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Tilting at Windmills

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May 31, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DEEP THROAT UPDATE....Earlier today I said that Vanity Fair's article claiming that Mark Felt was Deep Throat was "not quite open and shut, but it's pretty damn close." The reason for my smidgen of doubt was that neither Bob Woodward nor Carl Bernstein had confirmed the story.

Now they have:

In a statement today, Woodward and Bernstein said, "W. Mark Felt was 'Deep Throat' and helped us immeasurably in our Watergate coverage. However, as the record shows, many other sources and officials assisted us and other reporters for the hundreds of stories that were written in The Washington Post about Watergate."

So that's that. For more background about how Woodward and Felt got to know each other, check out this prophetic 1992 Atlantic article, which was emailed to bloggers everywhere by their PR staff this morning.

Kevin Drum 5:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LABOR PRIMER....Harold Meyerson has a terrific article in the Prospect this month about the internal labor wars currently engulfing the AFL-CIO:

Labor all wings of labor has been moving slowly toward a collective Wal-Mart strategy for some time now, particularly since the UFCW, which would have jurisdiction, plainly stated that organizing the behemoth is beyond its capacity. The one union leader who has been calling for such a campaign for years is [UNITE-HERE chief John] Wilhelm. There are clearly some seminal campaigns, important to society as a whole, that no one union can do on its own, he recently told me. Wal-Mart cries out for an AFL-CIO approach. For starters, Wilhelm and his fellow dissident presidents suggest that the federation devote its $25 million a year in credit-card royalties to a long-term Wal-Mart organizing campaign a proposal that [current AFL-CIO president John] Sweeney has not embraced.

....If Wilhelm and unity do not prevail, what then? [Andy Stern's] SEIU will surely secede; whether by itself or with others is as yet unclear. Under the right circumstances, everyone would be ready to go with SEIU, says one dissident leader. But those circumstances would involve a mass secession, and its not clear how many unions are willing to initiate that game of chicken.

....Even if the SEIU goes off all by itself, many union officials believe that, in the words of one, a Hobbesian world [will be] created. Some fear that the SEIUs vaunted organizing machine will fight other unions for new, and maybe current, members fears Stern takes pains to allay. Our intention is not to start a war, he says. Wed work with the AFL-CIO on everything that makes sense. We have no intention to start any campaign where an AFL-CIO union is already organized. But if somebody goes against us? God help the union that picks that fight.

Check out the whole thing. It's a great primer on what the current battles are all about.

Kevin Drum 1:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEEP THROAT....Via CapitolBuzz, John O'Connor writes in Vanity Fair this month that he knows the identity of Watergate leaker Deep Throat. No, it's not Ben Stein. It's former FBI deputy director Mark Felt, one of the guys who's been on the list of prime suspects for a long time. O'Connor reports that he's talked at length to Felt, to Bob Woodward, and to Felt's daughter, Joan who, O'Connor says, learned the truth a couple of years ago:

Joan then confronted her father, who initially denied it. I know now that youre Deep Throat, she remembers telling him....His response: Since thats the case, well, yes, I am. Then and there, she pleaded with him to announce his role immediately so that he could have some closure, and accolades, while he was still alive. Felt reluctantly agreed, then changed his mind. He seemed determined to take his secret with him to the grave.

....[Later,] Felt had come to an interim decision: he would cooperate, but only with the assistance of Bob Woodward. Acceding to his wishes, Joan and I spoke to Woodward by phone on a half-dozen occasions over a period of months about whether to make a joint revelation, possibly in the form of a book or an article. Woodward would sometimes begin these conversations with a caveat, saying, more or less, Just because Im talking to you, Im not admitting that he is who you think he is. Then hed express his chief concerns, which were twofold, as I recall. First, was this something that Joan and I were pushing on Felt, or did he actually want to reveal himself of his own accord? (I interpreted this to mean: was he changing the long-standing agreement the men had kept for three decades?) Second, was Felt actually in a clear mental state?

Read the whole thing. It's not quite open and shut, but it's pretty damn close.

UPDATE: Sorry about the unintentional demotion of Felt in the original post. It's been fixed. Thanks to Jim in comments for the correction.

UPDATE 2: Woodward and Bernstein have now confirmed that Felt was Deep Throat.

Kevin Drum 12:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DOG BITES MAN....CEO PAY SKYROCKETS....I know this won't come as news to any of my readers, but here it is anyway:

CEOs at California's largest 100 public companies took home a collective $1.1 billion in 2004, up almost 20% from 2003. That compares with the 2.9% raise that the average California worker saw last year, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

Safeway CEO Steven Burd got a 129% raise in 2004, primarily for returning his company to profitability. Of course, this was one year after he destroyed his company's profitability by triggering a ruinous 4-month strike and lockout in the Southern California supermarket industry, but who's counting? I wonder if his union workers can get a similar raise after being ruined by Burd's actions?

Kevin Drum 11:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PEAK OIL....PART 3....Our story so far: There may be lots of oil still left in the ground, but oil in the ground doesn't do us any good: what matters is whether it can be pumped to the surface as fast as we use it. The news on that score is discouraging: it turns out that the daily production rate of oil in non-OPEC countries has pretty much reached its peak, and what's more, this peaking is a result of geology, not economics. Every oil field peaks and then declines as it ages.

So if non-OPEC oil fields have reached their peak, but demand keeps rising, where is additional oil going to come from in the future? The only honest answer is to admit that opinions on this differ boy howdy, do they differ and then provide a rundown of the four main growth possibilities. Here they are in sketch form:

  • OPEC. OPEC nations are extremely secretive about their actual capabilities, but they claim they can increase oil production from today's 30 million barrels per day to 50 or even 60 million bpd over the next couple of decades. However, Bush energy advisor Matt Simmons recently published Twilight in the Desert, an exhaustive examination of this claim, and he concludes that Saudi Arabia in particular, and OPEC in general, are probably already close to their peak output.

    My own take is that Simmons is probably a little too pessimistic, but basically more right than wrong. It's true that (a) the Middle East has been pretty thoroughly explored, (b) there have been no new finds of any magnitude for over two decades, and (c) the giant fields currently in production are old and will begin declining before long. On the other hand, there's definitely some amount of new oil there, and new technology will help extend the life of older fields. My guess is that Saudi Arabia can increase its production by 3-4 million bpd, and OPEC as a whole can eventually increase production by around 8-10 million bpd for a little while. But that's about it.

  • Frontier oil. This term generally refers to polar oil and deepwater oil, both of which are substantial sources of oil-bearing formations that are known to exist but haven't been developed yet. This lack of development means it's impossible to do much more than guess here, so here's my guess: both of these sources will produce some new oil, but not as much as everyone hopes. We've already had experience with several similar "hot prospects" during the 90s, and they've mostly been disappointments: Kazakhstan has produced a lot of oil, but the Gulf of Mexico and the Caspian Sea have been busts. Future development is likely to follow the same mixed pattern.

    In addition, environmental concerns will hobble polar oil regardless of how promising it is, and even in the best case it will be a minimum of a decade before any source of frontier oil starts producing in quantity. By then it will be able to do nothing more than make up for accelerating declines in conventional fields.

  • Nonconventional oil. There are three major sources of nonconventional oil. The first is oil sands, found mostly in Canada. There's plenty of oil there, but it takes tons (literally) of natural gas to extract it, a serious problem since natural gas itself is becoming rarer and more expensive to obtain. Canadian production is likely to increase, but even the Canadians themselves only predict an increase of around 2 million bpd over the next decade or two.

    Second is super-heavy oil, mainly from Venezuela. This is expensive, low-quality oil that's difficult to extract. It's unlikely that current production rates can be increased by more than about 1-2 million bpd, if that.

    Third is oil shale, found mostly in Colorado. This has been a disappointment in the past because there's still no efficient way to extract the oil from the shale. Not only does it require lots of energy, but it also requires vast quantities of water, a resource that's already in short supply in the American West.

  • Advanced technology. No question about it: 3-D seismic imaging has revolutionized exploration and sophisticated MRC wells can extract oil more efficiently from aging fields than either old-style vertical wells or more advanced horizontal wells. Other new technologies have made an impact as well.

    However, there are no miracle breakthroughs on the horizon, and we have a pretty good idea of what existing advanced technology can do: it can reduce the decline of old fields, but it can't prevent them from peaking in the first place. There's no magic bullet here.

At this point I'll repeat what I said above: this is all guesswork. Any of these four things could turn out either much better or much worse than I expect. What's more, there's an obvious answer to overly pessimistic assessments: they've been consistently wrong in the past. We've always found more oil when we needed it.

But have we? For devotees of the past, here's something that's not guesswork and it's what convinces me that we should be taking peak oil seriously. The chart on the right shows discovery of new oil sources, and it's been declining like clockwork for four consecutive decades. Will market forces and technology save us in the future? Maybe. But prices skyrocketed during the 70s and the rate of new discoveries fell anyway. Likewise, new technology has been put to ever increasing use during the past two decades, and that didn't stop the decline in new discoveries either. Nothing has stopped the decline, probably because there's just not that much new oil left to be found.

In the end, it's just as naive to expect that everything will turn out well as to expect that everything will turn out badly. Some newly discovered fields will be gushers and some will be dry holes. Ditto for new technologies. The mix of success and failure in the future will probably look a lot like it has in the past, and that mix has produced a steady decrease in the amount of new oil we've discovered. There's no question that the prospect of permanently higher prices will spur both new development and increased use of technology, but when you put everything together, both good and bad, my guess is that new discoveries will continue to decline and oil production will reach its peak in about 10 years. At that point, new discoveries will no longer be big enough to offset declines in older fields.

Of course, I could be wrong. Instead of 2015, oil might peak this year, as Ken Deffeyes thinks, or it might not peak until 2035, as Peter Odell thinks. Market forces and technology breakthroughs really are unpredictable.

But guess what? After all this, it turns out that the precise date of the oil peak probably isn't the most important issue facing us anyway. What matters more is a related problem that's very definitely facing us right away: we've run out of spare pumping capacity.

I'll take that up next.

Continue to Part 4.

Kevin Drum 12:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 30, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MEMORIAL DAY....This year's Memorial Day tribute is to the Civil War Veterans of Cerro Gordo, Illinois. The fellow in the yellow circle is my great-grandfather, Eli Drum, who joined the 107th Illinois Infantry regiment at the age of 19 and served for the duration all the while toting around a diary containing a picture of a mysterious young woman named Sal. He participated in the Siege of Knoxville, the Battle of Kenesaw Mountain, helped Sherman burn Atlanta, and then finished up his service at the Battle of Franklin. On July 2nd, 1865, the 107th returned to Camp Butler, where they received their final payment and were discharged. From there, Eli went home to Cerro Gordo, where he got married, became the town druggist, served as postmaster, and eventually started up three newspapers.

Here's to you, Eli.

YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED: The photo is of GAR Post No. 210. The date is unknown, but judging from other pictures of Eli, it was taken around 1910 or so.

Sal remains a mystery. The picture of her was taken in Circleville, Ohio, where Eli and the rest of the Drum family lived until 1856. In pencil on the front is written "Look on this picture and," but the continuation on the back is illegible. All that's left is "Miss Sal." Her name matches no known family friends or relatives, and I imagine she will remain a mystery forever.

Also, thanks to Rea in comments for correcting my battle chronology.

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 29, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PEAK OIL....PART 2....When we last left the subject of peak oil, ExxonMobil had conceded that within a few years the daily production rate of oil in non-OPEC countries will peak and then begin an irreversible decline. I'm going to say more about that subject shortly, but before I do, I want to back up a bit and answer a basic question: Everyone agrees that there's plenty of oil still left in the ground, so why should production rates peak in the near future at all? What's up?

I'm a sucker for historical documents, so here's where it all started: in Figure 21 of "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels," a paper delivered by Shell geologist M. King Hubbert in 1956. Using basic principles of oil extraction, he predicted that oil production in the continental United States would reach its highest point in 1970, after about half the total oil in the ground had been extracted. He turned out to be right: U.S. oil production peaked in December 1970 and has been falling off ever since. Today the continental United States produces about 50% of the daily volume that it did in 1970.

But why? This doesn't make sense if you think of oil fields as underground swimming pools with straws in them. After all, you can suck soda out of a glass at the same rate until you get to the very bottom. Why not with oil?

The answer is that oil fields aren't like underground swimming pools. They're more like underground formations of styrofoam, with oil hidden in the nooks and crannies. Oil wells are drilled into pockets in the styrofoam and keep producing oil until they run dry.

Normally, the biggest, best oil pockets are put into production first. These pockets contain clean, high-pressure oil, and when newly drilled wells are uncapped, that clean, high-pressure oil shoots to the surface in vast quantities.

Over time, though, the pressure decreases. Gas caps develop above the oil that makes extraction more difficult. Underground water begins to contaminate the oil pocket, a problem made worse by water that's deliberately injected into the reservoir in an effort to keep pressure from declining too much. The result is that not only does the oil flow to the surface more slowly, but the oil that gets there is increasingly made up of water. In old wells, the "water cut" can account for as much as 50% or more of the extracted fluid.

New wells are drilled to make up for this, of course, but the oil that's left is usually in smaller, lower quality pockets that age even faster than the original pockets. At some point, new wells just can't make up for the falling production in the older wells, and the daily production rate of the entire field goes into decline. Advanced technology can be used to reinvigorate old wells and slow down the decline, but nothing can stop it. In fact, if you try to overproduce a field, all you do is hasten its ultimate demise.

In 1956 this was theory. Today it's a routinely accepted factor in oil field maintenance, one that applies to all oil fields. Prudhoe Bay, for example, peaked in 1989. The North Sea peaked in 1999. China's massive Daqing field probably peaked a year or two ago. They all still have plenty of oil left, but their daily production rates are getting lower and lower every year.

There's more to the story, of course. What about new discoveries to make up for declines in older fields? What about OPEC's fields? Are they in decline too? What about oil shale in Colorado, tar sands in Canada, and heavy oil in Venezuela? And won't new technology keep old fields producing at higher rates than we expect anyway?

I'll take that up next.

Continue to Part 3.

UPDATE: In comments, RedDan provides a more complete and accurate description of oil field geology than "sort of like styrofoam." However, after reading it you'll probably understand why I stuck with the simple analogy.

Kevin Drum 7:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WAR ON EXTREMISM?....Susan Glasser reports that the Bush administration is rethinking its approach to the war on terrorism:

The review marks the first ambitious effort since the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks to take stock of what the administration has called the "global war on terrorism" or GWOT but is now considering changing to recognize the evolution of its fight. "What we really want now is a strategic approach to defeat violent extremism," said a senior administration official who described the review on the condition of anonymity because it is not finished. "GWOT is catchy, but there may be a better way to describe it, and those are things that ought to be incumbent on us to look at."

Unfortunately, I suspect that this change in focus is about as authentic as George Bush's alleged dedication to democracy promotion, but we can hope, can't we? For my money, this is the right approach, and if the Bushies really do take it seriously it would be a welcome change. We'll see.

Kevin Drum 2:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FRANCE'S REFERENDUM....Laura Rozen rounds up some reaction to the possibility that France will turn down the new European constitution in their referendum today. Check it out if European politics interests you.

The polls suggest the French will indeed vote against the constitution, and I suspect that might not be such a bad thing. I don't have a compelling argument for thinking this, just a vague sense that Europe needs a bit of a breather after a decade of nonstop expansion and consolidation. A single currency, the end of border controls, ten new members, and a relentless increase in new rulemaking from Brussels is a lot to swallow, especially when there are an awful lot of core differences between the EU's member states that haven't really gotten any closer to resolution during that time. A rethink and a slowdown might be in order right about now.

UPDATE: It looks like the noes have it. Back to the drawing board.

Kevin Drum 2:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOUSING BUBBLE UPDATE....How can you tell if you're really in a bubble? One tried and true method is the Nexis test: how much is it being talked about in the news media? Is it becoming an obsessive topic?

Answer: In May 2003, the phrase "housing bubble" was mentioned 108 times. In May 2005 the number of mentions had more than tripled to 363. The housing bubble is pretty clearly becoming an obsession.

The chart on the right shows another way of looking at it. Early last year I mentioned that I was unsure of the bubble-icious nature of the California housing market because it was possible that recent increases were just making up for the downturn we experienced after the 1991 bubble popped. That no longer seems to be the case. As this LA Times chart shows, if you project 1988-1991 growth rates forward, you could argue that the bubble up through 2002 was indeed just making up for lost ground. Now that we have data for 2003 and 2004, however, that no longer looks so plausible. Prices are currently about a third higher than a straightforward projection justifies.

Now, there are reasons to think that Southern California real estate was due for higher growth. Population is increasing and housing stock is still scarce. On the other hand, the LA Times also points out that per capita income in California hasn't increased since 2001. Overall, that chart looks pretty scary.

I sure hope it doesn't pop as badly as last time, though. Back in the early 90s we lost about two years of price increases by the time the market bottomed out. If we lose two years of price growth this time, instead of dropping an average of 15% the market will drop by more like 25%. I'm not in the market to either buy or sell a house myself, but I sure hope that doesn't happen.

For additional comments from a guy who's putting his money where his mouth is, see Mark Kleiman. He's selling while the selling is good.

Kevin Drum 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 28, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TIME TO BREAK OUT THE VIOLINS....In an apparent effort to replace the John Birch Society as Orange County's most embarrassing icon, NASCAR driver Robby Gordon has announced that he won't drive in the Indy 500 ever again unless women are forced to drive with a handicap. Why? Because Danica Patrick has qualified fourth in the Indy 500 and actually has a chance to win:

Gordon, a former open-wheel driver now in NASCAR, contends that Patrick is at an advantage over the rest of the competitors because she only weighs 100 pounds. Because all the cars weigh the same, Patrick's is lighter on the race track.

"The lighter the car, the faster it goes," Gordon said. "Do the math. Put her in the car at her weight, then put me or Tony Stewart in the car at 200 pounds and our car is at least 100 pounds heavier.

"I won't race against her until the IRL does something to take that advantage away."

....Although her rivals in Sunday's race have said she doesn't have a huge advantage, pole-sitter Tony Kanaan told reporters he would like the Indy Racing League to look into the issue.

Goodness! Those girls are practically cheating by being smaller than men, aren't they? It just breaks your heart.

Still, maybe we should get into the spirit of the thing. Perhaps NASCAR's men should be forced to drive with artificially stiffer steering wheels to make up for their naturally greater upper body strength. Maybe male tennis players should play against women but be required to use two-pound rackets. Maybe Tiger Woods should be forced to use 3 ounce golf balls.

It's amazing, isn't it? Men have dozens of advantages against women in practically every sport on the planet, and earn mountains of money because of it. But find one minor advantage for women in one single sport and the men suddenly start blubbering about how unfair it is. What a bunch of whiners.

Kevin Drum 8:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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HEALTHCARE FOR ALL!....The New York Times writes today about a diverse group of organizations that have been meeting secretly for months to come up with a plan to provide coverage for people with no health insurance. I'm pretty skeptical that much good can come of this, but who knows? Anything is possible, I suppose.

This quote threw me for a loop, though:

Asked what had prompted the initiative, Stuart M. Butler, the vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said: "It's a coalition built of frustration. True believers on the left and the right have been stymied on this issue."

Heritage doesn't think of itself as a true believer? In which universe?

UPDATE: FWIW, several commenters think I'm reading this wrong. They suggest that Butler does indeed think of Heritage as a true believer, but since they've been stymied they're now willing to seek compromise. Maybe. But do true believers ever compromise? And if they do, are they no longer true believers? Hmmm.....

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SPLITSVILLE FOR SEIU?....SEIU president Andy Stern talks to the LA Times today about the future of the AFL-CIO:

Question: How do you see things shaping up between now and the end of July?

Answer: I think we're headed for a split in the labor movement. We have a philosophical difference. It's not about John Wilhelm or John Sweeney. It's not simply about organizing or politics. It's about, do we share common ideas about how to grow stronger?....It's hard to bridge philosophical differences. It's easy to bridge financial differences.

I'm speaking from a position of profound ignorance here, but I've suspected for a long time that compromise isn't the right answer between Stern's forces and the old guard at the AFL-CIO. The problem is that the requirements of established unions with well-paid workers are so fundamentally different from the requirements of growing unions representing poorly paid workers that it's never been clear to me that there's any way to bridge the gap between them. Any compromise would just paper over those differences, not truly resolve them. At this point, splitting up is the right thing to do.

It's true that there's also plenty of old fashioned bad blood and personality clashes that are driving the animosity between Stern and Sweeney and their allies, but when push comes to shove my heart is with the folks trying to organize Wal-Mart or janitorial services, not with teachers fighting merit pay or auto workers trying to platinum plate an already gold-plated health plan.

In the end, my guess is that a split would be healthy. A bit of competition will be good for American labor.

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 27, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

AN OPEN LETTER TO PENGUIN BOOKS....I can't imagine anyone else cares about this, but after browsing through all the comments in my post about one-volume histories of the United States, I decided that the most highly recommended titles (aside from those by the socialist and the cartoonist) were Hugh Brogan's Penguin History of the United States of America and Eric Foner's Story of American Freedom. Foner's book seemed too brief even for an overview, so I decided to buy Brogan's book and see what it was like.

But I didn't. My local bookstore had a copy, but when I opened it up I discovered that the production gurus at Penguin Books had apparently decided to save on paper by setting the entire book in (I'm guessing here) 9 point type. Seriously tiny stuff. Despite my advancing age I have excellent near eyesight, but even so I finally decided that reading a whole book set in type this small would be too painful. So I put it back.

Thus this plea to Penguin Books: how about producing a version of this book set in the same size type everyone else uses for paperback books? Normal line lengths would be nice too. Thanks.

Kevin Drum 8:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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TIME FOR LARRY TO GO....Via Sullivan, here is Pentagon flack Larry DiRita last week answering questions about Koran abuse at Guantanamo:

Q: Larry, just to be clear....Are you saying that none of those allegations were credible?....Have any of them been investigated, and were any substantiated?

MR. DI RITA: ....When a specific, credible allegation of this nature were to be received, we would take it quite seriously. But we've not seen specific, credible allegations.

No matter what you think about Newsweek, and no matter whether you think abusing a Koran is a serious problem or not, one thing is clear: DiRita was lying. We know for a fact that both the FBI and the Red Cross told the Pentagon about credible allegations months ago, and the Pentagon itself now admits that at least five of the allegations are substantially true.

When DiRita answered that question last week he knew perfectly well that credible allegations had been made on multiple occasions. What's more, only a child would believe that he didn't already know that some of them had been verified. But it wasn't convenient to say so at the time because the Bush administration was busy whipping up a firestorm of manufactured outrage against Newsweek. Now it's come back to haunt them.

Whatever else happens, DeRita flatly lied to the press. He should be fired.

Kevin Drum 2:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING....Yep, that is one big cat....

(But a real one. Not photoshopped.)

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LIBERALS ON THE TUBE....Via Suburban Guerrilla, Eric Alterman wants to know why there are so many conservatives on TV and so few liberals:

On the cable news networks and Sunday shout fests where conservatives love to pull the "liberal bias" charge out of their bags when confronted with facts they don't like, you would be hard pressed to find much liberal representation. It's odd that of most prominent liberals writing in the nation's newspapers and opinion magazines E.J. Dionne, Robert Kuttner, Paul Krugman, Hendrik Hertzberg, Molly Ivins not one has ever been given a regular slot on television, like say, Bob Novak, Fred Barnes, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Tony Blankley, Pat Buchanan, Bill O'Reilly or Brit Hume.

Eric's point is that conservatives should quit whining about liberal bias when they're the ones who own the political airwaves. That's true, but at the same time he brings up a good question: why are there more conservatives than liberals on TV slugfests?

This has always been a mystery to me, ever since the famous "Point-Counterpoint" debates on 60 Minutes between Shana Alexander and James J. Kilpatrick. I remember at the time being annoyed at the fact that I thought Kilpatrick was wrong, but also that he was much the better debater. What's more, an additional 30 years of watching liberals and conservatives on TV hasn't changed my mind: conservatives usually do better.

Why? It's not that liberals don't get a chance (as on talk radio, which was taken over by conservatives very early) and it's not that network news honchos are unsympathetic to liberals. I don't think it has anything to do with the quality of the people or the quality of the thoughts. Liberals do fine on op-ed pages. Nor am I under the misimpression that liberals are unable to be nasty enough. And yet, in show after show, they're typically overmatched.

This is genuinely perplexing, and I think it's a big part of the reason that political talk shows have such heavy conservative representation: they're just livelier and more interesting on TV than liberals are. I don't have a clue why this is so, but since it goes directly to the core of recent liberal weakness at shaping public debate, it might be worth someone's time to give this some dispassionate study. How about it, Media Matters?

Kevin Drum 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DIONNE ON NEWSWEEK....E.J. Dionne decides enough is enough. It's finally time to weigh in on the Newsweek Koran affair:

I write about it now because of the new reports [confirming Koran abuse at Guantanamo] and because I fear that too many people in traditional journalism are becoming dangerously defensive in the face of a brilliantly conceived conservative attack on the independent media.

....Of course journalists make mistakes, sometimes stupid ones....But this particular anti-press campaign is not about Journalism 101. It is about Power 101. It is a sophisticated effort to demolish the idea of a press independent of political parties by way of discouraging scrutiny of conservative politicians in power.

That's exactly right. It's only too bad it took him so long to decide to say it.

Kevin Drum 12:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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IS JON CHAIT LIKE JOSEPH GOEBBELS?....Jon Chait defends Rick Santorum today:

If we thought about it sensibly, we'd realize that Nazi analogies have their place. If anything, our public discourse could use more Nazi analogies.

Well, I'm glad someone said it. As Chait says, Santorum's Nazi analogy last week may have been wrong, but politicians get history wrong all the time. Beyond that, there's nothing particularly heinous about using Nazi analogies, which can actually be quite useful as long as they're used "not to make a moral comparison but to establish a logical principle."

I'm fine with that. Comparing George Bush to a genocidal maniac or abortion to the murder of 6 million Jews is indeed both foolish and abusive, but simply using Hitler (or Stalin or Mussolini) as an easily understood historical reference isn't ipso facto wrong. It all depends on what it's being used for. We should chill out about this stuff.

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 26, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PEAK OIL....PART 1....Praktike draws our attention to the chart below, an excerpt from last year's "Outlook for Energy" from the good folks at ExxonMobil. What does it all mean?

Basically, it's Exxon's view of how much oil the world can produce on a daily basis. In particular, the green area at the bottom shows how much oil the non-OPEC world can produce: about 44 million barrels per day right now, peaking in a few years at 47 million bpd and then declining after that.

The interesting thing about this is not the prediction that non-OPEC oil production will peak shortly. That's fairly common knowledge. The interesting thing is that ExxonMobil is saying it. This is an indication that the idea of a world production peak is no longer the province of small band of "peak oil" cranks. It's gone mainstream.

Now look at the rest of the chart: if Exxon is right, it means that practically all future production increases have to come from OPEC countries. That includes crude oil, NGLs (natural gas liquids, which can be refined into stuff like butane and propane), and condensates (gas-based liquids that are similar to crude oil). If you count everything, by 2010 OPEC production needs to increase by 4 million bpd and by 2015 it needs to increase by about 11 million bpd.

But that's actually pretty optimistic. Not only does it assume that non-OPEC production hasn't already peaked, it's also based on the notion that future growth in oil consumption will slow to 1.5% per year (compared to about 2% per year right now), partly due to the use of more energy efficient cars. If, instead, oil use continues to rise at its current rate, OPEC production will need to increase by more like 8 million bpd in 2010 and 19 million bpd in 2015.

