become parts of trading blocs or create empires. Imperialism and protectionism are, for this reason, self-fulfilling prophecies--they create the dog-eat-dog world their proponents believe justifies them. It is for this reason that, in recreating the liberal world order, the Americans, led by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's long-serving secretary of state Cordell Hull, placed great weight on the principle of non-discrimination, alongside that of liberalization. This was an attempt to leave behind the world of hostile trading blocs. It is an understanding that the United States now seems to have lost.

So are we, as Brad Plumer wonders, heading towards a "mercantilist 'bloc' race?" What types of policies would be best in order to create a win for everyone rather than a destabilizing faceoff between rivals? Is China a mercantilist power? Is Lou Dobbs bad for America?

Discuss.

Praktike 5:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Julie Saltman

UNREST IN ECUADOR....Ecuadorean President Lucio Gutierrez called off the state of emergency he imposed yesterday to quell protests in Quito calling for his resignation.

The military, which under the state of emergency was charged with maintaining public order, was not visible on the streets Saturday as thousands of people disobeyed the decree and staged a peaceful demonstration, punctuated by the honking horns and shouts of "Lucio Out!" and "Democracy yes, dictatorship, no!"

Protesters expressed anger at the attempt by Gutierrez a former army colonel elected president in 2002 to keep residents of the capital from showing public displeasure with his administration. The emergency was imposed after three days of street marches demanding Gutierrez resign.

"We're not to going to pay any attention. Let him take his emergency decree and go to another country," said Teresa Arteaga, one of the protesters.

What brought about this protest is an ongoing power struggle between Gutierrez and the Ecuadorean Supreme Court. On the 8th day of last December, Gutierrez convened 52 members of the 100 member Congress to remove 27 of the 31 Supreme Court Justices from power. They had sided with his opposition in a failed attempt to impeach him on corruption charges.

Opposition politicians and protesters have been demanding that the members of the new Supreme Court be removed, calling the appointments unconstitutional. In March, Mr. Gutirrez proposed a change in the judiciary to create a new court amenable to the opposition, but the Congress remained deadlocked.

The protests gathered strength this week after the Supreme Court ruled it would not try two former presidents on corruption charges, Abdal Bucaram and Gustavo Noboa. Government foes say that Mr. Gutirrez, in facing down congressional opponents who wanted to impeach him in November, received crucial support from Mr. Bucaram's Roldosista political party.

...Hoping to ease the protests in recent days, estimated by some news media outlets at 10,000 people, Mr. Gutirrez dissolved the court, saying the controversy over its appointment was "generating national commotion." In his speech on Friday, he reminded Ecuadoreans that the court appointments were temporary, awaiting reforms that would lead to a permanent court. But Mr. Gutirrez's adversaries, though opposing those very appointments, saw the move as yet another unconstitutional act by a president eager to tighten his grip on power.

Randy Paul seems to think Gutierrez is not long for this government, and I don't think that's a bad thing. He's supposed to be a populist figure, but before becoming President he served time for an unsuccessful military coup, which makes me think he's not exactly a champion of democracy. I don't know anything about the alternatives, but it is reassuring to see the people of beautiful Quito peacefully taking to the streets when their corrupt executive attacks the judiciary in an attempt to supress opposition and centralize his power. Ahem. I hope certain members of our own corrupt administration take note.

Julie Saltman 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

FUN WITH SATELLITE IMAGERY....Daniel Terdiman has an article in Wired about all of the candid world moments caught by the Digital Globe satellite and discovered on Google Maps--including a bombing in Baghdad and a firefight in Najaf. Right now on the Digital Globe homepage, there's a pretty cool shot of Vatican City and the line of mourners going into St. Peter's to pay their last respects to the Pope.

Oh, and The Truth about Area 51 may finally be revealed! At last! (via Abu Aardvark)

... and, naturally, there's a blog devoted to "Google Sightseeing." Check it out.

Praktike 2:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

WHO LOVES JOHN BOLTON?....Steve Clemons is asking around:

I am presently at a foreign policy conference called the CSIS Think Tank Summit organized by Simon Serfaty and Robin Niblett at the Wye Conference Center on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with a broad array of intellectuals who think about Transatlantic issues, the National Defense University, NATO, and national security strategy. I am here with people from AEI, the Monterey Institute, Harvard's Kennedy School, CSIS, the Washington Institute on Middle East Policy, NATO, SWP in Germany, IISS, RAND Corporation, the German Marshall Fund, the Hoover Institution, and more.

The spectrum of perspective here is very wide -- but I have not found a single defender of John Bolton. . .not one. And I have tried. One of those who might have defended his appointment did not show to the conference. No one here supports Boltonism at the U.N. -- and many of these folks are wrapped fairly tightly into the inner circle of neo-conservatives [who] thought that his appointment was a good move for the Bush administration.

Not one?

Is Bolton destined to be a "Paid Shouter on Fox News" after all? By the way, does anyone have confidence that John Bolton is the best person to represent the United States abroad at a time that clearly requires deft diplomacy in Asia? Shouting can only get you so far, after all. Over to you, Chuck Hagel.

Praktike 1:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Julie Saltman

WITH TAXES WE BUY CIVILIZATION....Max Sawicky writes an ode to the income tax and makes an intriguing suggestion to simplify the tax code.

Isn't the income tax too complicated? Sure. How to simplify it?

One way is to tax all income under the same rates, rather than favoring wealth over work, as above. Another is to consolidate deductions and credits into fewer, simpler ones. For instance, my pet project is to merge the Earned Income Tax credit, the Child Tax Credit and the dependent exemption into a Simplified Family Credit. Both liberal and conservative Democrats like this idea. It's sad if predictable that simplifying taxes for moderate and low-income families with children is not the favorite thing of the current Congress.

Max, knight in shining armor to our tax code in distress, also writes a truly brilliant elegy to the Estate and Gift Tax on his blog, MaxSpeak, You Listen!. Numbers 3 and 6 are my favorite, but you really want to read the whole thing.

3. Estate taxation IS NOT double-taxation. Much of the income accumulated in estates has NEVER been taxed. This includes appreciation in the value of financial assets, unincorporated businesses, and farms held until death. Even so, double taxation is not exactly unknown. If they don't like double-taxation, why don't the wingnuts campaign for the abolition of the sales tax? It taxes the use of income that has already been taxed. I think I know why.

...6. We do know of at least one family farm forced to liquidate under Government Oppression. That was the chicken farm of a lady who, along with other landowners, was expropriated so that the stadium of the Texas Rangers could be built. The culprit was a well-known acolyte of enterprise and freedom. O Justice, where art thou?

I guess it's not an elegy so much as a snarky, well-informed smack-down.

Julie Saltman 1:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Julie Saltman

BOOK MEME....Kevin gave us an assignment, and as usual, I've left it till the last minute. Here goes.

Youre stuck in Fahrenheit 451. Which book would you be?

I would be inclined to choose a book on science that reveals a thought process that we could continue to learn things from, but since I'm woefully ignorant about science, I'll choose The Norton Shakespeare.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Clearly.

What is the last book you bought?

Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science by Charles Wheelan. (I may not agree with the guy on everything, but I hear it's a good primer on the subject). The Van by Roddy Doyle. Understanding Conflict of Laws by William M. Richman and William L. Reynolds.

What are you currently reading?

I don't have much time to read anything weighty on top of my coursework, but I always have a couple of novels going. I like to think it keeps me sane. I'm almost done with The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett, and I'm just getting taken in by Dissolution: A novel of Tudor England by C.J. Sansom. It's a thriller/mystery about naughty monks and a hunchback lawyer and his young, fallen associate.

What?

What five books would you take to a deserted island?

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1 and 2 (come on, it counts)
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Julie Saltman 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

LE SHORTER...."Plus court" just doesn't have the same ring to it, but good for Emmanuel for attempting to bring this fantastic liberal blogospheric tradition to the benighted French-speaking masses. Emmanuel writes:

Il a peu peu volu, sous l'influence de Sadly, No! et , surtout, de Busy, Busy, Busy, vers la forme canonique voque plus haut. A ma connaissance, le "shorter" reste trs majoritairement reserv aux blogs de gauche. Srement parce qu'il requiert une certaine finesse intellectuelle.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Praktike 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

CHINESE NATIONALISM: REAL OR ORCHESTRATED?....There were lots of interesting comments and emails in response to my Friday musings about nationalism. I want to focus on China, for obvious reasons.

One strain of comment was that the Chinese had a right to be angry at the Japanese because the Japanese hadn't apologized sufficiently for what they did to China during World War II. In other words, "the past isn't dead, it isn't even past," to quote someone who deeply understood historical grievances. In addition, there are fears (expressed here in a piece by Jonathan Dresner) that "trying to 'keep Japan in its place' could well produce a nationalistic backlash in Japan that would exacerbate tensions." More exploration of that in this thoughtful piece by Alan Dupont.

Another was that these demonstrations were orchestrated by the regime in order to deflect pressure for reform outwards, and/or to achieve some foreign policy objective such as stopping Japan's bid to join the UN Security Council or building support for China's position on disputed undersea gas deposits. And indeed, the Jim Yardley of the New York Times did a story contrasting the "officially authorized" protests in Beijing and Guangzhou with the genuine outrage expressed in Huaxi over poor environmental conditions. Since Thursday, there have been "controlled burns" in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Shenzen, and a few other cities.

One emailer said:

remember when the us accidentally bombed the chinese embassy in belgrade in '99? and there were truly ferocious chinese protests in front of the us embassies, attacks on us symbols like McD's in China, etc.? And then suddenly, after some quiet diplomacy, it all instantly subsided?

Well, yes, I do remember that, but I also remember that videotapes of the attack on the World Trade Center sold like hotcakes in China. Why was that? Anti-American sentiment seems real enough. I would also add that even if China's nationalistic outburst is being orchestrated from on high for specific purposes, it's a dangerous thing, and the Chinese government is not exactly doing much to calm the waters.

Like Joseph Britt, I can't help wondering how aware the average Chinese person is of China's own history. Britt asks:

It wasn't just the failure of central planning or the bloody stalemate in Afghanistan that undermined the legitimacy of Soviet Communism, but the slowly spreading knowledge among educated Russians of what had been done in the Party's name. Horror can be a corrosive force. Knowledge of the past can be limited, and controlled, but not forever. What will happen when the Chinese now being urged to demonstrate against part of the past start asking about the part the Party has striven to hide from them all these years?

What indeed?

Does anyone remember the film Hero, and the idea of "Our Land?" Jet Li's character, a warrior from Zhao, abandons his quest to kill the Qin emperor because he realizes that the latter's militaristic drive to unify all six territories ("Our Land") under one rule is the only way to preserve the peace in the long run. I can't help thinking that the Chinese Communist Party's biggest fear is not American encirclement or Japan's regional dominance, but rather internal fragmentation. On the one hand, it's hard to see how a descent into chaos--if such a thing is possible--would be good for China or the world economy. On the other hand, whipping the people into a frenzy against the Other every time the CCP wants to accomplish something abroad doesn't seem like a sustainable or responsible approach to world affairs.

UPDATE:This poll of Hong Kong sentiment toward Japan, which is strongly negative, suggests that lingering Chinese resentment against Japan is not simply the product of anger over political repression being directed outwards. Lots to chew on here.

Praktike 12:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Julie Saltman

NOT IMPRESSED....Ohio was Bamboozlepalooza central on Friday, but the loyal few who were allowed to attend Bush's invite-only propaganda ploy were not terribly impressed. It seems they've spent some time in the reality-based community.

KIRTLAND, Ohio President Bush came to Ohio on Friday to highlight a state retirement savings system that he said showed that Americans would be better off handling their own old-age investments through personal accounts than relying on traditional Social Security.

But that state's version of personal accounts has attracted few takers among the people eligible Ohio's 750,000 public employees. And records show that the most widely chosen version of the state-offered accounts has racked up a five-year earning record of 1.86%, about the same return that the president says Social Security produces.

"Boy, does he have a hard sell ahead of him in using Ohio as his example," said Keith Brainard, research director of the National Assn. of State Retirement Directors...

Here's an illustration of how well Ohio's privatization worked.

But in the biggest of the state's plans the 522,000-member Ohio Public Employees Retirement System, or OPERS the personal account option has not proven particularly popular among state workers, or delivered a particularly good rate of return.

About 10,000 of those eligible for personal accounts less than 5% have signed up for the accounts since they became available at the start of 2003, according to Laurie Fiori Hacking, OPERS' executive director.

Of those who have chosen the accounts, most have directed that their money be invested in the system's "moderate" or "aggressive" pre-mixed portfolios, according to spokesman Richard Baker.

OPERS records show that the "moderate" account lost money in two of the last four years and during the first three months of this year. It posted a five-year annualized return of 1.86%.

That compares to the 1.8% that Bush said Friday was the rate of return for Social Security.

The OPERS "aggressive" portfolio had a five-year return of 0.26%.

By contrast, the fund that pays for the system's traditional pensions, which is handled by professional money managers, had a five-year return of 3.52%.

Well, yeah, I can see way the good people of Ohio are not totally stoked about Bush's privatization scheme. So, why hasn't this Ohio system made its way into a political ad yet?

Julie Saltman 2:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 16, 2005
By: Praktike

IT'S BAAACK...President Bush devoted his Saturday morning radio address to flogging his energy bill. Richard Stevenson has the details:

Although the bill would do little or nothing to address the current spike in crude oil and gasoline prices, Mr. Bush suggested that the legislation was necessary to deal with the underlying causes of it: the rapid worldwide growth in demand for energy and the reliance of the United States on foreign oil.

In his weekly radio address, Mr. Bush urged the House and Senate to send him legislation that would improve conservation; encourage more domestic oil and gas production; provide incentives for the development of alternatives like ethanol, biodiesel and nuclear power; and update the nation's electrical grid. [...]

The White House has neither proposed nor backed any steps to address the immediate surge in gasoline prices. Administration officials say there is no evidence that the step most often debated in Washington when prices jump at the pump - releasing oil from the nation's strategic reserve - has any substantial or lasting effect. But the administration has already won some early rounds in this year's debate over the energy legislation, particularly in clearing the way for drilling in a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, an area that environmentalists have battled to keep off limits. [...]

But some Democrats and their allies have said they intend to use the current climate to press their case that Mr. Bush has not gone nearly far enough in calling for conservation, tighter fuel-efficiency standards on cars and trucks, and development of alternative energy sources.

Naturally, I tend to agree with the Democrats and their allies, though I'd be willing to cut a deal on ANWR if push comes to shove (though I'd be deeply sad about it). I'm opposed to corn-ethanol subsidies for these reasons, but I'm open to switchgrass and other alternatives. Mainly, however, I think we have to get average fuel economy down by closing the SUV loophole and building public support for phased-in gas taxes. We'll be doing the American car industry a huge favor in the long run. I think the always-eloquent John Cole put it best in a comment about the struggling GM:

Here is the problem, geniuses. Your cars are ugly, they break down much more than they should, and you spent all your time opposing CAFE standards instead of researching AND implementing fuel efficiency.

Indeed.

... wow. High gas prices really bring out the posturing on all sides:

WASHINGTON : Dubbed "NOPEC", a bill passed by the US Senate Judiciary Committee would allow legal action to be taken against cartels such as OPEC, said Senator Patrick Leahy, one of the bill's co-sponsors.

"The bill would allow the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to file antitrust lawsuits against foreign states, such as members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), for price fixing and other anticompetitive activities," said the Democrat.

"High oil import costs this year have affected all Americans in the form of record-high gasoline prices that continue to soar," said Leahy to justify the measure.

The bill, just passed, would make it illegal for foreign states and their agents "to act collectively or in combination with any other foreign state ...or agent" to limit the production of oil, natural gas, or any other petroleum product, or fix the prices of such products.

Silly.

Praktike 8:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Julie Saltman

NOT QUITE UTOPIA....Just another example of conservatives relying on the judiciary instead of the democratic process to further their social agenda.

LANSING -- The state appeals court on Friday dismissed a challenge to the Ann Arbor school district's same-sex benefits policy but avoided the bigger legal issue by tossing out the case on a technicality.

...The Thomas More Law Center sued in 2003, and on appeal it argued that Proposal 2 -- a constitutional amendment passed by voters last November that recognizes only a union between a man and a woman as a marriage "or similar union for any purpose"-- prevents the district and other publicly funded entities from providing health insurance and retirement benefits to gay couples [and straight unmarried couples - Julie] in future contracts.

But the appeals court sidestepped the Proposal 2 question.

It instead agreed with a Washtenaw County judge, ruling the taxpayers did not "demand" that the schools stop providing the benefits to employees' gay partners -- a requirement under state law. They had sent letters to school board members asking them to stop the policy.

"Plaintiffs' letters are merely a request that the alleged misappropriation stop; they are not a demand for legal action," the judges wrote.

Prop 2 is the amendment the voters added to the Michigan Constitution which defines marriage as between a man and a woman and ends both same-sex and opposite-sex partner benefits. This not only illustrates another deeply troubling consequence of the amendment, it reveals just how hostile the haters are to individual liberty. It's really sickening that they're so violently opposed to letting people live their private lives as they like that they'll plead a court to get involved in the employee benefits policy of a local school district. And these are, of course, the same people who want to impose a greater tax burden on the middle class, phase out their social security benefits and cut funding for their healthcare benefits, if they're lucky enough to have them, making it even harder for same-sex and nontraditional families to make ends meet.

Hmmm...I wonder what Sir Thomas More, whose memory is invoked by the organization suing the school boards, would have to say about this.

From Sir Thomas More's Utopia.

OF THE RELIGIONS OF THE UTOPIANS

...Therefore I must say that, as I hope for mercy, I can have no
other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than
that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of
managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all
the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without
danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that
they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low
rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please; and if
they can but prevail to get these contrivances established by the
show of public authority, which is considered as the representative
of the whole people, then they are accounted laws...


OF THEIR SLAVES AND OF THEIR MARRIAGES.

...if the common ties of humanity do not knit men together, the faith of promises will have no great effect...

Ah well, he must have been one of those anti-Christian liberals Bill Frist was talking about.

Julie Saltman 6:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Julie Saltman

FALSE RAPE CLAIMS....Eugene Volokh is researching the incidence of false rape claims. Researchers have had quite a difficult time pinning down what percentage of rape claims are actually false. Volokh writes:

....(short summary: estimates range from under 2% to 40+%, though I have no opinion about which is right). But in the meantime, I thought I'd mention one observation that may be helpful for thinking about other debates as well.

Many people who believe that false rape reports are a tiny fraction of all rape reports argue that very few women would make such false reports. The common line is that women don't lie about rape, which must really mean that very few women lie about rape.

But even if this is true -- and I strongly suspect that it is -- this is entirely consistent with the possibility that a substantial fraction of rape reports are false.

He proceeds to do the math.

What I find troubling about this approach is that it suggests that false rapes occur because some proportion of women are deceitful. Michelle J. Anderson, in her article, The Legacy of the Prompt Complaint Requirement, Corroboration Requirement, and Cautionary Instructions on Campus Sexual Assault, cited Department of Justice statistics that the rate of false reporting for other crimes is about 2%. (p. 34). (Via CrimLawProfBlog.) So, there's some small percentage of people (regardless of the structure of their genitalia) who are going to falsely accuse people of committing crimes against them. I have no opinion on whether rape is falsely reported more or less than 2%. If someone is going to accuse someone else of criminal activity, there are a couple of reasons why he or she would be more inclined to choose rape over other crimes.

The FBI's Uniform Crime Report for January-June 2004 reveals that property crimes, namely burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft, are overwhelmingly more common than violent crime (including reported rapes) and arson. It's much harder to accuse someone of a property crime because they have to have taken possession of your property. The police can see where the property is located and often there is evidence as to how it got there. Rape on the other hand, involves issues we consider to be intensely private, especially since acquaintance rape and marital rape make up a large proportion of incidents.

In addition, rape itself is hard to define. Feminist scholars disagree fundamentally about how we should even think about rape, specifically regarding consent. I wonder, especially in studies that suggest a sizable proportion of rapes are falsely reported, how many of those false reports are themselves falsely characterized as such. For example, marital rape wasn't criminalized in all 50 states until 1993, and as of 1999, 33 states still exempt husbands from rape prosecution when the wife is legally unable to consent. (Link.) Under such laws, police might view an accusation of marital rape as false, even though it would have been rape if it had been perpetrated by anyone but the husband.

Also, and Volokh admits this, keep in mind that most rapes go unreported, so any percentage of false claims is somewhat artificially high to the degree that rapes are less likely to be reported than other crimes. Anderson cites Department of Justice statistics in her article (p. 29) that over 60% of rapes and over 70% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.

All this is to say that there are many reasons for which rape might be falsely reported more frequently than other crimes, but the dishonesty of women (or even people in general) is probably not the only culprit.

Julie Saltman 4:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

ABORTION POLITICS IN IRAN....I'm surprised that this hasn't been commented upon more widely:

The Iranian parliament has voted to liberalise the country's abortion laws.

Under the law approved on Tuesday, a pregnancy can be terminated in the first four months if the foetus is mentally or physically handicapped.

Both parents must give their consent and three doctors to confirm that the foetus is damaged.

The law was approved by just over half of the conservative-dominated parliament, and still has to be approved by the Guardian Council.

The council is an unelected supervisory committee which vets all bills to see if they are in line with Islamic law.

Previously, abortion was only allowed if the mother's life was proven to be in danger.

Middle East Online reported that illegal abortions are rising rapidly in the Islamic Republic to the tune of at least 80,000 per year.

According to Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor, moreover, Iran is loosening its social strictures across the board as it seeks to accomodate its youth bulge.

Praktike 3:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Julie Saltman

LACKING SELF-CONTROL....Brad Plumer points to a survey of two studies by psychologists who found that people who are socially excluded have trouble exerting self-control. I have something to say about that, but first, with the caveat that I know nothing about psychological methodology, does this study strike anyone else as a little bizarre?