Which leaves us with a disturbing question: can OPEC do it? If we accept the fact that the rest of the world has reached (or very nearly reached) its production peak, it would be nice to know if OPEC is up to the job of continuing to pump out ever increasing amounts of crude. And since Saudi Arabia is where most of this extra OPEC oil is supposed to come from, it would be really nice to know if Saudi Arabia can increase its production by 5 or 10 million bpd in the next decade or so. Because if it turns out they've peaked too, we're screwed.

Oddly enough, nobody can answer this, because Saudi Arabia and the rest of the OPEC countries are extremely secretive about their operations. So even though they say they can increase production for the next decade or two, there are reasons to be skeptical about this.

That's it for now. I just want to pique your interest in this question, not try to answer it. I'll have more to say about this later.

Continue to Part 2.

Kevin Drum 9:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ABORTION....In the course of criticizing Howard Dean (and me for agreeing with him), Nathan Newman reminds me that I should clarify how I personally feel about abortion. There's no special reason for this except that I've never really done it, and I figure my readers should know where I stand.

It's simple: I think pre-viability abortion should be entirely unregulated except to the extent that similar medical procedures are regulated. Fetuses are not human life in any meaningful sense, and aborting them is morally neutral. Legally, the decision to get an abortion should be completely up to the woman seeking it. No one else gets to tell her whether she should or shouldn't be allowed to have one.

So that's that. Note that this position also explains the two limitations on abortion that I (rather wishy-washily) support: parental notification and third trimester restrictions. I sympathize with parental notification laws because minors aren't allowed to undergo other medical procedures without notifying their parents, so I'm not sure why abortion should be any different. Minors aren't adults, and aren't presumed to have the judgment of adults.

Third trimester restrictions strike me as reasonable because there has to be some point at which a fetus legally becomes an independent human being, and viability seems like it's the right point. However, since viability is a fuzzy boundary, and common sense dictates a firm rule, I'd pick the third trimester as a convenient and easy demarcation. After that point, I accept limitations on the right to abortion.

I'm aware that other groups use these arguments for less savory purposes, and I'm also aware that I'm skipping a bunch of details including my firm belief that most anti-abortion rhetoric is a demagogic reaction against sexual (and economic) freedom for women, not something based on a genuine desire to save human life. Some other time, perhaps.

At the same time, though, I still think that Howard Dean's "anti-busybody" approach to the issue is a good one for a couple of reasons. First, not everyone agrees with me that abortion is morally neutral, but they might nonetheless agree that basic considerations of privacy and personal choice mean that people should be allowed to make their own moral choices in this matter without government interference. Second, it provides an appealing umbrella approach to a lot of social issues, which I think is better than having a hodgepodge of rationales aimed at a bunch of unrelated special interests.

Fire away.

Kevin Drum 3:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE NATURE OF DEMOCRACY....Goodness. Snowballs are melting, pigs are taking flight, and John Derbyshire writes something that I completely agree with. Completely.

UPDATE: As Alex points out in comments, that should be "snowballs are failing to melt," or some such. I'm afraid many of us Southern Californians are weak on snow analogies....

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AFGHANISTAN....The Washington Post writes today about newly released FBI documents that describe Koran desecration at Guantanamo:

The summaries of FBI interviews, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union as part of an ongoing lawsuit, include a dozen allegations that the Koran was kicked, thrown to the floor or withheld as punishment. One prisoner said in August 2002 that guards had "flushed a Koran in the toilet" and had beaten some detainees.

But the Pentagon said yesterday that the same prisoner, who is still in custody, was reinterviewed on May 14 and "did not corroborate" his earlier claim about the Koran.

"We still have found no credible allegations that a Koran was flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said in a statement last night.

So: kicked and thrown to the floor, yes, but not flushed down a toilet. Hooray for us! As for those riots that Newsweek supposedly started, here's aid worker Sarah Chayes in the New York Times:

Our unshakable conclusion has been that the adroit Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, is planting operatives in the student body. These students can also provoke agitation at Pakistani officials' behest, while affording the government in Islamabad plausible deniability.

In other words, it's a mistake to focus on the Newsweek article as the cause of the recent demonstrations in Afghanistan....What most Afghans have complained to me most consistently about is the inexplicable staying power of predatory, corrupt and abusive officials, on both the provincial and national level....By blindly allying themselves with some of the most destructive elements of Afghan society (over-armed, under-disciplined thugs), American forces paint themselves in the ugly colors of their Afghan proxies.

....Highhanded American behavior has also contributed fuel for the fire....But inconveniences are one thing, atrocities quite another. On their own, the fatal beatings of probably innocent detainees and the use of religiously based sexual humiliation at the prison on the American base in Bagram would be sufficient pretext for troublemakers to provoke a riot, never mind the Newsweek report about desecration of the Koran.

Such behavior is not only a disgrace but also a serious national security risk.

Quite right. The American media certainly has its share of problems these days, but the state of American media criticism is little short of buffoonish. How is it possible that our press critics have spent two weeks clucking nervously over the fact that Newsweek's source made a mistake about which report he saw the Koran allegations in, thus providing the White House with exactly the cover they needed to avoid responsibility for the fact that it's their disastrous policies that are responsible for what's happening in Afghanistan? Who needs Paris Hilton to distract attention from reality when America's media critics will do it for free?

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FOOD FOLLIES....In March we brought you the story of the woman who called the police because her cheeseburger wasn't prepared to her liking. Today we bring you the story of a woman who called 911 because her local pizza place doesn't deliver. At least this time it's in North Carolina, not Orange County.

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POLITICAL CALCULATION....Marshall Wittman says we have way too few troops in Iraq to win, but that pulling out would nonetheless be disastrous. Matt Yglesias isn't impressed:

So what's his plan? The political logic of saying "pulling out . . . is unfathomable" is clear to me. It's centrist, hawkish, tough, etc. But where's the substance to the criticism? If you ask me, this is a big part of the Democrats' national security problem the adoption of rhetorical stances that are very clearly driven more by political calculation than by genuinely belief in the merits of the view.

Well, sure. On the other hand, as Marshall points out, George Bush's rhetorical stance is that democracy is on the march and 138,000 troops are more than enough to get the job done in Iraq. He knows perfectly well this isn't true, but in public he just smirks and says that he'd be happy to send more troops over if any of his generals asked for them.

This is every bit as driven by political calculation as anything Democrats are saying. The only difference is that it doesn't sound as calculated, and this is the genius of George Bush. He's one of the shrewdest politicians to inhabit the Oval Office in a long time, but he doesn't sound like he's being shrewd. He sounds like he really believes that our current troop strength is perfectly adequate.

So what's the answer? As Juan Cole says, "Sometimes You are Just Screwed." Bush knows near term success is impossible with current troop levels, just as he knows that his economic policies are unsustainable as well. In both cases, he seems to be hoping only that he can avoid disaster during the next three years and then hand off both problems to his successor in 2009 while he retires to the ranch. Politics doesn't get much more cynical than that.

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PROGRESS IN IRAN?....This is weird. Both the LA Times and New York Times have stories about the latest progress in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, but their takes on the situation could hardly be more different. The LA Times story is quite positive, and includes this quote from the Bush administration:

In Washington, a senior State Department official said the outcome the session was positive. "What they've agreed is exactly what we've been talking about," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous.

The New York Times, by contrast, makes it sound like virtually no progress had been made. Here's their administration quote:

The Bush administration, which accuses Iran of secretly using its nuclear program to develop weapons, reacted with caution to the developments on Wednesday...."Iran hid its nuclear activity from the international community for two decades," said Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman. "That is why we are skeptical about their activities."

The basic details are similar in both stories: Iran has extended its nuclear freeze and Europe has agreed to offer a new (and presumably better) aid package in July or August. Beyond that, though, you'd practically think they were reporting different talks altogether.

And the Washington Post? Their take seems to be somewhere in the middle. Read 'em all and decide for yourself.

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May 25, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

POLITICS IN IRAN....Iran may be unclear on the concept when it comes to the substance of democracy, but they sure do have the trappings down pat. Here is the Guardian's account of the campaign tactics adopted by Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, a candidate in next month's presidential election:

The Qalibaf campaign is deploying focus groups, whereby groups of voters around the country are interviewed to identify their concerns and so shape policy choices. From these sessions, Mr Qalibaf's strategists have compiled a list of 10 key priorities, including unemployment, inflation, social security and quality of life issues.

[Headquarters] is a seven-storey office block equipped with the latest computer technology in an upmarket neighbourhood of north Tehran. From here, strategists and policy wonks confer daily on how to market Mr Qalibaf, 43, to Iran's vast army of young voters as a vigorous moderniser.

....Backed by campaign photographs, showing Mr Qalibaf alone among the mainstream candidates without a beard, his staff stay on-message by depicting their man as an adherent of globalisation, privatisation and smaller government who is willing, at least within limits, to build on the reformist agenda of the outgoing president, Mohammed Khatami.

You will be unsurprised to learn that behind the smiling, clean shaven face, Qalibaf is actually a religious hardliner who is running with the blessings of the Ayatollah. Maybe he can get Ralph Reed to do some consulting for him.

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HEALTHCARE....Matt Yglesias offers some thoughts on various healthcare plans that are making the rounds:

The point of things like Clinton's plan, Haase's plan, New America's idea, etc., etc., etc. is that you can successfully convince some substantial bloc of interests out there to support rather than oppose your plan, and some other bloc to stay on the sidelines. I don't think that sort of "negotiating with ourselves" makes sense. It amounts to trying to guess what kind of plan you make be able to get insurance companies, or the AMA, or General Motors (or what have you) to support.

I think this is correct, and I'd like to amplify on it a bit. Matt is suggesting that the main obstacle to national healthcare in the United States isn't really public opinion, it's special interests and he's right about that. If your plan eliminates the role of insurance companies, then insurance companies will fight it. If it pays doctors less, the AMA will fight it. If it caps the price of wonder drugs, pharmaceutical companies will fight it. Put all these groups together, and it wouldn't matter if Jesus himself descended from the throne of heaven to endorse your plan. In the real world, it would be DOA.

This means that any workable plan has to buy off special interests to one degree or another. But Matt says the way to do this is not to make concessions now but to stick to our guns and wait for them to come to us. Then we'll talk.

That's right. One of the fundamental principles of bargaining one that amateurs get backward constantly is that you should always make the first offer and then wait for a counteroffer. If an employer offers you $40,000, that's the de facto starting point and the best you can probably do is bump that up 5% or 10%. But if you ask for $50,000 in the first place, then the onus is on them to bump it down a bit. You'll probably end up doing better and there's almost no chance you'll end up doing worse.

The danger, of course, is that if you ask for too much you'll get turned down flat. But guess what? That's not what usually happens. Usually you get a counteroffer. George Bush understands this principle at a gut level, and that's why he's not afraid to toss out extreme proposals and stick to them.

Any serious healthcare plan has to take account of special interest opposition. That's just life. But instead of twisting ourselves into pretzels over this, we should do what Cato did 20 years ago on Social Security and adopt our own "Leninist" strategy of co-opting natural allies and buying off the opposition over the long term. Time is on our side here, and if we stick to what we know is right and a good national healthcare plan is right the public will respect it and the special interests who oppose it will eventually cave in to reality.

We're not going to pass any plan anytime in the near future, but when the time is right we'll be better off if the starting point is the plan we really want, and it's our opponents who have to offer concessions. That's the way to do business.

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REDISTRICTING....Excellent news: Tennessee Democrat John Tanner has introduced a bill to put a stop to yet another of the Republican party's favorite Calvinball practices: mid-decade gerrymandering whenever they feel like it might benefit them. The Carpetbagger, who has the details, is impressed with Tanner's approach.

Needless to say, this will go nowhere. Even Tanner knows that. But this is something the entire Democratic caucus ought to get behind in order to position themselves as the party of integrity and reform. This is a national issue, and the only way to handle it is on a national basis.

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FILIBUSTER ROUNDUP....It's only two days old, but I have to admit that I'm already tired of reading about the filibuster compromise forged on Monday. Does this mean I should turn in my political junkie ID card?

Still, it's hard to resist musing about it. Here's a bit of thinking out loud:

  • I continue to think that this hurts Republicans worse than Democrats. Tony Blankley is beside himself that a small group of moderates now controls the Senate agenda, but as James Joyner points out, that's not exactly unusual in U.S. history. The difference, I think, is that Democrats are so accustomed to herding cats that they just shrug their shoulders when a small group goes off and does its own thing. That's Democrats for you! Modern Republicans, conversely, have gotten so used to the idea of ironclad party discipline that they hardly know what to do when it breaks down. I think they're a bit at sea right now.

  • Yes, many lefties are angry about this deal, but the wingnut right is really foaming at the mouth. Combine this with a few other culture war issues they're not getting much support for, and there could be open warfare before long between the Christian right and the rest of the Republican party. That should be extremely satisfying to watch, don't you think?

  • On the other hand, Max has a point: "The Senate Dems' main achievement might be to have prevented the Republicans from overreaching." I suspect that confirming a few nutball judges wouldn't really have cost Republicans very much, but still. Conservative overreach is clearly one of the best hopes liberals have at the moment, and anything that slows down their apparent desire to sail merrily over a cliff is probably a bad thing.

  • But speaking of that, Ronald Brownstein and Janet Hook make an awfully good point today: George Bush is now the man to watch. Will he take this as a sign to moderate his judicial picks and avoid future fights? Or will he take this as a challenge to his leadership?

    Well, you know what I think. George Bush loves showdowns, and my guess is that this compromise really ticks him off. He wanted to go to the mattresses over this, kill off the filibuster, and leave Democrats gasping for breath. That's just the kind of guy he is.

    In other words, my guess is that sometime fairly soon he's going to pile some logs back onto this fire by nominating a deliberately provocative judge. Maybe he'll nominate Roy Moore! At any rate, this fight isn't over, and wingnut fury combined with Bush's natural combative tendency has the potential to hasten conservative overreach instead of reining it in. Remember what Bill Clinton did to Newt Gingrich?

Other comments are welcome, of course. Only time will tell how this works out, but for now I'd say Harry Reid and the Dems got slightly the better of the deal.

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IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN....From Scotland on Sunday:

Ministers have been warned they face a "complete strategic failure" of the effort to rebuild Afghanistan and that 5,500 extra troops will be needed within months if the situation continues to deteriorate.

An explosive cocktail of feuding tribal warlords, insurgents, the remnants of the Taliban, and under-performing Afghan institutions has left the fledgling democracy on the verge of disintegration, according to analysts and senior officers.

From the Guardian:

It could take at least five years before Iraqi forces are strong enough to impose law and order on the country, the International Institute of Strategic Studies warned yesterday.

....John Chipman, IISS director, said the Iraqi security forces faced a "huge task" and the continuing ability of the insurgents to inflict mass casualties "must cast doubt on US plans to redeploy American troops and eventually reduce their numbers".

Insurgents have killed 600 Iraqis since the new government was formed. The IISS report said: "Best estimates suggest that it will take up to five years to create anything close to an effective indigenous force able to impose and guarantee order across the country."

Optimism and pessimism wax and wane in Iraq and Afghanistan almost as if on schedule, so it's unwise to make too much of individual reports. Still, there's not much question that reporting out of the region has gotten considerably gloomier over the past few months, especially so in Iraq now that the post-election euphoria has worn off.

The fact that Iraq now has a democratically elected government, fragile though it is, is genuinely good news. Unfortunately, though, it really doesn't seem to have changed the basic strategic picture: sectarian tensions, a persistent insurgency, too few troops, stalled reconstruction efforts, and a deep-seated distrust of an occupying Christian superpower. Without some kind of fundamental turnaround in these areas it's hard to see how we'll ever achieve anything approaching success in Iraq, but there's nothing on the horizon. We're still just treading water.

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AMERICAN HISTORY....Here's a little bit of an odd request for my readers.

I've read quite a bit of American history. Among other things, I've read histories of the Depression, the 1950s, and the Civil War. I've read biographies of Washington, Franklin, both Roosevelts, McCarthy, LBJ, Rockefeller, and Reagan. (Not Lincoln, though. Odd, that.) I've read lengthy accounts of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the New York Times, and Southern California.

But it occurred to me the other day that I've never read a complete history of the United States. What's more, due to a peculiar accident of scheduling, I never took American History in high school, even though this is required by the California education code. (Long story. Technically I met the requirement, though.) This means that although I've read a lot of American history, I also have a lot of odd gaps in my knowledge.

So I decided I should remedy this. But when I walked up to my local bookstore, my only choices were Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the United States. I have nothing against either people or cartoons, but that's not quite what I was after.

Now, as it happens, the question is moot as far as my own personal reading is concerned. After a bit of rummaging around, I discovered that I had purchased Samuel Eliot Morison's Oxford History of the American People many years ago, but had then stuck it up on a shelf and never read it. So I'm doing that now.

Still, there must be quite a few good one-volume histories of America out there, even if my local Barnes & Noble doesn't carry any of them. So what do you recommend? No textbooks, please, and no specialty books (economic histories, social histories, military histories, etc.). Just sparkling, erudite, makes-the-subject-come-alive general purpose histories of the United States. What's the best one out there?

Kevin Drum 12:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 24, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

HOUSING BUBBLE UPDATE....Sheesh. Housing prices aren't just continuing to go up, they're going up even faster than ever. I figure there are three scenarios:

  • The bubble will last forever. In a neat role reversal, my modest 2,000 square foot house will eventually be worth more than all of Tokyo.

  • The market will keep going up until my house finally hits seven figures, and will then pop. At that point, I will have to figure out if life is worth living with a house worth less than a million bucks.

  • Terrorists will nuke the LA basin, as they keep trying to do on 24, and it won't matter anymore.

On a serious note, these figures are bad news. Nobody thinks the bubble can last forever; it's only a matter of whether it deflates gracefully and mildly, or pops like a balloon. I've long thought prices would eventually flatten out or maybe decline moderately (say, 10% or so), but I'm getting less sure of that. As funding devices get ever more bizarre and price increases get ever steeper, the odds of a dangerous pop seem to get shorter and shorter. I expect much wailing and gnashing of teeth from next week's Economist.

Of course, I'm hypersensitive to this because I've lived through one of these bubbles before. Back in the early 90s, housing prices in California dropped by nearly 30% when our last bubble popped. I personally ended up selling a house I bought for $172,000 for $129,000. It's not impossible for that to happen again.

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CHURCHILL MANIA....How many times has Bill O'Reilly mentioned Ward Churchill (remember him?) since January? Brian Montopoli has the answer.

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SESAME STREET....Abu Aardvark is pretty unhappy about Laura Bush's praise for Egypt's "democratic reforms":

The First Lady giving a flashy and warm thumbs-up to Mubarak's sham reforms is just about the worst possible thing for American credibility in the democracy promotion business. It's just devastating. Arabs want to know whether the US is sincere in pushing democracy, and this tells them, once again, that it isn't. It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if Laura Bush were honestly reflecting her husband's private views, since I've never thought that he was all that serious about promoting democracy in the Arab world. Maybe it should bother some of the "tsunami of Bushy democracy" enthusiasts over on the other side of the aisle, but that's their business.

On the other hand, she did get to appear on Egyptian Sesame Street! So it's not all bad.

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VIAGRA!....Should Medicaid pay for Viagra prescriptions? Eh, probably not. But if it does, is it outrageous that convicted sex offenders who have done their time are eligible along with everyone else? Lindsay Beyerstein says no:

Medicaid covers Viagra for anyone for whom it is medically indicated. You don't have to undergo a criminal record to get any other kind of medical treatment. Pickpockets can be treated for carpal tunnel, peeping toms for ADD, and embezzelers for dyslexia and that's exactly how it should be.

But....but....Lindsay....this is about sex! It's completely different!

Don't you just hate this stuff? Lindsay is plainly right on the merits, but once again conservatives have managed to dredge up a bizarre non-issue designed to make anyone with any sense look like a moral pervert. You either vote to ban Viagra for these people or else you're aiding and abetting child abuse. And there isn't a local news station in the country that can resist running with this story.

Maybe obsessing over filibusters wasn't such a bad idea after all. I kinda miss it already.

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FILIBUSTER THOUGHTS....Sadly, I didn't have a lot to say about the filibuster agreement yesterday. I was out buying groceries for dinner when the news broke, and when I got home I already had half a dozen emails asking me why I hadn't said anything. So I dashed off a post just to have something up, and then I had to slog my way through a huge pile of fact checking questions for an upcoming essay on oil depletion. And then there was the 2-hour finale of 24 to watch. And then more fact checking. By the time I was done it was 11 pm and I didn't care anymore.

But it's a bright new morning, so what do I think now? Still not much, I guess. As near as I can tell, the theocratic right is more upset with the deal than the hardline left, so that makes me think it was the right thing to do. Pissing off James Dobson is always worthwhile, regardless of the other merits of the case, right? It's also nice that this deal forced the wingers (again) to reveal themselves as unalterably opposed to sensible compromise of any kind.

On the other hand, the wording of the deal is so vague that I wonder what really got accomplished. The Dems have agreed to filibuster judges only under "extraordinary circumstances," but it strikes me that if circumstances are really extraordinary they'll be able to convince five or six Republican senators to join them in voting the candidate down anyway. So....the substantive issue is still out there, briefly papered over by yesterday's agreement. On balance, it seems like a decent win for Democrats, but nothing to write home about.

Now let's get back to Jay Leno's testimony at the Jacko trial, OK?

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ABORTION POLITICS....Jack O'Toole thinks Howard Dean isn't getting enough attention for his "smart, sensible, moderate" take on abortion politics on Meet the Press last Sunday. I think he's right. Jack has a longer excerpt, but here's the key paragraph:

This is an issue about who gets to make up their minds: the politicians or the individual. Democrats are for the individual. We believe in individual rights. We believe in personal freedom and personal responsibility. And that debate is one that we didnt win, because we kept being forced into the idea of defending the idea of abortion.

Read the whole thing. Dean is right: if we make abortion and related cultural hot buttons into "anti-busybody" issues, they're a lot more appealing to a lot more people. He's on the right track.

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May 23, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

NUCLEAR OPTION UPDATE....I guess I'm puzzled. A bipartisan group of 14 senators has agreed to a last-minute compromise that will avert Bill Frist's attempt to end judicial filibusters for good, but the text of the deal only mentions five nominees. The group agreed to invoke cloture for three of the filibustered nominees (Brown, Owen, and Pryor), which means they'll be confirmed, and made "no commitment" on two of the nominees (Myers and Saad), which presumably means at least a few of the Democrats will agree to continue filibustering them and their nominations are dead.

In return, all 14 agreed to vote against changing the senate rules to eliminate judicial filibusters completely. This means Frist doesn't have a majority to support his rule change, which makes the question of whether a majority can change the rules moot.

But why aren't Griffin and McKeague mentioned? Presumably, not mentioning them is equivalent to "no commitment," right? So why not say so? What am I missing here?

As for the agreement to filibuster future candidates only under "extraordinary circumstances," well, who knows? That could mean pretty much anything, couldn't it?

The text of the deal is here:

UPDATE: In comments, NSF reports that Lindsey Graham claims that of the three who will get votes (Brown, Owen, and Pryor), one will end up getting defeated on a bipartisan basis. A secret codicil? Hmmm.....

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WOMEN IN THE NEWS....We've discussed to death the question of female bloggers and female op-ed writers, but how about stepping away from authorship for a moment and looking at the use of women as sources in stuff written by other people? Here's how things shape up in different kinds of stories, according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Women fare especially poorly in foreign affairs and military stories (the latter hardly surprising since the military is overwhelmingly male), and only in "lifestyle" stories are they quoted in even 50% of published pieces.

Pacific Views has more, including a chart that shows which mediums are most and least friendly to women. Newspapers do the best, and look even better when you discount their predictably male-centric sports coverage. Cable slugfests do about as poorly as you'd think, but it turns out there's one place that does even worse. You might be surprised to learn what it is.

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THE NOISE MACHINE....This piece from Terry Neal is a bit of a ramble, but it's worth reading anyway. The real goal of the right wing media destruction machine, he says, is self-evident:

A certain and clear pattern has emerged when a damaging accusation or claim against the Bush administration or the Republican-led Congress is publicized: Bush supporters laser in on a weakness, fallacy or inaccuracy in the story's sourcing while diverting all attention from the issue at hand to the source or the accuser in the story.

....It was almost as if the Newsweek fiasco had occurred in a vacuum, or in an alternate reality, where the Iraq war, fought over non-existent weapons of mass destruction, had never occurred. The scenario unfolded over the past two weeks in a Twilight Zone-like atmosphere in which an administration that has held neither itself nor any of its underlings accountable for a war that has so far cost more than 1,600 American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives worked itself into a tizzy for a brief report in a news magazine based on an anonymous source that turned out to be unsubstantiated.

Good for him. I forgive the rambling because it's pretty obvious he's infuriated by how this has played out. As he should be.

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE....I believe that national healthcare in the United States is inevitable. It won't come without a lot of kicking and screaming, of course, but it will come nonetheless. Two recent articles demonstrate why.

In the LA Times today, we learn about the latest wrinkle in employer healthcare plans: extremely high deductibles paired with health savings accounts. Employers like them because they're desperate to control costs and this is the only way to do it. Employees like them for essentially the same reason: employers have been forcing bigger and bigger premiums on them, and this is a way to reduce them. In the end, though, I think this is a mug's game: no matter how you slice things, employers will still be caught in a spiral of increasing healthcare costs, but now workers will be caught up with them. In the long run, neither side is likely to be very happy with this kluge.

In Sunday's New York Times we get the other half of this story. Robin Cook writes that advances in genetic testing are bringing us closer and closer to the day when simple diagnostics will allow insurance companies to decide who they will cover and who they won't. Risk pooling will become a thing of the past, and anyone with the bad luck to have a risky genetic chart will find herself unable to get insurance coverage at all. Cook thinks the answer is obvious:

With the end of pooling risk within defined groups, there is only one solution to the problem of paying for health care in the United States: to pool risk for the entire nation. (Under the rubric of health care I mean a comprehensive package that includes preventive care, acute care and catastrophic care.) Although I never thought I'd advocate a government-sponsored, obviously non-profit, tax-supported, universal access, single-payer plan, I've changed my mind: the sooner we move to such a system, the better off we will be. Only with universal health care will we be able to pool risk for the entire country and share what nature has dealt us; only then will there be no motivation for anyone or any organization to ferret out an individual's confidential, genetic makeup.

All of these things are slow-motion time bombs. But they're time bombs nonetheless. As employers become progressively less willing to pay for skyrocketing healthcare costs that their foreign competitors don't have to shoulder; as workers are forced to pay more and more for ever stingier benefits; and as genetic testing prevents increasing numbers of people from getting any coverage at all, there will be a growing groundswell to ditch America's peculiar and disfunctional system of employer provided healthcare and replace it with something better. My guess is that this will hit a crisis point sometime in the next 10-15 years, and eventually even conservatives will cave in.

It's a shame that complete collapse is probably the only thing that will convince conservatives of the need for change, but that's reality. In the meantime, all you can do is hope that you work for a generous employer or that you don't get very sick. Good luck.

Kevin Drum 2:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WHO WATCHES THE WATCHLIST?....Via Atrios, I happened to read this column by Arnaud de Borchgrave complaining about his recent accidental inclusion on TSA's terrorist watch list. It turned out to be the usual bureaucratic nonsense the list has lots of names, you got caught up by mistake, very sorry about that, etc. etc. and de Borchgrave should probably count himself lucky that TSA responded to his complaint at all. As near as I can tell, once you get on TSA's list, most people find it pretty much impossible to get off.