In the study's first experiment, 36 undergraduate participants completed a personality questionnaire. Then, researcher Roy Baumeister, PhD, of Florida State University, and his colleagues told a third of the students--selected at random--that their scores indicated that they would likely end up alone in life (socially rejected). Another third were told that they would have rewarding relationships throughout life. In a control condition that was negative but not based on social rejection, the final third were told that they would be accident-prone as they got older, and that this would negatively affect their life.

Then, to measure self-regulation, the researchers said they'd give each participant a nickel for every ounce they could drink of a healthy but bad-tasting beverage flavored with vinegar. People who can self-regulate well are more likely to perform such unpleasant tasks for future rewards, the researchers theorized.

As it turned out, people who were told they'd be alone in life were less able to regulate their actions--they drank 2.23 ounces on average less than those who anticipated future social acceptance, and 2.15 ounces less than those who were told they'd be accident-prone.

I remember what it was like being a penniless undergrad, but I don't think I'd drink some nasty vinegar concoction for a few nickels regardless of my socialization. A person can only consume so much fluid even if it tastes good. A liter (Google says that's 34 ounces) would only get you a buck seventy--less than half a beer. I'd be curious to know how much people actually drank of this stuff.

The second study makes more sense to me.

38 unacquainted undergraduate participants arrived in the lab in groups of four to six. The participants spent 20 minutes getting to know each other, and then were asked to write down the names of two people they'd met whom they'd like to work with in the future. Then, half of the participants--selected at random--were told that no one had chosen to work with them, while half were told that everyone wanted to work with them.

Finally, to test the participants' ability to self-regulate, the researchers left each participant alone in a room with a bowl of 35 minicookies and asked them to rate the cookies for taste and texture. The participants who thought they had been rejected ate nearly twice as many cookies as those who thought they were accepted by their peers.

Brad extrapolates from this study some interesting observations about American political culture.

...in the end everyone on both left and right ends up bemoaning the excesses of this sort of political setup: the kids are too libertine!, the CEO's too greedy!, materialism too rampant!, Hollywood stars too haughty!.

The varieties of backlash to these sorts of excesses, meanwhile, tend to move in the direction of actually curtailing these suddenly-too-excessive rightsso you get calls for near-punitive taxation and regulation from the left, or calls to force mothers to go back barefoot to the hearth from the right. What few seem to understand, however, is that many (though, importantly, not all) of these excesses may well result from a breakdown in the democratic community, of the sort that Putnam describes so well.

Since we're already taking this study to places it was never meant to go, I wonder if this phenomenon occurs in foreign relations as well. Of course nations do not behave like people--they are motivated by different desires and their actions are governed by an entirely distinct set of social norms. They are run by people, though, whose personalities often influence the way a nation is perceived by its allies and enemies. America, case in point.

As we've become increasingly isolated in the world community, our foreign policy has waned more impulsive and self-serving. Nominating someone like John Bolton to the UN would be an example of this. Cheney wants Bolton in the administration and so he proposed to give him a prominent foreign policy role, even though JB has all the wrong characteristics to be a good diplomat, and his appointment is bound to puzzle the rest of the world. Perhaps if we were more integrated in the world community, we'd take care to nominate someone who's actually an internationalist.

Also, the Bush strategy of isolating your enemies--putting them on an axis of evil, accusing them of having WMDs, making it harder to travel to and from them, for example--would be less effective, if the studied behavior could be reliably applied nations, at spreading democracy, which is, in a way, a self-regulation of state power.

Speaking of which, I probably should have self-regulated and not posted on an area I'm not that familiar with. Praktike, as the resident foreign policy expert, may want to tell me to stick to what I know, but I've written it and maybe it'll spark some lively conversation in comments.

Julie Saltman 2:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

WHY IS THE EGYPTIAN OPPOSTION SO WEAK?....Magdy Samaan highlights one aspect of the answer: they're broke.

For the most part, Egypts opposition parties are chronically broke, both due to restrictions on fundraising and corruption of the system. With membership fees and donations drying up, most of the parties, with the exception of the Wafd and Hizb Al Ghad, rely on an annual government stipend of LE50,000.

Any comparison of the National Democratic Party (NDP) to the opposition highlights the current political situation. Amr Al Shoubky, a political analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, describes it as an extension of the one-party system. The NDP controls the full range of the states resources.

When former President Anwar Al Sadat began the countrys experiment in pluralism, he divided the nations sole party, the Arab Socialist Union, into three parties, the leftist Tagammu Party, the rightist Ahrar (Liberal) Party and the centrist NDPwhich, as Sadats party, took the lions share of money, media and party buildings.

Ibrahim Dessouqi Abaza, a member of the executive committe of the Wafd Party, estimates the value of these properties at close to LE1 billion.

The opposition, on the other hand, is desperately poor. The Nasserist Partyone of the senior opposition partiescannot pay the rent on party buildings or the wages of its tiny staff, not to mention its telephoneswhich were cut off for at least a month at the end of last year until the bill was paid. The party has since collected LE2,000 in donations, now in its account at the Bank of Alexandria.

During its heyday in the 1980s some LE5 million passed through the hands of the leftist Tagammu Party. The majority of this sits in reserves at Bank Misr, with the operating expenses of the party coming out of interest. The issue of funding is a constant problem for the party. It stands in the way of those activities and public works that wed otherwise be able to do, explains Hussein Abdel Raziq, secretary general of Tagammu. Currently, the party is trying to gather LE500,000 in donations to compete in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and is confident of attaining this goal.

Nagy Al Shohabi, president of left-of-center, nationalist Al Geel (generation) Party, says that his party is consistently unable to meet its costs and now has a debt of LE750,000.

Much has been said about the LE300,000 Hizb Al Ghad spent on its first conference convened in the Nasr City conference hall, not to mention rumors about lavish foreign funding. Yet party president Ayman Nour points out that he still hasnt established a headquarters for the party, and is forced to run the party from his office in Talaat Harb Square and his associations offices in Bab Al Shaeriya. His bank account, he says, is at zero.

The sole exception in the opposition ranks is the Wafd. It has more than LE50 million in the bank, according to Abaza, much of which was collected in the time of the partys former leader, Fouad Serag Eddin, from donations and profits of the newspaper.

You can imagine how this financial weakness redounds to the benefit of the Muslim Brotherhood (which is officially banned, but has at least a dozen supporters in the Egyptian Parliament that everyone knows about), which has a ready-made mosque and university-based network of supporters, many of whom are upper-middle class doctors and engineers who dominate the professional syndicates. The weakness of the non-MB opposition is one reason, I think, why there's some pessimism about recent developments even among those Egyptians who are enthusiastic for change but don't necessarily "support" the MB other than believing that they should be allowed to participate in politics for real.

Another of my favorite Egyptian blogs is Mindbleed, whose author ("Hellme") is one of the august founding fathers of the Egyptian blogosphere. One thing that the government is really good at doing is encouraging splits between the left and the Islamists, the latest example of which seems to be well underway. The English-language Egyptian blogosphere has gotten pretty interesting in recent months and there are lots of edifying discussions flying around, so I urge you to check it out. Another good resource on the ins and outs of Egyptian politics is The Arabist, which is run by a bunch of smart bilingual expat journo/academic types with connections to all the right people.

Praktike 2:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

SOCIAL SECURITY....Calculated Risk has posted links to the video of the debate between Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute, Josh Marshall of Josh Marshall, Inc., and Paul Krugman of Princeton and New York Times fame. It was a very civil debate, but it's clear to me that Tanner is making moral arguments that the general public just doesn't buy. We like Social Security, and we don't see it as a welfare program. Moreover, Tanner's numbers are extremely suspect, and all of his sorrowful head-shaking at Krugman's rebuttals isn't going to convince anybody otherwise.

For instance:

Cato, a libertarian policy center founded in the late 1970's, has been arguing for 25 years that Social Security is on the verge of crisis. In a recent position paper, Tanner wrote that Social Security faces a horrendous unfinanced liability of $26 trillion over 75 years. In a footnote, he cited the 2003 trustees' annual report. Actually, the trustees' intermediate projection is for a deficit, over 75 years, of $3.7 trillion. Though that is a lot of money, it could be covered by an immediate surcharge to the payroll tax of less than two percentage points, or by various combinations of tax hikes and benefit cuts, each of them quite manageable. But $26 trillion is too big a hole to fix. When I asked Tanner about the footnote, he admitted that the trustees didn't actually say $26 trillion; Tanner derived the figure by counting the cash-flow deficits that the trustees project from 2019 on out. In other words, he ignores the next 15 years or so, during which time Social Security will be running a surplus. And he assumes that the assets in the trust fund, which should be accruing interest into the 2040's, won't exist, either. Tanner counts only the bad years and only the bad numbers. Another doomsayer, former Republican Representative John Kasich, pegged the Social Security deficit at $120 trillion in a recent op-ed -- some 32 times the agency's figure. (Kasich toted up annual deficits in nominal -- not inflation-adjusted -- dollars for every year through 2080, by which time a hamburger could cost $40.)

Thankfully, I think that Tanner & the privateers have lost this debate already. Maybe it's time to focus on privatizing the US Postal Service or the National Park Service instead. Yeah, that's the ticket.

Praktike 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT....Just popping my head in for a moment, but this is important....

Suburban Guerrilla informs us that cell phone numbers will soon be opened up to telemarketers. I just registered my cell phone numbers with the Do Not Call registry, and so should you if you want to avoid the scourge of desperately fumbling through your backpack to grab your phone just as the light turns green only to find out it's....someone trying to sell you a new cell phone.

Go here to register your cell phone number. You can register up to three numbers at once and it takes just a few seconds: enter the numbers and your email address, then click on the link that's emailed out to you. Piece of cake.

UPDATE: Several people in the comment thread are claiming this is a hoax. However, after clicking through all the links it turns out that (a) a directory listing of cell phone numbers is in the works and (b) current FCC regs only prevent telemarketers from calling cell phone numbers if they use automated dialers. Most telemarketers do use automated dialers, of course, but once the numbers become available in bulk they might decide it's profitable to call cell users even if they have to do it by hand.

Bottom line: this may not be the breaking news I thought it was, but if I were you I'd still register your cell numbers....

Kevin Drum 12:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

THAT BOOK MEME....Now that Kevin has given Julie and me this soapbox for the weekend, I feel somewhat more obligated to respond to this game than I have been to various other well-meaning souls who want me to waste everyone's time with this tomfoolery.

Youre stuck in Fahrenheit 451. Which book would you be?

Water: A Natural History, by Alice Outwater. Ted Barlow stole my other idea.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

I think we're sticking with books here, so I'll go with Dagny Taggart, even though that's a lie and Ayn Rand is the worst writer of all time.

What is the last book you bought?

Egypt and American Foreign Assistance, 1952-1956: Hopes Dashed, by the illustrious Jon Alterman of CSIS. Sounds like a sad story.

What are you currently reading?

Why Globalization Works, by Martin Wolf. I'm enjoying it so far and will be quoting from it later today or tomorrow. Before that I read Stalingrad, by Antony Beevor. Simply oustanding. Before that I read Cairo: The City Victorious, by Max Rodenbeck, which is also excellent and has me greatly enthused for my move to Cairo in June (where I'll be studying Arabic).

What five books would you take to a deserted island?

Robinson Crusoe, by Robert Louis Stevenson Daniel Defoe
Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust
Ulysses, by James Joyce
The Riverside Shakespeare, by Edward de Vere
The Histories of Herodotus, by Herodotus

Praktike 11:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

MEK IN ACTION....Speaking of terrorism, on Thursday Agonista Nick Hoover went the DAR in Washington to see the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK or MKO) give a conference on "regime change" in Iran.

Here's the first part of Nick's report:

The Agonist - Reps. Bob Filner, D-Calif., Tom Tancredo, R-Col., Ted Poe, R-Texas, Dennis Moore, R-Kan., and staffers for Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, and James Talent, R-Mo., addressed a convention of MEK supporters today in Washington.

The MEK has been listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department since 1997, but some in Congress and close to the Administration want the group to be removed from the terrorist list. Even President Bush has called the MEK a "dissident group."

In addition to incursions into Iran and targeted killings of Iranian officials and security agents, MEK attacks have often killed civilians there. The MEK has been accused of attacking coalition troops in Iraq, carried out attacks on the Iranian consulate to the UN and 12 other Iranian embassies in 1992, assisted Saddam Hussein in his suppression of Shiite and Kurdish insurgencies in the early 1990s, and killed U.S. military and civilian personnel working in Iran in the 1970s out of anger for American support of the shah. Members of the MEK also supported the 1979 takeover and hostage taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Here is more on the group.

Tancredo called Maryam Rajavi, the MEK's leader, "quite an extraordinary lady."

Laura Rozen has also been doing some excellent reporting:

Several Iranian-Americans I know have been on Iranian TV the past few days fussing that the Bush administration was allowing this terrorist group to have a rally here, TV which is beamed into Iran. What's more, the firm, Premiere Speakers Bureau, recruiting speakers for the MEK event told me Dick Armey vetted the group for them, including by checking with the State Department, and got the go-ahead from State. (I called State for confirmation on this today and was not given a clear answer). Was this what the administration intended? Did they want Teheran to see that they were allowing this MEK conference?

I know for a fact that Premiere was made well aware of who they were recruiting speakers for. They were also the speaker recruitment firm for the conference last year that MEK leader Maryam Rajavi also addressed by live video feed, that was monitored by the FBI, and was reported on by the Washington Post. Indeed, Premier's rep told me about the article and the problems for speaker Richard Perle with the conference's MEK association. But it was Premiere's impression from Dick Armey that State had cleared this conference, the organizers and the financing. Hey, Washington Iran experts, what does that mean?

The MEK issue is, to my mind, the best way to separate the anything-goes fanatics from the rational supporters of the genuine opponents of theocratic governance in Iran.

Praktike 10:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

GIVE US THE FACTS....Jonathan Landay says that the State Department has decided to stop publishing its "Patterns of Global Terrorism" reports:

WASHINGTON - The State Department decided to stop publishing an annual report on international terrorism after the government's top terrorism center concluded that there were more terrorist attacks in 2004 than in any year since 1985, the first year the publication covered.

Several U.S. officials defended the abrupt decision, saying the methodology the National Counterterrorism Center used to generate statistics for the report may have been faulty, such as the inclusion of incidents that may not have been terrorism.

Last year, the number of incidents in 2003 was undercounted, forcing a revision of the report, "Patterns of Global Terrorism."

But other current and former officials charged that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's office ordered "Patterns of Global Terrorism" eliminated several weeks ago because the 2004 statistics raised disturbing questions about the Bush's administration's frequent claims of progress in the war against terrorism.

"Instead of dealing with the facts and dealing with them in an intelligent fashion, they try to hide their facts from the American public," charged Larry C. Johnson, a former CIA analyst and State Department terrorism expert who first disclosed the decision to eliminate the report in The Counterterrorism Blog, an online journal. [...]

The senior State Department official said a report on global terrorism would be sent this year to lawmakers and made available to the public in place of "Patterns of Global Terrorism," but that it wouldn't contain statistical data.

He said that decision was taken because the State Department believed that the National Counterterrorism Center "is now the authoritative government agency for the analysis of global terrorism. We believe that the NCTC should compile and publish the relevant data on that subject."

He didn't answer questions about whether the data would be made available to the public, saying, "We will be consulting (with Congress) ... on who should publish and in what form."

I wish Landay hadn't cut Johnson short, because what he said was more nuanced than that:

This move has been prompted by the Department's discovery that the new methodology used by the recently formed National Counter Terrorism Center has produced statistics that shows an enormous jump in the number of international terrorist attacks. For example, in 2003 there were about 172 significant attacks. The numbers for 2004 have jumped to at least 655. At least 300 of those incidents occurred in India in the Kashmir region. NCTC, I'm told, is still tweaking the numbers. For Secretary of State Rice these numbers are a disaster. It is tough to argue we are winning the war on terrorism when the numbers in the official Government report will show the largest number of incidents ever recorded since the State Department started reporting on terrorist incidents. In the Secretary's defense, however, the sharp jump in numbers has more to do with a change in methodololgy of counting rather that an actual surge in Islamic extremist activity. In fact, if you take time to parse the numbers, the actual scope of terrorism by Islamic extremists in 2004 appeared to decline relative to the attacks during 2003 (except for Iraq). Rather than run from the numbers the State Department and the Intelligence Community should seize the opportunity to really get their hands around the issue and provide Congress and the American people with a clear, apolitical assessment about the reality of the terrorist threat we face.

He also has the text of the U.S. statutory requirements. Johnson has always struck me as a serious straight-shooter, so I think we should listen to him. If you want to see what one of these reports are like, they're online here. I think the Bush administration is making a huge mistake. It's important to maintain the public's confidence in what the government is doing; I can't think of any valid reason not to publish the numbers other than fear of the political headwinds. If it's complicated to explain the methodological change, too bad. Have some courage, I say. Aren't we supposed to trust in the judgment of the American people?

UPDATE: I think that many of the commenters are missing something here, so I want to point it out. Johnson says that "at least 300 of those incidents occurred in India in the Kashmir region." Even as Musharraf has made strides in some areas and espouses a policy of "emlightened moderation," his position on Kashmir has been inconsistent. He hasn't shut down many of the Kashmiri militant groups--some of whom are directly or indirectly linked to Al Qaeda--but merely pretended not notice as they changed their names. The latest initiative is starting up some kind of registry of terrorists and extremists and reaching out to India, but it's hard to deny that he hasn't done all he can to shut these folks down. I believe that the U.S. has to support Pakistan because the alternative is worse, but that doesn't mean we have to cover up when Pakistan plays footsie with terrorists.

Praktike 1:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 15, 2005
By: Praktike

GOOD NEWS....The heroic Rosa Parks and OutKast (and companies associated with OutKast), the most creative hip-hop group of our generation, have finally reached a settlement. I don't think the song was in any way defamatory--and the courts didn't either--but she seems to be suffering so perhaps the settlement money can help.

Praktike 7:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Julie Saltman

WHAT DO YOU THINK....The Onion asks,

In recent weeks, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has come under increasing fire from a number of important media and political figures. What do you think?

It's hilarious.

Julie Saltman 6:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

TOM DELAY VS MARBURY VS MADISON....I blogged about this at ChezNadezhda but I want to highlight it again because it's so important.

The other day, Tom DeLay said the following:

I blame Congress over the last 50 to 100 years for not standing up and taking its responsibility given to it by the Constitution. The reason the judiciary has been able to impose a separation of church and state that's nowhere in the Constitution is that Congress didn't stop them. The reason we had judicial review is because Congress didn't stop them. The reason we had a right to privacy is because Congress didn't stop them.

My emphasis.

This is absolutely unbelievable stuff. This isn't just some lunatic shouting on a street corner somewhere. This is the House Majority Leader taking issue with a principle that was considered in Federalist 78, and then established and considered settled in 1803.

Over in the Senate, we've got the erstwhile cat-killer and now Senate Majority leader Bill Frist playing up conservative Christian victimization in order to spark, in Josh Marshall's words, some kind of imagined "war between the believers and the unbelievers."

Am I the only one who is just flabbergasted that this is happening here in 2005? Has the radical become mainstream?

UPDATE: I see via the Carpetbagger Report that Cass Sunstein has a piece in the LA Times about the broader anti-law campaign by "conservative" radicals. Sunstein concludes, ominously, that "what we are seeing, for the first time, is a fundamental challenge to the rule of law itself."

Praktike 6:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

CHALABI WATCH....Ahmed Chalabi has an interview with Mohamed Al-Anwar in Egypt's Al Ahram.

This part caught my eye:

You said you met Saddam in jail.

I didn't say so. Only the day he was detained I saw him and didn't talk to him. I just looked. I was half a metre away from him and did not talk to him.

You may recall that there was a controversy when Chalabi's newspaper published a photo of the two men sitting across from one another. Amnesty got upset about it because, technically speaking, you aren't supposed to publish photos of prisoners because it's humiliating. That's a good rule. I have to say that it's really hard for me to care too much about Saddam's pride here, but I'm curious as to why it matters whether Chalabi actually spoke with him or not. Anyone know the answer?

Praktike 4:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FRIDAY QAT BLOGGING....If it's Friday, it's qat-blogging.

Alas, the world's only qat-blogger, Stacey Yadav, has now left Yemen for Beirut to finish her research. Who will take up this noble work?

Praktike 3:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Julie Saltman

HOUSING DISCRIMINATION....Via ACSBlog, I found that six days before the 37th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the National Fair Housing Alliance released its 2005 Fair Housing Trends Report. It provides some numerical context for a problem we all know exists, a problem that is a profound barrier to the success of so many Democratic social intiatives. I'm referring to residential segretation. Here are a few of the more stunning statistics:

  • In 69 key urban areas more than two-thirds of Whites live in areas that have less than a 5% Black population. In these same communities, more than half of Blacks live in areas that are more than 50% African-American.

  • 58% of the suburban neighborhoods surveyed were exclusively White as compared with 21% of urban neighborhoods.
  • 41% of African-Americans live in hyper-segregated neighborhoods, meaning all-Black high density neighborhoods surrounded by other all-Black neighborhoods. Another 18% of African-Americans also live in conditions of high segregation.

  • The average White person lives in a neighborhood that is 80% White and only 7% Black. The average Black person lives in a neighborhood that is only 33% White and as much as 51% Black.

The National Fair Housing Alliance has an explicit agenda in publishing this report, so you can quibble with the statistics in comments, but there's no question that America remains starkly segregated. Because of this, our schools are racially segregated and disparately financed. Our neighborhoods are so segregated that Republicans had no trouble targetting Democratic precincts for voter intimidation last November.

The NFHA report finds many reasons for this segregation, among them, the continued pervasiveness of housing discrimination. In their 2004 Fair Housing Trends Report, NFHA found that over 3.7 million complaints of housing discrimination based on race (so this doesn't include discrimination based on disability, gender or familial status) were filed in 2003. That's over 10,000 every day. While most of these complaints occured in the rental market, a significant number still occured in sales. This likely affects not only residential segregation, but the extreme home ownership gap as reported by the Economic Policy Institute in The State of Working America 2004-2005.

However, home ownership rates vary considerably by income and race. Only 50.9% of those in the bottom quarter of the income distribution owned their homes in 2001, while 88% in the top quarter of the income distribution owned homes. Blacks and Hispanics, while slowly increasing home ownership rates, still lag behind whites. In 2003, 72.1%, 48.1%, and 46.7% of whites, blacks, and Hispanics, respectively, owned homes. There is a lot of room for improvement in home ownership rates for racial minorities and those at the bottom of the income distribution.

Of course, the NFHA report notes that the funding for organizations who enforce the Fair Housing Act by bringing claims was cut by 20% in new budget.

Regardless, suing under the FHA doesn't solve the actual problem. Inclusionary zoning is often suggested as a possible solution, and it's been tried with varying degrees of success in New Jersey, California and Massachusetts, although it certainly only does so much. I'm sure you all have many personal anecdotes about your own communities, and I wonder what people think can be done about residential segregation in America. I think legislative solutions (as opposed to judicial or non-governmental) would probably be most effective, but aside from zoning and passing anti-discrimination laws, I haven't heard of many options for local governments. Besides, since local governments are often as segregated as the communities who elect them, this has to involve some cooperation between communities, and if there's a disparity in wealth between them, it will be a hard sell to the constituents in the wealthier areas.

Any thoughts?

Julie Saltman 2:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

ALL HAIL THE MEDIUM LOBSTER....for, verily he speaketh the Truth:

The Medium Lobster is gladdened to see the House move towards permanently repealing the estate tax. The estate tax isn't just a wanton infliction of state violence upon Paris Hilton's God-given right to a tax-free mountain of money; it does not merely desecrate the solemnity of a loved one's stock portfolio; it is a dangerous regulation of the cosmic forces of Life and Death - and one that can only end in apocalyptic destruction.

As all bodhisattvas of the supply side understand, progressive income tax is an assault against entrepreneurship, taxing the wealthy at higher rates than the poor and therefore providing a disincentive to be rich. Indeed, we all remember the day Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, slouching in their tattered jeans and stained wife-beaters, announced their decision to quit their jobs and wallow in poverty rather than pay the terrible price of living in opulence. Even now America's homeless shelters are filled to bursting with dispirited, out-of-work billionaires - a humanitarian tragedy that the Democrats choose to overlook in their slavish subservience to Big Poor.

How much more dangerous, then, is the estate tax: a tax on death itself? For if income tax dissuades the living rich from being rich, then the death tax can only dissuade the dead rich from dying. Indeed, the more the government taxes our nation's most resourceful robber barons' estates upon their deaths, the greater incentive they have to not die at all - or worse, to rise from their graves and feast on the flesh of the living. Wandering the earth in endless, gnawing hunger, scattering brains and severing limbs, mindlessly devouring everything in their path: this is hardly a fate America can want for the most enterprising of the business elite. What, after all, would be left for their children to feed on?

Indeed.

Praktike 2:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

HOUSE OF DELAY....One of my pet peeves about the liberal commentariat is that we (I include myself here) tend to think of brilliant ideas and then immediately leap to ask: why isn't the Democratic Party doing this? I want to see it now! Oftentimes, um, the Democratic Party or one of its various organizational manisfestations is already doing That Desperately Important Thing That Will Destroy the GOP Once And For All.

Well, Kagro X is right: Jesse Lee and the good folks at the DCCC have put together an astonishly good website that shows just how entrenched Tom DeLay is within the Republican power structure. He's not the problem but rather its avatar.

Go check it out and be sure to tell all of your friends. And think in terms of 2006 and beyond, not in terms of getting DeLay dumped. I mean, so what if he's no longer the GOP Majority Leader? These guys are like shark's teeth.

Praktike 1:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Julie Saltman

INTELLIGENCE FAILURE....Steve Clemons points to an illuminating article in The Economist that explores how John Bolton has worked to undermine US foreign policy over the past few years.

At the hearings, Lincoln Chafee, a liberal Republican senator from Rhode Island, asked Mr Bolton about a speech he had given in South Korea on July 31st 2003. In it he called Kim Jong Il a "tyrannical dictator" who had turned his country into a "hellish nightmare". Mr Bolton said the speech had been cleared by the State Department (where he was under-secretary for arms control) and represented administration policy. But the speech's timing was awkward, to say the least. It came just before the first meeting in six-party talks designed to deal with North Korea's announced nuclear-weapons programme.

Incensed, the North Koreans demanded to see Jack Pritchard, the State Department official responsible for the talks. In public, they called Mr Bolton "human scum". In private, they were not flattering either. They threatened to walk away from the talks. Mr Pritchard told them that only the president and the secretary of state spoke for America (something that the then secretary of state Colin Powell had already told the North Koreans), that American policy had not changed, and neither had the date or place of the talks. Mollified, the North Koreans agreed to show up.

According to State Department officials, Mr Bolton (like the North Koreans) then went ballistic, apparently because Mr Pritchard had not defended his remarks to the Koreans. In the hearings, Mr Bolton accused Mr Pritchard of being out of step with government policy and suggested he had resigned because of that. In fact, Mr Pritchard had offered his resignation months before. He points out that the six-party talks were government policy, that he helped save them and that it was Mr Bolton who was "out of step" in his entire career at State. "He marches to a different drum," said Mr Pritchard, "and the drum is out of tune."

Nothing is more conducive to the kinds of "intelligence failures" the US has been having lately than superiors who bully researchers if they present evidence that doesn't support their agenda. It's amazing this man is being considered for a diplomatic position.

Julie Saltman 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

THE DEFINITION OF INSANITY....I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who once said that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

So what are we doing in Azerbaijan (more background here from Mother Jones)? We've been told, over and over again, that America's unwillingness to challenge the democratic deficits of our energy and national security partners in the Middle East played a major role in the rise of extremism and terrorism in that region. George Bush, Richard Perle, and David Frum said so.

One of these things is true: either that belief is false, not generalizable, or we risk making the same mistakes in Central Asia that we have made in the Middle East unless we broaden our policy beyond oil and security. On Tuesday, SecDef Rumsfeld's visit to Azerbaijan, presumably in support of Caspian Guard, "ostensibly a three-way alliance between the United States, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan for the integration of several interlocking program elements, namely airspace and maritime surveillance and control systems, reaction and response forces, and border control." More about Caspian Guard here.

Noted leftist propaganda organ the Wall Street Journal described Caspian Guard within the context of the broader search for oil and protection thereof in an article (subscriber-only) on Monday:


The military is paying more attention to emerging oil regions as the country plans for possible disruptions in supply. Over the next decade, the U.S. plans to spend $100 million on the Caspian Guard, a network of police forces and special-operations units in the Caspian Sea region that can respond to various emergencies, including attacks on oil facilities.

The Defense Department's European Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany, is coordinating the multiagency effort and helping to train forces to protect a new pipeline that will bring oil from rigs in the Caspian Sea through the Caucasus to Ceyhan, a Turkish port on the Mediterranean, starting later this year.

The Caspian Guard , launched in the fall of 2003, will include a radar-equipped command center in Baku, Azerbaijan. That center will give the Azeri government the capability, for the first time, of monitoring shipping activity near the many oil rigs in the Caspian. The Caspian Guard also will be useful in coping with drug and arms smugglers, says Col. Mike Anderson, chief policy planner for the European Command.

Most of the oil from this area will be absorbed by markets in Europe, not the U.S. But any blockage in flows likely would generate a surge in oil prices that would register on gas pumps in the U.S., the world's largest oil consumer. "There is not a lot of excess capacity in the entire international market," says Col. Anderson, "so if there is a threat to the Ceyhan pipeline, it will ultimately affect us."


I'm not condemning things like Caspian Guard in and of themselves, nor am I suggesting that Ilham Aliyev, the current dictator of Azerbaijan, is the worst guy ever and that there are viable alternatives to his rule. I don't think Richard Armitage necessarily needed to congratulate him on his 2003 electoral "victory" amid an outburst of protest, however. I don't know the answer to Azerbaijan's problems, but I do have worries that the United States is headed for a Global Carter Doctrine because we have left ourselves with no other choices at the moment.

Benighted naifs like Reihan Salam may pooh-pooh and dismiss these concerns as so much leftist anti-Americanism and crow about how well our Special Forces are training security forces in Niger (and I'm sure they're doing wonderfully), but the bottom line is this: when America (and Japan's, and Europe's) economic well-being rests so heavily on the protection of oil in unstable regions of the world, it means that the many problems of those regions become our problems, and the internal squabbles of those regions become our squabbles. Maybe it's time to start having a discussion about whether this is what we really want to be doing in the long run.

Praktike 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Julie Saltman

THE FILIBUSTER....I remain unconvinced by the filibuster eliminationists, eg., who argue that we should partially, if not fully, learn to stop worrying and love the nuclear option. I stand by what I wrote yesterday on my own blog, specifically that the filibuster prolongs the debate phase of bill passage, which is generally the only stage the media covers and we hear about. By slowing things down with a dramatic gesture, the filibuster draws public attention to something that might otherwise have been rubber-stamped without notice and allows us some time to read up and maybe even lobby our representatives. Mark Schmitt provides a great example of an extremely harmful sleeper bill that he helped his employer, then Senator Bill Bradley, filibuster.

Jon Cohn brings the discussion around to political realities in his anti-filibuster essay in The New Republic.

This isn't to say Democrats should simply forfeit the fight over conservative judges or any other matter. But, in the long run, it is a mistake to make such battles about legislative process rather than public values. Excessive appeals to parliamentary fairness merely reinforce the public's sense that Democrats care more about legalisms than the difference between right and wrong. This perception is particularly important given the Democrats' image of weakness on national security. Americans care about fair play and they don't want one-party rule. But they also seem to crave strength and moral clarity in the battle against terrorism.

It's a good point, but Democrats could make a moral case for the filibuster. Not that I put too much stock in poll numbers after they lead me on so cruelly in the last election, but with Congress's approval rating at a new low and 41% of Republicans opposing eliminating filibusters for judicial nominees, I'd like to see Democrats take a principled stance on governmental in the sunshine and public accountability. I think it looks better than capitulating to this, anyway.

Julie Saltman 11:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Praktike

NATIONALISM ON THE RISE?....I've been chewing this over for some time, but this past week's uproar in China over a controversial Japanese textbook that glosses the Rape of Nanking has forced me to try to put my thoughts in order.

It's hard for me to prove this, but I have a weak gut feeling that a major and potentially dangerous trend in the world today is rising nationalism. Plenty of people have talked about this already in the real world, but I haven't see much discussion about it on the political blogs I read. All I have are anecdotes, but as I am not a creative person I can think of no other way to test whether nationalism is, in fact, broadly on the rise.

So what is nationalism? Well, it's complicated. I tend to go with the "I know it when I see it" test myself, but I realize that's not very helpful for others. This Wikipedia entry is decent enough and defines nationalism thusly:

Nationalism is an ideology that creates and sustains a nation as a concept of a common identity for groups of humans. According to some theories of nationalism, the preservation of identity features, the independence in all subjects, the wellbeing, and the glory of one's own nation are fundamental values.

Nationalism can be based on an ethnicity, religion or sect, citizenship within a state, language, etc. "Civic nationalism" or patriotism, based not on identification with a group but rather on citizenship within a legitimate state, is generally benign. Nationalism doesn't have to be a bad thing as long as it doesn't get out of control. But history shows that it often does, as any of nationalism's many victims will attest. Nationalism by definition necessitates that there be an "other" (i.e. someone who is not a member of the Nation) who can easily morph into a specific enemy that gets blamed for any number of real or imagined problems and/or historical grievances. The most obvious and grotesque manifestation of nationalism gone amuck is Nazi Germany and the Jews, which should need no elaboration here. Osama Bin Laden can be fairly described as an extreme religious nationalist.

Here's what George Orwell had to say about nationalism, writing amid the smoking ruins of post-WWII Europe:

By "nationalism" I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled "good" or "bad." But secondly -- and this is much more important -- I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By "patriotism" I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseperable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

China's alarming nationalism is the latest example, though as Stygius suggests, Chinese nationalism may actually present the United States with an opportunity to shore up its diplomatic position in Asia by saying essentially, Hey, do you want to hang out with those crazy guys?

Everyone who follows foreign affairs knows about the ethno-religious conflicts of the Balkans and the Caucuses, which always have the potential to spiral out of control. What about Turkish nationalism? Karl Vick of the Washington Post, among others, claims that Turkey is going through some kind of nationalist revival--expressed primarily as anti-Americanism--even as it enacts hundreds of political and economic reforms as part of its quest to join the European Union. But Graham Fuller, a former CIA analyst and author of The Future of Political Islam, thinks that Turkey will be fine, and moderate conservative realist Robert Kaplan agrees with him.

Meanwhile, the long-suffering Kurds--a goodly portion of whom live in Turkey and have been fighting an intermittent guerilla war there for years--have one foot inside Iraq and one in what they call "South Kurdistan." Many Kurds believe that their nationalist dreams are now within reach, and are willing to do whatever it takes to avenge past ethnic cleansing and bring Kirkuk into the Kurdish orbit once and for all. In Jordan, Sunni Arab King Abdullah is making ominous warnings about a "Shiite Crescent," though there is little evidence that there is such a thing as "Shiite nationalism" and there are of course important differences between, say, the Arab Shiites in Iraq and those in Iran, to say nothing of the Syrian Alawis.

As for Europe, which seems to have conquered for now the more dangerous aspects of nationalism and embarked upon an era of boundless Kantian peace, the European Union is not even a sure thing these days--just at the moment of ascension, it could fall apart as the CIA predicts and various Francophobes on the American right are all too eager to trumpet. In An End to Evil, Richard Perle and David Frum even urge America to actively drive a wedge between France and everybody else, a game that the Bush administration played in its first term but has since abandoned (for now). Within some European states, nationalist parties like Vlaams Bok and Jean-Marie Le Pens National Front are drawing succor from both justified and unjustified fears about immigrants and European immigration, but have yet to seize power. None of these trends are necessarily real or dominant, and there are strong and encouraging countervailing forces at work such as ever-growing global economic integration (which certainly could provoke broad nationalist backlashes), expanding political freedoms, tentative peace agreements between warring nations, and the astonishing success of Esperanto.

So is nationalism on the march again, or is something more subtle going on? In what forms will nationalistic conflict take: economic, military, diplomatic? Is Osama Bin Laden the 21st-Century Gavrilo Princip, as my coblogger Nadezhda worries? Should we fear a "Weimar Russia?" Must nationalism be met with nationalism or is it best met with, as Martin Wolf and Thomases Barnett and Friedman would have it, more connectivity? Are elections the answer everywhere, or do they tend to exacerbate and harden ethnic and religious faultlines when first instituted? Am I making too much of nothing and seeing a pattern that doesn't exist? How rational are foreign worries and reactions to our own perceived or real civic nationalism?

Discuss.

Praktike 10:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE....I won't be around this weekend, but that doesn't mean the blog will be shutting down. No indeed. Instead, I'm leaving the blog in the hands of two guest bloggers. Filling in for me are the excellent and discerning Julie Saltman of Julie Saltman, and Praktike, frequent commenter and coblogger at Liberals Against Terrorism.

I'll be back on Monday. See you then.

Kevin Drum 1:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BOOK MEME....Carla wants me to answer the book meme thing going around, and since I'm about to take off for the weekend and don't have any serious blogging on tap, why not? Sadly, I'm afraid my answers may disappoint:

Youre stuck in Fahrenheit 451. Which book would you be?

I gather that the question here is, What book would you save from the bonfire? Hmmm. Even though this is probably not responsive to the spirit of the question, I think the answer is the Encyclopedia Britannica. I know I'm cheating by counting this as one book, but there you go. Besides, it's available on a single DVD these days, and that's actually smaller than a book.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Not really. Maybe Michelle Pfeiffer in Ladyhawk.

What is the last book you bought?

David Shipler's The Working Poor and David Cay Johnston's Perfectly Legal, both reviewed briefly here.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished Jared Diamond's Collapse yesterday. Before that I read Tom Friedman's The World is Flat (for a review) and Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons. Coming up next is probably Gilles Kepel's The War for Muslim Minds, and I'm also hoping to get a review copy of Matt Simmons's Twilight in the Desert soon.

What five books would you take to a deserted island?

Since I already went mega-literal on Question 1, I'll take this one in the spirit that it's offered and refrain from naming survival manuals or How To Build a Raft in 30 Days. My five favorite books of all time are:

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Power Broker, by Robert Caro
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever (first trilogy), by Stephen Donaldson
The Quincunx, by Charles Palliser
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Other Kevin Drum favorites are here.

And who shall I pass this meme on to? I think I'll choose my guest bloggers for the weekend, Julie Saltman and Praktike. Take it away!

Kevin Drum 1:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 14, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE LONG EMERGENCY....Over at TNR today, Christopher Hayes reviews James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. Unfortunately, here's the nut graph of the review:

Midway through the book he offers an extended meditation on how the physics concept of entropy explains "conditions as seemingly unrelated as war, industrial pollution, pornography, mass political murder, the shattering of consensus about the value of money, and incompetent parenting."

That's that, then. I'm afraid that anyone who tries to explain societal problems by recourse to trendy constructs from physics including but not limited to longtime crank favorites like entropy, the theory of relativity, or Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is a crank. Chris suggests that Kunstler really does have a point beneath the crankiness, but I don't care. A crank is a crank.

And you know what the sole result of this book will be? It won't actually convince anyone who's not already convinced that we have some big problems we should be addressing. Instead it will serve only as fodder for naysayers, who will pull quotes like this out of the book and use them to tar everyone who's trying to warn us about these problems. I can see the reviews now: "Kunstler, the latest darling of the loony left...."

Damn.

UPDATE: I should make it clear that I probably agree with much of what Kunstler says. That's not the problem here. The problem is that when people make crackpot arguments for good causes, they just hurt the cause. My guess is that Kunstler is hurting the cause here, not helping it.

UPDATE 2: Ezra Klein has more.

Kevin Drum 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE AROUND THE WORLD....Does socialized British healthcare suck? Is it really better to be insured in America rather than at the mercy of the NHS? Avedon Carol, an American who's been at the mercy of the NHS for some years now, says no:

To me, though, the priceless fact of UK healthcare is this: I pay for it when I can pay, and I get it when I need it. What that means is that, yes, when I'm getting a paycheck, money comes out whether I'm sick or not, but when I'm ill, I get healthcare whether I have money to fork-over or not. I don't feel that money coming out of my paycheck, but believe me, as someone who grew up in the US, I am acutely aware of the fact that when I'm thinking about seeking medical care or advice, I know with a certainty that the price is not an issue.

When I was getting ready for my eye surgery, I didn't forget that even some people I know who have health insurance in the US would have had to write-off their eye if they'd been in my situation because the cost of surgery, two nights in the hospital, and after-care might not all be covered and what they still would have had to produce out-of-pocket would have broken them. Someone with no insurance wouldn't even have been able to consider it. (And that's leaving aside the four weeks I spent house-bound while I kept my head in the necessary position to make sure the procedure works. Would your employer give that to you?)

I get the care I need when I need it, and so far it's been good care. I never have to think about whether I can afford it. Like I say, priceless.

And keep in mind that this is Britain, which is generally thought to have one of the worst national healthcare systems in Europe.

It's funny, isn't it? Conservatives keep telling us how bad healthcare is in the socialist hells of Europe and Canada, and yet the people who actually live in Europe and Canada mostly like their healthcare just fine. In fact, they like it better than most Americans like American healthcare (see Exhibit 1 in this report). They pay less for it than we do, too (see Figure 1 in this report).

Marc Danziger may think that "If I had a chronic or serious disease, and insurance, I'd rather be here," but I can't figure out why. After all, Europeans seem to get pretty good treatment for chronic and serious diseases, even compared to well insured Americans. I'm afraid the alleged advantages of America's healthcare system continue to evade me.

Kevin Drum 2:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

YOUR MORNING RANT....Andrew Tobias has a juicy little rant today. I think I'll just steal the whole thing:

President Bush is an oil man. His pappy is an oil man. His VP is an oil man. His pals and his familys pals are oil men. His virtual brother, Prince Bandar Bush, and the Saudi Royal Family generally, to whom the Bushes are closely tied, are oil men.

So when you say energy crisis, what exactly do you mean? This is a great time to be an oil man! All those guests at the early Cheney energy meetings the ones whose names the White House would not reveal even after a subpoena from the General Accounting Office? Most of them are likely reveling in this so-called crisis.

The solution to the crisis, according to this administration, is to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, not to promote conservation. Drilling for oil is what oil men DO. Conservation hurts oil men two ways. First, they sell less oil. Second, because of that lessened demand, the oil they do sell fetches a lower price.

With oil at $55 a barrel instead of $30, as I have pointed out before, the Saudis are making (roughly) an extra $250 million extra! a day.

Meanwhile, that other energy crisis that came and went the one in California that was engineered in no small part by Enron (the Presidents biggest campaign supporters), as told in The Smartest Guys in the Room is about to hit the silver screen in a documentary by the same name. Dont miss the part maybe two-thirds of the way through where the Enron guys come out to confab with Arnold before the recall process gets going. The crisis which disappeared as soon as the manipulation stopped sure helped to undermine the governor of the largest Democratic state in the country.

My point is, you may think high gasoline or heating oil prices are becoming a hardship. But one mans crisis is anothers bonanza. It is a grand time to be rich and powerful in America.

Have yourself a double latte.

Well said. But make mine a regular coffee. Black, please.

Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SPECIALIST BLOGS....One of the amazing things about the blogosphere is that it provides accessible in-depth coverage of an astoundingly broad array of extremely specialized topics. I could provide a thousand examples, but here are just three: Josh Marshall's bankruptcy blog, David Jensen's blog about California's Prop 71 (the stem cell initiative), and these two blogs on oil depletion.

Now, via Tyler Cowen (who's a contributor), it appears there's an Avian Flu blog. Remarkable.

Kevin Drum 11:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOW MANY DISEASES DO YOU HAVE?....You know those stories you're always reading (or, more likely, watching on the evening news) about various dread diseases and how many people have them? Usually, even though they're things you've never heard of before, it turns out that tens of millions of people suffer from them.

I've always been vaguely skeptical of this stuff, but I've never cared enough to really check any of it out. Luckily, Frank Greve of Knight Ridder has done it for me:

Add up the published claims about disease prevalence and the average American has at least two ailments at a time.

Who's pushing the high numbers? Skeptical bio-statisticians blame drug companies and reporters for much of the hype. They also blame research institutes and disease foundations seeking more public spending on particular diseases.

....A case in point: stories about shopping addiction, a vaguely defined compulsion that some drug companies would like to treat with antidepressants.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 17 million Americans are compulsive shoppers. A doctor on the British Broadcasting Corp.'s popular health Web site (www.bbc.co.uk/health) says it's 15 million. Ronald Faber, a University of Minnesota Twin Cities professor whose 1992 study provided the high-end figures for both articles, begs to differ. Faber said reporters almost always ignore his report's conclusion that the low-end estimate of 2 million to 4 million was the better one.

This is not exactly a big surprise or anything, but it's still nice to know. Just one more thing we can chalk up to the seemingly everpresent fearmongers who infest the news business these days.

POSTSCRIPT: Of course, you can always just make up numbers if misrepresenting actual research is too much work. Greve's sidebar story about footsore gardeners is a case in point.

Kevin Drum 12:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 13, 2005
By: Amy Sullivan

IT'S OFFICIAL....The House is down, just the Senate to go. House Republicans voted overwhelmingly to permanently repeal the estate tax--at a cost, let's remember, of nearly $300 billion over the next decade.

So, to sum up: Actual prescription drug relief? There's no money. Armor to protect our troops? There's no money. The funds to back up the mandated reforms of No Child Left Behind? There's no money. Doing away with a tax on super rich kids? Plenty o' cash to spare.

But, silly me--I'm forgetting what's at stake here. Remind us, Congressman Cox: "[Supporters of the estate tax] want to pry lots of cash out of the cold, dead fingers of America's deceased entrepreneurs.'' That's your Congress. The demagoguery they just throw in for free.

Amy Sullivan 6:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

11 OUT OF 11 CHEMICAL COMPANIES AGREE: CHEMICALS ARE GOOD FOR YOU!....Remember yesterday I posted about potential conflicts of interest when pharmaceutical studies in medical journals are sponsored by pharmaceutical companies? You will be unsurprised to know that the same thing is true of chemical studies sponsored by chemical companies. Pacific Views has the story.

Kevin Drum 6:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

$50/BARREL OIL....Yesterday Matt Yglesias mused out loud about high oil prices:

I understand clearly why individual purchasers are displeased to see their gas bills high (and don't get me started about the heating oil this past winter) but in broader economic terms it's hard to see the looming crisis here....Are these high prices really something that should be an independent source of economic concern? I don't see it.

This is worth a bit of countermusing, I think. The problem here is not high oil prices per se, it's the reason behind the high oil prices.

In a nutshell, global demand for oil is about 82 million barrels/day. Total global capacity to pump oil is about 84 mbd. Since demand has historically increased pretty steadily at the rate of 2 mbd per year, that means we're now close to maxing out global capacity.

Of course, there are alternatives. There's biomass and oil sands and oil from coal. There's ANWR and the South China Sea. And it's true that these are all things that have the potential to increase our supply of oil. Unfortunately, all of them take time to develop anywhere from a few years to a few decades and in the near and medium term we know what fields are available, what technology is available, and what infrastructure is available. And the answer is: enough to pump about 84 mbd, with only a small upside.

This has a couple of effects. First, since a lot of people still don't really believe this, it means a sudden spike in prices is pretty likely once the reality finally sets in and people begin to panic. A price increase from $50/barrel to $100/barrel over the course of three or four years isn't a big deal. That same increase over the course of three or four months is a recipe for global recession.

Second, and perhaps more important, it makes the oil market enormously volatile. Any kind of sustained interruption would have grave consequences.

For example, OPEC has the capacity to supply about 30 mbd. Question: what incentive do they have to continue pumping this amount? Economically, they have very little. If they cut production by 20% (6 mbd), that would reduce global supply to 78 mbd. Prices would immediately double to around $100/barrel, maybe even higher, since there would be no other source to make up the shortfall. As a result, OPEC's revenues would skyrocket not all at once, since most oil is delivered under futures contracts, but soon enough. In addition, most Middle Eastern fields are being overproduced right now, so cutting production would have beneficial long-term effects as well.

So why not do it? In the past, it was partly because Saudi Arabia kept the rest of the cartel in line by threatening to increase its pumping capacity to make up any shortfall. But Saudi Arabia no longer has much spare capacity left, and the Iranians and Venezuelans might decide someday that they don't care all that much about a global recession in the west. They'd rather have the money.

But even if OPEC decides not to take the risk of cutting production, perhaps out of fear of an American military response, it might happen anyway. A serious terrorist attack on a large field could have the same effect. Or political unrest in an oil rich but unstable country. Or something we haven't thought about yet. Take your pick.

Bottom line: the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 were artificial and could be overcome fairly quickly. Even at that, though, they had serious effects. Conversely, an oil shock today would be based on hard production limits. The minimum result for the United States would be a further ballooning of the trade deficit, a sharp increase in interest rates, and a serious recession. The maximum result would be war.

So yes, it's true that oil at $50/barrel is not itself a big problem. At the same time, it's a symptom of a very big problem indeed. It's worth keeping your eyes on.

Kevin Drum 5:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE IN AMERICA....In TNR this week, Benjamin Healy reviews Uninsured in America: Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity, which provides an up close look at what healthcare is like in America for the 40 million who lack insurance:

Rotting teeth are a consistent motif among their interviewees, and with a poignancy not often found in policy books, the authors peg tooth decay as a reliable barometer of one's employability and caste status. As one uninsured woman who works part-time in a call center (and therefore out of public view), tells them: "I've gotten toothaches so bad, so that I just literally pull my own teeth. They'll break off after a while, and then you just grab ahold of them, and they work their way out ... The hole closes itself up anyway." As the insured reader guiltily and involuntarily runs his tongue over his teeth upon reading these lines, the authors' caste argument essentially proves itself.

And there's plenty more where that came from, as the authors present through their subjects a laundry list of ominous examples of untreated suffering, ranging from gallbladder disease to diabetes to asthma, addressed alternately by hopeful neglect and homemade cocktails of alcohol and over-the-counter pain medication or in the harrowing case of an Idaho man with recurring bone spurs in his feet, a power sander.

Good old American healthcare. Best in the world, baby, best in the world.

Kevin Drum 2:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ESTATE TAX REPEAL....I see that the Republican Trust Fund Baby Act of 2005 is all set to get passed today in the House. That's the modern GOP for you: it's the party of responsibility! If you earn your money, it should be taxed away, but if it just falls on you from the sky, you should get to keep every last cent.

The political story behind the estate tax repeal is genuinely fascinating, as is the continuing public support for it. Democrats have consistently offered up pretty extreme counterproposals, including Earl Pomeroy's latest gambit, which would provide a $7 million (!) exemption for couples and thus constrain the estate tax to the tippy top .3% of the population. No farms would be lost, no family businesses would be lost, nobody who wasn't fabulously wealthy would even be touched. But of course it's a no-go. It would touch the super-billionaire class, and that's who this is aimed at.

I actually understand the gut appeal of estate tax repeal. After all, when you die don't you want to decide who gets your money? And yet, Democrats' inability to make the counterargument stick is telling. The only thing being taxed is estates of robber baron size; the only people being taxed are the pampered children of the robber barons; and the cost of repeal is on the order of $1 trillion per decade. Apply that to Social Security and the system would still be solvent when Captain Kirk retired.

So a few thousand indolent kids like Paris Hilton get to pay for their Roman bacchanalias tax free while a couple hundred million ordinary working folks get the shaft. That's the party of moral values for you.

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE IN FRANCE, PART 2....As long as we're on the topic of healthcare in France, here's a typical experience with the system as related by an expat who's lived in France for ten years:

I live in a rural area around 8km from the nearest village, 12km from a big village and over 20km from the nearest town.

I was cycling home when a dog collided with my bike. The animal was unhurt but I fell off, but only seemed to be in some discomfort at that point. During the night, however, the pain became excruciating so in the morning I phoned my gnraliste (GP) in the big village and fixed an appointment for that afternoon when my neighbour could drive me in.

I arrived 15 minutes early and was seen almost immediately. The GP telephoned the X-ray unit 3km away and explained the condition. I was told to come straightaway. I waited about 10 minutes to be x-rayed, then a further 15 minutes while the X-rays were being studied. The radiologist then explained that I had a fracture and a cracked rib. I was told to take the X-rays back to my GP immediately.

The GP studied the X-rays and decided that I should see an orthopaedic specialist. He telephoned the specialist (in the nearest big town) and I was given an appointment for the following morning. In the meantime I was prescribed painkillers, which came from the next-door pharmacy. I would at least sleep that night.

The following day I waited only a few minutes before being seen by the orthopaedic specialist, who decided that my current strapping was insufficient and my wrist and lower arm needed to be put in plaster, which he did. I should return in four weeks' time.

Total out of pocket cost in this case, which was higher than normal because this guy has an expensive GP, was about a hundred bucks. That socialized medicine stuff is hell, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 1:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TOM'S TROUBLES....Tom DeLay met with a group of Republican senators on Tuesday to plead his case:

Attendees said DeLay, in extremely brief remarks, told the senators that, if asked about his predicament, they should blame Democrats and their lack of an agenda.

Ah, yes, the all purpose excuse. No matter what the subject, just screech about how the Democrats don't have an agenda. Works every time.

Kevin Drum 1:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PAPAL ODDS....Via the BBC, here are the odds on the next pope, courtesy of an Irish bookmaker:

In recent days, the odds on an Italian cardinal becoming pope have lengthened, while the prices for some candidates from the developing world have shortened.

The clear favourite now is Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, a Vatican insider who could become the first African pope for 1,500 years. Current odds: 3-1.

....But who is betting on the papacy? The bookmaker cannot be sure, but some of the smart money may be coming from the clergy.

"There is nothing wrong in priests having a bet, and you often see them at the races," says Paddy Power.

Personally, I'm plumping for Jaime Ortega. I don't know anything about the guy, and for all I know he might be somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun. But a Cuban pope would be kind of cool. After all, anything that annoys Castro can't be all bad.

Kevin Drum 1:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 12, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE TOP TEN....Brad Plumer picks up where I left off yesterday and provides a list of three reasons of why media coverage of national healthcare systems in other countries is so dismal. I agree with them all.

Matt Yglesias takes the ball from there and adds seven more. I think I agree with all of his bullet points as well, and would probably add "Harry and Louise" to round out the list.

So there you have it. Combine Matt's #4 and #5, then add his list to Brad's, and then toss in Harry and Louise, and you've got a handy Top Ten list of why media coverage of healthcare sucks. Maybe someone should print it up as a flyer and start a campaign to tape it to newsroom doors around the country.

Kevin Drum 7:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES....Over at Mahablog this morning, Barbara O'Brien suggested based on admittedly haphazard research that conservatives have a habit of making breathless, over-the-top assaults on broad-brush liberalism. Conversely, she said, liberals tend to attack only specific issues, not conservatism in general.

Now, my initial reaction was that this didn't seem right. After all, my own comment section is often full to bursting with broad brush denunciations of conservatism and everything it stands for. Still, a comment section is one thing, but a published article in the Weekly Standard is quite another. Here's Joel Engel today:

Alas, somewhere over the last two decades or so, liberalism lost its root as the word liberal was perverted to the point of Orwellian inversion and therefore rendered meaningless.

For example, rooting against the United States and for "insurgents" who delight in slaughtering innocents is many things (stupid, for one, also sad, evil, and short-sighted), but it is assuredly not liberal.

Decrying the American "religious right" for advocating a "culture of life" while simultaneously praising the neck-slicing Islamofascists is many things (start with pathetic), but it is not liberal.

Calling 3,000 workers who died when the buildings fell "little Eichmanns" is many things (vile, as well as repulsive and morally repugnant), but it is not liberal.

This goes on and on for 20 paragraphs to be exact. Plus a summary that says "the list goes on (and on and on and on)." Dan Drezner a non-liberal, mind you has about the right take on this silliness.

So, um, maybe Barbara is right. After all, this is something that even an eighth grader would likely be too mature to think clever, and I'd guess that nothing this juvenile about conservatism has ever graced the pages of, say, The American Prospect or The New Republic. Times must be tough in conservo-land if this is what they're reduced to these days.

Kevin Drum 6:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

THE COMMUNITARIAN CHALLENGE....Perhaps I should have stuck to my original plan, which was to recommend this Noam Scheiber column on "an emerging Democratic split between social libertarians, who emphasize privacy," and what he calls "communitarians." (Small disclaimer: Noam Scheiber is not just a writer I admire, but also my boyfriend.)

What Noam outlines is a better-articulated version of what I tried to communicate via a few tossed-off blog posts: The common good, the idea that members of a society have shared interests (including moral interests), is not a concept owned by conservatives. Liberals can--and should--disagree with both the diagnoses and prescriptions that conservative have offered for what they say ails our society. But that shouldn't prevent them from putting forward ideas of their own based on the belief that we have some obligations to each other. We already do that in the areas of economics and health care and the environment. It's just time to expand the lens a little more.

Read the whole thing.

Amy Sullivan 2:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS....Are the pharmaceutical studies published in leading medical journals truly the products of dispassionate science? Ask Betty Dong:

Betty J. Dong, a pharmacologist, had been contracted in 1987 by Flint Laboratories to run a clinical trial comparing Synthroid, Flint's synthetic version of thyroid hormone, to that of three competing formulations. At the time, Synthroid was the market leader and the most expensive drug in its class. Dong and Flint signed a lengthy agreement detailing the design of the study, and both sides fully expected the results would show that Synthroid was superior.

But all four drugs turned out to be essentially equivalent. In 1990, as Dong prepared a paper for JAMA, the company that was at first so eager to solicit her help, launched a vigorous campaign to discredit the study. Flint then rushed its own paper into press at a less prestigious journal, concluding--surprise!--that Synthroid was superior. After numerous attempts to address the company's criticisms, Dong finally submitted her paper to JAMA, only to withdraw it three months later when the firm threatened to sue for breach of contract. It took the FDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to get the company to back down. Dong's paper did not see print in JAMA until 1997.

....In a recent survey of clinical researchers, nearly 20 percent of respondents admitted to delaying publication of their results by more than six months at least once in the last three years to allow for patent application, protect their scientific lead, or to slow the dissemination of results that would hurt sales of their sponsor's product.

This is from "Doctors Without Borders," by Shannon Brownlee, published in the April 2004 issue of the Washington Monthly. It's a terrific look at the increasingly corrosive effect of industry sponsorship on medical research, a topic that's gotten a lot of attention and prompted new federal guidelines in the process in the year since Shannon's article appeared.

Earlier this month "Doctors Without Borders" was awarded a very well deserved first place in magazine journalism by the Association of Health Care Journalists. Congratulations, Shannon.

Kevin Drum 2:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

JOHN BOLTON UPDATE....Laura Rozen is watching C-SPAN and reports that today's testimony against John Bolton from former INR chief Carl Ford was devastating. "In my long experience, I have never seen anyone so abusive to a subordinate," Ford said about Bolton's attempts to intimidate an analyst who had provided information Bolton didn't like.

Laura has other highlights as well, including what seems like a tacit admission from committee chair Dick Lugar that Bolton's nomination could be in trouble. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IDENTITY THEFT UPDATE....Via Susie, it appears that LexisNexis didn't have 32,000 names stolen from its database after all. It was 310,000.

So, anyone up for a class action suit here? Oh, wait. That's pretty much impossible thanks to tort reform, isn't it? Maybe some regulation of the industry? Too bad business groups are opposed to even the mild regulation that California currently has in place.

Oh well. The loss of personal data to identity thieves isn't really a big deal, I'm sure. No need for alarm.

Kevin Drum 1:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

AFGHANISTAN UPDATE....Patrick Belton at OxBlog posts a letter from a friend working on employment programs in southern Afghanistan:

I've been working in districts that neighbor on Mullah Omar's hometown. During the mujahidin era, they produced fratricidal, drug-trafficking, arch-conservative commanders (one of whose sons is now a major provincial governor)....But now war-weariness and the desire for calm seems as prevalent here as anywhere. When I talk to villagers, they mention how glad they are that pseudo-official bands of armed men are no longer able to stop cars on the road or roam the countryside, extorting at will. The UN-led disarmament program has had a noticeable impact even in these areas.

....Meanwhile, the prospect of permanent US bases in the country is greeted with tremendous relief by most Afghans I talk to, whose primary fear at the moment is that America "will abandon us again as they did in the 1990s." And the international military presence throughout the country is becoming ever more international, as US Provincial Reconstruction Teams retire and are replaced by Canadians, Italians, Brits. The securing and rebuilding of Afghanistan is not the simple act of American empire perceived by many critics.

At the moment, I think Iraq is more the focus of "empire" critiques than Afghanistan, but it's an interesting perspective anyway and includes both positive and negative observations about how the rebuilding of Afghanistan is going. Worth reading.

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

SIGH....I'm going to give Matt the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was just providing a helpful demonstration of what those "cultural elites" Dan Gerstein referred to yesterday might sound like. (If you want more examples, take a stroll through our comments, bearing in mind that they represent less than one-tenth of one percent of our overall readership and are therefore to be taken with an entire pantry full of salt.)

Matt's main contention with the argument Gerstein and I are making seems to be that there is no problem, so if Democrats talk about popular culture as if it is a problem, they will be guilty of shameless political pandering.

Maybe we just have a fundamental difference of opinion here about the definition of "pandering." Matt seems to think it's talking about things you can't fix with a policy solution. I think that acknowledging the concerns of many Americans--even if you can't fix them with a policy--is sometimes just the obvious and right thing to do, and shouldn't always be given the perjorative label of pandering. Most parents don't care that statistics of child wellbeing are improving overall; they worry about whether their kid is going to use drugs or start having sex early or become a victim of violence. Some twenty-something blogger telling them not to worry about it isn't going to make them feel better.

For the 352nd time: This is not a choice between Democrats doing/saying nothing or becoming Christian Coalition clones. It's just not. Anyone who insists on posing that false choice is being willfully narrow-minded. There is a heck of a lot of ground between those two poles. I worry about a crisis of imagination in our society if we can't see that.

All too often, however, Americans find themselves faced with a stark choice, choosing between one side that says, "We know you worry about raising your kids and about our culture" (even as they exploit those fears), and one that says, "Bah! Culture! Not a problem!" So far, liberals don't seem to have done a bang-up job convincing Americans that those silly little things they worry about aren't that big a deal.

I believe there are actually policies Democrats can pursue that don't involve censoring free speech or impacting how adults consume popular culture. But sometimes it's not about policies. It's about proving that you're not hopelessly out of touch with the real anxieties and concerns of many Americans. Maybe I'm starting from the wrong square, though. Maybe the Democratic Party really is out of touch. If so, it's time to settle in for a looooong winter's night in the minority.

UPDATE: As one reader has already reminded me, I've neglected to remind people that popular culture doesn't begin to encompass the concerns of many parents. Sometimes I forget that doesn't go without saying. We're also talking about the fact that parents are working more than ever before, and that's a major reason why they aren't around to monitor their kids. The fact that with our country's woefully inadequate child care system, the mere juggling of work and kid schedules is enough to drive the most resourceful parent insane. These are issues policymakers can do something about, but policies won't mean a thing if voters don't believe you understand their concerns.

Amy Sullivan 11:44 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

OFFICERS ON THE WITNESS STAND....There's a fascinating article in the New York Times today that ought to be read by anyone who's convinced that police testimony in criminal cases is reliably trustworthy and neutral:

Dennis Kyne put up such a fight at a political protest last summer, the arresting officer recalled, it took four police officers to haul him down the steps of the New York Public Library and across Fifth Avenue.

"We picked him up and we carried him while he squirmed and screamed," the officer, Matthew Wohl, testified in December. "I had one of his legs because he was kicking and refusing to walk on his own."

....But one day after Officer Wohl testified, and before the defense called a single witness, the prosecutor abruptly dropped all charges....A videotape shot by a documentary filmmaker showed Mr. Kyne agitated but plainly walking under his own power down the library steps, contradicting the vivid account of Officer Wohl, who was nowhere to be seen in the pictures. Nor was the officer seen taking part in the arrests of four other people at the library against whom he signed complaints.

....In the bulk of the 400 cases that were dismissed based on videotapes...tapes showed that the demonstrators had followed the instructions of senior officers to walk down those streets, only to have another official order their arrests.

Obviously this isn't the case with every officer or every arrest. But not to put too fine a point on it, practically every time there's videotape it turns out that cops have been pretty cavalier with the law. Doesn't it make you wonder how often that's the case when videotape isn't available?

Kevin Drum 1:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

WHAT IS JOHN HARRIS TALKING ABOUT?....I'm not sure why the Washington Post is running this piece at all, much less on Tuesday's front page, even if John Harris is usually an astute political observer. The headline is "Recent Washington Scandals Test 'Honesty Is the Best Policy'", and Harris asserts that lately politicians are learning that coverups aren't always worse than the original crime.