But I did learn something interesting. In explaining how the mixup happened, TSA described how their three interlinked databases work:

Since all three systems operate on an extremely sensitive 'soundex' basis, information on other individuals having the same or similar name and/or date of birth as the traveler in question can often be flagged in these systems as 'near matches' or 'tentative hits,' and cause the innocent traveler to be stopped and questioned.

That certainly explains how so many suburban grandmothers get caught up on TSA's list. The soundex system, familiar to any genealogist who has searched through old census records, is a way of coding names by sound, so that you can look things up even if a census taker misspelled your ancestor's name when he came by their house. For example, here is my mother's name, "Jean Drum," in soundex:

J500 D650

However, there are lots of other names that match that soundex code. For example, John Darwin. You can play around with your own name here and find out which people you might get confused with sometime in the future.

Luckily for me, there aren't very many soundex matches for "Kevin," so I'm probably safe. But mom is taking a vacation this summer, and I sure hope no one named John Darwin does anything suspicious between now and then.

Kevin Drum 12:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FILIBUSTER PHILOSOPHY....I may be all wet about this, but I want to toss out a question about today's likely showdown on the nuclear option. Basically, what's happened so far is this: last week the Senate began debating the nomination of Priscilla Owen to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Friday, John Cornyn introduced a motion to end debate and force a vote on Owen's nomination. According to Senate rules, this would normally require 60 votes to pass.

What's expected to happen on Monday is that Bill Frist will ask the Senate's presiding officer probably Dick Cheney to rule that debate can be cut off with only a majority of votes. Kaboom! From that point forward, debate on judges can be cut off with 51 votes and filibusters can no longer be used to obstruct judicial nominations.

But here's the part I'm not sure of. As I understand it, there are two possible theories under which Cheney could rule in Frist's favor:

  1. He could rule that although the 60-vote rule is generally valid, it's unconstitutional in the specific case of judicial nominations. The theory here is that since the constitution states that the president, "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint [judges]," the Senate has an affirmative responsibility to provide advice and consent. It's unconstitutional to abdicate that responsibility by refusing to vote.

  2. He could declare that the rules of a previous Senate aren't binding on a future Senate. In other words, if a previous Senate decided by a majority vote that 60 votes are required to end debate, the current Senate has the same right by majority vote to overturn that rule.

It strikes me that there are dangers to both approaches for Republicans. For option 1, the danger is an appeal to the Supreme Court. Normally, the Supreme Court is unwilling to interfere with internal congressional rules, but if the presiding officer makes a ruling based on a specifically constitutional interpretation, isn't it possible that they might be willing to get involved? And since this interpretation seems prima facie dubious, it might well get overturned.

For option 2, the danger is that the ruling creates a precedent that applies to all Senate rules. No matter what Karl Rove thinks, it's likely that Democrats will one day control the Senate again, and when they do they could use the exact same theory to wipe out all filibusters and pass legislation willy nilly. Liberal legislation tends to be harder to reverse than conservative legislation, so in the long term this could do a lot of harm to conservative causes.

I may be off base on this stuff, but I've heard both theories put forward and haven't gotten a clear sense of which one Frist and Cheney intend to use. If things go as planned, I guess we'll find out today.

UPDATE: A law professor emails to point to this speech by Jon Kyl outlining the likely justification for today's ruling. Basically, it's option #2 with a few added nuances. He also suggests that Supreme Court intervention is vanishingly unlikely regardless of what justification is used.

Another reader suggests that "Cheney will rule on the basis of (1), setting precedent as (2)." He's usually pretty sharp on stuff like this, so that's where I'll put my money for now. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 22, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

EMBARRASSING BOOKS....Ah, a new meme: "What 5 books are you vaguely embarrassed to admit you haven't read?"

Sorry, but this is too easy. Even the best read among us can name hundreds of books that we should have read but haven't. Instead, I propose something harder: not just books you should have read, but books you've actually purchased and started to read and are embarrassed to say you couldn't finish. Here are mine:

  • Ulysses. Along with Remembrance of Things Past, I suspect this is one of the commonest of all unfinished great books. But embarrassing anyway. I got through about 300 pages and just couldn't slog any further.

  • The Brothers Karamazov. This one is a real oddity, because I like Dostoevsky a lot. What's more, I've started TBK twice, and both times petered out after a couple hundred pages. I don't understand it.

  • The Reformation. Normally, this wouldn't rank all that high on my personal embarrassment league table. It just turned out to be a different book than I thought it would be, which is hardly that big a deal. However, it makes the list because of the terrific ass kicking I got in comments after writing an ill-considered post about giving up on it.

  • The Bible. Is this cheating? Maybe. Even lots of devout Christians have never read it all the way through. And yet, I still feel that I should at least have read the entire New Testament. But I haven't. I've read some of the Gospels and most of Acts, and dipped in here and there in other places, but that's it.

  • The Power Broker. This is really cheating, because not only did I finish reading it, but I've read it more than once. Instead, think of it as a cautionary tale: it was originally assigned in a political science class and I bailed on it after a hundred pages or so. But it turns out that page 100 is just about the point where it starts to get really interesting, as I learned when I picked it up for a second go around. It's now practically my favorite book of all time. Live and learn.

Next up: books I finished that I wish I hadn't. Kim Stanley Robinson has much to answer for in this category.

Kevin Drum 2:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MEA MAXIMA MAXIMA MAXIMA CULPA....Newsweek's editor-in-chief, Richard Smith, engages today in yet another public mea culpa over the Koran desecration story: "Trust is hard won and easily lost," he writes anxiously, "and to our readers, we pledge to earn their renewed confidence." And make no mistake: procedures will be changed to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

This is like watching Darkness at Noon in real life. Newsweek made a small error in a 300-word blurb a couple of weeks ago, and since then the right-wing media hate machine, like a jackal sensing a rare opportunity for blood, has somehow managed to convince them they bear responsibility for riots in Afghanistan that were staged by extremists who obviously used the Newsweek article as nothing more than pretext.

This is really pissing me off. For the record, let's recap what we've learned over the past year or so:

Pictures from Abu Ghraib showed naked prisoners being stacked like cordwood and mocked by female guards and there's worse stuff in Pentagon files that Congress has decided not to allow out of its locked vaults. There have been confirmed reports from Guantanamo of beatings, shacklings, and lighted cigarettes being stuck in prisoners' ears. 36 prisoners have died during interrogations. The Red Cross wrote detailed reports documenting abusive conduct in Iraq and was laughed off. The officers reponsible for overseeing abusive interrogations weren't punished, they were lauded for their work and transferred to other prisons. Hardened FBI agents wrote emails expressing their disgust at what they had seen. Innocent men have been tortured to death in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The White House counsel wrote memoranda justifying torture as an inherent right of the president. Rendition of suspects to other countries that have long histories of torturing prisoners is routine. Reports of Koran desecration have been circulating for a long time, and recent investigations have confirmed that mockery of religious symbols is common. The Red Cross warned the Pentagon about this years ago.

Needless to say, this isn't exhaustive. In the light of this, Newsweek's offense, which was pretty minor to begin with, is about the equivalent of jaywalking across a busy city street.

Newsweek and the rest of the media need to get up off their knees and start fighting back. They've done enough apologizing.

Kevin Drum 2:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 21, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

NUTRASWEET vs. SUGAR....Here's a curious little bloggy question for you: do you know of anyone who actively prefers diet cola to regular cola? That is, someone who thinks it actually tastes better than regular and would drink it even if it had as many calories?

I've never met anyone who thinks this, and that strikes me as odd. I'm sure it's true that millions of years of evolution have given us a built-in preference for honest-to-goodness sugar, but it's given us preferences for lots of other things too. After all, coffee is bitter and alcohol is rancid tasting, but that doesn't stop most of us from acquiring a taste for either of them. But nobody ever seems to acquire a taste for Nutrasweet. Why is that?

UPDATE: Judging from comments, plenty of people have acquired a taste for Nutrasweet, so that answers that. I've just never met any of them, I guess.

As for me, I've been drinking diet cola for upwards of 30 years now, but I still think regular tastes better. Apparently my taste buds are less malleable than those of (some of) my readers.

Kevin Drum 8:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

II vs. III....Brad Plumer makes the case today that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Star Wars Episode II was better than Episode III. I'm not quite sure he convinced me, but it's a close run thing. He brings many convincing arguments to the table.

In any case, we can all agree that Episode I sucked, right? But speaking of that, I've got a question: does anyone know what the deal was with those shimmering red force field thingies that opened and shut randomly during the 3-way battle between Darth Maul, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Qui-Gon Jinn? I never quite figured out what was going on there.

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By: Kevin Drum

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE....Puzzled readers of today's first post are demanding answers:

Sorry about the OT question, but what time zone is this blog using? The blog says this post was made at 1:03PM, May 21, but it is just barely noon in the eastern time zone. The blog used to be on eastern time. Why the change?

Has the Washington Monthly moved to Puerto Rico? Or Halifax? No indeedy. The problem, I think, is that the server we're hosted on never switched over to Daylight Savings Time. Except, um, that doesn't make sense, does it? That should provide timestamps an hour earlier instead of an hour later. So maybe the server sprang forward but my local installation of Movable Type didn't.

Or something. Really, I don't know. However, a few minutes ago I switched my MT config to pretend that I'm on Central Time, which should produce the correct EDT timestamps. Let's see if it works.

UPDATE: Yep, everything is fixed now. Other contributors to the blog might continue to have problems, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

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By: Kevin Drum

NUCLEAR CHICKEN....In a wonderful display of analytical obtuseness, Juan Non-Volokh argues today that there's obstruction and then there's obstruction. Blocking judges via judicial filibusters, he says, is a quite different thing from blocking judges via traditional blue slips or through the majority exercising its legitimate control of the Senate calendar.

Quite so. The part he misses is that regardless of what you think of blue slips, Republicans were delighted to use them when Bill Clinton was the one nominating judges, but then suddenly reversed course and ended the blue slip tradition as soon as their own guy was in office. Ditto for "Rule IV," another way that the minority had long been allowed to influence judicial nominations until the Republican party decided to do away with it last year. And ditto again for "up or down votes on all judges," a decidedly newfound rallying cry among Republicans. You can find more details on this tawdry and cynical manipulation of the rules here and here.

The judicial filibuster is indeed an obstruction of last resort. But I'll repeat a deal I've suggested several times over the past couple of years, most recently in January: return all the other rules to the state they were in when Bill Clinton was president and Democrats would probably be willing to forego use of the filibuster. Republicans have no one but themselves to blame for the current game of nuclear chicken they find themselves in.

UPDATE: In comments, JNV says he did indeed acknowledge Republican changes to the blue slip rule. I don't really think that his passing reference does justice to what Republicans have done, but he has a point. In any case, you can follow the link and decide for yourself.

My broader point is that the real issue in the filibuster fight isn't the filibuster itself or blue slips or Rule IV or any other specific rule it's the general principle that rules shouldn't be cynically changed en masse just because your guy is in power and you've decided they're no longer convenient. As it happens, I'm not much of a fan of filibusters myself: their history has mostly been anti-liberal, and in principle I think majorities should be able to pass legislation if they can muster the votes. However, the rules shouldn't change midstream. If Republicans and Democrats could agree on a broad set of rule changes that eliminated the filibuster but didn't take effect until 2009, I'd support it. That's fair, since no one knows which party will be in control then. I'll take my chances that the Dems will win in 2008 and the rule changes will work in my favor.

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By: Kevin Drum

COVERING THE WAR....I'm not quite sure what to make of this, but the LA Times published an analysis today of how the press covers the Iraq war, focusing specifically on pictures. In particular, is the U.S. media too squeamish about running photos of dead and wounded American soldiers?

In the eight newspapers and magazines they surveyed during a six-month period of heavy fighting, there was only one picture of a dead American soldier (a photo of a covered body printed by the Seattle Times). On average, the newspapers printed a picture of a wounded soldier approximately once a month.

The Iraqi side was quite different: all the newspapers and magazines printed large numbers of photos of Iraqi dead and wounded.

The editors interviewed for the story said that access was one reason for the disparity: there aren't that many photographers in Iraq and it's unusual for one to be around when an American unit is attacked. But they also made it clear that public reaction was intensely negative on the occasions when they did print pictures of dead or wounded U.S. soldiers.

What to think? In the end, the stats are provocative but not really conclusive. The newspapers all published lots of photos of grieving soldiers as well as photos of carnage among Iraqis, which probably conveys the reality of war pretty adequately. The only real surprise, I thought, was the small number of photos of any kind published by the weekly newsmagazines, which are much more dependent on graphic content than newspapers. Counting all types of death-related photos of both Iraqis and Americans, Time published one photo every other issue and Newsweek published one photo every fourth issue. That's surprisingly sparse coverage.

UPDATE: APME conducted a survey of editors and readers on the subject of graphic photos a few months ago, and Ryan Pitts summarizes the results here. Nickel version: In all cases, editors were more likely to think disturbing photos should be published than readers were, but only by a small margin. Ryan includes links to the original survey in his post.

Kevin Drum 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 20, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

STAR WARS....Miscellaneous Star Wars Episode III thoughts....

UPDATE: Yes, yes, this post contains spoilers. That's why it's all below the fold. There are probably going to be spoilers in comments too, so don't go there if you don't want to hear them.

  • They sure did have the sound cranked up in the theater Marian and I went to. It's a good thing I'm slightly deaf.

  • What the hell good is the force if it doesn't even tell you your wife is carrying twins? Sheesh.

  • I know this is just a little ide fixe of mine, but I've always wondered who the Russian-y looking dudes in the throne room in Episode 6 were. Partway through E3, I was thinking the trade federation guys looked sort of like them, but then Anakin/Darth sliced their heads off. So I guess not. I suppose I'll never get an answer now.

  • Of all the sins George Lucas should pay for, the one at the top of my list is casting Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker and then writing/directing his journey to the dark side as little more than a sullen stew of teenage angst and alienation. Sure, there was all that pop psych stuff about his mother too, but really, Anakin mostly seems to be just a standard issue kid pissed off that his elders don't take him seriously enough. Not exactly the stuff of legend.

  • Speaking of which, were the idiots on the Jedi Council trying to drive Anakin into Palpatine's slimy hands? For a bunch of Jedi masters who are constantly blathering on about "searching your feelings," they sure were clueless about the feelings of their most promising pupil.

  • Why the reference at the end to Obi-Wan continuing his training with the ghost of Qui-Gon? I didn't object to it or anything, but it seemed kind of pointless since we know it will never be followed up on.

  • Why exactly did Yoda think that Anakin's family on Tatooine would be the last place anyone would look for young Luke? Seems like pretty much the first place to me. This has been a loose end ever since the end of the first trilogy, and I was hoping for some kind of explanation, even a lame one. But no.

  • What he said.

  • Seriously, what's the deal with the force? Here's what it gets you: lightning reflexes, an occasional and unreliable ability to forecast the future; the ability to leap great distances, but only when it's convenient for the script; the ability to mildly influence the behavior of others, but only if they're distracted or weak minded; and a telekinetic ability that affects objects up to about a ton or so, though only with great effort.

    Now, that's all very nice, but is it really more powerful than a battle station that can destroy a planet (per Darth Vader in E4)? I don't think so. If the Death Star engineers hadn't had their fingers up their asses, the force would have done no one any good at all in the first movie.

  • Overall, Revenge of the Sith wasn't bad. Like the others in the second trilogy, it was too much by the numbers, with no real surprises anywhere, but at least the action moved at a sprightly pace. And the story itself wasn't too bad, even though we already knew most of it.

And one last thing: can we please knock off all the puerile political analogies to the present day? Christ. I am well and truly sick of popcorn entertainment being routinely psychoanalyzed as ideological drama. (Yes, I know Lucas started it all with his Vietnam/Iraq comment at Cannes. I don't care.)

Kevin Drum 8:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BACK TO THE FUTURE....Is it 1993 all over again?

Republicans are starting to find themselves in the same kind of political environment that Democrats faced in the summer of 1993 the year before the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Reverse the party labels and the circumstances are strikingly similar.

Now, as then with the other party, Republicans' ethics are under assault. Their opposition denounces their vicelike control as "arrogant." Their ambitious agenda risks overreach and public backlash. Their popularity is sinking. A unified opposition party is holding off until closer to the next election before offering its own agenda thus withholding any good target for counterattack.

Well, we can hope. And with that, I'm off to see Star Wars. Have a good Friday!

(And speaking of Friday, here's some top notch kitten blogging to help the day go by. Enjoy.)

Kevin Drum 3:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEFENDING NEWSWEEK....Greg Palast specializes in over-the-top reporting. But sometimes that's the only way to state the obvious, so go read what he has to say about the Newsweek affair in his latest column.

I'm annoyed at Newsweek for knuckling under to the Pentagon over its Koran desecration piece, I'm annoyed at the reflexive press bashers for piling on even though Newsweek's reporters did nothing that every other reporter in Washington hasn't done a dozen times before, and I'm annoyed at my fellow liberals, who have been tepid in defense of Newsweek because the piece in question was written by Michael Isikoff, against whom we are all expected to hold a lifetime grudge because of his treatment of Bill Clinton.

It's time to grow up. If we want a vigorous press, that means going after thinly sourced stories. It means occasionally making mistakes. And it means sometimes our side takes it in the shorts too. That's life. But it's a helluva lot better than the alternative.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BAGRAM....Tim Golden of the New York Times reports today about prisoner abuse at the U.S. detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan. Not "close calls" and not "gray areas," either, but routine, horrific treatment that, at least in one case, led to the gruesome death of a probably innocent man.

But here's the worst part:

Senior officers frequently toured the detention center, and several of them acknowledged seeing prisoners chained up for punishment or to deprive them of sleep.

....Even though military investigators learned soon after Mr. Dilawar's death that he had been abused by at least two interrogators, the Army's criminal inquiry moved slowly. Meanwhile, many of the Bagram interrogators, led by the same operations officer, Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, were redeployed to Iraq and in July 2003 took charge of interrogations at the Abu Ghraib prison. According to a high-level Army inquiry last year, Captain Wood applied techniques there that were "remarkably similar" to those used at Bagram.

Why is it that, just as at Abu Ghraib, none of these "senior officers" ever seem to be held accountable for any of this?

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 19, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

WENDY'S FINALE....From the Guardian today:

Newspaper reporters in California appear to have identified the most sought-after nine-fingered man in the US....

Now that's a great lead.

We all have our weaknesses, and although I don't care about runaway brides or murderous fathers or Jacko's bedroom, I am fascinated by the Wendy's finger-in-the-chili story. You'll have to read practically to the end of the story to learn what really happened, but it's worth it. It's yet another reporting triumph for our much maligned big city dailies!

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By: Kevin Drum

POZEN ON PRIVATE ACCOUNTS....Bush supports Pozen but it turns out that Pozen doesn't support Bush. I expect a horse's head to show up in Robert Pozen's bed sometime soon.

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIST AND FILIBUSTER....The Carpetbagger suspects that Bill Frist is still a vote or two shy of victory in his effort to eliminate judicial filibusters by fiat:

If Frist brings the nuclear option to the floor and fails, his ability to lead is effectively over. Hell have taken on the biggest risk for a Senate Majority Leader in recent history and, despite 55 Republican lawmakers in his caucus and the enthusiastic rabid support of the party base, Frist will have failed spectacularly. Hes already a lame-duck leader, but if the nuclear-option strategy falls apart, Frist may have to give up his leadership post.

Frist also cant stall; the GOP base has told him in no uncertain terms that its now or never.

What about the possible six-by-six compromise, you ask? That, too, would be a disaster for Frist, not only because it would represent the failure of his nuclear-option strategy, but also because it would circumvent him altogether. The buzz is the deal isnt going to happen anyway, but if it does, its the worst of all worlds for Frist the filibuster rule remains in tact, nominees get left behind, and his leadership looks inept. (Im opposed to the six-by-six deal, but the humiliation it would bring Frist makes it look a little better in my eyes.)

A lot of people forget this, but Bill Frist was, at first, a nuclear-option skeptic. Until last July, Frist didnt think the plan would work and worried about the effect it would have on the Senates ability to function. Then he became Majority Leader, followed by the decision to run for president, followed by the realization that he had to keep the far-right happy. Its been downhill for the guy ever since.

That sounds about right to me. This is high stakes poker for Frist, and who knows? In the end, it might come down to one or two senators who wouldn't mind derailing his presidential ambitions. They won't say that's their reason for voting against the nuclear option, but it's surely swirling around in the background.

Kevin Drum 2:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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QUESTION FOR THE PENTAGON....Regarding Newsweek's Koran desecration story, editor Mark Whitaker says that "before deciding whether to publish it we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment." Neither of these officials disputed the report.

Who were these officials? And if the Koran story was false, why weren't they willing to say so? That seems like odd behavior when presented with a story that everyone is now claiming was obviously irresponsible and incendiary.

Has anyone asked the Pentagon about this?

Kevin Drum 2:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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GRIM NEWS FROM IRAQ....This is depressing, but not really surprising:

American military commanders in Baghdad and Washington gave a sobering new assessment on Wednesday of the war in Iraq, adding to the mood of anxiety that prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to come to Baghdad last weekend to consult with the new government.

In interviews and briefings this week, some of the generals pulled back from recent suggestions, some by the same officers, that positive trends in Iraq could allow a major drawdown in the 138,000 American troops late this year or early in 2006. One officer suggested Wednesday that American military involvement could last "many years."

There have been 126 car bombings in Baghdad in the last 80 days. That compares to 25 in all of 2004.

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May 18, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE K STREET PROJECT....Tuesday's Washington Post ran a long story by Thomas Edsall about the success that House Majority Whip Roy Blunt has had in making K Street lobbyists into a virtual subsidiary of the Republican party. Need to whip some wavering congressmen into line? No problem. Just call a meeting with the "de facto 'executive committee,' a hard-core base of about 25 lobbyists," and waverers will step smartly back into the fold. If they don't, they can kiss their campaign contributions goodbye.

But how do you keep the lobbyists themselves in line? Simple: just hand out lots of goodies. Here's how it worked with a bill last year that would have eliminated business export tax breaks:

The measure faced daunting opposition. Rank-and-file Republicans, especially those from midwestern industrial states with large manufacturers in their districts, saw constituent companies taking a tax hit. Eliminating the $50 billion tax break would mean millions in annual losses for such major companies as Boeing, Caterpillar, United Technologies, Honeywell and Emerson.

....The solution to breaking the logjam: Every major lobbying interest got something, and the Republican opposition in the House collapsed. The manufacturing companies got a three-percentage-point corporate tax cut....Another group of multinational, U.S.-based companies, including General Electric, Coca-Cola, General Motors and Time Warner, won a major tax reduction on overseas revenue.

....As new tax breaks were added to the bill, the vote count "just got better and better," said [Rep. Mike] Rogers, who worked closely with Blunt on the mobilization of lobbyists. "It was incredible."

Incredible hardly seems the word for it, does it?

For more on this, see "Welcome to the Machine," Nick Confessore's indispensible primer on the K Street Project. It's an oldie but a goodie.

Kevin Drum 8:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ME TOO....I feel your pain, Max, I feel your pain. Sometimes the relentlessly rising tide of carefully stage managed bullshit just gets to be too much, doesn't it?

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LET US NOW PRAISE DAILY NEWSPAPERS....Atrios says today:

As many others have pointed out, while criticism from the left (which they ignore) is about making them better, the right is pretty much out to destroy any media in this country that doesn't exist for the sole purpose of encouraging tax cuts, demonizing gay people, and generally supporting the agenda of Dear Leader.

With respect, this really doesn't stand up to scrutiny, and an email from a friend about my tetchy reaction to yesterday's New York Times announcement reminds me to say something about it. Bear with me here.

Here's the deal. Newspapers have been slowly dying for a long time. Afternoon editions disappeared long ago, joint operating agreements are the norm in the few cities lucky enough to have more than one newspaper left, classified advertising has been almost completely lost to the net, and readership has been dwindling for decades.

That's a real problem, because newspapers are the only consistent source of real reporting we have. In fact, you can narrow it down further: the only sources of serious, day-to-day reporting left in the United States are the major national dailies: the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, and a couple of others with big reporting staffs.

But here's what the public hears about newspapers from the blogosphere:

  • From the right: newspapers suck because they're too liberal.

  • From the left: newspapers suck because they're craven apologists for the Bush administration.

We can kid ourselves all we want that our toughlove approach to media criticism is aimed only at "making them better," but that's not what the public hears. They hear a group of squabbling teenagers who both agree that newspapers suck. So they tune out. And all that's left is network news with its 90-second "in-depth" segments, 20/20 and A Current Affair, talk radio, and blogs.

Now, Atrios is correct that the right is out to destroy the media especially the major national dailies, which set the tone for so much other coverage because they're the ones with serious reporting capabilities. This has been a key goal of theirs for decades, and conservative bloggers are merely their latest foot soldiers. And why not? 80% of the most popular political blogs are conservative, so media bashing is a twofer: it eliminates an enemy and simultaneously promotes a medium that's dominated by conservatives.

Given all this, liberals should think very hard before joining the media bashing crusade too eagerly. Sure, the New York Times employs Judith Miller, and the pressure of daily deadlines promotes too much lazy he-said/she-said reporting on their pages, but guess what? It's still the best newspaper in the world, bar none. If you really believe the Times is a piece of crap, your problem is not with the Times, it's with the current state of the art in human perfectibility.

None of this means newspapers shouldn't be criticized. But endless broad brush howling does nothing except enable the right wing's agenda, regardless of what the howling is aimed at. If liberal bloggers were wiser, we'd spend a little more time praising our big national newspapers and a little less time shaking our fists over the fact that sometimes they aren't on our side. Our real opposition is the right wing press destruction machine, not the press itself.

Because if big newspapers die, that's pretty much the end of real daily reporting in this country. That would suit the right just fine, I think, but not so much the left. We shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and we shouldn't kid ourselves that constant carping frequently over trivial transgressions somehow makes the press stronger. It doesn't.

As for the very real financial problems at the Times and other big newspapers, I don't know what the answer is. The reality is that television isn't going away and classified ads won't be returning to newsprint anytime soon. Is there a way to make money on the web by cooperating with bloggers, instead of locking content away from them? I don't know. But newspapers and bloggers are symbiotic at this point, and both would do well to think harder about this.

Kevin Drum 4:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WAR OF CIVILIZATIONS?....From Baghdad, Riverbend provides the view of the Iraqi street on the Newsweek/Koran incident:

We've seen enough blatant disregard and disrespect for Islam in Iraq the last two years to make this story sound very plausible.

....Detainees coming back after weeks or months in prison talk of being forced to eat pork, not being allowed to pray, being exposed to dogs, having Islam insulted and generally being treated like animals trapped in a small cage. At the end of the day, it's not about words or holy books or pork or dogs or any of that. It's about what these things symbolize on a personal level. It is infuriating to see objects that we hold sacred degraded and debased by foreigners who felt the need to travel thousands of kilometers to do this. That's not to say that all troops disrespect Islam some of them seem to genuinely want to understand our beliefs. It does seem like the people in charge have decided to make degradation and humiliation a policy.

By doing such things, this war is taken to another level it is no longer a war against terror or terrorists it is, quite simply, a war against Islam and even secular Muslims are being forced to take sides.

By the time this is all over, I suspect the Pentagon is going to be sorry it ever made a fuss over the Newsweek item in the first place. Every reporter in town is now going to start investigating this stuff, and the results are not likely to be pretty. Stay tuned for a fusillade of deeply researched stories about allegations of religious desecration by American troops starting in about a week.