But here's his evidence: First, Sandy Berger. A weird situation, I'll admit, but hardly one that was ever going to be a huge deal, whether or not Berger told the truth immediately or lied and then subsequently agreed to a plea bargain. C'mon...Berger is a former official from an administration two elections ago who did something stupid. You can never prove a counterfactual anyway, but it's hard to imagine that this could ever have become some tempest in Washington.

Next, Tom DeLay. It's far too early to claim that DeLay's strategy of going on the attack is going to help him escape punishment from colleagues or voters. But that's almost beside the point. What we have here is not proof that evasion works but rather that controlling every branch of government, purging ethics committees of independent-minded members and installing your puppets, and invoking divine retribution on those who disagree with you seems to work pretty darn well.

Finally--and most oddly--Harris relies on the example of Bill Clinton as someone who benefitted from an initial cover-up of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Hate to be rude, but it was precisely Clinton's attempt to hide the affair that led to the whole impeachment proceeding to begin with. Sure, he didn't actually end up forced to leave office. But I don't see how this is an example of dishonesty triumphing over candor.

Weird.

Amy Sullivan 12:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 11, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DWORKIN AND STEINEM....Andrea Dworkin has died, and Lindsay Beyerstein writes that "it is unthinkable to me that the death of a major feminist thinker should receive so little attention."

I don't have much of an opinion about that, but I will say this: if you do write an obituary, you should at least spell Gloria Steinem's name correctly. I guess the Guardian hasn't completely licked its proofreading demons yet after all.

Kevin Drum 11:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE....Also via Ted Barlow today, here's a post from Matt Welch that I apparently missed on Friday because it was buried under some godawful long baseball post that caused me to surf away in terror. (Shorter Matt Welch: Angels and Dodgers in the World Series this year! Sure, Matt....)

Anyway, Matt, who is married to a Frenchwoman and who visits France regularly, was chatting with some fellow libertarians (!) about healthcare:

We had some small discussion group about De Tocqueville, and someone (naturally) brought up France's high taxes and thick welfare state. "Well, the thing is," Emmanuelle said (quotes are inexact), "some of the things the French state provides are pretty good. For instance health care."

"Wait a minute wait a minute," one guy said. "If you were sick I mean, really sick where would you rather be? France or the U.S.?"

"Um, France," we both said.

Various sputtering ensued. What about the terrible waiting lists? (There really aren't any.) The shoddy quality? (It's actually quite good.) Finally, to deflect the conversation away, I said "Look, if we made twice as much money, we'd probably prefer American health care for a severe crisis. But we don't, so we don't."

Hell, I make more money than Matt and if I were really sick I'd rather be in France too. I've read quite a bit about France's healthcare system and it's effin great. To put it in a nutshell, you can pick any doctor you want, the quality of care is high, the doctors themselves seem pretty happy with the way it works, and the overall cost per person is half what the American system costs. Plus it covers everyone in the country, not just 70% of them.

But all you hear about in America is that you might have to wait six months for hip replacement surgery. And indeed you might. But that's because hip replacement surgery is usually pretty low priority stuff. On the other hand, if what you need is either routine medical care or else urgent treatment for something like a heart attack that is, the stuff that makes up 99% of actual real life medical care France is great.

I've long thought that the spectre of "socialized medicine" is the greatest con ever perpetrated on the American public. Think about it. Suppose you were constructing a healthcare system from scratch. Choice #1 is national healthcare along the lines of France or Sweden. (Not Britain. Their system kind of sucks.)

Choice #2 is this: if you're employed, your employer might provide you with healthcare coverage of some kind. Anytime you change employers or your employer changes plans, your coverage and your doctor will change too. If you're unemployed, or you work for Wal-Mart, you get nothing though in a pinch you can always show up at an emergency room, which is perhaps the most expensive way of delivering healthcare known to man. If you're poor, there's a shabby government program that will sort of cover your kids, but probably not you. If you're over 65, another government program will cover some but not all of your medical expenses. And all of this will cost us about 14% of GDP, far more than any other industrialized country on the planet.

That's insane. No one would design a healthcare system like that. But that's what we have, thanks mostly to a weird set of coincidences and political compromises made around the time of World War II.

And who benefits from it? Citizens? Probably 95% of us would be better off with France's system than with ours. Businesses? Why should they be saddled with the cost and hassle of providing healthcare? Doctors? Maybe a bit, but an awful lot of them would probably be better off in France too. Insurance carriers and pharmaceutical companies? Bingo.

The whole thing is crazy. Over the years we've jury rigged a bizarre system that Rube Goldberg would be ashamed of, but somehow we're convinced that America has the best healthcare in the world. But the plain fact is that we don't. For a tiny percentage of us, medical care here is better than in France. For the vast, vast majority, France's system is superior to ours in practically every respect.

But quelle horreur! that would be socialized medicine. And you might have to wait six months for hip replacement surgery. Probably best just to stick with what we have. After all, the insurance industry wouldn't lie to us, would they?

UPDATE: Kash at Angry Bear has some facts and figures to share, and he promises more later in the week.

Kevin Drum 7:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TAX CUT POLITICS....By coincidence, there are two consecutive posts on Tapped today about taxes. In the first, Jeffrey Dubner says he was surprised this weekend to learn that his parents had never heard about the Alternative Minimum Tax and were blindsided when it hit them this year. Why haven't Democrats made a bigger deal out of George Bush's inaction on this subject?

The second post is about the estate tax. Republicans are working to permanently repeal it, and Diane Greenhalgh of Moving Ideas tells us that tax fairness groups are fighting to reform the estate tax instead of abolishing it.

So why is George Bush so determined to repeal the estate tax but apparently doesn't give a damn about repealing (or reforming) the AMT, which effectively raises taxes on millions of upper middle class taxpayers?

It's an interesting contrast because it shines a harsh spotlight on the grimier side of tax cut politics. The answer is simple: it's because the upper middle class has less clout than practically any other constituency.

Millionaires, for example, have clout because they have lots of money and influence. There aren't very many of them, but if you promise to reduce their taxes they will reward you with lots and lots of campaign contributions.

Conversely, the working and middle class have clout because they have lots of votes. They are worth wooing not because they have money to give you, but because their votes can make a difference.

The upper middle class, by contrast, has nothing. There aren't enough of them to make it worth chasing their votes, and although they lead comfortable lives, they don't have the kind of money or influence that makes a difference when campaign season starts up.

That's why George Bush and the Republican party don't care about the AMT. Promising to reform the AMT wouldn't buy them very much loyalty and wouldn't translate into a lot of votes either. So what's the point?

And so the AMT continues to get ignored. It's not the biggest deal in the world (for now, anyway), but it's an instructive object lesson in Republican priorities. Unless you're a likely campaign contributor, they don't really care much about your taxes.

UPDATE: More on the same subject from Brad Plumer. And Ted Barlow has some related comments too.

Kevin Drum 6:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

TODAY'S MUST-READS....Don't really have much time these next few days, so I'll just point you to some good commentary and we can return to the themes later in the week. First up is the always-worth-reading Mike Tomasky, who asks why the mainstream media seem not to have noticed that our president's approval ratings are shockingly low--low, like Nixon in the midst of Watergate low, Hoover during the Depression low. He points out that the standard journalistic defense post 9/11 for kidglove coverage of the White House was that no one wanted to hear criticism of a popular president (nevermind that it's a journalist's job to report news, not just popular news.) What happens now, Tomasky wonders, with Bush's numbers in the gutter? Will the defense now change to, you don't kick a guy when he's down? Stay tuned.

Also, don't miss Dan Gerstein's op-ed in today's Wall St. Journal (if someone has a link that doesn't require registration, could you please send it to me?) Here's a taste:

The cultural elites are guilty of the very sin of silly oversimplification of which they frequently (and rightly) accuse conservatives. Not all parents who are concerned about the avalanche of crud crushing their children every day are obsessed with SpongeBob's sexual orientation. Nor are they seeking to shred the First Amendment. Most are just looking for a little cooperation from the captains of culture to make the hard job of raising children in a fully-wired universe a little easier....

One can only imagine how insulting our elitism is to the average mother in the exurbs of Georgia or Colorado who might be uncomfortable with open talk of threesomes on "Friends" at 8p.m. Well, actually, we don't have to imagine too hard, not after John Kerry openly embraced Hollywood and went on to lose married women voters by a margin of 55% to 44%....

But that is not a discussion the entertainment industry or its Democratic defenders want to have. In fact, most of the time they actively work to squelch it. Their first move usually is to deny that the culture has any influence on attitudes and behavior....Part of this response is clearly motivated by profit margins. But it also flows from a profound aversion to making moral judgments. And that's the nub of the values problem for Democrats today. We don't hesitate to judge people's beliefs, but we blanch at judging their behavior. That leaves us silent on big moral issues at a time of great moral uncertainty, and leaves the impression that we are the party of "anything goes."

These last few points are especially critical. In recent talks--including one this morning--I've been telling people that voters find it odd when Democrats bash big business and oil companies but turn a blind eye to the entertainment industry. Wouldn't their Hollywood funders rebel if Democrats spoke up?, someone asked this morning. Frankly, it wouldn't exactly hurt the party to have Susan Sarandon stand up and denounce the Democrats.

And this is related to Gerstein's last point. The real concerns of Americans go much deeper than gay marriage or abortion--even if they have a hard time articulating them. Americans are very anxious about the idea that people will do whatever they can get away with, and their perception is that Democrats are the ones who let people get away with things. But Democrats can gain the advantage if they craft a consistent message. Some people certainly are opposed to abortion on principle; but many are simply offended by the idea that some people might rely on abortion as a means of birth control. But who else can you think of who has done something simply because they could get away with it? Do I hear, Ken Lay? Tom DeLay? All sorts of unregulated industries? Tie these into a consistent call for responsibility and Democrats have a better chance of claiming some moral ground.

Amy Sullivan 4:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A FIRST!....I promise that this is unrelated to the fact that I met him for the first time on Saturday night, but for perhaps the first time ever Mickey Kaus writes something that I agree with unreservedly. It's actually been a pet peeve of mine for quite a while.

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By: Kevin Drum

CANADIAN SCANDALMONGERING....Of all things, Canadian politics has finally prompted Rivka to break radio silence and update her blog. On Friday she published a long post about the Jean Brault scandal that's got everything: alleged payoffs, party corruption, a judicial gag order, American blogs defying the gag order, and much more. Go read. It's much better than the Economist's bloodless version of the story.

Kevin Drum 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PERSONAL DATA NOT SO PERSONAL AS YOU THINK?....California, as you may recall, is the only state in the union that has a law on its books that requires credit reporting firms like ChoicePoint to inform customers if their personal data is compromised. Hooray for California!

Now, in the wake of the recent ChoicePoint debacle, there's a move in Congress to pass a similar law on the federal level. Hooray for Congress!

Unfortunately, as Charles Kuffner tells us, this news might not be as good as it seems. If the business community gets its way and when doesn't it under this administration? the end result will be that California's law gets gutted and the rest of you get squat. Lovely.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PRESIDENTIAL IPOD....The New York Times reports today on the contents of George Bush's iPod:

Mr. Bush, as leader of the free world, does not take the time to download the music himself; that task falls to his personal aide, Blake Gottesman, who buys individual songs and albums, including Mr. Jones's and Mr. Jackson's greatest hits, from the iTunes music store.

All legally downloaded from the iTunes store, eh? Sure, Blake. I smell a scandal here for any reporter enterprising enough to demand receipts!

Kevin Drum 1:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CULTURE WAR UPDATE....The Carpetbagger reports that a bipartisan bill to undo some of President Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research has enough votes to pass. I'm not really surprised, since stem cells have always been the soft underbelly of the "life begins at conception" crowd. It's one thing to stretch logic enough to conclude that a fertilized piece of DNA in the womb is a human life that deserves the full protection of the law, but it's quite another to conclude that a fertilized piece of DNA in a petri dish is a human life that deserves the full protection of the law. Especially when the petri dish version might hold the key to curing grandpa's Parkinson's.

So that's progress. Elsewhere, though, he reports that Rep. Marty Meehan's common sense bill to enhance military readiness by allowing gays to serve in the military is not doing so well: it only has three Republican cosponsors. Still, that's two more than it had a month ago. Not enough to bring it to the floor for a vote, mind you, but better than nothing. Give it another few months and there might be as many as a dozen Republicans willing to buck the culture warriors in favor of the real warriors.

Kevin Drum 1:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TROUBLE IN THE REFI INDUSTRY?....Via Max, I find that new data indicates that African Americans have a harder time refinancing their homes than whites. Ditto for Hispanics. Ditto again for women.

But is there really discrimination? After all, the lenders claim that they base their refi rates on creditworthiness, and there's not much they can do if these groups have lower average creditworthiness. There's probably something to that, but read this entire excerpt:

Lenders say the new information does not provide a complete picture of the loan-making process. They say borrowers who have poor credit, bad records for paying bills on time, or live in troubled neighborhoods with high foreclosure rates and falling home values are riskier customers than people with good credit who live in neighborhoods where real estate values are rising. Lenders have to charge more money to compensate for the higher risk, they say.

Such risk is generally measured by credit scores. In the past, lenders have opposed efforts to add credit scores to the federally required data, saying the obligation would pose an additional regulatory burden and potentially invade the privacy of borrowers.

In other words, if we showed you those credit scores you'd see that we were telling the truth! But, um, we're not going to show you the credit scores because that would, um, potentially invade the privacy of borrowers.

Providing aggregate credit scores, or even individual credit scores unattached to names, obviously invades no one's privacy. The fact that lenders are so eager to keep them secret tells you pretty much all you need to know here.

The full report is here. An appendix that tells you how your city ranks is here.

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY AND CORPORATE AMERICA....Although the Bush administration is pressuring industry trade groups to support its Social Security plan, it's having a harder time with corporate America itself:

While the business associations convey support to the White House and funnel money to the Social Security campaign individual companies that make up the trade groups are for the most part declining to take a public position.

A Los Angeles Times telephone survey this month of the 20 largest U.S. companies found only two willing to publicly support the president's proposal on Social Security.

....When Treasury Secretary John W. Snow visited a prominent New York investment house recently to talk up Social Security, a top executive asked why the White House was putting Social Security, which does not face a crisis for years, ahead of more immediate worries such as the weak dollar and the swollen federal deficit.

Snow's only response, according to one person who was in the room, was to acknowledge the import of those issues but reiterate that Social Security was the president's priority.

Corporate CEOs apparently think healthcare costs and the deficit are more critical issues than Social Security. What's more, it turns out that investment banks don't really care much about the potential trading profits from private accounts. At the same time, none of these corporations want to be viewed as taking sides on a political issue, especially one this unpopular, and they're also feeling pressure from union pension funds.

All in all, George Bush just isn't feeling a lot of love when it comes to Social Security. Poor guy.

Kevin Drum 1:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 10, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

ROBOT JOCKEYS....All hail our new robot overlords:

The United Arab Emirates says it will use robots as jockeys for camel races from next season.

...."The mechanical jockey is light in weight and receives orders from the instructor via a remote control system fixed on the back of the camel," the daily Gulf News said, quoting an official statement.

There's a picture here.

Kevin Drum 9:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BEGGING THE QUESTION....Via Julie, a website that addresses a crucial linguistic issue that we've discussed right here on this blog: the use and (especially) misuse of the phrase "begging the question."

It's about time someone took this seriously. And that Holbo guy better get on the cluetrain too. I'm a convert now, and there's nothing like the zeal of the converted....

Kevin Drum 6:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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MASTERS UPDATE....Jeez, did you just see Tiger Woods on the 16th? Unbelievable.

Kevin Drum 6:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BOING BOING....Xeni Jardin, mysterious presence behind Boing Boing, has apparently decided that today is the day to finally tell her story to the LA Times:

Xeni Jardin, pronounced SHEH-nee zhar-DAN, isn't her given name. Jardin doesn't reveal that, she says, because she wants to avoid dangerous people from her past. "Xeni" comes from "Xeniflores," a word with origins in Guatemala's native culture. Jardin means "garden" in Spanish and French.

It was a nickname that stuck during her travels through Mexico and Guatemala with her mentor, Dr. Munir Xochipillicueponi Quetzalkanbalam, a writer, performer, director, composer, entrepreneur and Mayan expert whom Jardin considers her adoptive father.

From here, the tale gets complicated and painful, she says. Still, Jardin agrees to recount it for the record for the first time. Ultimately, everyone wants to be understood, she says. Everyone wants to tell their story.

"Blogs are like a combination of those early fanzines and volunteer punk rock fliers and a big international party and a phone line where the international calls are always free," she says. Well, some blogs, anyway....

Kevin Drum 6:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PAPER OF RECORD?....Last year there was a kerfuffle at Columbia University about the conduct and evenhandedness of its Middle Eastern program. Accusations were made, charges were traded, and eventually a report was commissioned.

I'm not interested in any of that. Google is your friend if you are. But what I hadn't heard was that New York Times reporter Karen Arenson recently managed to scoop her competitors by obtaining a copy of the Columbia report a day before it was released. How did she get it? An editor's note explains:

The article did not disclose The Times's source for the document, but Columbia officials have since confirmed publicly that they provided it, a day before its formal release, on the condition that the writer not seek reaction from other interested parties.

As Daniel Okrent writes today, this is part of the obsessive scoop driven culture of American journalism, in which fact checking is secondary if you think the competition is close to breaking a story you're working on yourself. (See Clinton, William J., 1997-1998, for further details.)

But it's worse than that. If this story is any indication, it's an out and out psychosis. Cutting corners to get a jump on your competitors is bad enough, but being offered an exclusive by a corporate PR department isn't even a scoop. It's just PR. Once you start making explicit agreements about who you will and won't talk to in pursuit of a story, you're just a shill.

Are bloggers journalists? Beats me. But if Karen Arenson is a journalist, I think I'll pass.

Kevin Drum 6:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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TOM DELAY UPDATE....Nearly all of Tom DeLay's much reported ethical troubles have been tied in one way or another to DC super lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is himself in considerable trouble with the authorities these days. So it's worth passing along Michael Isikoff's latest scuttlebutt:

"Everybody is lying," Abramoff told a former colleague...."Those S.O.B.s," Abramoff said last week about DeLay and his staffers, according to his luncheon companion. "DeLay knew everything. He knew all the details."

This probably says more about me than it does about anything else, but I find myself obsessively curious about the meta-context here. Did Abramoff tell his friend this in hopes it would be passed along? Or did the friend pass it along to Isikoff without Abramoff's knowledge? That hardly makes sense, does it? Abramoff reads Newsweek and would know instantly which one of his pals ratted him out.

So: a shot across the bow? A none-too-subtle message to DeLay to help him out or else expect a kneecapping? Or nothing more than a source deciding that sucking up to Isikoff was more important than continuing his friendship with a guy who's going down anyway?

Of course, there's also the Power Line version: Isikoff actually talked to a Democratic mole who just made up his conversation with Abramoff. It's another forgery, folks!

Kevin Drum 2:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MISCELLANEOUS STUFF....Via Tyler Cowen:

Drawing a smiley face on the check increases a waitress's tips by 18 percent but decreases a waiter's tips by 9 percent.

In other news on the gender front, a reader emails me a link to "HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux":

This HOWTO is definitely not intended to help male Linux geeks find female Linux geeks to date. The central paradox of women and Linux is this: often, the people most anxious for more women in Linux are also the people most likely to accidentally drive them away. Frequently, men who want more women in Linux solely so they have a better chance of finding a girlfriend end up acting in ways that end up driving women away instead! This HOWTO will try to explain which behaviors drive women away from Linux and which behaviors encourage them.

This is probably a well meaning effort that should not be mocked. But come on. It's hard not to, isn't it?

And one more from Peevish, who wonders who it was that decided Power Line was blog of the year:

If anyone asked me why men seem so much louder on-line than women, I'd say it's because it probably would have taken years and years longer for women to come up with the idea of awarding themselves medals for having a hobby, but I'm feeling cynical today.

Quite so. But Anne is really going to be peevish when she learns that Power Line's notoriety was not bestowed by "one of the many internal 'awards' programs run by someone blogging," but by Time magazine itself. I kinda hope she doesn't read this.

Kevin Drum 1:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 9, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PEAK OIL....Majikthise directs our attention today to The Oil Drum, a blog dedicated to the subject of peak oil. If you're interested in the subject, Land of Black Gold is another blog worth checking out.

"Peak oil" refers to the notion that even though there's still lots of oil in the ground, we're reaching the peak of our capacity to pump it out of the ground. Current demand for oil is about 82 million barrels/day, and peak oil theorists believe that our absolute maximum global pumping capacity is 85-100 million barrels/day, a figure we'll reach within a few years. When that peak occurs and demand keeps rising the result is likely to be fairly catastrophic on a whole bunch of different dimensions.

A short primer on peak oil is here. A broader primer on both peak oil and energy use in general is here. One word of caution, though: I happen to believe the peak oil theorists are right, but the case is more complex than some of them let on. Try to keep away from the conspiracy theory types, and if you're genuinely interested in the subject google around enough to get the other side of the story too.

There are several books available on the subject, and one that I'm eager to get my hands on is Twilight in the Desert, by Matt Simmons. It ships in about six weeks.

Kevin Drum 7:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FRINGE WATCH....Dana Milbank reports today on the escalating rhetoric at a recent conservative conference about out-of-control judges. First came Phyllis Schlafly, suggesting that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy ought to be impeached. Up next was Michael Farris, who said that not only should Kennedy be impeached, but so should anyone who voted against impeaching him. Then there was the climax of the day:

Not to be outdone, lawyer-author Edwin Vieira told the gathering that Kennedy should be impeached because his philosophy, evidenced in his opinion striking down an anti-sodomy statute, "upholds Marxist, Leninist, satanic principles drawn from foreign law."

Ominously, Vieira continued by saying his "bottom line" for dealing with the Supreme Court comes from Joseph Stalin. "He had a slogan, and it worked very well for him, whenever he ran into difficulty: 'no man, no problem,' " Vieira said.

The full Stalin quote, for those who don't recognize it, is "Death solves all problems: no man, no problem."

Lovely. But here's the scariest part: as Milbank says, "This was no collection of fringe characters."

He's right. Increasingly, this is the mainstream of the Republican party. It's time for some housecleaning, folks.

The Debate Link has more.

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CBS NEWS VANUATU?....The New York Times asked four people what they'd do to improve the ratings of the CBS Evening News. Here's what Mark Burnett, the producer of Survivor, said:

Of all the people you're likely to speak to, I'm the most likely to get it right because I have my finger on the pulse of a lot of young people.

At least he's not shy. On the other hand, I really don't think a new set is going to get the job done, Mark.

(In fairness, his remarks about correspondents taking a more honest, conversational tone was a good one. But standing outside the White House every day until they let you in with the cameras rolling wasn't. So I guess he's one for three.)

Kevin Drum 4:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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MEMO FOLLIES....Here's an honest, nonpartisan question for y'all. Radley Balko wrote this a couple of days ago:

So we've now learned that the Schiavo memo wasn't a fake, and did indeed originate from the legal counsel to a Republican staffer.

Whatever. To be honest, neither scenario would have surprised me. A fake memo passed off by the Democrats would be standing operating procedure in Washington. As would shameless exploitation of a family tragedy by the Republicans.

Now, shameless exploitation of a family tragedy is indeed Republican SOP. In fact, in order to stay nonpartisan here, let's concede that it's not exactly unknown to Democrats either.

But forging memos and pretending they came from the other party? With the exception of Rathergate, whose memos were passed off by Dan Rather, not Democrats, has this ever happened in recent history? Have either Democrats or Republicans ever done this?

By "recent history" I mean, say, the past 20 years or so. While I can certainly dredge up from my memory banks the occasional campaign dirty trick where one party or another denies being responsible for some inflammatory poster they've been eagerly nailing up on telephone poles, I don't recall any proven case of either party deliberately faking a memo and trying to pass it off as the work of the opposition. It's an insanely risky thing to do, which is one of the reasons I found the whole accusation in the Schiavo memo case so absurd.

So help me out. Has this ever happened? An example on the national level would be preferred, but I'll accept state level stuff too, especially if it's outstandingly entertaining.

Kevin Drum 2:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE END OF IDEOLOGY?....Apparently the Bush administration is finally fessing up about the reconstruction mess in Iraq:

The State Department has ordered a major reevaluation of the troubled $18.4-billion Iraq reconstruction effort, blaming problems on early decisions to hire U.S. firms for major infrastructure projects.

....The new approach will also place a strong emphasis on spending remaining funds to contract with Iraqi companies, which have experienced fewer problems with insurgents and have lower overhead than U.S. multinational firms.

....Bill Taylor, who heads the civilian reconstruction management office in Iraq, which wrote the report, said remaining funds would increasingly be focused on "systems" rather than individual projects. Iraqis have been frustrated, for instance, that new water treatment plants have been built without new water lines, resulting in millions of gallons of clean water that has no way to reach homes.

In a way, this is nothing new: we've known for a long time that postwar reconstruction of Iraq has been a disaster. But this fills in one more piece of the puzzle that explains why it was such a disaster. It's not just that administration neocons lived in a fantasyland of flowers and gratefully liberated Iraqis before the war, but that they compounded this after the war by turning Iraq into a grand social experiment in neocon economic fantasies as well.

When Jay Garner tried to hire well-regarded experts who had real experience with reconstruction plans, he was turned down because they were too "liberal." When Garner was abruptly replaced by Paul Bremer, Bremer staffed the CPA with inexperienced ideologues recruited from the Heritage Foundation. Foreign contractors were banned from Iraq out of pique, regardless of whether they were the best qualified. Unions were trampled and ignored because they didn't fit the privatization agenda. Naomi Klein, who traveled to Iraq last year to report on the reconstruction for Harper's, found Bremer pursuing plans for Iraq that were so outlandish they tested even her well-known skills for hyperbole:

Governments, even neoconservative governments, rarely get the chance to prove their sacred theory right: despite their enormous ideological advances, even George Bush's Republicans are, in their own minds, perennially sabotaged by meddling Democrats, intractable unions, and alarmist environmentalists.

Iraq was going to change all that. In one place on Earth, the theory would finally be put into practice in its most perfect and uncompromised form. A country of 25 million would not be rebuilt as it was before the war; it would be erased, disappeared. In its place would spring forth a gleaming showroom for laissez-faire economics, a utopia such as the world had never seen. Every policy that liberates multinational corporations to pursue their quest for profit would be put into place: a shrunken state, a flexible workforce, open borders, minimal taxes, no tariffs, no ownership restrictions. The people of Iraq would, of course, have to endure some short-term pain: assets, previously owned by the state, would have to be given up to create new opportunities for growth and investment. Jobs would have to be lost and, as foreign products flooded across the border, local businesses and family farms would, unfortunately, be unable to compete. But to the authors of this plan, these would be small prices to pay for the economic boom that would surely explode once the proper conditions were in place, a boom so powerful the country would practically rebuild itself.

The State Department's new report just confirms all the rest: lack of planning, ideological rigidity, and insistence on using administration pals like Halliburton has produced a debacle. Instead of doing what was best for Iraq, the Bush administration has insisted from the beginning on using the war as a means of trying out its pet theories and rewarding its campaign supporters.

Still, even though it's a wee bit late, good for the State Department for finally facing up to this. I mean that. With any luck, this will usher in an era of facing up to facts on the ground instead of using the population of Iraq as lab rats for conservative fantasies about how national economies ought to work. We'll see.

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 8, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TRIVIA TIME....I have two mega-trivial (or is that micro-trivial?) questions weighing on me. Can anyone help me out?

  1. Marian and I just saw the movie Fever Pitch, which is allegedly based on Nick Hornby's book of the same name. But here's the thing: I read the book a few years ago, and as far as I can tell the movie and the book have nothing in common. That is, both are based on men with a lifelong sports obsession (Red Sox baseball in the movie, Arsenal soccer in the book), but aside from that general theme they share no other characters, no plot points, no dialog, no nothing. Question: do I just have a bad memory? Can anyone else who's seen the movie and read the book either confirm or deny a closer relationship between them that I missed?

  2. Brad Plumer wrote a post on free trade yesterday, the substance of which I don't intend to engage. However, it's titled "I Heart Hawley-Smoot," and he links to several items that also refer to Hawley-Smoot. But I've never heard this treaty law referred to this way. It's always been Smoot-Hawley. Am I imagining things? Or did historians change the convention on this at some point between the late 70s, when I attended college, and the early oughts, when Brad did? Or what?

That is all. You may now return to your normal business.

Kevin Drum 9:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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GANNON AT THE PRESS CLUB....I haven't checked it out yet, but Crooks and Liars has video highlights of today's infamous National Press Club event featuring Jeff Gannon discussing whether he's a real journalist or not. Wonkette and Matt Yglesias are also featured. I'm not sure I can stand to watch it myself, but go take a look if you're a stronger man than me.

More from AMERICAblog, Editor & Publisher, and Matt.

Kevin Drum 3:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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TOM FRIEDMAN FALLS FLAT....Silicon Valley's Chris Nolan has been watching Tom Friedman's PR tour for his new book and isn't impressed:

Appearing on Charlie Rose's show Tuesday (he was studio-hopping; same suit, same too-short haircut as on Stewart) Friedman carried forth the valley's party line with a fervor I haven't seen from an East Coaster since, oh, since 1999. The valley's way of looking at the world connected, fast, competitive has become Friedman's. He's even gone as far as to endorse the tech community's stance on stock options he's for it. Why? Because in China they don't expense stock options. And, he says, solemnly, this networked stuff is just getting started; the dot.com bust was the end of the beginning.

Sigh.

....He's discovered Google (you can do you own research!); VOIP (free phone calls!) and God only knows what else. We'll have to read the book to find out.

As it happens, I just finished reading The World Is Flat, but you'll have to wait for the next issue of the Monthly to read my full review. In the meantime, Chris is pretty much on target. As she says, it's not so much that Friedman is wrong about the importance of globalization and connectedness, but rather that he drinks in PR-speak from his CEO buddies with such a wide eyed credulousness that he sounds more like a shill than an honest reporter. I suspect that for people like Chris and me, who spent the 90s in the software business and heard this kind of eye-rolling stuff on a daily basis, this is especially hard to take.

Bottom line: Friedman has taken on a serious subject in his book. It's too bad he seems congenitally unable to treat it seriously.

Kevin Drum 2:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

THE REFORM PARTY....The latest disapproval numbers for Bush and Congress, taken from yesterday's Wall St. Journal poll, have only cemented my belief that the smartest thing Democrats could do over the next two years is run as the party of reform. People are unhappy with Congress, their dissatisfaction is growing, and they're ripe for the same kinds of messages that fueled the '94 Revolution.

This only works, however, if voters know who to blame. As I've mentioned before, at least 40% of American adults don't know which party controls Congress. (I say "at least" because you only have two choices and it's a question many people may guess at instead of looking stupid, so some of those "Republican" answers are lucky guesses...) That's appalling and very bad news for Democrats. The only thing worse than having absolutely no control or say in Congress is having no control or say in Congress and still getting blamed for everything.

Take a gander at this quote from conservative Karlyn Bowman about the poll results: "People are not very impressed by what Bush is doing or by what Congress is doing, Democrats or Republicans." If what Bowman means is that both Democrats and Republicans are pretty unhappy with Congress, that's accurate. But I suspect she's trying to tie Democratic shoelaces to the wobbly Republican-led Congress. And it'll work unless Democrats stand up and yell, "We're not in charge! They're the ones to blame!" I know the arguments that Democrats are defenders of government and don't want to destroy it, blah, blah. There's an important difference, however, in going after government and crusading to fix government run amok.

Which is why I think the dispute among congressional Democrats about whether to focus specifically on the filibuster threat or to tie it into a larger message about reform should be a no-brainer. This isn't just about one rule change. It's about throwing the rules out the window.

Just make sure Americans know who owns and controls that window.

UPDATE: Here's one 2003 poll on knowledge of Congress, for the skeptics out there. It's a pretty standard poll question, but I haven't had the time to look up more recent numbers. Send them my way if you have some.

Amy Sullivan 2:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

POLITICS IN MEXICO....Mexican politics is not exactly my beat, but given Mexico's authoritarian history this looks like bad news indeed:

In a move that could ignite a political firestorm, the Congress stripped Mexico City's leftist mayor of his immunity from prosecution Thursday, possibly eliminating the leading contender from the 2006 presidential race.

....President Vicente Fox, meanwhile, insisted that prosecuting the mayor for what many citizens considered to be an innocuous infraction was essential to Mexican rule of law.

Earlier in the day, Lopez Obrador had formally announced he would seek the Democratic Revolutionary Party's nomination for president in next year's election. Polls give him comfortable leads over front-runners in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Fox's National Action Party (PAN).

The "innocuous infraction" in this case was Lopez Obrador's violation of a court order to halt construction of a road leading to a hospital. But innocuous or not, merely being charged with a crime makes you ineligible to run for office in Mexico. This means that the majority party has effectively eliminated its strongest rival from the race.

Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FRIDAY PAPAL BLOGGING....This is it: the closest I ever came to seeing Pope John Paul II. Marian and I were in Rome on October 20, 2002, and saw the beatification ceremony for Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa; Andrea Giacinto Longhin; Marcantonio Durando; Mary of the Passion (Hlne Marie de Chappotin de Neuville); and Sr Liduina Meneguzzi. As you can tell, the crowds were heavy and the closest we got was several hundred yards away. Despite his Parkinson's, the pope was alert and seemingly had no trouble getting through the lengthy ceremony.

I'm neither Catholic nor Christian, but as Max Sawicky says, you may not be interested in Christianity, but Christianity is interested in you. Rest in peace, Karol Wojtyła, and here's hoping the church chooses a worthy and enlightened successor.

Kevin Drum 12:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NO DELAY....I'm going to stay away from Tom DeLay commentary for the moment, as my main thought is that the best thing liberals can do is stand by and enjoy the spectacle. But I will link to Marshall Wittmann's comments on the subject from yesterday because: a) I love the fact that they're written in the form of "The Screwtape Letters", and b) the directive to junior demon Wormwood is written not by the diabolical Screwtape but instead by the diabolical (and none-too-subtly disguised) "K.R."

Amy Sullivan 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 7, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SANDY BERGER'S DOCUMENTS....This is interesting. The Wall Street Journal, of all places, is defending the plea bargain that was concluded in the Sandy Berger case:

After a long investigation, [the Department of Justice] says the picture that emerged is of a man who knowingly and recklessly violated the law in handling classified documents, but who was not trying to hide any evidence. Prosecutors believe Mr. Berger genuinely wanted to prepare for his testimony before the 9/11 Commission but felt he was somehow above having to spend numerous hours in the Archives as the rules required, and that he didn't exactly know how to return the documents once he'd taken them out.

More than a few conservatives have been crying foul, or whitewash, in part because Mr. Berger's plea means he'll likely avoid jail and lose his security clearance for only three years. So we called Justice Department Public Integrity chief prosecutor Noel Hillman, who assured us that Mr. Berger did not deny any documents to history. "There is no evidence that he intended to destroy originals," said Mr. Hillman. "There is no evidence that he did destroy originals. We have objectively and affirmatively confirmed that the contents of all the five documents at issue exist today and were made available to the 9/11 Commission."

Overall, I'm sticking with "bizarre and inexplicable" as my commentary on this, but I wanted to highlight the Journal's clear confirmation that Berger didn't destroy original documents and never intended to destroy original documents. They were all copies. This question keeps coming up, and I hope this settles it.

Kevin Drum 9:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DAYLIGHT SAVINGS TIME....A House committee approved an amendment today that would extend Daylight Savings Time, adding a month onto both the beginning and end. If passed, DST would start on the first Sunday in March and end on the last Sunday in November.

What a dilemma! I'm a firm fan of this idea although, unfortunately, I can't pretend it's for noble energy conserving reasons. I just like having more daylight at the end of the day and I don't care much about it in the morning.

But here's the thing: this has been proposed as an amendment to the Bush administration's latest attempt at a major energy bill. I assume this bill is every bit as horrible as their last one, which failed last year, and that means I'm morally obligated to oppose it. Bummer.

Kevin Drum 8:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SCHIAVO MEMO CIRCUS CONTINUES.... Must .... resist .... writing .... again .... about .... Schiavo .... "talking points" .... memo ....

But I can't. It's unbelievable that Mickey Kaus and Power Line and the rest of the usual suspects are still baying for reporter Mike Allen's blood. At most he's guilty of modestly sloppy wording in the first draft of his initial piece about the memo a week ago, a mistake that he quickly corrected. If only the conservative blogosphere were so prone to self-correction.

Besides, as Ann Althouse points out, there's something pretty fishy about Mel Martinez blaming this whole thing on staffer Brian Darling:

Darling is the very definition of scapegoat. Martinez was the Senate "point man," according to the article, and he passed the memo to Harkin! He claims not to have read the memo, the very talking points he was urging on everyone else. He can only distance himself from the memo by portraying himself as horribly inept. But he was the point man! A point man with his points. The finger points at him. At least at him.

And Jeralyn links to a couple of pieces noting that Martinez has something of a reputation for scapegoating staffers when he's caught with his hands in the cookie jar. I especially liked this imaginary conversation written by St. Petersburg Times columnist Jim Defede during last year's campaign:

Staffer No. 1: I'm sorry, sir. There is only one problem. You can't call Danny and Tom ''young turks'' because you already called Pete and Bobby ''young turks'' after you had them accuse McCollum of being in bed with the "radical homosexual lobby.''

Martinez: Darn it!....We'll call them overzealous.

Staffer No. 1: Nope. We used that one for the guys at the ad agency that produced the commercial labeling McCollum "antifamily.''

Martinez: OK, how about rogue staffers? You guys wouldn't mind being rogue staffers would you?

Staffer No. 1: No, sorry sir, you called Carlos and Hector rogue staffers after they issued that news release you wrote for the Spanish-language radio stations calling the federal agents who seized Elin Gonzlez "armed thugs.''

Martinez: Well-intentioned but misguided?

Staffer No. 2: That's what you said about Sandy and Diane after they said Castor was an accomplished thespian in college.

Martinez: Renegade? I don't remember condemning anyone on my staff for being a renegade.

Staffer No. 1: Well, we were saving renegade for the commercials suggesting Castor may have been a founding member of al Qaeda.

Martinez had a copy of the offending memo in his pocket and Republican aides in other offices confirmed that they had received copies too. Is that a smoking gun proving that Martinez and other Republican senators had also read it? Technically no. But let's face it: you have to be pretty naive to believe anything else. The jig is up, folks.

Kevin Drum 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FORD ON BOLTON....Here's an interesting tidbit about John Bolton's increasingly precarious nomination as UN ambassador:

A former chief of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research is expected to testify in opposition to John R. Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds hearings on Mr. Bolton next week.

....Carl W. Ford Jr., the former State Department official, and Mr. Bolton clashed while at the State Department over what Mr. Ford regarded as Mr. Bolton's intimidation of intelligence officials.

Carl Ford. Carl Ford. Why do I recognize that name?

Oh yeah: it's because INR, the intelligence service he ran, was the only one in all of Washington DC that got it right on the question of Iraq's WMD capability. As Justin Rood pointed out in an incisive but little noticed Washington Monthly piece in January:

There's a simple bottom-line test for intelligence: Who called it right most often? And on the big questions, INR has consistently gotten right what other agencies have gotten wrong.

It's also worth noting that Ford has previously poo-pooed the idea that administration pressure was responsible for intelligence failures in Iraq. That makes it more noteworthy than usual that he's apparently planning to go public with accusations that Bolton tried to intimidate intelligence officials into providing hawkish assessments of Iraqi capabilities.

Needless to say, Steve Clemons has more.

Kevin Drum 1:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FIGHTING THE FILIBUSTER....Matt Yglesias makes a lengthy argument today that the filibuster is a bad thing and Democrats should support its elimination even if that causes some short term pain. I shot my wad on the narrower question of judicial filibusters a couple of months ago in the Washington Post, arguing that the real issue was Republican hypocrisy in systematically dismantling Senate rules that they themselves had used with eager abandon back when Bill Clinton was president:

There are powerful arguments that these arcane Senate rules are fundamentally undemocratic arguments to which I am sympathetic. But it's harder to see any good argument for allowing the rules to be cynically changed based solely on who's in power. If one blue slip is the rule when your opponents hold the presidency, then that should be the rule when your own party holds the presidency. Ditto for the rules on reporting nominees out of committee.

Read the whole thing if you're interested in the entire glorious panorama of Republican hypocrisy on this issue.

On a broader note, it's correct to point out that the United States government was set up by the founders to be inherently conservative, and the governance of the Senate has made it even more so. Passing a law requires a majority in one house, a supermajority in another house, consent of the president, and consent by the Supreme Court. Any of those four institutions can stop proposed legislation dead.

Matt's argument is that in the long run conservatives make far better use of this friction than liberals, and I think he's right. Still, there's adherence to principle and then there's being taken to the cleaners. If Democrats were to agree to eliminate the filibuster, the deal should take effect only after the 2008 election and should also include reinstatement of the old blue slip rules. That's a fair trade.

Kevin Drum 1:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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RUSSIAN STOOGE UPDATE....Tom DeLay: more interested in destroying a Democratic president or in destroying a mass-murdering tyrant? The former, of course, but when I mentioned it yesterday my memory was a little hazy. Mark Kleiman fills in some of the details.

Kevin Drum 12:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SCHIAVO CIRCUS UPDATE....You remember Terri Schiavo, don't you? Florida woman, persistent vegetative state, feeding tubes, endless political outrage from Republicans, etc. etc. Well, apparently memories are short in Washington:

A week after the battle over Terri Schiavo's life ended in her death, the Republican push in Congress to legislate on end-of-life issues appears to have stalled....

[On Wednesday] Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate health and education committee, found himself behind a near-empty dais with little to offer in the way of legislation.

....In the House, there has been even less movement. At the height of Washington's involvement in the case, the House Committee on Government Reform issued subpoenas to compel Schiavo and her husband, Michael, to appear. But the panel postponed its hearing, perhaps indefinitely.

Yep, it was a matter of deep and abiding principle, all right. Until those polls came out.

As a further piece of irony, it turns out that pretty much the only followup on the Schiavo case is coming from....Democrats. Bill Nelson and Hillary Rodham Clinton are both working to get support for a bill that makes it easier for older Americans to sign living wills. Apparently Nelson has been pushing this for over a year but hasn't been able to get anyone in the Republican leadership interested in it. Ain't politics grand?

Kevin Drum 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SCHIAVO MEMO UPDATE....Washington Post reporter Mike Allen who's been a punching bag for conservative windbags for the past week today revealed the source of that mysterious "Republican talking points memo" about Terri Schiavo. Guess what? It came from a Republican:

The legal counsel to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) admitted yesterday that he was the author of a memo citing the political advantage to Republicans of intervening in the case of Terri Schiavo, the senator said in an interview last night.

....Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)...said in an interview that Martinez handed him the memo on the Senate floor, in hopes of gaining his support for the bill giving federal courts jurisdiction in the Florida case in an effort to restore the Florida woman's feeding tube. "He said these were talking points something that we're working on here," Harkin said.

....At the time, other Senate Republican aides claimed to be familiar with the memo but declined to discuss it on the record and gave no information about its origin.

In other words, it's not the second coming of Rathergate. It was a real memo, written by a real Republican, and distributed to other real Republicans after it was drafted. (Harkin apparently got it by mistake. Martinez thought he was giving him a different document.)

Martinez has fired the errant staffer, calling the memo "stupid." With that, I hope that Power Line and Hugh Hewitt and Michelle Malkin and the rest of the crew trying to relive the glory days of Rathergate will take his lead and just STFU. Enough.