Kevin Drum 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

EARNING YOUR TV TIME....Via Ann Althouse, here's a fascinating free market solution to the problem of child obesity: a new kind of shoe.

The shoe dubbed Square-eyes has a unique insole that records the amount of exercise a child does and converts it into television watching time.

One button on the shoe the brainchild of a student at west London's Brunel University records the amount of steps taken by the child over the day. Another transmits this information to a base station connected to the TV.

It calculates the time earned and once it runs out, the TV automatically switches itself off.

Of course, this isn't quite a free market solution yet, since no one actually sells Square-eyes yet. But give 'em credit for ingenuity just the same.

Kevin Drum 2:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ZERO TOLERANCE?....Here's a quandary for the Bush administration: what do you do with a terrorist who happens to be on your side? On Tuesday, immigration officials finally arrested Luis Posada Carriles, a man convicted of bombing a Cuban airliner in 1976 and subsequently accused of numerous other acts of terrorism since he escaped from a Venezuelan jail 20 years ago. Venezuela wants him back, so shortly we'll know what's most important to the Bushies: punishing terrorists or thumbing their noses at Hugo Chvez.

And what does Florida's famously righteous Cuban exile community think of this? The LA Times reports:

Luis Martinez-Fernandez, director of Latin American, Caribbean and Latino studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, said he thought the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had made violence in service of a cause seem less palatable.

Damian Fernandez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, told the Chicago Tribune that he did not believe that Posada's detention would spark protests among Cuban exiles in Miami because of the "lack of moral certitude" of Posada's militant campaign.

"Less palatable"? "Lack of moral certitude"? The guy blew up an airplane. Isn't punishing that more important than denying a trivial PR victory to Fidel Castro?

UPDATE: Ann Louise Bardach provides some background on Posada Carriles, who slipped into the country in March:

At a safe house and other locations in Aruba [in 1998], I spent three days tape-recording him for a series of articles that ran in the New York Times. The urbane and chatty Posada said that he had decided to speak with me in order to generate publicity for his bombing campaign of Cuba's tourist industry and frighten away tourists. "Castro will never change, never," Posada said. "Our job is to provide inspiration and explosives to the Cuban people."

There's more, of course. In Cuba Confidential, Bardach reminds us that George Bush Sr., at the behest of his son Jeb, intervened to release Posada's fellow terrorist Orlando Bosch from prison and then granted him US residency:

According to the justice department in George Bush Sr's administration, Bosch had participated in more than 30 terrorist acts. He was convicted of firing a rocket into a Polish ship which was on passage to Cuba. He was also implicated in the 1976 blowing-up of a Cubana plane flying to Havana from Venezuela in which all 73 civilians on board were killed.

Kevin Drum 1:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

The Blur of Hindsight... Amidst all the attention being paid to the retracted Newsweek item about the Koran and the (to me) admirable efforts of the magazine's editor-in-chief Mark Whitaker to deal with the issue honestly while standing up to the White House's intimidation tactics, it's a different piece by a different Newsweek editor that's got me wondering. In a gently devastating essay in Sunday's Washington Post, Jon Meacham takes the president to task for the May 7 speech in Latvia in which Bush asserted that 1945 Yalta Agreement "followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact." Writes Meacham:

Harsh words overly harsh, in my view....Bush's criticism is more damning than discriminating. In its sweep, the president's characterization of Yalta essentially indicts Roosevelt and Churchill as knowing actors in the manufacture and hanging of the Iron Curtain. For generations of post-World War II conservatives, "Yalta" was code for the left-wing "sellout" to the communists, and Bush was probably playing on deep-seated right-wing passions to set his own campaign for democracy apart from the liberal failures of the past.

But such code rarely does justice to the world's complexities, and Bush could one day come to regret his dismissive allusion....[T]o put Yalta in the same sentence with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact unfairly casts Roosevelt and Churchill in the same light as Hitler and Stalin. Struck in August 1939, that bargain between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union satisfied Stalin's territorial ambitions and enabled Hitler to invade Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, without fear of a hostile Soviet reaction in the east. It was, in other words, the agreement that most directly triggered the beginning of World War II, a conflict that claimed nearly 60 million lives.

Here's my question: in the entire history of the United States, has a president ever publicly uttered a moral equivalency more abhorrent than what Bush did in his Latvia speech?

Paul Glastris 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 17, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SULLY ON INSTY....Strangely enough, the best analysis I've seen of the Newsweek/Koran affair comes in a letter to Andrew Sullivan. Go figure.

Short version: the only thing that matters to conservative bloggers is their continuing jihad against the liberal media. All else is subordinate.

UPDATE: More from Brian Montopoli at CJR Daily.

Kevin Drum 6:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DOG BITES EDITOR....Let's see now....

The Newsweek retraction story is on Page 1 of the New York Times, Page 1 of the LA Times, and Page 3 of the Washington Post. That's pretty strong coverage for a story about a newsmagazine retracting a small error in a short piece from two weeks ago.

And how did these same news organs respond three weeks ago to the leaked "Downing Street Memo" making it clear that President Bush had already committed himself to war with Iraq by the summer of 2002 and was actively "fixing" intelligence and facts to support that decision? It eventually ran on Page 3 in the LA Times, Page 18 in the Post, and nowhere at all in the New York Times aside from a buried Page 9 piece that treated it as strictly a British election issue.

That's some top notch news judgment, guys. Still, maybe there's some good news in all this: Dan Froomkin opines today that the British memo might be "less a dud than a bomb with a long, slow fuse." We can hope, can't we?

Mark Danner writes about the memo in the New York Review of Books this week. He also reprints the entire text of the memo, since no one else seems much interested in doing so.

Kevin Drum 4:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SO LONG, AND THANKS FOR ALL THE WORDS....This isn't the biggest deal in the world, but I think I'm going to stop linking to New York Times op-eds and columns starting now. Yesterday's announcement made it clear they no longer want to engage with the hoi polloi, and in any case their op-ed page will be off limits to all of us nonsubscribers in September anyway. So why wait?

It was nice while it lasted, though.

Kevin Drum 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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RIOTS IN AFGHANISTAN....General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to reporters about Newsweek's Koran desecration story last Thursday:

It is the judgment of our commander in Afghanistan, General Eichenberry, that in fact the violence that we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran, but more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President Karzai and his cabinet are conducting in Afghanistan. He thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine.

Of course, that was five days ago, back when the Army itself still thought the charges of Koran desecration at Guantanamo were plausible enough to merit further investigation. At the time, when they were afraid the charges might be true, they were eager to claim that the riots were entirely unrelated. Now that the charges appear to be false, they're equally eager to pretend that the blood of Afghanistan is on Newsweek's hands.

Newsweek should have been more careful with its sourcing, but they aren't responsible for the riots in Afghanistan and the Pentagon knows it. The press should ignore the transparently calculated outbursts of banshee howling from the right and acknowledge this too.

Kevin Drum 1:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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OIL-FOR-FOOD UPDATE....I've mentioned before that there's plenty of blame to go around in the UN's oil-for-food scandal, but a new Senate report provides some more detail about the scope of the Bush administration's complicity in the affair:

A report released last night by Democratic staff on a Senate investigations committee presents documentary evidence that the Bush administration was made aware of illegal oil sales and kickbacks paid to the Saddam Hussein regime but did nothing to stop them.

The scale of the shipments involved dwarfs those previously alleged by the Senate committee against UN staff and European politicians....In fact, the Senate report found that US oil purchases accounted for 52% of the kickbacks paid to the regime in return for sales of cheap oil more than the rest of the world put together.

....Yesterday's report makes two principal allegations against the Bush administration. Firstly, it found the US treasury failed to take action against a Texas oil company, Bayoil, which facilitated payment of "at least $37m in illegal surcharges to the Hussein regime".

....In its second main finding, the report said the US military and the state department gave a tacit green light for shipments of nearly 8m barrels of oil bought by Jordan, a vital American ally.

None of this excuses the sordid behavior of UN officials in all this, but it does show that they were hardly acting alone. Every country on the Security Council played a part in this scandal, including us.

Kevin Drum 12:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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LOS ANGELES MAYOR FINALE....The endless Los Angeles mayoral race ends today, and I have to say that it's not a day too soon for me. As near as I can tell, the two candidates have essentially identical policy preferences, are running for a nearly powerless office, and since I live in Orange County I don't care about them anyway. Yet for weeks now I've been forced to watch their interminable attack ads, explaining ad nauseum how both of them are corrupt apparatchiks who shouldn't be trusted with their spouses' checkbooks, let alone the mayoralty of America's second largest city.

Since we live in Irvine, Marian and I just laugh at these ads. If we actually lived in Los Angeles, we'd probably be thinking of slitting our wrists instead. So to all my Los Angeles readers: my condolences. Do your duty at the polls tomorrow and write in Bill Clinton or something.

Kevin Drum 12:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 16, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

IDEAS AND PERSUASION....Marshall Wittman, a reformed sinner who spent much of his career in the belly of the beast (his words) before seeing the liberal light, has some advice for us:

The left has a tremendous turn-out machine as was demonstrated in 2004. It's just that there are more conservatives out there than liberals by at least a 3-2 margin. Democrats did a marvelous job mobilizing the base in 2004, but at the end of the day, the conservative base is going to be much larger than the liberal core.

The task, therefore, is for progressives to convince more Americans that they have a better way with innovative ideas. Ideas and persuasion play an even more vital role for progressives than righties because of the conservative nature of the country.

Actually, it's worse than that: if Harris is to be believed, conservatives outnumber liberals by more like 2:1, and they've held that lead for over 30 years.

Historically, the Democratic party relied on a strong conservative Southern contingent to make it into a majority party, and if you take this into account there have been only two periods in recent history in which liberals have genuinely held a majority in Congress: 1932-36 and 1964-72. The rest of the time Democrats have governed only by appealing to moderates as well as liberals. Republicans, conversely, with a large conservative base to start with, have the luxury of paying less attention to the center.

Unfair? Sure. Deal with it. The reality is that liberals have two options: we can convince more people to become liberals an unlikely prospect given that the number of self-identified liberals has stayed absolutely rock steady at 18% for the past four decades or we can try to persuade more moderates to make common cause with us. As Marshall suggests, option 2 is the only likely winner.

Kevin Drum 9:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WOMEN GET THE VOTE IN KUWAIT....Via Praktike, a firsthand blog account of Kuwait's decision to allow women to vote:

It's now a little after 730pm, and I've just gotten into the office after a full day at Parliament. We arrived at the National Assembly around 830am, and 11 hours later, we walked out of their with our rights.

It was absolutely amazing to behold. A madhouse, a circus, a zoo.. but absolutely amazing.

....A million congratulations once again. Congrtulations to women, congratulations to women of Kuwait especially, and congratulations to Kuwait. If you were there, we were the lucky few to have been able to witness a turning point in Kuwait's history.

There are some restrictions, and women are allowed to vote only in parliamentary elections, not municipal elections, but still. We could all use some good news, right?

Kevin Drum 5:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NO MORE KRUGMAN, NO MORE BROOKS....The New York Times is planning to put its op-ed page behind a subscription wall? Wow. I predict that's going to go down with New Coke as one of the all-time bad marketing decisions in history.

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By: Kevin Drum

THIN SKINNED BLOGGERS....Speaking of the blogosphere, are we a touchy bunch or what? After guest-blogging for Dan Drezner last week, David Greenberg wrote a breezy piece for the New York Times that struck me as pretty complimentary toward the craft of blogging. Here's what he said:

  • Good blogging turns out to be harder than it looks.

  • Serious bloggers spend a lot of time searching out items to blog about and display a remarkable breadth of knowledge.

  • Blog commenters can be a vitriolic lot.

  • Good blogs have a voice, though sometimes gimmicks take their place.

  • Yep, good blogging turns out to be a lot harder than it looks.

If there's anything in this list that's not true, I'd like to hear it. What's more, the piece was written with self-deprecating good humor. But if the links back at Dan's place are any indication, the conservative blogosphere ripped into David's piece as if he'd flushed a printout of Instapundit down a toilet.

For all their posturing, conservative bloggers sure are a thin-skinned crowd. Get a grip, folks.

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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OUTRAGE IN THE BLOGOSPHERE....Yesterday Newsweek backed away from its story about guards at Guantanamo flushing a Koran down the toilet. It's not clear if the incident actually happened or not, and Newsweek's source now says he's not sure where he heard about it.

That's bad news for Newsweek, of course. But I note that the conservative blogosphere, usually not one for root causes and blame shifting, is pretty unanimously convinced that last week's riots in Afghanistan are Newsweek's fault, because they began shortly after the Koran flushing story made it into the Arabic language press. You might demur, thinking that the rioters themselves are to blame for their rioting, and the conservo-sphere would normally agree. They didn't blame Paul Bremer for last year's uprising in Najaf, after all. But not this time. The opportunity to bash the press is just too enticing.

But it gets worse. A recent poll showed that 43% of the American public thinks the press has too much freedom, a disturbing result that we've seen from many similar surveys in the past. Here is Instapundit's response:

I warned earlier that if Americans concluded that the press was on the other side, the consequences would be dire....I'm a big fan of freedom of the press. I think it's too bad that the journalistic profession is ruining things for everybody through the hubris, irresponsibility, sloppiness, and outright agenda-driven bias of its practitioners.

That's a staunch defense of the First Amendment, isn't it? Glenn can now join John Cornyn in the "perfectly understandable" hall of fame.

Anyway, let's get some things straight:

  • Newsweek's source blew it. But it was a source they had used before and they had no reason not to trust him.

  • Hundreds of items similar to Newsweek's story have been published in the past year, all of them true. The torture at Abu Ghraib was far worse than this, and other reports of Koran desecration have been published in the past year as well. They inspired no riots, and there was no special reason for Newsweek to think their report would inspire any riots either.

  • The Taliban stages a resurgence every spring, anti-Americanism has been on the rise for some time, and the rioters in Afghanistan are responsible for the riots in Afghanistan. The Newsweek story is clearly just a pretext, and another story would have done just as well given their obvious animosity toward America.

  • Under any other circumstances, conservatives would heartily agree. The phony outrage over this is just a cynical excuse for the usual press bashing. Newsweek should buck up.

As near as I can tell, the Pentagon has demonstrated more genuine outrage over this incident than they did over months and months of disclosures of similar (and worse) actions at Abu Ghraib. It's revolting.

Kevin Drum 1:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 15, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

INCOME MOBILITY....David Brooks writes about income mobility today:

The big difference between poor Republicans and poor Democrats is that the former believe that individuals can make it on their own with hard work and good character. According to the Pew study, 76 percent of poor Republicans believe most people can get ahead with hard work. Only 14 percent of poor Democrats believe that.

Elsewhere in the New York Times we learn who's right:

New research on mobility, the movement of families up and down the economic ladder, shows there is far less of it than economists once thought and less than most people believe. In fact, mobility, which once buoyed the working lives of Americans as it rose in the decades after World War II, has lately flattened out or possibly even declined, many researchers say.

The incomes of brothers born around 1960 have followed a more similar path than the incomes of brothers born in the late 1940's, researchers at the Chicago Federal Reserve and the University of California, Berkeley, have found. Whatever children inherit from their parents habits, skills, genes, contacts, money seems to matter more today.

The Times has more graphical detail here.

Ever since World War II, the United States has done a phenomenal job of sorting people by talent. Not a perfect job, but an astonishingly good one nonetheless. All four of my grandparents, for example, would almost certainly have gone to college if they had turned 18 in the 1960s, but that just wasn't in the cards for any of them a century ago. Today, though, as a matter of deliberate policy, the vast majority of people who have the talent to succeed in college get the chance to try. As a result, they moved upward into the middle and upper classes decades ago, and their children have followed them.

But there's only a moderate amount of sorting left to be done. Random chance, both in nature and nurture, will always play a role in life outcomes, but that role has gotten smaller and smaller as the sorting has progressed. The result is that life roles have become more hardened. While incomes of the well-off have skyrocketed over the past 30 years, working and middle class incomes have stagnated. At the same time, the incomes and jobs they do have are far more unstable than they were a few decades ago. And as recent research indicates, most of them are increasingly stuck in these grim circumstances: every decade, fewer and fewer of them and fewer and fewer of their children have any realistic chance of moving up the income ladder.

In the face of this, Brooksian paeans to the hardworking Republican poor are little less than appalling. Clap your hands and you can be rich!

What this faux optimism masks is the astonshing real-life pessimism of modern conservatism. Among advanced economies, the United States is by far the richest, youngest, and fastest growing country in the world. By far. And yet, we're supposed to believe that an increase in Social Security costs from 4% of GDP to 6% over the next 50 years is cause for panic. We're supposed to believe national healthcare would bankrupt us never mind that our current dysfunctional system is the most expensive and most unfair on the planet. We're supposed to believe that broader unionization would ruin American industry, home of the highest profits and most highly paid executives in the world. We're supposed to believe that the nation's millionaires, having already had their tax rates slashed by a third over the past two decades, are still being bled to the bone by federal taxes.

It's a grim view. But then, modern conservatives are grim people, with little hope that things can ever be made better than they are today. I guess that's why I'm a liberal.

Brad DeLong has some additional thoughts on this.

Kevin Drum 4:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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AHMED CHALABI UPDATE....Of the many black marks on Ahmed Chalabi's record, the original black mark, his primal sin if you will, was his 1992 conviction for bank fraud in Jordan. Basically, an audit uncovered the fact that Chalabi's Petra Bank was in the habit of loaning huge amounts of money to his own relatives and never bothering to ask for repayment. He fled the country and was eventually convicted in absentia on 31 charges of embezzlement, theft, misuse of depositor funds and currency speculation. Total cost to the Jordanian government was upwards of $300 million.

Needless to say, the Jordanians were pretty pissed off about this, and they've held a powerful grudge ever since. So why did they surprise the world a few days ago by suddenly saying they were willing to pardon Chalabi? Via Jeanne d'Arc, Seymour Hersh tells us what he knows:

AMY GOODMAN: This latest news that we get out of Jordan right now about the pardoning of Ahmad Chalabi King Abdullah of Jordan agreeing to pardon the one-time CIA asset. For years he faced a 22-year prison sentence in Jordan for fraud after his Petra Bank collapsed with more than 300 million dollars in missing deposits. The Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, asking the king to do this. What's going on here, and the significance?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Im sort of glad and not glad you asked me that question, because I do know something about it. Here's what I know about that. I know that King Jordan comes to visit America quite a bit the United States. And the President likes him our President, George Bush, because he speaks good English. He went to a prep school here in America, and he's very pro-Western. And he sees the President, and he has told friends this is about nine months ago he was stunned. He was seeing the President. The President said, you know, Your whatever he calls him I have a favor. He said, Of course, anything. I want you to pardon Chalabi.

And he was stunned, because, you know, how can he pardon Chalabi after what he had done. The money he stole was from old women and children, you know, little funds, and he was reviled, Chalabi. I have actually read I actually somebody in the intelligence community once gave me the transcript of his trial in Arabic. And we had it translated at The New Yorker. This time he was sort of out of vogue, and a story never emerged out of it, but the trial was devastating. I mean, they had him nailed. And he was smuggled out of the country. He probably was in cahoots, by the way, with various members of the royal family then during this stuff, you know, bribery, etc.

In any case, he was stunned, and he didn't know what to say. He went back and he asked people in the parliament, who said, Are you kidding? So all I can tell you is that Abdullah is doing what the President of the United States, to his amazing shock, because this was after the stuff came out about Chalabi and his connection to Iran. This is probably a neo-con, a neoconservative play. I guess if you wanted to extrapolate it, I don't know whether if anybody cares, but Im sure the White House would deny it and say it's not true, but I can categorically tell you this is Abdullah's story, this I do know. And he was stunned.

It's nice to have friends in high places, isn't it?

Chalabi is still a top contender in the all-time chutzpah race, by the way. He now says that he won't accept a pardon because, you know, he's the one who was cheated and he wants Jordan to repay the money they stole from him. The fun never stops.

Kevin Drum 1:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GERMAN SPAM....I sure am getting a lot of German spam lately. What's up with that?

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COGNITIVE DISSONANCE....Dale Russakoff writes in the Washington Post today about the low level of security that today's workers enjoy compared to their grandparents. This paragraph is stunning:

Amid these rough waters, Social Security represents an island of stability. At 56, Cody is not likely to face benefit reductions, since every proposal so far exempts people 55 and older. But while she supports Bush's call for private accounts, she said she worries more about the system's long-term solvency.

I know what you're thinking: that doesn't sound so stunning. What's the deal?

All I can say is: Read the whole article until you get to that line. You'll read all about Kay Cody and her brothers and their kids. You'll read about the instability in their lives. You'll learn what the stock market did to Kay's 401(k). You'll learn about how envious they are of their father and his guaranteed pension and generous Social Security check. And then, after reading all that, you're suddenly jerked out of your chair and told that Kay Cody thinks private accounts are a great idea anyway. It's mind boggling.

This is What's The Matter With Kansas? territory, and you just want to grab these guys by the shoulders and shake hard: If you want the government to provide more security, quit voting for the guys who are trying to tear it down! Here is Kay's daughter:

"I see how my grandparents were able to get by, but my husband and I just struggle from paycheck to paycheck," she said. "I don't have a pension and I'm not expecting Social Security to hold up long enough for me. Where is all the government's money going? Who is it benefiting? Nothing is benefiting me."

That's right! And things will stay that way until you STOP....VOTING....FOR.....REPUBLICANS!

Sheesh.

Kevin Drum 2:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 14, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

GREAT AMERICANS....Stephen Bainbridge is unhappy with the Discovery Channel's "Greatest Americans" show, which follows cheerfully in the populist call-in tradition of both the BBC's "Greatest Britons" show and the CBC's "Greatest Canadians" show, previously blogged in this space. The complete list of 100 nominations is below the fold.

All the expected atrocities are on the list, plus some unexpected super-duper atrocities. Prof B ably points them out and adds some of the more obvious omissions (along with a few atrocities of his own, I might add). Some miscellaneous observations:

  • Albert Einstein? Sure, he became a U.S. citizen late in life, but he's no more a "Greatest American" than Alexander Graham Bell was a "Greatest Canadian." Come on, guys.

  • B is unhappy with the inclusion of Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan among the nominees, but I don't see why. If you accept that sporting figures belong on the list at all, Babe Ruth certainly deserves to be there, and probably Michael Jordan too. If anything, the list is surprisingly free of sports stars. No Dale Earnhardt!

  • Who's the least deserving person on the list? Needless to say, it's a tough call, but I think I'll go with Dr. Phil. This is likely to be a very hard fought contest, so place your vote in comments soon.

  • Even though the list is a popularity contest, I'm surprised at the literary omissions. Mark Twain is there, but that's it. No Hemingway, no Faulkner, no Steinbeck, no Poe, no Hawthorne, no Cather, no Cooper. Hell, doesn't anybody play Authors anymore?

  • No other artists either, except for contemporary movie stars and rock singers. No Whistler, no Armstrong, no Joplin, no Stuart, no Gershwin, no Warhol, no Wright, no Griffith, etc. etc.

OK, that's enough griping. Comments are open for your vote in the "Least Deserving" category, as well as whatever personal griping happens to seize you. There will be a special award for the funniest comment.

Abraham Lincoln
Albert Einstein
Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Hamilton
Amelia Earhart
Andrew Carnegie
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Audie Murphy
Babe Ruth
Barack Obama
Barbara Bush
Benjamin Franklin
Bill Clinton
Bill Cosby (William Henry Cosby, Jr.)
Bill Gates
Billy Graham
Bob Hope
Brett Favre
Carl Sagan
Cesar Chavez
Charles Lindbergh
Christopher Reeve
Chuck Yeager
Clint Eastwood
Colin Powell
Condoleezza Rice
Donald Trump
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Eleanor Roosevelt (Anna Eleanor Roosevelt)
Ellen DeGeneres
Elvis Presley
Frank Sinatra
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Frederick Douglass
George H. W. Bush
George W. Bush
George Lucas
George Patton
George Washington
George Washington Carver
Harriet Ross Tubman
Harry Truman
Helen Keller
Henry Ford
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Howard Hughes
Hugh Hefner
Jackie Robinson (Jack Roosevelt Robinson)
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Jesse Owens
Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Stewart
John Edwards
John Glenn
John F. Kennedy
John Wayne
Johnny Carson (John William Carson)
Jonas Edward Salk
Joseph Smith Jr.
Katharine Hepburn
Lance Armstrong
Laura Bush
Lucille Ball
Lyndon B. Johnson
Madonna (Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone)
Malcolm X (Malcolm Little)
Marilyn Monroe
Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
Martha Stewart
Martin Luther King Jr.
Maya Angelou
Mel Gibson
Michael Jackson
Michael Jordan
Michael Moore
Muhammad Ali (Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.)
Neil Alden Armstrong
Nikola Tesla
Oprah Winfrey
Pat Tillman
Dr. Phil McGraw
Ray Charles
Richard Nixon
Robert Kennedy
Ronald Reagan
Rosa Parks
Rudolph W. Giuliani
Rush Limbaugh
Sam Walton
Steve Jobs
Steven Spielberg
Susan B. Anthony
Theodore Roosevelt
Thomas Edison
Thomas Jefferson
Tiger Woods
Tom Cruise
Tom Hanks
Walt Disney
Wright Brothers (Orville & Wilbur Wright)

Kevin Drum 11:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DOWNING STREET MEMO UPDATE....The Washington Post has finally run a story about the leaked British memo confirming that by summer 2002 (a) war with Iraq was a foregone conclusion and (b) intelligence was being actively manipulated to fit the desired policy. A thousand words on page 18. Yawn.

The LA Times did a little better: their Thursday story ran on page 3.

Michigan Congressman John Conyers is still trying to drum up more attention for this, but he's finding it tough going. I can only assume that everyone concluded long ago that of course the Bushies lied about the war and further evidence is just another dog-bites-man story. Sadly, it's hard to argue with that.

Kevin Drum 6:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NO CATBLOGGING?....I've read several criticisms of the Huffington Post over the past week, but none as keen and insightful as this one. In words and pictures, it cuts through the elitist chatter and nails the real problem plaguing the site. Nails it, I tell you.

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STAR WARS....That's enough about the First Amendment. Let's talk about something really important: Star Wars. Will Episode III suck?

The case for the prosecution is easy: Episodes I and II sucked, didn't they? The plots were lame. The directing was weak. And could Lucas possibly have picked a worse actor than Hayden Christensen to play the pivotal role of the entire series?

And yet....I suspect that Episode III will be pretty good. I know I'm just setting myself up for even bigger disappointment by saying that, but here's my case. It has two parts.

Part one: were Episodes I and II really that bad? Sure, they seemed pretty lame to me, but let's face it: there's really no way to recreate the experience of seeing Star Wars for the first time, and that's gotta hurt the comparison. Here are the relevant aspects of my first exposure to Star Wars in 1977:

  • 18 years old.

  • Freshman at Caltech.

  • Had been hyped by my friends into near hysteria.

  • Midnight showing in a gigantic theater in Westwood.

  • Waited in line for hours.

  • Surrounded by a screaming throng of fans inside the theater.

That's not going to happen again, is it? Bottom line: no, the sequels aren't as good as the originals, but I figure their deficiencies owe at least as much to old age and cynicism as they do to the movies themselves. Besides, remember how much everyone griped at the time about Return of the Jedi and all the damn Ewoks? I could do without the Ewoks, but I think it was the best movie of the original three.

Part two: this is guesswork on my part, but I think Episode III is the entire story Lucas wanted to tell in the first place. It's what he had in mind when he wrote the original treatment 30 years ago, and it's the only part he actually cares about. Episodes I and II, conversely, were just filler designed to stretch the whole thing into a trilogy and it shows.