Kevin Drum 12:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 6, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TOM DELAY AND THE RUSSIANS....Garance Franke-Ruta read to the end of today's Washington Post story about Tom DeLay's 1997 trip to Russia and was appalled to learn that it was financed by a firm with "tight connections to the Russian security establishment":

The United States of America cannot have one of its top congressional leaders taking money from people advocating for Russian military-intelligence and defense interests as part of a lobbying deal. It simply cannot. It is unacceptable for a critical leader in the U.S. government to be taken on a junket by groups working for foreign military interests or lobbying on their behalf, even if indirectly and without his knowledge.

Hmmm. Back in the mid-90s, wasn't DeLay awfully vocal about opposing action to stop Serbian genocide in Kosovo? And wasn't the Russian security establishment one of the biggest defenders of Serb interests?

I wonder if this subject happened to get mentioned between tee shots on that junket?

Kevin Drum 7:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TAXES, TAXES, TAXES....Matt is right to point to this piece of nitwittish writing from Larry Kudlow, one of National Review's seemingly endless stable of embarrassing shills on economic matters. Commenting on a perfectly sound and well backed up article in the New York Times that highlights the embarrassing lack of evidence to support the notion that tax cuts increase economic growth, Kudlow says:

Back at home, real-world evidence throughout the 20th century shows a stark contrast between high- and low-tax policies. In the 1920s, the Harding-Coolidge-Mellon tax cuts produced the Roaring Twenties. But repeated tax increases by Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt produced and prolonged the Great Depression.

John F. Kennedy vowed to get the economy moving again after the sluggish growth of the high-tax Truman-Eisenhower years. JFK made good on his promise when he lowered the top income-tax rate from 91 percent to 70 percent. The result was the 1960s boom. Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan turned stagflation into the 1980s boom by slashing the top personal tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

President Clinton, you might recall, raised taxes in his first term, but lowered them in his second term, contributing to a burst of investment and growth. Note the difference. In his first four years, the economy increased at a 3.2 percent annual rate. But his next four years produced a 4.2 percent economic pace.

As near as I can tell, Kudlow just cribbed this from an old Heritage Foundation memo, and it shows. Mellon mostly lowered taxes from World War I peaks, and in any case personal income taxes amounted to only about 1% of GDP in 1920. It's absurd to think that rate cuts at that level had any serious impact on economic growth. Pace Kudlow, the 50s did fine even with high marginal tax rates, and the 60s boom was due as much to garden variety Keynesian stimulation as it was to JFK's tax cuts. As for Reagan, he cut taxes once and then raised them every year after that (details here) followed by increases from both Bush Sr. and Clinton. Despite the promises of the supply siders, federal tax receipts fell sharply in 1982 and didn't recover to their previous levels until 1998.

The chart on the right tells the story. As you can see, federal taxes (excluding payroll taxes) have declined pretty steadily for the past half century. During this period, growth rates have gone up and down, but in general have also declined fairly steadily. In fact, if you're looking for an explanation of declining growth rates, you might want to look toward the taxes that have gone up during this time: state and local taxes and the payroll tax, the most regressive taxes we have. Still, even when you add those in (see chart here), the total tax take in the United States has only gone up from 24% of GDP to about 28% of GDP in the past half century. That's just not enough to have much of an effect on anything.

The plain fact is that you can find plenty of examples of high taxes and high growth, low taxes and high growth, and every other combination of tax rates and growth rates. Within a very broad band of tax revenues (say, 15% of GDP to 45% of GDP), there just doesn't seem to be much correlation between taxes and growth. Kudlow may think this "defies the laws of common sense," but it's empirically true nonetheless.

As Jonathan Cohn points out, the United States is smack in the middle of this broad band of tax rates, and we have plenty of scope to raise taxes if it's necessary to fund programs we want to fund. And despite the conventional conservative wisdom, modest increases would almost certainly have virtually no effect on economic growth. The supply siders may say otherwise, but they just don't have the evidence to back up their claims.

Kevin Drum 6:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

ANOTHER PASSING REMEMBERED....In what is becoming the week of famous deaths comes news of Frank Conroy's passing. Unless you follow the Iowa Writer's Workshop closely, you probably heard of Conroy only in the context of, "No...not that Conroy...you're thinking of Pat." But in addition to nurturing the careers of many a talented writer in Iowa, Frank Conroy was an accomplished novelist himself, earning a National Book Award nomination before age 30 and writing what is still one of my favorite all-time books: Body and Soul. It's the tale of an unlikely musical prodigy; while the book slows down somewhat in the final third, the first two-thirds of the book are magical, the best written description I've seen of what it feels like to have music in your fingers and the joy of giving voice to that music through a piano. Read the book and remember Frank Conroy.

Amy Sullivan 6:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE WOES....A reader passes along today's USA Today Snapshot for our scholarly edification. The subject of the snapshot is what CEOs think we should do about rising healthcare costs, and since he works for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America he points out that none of their suggestions are related to caps on medical malpractice suits.

True enough. I guess they're more interested in reforms that actually work. But I want to point out something else. If you add up items #3 and #5, which are essentially the same thing, 40% of these champions of free enterprise think the answer is some kind of mandated cap on healthcare insurance costs! Can support for national healthcare from our nation's beleaguered CEOs be far behind?

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By: Kevin Drum

PHARMACIES AND TORTURE....The LA Times ran an unusually sophomoric and pedantic op-ed today that after a bit of suitably manful struggle finally wheezed home by drawing an analogy between pharmacists who refuse to dispense contraceptives and soldiers who refuse to torture prisoners. Seriously, that was the analogy. A bright high school freshman would have been embarrassed. Read it yourself if you think I'm making this up.

Anyway, I thought of blogging about it this morning but just couldn't work up the energy. Luckily, Jeanne did it for me. I agree with her in every particular: lots of jobs librarian, teacher, public defender, telephone operator legitimately require you to provide neutral services to the public even if your own opinions aren't neutral. If you really can't stand it, don't take the job. But if you do take a job that requires you to serve the public as an honest broker, don't pretend that your political views allow you to second guess medical decisions that should be the sole provenance of doctors and patients. If certain types of medicine are that repellent to you, the right way to demonstrate your moral conscience is simple: find another career.

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By: Kevin Drum

POLITICS IN BAGHDAD....What does Iraqi agreement on a president and a prime minister really mean? Is it just a symbolic move, or was there real compromise on core issues? Spencer Ackerman speculates:

It seems so far that the deal came as part of an agreement to dispense ministries according to a still-unclear (and perhaps mutable) sectarian formula and to accept the Transitional Administrative Law as the roadmap for reserving the more intractable issues federalism, Kirkuk, oil for the constitution. (I have a suspicion that's what the Kurds were after all along.) Eli Lake of the New York Sun reports that the Kurds will get to keep the pesh merga as an intact force funded by Baghdad but outside any chain of command answerable to the Ministry of Defense that is, a parallel security structure nominally serving under the Iraqi flag. And not surprisingly, the UIA decided that what's good for the Kurds is good for them: While still awaiting details, it appears from Lake's piece that the UIA-affiliated SCIRI and Da'wa parties that control southern provincial governorates will have their own institutionalized militias outside formal state control. So much for Baghdad holding a monopoly on violence.

Kurdish autonomy is a deal-breaking issue, and continuance of the pesh merga militia is a key part of ensuring that autonomy. If a deal has been made, it's hard to see any way it wouldn't include that.

Spencer also points to a good Knight Ridder article that takes the militia story a bit further. If the Kurds have a militia, and the Shiites have militias, then it's a sure bet that the Sunnis will keep their militias too. And if everybody has a militia, what are the odds that the streets of Baghdad, Fallujah, and Kirkuk will ever be peaceful? Not too high.

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By: Kevin Drum

VALERIE PLAME UPDATE....In the American Prospect today, Murray Waas reports that in a public filing last month the special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame case wrote that "By October 2004, the factual investigation that might result from such testimony was for all practical purposes complete." In other words, except for testimony from reporters, he's been done for months.

I'm mainly posting about this for the sake of completeness, since, as Waas concedes, it's impossible to draw any conclusions from this. On the one hand, the fact that he finished up his investigation so long ago and hasn't indicted anyone indicates that he doesn't have a case. On the other hand, why would he spend so much time and energy harassing reporters for testimony if he'd long ago decided there was insufficient evidence to mount a prosecution?

Bottom line: it's just a data point. But read the whole thing for a bit more speculation about what it all means.

Kevin Drum 1:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SAN FRANCISCO AND BLOGS....So is San Francisco really planning to pass an ordinance that would regulate blogs that engage in "electioneering"? Two experts weigh in:

  • Eugene Volokh reads through the proposed ordinance and concludes that it gives him a headache. It's hard to say what it would and wouldn't do, but in any case its impact on blogs seems to hinge on whether they would fall under the "recognized news medium" exemption, which he suspects is unconstitutionally vague anyway.

  • Chris Nolan examines the lawmaking process itself and reports that there are actually two laws being considered. The first (bad) one is a placeholder designed to keep the legislative wheels turning, while a second (better) one is being prepared that will be swapped for the bad one later this week. Murky details here. The purpose of the revised wording is to make it clear that blogs are exempt. "The intent of the legislation is to cover blogs as a recognized news entity," said Supervisor Sophie Maxwell.

OK then, nothing to worry about. At least for now.

But this issue isn't going to go away. At some point, whether it's from the FEC or the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, blogs are going to end up being regulated in some way or another. The scope for abuse by politicians who will mysteriously start funneling money to both blogs and "blogs" is just too great if they aren't. However, regulation will likely be aimed fairly tightly at blogs that coordinate with campaigns, and the standard for proving "coordination" seems to be pretty high. Thus, it's not likely to be very burdensome or affect very many blogs. Definitely worth keeping an eye on, though.

Kevin Drum 1:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BOLTON NEWS....Steve Clemons reports that Lincoln Chafee is sending out signals that he may oppose John Bolton's nomination as UN ambassador, which could be enough to scuttle it. Good news.

He's also curious about why Colin Powell's signature is not among the other five secretaries of state who endorsed Bolton's nomination recently....

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HIGHER TAXES?....Conservative economist Bruce Bartlett has been inching toward support for tax increases for a while, and today in the New York Times he finally drinks the Kool-Aid:

In the 1980's and 1990's, I thought it was possible to restrain the growth of government by cutting taxes. This would "starve the beast," as Ronald Reagan used to say, and force government to live on its allowance. And after Republicans got control of Congress in 1994, I thought the means had finally come to make a frontal assault on the welfare state.

I have been sadly disappointed....Deficits are no longer a barrier to greater government spending. And with the baby-boom generation aging, spending is set to explode in coming years even if no new government programs are enacted.

Needless to say, I don't share Bruce's disappointment that his hoped for "frontal assault on the welfare state" never came to pass. Regardless, though, we've both come to the same conclusion: neither party is interested in serious cost cutting; healthcare and retirement costs are going to balloon in coming years no matter what we do; and we can't finance this with ever higher deficits. This is simple reality, and it doesn't matter whether you approve or not.

But if we have to bite the bullet and raise taxes, how should we do it? Bruce proposes a European style VAT, which is sort of a sales tax on steroids. I'm not so sure, myself. VATs have some advantages, but they're also fairly regressive and would require an entirely new administrative mechanism. My preference would probably be for things like higher gas taxes and inheritance taxes combined with higher top marginal income tax rates, broadening of the tax base, elimination of the preferential taxation of dividends and capital gains, and a serious assault on high end tax shelters and corporate loopholes.

In other words, pretty much all the stuff Bruce hates. However, I haven't given this a huge amount of thought and I could certainly be talked into changing my mind. The first step, though, is for the Republican party to climb back out of their rabbit hole and face reality. Then we can all start arguing.

Kevin Drum 2:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 5, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

YET MORE TOM DELAY SLIMINESS....The noose is continuing to tighten around Tom DeLay: the New York Times reports that his political action committee and his campaign committee have paid his wife and daughter over $500,000 in the past four years.

In his daughter's case, the payments appear legitimate. She's managed some of his campaigns and also helps arrange events. Fine. But his wife? "Mrs. DeLay provides big picture, long-term strategic guidance and helps with personnel decisions," said a statement from his PAC.

Indeed. Big picture, long-term strategic guidance. Is that really the best they can come up with?

In other DeLay news, the Washington Post reports that yet another of his overseas trips that was supposedly paid for by a think tank was actually paid for by lobbyists. As usual (this is the third such controversy), DeLay says he had no idea that lobbyists were behind the trips. No idea at all.

Atrios suggests the real news here is that it's folks on DeLay's own side of the aisle who are ratting him out. Maybe so. Perhaps they've figured out that they'd rather take their lumps now than during an election year.

Kevin Drum 11:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PROGRESS IN IRAQ....Electing a speaker was only a small step for the Iraqi parliament, but this is a pretty big one:

Lawmakers put the finishing touches Tuesday on an agreement making Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani president and Shiite Adel Abdul-Mahdi and interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab, his two vice presidents.

On Thursday, the 275 lawmakers elected Jan. 30 likely will name Shiite leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari prime minister, clearing the way for lawmakers to begin focusing their attention on writing a permanent constitution by their Aug. 15 deadline.

If, as this story suggests, they follow through on putting in place both a president and a prime minister, that's very good news indeed.

Kevin Drum 7:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOGLE'S SATELLITE....Google Maps now has a satellite feature. Type in an address, then click the Satellite link on the upper right. Voila! You can zoom in and out at will.

I tried a few addresses and it was amazingly accurate and detailed. Only seems to work in cities, though. Must be run by a bunch blue state elitists.

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By: Kevin Drum

HALF STAFF....I saw a flag flying at half staff yesterday and wondered what it was for. Couldn't be for the pope, could it? Why would an American flag fly at half staff because the leader of the Catholic church had died?

But no: that's exactly what's going on. I don't want to make a big deal out of this, and I don't know if previous presidents have done the same thing, but it sure doesn't seem right. Would we do the same thing if the Archbishop of Canterbury died? Or the Ayatollah Sistani?

UPDATE: I originally ended this post with a comment about the pope also being a head of state, but deleted it before I hit the Publish button. From comments, I can see that was a mistake.

But it's a red herring. Heads of state die all the time and we don't lower our flags for them. If the pope weren't a religious leader, we wouldn't be flying flags at half staff, would we?

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By: Kevin Drum

THE TRIUMPH OF CONSERVATISM?.... David Brooks writes today that one of the reasons conservatives have triumphed in recent years is because they argue a lot with each other:

This feuding has meant that the meaning of conservatism is always shifting....Moreover, it's not only feuding that has been the key to conservative success it's also what the feuding's about.

....Conservatives fell into the habit of being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears and had big debates about public philosophy. That turned out to be important: nobody joins a movement because of admiration for its entitlement reform plan. People join up because they think that movement's views about human nature and society are true.

Liberals have not had a comparable public philosophy debate.

Mark Schmitt thinks Brooks has a good point: far from being an echo chamber, conservatives have gained strength from their constant internecine warfare.

I don't want to wade into this argument right now except to make one point: any essay about the triumph of conservatism is bankrupt unless it takes into account the two charts above. What they show is simple:

  • Conservatives have outnumbered liberals for a long time, and that hasn't changed much in the past three decades. In 1976, they were ahead 31% to 18%. Today they're ahead 33% to 18%.

  • At the same time, Southern conservatives have left the Democratic party in droves. In 1976 Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 23 points. Today they lead by only 5 points.

For now, that's the only point I want to make: the past three decades haven't seen a conservative triumph. They've seen a Republican triumph. Anyone who tries to make a point about the health and vitality of conservatism without taking into account both Southern abandonment of the Democratic party and the astonishing stability of liberal-conservative self-identification over the past half century is talking through their hat.

UPDATE: By the way, Brooks also complains that he called up some prominent liberal last year and asked who his favorite philosopher was. The prominent liberal was stumped. Stupid liberals! For future reference, I refer all aspiring liberal talking heads to my personal guide to philosophy, written especially so you can answer questions like this. Enjoy.

Kevin Drum 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH, BREMER, AND IRAQ....I mentioned yesterday that the Bush administration's war against labor unions in the United States continues apace. Along similar lines, Matthew Harwood has a terrific article in the April issue of the Washington Monthly about how the Bush administration's ideological aversion to unions even carried over into the rebuilding of Iraq:

During his tenure, CPA chief L. Paul Bremer repealed virtually the whole Iraqi legal structure with his so-called 100 Orders. He did not, however, repeal Saddam's 1987 Labor Code, which forfeited the right of public sector workers to bargain collectively. That decision, though deeply foolish for purposes of nation-building, made perfect sense to the movement ideologues staffing the U.S. occupation. Much of the CPA's effort in Baghdad was devoted to helping create a conservative's ideal state, complete with a 15 percent flat tax on individual and corporate income. Bremer's crew was so zealous that they tried, in September 2003, to privatize virtually the whole economy200 state-owned firms. Legalizing labor unions would not have been helpful, to say the least, to these privatization plans.

....What's especially maddening about the U.S. government's attitude towards [Iraqi trade unions] is that organized labor has repeatedly played a vital stabilizing and democratizing role in situations that, in some cases, come close to that which Iraq finds itself in today. In Poland, Solidarity quickly evolved from a labor crusade into a social movement that peacefully brought down the communist regime and, once in power, established a system of regular, free elections. The trade-union movement in Brazil had a similar effect, helping to end 21 years of oppressive military rule and usher in 15 years of representative government.

Labor unions in Iraq were banned by Saddam Hussein and worked underground for years. They were (and still are) strongly anti-insurgent and strongly anti-Baathist. They are pro-democracy, pro-American, and they span ethnic and religious boundaries. In other words, they were among the prime institutions that could have been helpful to the American reconstruction effort. Instead, for rigid ideological reasons, they were ignored.

Read the whole thing for more details. It's today's Republican party in a microcosm.

And while I'm at it, you might also want to check out Matthew's blog, Woodshavings. It's good stuff.

Kevin Drum 2:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE MARKET....Matt Mullenweg, the creator of Wordpress, a popular blog authoring tool, decided last month to help fund his development costs by parlaying his site's high Google PageRank score into a source of advertising revenue. Long story short, he did it by helping advertisers game the Google AdSense program. Full details are here if you're interested.

What drew my attention, though, was not the question of whether Mullenweg's actions were moral or ethical or within the spirit of the open source community. Others can fight that fight. What drew my attention was the fact that this was apparently the best way he could find to raise money for his business. Via Brad DeLong, this inspired the following reaction from Suw Charman:

There are a lot of people with very good ideas which fulfil the needs of a given community who have the skills to bring those ideas to fruition. What they are missing is a business model to allow them to earn enough money to make development of their idea financially viable. But because there seems to be a fundamental disconnect in many people (not everyone, I hasten to add) between creativity and business acumen, and becuase there is no existing business model to follow, we now have a creative class who are chock full of bright ideas but who just don't know how to scrape a living from them.

....If you're in a niche...your work may well be addressing a fundamental need within a clearly defined community, but if that community is not willing or able to donate, or even buy merchandise, then your business plan, all those pretty numbers you invented for your bank manager, is oh so much toilet paper.

No kidding. This kind of grumbling which is peculiarly common in the software world is something I found perplexing back when I worked in the software industry in the 90s, and I find it perplexing that it still exists today. The problem here is simple: there are lots of cool ideas that don't have a very big market. This is not a problem of "business models," it is not a problem confined to the high tech market, and it is not a problem that has cropped up only recently. In fact, it's not really a problem at all.

If you are competing against free products, you will have a hard time in the market. If you have a product aimed at a tiny niche, you will have a hard time in the market. If you are competing against Microsoft, you will have a hard time in the market. If you are a lousy businessperson, you will have a hard time in the market. If you have a mediocre product in a crowded field, you will have a hard time in the market. This is why 19 out of 20 startups across all industries fail.

I'm not sure why smart, tech savvy people continue to think it's some kind of cosmic injustice that smart, tech savvy people often fail in their business ventures. This is not a failure of the market. It is the market.

Kevin Drum 1:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 4, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DID THEY HAVE IT COMING?....You know that recent spate of courtroom violence we've had? It's pretty understandable, really, says United States Senator John Cornyn:

I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters on some occasions where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in engage in violence.

Yeah, that's a reasonable response to "unaccountable" judges, isn't it? Brad Plumer has an international comparison that Sen. Cornyn might be interested in.

Kevin Drum 11:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MEN IN BLACK....This is why I love Dahlia Lithwick. Here is her review of the latest in bird cage liner from Regnery Publishing, Mark Levin's Men in Black:

I use the word "book" with some hesitation: Certainly it possesses chapters and words and other book-like accoutrements. But Men in Black is 208 large-print pages of mostly block quotes (from court decisions or other legal thinkers) padded with a forward by the eminent legal scholar Rush Limbaugh, and a blurry 10-page "Appendix" of internal memos to and from congressional Democrats stolen during Memogate. The reason it may take you only slightly longer to read Men in Black than it took Levin to write it is that you'll experience an overwhelming urge to shower between chapters.

What can you add to that?

Kevin Drum 7:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Pulitzer for a Friend....One of the cult-like traditions at the Washington Monthly is for young editors to guilt trip those who have left our staff for better-paying jobs into continuing to write for the magazine. Hence the bylines of people like James Fallows, Matt Cooper, Walter Shapiro, Josh Green and Gregg Easterbrook continue to show up in our pages despite our penurious freelance rates. Part of the alumni's motivation is loyalty to and admiration of the magazine. Also at work, I think, is the ever-present fear that any one of the young editors might turn out to be a star, and maybe even your boss someday. I certainly had that sense in the mid-1990s when, while working at U.S. News & World Report, I wrote a couple pieces for a smart Monthly editor named Gareth Cook. Gareth went on to become an ace editor and reporter at the Boston Globe. Today he won a Pulitzer for his writing about the science of stem cells. Can't say I'm surprised, but I'm definitely thrilled. Congrats, Gareth!