So there you have it: Episodes I and II are probably better than many of us give them credit for, and Episode III will be better still because it's where Lucas's heart is. In a week, we'll know for sure.

Kevin Drum 2:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SATURDAY CAT BLOGGING....Brand new kitten pics over at Fiat Lux! Go see.

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ABSOLUTISM....Yesterday was not the first time I've suggested that liberals should calm down over the issue of minor displays of religious symbolism in the public square, but it provoked the usual storm of disagreement. The most common protest is that I just don't get it: these things may seem small to me, but they're the camel's nose under the tent. The wingnuts won't give up just because we toss them a few bones, and before long we'll be beaming videotapes of the 700 Club into classrooms across the country to start the school day.

At its core, this is an argument that absolutism should always be met with absolutism, a notion that I think is wildly mistaken. Consider freedom of speech, for example.

Free speech is protected by the First Amendment, and the text is clear: "Congress shall make no law...." And yet, take a look at the state of free speech in America today. There are laws galore.

The Supreme Court long ago carved out exceptions in which prior restraint is acceptable (no yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater). Libel and slander laws are commonly used to punish unacceptable speech. Privacy laws restrict speech. Judges can issue gag orders during trials. Communities can (and do) routinely restrict time, place, and manner of acceptable speech. Commercial speech is highly regulated. Campaign finance law restricts political speech during election seasons.

You may disagree with some or even all of these restrictions. But their existence does not mean that America is sliding down a slippery slope toward fascism. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, the United States has the strongest protections of free speech in the world.

The analogy with religious symbolism is obvious. I'm certainly not suggesting that, say, the ACLU should stop litigating free speech cases. Of course not. On the other hand, if they engaged in a quixotic campaign to get every vestige of libel law overturned on First Amendment grounds, I'd think they had gone nuts. Americans agree almost unanimously that deliberate libel should be actionable and that the existence of libel law is not an imminent threat to free speech in America. If the ACLU fought like banshees against every libel judgment in the country, they would quickly be dismissed as cranks and the result would be less respect for free speech protections, not more.

The fact is that absolutism doesn't sell very well in America except among small outposts of wingnuttery. Free speech is as close to an absolute as we have in America, but even so there are exceptions and rightfully so. Ditto for church/state separation. The answer to wingnuttery is not equal and opposite wingnuttery.

If you want public support, you have to pick your fights wisely. Not everything is the first step down a slippery slope, and if blind absolutism causes you to pick too many fights, or pick the wrong ones, you're dismissed as a crank instead of a crusader for justice. Sure, I'd just as soon not have creche scenes in front of city hall or "In God We Trust" on dollar bills, but face it: they aren't slippery slopes on the road to theocracy. Abington v. Schempp is settled doctrine despite 40 years of howling from the Christian right, and the minuscule amount of religious symbolism left in public life just isn't worth being outraged about. Fighting like banshees over stuff that has so little real-life consequence just undermines support for real church/state separation issues and makes liberals look like cranks.

And the Christian right? Who cares? They're never going to vote for us no matter what we do. But there are plenty of centrists who will unless they decide that we're every bit the absolutist wingnuts the Jerry Falwells of the world are. Personally, I think we should give them a choice.

UPDATE: Elayne Riggs makes the case for the opposition.

Kevin Drum 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 13, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MOVIE REVIEW-ETTE....I forgot to mention this the other day, but I saw Crash earlier this week and it was pretty good! The exclamation point is there not because it was outstandingly good, but because it's literally the only movie I've seen in months that I'd recommend with any real enthusiasm at all.

It's worth admitting up front that you have to put up with a very heavy reliance on coincidence in this movie, with the same characters meeting each other over and over in that tiny patch of land called Los Angeles. And there are some miscues too. But overall, it was good stuff: a compelling portrayal of casual racism that pulls only a few punches, and with good performances by the entire cast. Worth seeing.

Kevin Drum 6:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NON-JACKO SLEEPOVER NEWS....Ted Barlow passes on the shocking news that the press had different standards for Bill Clinton than they do for George Bush:

Whats less obvious is how the liberal media allowed one Presidents pattern of behavior (about 13%) to become a widely-understood multi-year scandal, whereas another Presidents pattern of behavior (about 11-15%) is a page 17 story, if that. But, what do I know.

What's he talking about? Click the link and find out!

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PERJURY?....David Ignatius suggests today that the continuing investigation into the Valerie Plame case isn't about outing a spy, it's about perjury:

Fitzgerald's legal quest makes little sense to me as a leak investigation. The law is fuzzy, the evidence is ambiguous, and the case would be hard to prove. But every good prosecutor hates perjury above all. And on its face, this case raises the possibility that one of the senior administration officials who talked with [Matt] Cooper or [Judith] Miller has denied doing so, under oath. Otherwise, Fitzgerald would have been finished months ago.

Ignatius suggests that if this is the case, Cooper and Miller may not have any obligation to keep their sources confidential:

It's one thing to protect the identity of a confidential source, even if that person may have violated the law by disclosing the identity of a covert intelligence agent. But it is arguably quite a different matter if the reporter has reason to believe a source lied to a grand jury. Does a reporter's confidentiality agreement extend to protecting a cover-up?

This gets into pretty esoteric areas of journalistic standards, and I have no idea what the answer is. But it's an interesting speculation.

Kevin Drum 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE....While we're on the subject of religion in the public square, WM editor Amy Sullivan takes on the wingnuts in the LA Times today:

The New Republican Standard Version of the Bible has been gaining popularity among evangelicals and Catholics. Just a few weeks ago, conservative political and religious leaders lined up on their so-called "Justice Sunday" to charge that those who oppose the ideologically extreme judicial nominees whom they support cannot be true people of faith.

Some members of the American Catholic clergy told Catholic voters last year that a vote for the pro-choice Democratic nominee would be punishable by exclusion from the sacrament of Holy Communion.

....U.S. senator and former Sunday school teacher Hillary Clinton is accused of faking religion when she talks about faith. Pope Benedict XVI talks about a smaller, purer Catholic Church and the first to be counted out is Father Thomas Reese, a liberal Jesuit who was the editor of America magazine until he was forced to resign last week.

....This is a debate that conservatives are going to lose. Because you don't have to be liberal or conservative to be offended by the idea that a political or religious leader can decide whether your faith is good enough.

Amen. The only question is: when? When are the grownups in the Republican party finally going to rebel against this stuff?

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RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE....Matt Yglesias wonders if liberals spend too much of their energy fighting meaningless fights against religious symbolism. Today he quotes a recent Pew poll showing that enormous majorities are in favor of allowing certain kinds of religious displays:

Another...is putting the ten commandments up in public buildings. You should look at the data yourself and see exactly how popular this is, because I think a lot of readers will have trouble believing it. Public support is totally overwhelming, opposition is very much a marginal view.

....If you ask me this and related issues would be fruitful areas for compromise....Abortion and reproductive rights matter. A lot. So does trying to maintain forward motion on the gay rights front. So do the basic economic issues, so does foreign policy. Ten commandments? "Under God" in the pledge of allegiance? Taxpayer dollars financing Christmas displays in the town square?....The location of stone slabs is, like the precise number of bullets you can put in your ammo clip, not something that's worth losing elections over.

I think he's right, and I say that from the perspective of someone who's such a stone atheist that I'm pretty sure it's not philosophically possible to be more atheist than me. Still, there are fights and there are fights, and some are more worth fighting than others.

Evolution? Worth fighting over, even if it costs us. Prayer in public classrooms? I'm agin it, but let's face facts: we won 98% of this battle long ago. The last 2% probably isn't worth too much bloodshed. Creche scenes in front of city hall? Lighten up.

In other words, we can be in favor of the principle of separation of church and state without feeling like we have to fight every single battle to the death. Just like we can be in favor of progressive taxation without favoring 90% marginal rates and we can be in favor of the minimum wage without favoring a ten dollar increase. There's no law that says every principle has to be carried to its absolute logical limit.

We've won 90% of this battle, and that's good enough for me. Beyond that, I'm happy to allow local communities some leeway. It makes them happy and it doesn't do much harm unless you're just aching for a fight. On this issue, it might be time to declare victory and go home.

Kevin Drum 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BLAME IT ON MAME....Nancy Goldstein has a few awards to give out for great achievements in gay rights. Most of the recipients won't be too happy to be winners.

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A DYING BREED....This is not exactly breaking news, but Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes today about a nearly extinct species: the grown-up Republican.

Here in the Capitol, their numbers are so few, said Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, that they quit having their weekly lunches about a year ago.

"Susan and I were there alone for so much of the time," Mr. Specter said, referring to Senator Susan Collins of Maine, "we worked through all of our conversation and decided to disband."

As Mr. Voinovich's refusal to support Mr. Bolton's nomination demonstrates, "the vanishing center" as another centrist Republican, Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, often says can still play a powerful role. There are just four core centrists in the Senate, Mr. Chafee, Ms. Collins, Ms. Snowe and Mr. Specter.

Out of 44 Democratic senators, there are nearly a dozen that even conservatives would agree are moderate. Out of 55 Republicans, there are only four. That's the New Model Republican Party for you.

Kevin Drum 2:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 12, 2005
By: Paul Glastris

Game Gains... Remember how everyone feared that the Greeks were too lame and disorganized to pull off a decent Olympics? Well, not only did last summer's games go swimmingly, but it turns out the Athens Olympic committee actually turned a profit!

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By: Paul Glastris

Chicken Novak... So why did pundit Robert Novak just drop out of a scheduled debate with Eric Alterman? Was it that Alterman was going to press him on the questions Novak's friends in the press corps have been too polite to ask--i.e. did Novak squeal to the prosecutor investigating the Valerie Plame leak case, and if not, why isn't he facing prison like journalists Matt Cooper and Judith Miller?

Paul Glastris 4:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DAY OFF....Apologies for the radio silence this morning, but after reading this and this I need a short break from the blogosphere. I'll be back tomorrow.

Kevin Drum 2:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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PENSION FUND BLUES....As everyone knows by now, United Airlines has successfully dumped its pension fund obligations onto the federal government. The losers in this deal are (a) United's employees, some of whom will see their pensions cut, and (b) we the taxpayers, who are now responsible for about $6.6 billion of United's $9.8 billion shortfall.

Why is United's pension fund so woefully underfunded? Partly it's because the airline industry sucks right now and United is in dire straits. But there's more to it than that. Even in otherwise healthy corporations, managers routinely and deliberately justify underfunding their pension programs by wildly inflating their projected returns. Here is Michael Hudson in the latest issue of Harper's:

At the beginning of 2001, for instance, IBM proposed that it would earn $6.3 billion on pension-fund assets of $61 billion about 10 percent. This was an astonishing demonstration of confidence given that IBM had earned only $1.2 billion on those assets the previous year. In the event, IBM actually went on to lose $4 billion in 2001. Barely daunted, the companys managers predicted a 9.5 percent return in 2002. They lost another $7 billion. In 2003 they predicted a return of $6 billion, and as the market began to recover they at last beat their prediction, by $4.4 billion. The result of this recovery is that, since George W. Bush took office, IBMs pension-fund assets have plummeted by more than $1 billion.

....Such errors in judgment are seldom accidental. In pretending that their funds could generate high returns, managers sought a real albeit short-term advantage. The faster companies projected their funds to grow, the less they had to set aside to pay their retirees. The lower set-asides in turn allowed them to report higher earnings, thereby driving up the price of the companys own stock to create shareholder value. Faced with a choice between living up to their pension promises or reporting higher net earnings, companies simply decided not to live up to their employee agreements.

Hudson continues with a theory that the only way to prevent even more pension fund defaults is to drive up stock market returns, and this is the motivation behind George Bush's desire to privatize Social Security: it will flood the stock market with money from private accounts and boost returns across the board.

I don't buy that, but the article is worth reading anyway to get a better understanding of how pension funds work and what their problems are. I have a feeling this is something we're going to be hearing a lot more about over the next few years.

Kevin Drum 2:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WHEN IS A STANDARD NOT A STANDARD?....A whistleblower has leaked documents showing that the EPA wants to abandon mandatory standards designed to protect children and construction workers from exposure to lead-based paint. Here's the official agency waffle:

EPA spokeswoman Eryn Witcher said the agency had not abandoned the possibility of issuing mandatory regulations, and that it was simply exploring alternatives that might be more effective, as well as less costly to industry and the public.

I think the key phrase here is "less costly to industry." The EPA's alternative, after all, is "voluntary standards," meaning you can follow them or not depending on whether you feel like it. I'm guessing most landlords would choose "not."

Dwight Meredith has more.

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May 11, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

ST. ANDREWS UPDATE....Scotland: land of heather, whiskey, and golf. Especially golf. $100,000 golf outings, to be exact.

Like Tom DeLay, Ohio congressman Bob Ney has a weakness for expensive Scottish golf vacations. Also like DeLay, he doesn't seem to care much who pays for them. In the American Prospect this month, Art Levine tells the tale of Ney's dealings with super lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the $100,000 golfing trip Abramoff paid for, and Ney's pathetic cover story that the trip was really designed to gain support for one of his favorite charities:

That charitable outfit was the Capital Athletic Foundation, an Abramoff front. Why Ney would have to go golfing in Scotland or visit the Parliament there to assist an American-based charity remains an unsolved mystery as does his interest in sponsoring legislation for a Texas tribe far from his rural Ohio district.

....In February 2002, Abramoff and Scanlon signed up the [Tigua] tribe as a client, trading in part on their close ties to DeLay and on Abramoff's claim that he would work for free to win the tribe's business later. By March, Abramoff had enlisted the Ohio congressman. As he told Scanlon in an e-mail: "Just met with Ney!!! We're f'ing gold!!! He's going to do Tigua." A week later, Abramoff wrote to Texas-based lobbyist Marc Schwartz, explaining that the tribe needed to contribute to Ney's campaign and political action committees and tribal leaders soon forked over $32,000. By April, Scanlon indicated to Schwartz that Dodd was on board, too.

Soon, however, the congressman required still more favors. In June, Abramoff wrote to Schwartz again: "Our friend [Ney] asked if we could...cover a Scotland golf trip for him and some staff...and members in August," just like the trip DeLay had taken two years earlier. Briefing Scottish parliamentarians about an American charity doesn't seem to have been a top priority of Ney's trip (although he did actually visit the Parliament in Edinburgh for what a staffer there describes as a "brief courtesy call").

Read the whole thing to get all the sordid details. The good stuff starts about halfway through.

Kevin Drum 10:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BOLTON'S PEOPLE....Who said this?

I'm an intermittent part-time expert foreign-affairs consultant.

Laura Rozen has the answer. Sounds like a good gig.

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RIGHT WING SCIENCE....Over at MoJo Blog, Erik Kancler neatly summarizes the inner workings of the right wing's approach to global warming:

So there you have it a 16 year old article that was never written, fraudulently cited by a climate skeptic, re-printed in a publication owned by Lyndon Larouche which was cited by a former architect, and finally misrepresented by a credible scientist.

Needless to say, the bogus information produced by this tsunami of fraudulence 555 out of 625 glaciers are growing! is rapidly spreading over the internet. Lysenko would be proud.

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NEWS FROM EUROPE....Andrew Tobias reports from the Netherlands:

Dutch strikes me as eminently learnable. My favorite phrase? We have the check, the French have laddition, the Italians have la comte (s?) the Dutch have de rekening. As you know, I am afraid we Americans will one day have de rekening, also. You dont borrow $700 billion a year without consequences.

In other news from the lowlands, same-sex Dutch couples are allowed to get married! So far, God has not flattened the dikes in retaliation.

Kevin Drum 2:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DEMOCRACY IN EGYPT....The LA Times reports that "Egypt Presidential Vote May Not Be Very Open." I hear that professional wrestling may not be very open either.

But apparently Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak knows what he's doing. If he really held multi-party elections, instead of just pretending to, he'd get squashed like a bug. Abu Aardvark has the grim details.

Kevin Drum 2:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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HISTORY AS FARCE....Yesterday I wondered who the president's seemingly casual Sunday reference to "Yalta" was aimed at. Today, Matt Yglesias and David Greenberg provide part of the answer. Via Matt, it appears to have struck a chord with Jonah Goldberg:

In Leftism (an organizationally chaotic but excellent book) [Erik Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn] speculated in a fairly throw-away fashion that the clamor to "bring the boys home" after the war was so widespread and well orchestrated that it might have been directed from Moscow so that the fait of the Soviet occupation could remain accompli as it were.

Has anyone ever addressed this question head on?

Yalta lives! For those of you who have never read anything about postwar history, this is pretty typical of the wingnut right in the late 40s and 50s. They routinely tossed out bizarre conspiracy theories suggesting that easily understandable actions like, say, bringing troops home after a long war were actually the result of some dark and treasonous cooperation between liberal Democrats and the Comintern. And just as Jonah does, they were usually phrased as questions Can it be? Would the evidence show? rather than firm statements of fact.

(Of course, to really capture the flavor of the time Jonah should have added a sorrowful sounding reference to the fact that FDR was old and sick at the time and the whole Yata sellout was really orchestrated behind the scenes by Alger Hiss.)

Elsewhere, David Greenberg links to yet another blast from the past. If Jonah is pitch perfect in reviving the conspiracy theory school of Yalta-mongering, Patrick Buchanan flawlessly captures the tone of the foaming-at-the-mouth school:

If Yalta was a betrayal of small nations as immoral as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, why do we venerate Churchill and FDR? At Yalta, this pair secretly ceded those small nations to Stalin, co-signing a cynical "Declaration on Liberated Europe" that was a monstrous lie.

As FDR and Churchill consigned these peoples to a Stalinist hell run by a monster they alternately and affectionately called "Uncle Joe" and "Old Bear," why are they not in the history books alongside Neville Chamberlain?

Yeah, baby! That should bring back memories for my mother. And a note for my younger readers: it's stuff like this that makes me skeptical that politics is any nastier today than it has been in the past. Suggesting that the Democratically controlled Senate is "not interested in the security of the American people" is pretty thin beer compared to the foam spittled accusations of treason that were the right's meat and drink 50 years ago.

Kevin Drum 1:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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RED ALERT....Via Eschaton, former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge says Bush administration officials frequently pressed him to raise the terror alert level even when the evidence for doing so was weak:

Ridge, who resigned Feb. 1, said Tuesday that he often disagreed with administration officials who wanted to elevate the threat level to orange, or "high" risk of terrorist attack, but was overruled.

...."More often than not we were the least inclined to raise it," Ridge told reporters. "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert). ... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?' "

On the Daily Show last week, Ridge was adamant that politics was never, ever involved in raising the alert level. But if it wasn't politics, what was it? Do we have a crew of nervous nellies running the country?

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 10, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

YALTA, SCHMALTA....In Latvia on Sunday George Bush talked about the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe following World War II:

The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.

A throng of other commentators has already explained why Bush's implication that Eastern Europe was cravenly sold out at Yalta is wrong. Although it's true that FDR and Churchill essentially divvied up Europe with Stalin at the Yalta conference, they did it because they didn't have a choice: the Red Army already controlled most of Eastern Europe, and full scale war was the only thing that would have dislodged them. FDR and Churchill knew this and decided to acknowledge the obvious rather than start up yet another all-out war on an exhausted continent a decision that probably would have been unpopular but acceptable if they had only fessed up to it instead of pretending no deal had been made. David Greenberg provides a more detailed history if you're interested.

But here's what I'm curious about: why did Bush mention Yalta at all? For most people alive today this is long dead history, but Bush's speechwriters are well aware that "Yalta" was once a codeword extraordinaire among a certain segment of the population. In fact, it was perhaps the single biggest bugaboo of the wingnut right in the late 40s and 50s, right up there with Alger Hiss and Joe McCarthy's list of communists in the State Department.

But most of those people are dead. So who was the reference aimed at? Not just the Latvians, that's for sure. Bush is a master of using codewords in his speeches, and inserting Yalta into this speech wasn't a casual decision. It was there for someone. Who?

Kevin Drum 8:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOG REVIEW....There's not a lot of news that I'm dying to blog about at the moment, a state of affairs that should make WM's book review editor happy since it means I have more time on my hands to write that review I promised her for later this week. But before I start cranking that out, here's the review you've really been waiting for: what do I think of Arianna Huffington's new blog/news venture, the modestly named Huffington Post?

Short answer: I guess I don't get it. As a liberal Drudge competitor it's fine, although so far its headlines haven't been all that exciting. (Then again, Drudge's headlines aren't usually all that exciting either. Funny and campy, yes, but not really all that exciting.) What's more, the news has been slow the past couple of days. So I'll give it a chance to find its legs.

But the blog is another story entirely. 250 contributors? And 65 posts on the first day? (83% by men, BTW, just to toss another match on the whole women-in-blogging thing.) Is anyone really going to plow through all that?

The whole concept is sort of mystifying to me anyway, since most of these guys already have a pretty fat pipeline to the public. Quincy Jones can spout off on Oprah any time he wants and David Frum has space in National Review. Walter Cronkite and Michael O'Hanlon have pretty good access to the op-ed pages of the nation's great newspapers.

Maybe I'm missing something here. My taste is not everyone's taste, after all. But I read blogs because I enjoy the author's voice and enjoy seeing them engage with the rest of the blogosphere. An enormous dumping ground of miscellaneous paragraphs parachuting out of the sky, on the other hand, doesn't seem that appealing.

But that's just me. Maybe I'll change my mind if I find specific contributors I enjoy reading. Maybe the mix will improve with time. Maybe I'm underestimating the public's eagerness for all things celebrity. It wouldn't be the first time, that's for sure. And maybe I should wait more than two days before deciding what I think.

Check back in a few weeks and I'll take another whack at it.

UPDATE: Then again, if Marc Cooper is right and the site got 8 million hits in its first day, maybe miscellaneous paragraphs are a better draw than I think!

Kevin Drum 7:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FILIBUSTER UPDATE....The Carpetbagger reports that compromise on judicial filibusters is apparently dead. However, Harry Reid seems to have done a great job of portraying Democrats as the voice of sweet reason, willing to make reasonable concessions that are ultimately rejected by a Republican party cowed into submission by their religious right base.

Which is fine by me, since I'm all in favor of sustained public wingnuttery from the religious right. There are too many rank and file Republicans who simply don't realize what's happened to their party, and anything that forces them to face up to it can only be good news in the long run. Reid seems to be playing them like a fiddle.

Kevin Drum 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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STEM CELLS....Excellent news on the stem cell front: even Republicans want to ditch George Bush's lame and indefensible restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. In a recent poll of Republicans in which 90% approved of Bush's performance in general a solid 57% said they favored embryonic stem cell research.

What will Bush do? Legislation to open up stem cell research is widely supported even by Republicans and it has broad support in both the House and Senate too. So if a bill lands on his desk, does he sign it or veto it?

I hope he signs it. Not only is it the right thing to do, but I'm pretty convinced that embryonic stem cell research is the wedge that will eventually kill the absurdly reductionist "life begins at conception" nonsense that fuels so much rage among the religious right in America. No sensible discussion of abortion will be possible until then, so anything that hastens that day is something to pray for.

Kevin Drum 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SOCIAL SECURITY UPDATE....From Rich Lowry over at The Corner:

Just had a conversation with a Republican senator. A few things he said:

....On Social Security, it's looking not great. Grassley will try to get a bill out of his committee that has the progressive indexing, but no personal accounts. If that doesn't work, its a sign that there's no support for reform whatsoever. He guesses that Frist will end up using excuse the Senatese Rule 14 to get a bill with personal accounts onto the floor. The Democrats will filibuster and that will be that. Chances for a deal are very low: In this environment, I just can't see it. The Democrats are so negative. Even people who will normally look at things, are saying, 'No way on this one. We're blood brothers.'

That's good news, and it sounds about right to me. I just don't see Dems suddenly turning into good hearted compromisers on this after Bush has spent the past six months trying to cram private accounts down everyone's throats.

Kevin Drum 12:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WHY I LIKE DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTS....Yesterday morning I presented some graphs from Larry Bartels' paper about economic growth under Democratic and Republican presidents. As long as I have the paper handy, here's another one.

This graph displays income inequality under Democratic and Republican presidents since 1947. Bartels uses a very simple measure of inequality: the income of the 80th percentile family divided by the income of the 20th percentile family (raw data here). From 1947 through 1969 this ratio was steady at about 3:1, but since then it's risen to about 4:1.

But the graph also shows something else: Democratic presidents tend to promote policies that either keep income inequality in check or lower it a bit (Jimmy Carter is the exception), while Republican presidents pursue policies that make income inequality worse. The upper and lower lines are guesstimates of what income inequality would be if we had followed only Republican policies or only Democratic policies since 1947. Pure Democratic rule would have produced a slight decrease in inequality, while pure Republican rule would have produced a staggering increase in the ratio to 6:1.

This is important because it's at the heart of the difference between liberal and conservative views of what's good for the economy. I won't try to pretend that I can prove this, but I believe pretty strongly that the single most important economic indicator you can look at is the health of the working and middle classes, the (approximately) middle 60% of the country. Why? Because if unemployment is low and middle class incomes are growing, then everyone wins. The poor win because a healthy middle class is more likely to support safety net and anti-poverty programs, and the rich win because a healthy middle class drives overall economic growth.

Conservatives drive up income inequality because they focus primarily on the well off, which benefits only the well off. Liberals keep income inequality in check because they focus (or should focus) primarily on the working and middle classes, which benefits everyone. And that's the underlying reason that Democratic presidents are better for the economy than Republican presidents. If you keep the unemployment level low and middle class incomes growing, the rest of the economy will pretty much take care of itself.

Kevin Drum 12:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 9, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MODERNIZING (?) LABOR....Marshall Wittman, neo-quasi-former-McCain-conservative turned DLC-semi-liberal (or something), has some good words for unions today but then adds a typical Wittmanesque twist:

America needs a strong labor movement as never before. With the rise of the Bush plutocracy, there is no counter-balance to the power of money. Yet unions have been in decline for the past thirty years.

....[Andy] Stern is an innovative thinker who is attempting to recreate the labor movement to adjust to the changing economy. He realizes that politics alone is not the answer to labor's woes and it must return to grass roots organizing efforts.

The Moose applauds the attempts to modernize the labor movement and urges it to think anew in addressing the concerns of working people. Not only should labor focus on the economic issues facing employees, but also the cultural anxieties that afflict working families. It is fine to take on Wal Mart as an organizing target because of its low wages and poor benefits, but labor also should recognize that the company is on to something when it provides its customers "family friendly" products and avoids selling violent video games and sexually explicit videos.

Discuss. Politely, of course.

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WHITE CHICKS....Former Bob Dole press secretary Douglas MacKinnon writes a column in the Chicago Tribune about a subject that came up in conversation just last night in the Drum living room:

Note to the news media with an emphasis on the cable networks: Enough is enough.

Your continual focus on, and reporting of, missing, young, attractive white women not only demeans your profession but is a televised slap in the face to minority mothers and parents the nation over who search for their own missing children with little or no assistance or notice from anyone.

....I have a number of friends at the cable networks (or at least I did), and I have spoken to some about this very subject. While all professed disgust with the underreporting of missing minority women and young adults, most were very uneasy with the thought of shining a spotlight on their own management to ascertain an answer. "Besides," one of them told me, "you've already figured it out. We showcase missing, young, white, attractive women because our research shows we get more viewers. It's about beating the competition and ad dollars."

MacKinnon provides chapter and verse on this, but it's not as if we need it. After all, cable TV's obsession with pretty white women in danger is hardly subtle. Maybe Crossfire needs to investigate.

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GETTING TO KNOW YOU....REMINDER FOR WEEKDAY READERS....On Saturday I posted an open thread inviting regular (and irregular) commenters to introduce themselves to each other. 300 readers have responded so far, and it's turned out to be a pretty interesting and eclectic group.

If you were gone this weekend and missed this post, click here and tell us all about yourself. Plenty of regulars haven't been heard from yet, and it's a fun thread. Don't be shy!

Kevin Drum 3:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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REPUBLICANS vs. DEMOCRATS ON THE ECONOMY....Did you know that Democratic presidents are better for the economy than Republicans? Sure you did. I pointed this out two years ago, back when my readership numbered in the dozens, and more recently Michael Kinsley ran the numbers in the LA Times and came to the same conclusion.

The results are simple: Democratic presidents have consistently higher economic growth and consistently lower unemployment than Republican presidents. If you add in a time lag, you get the same result. If you eliminate the best and worst presidents, you get the same result. If you take a look at other economic indicators, you get the same result. There's just no way around it: Democratic administrations are better for the economy than Republican administrations.

Skeptics offer two arguments: first, that presidents don't control the economy; second, that there are too few data points to draw any firm conclusions. Neither argument is convincing. It's true that presidents don't control the economy, but they do influence it as everyone tacitly acknowledges by fighting like crazed banshees over every facet of fiscal policy ever offered up by a president.

The second argument doesn't hold water either. The dataset that delivers these results now covers more than 50 years, 10 administrations, and half a dozen different measures. That's a fair amount of data, and the results are awesomely consistent: Democrats do better no matter what you measure, how you measure it, or how you fiddle with the data.

But it turns out there's more to this. Via Brendan Nyhan, I recently read a paper by Princeton's Larry Bartels that adds some fascinating details to this picture.


The first thing Bartels did was break down economic performance by income class. The unsurprising result is shown in the chart on the right.

Under Democratic presidents, every income class did well but the poorest did best. The bottom 20% had average pretax income growth of 2.63% per year while the top 5% showed pretax income growth of 2.11% per year.

Republicans were polar opposites. Not only was their overall performance worse than Democrats, but it was wildly tilted toward the well off. The bottom 20% saw pretax income growth of only .6% per year while the top 5% enjoyed pretax income growth of 2.09% per year. (What's more, the trendline is pretty clear: if the chart were extended to show the really rich the top 1% and the top .1% the Republican growth numbers for them would be higher than the Democratic numbers.)

In other words, Republican presidents produce poor economic performance because they're obsessed with helping the well off. Their focus is on the wealthiest 5%, and the numbers show it. At least 95% of the country does better under Democrats.


But this raises an interesting question: if 95% of the country does better under Democrats, and if economic performance is the most important factor in most presidential elections, then how do Republicans ever get elected? The most common hypothesis spelled out in detail in last year's What's The Matter With Kansas? is that cultural issues often override economic considerations. But Bartels proposes a surprising alternative explanation illustrated in the two charts below. The top chart shows income growth during non-election years, and it displays the usual characteristics: under Democrats, income growth is strong overall and the poor do a bit better than the well off. Under Republicans, income growth is weak overall and is tilted heavily in favor of the already prosperous.

But now look at the bottom chart. It shows economic performance during election years and it's a mirror image of the top chart: Republicans produce better overall performance, and they produce especially stupendous performance for the well off. Democrats not only produce poor overall performance, they produce disastrous performance for the well off, who actually have negative income growth.

In other words, voters aren't necessarily ignoring economic issues in favor of cultural issues. Rather, Republicans produce great economic growth for all income classes in election years, and that's all that voters remember. They really are voting their pocketbooks.

Bartels doesn't essay an explanation for this. Do Republican presidents deliberately try to time economic growth spurts and are Democratic presidents too lame to do the same? Is it just luck? Or is the difference somehow inherent in the different ways that Democrats and Republicans approach the economy (with Democrats typically focusing on employment and Republicans on inflation)? At this point, your guess is as good as anyone's.

Bottom line: if you're well off, vote for Republicans. But if you make less than $150,000 a year, Republicans are your friends only one year in four. Caveat emptor.

Kevin Drum 3:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 8, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MOTHER'S DAY....Happy Mother's Day to mothers everywhere, especially mine. Do something nice for your mother today, won't you?

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WHAT TO DO ABOUT DARFUR?....I had lunch with Ezra Klein yesterday and he urged me to write more about the genocide in Darfur. I haven't done so since last summer, and unfortunately there's a reason for that: I don't really know what to say.

Like any geopolitical crisis, Darfur is complex. But at the risk of simplifying to the point of incoherence, there are really only two options on the table:

  1. Allow the African Union to take the military lead and provide them with money and logistical support. As far as I can tell, this is just wishful thinking. The AU has never been effective at much of anything, it's riven by internal politics, and all the money and materiel in the world won't change that in the short term. There may be some pressure points here that I'm missing, but relying on the AU strikes me as little more than an excuse to sound virtuous while doing nothing.

  2. Send in western troops. But whose? Both America and Britain are tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan. NATO's deployable troops are largely committed to Afghanistan. France, which has both bases and (a small number of) troops in central Africa, has shown little interest in using them.

    This is not a trivial problem. "Troops" and "deployable troops" are not the same thing, and very few countries aside from the U.S. and (to a smaller extent) Britain have troops in any significant numbers that they can deploy overseas. This year-old article by David Englin outlines the military situation, and although military intervention is indeed doable, my guess is that a successful intervention would require a serious commitment to local air superiority plus a minimum of three or four divisions of combat troops with rules of engagement sufficiently robust to allow them to stop the Janjaweed slaughter. Make no mistake: this would basically be a declaration of war against Sudan.

I'm open to arguments that I'm wrong. Maybe there's some way the AU can be made effective. (Their recent decison to expand their peacekeeping force is encouraging, but unless they're also willing to start fighting and stop "monitoring," it probably doesn't mean much.) Maybe a small scale Western intervention could be effective although our experience in Iraq doesn't make me hopeful on that score. Maybe the Sudanese government would back down if it ever became clear that the West was serious about intervening.

But hope is not a plan, and right now it strikes me that the only realistic option for stopping the genocide is to be prepared for a full-scale invasion and long-term occupation of Sudan. I could probably be talked into that if someone presented a serious military plan showing where the troops would come from and how they'd get there, but I haven't seen it yet.

In the meantime, the Darfur Accountability Act is worthy of support, and it's to President Bush's shame that he's quietly tried to kill it especially if it's because he's already decided that stopping genocide is less important than a short term intelligence partnership with Khartoum. It's not likely that the DAA would stop the slaughter, but it would probably slow it down. That's worthwhile all by itself.

Kevin Drum 3:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CALCULUS....In the post below I noticed that a shocking number of my readers appear to have PhDs, and a non-shocking number have degrees of one kind or another in math, engineering, computer science or something related.

If you're one of them, there's a pretty good chance you learned calculus from Louis Leithold's textbook, which was first published in 1968 and has so dominated the calculus scene since then that its publishers can get away with slapping the latest (seventh) edition with nothing more than the cryptic, text-messagey abbreviation "TC7."

If you were a Leithold kid, you might be interested to know that Leithold died a few days ago, and as this story in the LA Times makes clear, he was a genuinely fascinating character. If the subject of calculus doesn't instantly drive you to distraction or make you break out in hives, check it out.

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DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST....Remember those free and open Egyptian elections that Hosni Mubarak agreed to after a bit of toughminded, arm twisting pressure from Condi Rice? It was supposed to be yet another benefit of the great wave of democratization washing over the Middle East thanks to the war in Iraq.

Well, um, not quite. Brad Plumer has the details.

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THE BOBBSEY TWINS TAKE ON SOCIAL SECURITY....Do David Brooks and John Tierney call each other up to coordinate op-eds, or what? Here's Tierney on Saturday writing about George Bush's Social Security plan:

Faced with the grim math, President Bush offered a progressive compromise last week to Democrats: protect the poor while moderating the growth of benefits for higher-income workers. Democrats refused to bite, denouncing his "cuts" without offering a plan of their own, and members of both parties wondered why any politician would jeopardize his party's chances in 2006 by tackling an unpleasant future problem.

And here's Brooks on Sunday:

By embracing the progressive indexing of Social Security benefits, the president has asked us to make a shared sacrifice for the common good. He's asking middle- and upper-class folks to accept benefit cuts so there will be money for the people who are really facing poverty....So how has the St. Francis of Assisi wing of the Democratic Party responded to Bush's challenge? Does it applaud him for doing what it has spent the past years telling him he should do? Of course not.

It's like they both got the same talking points memo from the RNC and dutifully phoned in bright-eyed paeans to the courage of Dear Leader George Bush and the duplicity and intransigence of the Great Satan Democratic Party. "How can Democrats possibly be against a more socialist version of Social Security?" they moan in mock solidarity with the downtrodden workers of America.

But Bush's plan wouldn't cut benefits only for high income workers, it would cut benefits for both low-income workers and the middle class too. Democrats have never been in favor of that, and Tierney and Brooks know it. A plan that cut benefits for Donald Trump would be one thing although it would save so little money as to be barely worth bothering with but a plan that cuts benefits for people earning $10 an hour is just a cynical ploy. Pretending not to know that, even when they're doing it in unison, is cynicism squared.

POSTSCRIPT: Tierney has sure been a disappointment so far as a Times columnist. I didn't expect to agree with him, but I did expect that he'd at least be interesting. So far, though, his columns have been little more than rewarmed Heritage Foundation fact sheets. What a waste.

Kevin Drum 1:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 7, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

LAURA AND LARRY....From an LA Times profile of Laura Bush today:

"Well, I taught 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade, so I taught really every subject, but reading was my favorite....I was not a very good math teacher and I think that's kind of a problem in elementary schools. A lot of especially women teachers are great in language arts and not so great in math."

En route to Washington, Bush clarified her remark. "That is a stereotype," she said, "but I think that actually is also proven."

Larry Summers, your office is calling.

POSTSCRIPT: I can't resist excerpting the rest of the paragraph, especially since I don't know if this article is available to nonsubscribers:

She also said that her daughter, Barbara, a Yale graduate, is a "math whiz." "I don't know where she got it," said Bush, who is married to a Harvard MBA. "I guess she got it from her dad."

Really? Here's Barbara's dad on February 4:

Because the all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculate, for example, is on the table; whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There's a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to beor closer delivered to what has been promised. Does that make any sense to you? It's kind of muddled. Look, there's a series of things that cause the like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate the benefits will rise based upon inflation, as opposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those if that growth is affected, it will help on the red.

I think Laura is being too modest.

Kevin Drum 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NUCLEAR CHICKEN....The LA Times reports that North Korea will probably be testing a nuclear bomb soon and could shortly have nearly a dozen working weapons. Juan Cole speculates that Iran will also have nuclear weapons before long and there's not much we can do to stop them.

Suppose this happens. Here's what I want to know: conservatives have lambasted Bill Clinton for the past decade because he cut a bilateral nuke deal with North Korea in 1994. The North Koreans reneged and perhaps had already built one or two nukes by the time Clinton left office.

George Bush's alternative has been to refuse to engage in bilateral talks with either North Korea or Iran. The former has been dealt with primarily via threats and desultory multiparty talks, while the latter has been left up to the Europeans to deal with. So here's the question: if both countries do end up with serious arsenals of nuclear weapons, will conservatives conclude that there are worse things than bilateral talks after all?

Kevin Drum 2:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DOCUMENTING THE ATROCITIES....From Ted Barlow, South Park Republican Bingo. Warning: you can play, but do you really want to win?

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GETTING TO KNOW YOU....A few days ago a reader suggested it would be nice to get to know our regular commenters better:

I'd enjoy a post where you offer commenters a chance to tell a little about themselves. (Not that there's any way of knowing we're telling the truth, but it could be interesting.)

City, country, age, gender, educational background, profession, hobbies, how they define themselves politically, favorite sites, etc. sort of thing.

I'll go first: Irvine, California; USA; 46; male; BA in journalism from Cal State Long Beach; currently a professional blogger, formerly VP of marketing for a document imaging software company; genealogy, science fiction, tennis (though a back injury has sidelined that), feeding my cats, cursing at my computer; pretty much a bog standard FDR liberal; see my blogroll.

Rules: This is just for fun. No one has to participate. If personal vitriol creeps into this thread, I'll shut it down. Don't appropriate other people's names and post stupid bios, no matter how funny you're convinced it would be. Just consider this light weekend entertainment and we'll be fine.

Kevin Drum 2:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WEIRD TIMEOUT PROBLEM....So I've been having a weird computer problem lately. Many, many times a day I get the following message when I try to bring up a site:

Here's what's weird: Whenever this happens, all I have to do is try again and the site comes right up. This happens every single time: click once, get the error, click a second time and the site comes up immediately.

This has been going on for about a week. It doesn't happen with every site, but it happens with 20 or 30 sites a day (and not always the same ones). No new software has been installed on my PC.

My guess is that there's something going on with Cox cable but that it's hopeless to call them and complain, so I'm tossing it out to my readership. Does this sound like an ISP problem? Or could it be something I inadvertently did to my PC or browser settings? Any ideas?

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 6, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING.... Marian and I are heading up to LA in a few minutes to see a taping of the Bill Maher show, but I really couldn't let the previous post sit like a leaden blob at the top of the blog for the rest of the day, could I?

So....as long as we're on the subject of leaden blobs....here's an extremely rare picture of Inkblot and Jasmine in close proximity. You can see who the alpha cat is. This happened right after I had opened a fresh new bag of cat food, always an eagerly awaited treat, and both cats came trotting into the kitchen to chow down. But despite the fact that he outweighs her about 3:1, Inkblot just sat there looking sorrowful while Jasmine gorged herself. It's pretty obvious that he is, if you'll excuse the expression, pussy whipped.

And that's why I only watch Bill Maher, I don't write for him.....

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GIVING HIM THE FINGER....This is really unbelievable:

Soon after [Clarence] Stowers found [a] finger in a mouthful of chocolate soft-serve he bought Sunday at Kohl's Frozen Custard in Wilmington, he put it in his freezer at home, taking it out only occasionally to show to television cameras.

He refused to give it to the shop's owner, and refused to give it to a doctor who was treating [Brandon] Fizer, who accidentally stuck his hand in a mixing machine and had his right index finger lopped off at the first knuckle.

...."The general manager attempted to retrieve it and rush it to the hospital," reads a statement posted Thursday on Kohl's Web site. "Unfortunately, the customer refused to give it to her and declared that he would be calling the TV stations and an attorney as he exited the store."

Officials at Cape Fear Hospital said their efforts to retrieve the finger also failed.

Dr. James Larson, director of emergency medicine for UNC Hospitals, who was not involved in the case, said once Stowers took the finger home and froze it, it was too late to even try for reattachment.

I realize this is a vain hope, but I hope no lawyer is willing to take Stowers as a client. What a worthless excuse for a human being.

Kevin Drum 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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JON CHAIT WATCH....Jon Chait admits today that both PBS's "Now" and the Wall Street Journal editorial page have a point of view, but says there's more to it:

Neither "Now" nor the Journal editorial page are balanced, in the same sense that neither Margaret Thatcher nor Paris Hilton are virgins.

Jon, buddy, I'm a fan, and your point is a good one. But did you really have to use that analogy to get our attention? If I have bad dreams tonight, I'm blaming you.

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AARDVARK-LET ANNOUNCEMENT....In case you're wondering why this week's Middle East democracy discussion was scheduled to end on Thursday instead of going all the way to Friday, here's the answer: a brand new baby aardvark. Congrats to Mr. and Mrs. Aardvark.

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URL UPDATE....Suburban Guerrilla has moved off blogspot and onto a shiny new domain of its own. Susie's new address is:

http://susiemadrak.com

Update your bookmarks.

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MAYBE THE WORLD REALLY IS FLAT....I've been ignoring the recent outbreak of idiocy over evolution in Kansas because it's just too depressing to think about, but I really have to highlight this paragraph from today's LA Times account:

The hearings in Topeka, scheduled to last several days, are focusing on two proposals. The first recommends that students continue to be taught the theory of evolution because it is key to understanding biology. The other proposes that Kansas alter the definition of science, not limiting it to theories based on natural explanations.

Why yes, that would alter the definition of science, wouldn't it? Perhaps while we're at it we should also alter the definitions of history, literature, and religion. Seems like those fields have been stuck in a rut for a while too and could use a swift kick from the Kansas state board of education.

By the way, I'm glad to see that the Kansas folks aren't wasting time pretending that Intelligent Design has nothing to do with religion or creationism. Newly elected board member Kathy Martin is open about where she stands: "There are alternatives. Children need to hear them....We can't ignore that our nation is based on Christianity not science."

Quite right. And what do the "scientists" have to say for themselves? Check out this guy from the University of Kansas: "If you want to know about science, ask a scientist. If you want to know about faith, ask a minister."

That is so lame. Why would I want to ask a scientist about anything?

UPDATE: Real time coverage of the hearings from a real live Kansan is here. Or you can just skip the whole thing and read Fafblog instead.

Kevin Drum 1:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FOR THE RECORD....I see that good 'ol Knight Ridder has finally picked up on the July 2002 "Downing Street Memo" that the Sunday Times published last Sunday. They also got some U.S. confirmation that it was accurate:

A highly classified British memo, leaked in the midst of Britain's just-concluded election campaign, indicates that President Bush decided to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by summer 2002 and was determined to ensure that U.S. intelligence data supported his policy.

.... A former senior U.S. official called it "an absolutely accurate description of what transpired" during the senior British intelligence officer's visit to Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Look, I know this isn't going to change anything at this point. We've already spent months on the issue of intelligence manipulation and nobody really seems to care all that much. But it would still be nice for the American media to report this stuff just for the record.

According to the memo, the bottom line is this: By the summer of 2002 George Bush had already decided on war regardless of Saddam Hussein's actions; democracy promotion was not even mentioned in passing as a reason for the war; postwar reconstruction was an issue of no concern; and the "marketing campaign" for the war was deliberately timed to coincide with midterm elections.

Just for the record.

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DEMOCRACY WRAPUP....Many thanks to Dan Drezner and Marc (Abu Aardvark) Lynch for the guest blogging this week. I hope everyone enjoys occasional multiparty conversations here on the blog, since I plan to experiment with more of it in the future. Constructive comments on how you liked or didn't like it are welcome.

I forgot to do this last time I invited some guests, but here's a wrapup of the entire series of posts:

  1. Kevin: Liberals shouldn't be afraid to be idealistic about liberty and democracy.

  2. Dan: Bush deserves credit for staying the course on democracy promotion.

  3. Marc: Does he? The war affected the chances of democracy, but other things mattered more.

  4. Kevin: Maybe we'll end up with democracy in Iraq, maybe we won't, but it sure wasn't the original plan.

  5. Marc: Bush talks the democracy talk, but he doesn't walk the democracy walk.

  6. Dan: Joe Biden thinks NGOs are great, but guess what? They can create problems as well as solve them.

  7. Marc: Yep, NGOs are no panacea.

  8. Kevin: Look guys, let's get down to cases: did the war help spread democracy or didn't it?

  9. Marc: No, it didn't. It probably hurt more than it helped.

  10. Dan: Yes it did. Having al-Jazeera broadcast the sight of Iraqis braving car bombs to vote was a powerful signal to the whole region.

  11. Kevin: (Just an aside: Trade unions could have helped the democratic process along if Bush had been willing to work with them.)

  12. Marc: Dan is wrong: there were plenty of other options besides war for promoting democracy in the Middle East.

  13. Kevin: You know, maybe the war caused the recent oubreaks of democracy, maybe it didn't. But it is affecting the way they evolve. Is anyone thinking hard about that?

  14. Marc: What do we do if radical anti-American Islamists win free and fair elections?

  15. Dan: If the radicals win, let 'em give governing a try. Things will probably turn out OK.

Kevin Drum 1:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 5, 2005
By: Dan Drezner

IT'S NOT JUST MB....Marc raises a basic problem in talking about democracy promotion in the Middle East what hapens when the democratic process leads to a very popular anti-American regime? Egypt is just one example. Ed Morrissey links to an AP report by Steven Gutkin suggesting that Hamas is about to clean up in municipal Palestinian elections. Islamic activists cleaned up in the Saudi elections from last month.

In contrast, the devil we know often appears to be the better alternative. The arrest of a top Al Qaeda operative in Pakistan underscores how unlikely such an arrest would have been if the religious opposition was in power instead of Pervez Musharraf. Do the inevitable downsides of democracy promotion outweigh the benefits in illiberal societies?

I think the answer is still yes no[UPDATE: sorry, that was poor phrasing on my part -- I meant to say that the benefits of democracy promotion outweigh the costs], but like Kevin I'll admit that I'd like to see some other minds concentrate very hard on this problem. As I said a few years ago when Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom came out, there will always be a period of instability when there is regime change:

It's more a question of timing illiberal states that become democratic are more likely to have problems sooner rather than later, while authoritarian states that are slowly democratizing are likely to have problems later rather than sooner.

In the end, there are two factors that lead me to believe that this concern is overblown.

First, many authoritarians consciously manipulate the prominence of their radical opponents in order to appear indispensible. In the case of Pakistan, for example, one reason Musharraf's religious opponents seem so powerful is that Musharraf banned prominent secular parties from contesting elections, thereby channeling opposition to his regime towards the religious parties. The Saudi royal family could have engineered different results in their recent elections had they allowed women the right to vote. During the Cold War, strong men afraid of the rise of left parties encouraged the rise of Islamic parties as a domestic counterweight.

My point is not that parties like Hamas don't have genuine support. However, sometimes this support is hyped by the very governments they oppose.

Second, it's worth remembering that radical Islamic movements that have come to power have proven to be really, really bad at governing. The Iranian clerics are not terribly popular with the young people; the Taliban were loathed by a majority of the Afghan populace; and the only other radical Islamic regime was Sudan. This is not a stellar record of governance. The best way to tame radical Islamic movements may be to give them a hand in government and let them realize how difficult it is to make the trains run on time.

The example of Iran also offers a warning that a radical group can seize power with popular support and then maintain that power by any means necessary. However, that possibility is present regardless of whether the U.S. pushes for democracy in the region or not (it wasn't like the mullahs came to power in Iran because the Shah was democratizing in the late seventies). Better to make the good faith effort than not.

Dan Drezner 10:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIEDMAN'S LATEST....So what did I think of Tom Friedman's new book, The World is Flat? Basically, I spent most of my time rolling my eyes:

Although he takes care in World to warn his readers that the success of globalization doesn't depend on the success of the dotcom revolution, he undermines that warning by spending almost the entire book evangelizing technology. He reprints entire PR messages from eager CEOs without any apparent sense that of course these guys think their companies are doing world-shaking things. I spent the decade of the 90s as a marketing executive at a software company, and these kinds of breathless paeans are sadly familiar to me.

....There are other annoying feature of Lexus that return for encores in World, too. Friedman's tin ear for phrases like globalization 3.0 and compassionate flatism is one. His hagiography of his subjects is another. Every CEO he talks to is brilliant, insightful, and far seeing. Raising his own everyday experiences to the level of epiphany is yet another. He figures out one day that Southwest Airlines allows you to print a boarding pass on your computer, and it immediately becomes a strained metaphor for a global convergence of technology and human psychology. The chairman of Starbucks tells him they offer soy milk because their customers asked for it, and he presents this mundane act of satisfying customer demand as something new and visionary.

It's not that Friedman doesn't have some good points. He does and I mention some of them in the full review. But this kind of stuff makes it impossible to take him seriously. On the soy milk thing, for example, Starbucks began offering it as an option after its managers started getting "bombarded" with requests for it. Sounds pretty normal to me. But to Friedman, "The smartest big companies clearly understand that that the triple convergence allows them to collaborate with their customers in a totally new fashion."

I'm sorry, but this is not "collaboration" and it's not a "totally new fashion." It's just product marketing, and it's what I used to do for a living. When your customers start asking for something, you study it for a while to decide if (a) the demand is for real and (b) you can provide it at reasonable cost. Nothing tricky about it.

What I can't figure out is whether Friedman writes this kind of stuff because he genuinely doesn't realize what's new and what isn't, or if he does it just because he thinks he can get away with it. Whichever the case, it makes reading The World is Flat more torture than enlightenment.

Kevin Drum 7:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TONY WINS!....BARELY....Excellent. The polls are barely closed in Britain but we already know the winner thanks to the miracle of exit polling: "Tony Blair is on course to win an historic third term for Labour but...Mr Blair's majority will be reduced from 160 to 66."

If that holds up, it's a pretty crappy result for Labor.

Kevin Drum 6:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BEING TOM DELAY....Dana Milbank reports on the travails of the House Majority Leader these days:

Tom DeLay sneaks around the Capitol like a fugitive these days, using back doors and basement passages to avoid television cameras. He skips meetings where reporters might get a chance to film his answers to their questions. He makes unscheduled appearances so he won't attract a media mob and disrupt colleagues' events.

....Yesterday's installment of the chase began at 9 a.m., at the weekly meeting of the GOP House caucus. Last week, DeLay tried to thwart reporters by using the back door, but this backfired and he found himself cornered by cameras in the bowels of the Capitol, calling for security. Now, reporters suspect, he has aides figure out which entrance has the fewest cameras.

....When a photographer caught him slipping out the back door of his office last week, DeLay shouted for the photos to stop. For his weekly session with the news media off camera reporters yesterday were herded into DeLay's office, while the leader was escorted into the back entrance by bodyguards and his press secretary.

Poor guy. What's more, as Charles Kuffner relays, DeLay's approval rating in his own district is now 51% disapproval vs. 42% approval. Dark days indeed.

Kevin Drum 2:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

UNION BUSTING....LA Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik writes today about the latest in citizen governance here in the Golden State: an initiative that would require all public employee unions to obtain annual written permission from their members before contributing money to political candidates or groups.

The campaign's spearhead is Lewis K. Uhler, a Sacramento-area land developer with impeccable credentials as a right-wing anti-tax crusader.

....For all that Uhler describes the lot of government workers in terms that evoke a chain gang in a '30s movie, the fact is that virtually no public employee in California is compelled to join a union to get or keep a job. Nor can any be compelled to pay even a dime of dues or fees for political activities with which he or she disagrees. With very few exceptions, every public employee already has the legal right to refuse to join a union, to object to a union's expenditures for any purpose other than contract negotiations and contract administration, and to not pay for such expenditures or even receive a rebate.

.... Uhler wasn't up to speed on all these points when I called him this week.

No doubt, since Uhler is just a front for the folks who are really behind this initiative: "the Small Business Action Committee, which derives its reported funding from such mom 'n' pop outfits as tobacco company Philip Morris USA; Ameriquest Capital, a lender to low-credit borrowers that has been investigated for fraud by authorities in as many as 25 states; Pacific Gas & Electric Co.; Irvine Co.; and Shorenstein Co., a big commercial real estate developer."

I'll admit that public employee unions are not one of my hot buttons I figure they can mostly take care of themselves these days. My sympathies are more with organizing efforts in service industries: trying to win higher pay and better working conditions for janitors, nursing home attendants, Wal-Mart clerks, and so forth.

But the right wing never rests, and for any of my liberal readers who harbor suspicion of labor unions as an "old" liberal cause just another one of those special interest groups that Democrats are always pandering to ask yourself this: why are conservatives so hellbent on breaking them? Why did Ronald Reagan fire those air traffic controllers in 1981? Why did George Bush make union busting a key issue in the 2002 midterm election? Why the relentless opposition to using card checks to organize workers in new industries? Why the continuing demonization of unions from a party that's otherwise so conscientious about building its appeal to the working and middle classes?