Paul Glastris 6:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HASTERT NOT MADE OF STERNER STUFF AFTER ALL....In an interview on Friday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Social Security legislation might not pass this year. I wondered how long it would take for the White House to force him to back down.

Answer: not counting the weekend, one day.

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IRAs SAFE FROM BANKRUPCTY COURTS....The Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that IRA accounts can't be seized in bankruptcy proceedings. Good for them.

By the way, this almost certainly means that creditors wouldn't be able to seize Social Security private accounts either. They're still a bad idea, of course, but even so it's best to keep our arguments on the straight and narrow.

UPDATE: More here from Julie Saltman. Unlike Julie, I doubt that the current Social Security crisis influenced the court's decision, partly because it was unanimous and partly because they've previously ruled the same way on every other type of retirement account. IRAs were the only open question left, and today's ruling closed it.

I'm also pretty sure that there's no hope of keeping the pending bankruptcy bill from passing the House, but it can't hurt to try. If your congressman is on her list, give 'em a call just to let them know they're pissing some people off.

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By: Kevin Drum

PAPAL BLOGGING....I won't have much to say about the pope because....I don't have much to say about the pope. But if I run across something a little out of the ordinary I'll link to it, and Abu Aardvark's roundup of Islamic reaction to John Paul II's death qualifies:

That moderate Islamists like Qaradawi felt comfortable with the late Pope's social conservatism and genuine commitment to interfaith dialogue does not surprise me. That radical Islamists are infuriated by the respect for a symbol of the Catholic Church also does not surprise me. Michael Jansen notes the widespread admiration for the Pope in the Arab world, and points out that the greatest criticism of the Pontiff in the Arab media has come from Arab liberals he cites a piece in al Hayat upset with his social conservativism, and his making common ground with Islamic conservatives on issues such as abortion.

Widespread admiration in the Arab world, eh? I wouldn't have guessed that, despite his efforts to reach out to Palestinians and Muslims and his opposition to the Iraq war. You learn something new every day.

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By: Kevin Drum

10 REASONS TO STOP JOHN BOLTON....Suzanne Nossel has a handy top ten list of reasons why John Bolton shouldn't confirmed as ambassador to the UN. Sounds good to me. I may have been softer than I should have been about Paul Wolfowitz's appointment as head of the World Bank, but the Bolton nomination really is bad news. I don't know if the Democrats will be able to hive off a few moderate Republicans and derail the nomination, but they should try. (For more on this, Steve Clemons is your one stop anti-Bolton shop.)

Elsewhere on the same site, Suzanne and Heather Hurlburt (here and here) explain pithily what's going on in Zimbabwe, how Robert Mugabe keeps winning elections, and why lousy media coverage will once again allow the Bush administration to take credit if Zimbabwean democratization forces manage to tip things over the edge in a few months.

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By: Kevin Drum

TRADE UNIONS....The Bush administration, in the latest skirmish in its continuing war against labor unions, is dredging up long dormant rules to force unions to file detailed financial statements in order to demonstrate accountability and transparency. Needless to say, accountability and transparency are not normally issues this administration pays a lot of attention to, and one might reasonably suspect that harassment is more the order of the day here than accountability. Henry Farrell comments:

This is, simply put, a battle that the left cant afford to lose. Trade unions are one of the most vital constituencies of the Democratic party. These purported reforms have the sole purpose and intent of making it more difficult for trade unions to take political positions that dont reflect the most narrow possible definition of the interests of their members. If blogs can organize a boycott against Sinclair Communications, and can play an important role in pushing back against efforts to destroy Social Security, then they can certainly do something to help fight against this. Its an important battle; perhaps, in the long run, the most important battle of the next two years.

Even if liberals were in power in Washington, there are limits to what can and should be accomplished by congressional regulation of corporations. Issues like skyrocketing CEO pay, increasing income inequality, increasing income instability, and declining healthcare provisions can only be fully addressed by a vibrant trade union movement that has the power to negotiate on an equal footing with large corporations.

Republicans and their corporate bosses know this perfectly well, and it's a lesson that liberals ought to relearn as well. A surprising number of liberals disdain unions as dinosaur relics of an old economy, not realizing that a revitalized and modernized labor movement is probably an indispensible precursor to the kinds of economic policies most of us would like to see.

In other words, Henry is right.

Kevin Drum 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FINAL OFFICE UPDATE....I won't bore you with all the gritty details, but yesterday I ended up buying The Office box set, so I now own all 12 episodes and can watch the reunion special as well (unavailable from any of my local video stores). It's like an itch that demands scratching, isn't it?

Anyway, I just thought I'd mention that if you don't "get" The Office, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge explain why in the LA Times today. I don't know if they're really right about this, but they seem to be on the right track.

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

A REAL COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATIVE....If you haven't gotten your fill of John Paul II commentary, I have a piece over on Salon that takes a brief look at the Pope's influence on American politics. Or, more precisely, the selective lessons conservatives have drawn from his teaching. Short version: abortion, euthanasia--right on!; death penalty, war, workers' rights--not so much; stem cell research--what were those latest poll numbers?

Amy Sullivan 12:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CONTROLLING YOUR OWN FATE....Andrew Sullivan took note of Eric Cohen's meditation on Terri Schiavo in the current issue of the Weekly Standard, and it's hard not to agree that this is one radical agenda:

The real lesson of the Schiavo case is not that we all need living wills; it is that our dignity does not reside in our will alone, and that it is foolish to believe that the competent person I am now can establish, in advance, how I should be cared for if I become incapacitated and incompetent. The real lesson is that we are not mere creatures of the will: We still possess dignity and rights even when our capacity to make free choices is gone; and we do not possess the right to demand that others treat us as less worthy of care than we really are.

There's some hemming and hawing later on it's a tough decison, best not to have the state involved, etc. etc. but Cohen's bottom line is clear: in order to avoid slippery slopes, we should insist on keeping anyone alive who's this side of irreversible brain death. It doesn't matter if you've made your wishes clear. You should not be allowed to control your own destiny. Period.

After you cut through the often subtle language, that's what's left. Once again, the reductive view of life this crowd clings to life as mere respiration at one end and as mere genetic sequence at the other takes my breath away. If they won't even let me control my own destiny, why should I let them control anyone else's?

Kevin Drum 12:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 3, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TOM AND THE JUDGES....Edwardpig rounds up Tom DeLay's decade-long war against the judiciary.

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By: Kevin Drum

PROGRESS IN IRAQ....American pressure? Ennui from being cooped up for so long? A deep seated desire for democracy? Whatever the reason, the Iraqi interim assembly has finally made some progress:

Iraqi lawmakers elected a Sunni Arab as parliament speaker and Shiite and Kurdish leaders as his deputies on Sunday, ending days of deadlock and clearing the way for the formation of a new government two months after the country's historic elections.

The selection of Industry Minister Hajim al-Hassani as parliament speaker was a step toward repairing the tattered image of the newly elected National Assembly, which had bickered for days over the post. A session Tuesday disintegrated into shouts and accusations.

....Lawmakers had hoped to also name a new interim president -- expected to be Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani -- but officials said that would be put off until a session planned for Wednesday.

Once in his post, Talabani and his two vice presidents have two weeks to name the new interim prime minister, expected to be Shiite politician Ibrahim al-Jaafari. After that, the legislative body has until mid-August to write a new constitution that will pave the way for new elections and a permanent government.

This is still a fairly small step, but it's a step. Maybe Jim Hoagland is wrong after all. Maybe.

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CURVEBALL....Laura Rozen on Curveball, the Iraqi defector who spoonfed German and U.S. authorities a long pack of lies about Saddam Hussein's supposed bioweapons:

There's so much astonishing in here, about how a fairly obvious fabricator manages to find a few key defenders in US policy circles, because he provides information they desperately want to hear. With a miniscule supply of worthy intelligence sources on Iraq, and an infinite appetite, even the obvious junk becomes prized.

The full LA Times after-action report is here, and it's horrifying no matter what the truth. Either (a) warnings about Curveball were passed up the chain of command and were ignored or (b) warnings about Curveball were muffled and never passed along in any kind of serious way. I'm not sure which would be worse.

Kevin Drum 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GIMI....Unusually cute catblogging can be found here.

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April 2, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

OFF TO THE HUNTINGTON....I'm off to San Marino for the day to visit the Huntington Library. I'll be taking in their Isaac Newton exhibit, their British watercolor exhibit, and of course the grounds themselves, which should be gorgeous after all the rain we've had this winter. See you tomorrow.

Kevin Drum 12:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HANDICAPPING THE VATICAN....Since virtually every voting member of the College of Cardinals has been appointed by John Paul II, and since these cardinals are mostly a pretty conservative bunch, the next pope is likely to be a conservative too, isn't he? Not so fast, says John Allen in an article written three years ago for the Washington Monthly:

Like many bits of political conventional wisdom, this idea is compelling, rational, logical...and most probably wrong. History suggests that colleges of cardinals appointed by one pope do not elect a carbon copy as his successor. In fact, the race is wide open, and there are deep-seated political and bureaucratic reasons to expect the next Successor of St. Peter to be a moderate.

....At the end of a long papacy, there is always a sense of unfinished business, which the pope either couldn't or wouldn't address. Even cardinals who love the present pope tend to think that his approach has had a long time to work, and welcome fresh ideas. The Italians, as they always do, have a better phrase to capture this dynamic: "You always follow a fat pope with a thin one."

The successor to John Paul II is, therefore, almost certain to be a different kind of man. Indeed, it is quite possible that the next pope will be more moderate on theological issues, and less authoritarian in his style of governance. The right question to ask is this: What is this pontificate's unfinished business? Where might the cardinals begin thinking about what kind of change would be most desirable under a new pope?

Read the whole thing to get a good idea of the internal dynamics that are likely to affect the election of the next pope. For a more detailed look, head over to Slate, where Steven Waldman runs down the most likely candidates.

Kevin Drum 12:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TWO REVIEWS OF SIN CITY....Matt Yglesias:

In a word: Awesome....There are very real limits to what can be conveyed like this, and the film has some real limitations on its own terms. But I'm very, very glad that someone did it.

Josh Chafetz:

I think what bothered me most was that some people leaving the theater clearly did enjoy the movie. I worry about the state of their souls as individuals, and about the state of a society that produces people so inured to violence and gore.

OK then.

Kevin Drum 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SIPs....Kieran Healy points out the Amazon has yet another new feature: Statistically Improbable Phrases. These are phrases that occur a large number of times in a particular book relative to how many times it occurs across all books.

As befits a professor, Kieran checks out the phrases in several dense, heavy, historically important tomes. As befits a guy who barely graduated from college, I've collected phrases from slightly more accessible literature:

Fun for the whole family. Check out your favorite book now!

Kevin Drum 12:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE OFFICE....AGAIN....Last weekend I asked if the original British version of The Office was better than the American remake currently airing on NBC. An avalanche of Office fans insisted it was, so off I went to Blockbuster to get a copy of Season 1.

And the verdict is....inconclusive. It does work better as a British show, though. With apologies to my British readers, I've spent a little bit of time in British offices and the show really does capture the peculiar, slow motion, quasi-fatalistic air that at least some of them seem to run on. My experience with American offices is rather different, which is one reason the American version of the show just doesn't work as well.

But still, what about the show itself? Is it funny? Not really. Is it gripping? No. Is it mesmerizing? Don't ask me why, but yes in much the same sense as a sore fingernail that you can't ignore. I put the disk in and couldn't stop watching, even though I really should have been working on other stuff. I'm still not quite sure why. (Note to any WM editors who happen to be reading this: don't worry. Everything is under control. Deadlines will be met.)

Of course, a "season" in BBC-talk appears to be six episodes, which wouldn't even be a miniseries in the U.S., so watching the entire first season didn't take long. Lazy bastards. What's more, my local Blockbuster didn't have the second season, so I had to go hunt down a Hollywood Video that did, which meant joining yet another video store. And the second season disk doesn't include the 2-hour reunion special, either. The only way to get it, I gather, is to buy the box set, and I'm not really willing to shell out 40 bucks just for the 2-hour special.

Feh. This thing is causing me a lot of trouble. One of the perils of having a blog with enthusiastic readers, I suppose.

Kevin Drum 11:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 1, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY UPDATE....House Speaker Dennis Hastert says Social Security legislation might have to wait until 2006. Bill Frist was forced to back down pretty quickly when he said the same thing a few weeks ago, so we'll have to wait and see if Denny is made of sterner stuff.

In any case, no matter what he says, 2006 = never. If it doesn't happen this year, it means it's not going to happen.

Kevin Drum 7:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

$100/BARREL OIL?....A Wall Street analyst says oil prices are going to go way up:

Oil and gasoline prices surged Thursday after a Wall Street analyst warned of a coming "super spike" that could send crude to $105 a barrel.

....In a report to investors, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. analyst Arjun Murti said surprisingly high demand in the U.S. and China combined with a lack of infrastructure to get oil out of the ground had created a supply imbalance that could be corrected only by dramatically higher prices which in turn would depress demand.

The only curious thing here is why it's taken so long for someone to say this. Granted, exact demand is hard to predict, but the general slope of oil demand has been pretty steady for quite a while: every year the world uses an additional 2 million barrels per day. And infrastructure is even easier to predict. It takes years to build new infrastructure in the energy biz, so the current limitations on our pumping capacity shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone.

I don't think we're at our absolute peak pumping capacity yet although there are some who think we are but we're getting there pretty quickly. And when we do get there, higher prices won't stimulate more exploration, they'll work solely to depress demand. If that happens too quickly, it means a global recession. If we plan for it, though, it might not.

Too bad we're not planning for it.

Kevin Drum 6:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TERRI'S LAW?....I fully realize that most conservative bloviating over Terri Schiavo was designed for dramatic effect. Gotta keep the Christian right convinced the GOP is on their side, after all.

But for a moment, I want to pretend the bloviators are serious. And that raises a question: What do they want? Off the top of my head I can think of a few possibilities:

  • More conservative judges, of course. But what good would that do? Michael Schiavo won every case he contested. He won with state judges and federal judges. He won with liberal judges and conservative judges. He won with judges appointed by Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr., and Ronald Reagan. Legally speaking, this wasn't a left-right issue, and the outcome wouldn't have differed a whit no matter whose judges were on the bench.

  • Stricter federal rules governing when feeding tubes can be removed from no-hope patients. That's fine, I suppose. I don't have any special notion about whether this should be a federal or state matter, and I imagine that's true of most liberals. What's more, requiring a very high degree of medical certainty before removing feeding tubes doesn't especially bother me either. It's really sort of a non-issue. Frankly, unless the Republican leadership deliberately inserted extraneous language solely to provoke a fight which I don't doubt they'd try I imagine a bill like this wouldn't have any trouble gaining bipartisan support.

  • Federal regulation governing who has custody in cases like this. That seems pretty pointless, though. This time it was the husband who wanted to remove the tube and the parents who didn't, but next time it could be the other way around. Besides, federal regulation in this area really does seem overly intrusive. Disputes between family members seem best left to the states.

  • Federal regulation of living wills. Actually, this seems like a pretty good idea to me. I can't think of any special reason why liberals would have a problem with this.

So what's the next step? What are DeLay and Co. going to offer up to the world to prove that liberals are infatuated with a Culture of Death? Am I missing something?

Kevin Drum 4:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

APRIL NON-FOOL'S....Things that probably ought to be April Fool's jokes but aren't:

But tomorrow's another day, right?

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By: Kevin Drum

MALPRACTICE IN TEXAS....One of the problems with studies of medical malpractice is that there are very few good datasets to work with, especially on the federal level. However, several states keep detailed statistics. One of them is Texas, and it's one of the few to make its database open to researchers.

So four law professors, including a couple from the University of Texas, took a look at the Texas database and have now published their results. And guess what? Since 1988 the number of large claims was stable, the number of small claims declined, the number of paid claims was stable, the average payout per claim was stable, and total payouts were stable. In other words, whatever it was that's caused malpractice premiums to skyrocket, it hasn't been any actual change in malpractice awards against doctors.

But here's the hilarious part. Bohn Allen, the president of the Texas Medical Association, said the report was bogus. Statistics in the new study have "been adjusted for all kinds of things," he said.

And indeed they have. Those nefarious researchers adjusted for such things as inflation, population growth, and number of physicians. That's pretty shocking.

Or course, Allen's absurd objection raises the question once again: why is it that doctors don't realize that insurance companies are not their friends? Allen says he was forced to retire due to high malpractice premiums, and that may well be true. In fact, no one disputes that malpractice insurance rates have skyrocketed over the past few years. But the evidence continues to pile up that this isn't due to increases in either the number or size of malpractice suits. It's due to insurance company greed and incompetence.

If doctors were smart, they'd team up with trial lawyers instead of fighting them. Together, they could probably agree on both genuine malpractice reform (as opposed to bogus and ineffective "caps") and insurance industry reform. Instead, they allow themselves to be suckered over and over again by insurance industry lobbyists. It's inexplicable.

Kevin Drum 2:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SHORT ATTENTION SPANS....Via Joanne Jacobs, a Kaiser Family Foundation study says that kids today can't concentrate as well as they used to:

Children are more attuned to distractions around them. "They attend to everything the air vents creaking, someone talking. They bounce from task to task. Teachers here say kids have more trouble getting organized, and their attention spans are not as good as they used to be," says school psychologist Tamara Waters-Wheeler of the Bismarck-Mandan, N.D., public schools.

Studies with college students and adults show that the brain doesn't work as well when it focuses on more than one task, [David] Walsh says. If the challenge demands a lot of attention, mental performance is particularly poor.

My mother was a fourth grade teacher. She told me once that when she started teaching (circa 1970) she could plan lessons that were about 30 minutes long. After that the kids started getting antsy. By the time she retired (circa 2000), that was down to 15 minutes.

But here's what I'm curious about. The idea that kids have shorter attention spans these days doesn't surprise me, and the hypothesis that it's due to the rise of TV and video games vs. reading and baseball playing doesn't surprise me either. But what about the flip side? Inability to concentrate is surely a problem, but isn't the ability to easily flip between multiple tasks a corresponding benefit? In fact, given the faster pace and increased complexity of the world today, I sometimes wonder if the tradeoff isn't a pretty good one.

Has anyone ever studied the benefits of facile multitasking? There must be some, even if us stone age types don't immediately see it.

Kevin Drum 12:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CHAIT ON BUSH....Jon Chait writes an April Fool's column today:

Take the Schiavo case, which supposedly demonstrates the social conservatives' power. Sure, Bush flew across the country to sign a bill "protecting" her. But as soon as polls showed the public disapproved of Washington's intervention, Bush dropped the issue like a hot potato.

....I suspect that, behind closed doors, most Washington Republicans take religious conservatives for suckers.

Good one, Jon! You almost had me going there. Of course, we all know that George Bush is a man of deep and unshakable principle and would never do something like this. I hope that next week you go back to using your valuable op-ed real estate for serious analysis.

Kevin Drum 12:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

APRIL NON-FOOLS....I forgot last night, but I meant to post something letting everyone know that there won't be any April Fool's silliness at the Washington Monthly this year. It's going to be the usual dead serious blogging today.

Anyway, Jesse and Amanda are doing it for me. Heh.

UPDATE: And Roxanne too.

And Trish Wilson!

Kevin Drum 11:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ AND WMD....A presidential intelligence commission concluded on Thursday that before the war the CIA was an uncritical cheerleader of the idea that Iraq had stockpiles of WMD and an active WMD program:

In scores of...cases involving the country's alleged nuclear and chemical programs and its delivery systems, the commission described a kind of echo chamber in which plausible hypotheses hardened into firm assertions of fact, eventually becoming immune to evidence.

Leading analysts accepted at face value data supporting the existence of illegal weapons, the commission said, and discounted counter-evidence as skillful Iraqi deception.

Hmmm. But if that's the case, why did the Pentagon feel the need to set up an Office of Special Plans in order to look at the raw data independently and construct the hawkish analysis they believed the CIA was too timid to produce? Seymour Hersh:

Rumsfeld and his colleagues believed that the C.I.A. was unable to perceive the reality of the situation in Iraq. "The agency was out to disprove linkage between Iraq and terrorism," the Pentagon adviser told me. "Thats what drove them. If youve ever worked with intelligence data, you can see the ingrained views at C.I.A. that color the way it sees data." The goal of Special Plans, he said, was "to put the data under the microscope to reveal what the intelligence community cant see."

If the CIA was already championing the idea that Iraq had loads of WMD and close ties to al-Qaeda, Donald Rumsfeld wouldn't have needed Special Plans. The fact that he did must have meant that at least in the early days after 9/11 the CIA wasn't quite the uncritical cheerleader the commission says it was. At least, not uncritical enough for the rest of the Bush administration.

There's not much question that the CIA screwed the pooch in Iraq, but there's obviously more to the story than that which makes it unfortunate indeed that congressional Democrats got suckered into delaying the investigation into political pressure on the intelligence community until after the election. Needless to say, with the election safely over, that investigation is now on the "back burner," never to see the light of day again.

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By: Kevin Drum

SANDY BERGER....I really don't know what you can say about the Sandy Berger affair other than, What was he thinking? As part of his plea bargain, he's now admitted that he deliberately took several classified documents from the National Archives in 2003 and then destroyed some of them:

The terms of Berger's agreement required him to acknowledge to the Justice Department the circumstances of the episode. Rather than misplacing or unintentionally throwing away three of the five copies he took from the archives, as the former national security adviser earlier maintained, he shredded them with a pair of scissors late one evening at the downtown offices of his international consulting business.

....Archives officials have said previously that Berger had copies only, and that no original documents were lost. It remains unclear whether Berger knew that, or why he destroyed three versions of a document but left two other versions intact.

Bizarre and inexplicable.

Kevin Drum 12:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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