It's because unions are the only truly effective check on the sine qua non of modern conservatism: corporate power. For all their faults and they have plenty, just as corporations do unions are the only organizations that have the power to bargain effectively for the interests of the middle class. Union power in the private sector began to wane in the 1970s, and it's not a coincidence that this was exactly the same time that middle class wages began to stagnate, CEO pay began to skyrocket, and income inequality began increasing inexorably.

Many liberals seem to believe that these grim trends can be fought with tax and regulatory policy, but those are blunt instruments with plenty of drawbacks and unforeseen consequences. Collective bargaining, which is essentially a market based approach in which the government's job is simply to make sure that unions have enough authority to ensure serious bargaining and then get out of the way, is far more reliable, effective, and flexible. It actually works, which is why conservatives have always hated unions so bitterly.

Despite this, there are plenty of cocktail party "new" Democrats who blithely think of unions as just another dinosaur special interest unsuited to politics in the 21st century. They should think again. Republicans understand the stakes a lot better and so should we.

Kevin Drum 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark)

The MB Question....Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood held a sizable rally yesterday demanding reforms, and met with a pretty rough police response. This raises tough questions. What should America's position be on the real possibility that Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood would win free, fair elections? How can you seriously have democracy if you exclude the largest organized political force in the country? What's the value of democracy if it brings to power illiberal forces?

Many moderate Islamists accept the legitimacy of democratic procedures (although many doubt their sincerity). They're willing to participate, unlike the bin Ladenist types who reject democracy on principle. Having someone like the controversial al-Jazeera cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi consistently preaching the virtues of democracy to a vast al-Jazeera audience is worth a thousand marginal pro-American figures saying the same thing. Still, liberals (at least) can't help but be disturbed by their socially conservative views on homosexuality, gender relations, the relationship between religion and state to say nothing of their hostility to Israel. So it's a tough call.

I favor allowing moderate Islamists, and all groups which disavow violence, to participate in elections. I don't see how democracy can be meaningful if they are excluded. Go down the exclusion route, and you're right back with the old dictators. I can't help but giggle at the argument that we should be happy to see Mubarak re-elected so that he can nurture a liberal opposition. Like he's been doing for the last 24 years, you mean?

So here's what I think we should do. I think the US should give up on easy solutions like a "democratic domino effect," stop relying on stealth tactics (like supporting NGOs, or Radio Sawa's "subliminal strategy" of hooking kids on American values with Britney Spears as if they didn't already have Haifa Wehbe) and deal directly with the political realm.

We should be pushing for a level playing field, not trying to pick winners. Arab reform activists are smart and savvy, and they see through the bullshit (Kevin, can I say that?). We should accept that most of them don't trust us or want direct American help, and do things that level the playing field and give them a fighting chance against entrenched regimes which don't really want to give up their power. Concentrate on concrete things like freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, human rights, and independent monitoring of elections. Set down explicit markers on these fundamentals, and attach real financial and political costs to regimes violating them. Make it extremely clear to Arab leaders that we won't look the other way if they use violence against protestors. I would put in a particular plug for emphasizing media freedoms as central to any functioning democracy something on which the Bush administration has had an absolutely atrocious record.

But at the same time we need to be frank about what real democracy might produce. That's a debate I'd like to see Americans have. Better yet, I'd like to see Americans talking to the Arabs themselves, instead of it being all about us.

Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark) 11:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE WINDS OF WAR....Wes Clark makes a good point regarding recent events in the Middle East:

It is a mistake to believe that everything that is happening in the region whether positive or negative is a result of American military actions or rhetoric from Washington.

In Iran, for instance, the hopeful movement toward democracy went into remission after we invaded neighboring Iraq. Did our invasion cause democratic reform to falter in Iran? Not necessarily. There are many reasons most of them internal for why reform movements within a country wax and wane. But it is hard to claim that the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq was responsible for pro-democratic reactions in some Middle Eastern countries, but not for anti-democratic reactions in others.

That sounds right, but it raises another question in my mind one that unfortunately I don't have the chops to try and answer.

Here it is: put aside the question of whether the Iraq war actually caused any of the recent movements toward reform in the Middle East. It certainly didn't cause Yasser Arafat to die or Syria to assassinate Rafik Hariri, for example.

But it does provide the backdrop against which these events have unfolded. So what I wonder is this: even if we assume all these things would have happened regardless, how has the war affected the way in which they are playing out? Perhaps the Martyrs' Square demonstrations in Lebanon were inevitable after Hariri's assassination, but would Syria have subsequently backed down if not for the 150,000 coalition troops camped out on its border? Conversely, would Iran be less intent on developing a nuclear deterrent if it hadn't just watched the fate of a neighboring country without one?

Or take Saudi Arabia. Were their recent municipal elections made palatable in the first place because of the withdrawal of American troops from Saudi territory? Maybe. But on the other hand, were the results of the elections more anti-American than they otherwise would have been due to the influence of the war and the continuing insurgency in Iraq?

Answers to these questions are above my pay grade, I'm afraid. But I'd sure feel a lot better if I thought that more smart people were at least taking a crack at them.

Kevin Drum 2:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ANNALS OF THE WEIRD....The Texas House has passed a bill to ban "sexually suggestive cheerleading." I wasn't aware there was any other kind.

Kevin Drum 1:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 4, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

FREEDOM IN CHINA....The authorities in China have long censored internet access to news sources they dislike, but Peking Duck reports that they are now censoring Google searches for specific words. Apparently they've previously targeted specific phrases like "Tiananmen Square," but an emailer says that a Google search for even a common word like "freedom" now returns garbage, whether the search is done in English or Chinese. Several of PD's commenters confirmed that the same thing happened when they tried it.

It sounds like there's some pretty serious paranoia setting in among the powers-that-be in Beijing. Do I have any readers in China who can confirm this?

UPDATE: And the award for funniest comment I've read in a while goes to....B!

Kevin Drum 10:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WOOLLY BLOGS....Riverbend tells us about the Persian rugs that are commonly used in Iraqi homes:

The patterns and colors are repeated all over the rugs in a sort of symmetrical fashion. If you really focus on them though, you can often see a story being told by the flowers, geometrical shapes and sometimes birds or butterflies. When we were younger, E. and I would sit and stare at them, trying to 'read' the colors and designs Having them on the ground is almost like having a woolly blog for the floor.

Like having a woolly blog for the floor. That's an appealing comparison, isn't it? I almost feel like going out and buying a Persian rug myself.

Read the whole thing for more details on (a) Iraqi carpeting customs and (b) her cousin being saved from a car bomb because he stopped to buy some carrots. Apparently that's life in Baghdad these days.

Kevin Drum 9:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BOB BALL'S SOCIAL SECURITY PLAN....I forgot to mention this yesterday, but the Century Foundation has published a paper by ber-mega-lifetime Social Security guru Bob Ball that outlines a "relatively painless solution" for restoring Social Security to solvency. Basically, it raises the payroll cap a bit, dedicates estate tax revenue to Social Security, and invests a portion of the trust fund in the stock market.

It sounds fine to me. My first preference is still to do nothing, since panicking over minor differences in economic projections four decades in the future strikes me as foolish, but if we do insist on doing something, Ball's plan is a sensible one.

I do want to point out one clever bit of phrasing, though. A lot of liberals are in favor of raising the payroll cap (currently only the first $90,000 of income is subject to Social Security taxes), but usually this gets presented as simply an increase in taxes on the well off. Instead, here's how Ball puts it:

Gradually restore the maximum taxable earnings base to 90 percent, the level set by Congress in 1983.

The payroll cap was originally set in 1983 so that 90% of all income would be taxed. It's been increased since then in line with average wage increases. However, because the wages of the rich have skyrocketed far faster than the wages of the middle class, the median wage has increased more slowly than total income. As a result, the current payroll cap captures only 85% of all income.

In other words, all Ball wants to do is gradually reset the payroll cap to the same effective level that Ronald Reagan originally set it at. Who could argue with that? For anyone who favors raising the payroll cap, this is about the best way of framing it you're likely to find.

Kevin Drum 6:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SAN FRANCISCO'S HOMELESS....Gavin Newsom is best known for promoting gay marriage as mayor of San Francisco. But among Bay Area denizens themselves, he's just as well known for promoting a new program for handling homelessness: "Care Not Cash" cut cash benefits to the homeless and used the savings to build low-cost transitional housing and fund psychological and substance-abuse services.

So how's it working out? Ezra Klein says pretty well.

Kevin Drum 6:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ELECTIONS IN BRITAIN....The British are having another election tomorrow. Yawn. Tony Blair will win again and there will likely be no fights over dimpled chads or electronic voting. That sounds a bit tedious, doesn't it?

But why will Blair win? Conventional wisdom says it's because the Conservatives are hopelessly incoherent and the Liberal Democrats are just plain hopeless.

Maybe so. But take a look at the chart on the right that I've stolen from last week's Economist. It's about as perfect a real-world example as you could find of that hoary old Poli Sci 101 standby, Down's Median Voter Theorem. Tony Blair has positioned himself so perfectly as the median candidate neither too liberal nor too conservative that there's literally no room for another candidate to squeeze in between him and the absolute center of British politics. It's a masterful performance.

Of course, there's also the odd result that apparently British voters, on average, think of themselves as slightly too far to the left. That's peculiar, isn't it? I wonder what a similar poll would find in America?

Kevin Drum 5:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WSJ EDITORIAL PAGE ANNOUNCES PLANS TO LOWER ITS COLLECTIVE IQ EVEN FURTHER....Here's some fascinating news via an email birdie: the Wall Street Journal editorial page, not content with its already galactic reputation for misrepresenting economic statistics, has hired Stephen Moore as its senior economics writer starting June 1.

Moore, of course, was until recently the chief anti-tax jihadist of the famously anti-tax Club for Growth. As senior ranter-in-chief of an organization dedicated to tax policy, he was the guy who, among other atrocities, apparently never learned that you multiply percentages, not add them, when you're figuring tax rates.

As my correspondent says, "I hope they also hired a fact checker."

UPDATE: Why "until recently"? What was it that caused Moore and the Club for Growth to part ways? Apparently the answer is that he got too soft. Chris Cillizza has the full story here.

UPDATE 2: Jon Chait passes along further Moore hilarity from 1997.

Kevin Drum 3:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark)

Damn it, Dan....we're supposed to be disagreeing, and you go and say that it was al-Jazeera's broadcasts of the Iraqi elections that made the difference? Okay, you win!

You're right that we need to distinguish between whether the invasion of Iraq produces democracy in Iraq and whether it sparks democracy elsewhere in the region. I've mostly been talking about the latter. And there it sounds like we agree that the war changed some incentives but isn't enough to make the difference on its own.

But here our agreement ends: "the Iraqi elections were also a necessary but insufficient condition." That goes too far. I can imagine a lot of other ways that the US could have sparked regional democratization without invading Iraq.

For example: Bush could have declared back in 2002 that the United States would cut off the $2 billion in American finanical aid to Egypt unless Mubarak allowed multi-party Presidential elections under international supervision. That might have been a more efficient way to get those elections, no?

Or go back to Jordan, 1989: cuts in food and fuel subsidies sparked riots, which led then-King Hussein to authorize a democratic opening which included free, fair, competitive elections. Without an American invasion of Iraq in sight!

So I can't go along with you on that one. I'm sticking with "neither necessary nor sufficient, even if it changed some of the incentives."

Interesting argument about how the violence perversely increased the impact of the elections, I'll admit. The peaceful and enthusiastic nature of the elections did surprise a lot of Arabs, at least judging by the commentary I saw on al-Jazeera and read in the Arab press. Of course, a smoother political process without any violence probably would have impressed them even more. Still, not a bad piece of silver lining grabbing.

Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark) 2:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TRADE UNIONS AND DEMOCRACY....Suzanne Nossel has jumped into the conversation Marc and Dan had yesterday about the pitfalls of relying on NGOs to help promote democracy in places like Iraq. She's sympathetic, but offers some ideas:

  • funnel money through organizations that are seen as more independent and less controlling than the USG (for example, the American Bar Association, which has done a huge amount of valuable work of this sort, mainly in Eastern Europe, relying overwhelmingly on US government funding);

  • set up a division of labor whereby the U.S. funds schools and businesses and the Scandinavians and others with less baggage focus on the NGOs;

  • hire locals and those with language proficiency to conduct the program evaluations so that groups dont feel they must over-cater to the West.

I'll offer one more: make better use of labor unions. The AFL-CIO was famously helpful in Poland in the 80s, and unions in developing countries have long been a natural way to organize workers as a counterweight to often corrupt elite leaders. Unfortunately, the Bush administration's ideological hostility to unions has made it blind to the help they could provide in Iraq, where, as Matthew Harwood pointed out last month, unions are strongly anti-insurgent and anti-Baathist.

Both Bush and Paul Bremer (during his term as proconsul) were so hellbent on privatization as a cure-all that they ignored Iraq's trade unions even though they could have become one of our strongest allies. And although the AFL-CIO opposed the war, if Bush could set aside his ideological blinders and make a call to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney asking for organizing help in Iraq, he might be surprised at the response. And the results.

Kevin Drum 2:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Dan Drezner

MARC, YOU IGNORANT SLUT... OK, Kevin clearly thinks we're pussyfooting around the Big Question "did the Iraq war spur the democratic reforms that we've recently seen sprouting in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East?" Marc has ably laid out the "no" answer; here's why I think Marc and Heather Hurlburt are wrong.

First, Hurlburt's essay wasn't terribly convincing (which surprised me I've liked her stuff in the past). Her empirical examples Cambodia, Haiti, Liberia, and Kosovo are off. Cambodia wasn't a case of coercive democratization there was never a real regime change. Haiti is a bad example because with the exception of Cuba there were no non-democratic neighbors for spillover to take place. Kosovo is a really bad example for Heather, unless she believes that what happened in Serbia in 2000 was unrelated to the Kosovo occupation. As for Liberia, she might be right (I don't know a great deal about this case) but if memory serves, the U.S. never out-and-out occupied the country and forced a regime change.

Furthermore, Hurlburt conflates two different questions in her essay: whether it's possible to create a democratic regime in a country via occupation, and whether a forcible regime change in one country has demonstration effects in neighboring undemocratic states.

Let's state as given that the January election in Iraq was strong evidence that democracy has made some inroads in Iraq. What about the rest of the region? I'm surprised that Marc is downplaying the significance of the Iraqi elections, since I would suggest that the causal mechanism through which the election mattered was... having the election broadcast and commentated to death on Al-Jazeera and other Arab media outlets. The fact that independent Arab media covered the event so well sent a credible signal to other Arabs about the Iraqi desire for democracy.

I'll go even further and make a truly counter-intuitive, not-completely-thought-out suggestion: the Iraqi elections mattered more because of the violent insurgency. What stunned everyone was not just that the election was successful, but that the initial conditions for success were so poor. The fact that Iraqis demonstrated a willingness to vote in the face of insurgent threats of violence was as powerful a signal as you could get in a region accustomed to power emanating from the barrel of a gun. The fact that insurgent-friendly Sunni groups like the Association of Muslim Scholars acknowledged afterwards that they had screwed up their election strategy was equally powerful.

What the Iraqi election signaled to Heather and Marc's indigenous activists and the governments in the region was that it was possible for peaceful demonstrations of political voice to blunt the power of violence as a political tool.

Kevin gets to ask questions, so I'll lob a few back at Kevin, Marc, Heather at Democracy Arsenal, and the commenters: I'll stipulate that the existence of "indigenous activists" is a necessary condition for change in the Arab Middle East. However, would you acknowledge that these groups are not a sufficient condition for democratic change? Indeed, perhaps the Iraqi elections were also a necessary but insufficient condition?

Let me close with two points where I am in complete agreement with both Heather and many of the commenters to my first post here: "Waves of democratization die out just as fast as they rise up," and "the post-Iraq wave of Arab democratization has much to be modest about." Arab democratization is in its very, very early stages, and could pop like a balloon. Even if it succeeds, in about a decade it would not be surprising if there was a counter-wave of authoritarianism.

Dan Drezner 1:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CUTS....The Carpetbagger is right: if you spend less than you've promised on a program, you've cut the program. President Bush should shelve the nonsense about how a cut isn't really a cut and instead start demonstrating for real! some of the "courageous" honesty that Michael Kinsley bizarrely thought he divined at last week's press conference. (Really, Michael, if that was honesty on display last Thursday, the word has truly been debased into uselessness.)

And a note to my conservative friends: this works both ways. If John Kerry had been elected and had proposed spending less than planned on defense, that would have been a cut too. In all these cases we can argue about whether the cuts are good ideas or not, but they are cuts.

Kevin Drum 1:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark)

Getting to the Point....Kevin says, if I may paraphrase, stop tip-toeing around the edges! I didn't invite you guys here to agree with each other! No more "al-Jazeera this" and "NGOs that"! Answer the question already: "did the Iraq war spur the democratic reforms that we've recently seen sprouting in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East?"

Well, since some of my earlier posts may have gone on a few hundred words too long, let me keep this one short: no.

A little more? OK. In my first post, I agreed that the occupation of Iraq had changed everyone's strategic calculations, and probably had some effect in terms of emboldening some reformers and inhibiting some of the nastier and more overt regime responses. The invasion of Iraq changed things, no doubt about it and at the least put an end to the much-hated and much-abused Iraq sanctions. But its effects on democratic reforms are all second order and indirect. In social science jargon, invading Iraq was neither necessary nor sufficient for democratic reforms in the region.

The occupation didn't introduce the idea of democratic reforms. There were plenty of Arabs demanding such reforms before the Iraq war. They didn't need an American army in Baghdad to want democratic change, a more accountable and transparent government, a freer media, and all the other things they've been demanding for years. They didn't need to see Iraqi elections to demand elections of their own they've been doing so for years.

The occupation of Iraq also hasn't substantially changed their prospects for getting those reforms. Here's a point where I do disagree with Dan. I don't think that the "demonstration effect" of an Iraqi democracy (even if there were such a thing) is really all that significant. Local factors matter far more in each Arab country. And yesterday I laid out some of the reasons why I expect those nasty little weasels called "Arab regimes" to fight hard to ride out whatever storm there may be.

And don't forget, the lessons of Iraq remain pretty ambiguous. The elections were an exciting moment, but for most of the occupation period the Arab view of Iraq has been (fairly or unfairly) one of an unpopular occupation, intense violence, Abu Ghraib, and so on. The elections helped, but let's face it there's still a violent insurgency going on, the elections led to months of political stalemate, and the thrill of the elections wore off a while ago. I don't think many Arabs look at Iraq as something to emulate.

Finally, since the war greatly increased hostility towards America in the region, and increased doubts about American intentions and credibility, it probably has complicated rather than helped American efforts to directly promote reforms.

Over to you, Dan!

Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark) 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRACY AND WAR....So let's get right down to it: did the Iraq war spur the democratic reforms that we've recently seen sprouting in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East? Is the neocon domino theory correct?

Of the seven writers who tackled that question in our forum this month, I think Heather Hurlburt addressed it most directly:

If President Bush is right about the way to build democracy in the Middle East to eject forcibly a bad government, install a formally democratic replacement, and let the spillover begin then we know where we should look for democracy's greatest triumphs over the last two decades:

Cambodia, where the United States supported Japan, Australia, and the United Nations in a massive post-conflict exercise in free elections and democracy-building....Bosnia and Kosovo, where conflicts were followed by free elections and newly-democratic structures of governance....Liberia....and the all-time champion, Haiti.

Heather's conclusion is that democracy has a pretty rocky record even in those countries themselves, let alone in the surrounding regions. Rather, she says, the only way to build any kind of lasting democracy is "after years of determined domestic opposition and international support have worn down or modified authoritarian regimes. Think South Africa, South Korea, Chile, Ghana, Mali, and Benin."

This is the heart of the question, I think, and it's one that I'd like to see our guest bloggers take a stab at. Is Heather right about the relative non-success of military intervention in other regions? If so, is there something different about the Middle East that makes war there more likely to be a successful democratic catalyst than in, say, the regions surrounding Cambodia or Bosnia?

And a related question: how can we judge? If the Iraq war really did catalyze democracy in the Middle East, are there specific things we should expect to see over the next few years? Things that are different from what we'd expect to see if future reforms are unrelated to the war?

And finally, the money question: Is it going to work? Are we likely to see reform of the Middle East in our lifetimes? None of our seven writers really took a firm stand on that question, but maybe our guest bloggers are made of sterner stuff.

Kevin Drum 2:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TWILIGHT IN THE DESERT....Via Land of Black Gold, a story in the Sunday Herald of Glasgow about oil analyst Matt Simmons:

As President George W Bush strolled around his Prairie Chapel ranch in Texas last week with Saudi ruler Crown Prince Abdullah, oil prices were high on the agenda during talks between the leaders of the worlds biggest energy consumer and largest oil exporter.

At the same time, Matt Simmons, one of Bushs energy advisers, was at a conference in Edinburgh, spelling out harsh facts on Saudi oil production which, if proved true, would have severe repercussions for the global economy.

Simmonss belief is that Saudi has been overstating its oil reserves for years, its biggest oil fields are in decline and it will struggle to live up to its promise to crank up daily output from around 10 million barrels a day to 12 million by 2009 and later 15 million to meet global demand.

A review copy of Twilight in the Desert, Simmons's new book, just landed on my doorstep today, so I should have more to say about this in a few days. It's chock full of conclusions drawn from technical engineering reports and does not appear at first glance to be very user friendly. For example:

This task force also recommended efficiency improvements in the water separation processes at Ghawar's GOSPs and expansion of the dehydrator/desalter facilities to avoid overloading. Ghawar's downstream capacity was further de-bottlenecked by additions to the piping, seawater pumps, pipelines, and the seawater injection facilities. The most important action resulting from the taskforce's work, however, was the expansion in 1979 of Ghawar's seawater injection program, from its initial capacity of 4 million to an expanded 7 million barrels of seawater per day.

That's a bit dense, isn't it? My life will also be made more difficult by the fact that the galleys don't contain any of the graphs and charts that will show up in the finished product, and I have a feeling those graphs and charts do a lot to make the text more understandable. Sigh.

But I shall persevere, and I expect that shortly I will be a minor expert on the arcane details of carbonate rock formations, Gas Oil Separation Plants, and geostatistical modeling. I'll bet you can hardly wait.

Kevin Drum 12:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 3, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

RHETORIC vs. REALITY....George Bush loves to give speeches. Unfortunately, he's less enthusiastic about following through on the promises he makes in them. Here he is announcing his new Millenium Challenge Accounts on March 24, 2002:

Today, I call for a new compact for global development, defined by new accountability for both rich and poor nations alike....The United States will lead by example. We will increase our development assistance by $5 billion over the next three budget cycles. This new money is above and beyond existing aid requests in the current budget I submitted to the Congress.

As summarized by the Democratic Policy Committee, here's the GAO report released last week on how we're doing four budget cycles later:

The MCA has not contributed a single dollar of foreign assistance to a developing nation. Furthermore, the President has not requested the $5 billion per year he promised for the account in any of the four budgets he has submitted to Congress after he announced the initiative.

In other words, it was just political posturing. I'm sure we're all shocked. Michael Signer has more over at Democracy Arsenal.

Kevin Drum 8:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

STACKING THE DECK....E.J. Dionne today:

That the president is fixing the Social Security reform game should be obvious. The most basic corruption of the process is the way the Republican congressional leadership has transformed the bargaining that once took place between the House and the Senate.

In the old days, when each house produced different versions of the same bill, a "conference" committee typically including members of both parties from both houses would thrash out the details and reach a compromise. Now the Republicans will concede whatever is necessary to get a bill out of the Senate, even as the lockstep-Republican House produces a right-wing version of the same proposal. In conferences, Republicans routinely freeze out all but the most pliable Democrats. The supposed "compromise" that emerges is not a compromise at all. Democrats who go along become enablers of a game being played with a stacked deck.

That's exactly right. It's the same kind of thing that's behind the filibuster controversy, where the only reason that Democrats were forced into filibustering in the first place was because Republicans so cynically demolished all the traditional (but arcane) rules they themselves had taken advantage of to block judges when Bill Clinton was president. If Republicans had played fair in the first place, there would have been no need for filibusters.

There are plenty of other examples of this kind of thuggish Republican behavior. Keeping floor votes open for hours of arm twisting and vote buying, for example, instead of the usual 15 minutes. Preventing Democrats from so much as offering amendments to Republican legislation. Increased use of "emergency" late night meetings. Keeping the text of legislation secret until mere hours before scheduled votes. Squeezing the time for debate by allowing no more than one or two days a week for work on real legislation. Slashing the number of bills considered under open rules. And, of course, threatening the "nuclear option" to cut off judicial filibusters. You can get more details here in Rep. Louise Slaughter's detailed report.

Unfortunately, this kind of backroom drudgery can't compete with runaway brides. So how do you get the public to pay attention to this kind of stuff? I'm not sure. But "playing by the rules" is a pretty ingrained American habit, and this brand of Republican hardball would be widely unpopular if someone could figure out a way to dramatize it. Who will figure out how to do it?

Kevin Drum 2:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NO MORE CRISIS?....Via Melanie Mattson, here are the results of a USA Today poll on Social Security:

Sixty-two percent worry that Republicans will "go too far" in changing Social Security; 61% worry that Democrats "will not go far enough."

At first glance, that's not such great news for the good guys, since on substantive grounds doing nothing really is the best option right now (for a more detailed defense of this, see here). But then there's this:

Asked what action this year would be best for them in the long run, 27% choose passing a Republican plan, 22% choose a Democratic plan and 46% choose no plan this year.

Since the Democratic plan is basically to oppose Bush's plan, that's not bad. Two-thirds of the country agrees that nothing much needs to be done right now. The rest of the poll results are mixed, but at least we seem to be past the stage where people think the system is in crisis.

Kevin Drum 2:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark)

MORE ON NGOs....Dan makes a good point about the problems with relying on NGO funding as a democracy promotion strategy. In the Arab context, this has played out in a couple of ways.

First, you've got the "kiss of death" problem. Association with the United States is the fastest route towards being politically discredited in today's Arab world. Ayman Nour was interviewed in the Nasirist weekly al-Araby a couple of weeks ago, and he complained that a five minute conversation with Madeleine Albright has been blown up out of all proportion and caused him all kinds of problems. Kifaya organizers have been careful to avoid association with the US, while Mubarak's people are doing everything they can to make them look like American stooges. Hamza Mansour, head of Jordan's Islamic Action Front, gave an interview in al-Hayat the other day to deny that the IAF had been talking to Washington. I could go on and on. Point: overt American assistance to politically influential groups isn't going to be welcome, and probably isn't going to help.

Second, you've got the "low hanging fruit" problem. Current MEPI and other civil society support funds always seem to go to women's rights groups in Jordan or to an English-language school in Tunisia, or whatnot. Nice, often led by wonderful people, and a good way for USAID officials to show that they're spending money, but not really getting at the core political stalemate.

Third, there's some tough calls about whether to support like-minded but marginal groups or influential but potentially disagreeable groups. The Arab media has been obsessed the last few weeks over the idea that the US is planning to have a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood half a dozen al-Jazeera talk shows, dozens of op-eds. Do you include moderate Islamists in your civil society outreach or not? What about the Jordanian government cracking down on the professional associations, which are both the strongest political organization for the Jordanian middle classes and the staunchest opponents of normalization with Israel?

And fourth, you've got what Dan's talking about, the perverse incentives it can set up, as local NGOs tailor their agenda to what can get funding and not what the local society really needs.

I don't know if there's anyone (even Biden) who really thinks that the NGO/civil society route is a magic bullet, but if so then they haven't been paying attention to most of the political science on the subject. For a nice review of those debates, I'd point you to Amy Hawthorne's excellent work.

Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark) 1:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FAIRNESS AND SOCIAL SECURITY....The Social Security plan that President Bush unveiled last week keeps benefits unchanged for the poor but cuts them substantially over time for the working and middle classes. As a result, benefits for the poor would eventually be more nearly equal to the benefits of the better off than they are now, which in turn would make Social Security a more progressive program than it is today.

Conservatives are gleeful at the potential that this piece of political jiu jitsu has to unnerve liberals. After all, we liberals like progressive programs, don't we? But we don't like George Bush. What a dilemma! New York Times columnist John Tierney condensed the conservative conventional wisdom on this perfectly last Saturday when he crowed, "Someone has finally called their bluff."

Sorry, but no. The fact that liberals support progressivity doesn't mean that we support only progressivity, and only maximal progressivity at that. What we support are intuitive ideas of fairness, and most Americans think that a certain amount of progressivity is intuitively fair: the poor need help more than the rich and the rich can afford to give help more than the poor. That's common sense.

But that's not all there is to fairness. Most Americans also intuitively accept the idea that tax rates become unfair if they get too high, no matter how well off you are. They also think it's unfair to pay taxes and get nothing back. A common sense notion of fairness suggests that Social Security should be progressive but not flat. If you pay more in, you get more out.

That's what we have today, but under the "Pozen plan" that's the basis of Bush's proposal, it wouldn't be for long. The CBPP estimates that by the end of the century, a low income earner would get back 49% of his wages in Social Security benefits, the equivalent of $8,070 today. A high earner would get back only 9%, the equivalent of $8,100 today.

If there's a contradiction here for liberals, I don't see it. I support progressive tax rates, but I don't support 99% marginal rates. I support the minimum wage, but I don't support a minimum wage that's 99% of the median. I support progressive Social Security benefits, but I don't support a program that gives low earners 99% of the benefits of higher earners who have paid much more into the system.

So: no one's bluff has been called. Sorry. Sensible liberals believe in combining the notion of moderate progressivity with the notion that people who pay more in should get more out. Neither principle needs to be wholly discarded in favor of the other.

The result of this is a Social Security program that strikes most Americans as intuitively fair. Maybe that's why so many conservatives hate it so much.

Kevin Drum 1:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Dan Drezner

THE TROUBLE WITH FUNDING NGOs....

The most effective, sustainable way to advocate democracy is to help those moderates and modernizers on the inside build democratic institutions such as political parties, an independent judiciary, a free media, a modern education system, a civil society, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and a private sector.

That's a key piece of Joe Biden's advice in his cogent Washington Monthly essay. This theme was echoed in many of the other pieces you need to generously fund the elements of civil society that make the engine of democracy run smoothly.

It would seem churlish to disagree with such pragmatic and reasonable advice. So let me sound churlish this sort of activity has the potential to be counterproductive to democracy promotion.

Exhibit A is Russia. For her book Building Democracy in Contemporary Russia: Western Support for Grassroots Organizations, political scientist Sarah Henderson did extensive fieldwork looking at Russian civil society that received funding from USAID, the Soros Foundation, or other Western sources (click here for a concise review of the book).

What Henderson found was disturbing. Western funding of the NGO community in Russia has led to perverse tradeoffs in the creation of a democratic civil society. When these civic organizations become more dependent upon foreign material resources, their ability to mobilize or even connect with their alleged constituents decreased. Organizations that received western funding became too wrapped up in pleasing their donors with monthly reports and snazzy conferences in the process, they triggered distrust among Russians suspicious of their funding sources.

If you think about how this would/will play out in the Arab world, things don't look great. Most Arab regimes function as rentier states governments that don't need to ask much of their citizery because of oil revenues and the like. Boosting democracy aid to non-governmental elements in the region has the potential to cause rentier governments to persist with a different souce of funding.

Furthermore, Arab distrust of the United States has a long and distinguished pedigree that pre-dates the current Bush administration and as Marc points out, the distrust has only increased in recent years.

I'm not saying that Biden's suggestion of funding civil society is worthless but it's not even close to the magic bullet that many liberals believe it to be.

Dan Drezner 11:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark)

Money, Meet Mouth....Reading through the Washington Monthly contributions, I see that Democrats continue to struggle with how to respond to Bush's democracy rhetoric. Attack the idea of spreading democracy (and maybe point out the flaws in motherhood, apple pie, baseball, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while you're at it), or attack Bush's shortcomings in actually doing it? Me, I agree with Tomasky and Biden and some of the others in this collection. Democrats should embrace the idea of spreading democracy to the Middle East, and point out that once you separate out words from deeds, Bush hasn't really done much to promote democracy. And invading Iraq was a really inefficient, if not counter-productive, way to do it.

The real problem with Bush isn't the nice words about democracy and freedom, it's the flagrant shortcomings and contradictions in practice. Bush hasn't put much money into democracy promotion programs, and the programs he's got such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative are deeply dysfunctional. His grand public diplomacy initiative, the Arabic language satellite television station al-Hurra, is a costly and irrelevant white elephant, treated as a joke in the region on those rare occasions when anyone actually notices it exists. The administration's hostility towards al-Jazeera makes it look terribly hypocritical when it starts talking about media freedoms (which, to be fair, the administration almost never does). And don't get me started on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

There's also some big double standards problems. Most Arabs are deeply cynical about American intentions, and they can't help but notice when "useful" Arab countries get a pass. Tunisia invites Ariel Sharon to come visit, and the Bush administration has not a word to say when a human rights activist is sent to jail for publishing an article on the internet describing torture in the Tunisian prisons. Heck, the administration doesn't even seem to consider it a problem that the regional office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative is based in a country which the State Department describes as having an extremely poor human rights record, where "members of the security forces tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees... [and] arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals."

Nor did the Bush administration have a word to say about Jordan, where King Abdullah's regime spent much of the last year getting more and more repressive. It got bad enough that Abdullah finally sacked his prime minister and appointed a new "reformist" PM a month ago, but amazingly no Bush official has yet said a single word in public about it (you can read all you want, and more, about Jordan here). Wesley Clark, who wants more behind the scenes work and less chest-thumping, might actually like this. I don't, because it's such an easy target for the very large number of Arabs who think that the US democracy talk is a bunch of hypocritical hot air a weapon to use against our enemies, but not for our friends. Places like Tunisia and Jordan really hurt America's image as a credible democracy promoter among Arabs, who pay attention to such things.

It got worse last week. The pictures of Bush kissing Crown Prince Abdullah and walking hand in hand with the Saudi leader reinforced this impression for Arabs. The op-ed pages of the Arab press have been filled to the brim the last week with pieces extolling (or damning) the return to normal American-Saudi relations. Whatever the Realist reasons for cozying up to the Saudis oil prices, their newly helpful attitude on terrorism it's got nothing to do with Arab democracy, and Arabs see that. Remember, they already don't trust this administration, so there's a big hurdle... and scenes like the Crawford love-fest raise it even higher.

The point of all this is that the "Arab spring" was a beginning (or rather a second act), not an ending. Arab regimes are tough, nasty creatures which won't easily surrender real power. They've got lots of experience in engineering elections, dividing the opposition along ethnic or religious or class lines, cynically deploying violence to disrupt the flow of events, and buying off potential opponents. Seeing Iraqi elections on Arab television, or Lebanese protestors defying Syria's occupation, or Egyptian protestors shouting "enough," inspired a lot of Arabs and gave a shot of enthusiasm. But after that thrill wears off, the hard work of politics remains. That's where we are now, and that's where this administration has been weakest.

Condi Rice bought the US a little credit by dressing down the Egyptians over Ayman Nour, but you can only keep dining out on the same story so many times.

Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark) 10:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE AGENCY OF MORAL CLEANSING....Publius has seen the future in Alabama, and it's not pretty. The unexpurgated story is here.

Kevin Drum 2:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 2, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST....Was democracy promotion a substantial motivation for the Iraq war? Nicholas Lehmann asked two Bush administration hawks this question a few weeks before the war started. First, here's Doug Feith:

I asked Feith whether the United States, if it goes to war, would be doing so partly because it wants to change the Middle East as a whole. "Perhaps I should put it this way," he said. "Would anybody be thinking about using military power in Iraq in order to do a political experiment in Iraq in the hope that it would have positive political spillover effects throughout the region? The answer is no. That's not the kind of thing that leads a country like the United States to commit the kind of military forces that we're committing to this effort....There's no way. What we would be using military power for...would be the goals the President has talked about, particularly the elimination of the chemical and biological weapons, and preventing Iraq from getting nuclear weapons."

He paused for a moment. "Now. Once you contemplate using military force for that purpose, and you're thinking about what do you do afterward, that's when you can think that if we do things right, and if we help the Iraqis, and if the Iraqis show an ability to create a humane representative government for themselveswill that have beneficial spillover effects on the politics of the whole region? The answer, I think, is yes."

That seems clear enough. Democracy might be a nice side effect, but it's certainly not a goal of the war. Here's Stephen Cambone on the same subject:

Is the hope of effecting secondary changes part of the motivation for war? Cambone thought for a long moment. "Hmm. I don't know how to answer that." He stopped again, and finally, deliberately, said, "There is no lack of reflection on what the consequences either of the regime persisting or of its being gone might be. That is all part and parcel of how one thinks through the problem."

Lehmann practically begged Cambone to talk about democracy but he wouldn't rise to the bait.

But how about Paul Wolfowitz? If anyone were going to claim democracy promotion as a reason for the war, it would be him. But here's his famous interview with Sam Tannenhaus shortly after the war:

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

Even in a list of three, democracy promotion doesn't get so much as a mention and that's from the best known neocon idealist in the administration.

Bottom line: Yes, Bush occasionally made broad references to freedom and liberty in his prewar speeches. What U.S. president doesn't? And there were a few neocon intellectuals outside the administration who made the democracy promotion argument. But within the administration itself, there's really no evidence that anyone took democracy promotion seriously as a rationale for war: their original plan was to oust Saddam fast, install someone reliable in his place, and get out.

Serious evidence to the contrary is welcome. I haven't seen any yet.

POSTSCRIPT: Thanks to Jonathan Miller for pointing out Feith's recent attempt to revise the record on this score.

Kevin Drum 7:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A TAXONOMY OF TAX RATES....Jim Henley asks about rates of taxation. Here's my quick and not-very-well-thought-out guesstimate:

  • Above 40%: Unwise.

  • Above 50%: Counterproductive.

  • Above 60%: Unjust.

Note that I'm talking about actual maximum tax burdens on high earners here, not theoretical rates and not marginal rates. I doubt there are many millionaires in the entire country who pay an actual tax rate very much higher than 30%.

Discuss.

Kevin Drum 4:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WELFARE FOR OLD PEOPLE?....Is Social Security really just welfare for old people? Over at Obsidian Wings, Edward says that will happen over his dead body:

The men in my family of my father's generation returned home after serving their country and got jobs in the local steel mills, as had their fathers and their grandfathers. In exchange for their brawn, sweat, and expertise, the steel mills promised these men certain benefits. In exchange for Social Security taxes withheld from their already modest paychecks, the government promised these men certain benefits as well.

....These were church-attending, flag-waving, football-loving, honest family men. They are rightfully proud of providing homes and educations for their children and instilling the sorts of values and manners that serve them well as adults. And if I have to move heaven and earth, now that they've retired, the Republican party is NOT going to redefine them as welfare recipients.

Hear hear. In fact, when his aides presented him with their initial Social Security proposals 70 years ago, FDR balked: "No dole," he said, "mustn't have a dole" because he knew instinctively that welfare programs are both fundamentally unpopular as well as corrosive to the human spirit. Conservatives understand this better than liberals, and know perfectly well that the best way to kill something is to convince the public that it's actually a welfare program.

But that's not what Social Security is. It's a modestly progressive social insurance program that's paid for by everyone and that benefits everyone. If it ever stops being that, if it ever stops being universal, it will eventually cease to exist. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise.

Kevin Drum 2:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark)

CREDIT AND COUNTERFACTUALS....When Kevin asked me to guest-blog, he said that he was hoping for yet another piece giving al-Jazeera all the credit. I'll try to get you all another one of those some time this week, but I thought I'd start with some more general thoughts on the question that's been posed: how much credit should Bush, or the invasion of Iraq, get for the positive developments in the region the last few months?

I don't really like framing the question in such partisan terms. It seems obvious that the invasion of Iraq matters for regional politics how could it not? Both the strategic and the normative environment have radically changed, for better or for worse, and everyone governments and political activists alike are responding to this new situation. On the other hand, it seems obvious to anyone who has been following the region over the last decade that the demands for change in the region have their roots in local factors, and that the main credit should go to the Arab intellectuals and activists who have been fighting for reforms for years. When I talk to many of these activists, or read what they write in the Arab press or hear what they say on al-Jazeera, what I hear is a combination of frank recognition that some new opportunites have been created with opposition to American foreign policy and a fierce refusal of any appropriation of their struggle by the United States.

One of the most misleading ideas out there has to do with the supposed novelty of Arab demands for democratic reforms. The conventional wisdom that the invasion of Iraq triggered the first public Arab conversations about democracy is just flat wrong. Arabs have been talking about the need for reform and protesting against the status quo since long before the Iraqi war. Al-Jazeera talk shows were full of heated debates about democracy and the need for reform as far back as the late 1990s. During the run-up to the Iraq war, most Arab governments clamped down hard because they were afraid of what might happen if demonstrations got out of hand (the first big anti-Mubarak protest back in 2003 began as a protest against the invasion of Iraq). After the crisis passed they relaxed a bit, and Arab activists renewed their long-stated criticisms of the status quo. Iraq, and Bush, may have helped to open up some political opportunities (and to foreclose others), but credit for the so-called Arab spring should go to the Arab intellectuals and activists who have long been pushing for change for their own reasons.

So how does this play out in some specific cases?

Take Lebanon. Change there was sparked by the murder of Rafik Hariri, not by anything immediately to do with the Iraq war. Protestors mobilized over the demand to know the truth about his death, and this then evolved into a demand for a Syrian withdrawal. This would have happened with or without Iraq, and Bush had very little to do with it. Where Bush and Iraq did matter, I'd say, is that the presence of American troops in Iraq probably restrained Bashar al Asad from more direct or violent responses. The Cedar Revolutionaries knew this, and this no doubt encouraged them to take more risks, but this wouldn't have come to much if there hadn't been a very real domestic Lebanese desire for political change. And (yes, Kevin!) Arab media played a big role: broadcasting the demonstrations empowered them and probably protected them from direct retaliation.

Or take Egypt. The Kifaya movement built itself up around the deep frustration with the political stagnation of the Mubarak regime, and is rooted in the experience of protests over Palestine and against American policy in Iraq beginning in the late 1990s (see this post by Egyptian blogger Baheyya for some background). Kifaya targeted the 2005 Presidential referendum as a defining moment to demand change, and would have done so with or without Iraq. Most Kifaya activists (and it is dangerous to generalize about such a diffuse and diverse movement) opposed the invasion of Iraq, remain quite hostile to American foreign policy, and reject any American support in their democracy struggles. Again, the Arab media played a decisive role, by heavily covering the early, small protests and magnifying their political weight. What role for Bush, here? Once again, even if the Kifaya protestors neither welcomed nor needed American support, the heightened American presence and concern for democracy probably acted as a constraint on a too-forceful crackdown by Hosni Mubarak. This shouldn't be overstated Condi Rice played a constructive role in getting Ayman Nour released from prison, but the administration has seemingly had little to say in the face of the increasingly rough treatment of Kifaya protestors in the last couple of months but it would be silly to deny that the changed strategic environment created some opportunities for these quite independent activists to engage in some new kinds of political action.

Okay, that's it for now. Maybe later I'll actually comment on some of the articles, like Kevin is (not) paying me to do.

Marc Lynch (Abu Aardvark) 1:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

"INTELLIGENCE AND FACTS WERE BEING FIXED AROUND THE POLICY"....The Times of London has gotten hold of the minutes of a private meeting between Tony Blair and his staff that was held on July 23, 2002 after talks with the Bush administration. Here's an excerpt from the "Downing Street Memo" (emphasis mine):

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

CDS said that military planners would brief CENTCOM on 1-2 August, Rumsfeld on 3 August and Bush on 4 August.

The two broad US options were:

(a) Generated Start. A slow build-up of 250,000 US troops, a short (72 hour) air campaign, then a move up to Baghdad from the south. Lead time of 90 days (30 days preparation plus 60 days deployment to Kuwait).

(b) Running Start. Use forces already in theatre (3 x 6,000), continuous air campaign, initiated by an Iraqi casus belli. Total lead time of 60 days with the air campaign beginning even earlier. A hazardous option.

....The Defence Secretary said that the US had already begun "spikes of activity" to put pressure on the regime. No decisions had been taken, but he thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections.

In other words, by summer of 2002 Bush had already decided on war regardless of Saddam Hussein's actions; democracy promotion was not even mentioned in passing as a reason for the war; postwar reconstruction was an issue of no concern; and, as Andy Card tacitly admitted even at the time, the "marketing campaign" for the war was deliberately timed to coincide with midterm elections.

I wonder how much attention this newly uncovered memo will get in the American press?

(Via Tim Dunlop.)

Kevin Drum 12:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Dan Drezner

HI, MY NAME IS DAN....and I'll be defending the Bush administration's grand strategy on democracy promotion here this week.

Before I really dive into the buffet of articles that the Washington Monthly has produced on the question of democracy in the Middle East, let's dispense with some shameless self-promotion preliminaries:

1) If you're curious for my extended take on this question, I wrote on this topic a fair amount in my monthly essays for The New Republic Online in 2003 and 2004. On the big grand strategy questions, click here for my pre-war argument about why Iraq could be turned into a democracy and here for my post-war argument for staying the course. As for the Bush administration's less-than-perfect implementation of its big idea, click here and here. And, on the question of whether the negative effects of having democratic but anti-American Arab states outweigh the positive effects of democratization, click here on whether anti-Americanism can last and here on why democratization is still worth pursuing in pivotal states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

2) If the current political moment is one where liberals try to point out all the complexities in the world and conservatives try to point out the big recurring constants, I'll play my part and try to boil down the seven idiosyncratic contributions into a few common themes that I'll touch on in later posts:

a) The causes of change in the Middle East include a lot of factors e.g., Arafat's death that had nothing to do with Iraq, and everyone should recognize this fact.

b) Any strategy of democracy promotion that ignores support for NGOs, civil society, free media, etc., will burst into flame and fail miserably;

c) The fact that the Bush administration's second-term foreign policy team has retreated from the neoconservative zeal of Bush's first term is proof in and of itself of the shortcomings of the strategy of coercive democratization;

d) Oh, and by the way, even if the democratization thing succeeds in the Middle East, it will produce Arab regimes that will be unremittingly hostile to the United States and is this really something we want to encourage?

I have every confidence that Kevin's commenters will assist in pointing out any problems or omissions from this list.

3) Finally, a very big thank you to Kevin Drum and Paul Glastris for the opportunity to use a larger megaphone to bloviate articulate my views.... to an admittedly more skeptical audience.

Dan Drezner 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RUMSFELD AND SADDAM MEET AGAIN?....Via TalkLeft, Al Jazeera reports that Ynetnews reports that Al-Quds Al-Arabi reports that Donald Rumsfeld paid a secret visit to Saddam Hussein during his visit to Iraq two weeks ago. The purpose of the visit? Rumsfeld "offered him freedom and a possible return to public life if he made a televised request to rebel groups for a ceasefire with allied forces."

This is the kind of report that's fascinating regardless of whether it's true or not. If Rumsfeld really did this, it's fascinating for the obvious reason. If he didn't, it's a wonderful example of the feverish, rumor-driven nature of Middle Eastern news that we hear about so often. Hell, somebody ought to start up an English language blog just to keep track of the weird rumors and peculiar beliefs that periodically overrun the Arabic-language press. Sort of an Islamic Drudge Report. It would be a public service.

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST....Elections in Iraq and Egypt. Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Voluntary disarmament in Libya. New progress between Israel and the Palestinians. A lot has happened in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq two years ago.

Who gets the credit for all this? George Bush? And what are the lessons learned? Seven foreign policy experts took a crack at that question and we've printed their response in the May issue of the Monthly (links are on the right). In addition, I've invited two guest bloggers to join me for the next few days to give us their own takes on this question: Dan Drezner, a political science professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in international relations, and Marc Lynch, a political science professor at Williams College who specializes in the Middle East. Marc is better known to many of you as the mystery blogger behind Abu Aardvark.

I already gave my answer to this question back in March: I'm skeptical that the war bears much responsibility for subsequent events, but it does provide the background against which they've unfolded. So if things eventually unfold well, the war will deserve a share of the credit or a share of the blame if they don't.

I haven't had any reason to change my mind about this yet, and you will be unsurprised to learn that the left-leaning authors of our seven essays are also skeptical that either George Bush or the war deserve much credit for the halting progress democracy has made in the Middle East since then. So instead of commenting further on that, I want to highlight something a little different that Michael Tomasky wrote in his piece about liberal reaction to Bush's second inaugural address:

I was a bit chagrined whenever I heard liberal commentators or Democratic politicians slip casually from denouncing the hypocrisies embedded in the text to disparaging the goals laid out in the speech. Wait: Opposing tyranny? Expressing faith in the idea of freedom as man's best destiny? Offering encouragement to democratic dissidents? I thought our side was supposed to be for all those things.

....A president who was respected around the world would make a far more effective pitchman for our values. Bush does not have the world's respect, and it's very hard to imagine he'll gain it by the time he leaves office....That's where the opportunity lies for liberals, and Democrats: to argue that our ability to spread democracy is linked to our political and moral credibility with the rest of the world. That may be a hard case to make in today's Washington, but I think it's an argument most Americans will accept. Someone just has to make it to them.

I think this is right. Arguments about means are obviously important, but as Michael says, too often we liberals let contempt for the messenger slip into contempt for the message. We may disagree about how to do it, but we should never be afraid to sound every bit as idealistic about liberty and democracy as George Bush. William Galston has a worthwhile long essay about this in the April issue.

That's it for now. Dan and Marc will be popping in Monday morning to offer their own comments, and I'll be joining in as well. In addition, of course, I'll also keep up regular blogging on all our favorite topics. As always, comments are welcome.

Kevin Drum 2:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 1, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PRIVACY....Whenever I talk about the underlying principles that should guide liberals, as I did a couple of days ago, one of the ideas that always pops up is privacy rights. In fact, it comes up so often that it strikes me that we're missing a bet by not making a bigger deal out of it.

There are two different senses in which people talk about "privacy" these days:

  • Privacy in the traditional Roe v. Wade or Lawrence v. Texas sense. That is, the right to be left alone to do what we want with our own bodies, as well as the right to be left alone to do what we want in our own bedrooms. Liberals are already comfortable with advocating privacy in this sense, but we do a lousy job of selling it as a general principle. Instead, we mostly approach it as a grab bag of specific issues like abortion rights, gay rights, the right to read and watch what we want, and so forth. As an overarching concept to sell to the masses, we don't do so well.

  • Then there's privacy in the sense of being free from surveillance. This is a newer concern, and revolves around corporate databases of personal information, identity theft, computer spyware, access to medical records, and government programs like Total Information Awareness and no-fly lists. This is a newer concern, and so far it's up for grabs by either party.

Liberals would be wise to start making these issues their own. The case for privacy definition #1 is obvious, since it's the cornerstone of several existing liberal hot buttons already. The case for privacy definition #2 is less obvious, but is more likely to be embraced by liberals than conservatives since it inherently embraces both corporate regulation as well as restrictions on the police power of the government.

To repeat what I said in my previous post, I don't have any brilliant ideas about how to approach this. I'm just tossing out ideas and inviting comments. But this issue comes up so often, resonates so strongly, and provides such fertile ground for justifying a wide range of liberal policy issues, that it seems like something we ought to jump on. If we own it first, conservatives will be playing catchup a decade from now.

UPDATE: What exactly is privacy? It's both a strength and a weakness of the concept that it encompasses so many different things and, like anything else, can also be stretched so far as to become meaningless. More thoughts here if you're interested in reading a rigorous approach to this problem.

Kevin Drum 9:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

STOCK MARKET TANKING? SELL YOUR HOUSE!....On Meet the Press this morning:

Senator George Allen (R-VA) may have gotten in a bit over his head, this morning, on Meet the Press. On private accounts, he suggested that Americans might have to sell their homes to survive in retirement. But, that would be a good thing, because they wouldn't have to trim hedges and cut grass, he noted.

Way to sell those private accounts, senator! Sunday Morning Talk has the details.

Kevin Drum 2:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SGRENA REPORT GOODIES....The U.S. military released a report last week clearing American troops in the March gunfire incident that injured Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena and killed Nicola Calipari, an Italian intelligence agent, as they were driving to the Baghdad airport. Italian reaction has been outraged, and the Italian government is expected to issue a report on Monday contradicting many of the U.S. findings.

But here's a question: do you think the Italian computer whizzes will be any more competent than their American counterparts when they release their report? The U.S. report is full of redactions, as you can see in the picture above, but once again an American agency has used the searchable PDF format to distribute a report, and all you have to do is save the report as a text file in order to recover all the redacted parts.

For example, the name of the third person in the car is Andrea Carpani. Was there any reason to keep this a secret? Beats me. But they didn't do a very good job of it.

Another section describes the methods used by insurgents to place bombs along "Route Irish," the road to the Baghdad airport, including: positioning explosives alongside guard rails, staging equipment in vehicles or near overpasses, wrapping explosives in brown paper bags, using timers, etc. I can't imagine that this stuff is even remotely worth classifying, since these techniques are obvious to anyone who thinks about how to place explosives for more than a minute or two, but for some reason they were redacted.

I may go through the report later to see if anything more interesting was redacted, but for now I just wanted to let enterprising journalists know that the full report is available to anyone with a copy of Acrobat Reader. Go to it, guys!

Kevin Drum 1:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NUCLEAR UPDATE....David Brooks has some interesting reporting today. He says that in addition to trading off a few nominees, the filibuster deal that Harry Reid offered Bill Frist had an unwritten and non-public postscript:

I've been reliably informed that Reid also vowed to prevent a filibuster on the next Supreme Court nominee. Reid said that if liberals tried to filibuster President Bush's pick, he'd come up with five or six Democratic votes to help Republicans close off debate. In other words, barring a scandal or some other exceptional circumstance, Reid would enable Bush's nominee to get a vote and probably be confirmed.

That's interesting, isn't it? Brooks thinks Frist should have taken the deal for a number of reasons, including this one:

Frist should have grabbed this offer because it's time for senators to re-establish the principle that they, not the outside interest groups, run the Senate. Right now, most senators want to avoid a meltdown. It's the outside interest groups that are goading them into the fight.

Of course the groups want a fight. The activists get up every morning hoping to change the judiciary, dreaming of total victory. Of course they're willing to sacrifice everything else for that cause. But senators are supposed to know that serving the interest groups is not the same as serving the people: it is serving a passionate but unrepresentative minority of the people. At some point, leaders are supposed to stand up to maximalists, even the ones they mostly agree with.

I don't often agree with Brooks these days, but I think he's on target here. This is not a symmetrical situation conservative activist groups are way farther off the deep end these days than liberal ones but it's still a good thought for both sides. Making every fight into a game of nuclear chicken isn't the right way to run a country.

Kevin Drum 1:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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